Northern Vietnam : Hanoi, Ha Giang, Halong Bay
Sleeper train from Nanning, China to Hanoi, Vietnam was too short-lived. It was like giving someone a gift but not enough time to hold or play with it. Then, too soon, time was up.
The train boarded at 18:05. Soft sleeper meant a cozy compartment of 4 with clean white sheets and laced curtains! You get settled in, get to know your neighbours and eat the yummy goodies you brought on the train. We met 2 girlfriends visiting Hanoi and area for a week except when she spoke to her daughter on Skype, she tells her, 'Mommy's working"! We also met a retired high school teacher from SF. It was great hearing of his experience in travelling with his 2 friends as he is a 7th generation Chinese American.
I got the kids ready for bed for soon we will need to get off the train on China's side for border crossing. Sure enough, 10pm rolled around and we woke to disembark with all our luggage.
The next stop was on Vietnam's side of the border. Around midnight we got off again with our luggage. This was memorable. The night was lighted with a mix of moonlight, street lamps and flashing railway lights. We needed to cross over railway tracks to reach a very dim building. It was an official looking building with guards but terribly dark and sparse. It was lit with one or two light bulbs. We followed a long queue of bodies. The only noise being that of our children who, you'd think would be sleepy and tired but no, they were awake and chatty.
We were then awaken shortly after 5am to prepare for our arrival in Hanoi. How sad to leave our comfy 'soft-sleeper' beds.
Our first 3 days in Vietnam was spent in the Old Quarters where backpackers and tourists pack the place. We found a comfortable place to stay though i gave them a critical review for touting to be a 'homestay' instead of what it is, a hotel. The staff also discouraged us in making our own way (ie. taking the local bus) and tried selling private and packaged tours. We did connect with a few travelers whom we met through the hotel. Alvin had some bad headaches. He thinks it's due to the noise and pollution. We noticed the difference of electric scooters in China vs the fuel guzzling ones of Hanoi which made the air that much worse and walking the streets that much more unpleasant. There's also a lot more maneuvering around while walking on 'sidewalks' that are also used for parking scooters, pop-up restaurants, shops, and sometimes, in a state of disrepair.
Nearly everyone in this area spoke English which was nice at first because we can converse easily but it was also crowded, touristy and overly commercial.
We did visit the Hoa Lo Prison. It was hard for the kids to see such suffering but it was a worthwhile part of our study of Vietnam's history.
We also visited the Museum of Ethnology. It was excellent in giving us a glimpse of the 54 ethnic groups of this country. [Most photos were taken on my phone which is still sitting in a bag of rice.] We were there the same day as groups of French speaking kids from (what i assume) one of the International School in Hanoi. We enjoyed hearing their beautiful accents. They were about the same age as Eli and Lucy :).
5 Days in Thon Tha Village. 3 of those days were bed (& toilet) stricken for me as i caught a bout of traveler's diarrhea. Alvin and kids agreed this stay to be a highlight.
Two days after we visited the Museum of Ethology, we took a sleeper bus north into the mountains to do a homestay with Thien and his family. Thien, Zhang and their son Thu-ong are of the Tay people. Thien is also the mayor of this village and has been learning English in order to promote the survival of their tribe. He offered me a job to stay and teach English for 3 months! I'm considering :). Anyone interested?
I was itching to photograph the people the first day but i didn't want to be disrespectful or offensive so i just photographed a lot of water buffaloes. In fact, on our first day, we followed Thien's dad then his mom to see where they lead the buffaloes. They do this everyday. It was a good hike into the mountains for the buffaloes to eat the weeds in the rice fields before planting season.
Our first day, we also went looking for a waterfall but we ended up exploring the village... doesn't that sound better than getting lost?
Day 2-4, i was pretty much Out.
Day 2 started optimistically at 7am. We booked a local guide, Mr. Lim, to go trekking to few harder to reach villages.
Minutes into the hike, i was sweating and dizzy. I did make it for a good 5 km before scrunching up like a shrimp on the side of the road. Luckily (or not so lucky), i found many many scenic spots to do my thing. I also got to hitch rides twice with locals on motorbike just to catch up with the others before realizing i cannot go on and Thien, our host, kindly came to pick me up on his motorbike. The ride down was memorable. I did not catch the full beauty of the hike going up but i could on the back of a motorbike :). The scenery is soooooo beautiful - rice terrace, fog, wild flowers, the heights, the cliffs,....
The following pictures are from Alvin of the rest of their scenic hike.
Alvin and kids came home late that night. They had a great time. The guide was so impressed with the kids' energy! That night, Thien just finished building a closet to store all the beds and blankets used for visitors. It was really cool how neighbours came by and helped out late into the night.
The next morning, we went to the next village for their Sunday Market.
The next day, when Alvin and kids went to look for the waterfall again, i was in bed. I heard voices approaching. The sound grew so steadily, it wasn't just people passing by. Curious, i wrapped myself up and crawled downstairs. What i saw were men and women with brooms slowly sweeping the paved road in front of the house. I was later told this to be a ritual after a community meeting. They chatted and laughed as they traveled. I found a small stool and sat to admire them. In turn, they all stopped in front of our place and were curious about me. They were a beautiful sight and i will remember the sound and faces for a long time. The camera was too far and i didn't want to move! That's about the time i met Katy. She was staying at a homestay in the next town. She's from Namibia and has been travelling and working for the last 6 years. Got tired of partying by the beaches of SE Asia and so took the bus to spend some 'alone' time in the mountains. We sat and chatted for a long while.
Our last day, i felt well enough. The kids really wanted to show me the waterfall so i reserved all my energy for that hike. It was a mile of large rocks on a river which led to a inviting pool at the end of a beautiful waterfall. Sorry, photos were taken on the phone which may be forever lost.
On the night that we left, 3 other visitors came to spend the night. One was Minh Minh, from Ho Chi Minh City. She loves hiking and was instantly a friend. The other 2 were from the Netherlands who bought motorbikes from HCMC and has been using Google Maps to explore the country! They had great stories to share.
Halong Bay 3 days 2 nights. They say you can't see Hanoi without seeing Halong Bay. I think you can. It is a beautiful UNESCO site but it is also a tourist trap. We thought to spend more time there so we can go deeper than the day tour most people do. That and i thought we could use some pampering but it fell short of expectations. Ah well, we were glad to meet really nice travellers from Australia, Germany, England, India, USA.
Back in Hanoi, we spent 2 more days before our train south to the beach and caves of Dong Hoi. This time, we lived outside the tourist area in the south. It was better. We spent one day hunting down bookstores including the Bookworm which has a fantastic selection of books - new and used.