Friday, January 28, 2011

Vietnam- Sapa Sapa Sapa

We arrived in Sapa around 7am and the group decided to all stay at the Pinochio Hotel. On our way to the hotel we were surrounded by Hmong tribe women who wanted to sell us their textile goods and kept asking us how old we are and what our names were and where we are from. They all spoke amazing English I was impressed. Liz, Chris and I ended up booking a 3 bedroom and we chose to be on the top floor so we could have the beautiful view of the rice fields. We all got into our beds and decided to nap.

I had issues napping and gave up so I went downstairs to join Thomas and the 2 other girls for breakfast. We walked to a French bakery called Chocolate and on our way there we were surrounded by the Hmong tribe women who were constantly trying us to buy jewelry from them or other goods. Luckily they don't go into the restaurants so once we were in Chocolate we were safe. We all ordered croissants and tea. It was delicious.

I had left Liz and Chris sleeping and I figured we only had one day here so I went to the tour company that the was recommended by the guys from Holland and booked us a tour of the rice fields. After I booked the tour I realized that we only had 30 minutes to get ready and mind you Chris and Liz were still asleep. So I ran back to the guesthouse ran all the way 6 flights of stairs and swung open the door and luckily they were awake getting ready. I was so out of breath but managed to tell them what was booked for the day.

**Apparently Chris and Liz had woken up earlier and Chris asked Liz where I was. Liz responded "knowing Carrie she probably already had breakfast and booked us on a tour." Hehe yup that's me!

The tour consisted of Greg and Cecile, Thomas, the one of the 2 other girls, Liz, Chris and me. We all met at the entrance of our guesthouse and were greeted by our tour guide Chi who took us on a hike around one of the Mahung Villages.  Chi, was a local from the village and she described the differences amongst the tribes. They wore different clothes and spoke a different languages and that was how you determined who was from which tribe. The villages were located within the rice fields. Chi also told us that the rice that is locally grown is used within the villages and none of it is sold for profit.

As we walked Chi showed us the daily activities of the village and took us to the school as well. We were also being followed by Hmong tribe women again trying to sell us goods. They were hoping that if they helped us hike during the tour that we would by from them at the end. What amazed me the most was during the hike all the women wore were these tiny plastic sandals and we were all struggling in the mud with our regular sneakers. They had this walk down to a T. For lunch Chi made us traditional noodle soup with chicken. I was not able to finish mine because I decided to eat a power bar and Chris called me out on it that it would ruin my appetite. Shut up Chris!

After lunch we continued to walk through the fields and stopped at a waterfall....the view was unreal. You can see the villages and the rice fields. At the end of the tour I felt obligated to buy things from the tribal woman who helped me during the hike. There were some muddy areas and she would put her foot down and make me walk on her foot so I would not slip and fall. I ended up buying 2 purses from her.

That night we had dinner as a group. I ordered pasta and we all tried Dalat red wine from southern Vietnam which they served cold. After dinner we all went back to our guesthouse and all ordered banana pancakes with chocolate sauce. Chris decided he wanted to be different and ordered something that looked like fried bananas. It was gross.

The next morning Chris and I decided to rent a motorbike and check out the rest of Sapa. At the motorbike place they gave us a map and I was in charge of the map. After everything was sorted we had to head to the petrol station to fill the tank up. Chris wanted to look at the map and I realized I had left it at the motorbike place. Give me one responsibility and leave it to me to mess it up. I go to Chris "Promise not to hate me" and he goes "What did you do" and I said "I forgot the map" and he just laughed at me because I acted like a little kid who got in trouble with their parents. He forgave me and luckily this other couple came to fill up their tank and gave us an extra map. So its all good!

The mountain views were amazing and we ended up meeting Thomas, Cecile and Greg at the waterfall stop. They had already finished going up the waterfall so Chris and I decided to head up and check it out. Chris was nice enough to treat me to the waterfall. The waterfall was pretty and we took some pictures and decided to get back on the bike and check out the mountains. We drove a little further up and decided to stop and take some photos. Chris and I were irritated that there were soo many power lines covering the mountains. We then started to talk about life and our goals and what we are looking for. I wanted to learn more about Chris and get to know him.

