Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mekong Delta Exploring

By Klassens
We have decided that it's time to give our feet a rest and put our butt's to the test.

Instead of navigating the maze of the Mekong Delta river ways on our own we decided to do it on bikes via a small tour group.  We picked a biking Mekong tour and were led by An, a sincere gentle soul who was very purposeful in leading us onward. Or perhaps his purposefulness came from trying to help us keep up with a very fun and very fit young couple from Germany? I'm not sure.

Biking Mekong Delta 1
Before we could start biking, we needed to get away from the main cities, so onto a boat we went, passing small floating shacks with cat fish farms underneath.
The tour combined stops and information along the way to give us a better sense of how the locals live, and primarily do life on this vital body of water. One such stop was at a family farm where they had a large variety of fruit trees and vegetables which is more lucrative than growing rice.  We toured their home and kitchen and got a better idea of why they layout their homes the way they do, religiously and culturally.  Their homemade banana rice wine was pretty good for home made hooch and we sampled local fruits and homemade sweet rice cakes. One of our nights was spent in a very rustic guest house on the water.  Fairly open air rooms are set up on stilts along the water's edge.

Biking Mekong Delta 2
A local house
Biking Mekong Delta 3
Gorgeous sunset as we cruise to our evening stop.
Biking Mekong Delta 4
Stopped  at a pottery factory for export. All handmade, and this kiln will run 24/7 for 20 days being stoked and fed constantly with rice husks for fuel. 
One of the things I enjoyed most was just knowing that this was the same body of water we were on while traveling from Northern Thailand through Laos to Luang Prabang, and in only another 150km or so, this water would empty into the South China Sea.

Actually, whining was not high on my list, as I loved the biking Mekong Delta trip.  Brad gets a rush weaving in and out of busy traffic, but I so enjoyed biking under a canopy of tropical greens of palm, bamboo, and so many varieties of which I don't know the name of.  Simply gorgeous and when you passed a rice field, you literally felt a cool fresh breeze wash over you as you pass by! 

Biking Mekong Delta 5
In the outlying farms, family bury their dead on the land And bring regular sacrifice to help them in their next life.
Biking Mekong Delta 6
Stopped at a Khmer temple and this new young monk (15 years old) will spend a year here in training.  Temple combines Hindu and Buddhist artifacts. He was very chatty with us and Anna, and amazed at how tall she was, especially compared to him.
Biking Mekong Delta 7
Little school girls going home for lunch.
Again so many of the locals and children call out hello and laugh.  Why they laugh, I still don't know. Laugh because we are biking in the heat? Laugh because they just don't see many of us foreigners on the back roads? Laugh, because they are secretly making fun of us?  Not sure, but many hellos were exchanged with only a minor crash as children came out for a high five and when I tried to oblige, more came, along with a bike of two old ladies.  A minor crash with the elderly grandmas resulted in minor injuries, embarrassment (on my part) and one severe tongue lashing to the kids.....  So wish I could have understood it, but I couldn't and just sheepishly biked away to join the others.
Small bamboo bridges to homes across the river.  They are called monkey bridges.
Biking Mekong Delta 8
A rice field
Biking Mekong Delta 9
Loved the many bridges and paths  weaving along the river
Biking Mekong Delta 10
What looks similar to our canoes, but called arroyos, we navigated through narrow waterways with spectacular foliage.
It's 3:00 in the afternoon. Temperature 30, feels like 38... Humidity 80%.
Last haul was up a massive bridge.  Never ending steady up.  Brad is cheering me on, I am down to my lowest gear.... I made it without getting off.
Damn proud of myself, though I might have had a minor breakdown after.... Can't remember! Blocked it out so I would choose to go back out again the next day!

Biking Mekong Delta 12

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Trekking Solo in Vietnam: Mt. Fansipan

By The Mind Room
Traveling alone in Vietnam kindles a love for the unknown and unpredictable. Modern Travelers follow in the steps of many past explorers.

