Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sapa: Homestay with the H'Moung Tribe

We met with our guide 'Sho' in the morning and she had been busy rallying another tourist already. These people work relentlessly! We walked 2 hours through beautiful countryside and amazing views to Sho's home. 

Upon arrival one of the girls asked where the toilet was and Sho just pointed outside, no designated area then!? We decided behind the small, open barn would be best and just as our new friend had disappeared behind the building to take care of business....3 horses came flying down the hill in the direction of the barn followed by a tribal lady shouting them into the barn. We got the fright of our lives but no where near as much as if we had about to be going to the toilet at that time....luckily she had heard the horses and managed to try to escape at the exact same time the horses galloped into the barn and frozen to the spot she was covered in what we decided to call 'mud' but I think we all knew the truth.

After a tasty lunch cooked by Shu and devoured by all the god knows how many people in the house hold we had some free time. The children of the household were all gathered around a small TV watching endless music videos which all sounded and looked the same to us. From what I could tell pants with just one full leg and the other cut short are very desirable in the music business of Vietnamese tribal folk. Now, when I talk of 'children' you must not imagine them as you might children back home, every one of them had a knife from hand size to machete (so the books, pens and sweets we had brought as gifts seemed slightly immature). The machete brandishing boy was also smoking a pipe when we arrived, he was 11 years old! Shu told us the girls in the village get married as young as 12 although most around 16 years old. Her younger daughter just 8 years old chased a buffalo who was minding his own business, grabbed him by the balls and got him to stop and turn around so the boys could have a little go at sitting on him. That's why the women take care of business around here!

After grabbing him by his balls.

Blonde highlights.

This lifestyle was obviously doing some good as we were then introduced to.....'Ma'. The Grandmother of the household, although we were quite confused as to her exact relationship to the others, it was claimed she was the husbands mother but she was 89 years old and he was just 31. We assumed there was some form of lost in translation occurring as they had previously told us they only have children in their late teens-early twenties so surely 58 was pushing it just a bit.

The legend: 'Ma'

'Ma' was an instant hit with us all, her face told a thousand stories. She had seen war and now warmly embraced foreigners in her household. She smoked a huge bong of tobacco and was very happy when the boys tried some, even mocking them for their below par attempts. As I found out later in the night....she could also drink us all under the table and was adamant I was going down with her!

After another delicious meal, the 'happy water' was presented. We had at this point been joined by 3 other guys from Sweden (who only paid $10 each for the same tour, although we didn't mind too much as the money was clearly well earned and needed). We were quickly introduced to the most important H'moung word 'HOW' which means 'drink' , the 'HOW's were coming fast and the happy water was fast disappearing. I tried to sip at my cup and avoid shooting every one but 'Ma' was sitting right next to me and checking my spirit level the second it left my legs then tapping my side and telling me 'HOW HOW'...How will I survive tomorrow was all I could think. The tribal women were also loving the happy water and the whole atmosphere was so friendly and great!
Happy Water Time

Sho and one of the younger tribe ladies babies.

The Swedish guys quite intoxicated produced their Ipod and speakers which sent the women into a confused frenzy of excitement-TECHNOLOGY! We decided to call it a night as the children had made our beds and we thought we were keeping them up. The boys and tribal woman however partied on with the happy water for another hour or so. These people get up at 3am usually but slept in till the luxuries hour of 4am, thanks to the happy water!

The next day we had yet another excellent meal and departed from Shu's household and headed through the lovely surrounds to another village where we took motorbikes back to Sapa.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sapa: If the French Alps had Vietnamese tribal folk...

Getting There: We took the overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi which departed at 7pm and arrived around 6am. However in reality the bus left around 8:30pm and arrived 12 hours later.

We calculated the bus ride should take just 5hours based on actual distance. However all buses in Vietnam take an unbelievable amount of time and are incredibly bumpy and jerky. Impossible for an insomniac like myself to sleep. Although the sleeper buses are quite well designed....for Asian physiques. They do all vary slightly in size, we took an older bus (to Hue) which was very spacious and comfortable but the newer buses were smaller.

Upon arrival in Sapa we were approached by some local tribes women who wanted to sell us EVERYTHING! One of the women was offering to take us on a tour to her village but we decided to make some enquiries at hotels etc first. We enquired for a 2 day 1 night homestay program visiting a few villages on the way and were quoted $30 pp. However, after a day of being followed by 'Shu' and the nonstop banter with the H'Moung tribe ladies we decided it would be much more fun to do the tour with them. We agreed on $20 pp for a tour of their village and an over night stay.