We looked at the time and decided to head back into town to check out the local market. While walking around looking for a bite to eat Chris and I saw a cooked dog. Yes people they eat dog here. Chris wanted to try it but there was no way I was going to do that. Chris and I settled on chicken noodle soup. After eating we waited around for our ride back to the train to Hanoi. We said goodbye to our friends and Liz,Chris, and I were getting on an overnight train back to Hanoi. Luckily we had hard sleepers this time. When we got on the train we played a game of cards. It was a game that Chris had learned from Israelis. I was too tired and it took me awhile to grasp the concept of the game and Liz and Chris decided to make fun of me for it. Whatever I can take it. Unfortunately Liz couldn't stop coughing and wasn't feeling well so we did not get much sleep even though we had beds this time. I was just looking forward to going back to Hanoi and head to our next destination.... Hoi An!!!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Vietnam- Halong Bay

A van came to pick us up and take us to the dock where we would take a ship to Halong bay. Halong Bay is made up of 1,969 islands of various sizes. It is known for being one of the natural wonders of the world. Fun fact: "The folk tale has it that the dragons descended from heaven to help locals by spitting jewels and jade to the sea, forming a natural fortress against invaders; these precious stones are represented by the lush green outcrops. Several islands boast beautiful grottos and caves with contiguous chambers, hidden ponds and peculiar stone formations."

When we arrived at the dock we were surrounded by people who were trying to sell us anything from water to pearl necklaces. It was extremely overwhelming. The poverty rate in Vietnam is very high and you will find it that people are trying to always sell you something. They have no problem getting right up to your face and constantly ask you to purchase something from them.

Liz and I chose to do our tour through a company and not through our hostel because we were not in the mood to have a crazy night of partying and drinking. We looked forward to spending a relaxing day and night on our ship which was called the Golden lotus. We shared our tour with a family who had 2 small sons, one Lucky and the other called Joshy, they were half Asian half Australian, a German couple and 2 guys from Spain.

We sailed through the beautifl limestones and took us on a tour through one of the caves. Unfortunately the cave was extremely touristy and they had placed neon lights within the cave to give it more of a disney land effect. It was an amazing cave and our tour guide was great. We bumped into another tour group whose tour guide was Vietnamese who spoke like he was Australian. It was nuts!!! He told us that an Australian guy was his English teacher thats why he speaks English with an Aussie accent. He was also so dapper in his suit jacket and fancy chain around his neck. Our tour guide and him were walking around the cave joking around and amusing both groups. After the cave Liz and I went kayaking around the small limestone islands it was such a beautiful sight and so peaceful.

Side note: The boat was aware of my dietary needs (no shellfish and no pork). The chef made a number of "special" meals for me. Lets just say I've never eaten soo much tofu in my life. The waiters were bringing me plates of fried tofu, regular tofu, tofu and veggies and tofu in sauce. I never want to look at tofu again.

That night we took it easy and enjoyed a cup of tea, playing card games with the two little boys and practicing my spanish with the 2 guys from Spain. They had to correct a couple of my sentences... what can I say its been awhile. Liz and I both had a really good nights sleep on the boat.

The next day Liz and I finished up breakfast and we would be heading to one of the islands called Cat Ba Island. We were told by other friends not to do the monkey temple and so we chose to ride bicycles instead. Once we got to our destination they dropped the tour group to the national park where the monkey temple was and they took Liz and I to a house with a shed full of old bicycles. All the bicycles were old and not well taken care of and they made soo many noises when you peddled or changed gears. It was hilarious and we decided to make the best of it.