It’s 4:30AM, and we whiz over Vietnam’s dusty mountain roads on a tiny red motorcycle. My trail guide, Chah (5’1), revs the engine, and I cling shamelessly to his waist from behind. Every time we zoom around a tight curve, our entire outfit tilts precariously and threatens to fling my unwieldy 6’4 body off the narrow seat. Even though my Ichabod Crane-like knees jut out awkwardly, our speed is exhilarating. The preliminary rays of dawn are just beginning to illuminate the peaks above us, and we pass teetering fruit trucks and groups of colorfully-dressed Black Thai women jingling towards Sapa with baskets of hand-made trinkets.
The trailhead is an abandoned colonial French outpost in the middle of northern Vietnam's Hoang Lien Mountains. I pause for a few perfunctory stretches while Chah glances impatiently at me and then at the trail. I strap on my locally-purchased, counterfeit North Face daypack and clench my Black Diamond hiking poles. I'm ready to conquer Fansipan, one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks.


Not bothering to research the mountain’s location beforehand, my China Southern Airways flight lands me in Saigon (Ho Chi Hinh City) in southern Vietnam. It doesn't take long to figure out that Fansipan rises in Vietnam’s far north near the Chinese border. Doh! Looking at a map, I realize that I have a 2,000-kilometer journey, no knowledge of local languages, and no friends in the region. With only 13 days, I also have no time to waste.

From Saigon, I board what I think is a nonstop bus to Hanoi. Dozens of tourists and locals board the blazing red, and eight hours later we arrive at beach-city Nha Trang. Standing alone on an unfamiliar street corner, I watch nervously as the bus shuttles back towards Saigon. “Are we going to Hanoi?” I ask with trepidation. “Yes. Tomorrow night.” I've traveled in the developing world before and know never to depend on a detailed itinerary. Three days, three buses, and several more impromptu stops along the coast later, we finally reach Hanoi.

1647 kilometers down; 336 to go. My ever-helpful Lonely Planet guide leads me to Hanoi’s train station for a ticket to Sapa, the mountain town nearest to Fansipan. A German woman, flanked by a careworn husband and two terrified-looking children, yells angrily at an attendant in the station's lobby. I shuffle past and board a railcar: room 4, number 14. Five hours on a cabin bed is easy; my bunkmates, a friendly, middle-aged Singaporean couple, tell me all about their love for cruising their Harley Davidsons through Thailand. Afterwards, I nestle under my sheets and even manage to get some much-needed sleep.

The final, 2-hour bus ride from our mountain train stop drops me off in the middle of quant Sapa, an old Bavarianesque vacation spot for French colonials. I easily find a $5 dollar-a-night lodging at the sparse, but cheerfully managed Pinocchio Hotel and stretch out on one of the three beds in my room. Success! I appreciate the fact that I am in Vietnam’s northern mountains with plenty of time left to get trekking Fansipan. Suddenly, 2,000 kilometers of cramped and uncertain travel seems well worth the trouble. 

Hiking the Fansipan Trail

At first, the trail descends down several steep drops into a shallow canyon and passes a drying streambed that reminds me of scenes from The Thin Red Line. The hardened clay ground makes for sturdy steps, but the trail is clearly not maintained. We constantly maneuver around washed-out gullies and clamber up near-vertical inclines. At the far end of the canyon, the path climbs relentlessly upwards. Chah bounces effortlessly from rock to rock and tells me about his family. Looking younger than I am, he already has a wife and several children; they live with his parents in a neighboring mountain village.

Fansipan (10,312ft.) is often called the rooftop of Southeast Asia, and I am almost completely unprepared physically for the hike. Lonely Planet advertises only two local backpacking options: a strenuous three-day trip and the exhausting two-day option. The day before, I strolled into a cavernous touring shop punctuated only by a small school desk and chair. The elfish man behind the desk offered an unexpected alternative: “Would you like to hike Fansipan in one day?” Not backpacking would render 80% of my luggage unnecessary, but why not? I take it as a dare.

