Monday, April 15, 2013

From Between the Rivers to the City of Eternal Spring, Part 1: Vietnam

Over twelve days, my friend and high school classmate Luke and I travelled from Hanoi, Vietnam to Kunming, China, whose nicknames are referenced in the title above. We covered the 350 miles via train, bus, taxi and boat with a few excursions and four stops along the way. Eight nights in northern Vietnam, four in China’s Yunnan Province. It was the longest trip I’ve ever planned independently, as opposed to a group tour, and overall, things went quite well. We only got ripped off once (See 'Part 2' below) and all that I managed to leave behind was a cheap pair of sunglasses. Certainly an improvement from my trip to the states at Christmas, where I left my phone, camera and two credit cards. 

Anyway, I've started to feel that my trip summaries are getting a bit stale. Each one seems to go through the trip like a checklist of places/activities and how I enjoyed them. I like to think of myself as a writer of 'creative' non-fiction and it wouldn’t be particularly creative to write about how Hanoi was frenetic, Halong Bay was majestic, Sapa was peaceful, Yuanyang was stunning and Kunming was boring but friendly, the end. You can read about that in any guidebook. Instead, I’ve decided to recall some certain events on our trip. I hope they bring you into our trip better than a couple of Lonely Planet blurbs could. 

‘O Ho Chi Minh!’ 

After a few days in Hanoi, dodging an absurd amount of motorcycles, checking out a handful of propaganda-filled museums and trying to keep track of our Dong (money), we booked a tour of Halong Bay, as nearly every tourist in the Hanoi area does. If you’re not familiar, Halong Bay is filled with thousands of steep green islands also known as karst formations. It’s one of the ‘New7Wonders of Nature’ and hosts countless boats filled with tourists on two or three day trips through the area, there to see the unique topography. We got on one of these boats, in a group with six Swedish girls on a travel holiday before university, a Vietnamese group of four (an old woman, two middle aged women, and a middle aged man, all related somehow we thought), our guide who called herself Seven, and two European couples, both named—I kid you not—Sebastian and Christina. 

We were talking with the Sebastians and Christinas after dinner when Seven announced that it was time for karaoke. After fiddling with the karaoke machine for half an hour or so, the boat’s crew managed to get the music going. After ‘Hey Jude’ from Sebastian #1 and a few other shrill sounding Vietnamese songs from one of the ladies in the Vietnamese group, Seven announced that the captain would be playing a song he learned in his days in the Vietnamese army many years ago. It was a song dedicated to the father of modern Vietnam and god-like figure, Ho Chi Minh. I’m always intrigued by music of other cultures, but watching his face light up as he sang and gently strummed guitar was truly mesmerizing to me. Here’s a clip of that. 

On the next morning after the Sebastians, Christinas and Swedish girls (three of whom were named Amanda) had left for one of the islands, I asked the captain to borrow his guitar before Luke and I went up to the top of the boat. There was a light drizzle, but that’s welcome to a couple of Seattle boys. Atop our boat, we wrote the song ‘Halong Bay Blues’ which ended with a thunderclap. The lyrics portray us as a couple of shipwrecked pirates in Halong Bay before it became a tourist logjam. “We ain’t got the news/We’re all out of booze/That’s the Halong Bay blues.” Plus some improvised humming to make up for lack of a rhyme.  

Cha ca restaurant in Hanoi
Me and my bro, uncle Ho!

Halong Bay
'My Dong has taken me to amazing places'

Is That the Dutch Guy?

Our next stop in Vietnam was Sapa, a hilly region near the northern border of Vietnam. After our night train from Hanoi, we booked a trek and homestay with a Hmong family a little ways from the main town, at the recommendation of Luke’s brother Sam who had been there last year. After a gorgeous hike through misty rice terraces with our guide Bau and a fellow American traveler named Kyle, we arrived at the homestay and met a couple from Scotland named Euan and Ruth who would be staying at the same house with us. We lucked out again and really gelled with the Scots who were on a long trip from Perth, Australia back to the UK via Eastern Australia, Southeast Asia and Madagascar. 

After we’d been treated to an excellent dinner and a few shots of homemade ‘happy water’ aka rice wine, the five of us decided to check out a small café/bar/homestay that was just down the road from our house. Bear in mind, despite this being a Hmong village in rural Vietnam, it was well set up for tourists like ourselves, with plenty of small shops offering snacks, handicrafts and other trinkets. There was only one bar though and we had nothing better to do than to stop in for a while. 

On the way to the homestay, Ruth and Euan’s guide had told them that there was a Dutch man living in the village who had pushed her cousin and was not to be trusted. His place was on the left side of the road, Euan and Ruth told us as we strolled into the bar on the right. However, we noticed after we sat down that a very Dutch sounding man was taking our order, which consisted of cookies, mulled wine, and hot chocolate. As we began to play the café’s edition of Jenga and later, Uno, we quietly discussed whether or not this man we’d heard about. Ruth described him as looking similar to Count Olaf, the villain of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Meanwhile, the mysterious host was talking a disgruntled looking Australian couple who’s homestay family had apparently been quite rude and unfriendly. Later, we found out the Dutch man had told them, ‘Oh yes. That family, they’ll kill you.' in a successful attempt to persuade them to book a room at his place. Don’t worry; Ruth and Euan said they saw the Australian couple later and they were alive and well. 

As we left the bar, the man kept going on about how he’d bought these Uno cards in Holland and they were the only one of their kind in Sapa. The obsession was more than strange and it confirmed that he was indeed the infamous Dutch guy and someone had mixed up which side of the road he lived on. Luckily, we never saw him again, and Sapa was a highlight overall, but I couldn’t help hearkening back to A Series of Unfortunate Events and wondering what the Dutch guy was up to, particularly if he was really the father of the little two year old that joined us for the game of Uno, or was she…an orphan? My apologies that none of this will make any sense if you haven’t read the series.


Us with our excellent Hmong guide Bau

Don't be deceived by the bottle or name, 'happy water' is NOT water

Jenga at the creepy bar

Don't fall in! Your Dong would get rather soggy

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