We rode our bikes through the town, there was really not much to see at all. We passed by a couple of locals bulding houses and little kids were running out to say hello which I thought was cute. Finally we got to a part up the hill and saw a bunch of trucks moving big rocks and the road was no longer a road anymore. We didn't know if we needed to go up the hill to get back to our starting point so we decided to hop off our bikes and walk them up the hill. All the workers were laughing at us and saying hello and giggling. Luckily we ran into a couple who were biking down the hill and they told us it was not worth it to head up the hill because it was dangerous. We decided to head back and we rode passed a cave that was closed off to tourists. There were a bunch of little kids on bikes who told us we could not go in there so we waited until they left and Liz and I headed to the cave and hid our bikes in the bushes. We snuck into the gate that closed people off from getting to the cave, climbed up the stairs and there was another gate that was locked so no one could get in. It was pretty dangerous to get around since all there was was a ledge of grass to walk along and climb over the fence. Well you know me I always have to get myself into trouble. So Liz watched me climb over the ledge and over the fence and got close enough to the cave. She thought I was going to kill myself. It looked like a great cave but it was way too dark to explore.... oh well so much for that. We headed back and returned our bikes to the shed and we were taken to our hotel.

We got to the hotel and I found out that they were also notified about my food issues. Again I was served a number of different tofu dishes.... god help me. After some food Liz and I wanted to head to the beach so we decided to walk and find our way there. Luckily we met 2 really cute English guys, who were on motorbikes, and they were nice enough to give us a ride to the beach. Liz and I took a nap on the beach and walked to another beach where we met a couple of American and Canadian girls and we talked about our travels and the dangers we have encountered and items stolen from us. I was able to relate to the girl who had her camera stolen.. yah it sucks.

That night Liz and I went out to a bar and met 2 guys from Holland who told us that we had to go to Sapa located in northern Vietnam. They showed us pictures and told us about their village tour and I really wanted to go. I emailed Chris via facebook and asked him if he wanted to travel with Liz and I to Sapa (northern Vietnam) where the rice fields are and Hmong tribe live. He was on the 1 day tour and he told me he would let me know.

The next morning we got back on the Golden Lotus back on to the main land. They dropped us off at a restaurant and we got the "VIP" treatment which meant we got to sit in a seperate room with chairs covered in cloth with the other VIPers. The other tourists sat in a bigger room with harder chairs. Again lots of tofu... I never want to eat Tofu ever again. I then headed out to go to the bathroom and low and behold there was Chris sitting with his tour group. I didnt want to interupt him so I waited patiently and told him that he had a couple of hours to determine whether or not he wanted to go to Sapa with us. When we all arrived back in Hanoi, Chris apparently flipped a coin which determined his fate which meant he was coming to Sapa.

So we went back to the tour company where we booked our Halong bay tour and Chris and I played a game of phone tag on who was buying the train tickets and if we could get on a sleeper bed.

*Side note: What is it with men and not being organized??? I dont get it dudes... get your sh*t together.

Chris and I played phone tag for too long and by the time we figured everything out there were no sleeper beds left... I wanted to kill him. So what did we do???... we booked hard seats and we would be taking a long train ride up with the locals.

Like I have said in previous posts the Asians love their AC. The three of us tried to sleep on the train but it was soo cold I felt like we were in Alaska. We started to take clothes out of our bags to keep us warm. I barely had any warm clothes with me so I dealt with what I had. So we took a very long 12 hour freezing cold train ride, with the locals who wouldnt stop staring at us, and the three of us got 0 sleep. When we finally arrived, in the town close to Sapa, we joined a group of tourists from the train that Chris had met earlier. There was a sweet couple who live in Switzerland named Greg and Cecile, a French guy named Thomas, and 2 other girls. We got on a mini bus and Chris was nice enough to let me nap on his lap and off we went to Sapa.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Vietnam- Hanoi

Liz and I landed in Hanoi and shared a cab with 3 Americans from Seattle and headed to the new Hanoi backpackers hostel. When we got there is was $8 a person per night... not bad... and the rooms were really clean and the staff was extremely welcoming. Since Liz and I had pulled an all nighter we decided to take it easy and see the Turtle Tower and go to a water puppet show.