Chah darts ahead and skips gracefully from step to step. He shouts back at me, “Come on!” as I struggle over a lengthy and precipitous slope. The topography is confusing. Before coming to Vietnam, my impression was that the entire country is covered in uninterrupted jungle. Even though everything is green in northern Vietnam’s mountains, the forests are thin and leafy. We are also constantly surrounded by blackened earth and the burnt husks of dead trees. Chah explains that, at lower elevations, the hill tribes periodically burn the forests in order to discourage undergrowth, avoid wild predators, and clear land for agriculture. Far removed from the constraints of such a life, I am disappointed. The only “wildlife” we see on the entire hike are three bored cows chomping a bush.

As we gain altitude, the woods thicken. The morning fog starts to dissipate and the jagged edges of slim mountain ranges appear above us. Beautiful ribbons of mountains connect and separate in all directions; ridgelines are barbed and dramatic. We scramble up mud-covered and slippery ravines. Suddenly, we reach the foot of the range’s razor-edged backbone, and the trail becomes discernibly maintained with clumsy side rails and an even path. The going is slower as the trail ascends more quickly, and I take my time clinging to the rails. I pause for a moment to take in the vistas. “Come on!”

Previous trips with friends in the developing world gave me confidence to set out on my own. Traveling solo through Southeast Asia stirs unwanted but somehow alluring memories of the first European explorers in the area. Milton Osborne’s The Mekong outlines their adventures. After securing a trade empire based at Malacca (in present-day Indonesia), Portuguese explorers plodded throughout the region’s interior by the mid-16th century. Names like Tome Pires, Antonio de Faria, and Ferdinand Mendez Pinto appear who explored the coastlines of present-day Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1540s. Contemporary maps of the continent’s untamed interior attest to their forgotten exploits seeking trade, wealth, and conversions to Christianity. I imagine the wonder these men must have felt as they traveled in such distant and untouched native societies and contexts. Every sight was a new discovery; every jungle bend presented these men with something new to grapple with and understand.

I briefly begrudge the mass communication of our internet age for spoiling Vietnam’s many unique surprises. Before disembarking from my plane at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Google Images already illustrated the sights of Vietnam to me: the peoples’ dress, the natural scenery, and even my journey’s probable obstacles. But venturing out alone without a detailed plan rekindles an adventurous spirit of the unknown. Topography and cities are new; relationships are always novel, and never knowing what to expect next is invigorating. Even in a modern age, travelers can catch a glimpse of 500-year-old adventures. Never mind the every-moment control we exercise over our lives here in the United States; in Vietnam, I am immediately addicted to the risky unknown.

Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam

The trail’s last push is extremely difficult. My legs and chest sting with pain, but I scramble up a muddy embankment encased with dense, leafy ferns and trees on either side. Chah disappears somewhere ahead. Suddenly, the peak appears out of the mist in front of me. I made it! The jungle stops at the base of a 50ft.-high pile of rocks at the summit, and I carefully wobble to a perch at the pinnacle. Two Australian cyclists are eating a snack with their guide, and we chat briefly about trail conditions. After they leave, Chah and I gaze out across the mountain range. Chah tells me that Dien Bien Phu lies further west. Sapa is hidden 20 miles north.

Conquer Fansipan 2

A small, silver pyramid marks Fansipan’s apex and predictably reads: “Fansipan/3143m”. I sit next to a nearby statue of the Buddha which someone cemented onto the rock. On his pedestal lie an orange, a mummified apple slice, and a package of four cheese-filled crackers. I snap a few pictures and relax. Hooray! Only five days ago, I arrived at the wrong side of Vietnam. I close my eyes and wonder what I should do next with the remainder of my time here. Before I can finish my thought, I am interrupted by Chah’s shrill voice: “Come on!”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A great trip to Halong Bay

By Ornthordarson
From Hue, we took the fourteen hour sleeper bus up to Hanoi that arrived just before seven in the morning. We moved quickly and booked a three day - two night Halong Bay tour, departing at eight o’clock that same morning.

Halong Bay is about 170 km. from Hanoi.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a beautiful bay with just under 2,000 majestic limestone-cliff islands scattered around the bay.  We took the bus to Halong City (with a stop in a souvenir store of course) and there we boarded a nice three star junk with eleven other passengers and a crew of six.