We shopped at the local market and transformed ourselves into fully fledged H'moung tribal ladies, except the skirt and strange leg warmers-its damn cold in these parts! Shopping in the market was actually great fun. The woman of both the H'mong and red Dzao tribes spoke brilliant English and bartering with them was great banter, some of our favourite sayings:

"Why you no buy from me, you buy from her but no from me, she happy but me cry!"
"OK, OK, OK, this one, this one, you buy one from me and one from her. We happy, you happy!"

The women were in great spirits and I even tried to sell them a few things of my own using their style of sale which they seemed to enjoy, although I was unsuccessful in my attempt. We thought once we had bought things they would stop asking us in the streets, we were very wrong. Once you say look I have a skirt and a bag, necklace, bracelet etc they just say "but you no buy from me", "one more," "for your mum/sister/brother etc" they never give up!

We spent the rest of the day relaxing in Sapa which has an unusual and enchanting vibe. Visually it feels you are in the French Alps then a tribal lady with a checked headscarf and woven basket upon her back fast approaches: "YOU BUY FROM ME!"

We spent the evening drinking $1.50 Mojitos with fresh sugar cane (joys) by a fireplace listening to great music and wondering if tomorrow we would be walked into the tribal regions and abandoned or if the 'happy water' the boys were so excited about would kill us....

Ninh Binh: Lakes & Pagoda

Ninh Binh is a 2 hour (Vietnamese time) bus ride from Hanoi, or 3 hours based on actual time. Buses here are slow and bumpy and that’s to put it nicely. We took a sleeper bus (completely unaware as it was mid day when we got on) and it was a pretty unique experience, beds on buses who would have thought it.

Sleeper bus for a 2 1/2 hr bus ride.

We arrived in Ninh Binh with little time to spare and took a taxi to ‘Tam Coc’ lake. There we boarded a boat and were rowed by hand and by foot along the river. It was beautiful!

The boat drivers will try to sell you stuff along the way and there are even stories of them refusing to take people back to the start of the journey if they refuse to buy something from them or from the food and drink sellers at the end of the river. Due to this people are advised to go later in the afternoon when they are tired of the nonsense of pestering foreigners. We were offered some textiles but declined, Paul stating “ I don’t even have a table, what am I going to do with a table cloth” apparently worked quite well.

Our boat man requested a tip at the end of the journey and as Kate and I were sorting through our money he began to complain about only receiving 10,000VND (about 50cents/30p). We were not going to give him just 10,000VND but this really annoyed us as he was getting quite angry and we had already paid about $5 for the boat ride. He actually snatched the 30,000VND I had in my hand from me, so Kate and I jumped off and discussed how he had just lost himself money for being an idiot.

The following day we headed to ‘Bai Dinh’ pagoda. It was pretty spectacular and has ruined every pagoda I have viewed since.  Then it was time for another bus to Halong Bay.

Touch the hands and knees for luck

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hanoi: Chaos, suicidal road crossings & pho.

Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake

Kitsch decorations 

Getting from the airport: We took a public bus which took about 45 minutes- 1 hour. However it will wait at the airport until it is full which took another 45 minutes. The bus costs just $2 so its well worth the $14 save over taking a taxi.

First impressions of Hanoi-It’s chaos, sheer utter traffic chaos! Traffic stops for nothing here, motorbikes swerve around one another and you are expected to do the same as a pedestrian. The best way to cross the road we soon realized was slow and steady, everything will move around you. There were numerous foreigners just stuck waiting to cross taking a step off the curve then getting the fear of god struck into them by a motorbike just skimming there knee caps and  jumping back to the safety of the pavement. Alas!

We stayed in the old town of Hanoi which is a fast paced, traditional snippet of Vietnamese life. There were people everywhere in the traditional ‘Non-la’ hats (cone hat if you like) carrying all kinds of edible delights on a stick and what I can only describe as wooden scales device.  We wondered if they hadn’t found a more suitable attire and carrying device by know or if they just like to stick to what they know or perhaps it increases sales-the novelty factor?!

Best sales technique!

To say Hanoi is bustling is an understatement and the best time to enjoy it is early morning as the markets open up and the street vendors set up shop. Its also a good time to venture down to Hoan Kiem lake for some exercise or just entertainment watching the various forms of ‘exercise’ taking place. We found the Vietnamese people to be quite hostile and unfriendly towards us for the most part which was a great shame as its usually the people that make the place for us. Perhaps this hostility is due in part to the struggle of war that is  a not too distant memory for many people here or maybe we are just mistaking cultural differences for something they are not. A Korean friend of mine once told me people in Korea won't always return a smile as they might think you are in fact laughing at them, bizarre.

Vietnamese coffee, its a game of patience,  something I am not so good  at, clearly!
Exercise at the lake

We stayed in Hanoi for 2 days then left for the nearby city of Ninh Binh.