The story of the turtle tower: "The Turtle Pagoda is a picture perfect little shrine in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. According to legend, in the 1500's a golden sword was taken from Emperor Le Thai To by a turtle in the lake. In some tellings of the tale, the turtle was heroically returning the sword to the lake where it belonged. In others, the turtle supplied the gold sword to the Emperor so he could smite his enemies. Still others say the turtle stole the sword and the Emperor had the lake drained looking for it. And in another variation, the turtle indicated to the Emperor which way his troops should go to win the war. In any case, this shrine was erected to commemorate the a turtle and a sword." Fun little fact for the day.

Side note: When you get to Vietnam there are no crosswalks and if you want to walk anywhere to cross the streets you have to dodge 1,000 motorbikes just to get there. The traffic is insane and everyone and their mother drives a motorbike. You basically need to just walk and the people driving the bikes work their way around you. This took me awhile to get used to and I had to work up the courage to cross the street and not think about getting hit.

At night we went to the water puppet show. It was cute but not worth it. The puppets are made out of wood and the show was in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. There was a band and women singing songs it Viatnamese. After the show we had a couple of drinks and I met this crazy guy names Matt who is from Tasmania he kept trying to convince me to visit there once I ended up in Australia. I was not in a social mood so Liz and I called it a night.

The next day we wanted to do some sightseeing and go to the museums. Unfortunately most of the museums were closed on Monday so we did not get to see much. While we were walking the streets we bumped into the 2 Canadian guys who we were sharing our dorm room with and asked them if we could join them since we didn't really have a plan. We ended up going to the Presidential Palace where there were a number of guards in front of the building. We wanted to take photos in front of the Palace and there is a line that you cannot cross. If you happen to step over the line the guards start blowing a whistle. Well you know me... I had to mess with the guards and kept on hopping in and out of the line. Lots of whistle blowing!! Luckily I didn't get into too much trouble.

At the end of the day Liz and I went into a tourist office and booked our trip to Halong bay. We booked a 3 day 2 night tour which included sleeping on a ship for a night while we sailed through one of the wonders of the world. Across the tourist information office there was a restaurant where people sit down on little plastic stools and plastic tables where you cooked your own meat on a tiny hot plate. The tour owner told us to try it so we did. We sat down with the locals and the waiters brought us a massive plate of beef, onions and tomatoes. We also ordered some bread rolls. We cooked our meat and made steak sandwiches it was amazing. We also had a chance to chat with the locals and ask them where to go and eat.

Side note:When you go to Vietnam, especially the major cities, you will see lots of people sitting on small plastic chairs eating and drinking. I feel like people are always eating and drinking here.

So I found out that Chris, the guy I met in Thailand at the full moon party, was also in Hanoi. We had been facebooking back and forth to try to get together. I accidentally gave him the wrong address of my hostel and he was meeting up with a friend of his and things were getting kind of confusing. So I played the waiting game on trying to figure out where to meet.

While I waited Liz and I played some pool with the Canadian guys. We split the teams up so Derek was my partner. At first my pool playing skills were awful until I finished a couple of beers and I was playing pretty well. Liz even told me to close my eyes and hit a ball, which I did and the ball made it into the pocket! Finally got word from Chris on where he would be drinking so I went down and asked the owner of the hostel where it was on the map. It was kind of far to walk and I was about to say forget it. The owner was nice enough to have one of his staff members drive me on the back of his motorbike to my destination. Here I go again on the back of another motorbike just to see some boy!!!

When I got to the bar where Chris was he was sitting with Kait, a girl he had been traveling with who met in Chiang Mai, his friend and an older man he met at his hostel. Not going to lie it was a little awkward at first. I had to remember that we were not in Thailand drinking out of buckets and covered in neon paint we were sitting at a bar having intellectual conversations. After we drank a couple of beers we all walked down a dark street and the group was a bit hungry. Chris' friend from home had been living in Vietnam so he spoke Vietnamese and he randomly went up to this woman to see where we could eat some food. All of a sudden she is coming out with a small plastic table and plastic stools sits us down and serves us food and beer. Unfortunately I could not partake in the food as it was pork but the beer was nice.

Kait and the older man went back to their hostel and we waiting till Chris' friend headed back to his apartment. Chris and I had some privacy to catch up and talk about travel plans. He walked me back to my hostel and we said goodnight.

I was leaving for Halong bay the next day.