Kayaking Halong Bay 1
A typical view in Halong Bay
At first it felt like stepping into a ski-lift, going out on that boat.  At any one time there are about 300 similar passenger boats sailing around Halong Bay and they all have similar schedules so we could always see a few boats behind us and a few ahead of us, all heading in the same direction. 

But we were quick to shake of the ski-lift feeling.  Sailing around the bay in those boats is soooo relaxing and nice.  The bay is very quiet and the scenery is so astonishing that you get the feeling of moving around in slow motion.

We visited a big cave on one of the islands, went kayaking Halong Bay and visited a floating village where the people live in houses build on rafts and underneath they have enclosures filled with fish, squid and lobsters that they feed until they are big enough to eat.

Kayaking Halong Bay 2
Kayaking towards the floating village
The first night we slept on the boat but on the second day we went to Cat Ba Island and stayed in a nice new hotel in Cat Ba town.  In hindsight we should have stayed two nights on the boat though.  The hotel in compared to how nice it was on the boat.

Kayaking Halong Bay 3
We were picked up the next morning and sailed quietly back to Halong City where we took the bus back to Hanoi (with a stop in a souvenir store of course).

Kayaking Halong Bay 4
Trying to be brave :)
All in all the tour was great, the scenery was fantastic, the food was good and the accommodation cozy and nice.  For people considering to take a similar trip I would recommend taking the two day one night on the boat option on a three star boat or even three days two nights on the boat option.

Kayaking Halong Bay 5
Our cabin on the boat

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Untouched Gems of Northwest Vietnam

By Shivya
For many travelers, Vietnam is the cities of Ho Chi Minh & Hanoi, and the tours that take you around the area. While some of these are pretty and tourist-friendly, most of these are fabricated versions of Vietnam’s real beauty and people. We managed to ditch most of these must-tick boxes in our Vietnam itinerary to explore the less-treaded North Western highlands of the country.

Mai Chau

Biking Mai Chau
Mist in Mai Chau
No Lonely Planet overview can prepare you for the gorgeous, mist-covered mountains that greet you as you enter the village of Ben Lac, nor for the hospitality of its White Thai folks. There are Mai Chau trekking tours from Hanoi that take you there.

Biking on the hill slopes of Mai Chau
We stayed with a couple in a traditional stilt house, and were flattered by their openness, despite the language barrier, and by the lady’s (vegetarian, as requested by me) cooking. We spent a surreal morning Mai Chau biking on the slopes of the village, passing stilt houses and open rivers & streams, into the heart of the mountains which never for a second failed to enchant us. Time didn’t permit us to explore other surrounding villages or trek up one of the mountains, but it sure gave us a reason to visit again.

Trekking Mai Chau 2
A traditional house on stilts in the Ban Lac village of White Thai tribes

From Mai Chau to Dien Bein Phu, via Moc Chau and Son La

If you haven’t been to Vietnam, the names will sound very strange; they might sound strange even if you’ve been to Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Let’s say these are some of the most offbeat routes in North West Vietnam, and that is a huge blessing. If Mai Chau was beautiful, I am at a loss of words to describe what we saw next. The journey from Mai Chau to Dien Bien Phu is like entering a post card and never getting out. The Tonkinese Alps (rightfully called) are as stunning as they are imposing, and we traveled for miles without taking our eyes off them. The thrill was heightened by our insistence to travel in local buses with various tribes of people who board and alight at obscure stops, many of them dressed in colorful ethnic costumes and carrying their babies in kangaroo-like sacks.

Dien Bien Phu 1
The sky en route to Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu 2
The sun decorating the mountain skyline
From Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau, via Muong Lay

Dien Bien Phu is a sleepy town, significant in French history in relation to the Vietnam war, and made just an overnight stopover for us.

Can you close your eyes and picture the backdrop in Pirates of the Caribbean? In this journey, you can see that backdrop with your eyes wide open, stunned in fact, because it’s hard to imagine that such beauty exists in such a remote part of Vietnam. If you ask me, you haven’t seen Vietnam if you haven’t done this route. Referred to by locals as the “Halong on Land”, the scenery is magical, with slopes of the lush Tonkinese Alps enclosing a river that runs for miles (possibly the Mekong River).

Muong Lay, the old Lai Chau, was a thriving community until the river flooded and submerged the town a few years ago. A new river-side mountain-side township is now under construction and promises to be an unparalleled attraction if discovered by enough travelers. Between Muong Lay and Lai Chau, I saw the most beautiful mountain landscape I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen my fair share of hills and valleys in Asia. Lai Chau is just another sleepy town, just barely alive to break the journey for the night, onward to the touristy valley of Sapa.

The beauty is so virgin that we couldn’t get ourselves to capture it in photographs, for fear of contaminating and misconstruing its purity. Apologies for not sharing pictures on this part; no pictures could do justice.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Trekking to discover a surprising life in Sapa

By Monica S.
I'm starting this blog post with a quote I found in the "South East Asia Backpacker," a monthly magazine full of inspiring stories written by people who are either traveling through or have moved to South East Asia. I find it to be quite appropriate for the story I'm about to tell. Firstly, I knew absolutely nothing about the hill tribes living in the north of Vietnam before I took a trekking Sapa . Secondly, had I not met them in person, I would not be inclined as passionately as I am to do something to help them. And lastly, it made me aware of how fortunate I am to be able to travel. So many people are "vegetating" in their own corner of the earth and could only dream of traveling, but are too poor to do so. I used to be one of these people up until not long ago. Coming from a developing country myself, I've experienced poverty and lack of mobility. But I kept dreaming. And I am now so grateful to have fulfilled some of those dreams.

Trekking Sapa 1
We really wanted to do a trek through northern Laos and stay with one of the hill tribes there, but we didn't have enough time. When we got to Vietnam, we were happy to find out that they have similar tribes living in the mountains in the northern part of the country. We were able to arrange going up there, hiking around and staying overnight with a local family. Despite the cold weather that took me unprepared and reminded me of San Francisco, I absolutely loved this trip and would've gladly stayed there longer, had we had more time.

Trekking Sapa 2
The Black Hmong villages in northern Vietnam are located very close to the border with China. Apparently, many of them migrated centuries ago from China and parts of Mongolia. To get there we took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cao, a sad and grim, communist-looking town on the border with China. It reminded me a lot of childhood winters in Communist Romania. We arrived in Lao Cao at 6am and were shuttled in a packed minivan over a windy mountain road for about an hour until we reached the town of Sapa. Sapa is like a mountain resort, and the starting point for a lot of activities, such as hiking Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. It also boasts a full-on North Face fake store. Everything in the store is a copy and it costs about $20. I haven't been inside, but some people we met said the clothes looked the same quality as original North Face clothes.

Our guide was waiting for us in Sapa and after we ate some breakfast we started the trek. During this time of the year, it is very cold and foggy, so you can't see much. The rice paddies are also not in full swing, so they don't boast the lush green you'd expect. Also, because of the heavy rains, the roads turn into a deep, slippery mud. Our hike was basically walking uphill or downhill through intense mud. Downhill was quite treacherous, at times it felt like hiking down a slip-and-slide.

Trekking Sapa 3
The girl on the right is our guide. The one on the left is one of the many women that followed us during the entire hike. They ask us a million questions:  where you're from, how old are you, how many siblings you have, if you're married and have babies, if you have a boyfriend, etc. When you look like you're about to lose balance and fall, they're right there, holding your hand and showing you where to step next. Your heart melts and you think you just made a new friend. You are impressed at how friendly and helpful the people are.

The tribes distinguish themselves mostly through the type of clothes and hats women wear. Zay women wear red hats and embroidered pants, while Hmong women wear embroidered skirts and colorful head scarves. After harassing Daniel for the longest time possible, the two ladies called mission accomplished. He succumbed and bought a pack of postcards for 5 USD. Mind you, in Vietnam, $5 is the equivalent of a day's wages.

Trekking Sapa 4
The landscape, shrouded in fog the entire time, was magic. Tons of suspension bridges everywhere, but we didn't get to cross any. For every suspension bridge there was a new sturdier bridge built nearby. And some suspension bridges were really shabby, missing entire sections.
Main street and grocery store in a Hmong village. I can't begin to describe how poor these people are. The only other place I've seen similar levels of poverty is Bolivia. Despite that, people seemed happy. It seemed normal. It felt like the simple kind of life that humans have led for centuries in these parts of the world.
Hiking through mud along rice paddies. I felt really grateful for having my sturdy comfy hiking boots. This was yet another extreme test for how awesome they are.

Trekking Sapa 4
Our wonderful guide and her 10-month old baby. The cutest, smiliest, happiest baby in the world! Our guide was 19 years old and she had been married for 3 years already. Her husband, a year younger than her, takes care of the baby in the mornings while she's guiding tourists. At noon she gets back home and brings the tourists with her, to show them where she lives. She does this, so she can breast-feed the baby, strap him on her back and then continue the hike in the afternoon. At the end of the hike, she cooks for all of us and after dinner her husband comes to pick the two of them up with the motorbike. For the late night ride, the 10-month old baby gets strapped to the front of the mommy, so it can be sandwiched between its parents on the motorbike and protected from the cold. For guiding a group of tourists like this, she gets paid 5 USD/day. She works 4 days a week. Her husband is currently building their house, where she invited us. The house consists of a big room, walls made of bamboo leaves, no bathroom, no kitchen. Just a hole in the ground with a fire burning above it, a bed in a corner, a few clothes hanging on a rope and a few plastic stools.

Trekking Sapa 5
The magic bridge - a photographer's dream. You probably can't even tell it's a bridge. It's suspended really high above rice fields, it's very narrow (a car can't fit), doesn't have railings and has zero visibility. We didn't see anyone walk on it, so we don't really know what its purpose was. 

Trekking Sapa 6
One of my top favorite photos of this trip so far. I guess by the end I'll have a solid collection of Anne jumping shots. Anne tried to do a few shots of me jumping, but apparently I can't jump for a photo for the life of me. I look goofy in all of them.

Our guide's English was excellent, by far better than that of many people we've met in Hanoi or entire Vietnam for that matter. I asked her how she managed to speak so well and she said she started out following tourists and trying to sell them things. She would engage in conversations with them and pick up words really fast. Some tourists really liked her and wanted her to be their guide. The word got out that she's a likable girl with good command of English, so the trekking company hired her. The frequency of her gigs is solely based on feedback and reviews from tourists.

Trekking Sapa 7
The kitchen of the homestay where we slept. It was so cold inside the house that you could see your own breath. A few of our group of 9 gathered around the fire. The pot in the middle is boiling food for the pigs: a mix of cornmeal and leftover scraps.

Trekking Sapa 8
Food in northern Vietnam is plain and some of the dishes remind me of Chinese food, maybe because they are so close to the border with China. All the food is stir-fried in a wok. We got stir-fried cabbage, chicken with bok choi and vegetables, steamed rice, spring rolls and fried tofu. The family also served us rice wine, which tastes more like vodka than sake.

Trekking Sapa 9
The next day the visibility was a bit better, so we could see the beautiful landscapes hiding behind the thick fog on the previous day. 

Trekking Sapa 10
There was no bridge for this river, so we crossed the water on two metal beams, suspended across two rocks. We didn't want to do it at first, but it was actually easier than we thought. I love the ingenuity of the people here. There's always a solution for everything, even if it's not the most elegant, safe or logical solution. Things seem to always work out, somehow.

Trekking Sapa 11
The woman right next to me is the one who befriended me during the hike. She told me she is 36 years old and already has several children. I told her I am 31 years old and she couldn't believe me. Again, another resemblance to women we met in Peru and Bolivia: hard physical labor, marriage and kids from an early age make these women mature faster and look older than they actually are. In the mountains of Peru and Vietnam, villagers look almost 20 years older than they are.