From montanguards in Sapa to the DMZ
Trip Start Aug 14, 2003
22Trip End Jan 15, 2004
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After I'd said good bye to China, I plodded through the sheets of rain over the bridge between China and Vietnam, where my passport got soaked at 4 or five checkpoints along the way. You'd think they would get at least an umbrella for the guard.
When I finally got through, I had no idea what to do. I wanted to speak Chinese to everyone Asian but suddenly my only useful language was English. I immediately felt guilty and inadequate for not being able to speak their language and not having a map or a clue of where to go. I had to trust that the locals at the border were not lying to me or ripping me off. I swore I would never get on a motorbike but that all went through the window about half an hour into Vietnam when I realised I'd just have to go with the driver to find the bus
Sapa is a small town in Vietnam's North West, which is surrounded by most of Vietnam's minority groups' villages. Despite it being a beautiful town, I hid in my room for a couple of hours before venturing outside. I felt like a target for ridicule if I walked outside because I had no idea what to do in a place where I couldn't speak the language. It's amasing how confident knowing a language can make you feel. I really admire all the people who travel to China without speaking Chinese now. At least in Vietnam they all speak a bit of English!!!
In Sapa I went on a three day walking tour through the villages where we spent the nights at the homes of local people and the days walking through the rice paddies and forest there. Not only was the scenery beautiful (imagine a valley of green impeccably carved rice terraces lined with a finely tuned bamboo irrigation system and the occasional waterfall gushing in the background) but the people were gorgeous too. Every tribe had a different dress code ranging from homemade hemp clothing (we got to see the hemp fields too!!!) dyed indigo to bright red heavily scarved women, dripping with metal coins. On one day we passed a funeral - to me it looked like a whole group of people moving around and singing outside their house but our guide explained that when a person dies, the family has to sing around the body for three days and then it is buried.
After a few days in Sapa, I took the night train to Hanoi which was much different to a Chinese train!!! Foreigners go mainly in soft sleepers in Vietnam (and probably in China too) which are very comfortably padded cubicles of four PLUS boys walking past every so often to replace your empty beer bottle!!!
5 am is a horrible time to arrive in a new place but luckily I was with a couple of nice travelers and I'd gotten used to being a tourist (i.e. not speaking local language). Despite the time and the fact that it was raining, Hanoi seemed like a nice place from the outset. It looks a lot older than Beijing, but still with lots of character and quirky things to see when you least expect it. I spent a few days wandering around, checking out the local dead body (it seems that every communist country keeps their leader in a mausoleum for public viewing despite their request for simple cremation), eating BREAD (!!!!!!!!!!!!) and CHOCOLATE CROISSANTS (viva la France!!! and suffer Beijingers!!!).
After a couple of days, I jumped on (another) tour to Halong Bay. This is a piece of water east of Hanoi, that holds about 2000 islands (or more?) made of limestone. It looked a lot like Yangshuo and Guilin, but in the water - basically scattered lumps of limestone and jungle jutting out of the sea (Freud would probably have an interesting metaphor for it). The first day we just spent on the boat, stopping every so often to look at an island or buy food from the floating shop that moored next to us, and spent the afternoon diving of the roof of the boat. It was certainly paradise that's for sure!!! There were five Russian guys on the boat who (they worked for Aeroflot) must have spent every moment in their y-fronts, sucking a bottle of vodka. They thought a fun game was to see which of us young women would sit and drink with them the longest. It was all harmless, but I still am not the best of friends with vodka and they couldn't speak ANY English. I escaped unscathed however.
I spent a couple of nights on one of the islands hiking through steep dense jungle for half a day and kayaking between the smaller islands on another day, in between eating the best seafood I've ever tasted and taking midnight swims...
On one day I was sheltering from the sudden rainstorm while I was walking to the beach under this shed with a few other travelers. They were from Ballarat so I thought to ask them if they knew Beave (a mate of mine from uni in Beijing). Turned out they were traveling with his parents who were back at the hotel. It was the BIZARREST coincidence. So that night I was shouted beers and got some family time with the Robertson's - very nice!!!
The next few days I spent in Hanoi again, meeting up with some fellow travelers, shopping, eating good food and planning my next move. I decided to go to Hue next, near the Demilitarised Zone that divided Vietnam into north and south during the war during the 60's. The town itself was fairly lazy, centered around a citadel that was the ancient royal family's palace I think. They must have been Chinese because the architecture and writing were all Chinese.
In the afternoon a friend and I took motorbikes along the river dodging straight backed girls riding bikes home from school in their pure white long flowing traditional dress called 'ao dai', looking more graceful than I could ever hope to and grinning boys tearing their bikes through mud puddles with their shirts hanging out and sounding as raucous as I used to on the school bus. We arrived at a pagoda at the end of the road in time for afternoon prayers. The Buddhist texts in Vietnam are all written in Chinese characters, but the prayers were definitely in Vietnamese. The frequent emergence of Chinese in random parts of Vietnamese culture was beginning to intrigue me.
While I was in Hue, I went on a tour to the demilitarized zone, to look at an old American army base where a particularly horrific battle had taken place and some of the tunnels the Vietnamese had lived in for months below the ground to escape the fighting above them. Maybe I was in a bad mood that day, but the whole tourist train phenomenon that can easily be the Vietnamese experience was starting to get to me. We were taken first to a minority village where the bus parked in the middle of a few stilt houses. We were let out to walk between the houses and take photos for ten minutes and then get back in again. I wonder what the people who live in these villages think of these freaks that land in their backyards, point lenses at them and leave. I boycotted and went for a walk down the road.
Next stop we were shepherded into the restaurant that the bus company obviously had a commission with, which annoyed me cos it means the locals have no chance of business, AND the food in those sorts of places are always overpriced and what they THINK the average tourist wants to eat - pancakes and omelet. So I boycotted again and went and ate local.
The army stuff went over my head a bit which showed me again that I should really do some research into recent Asian history or something so I understand something about the regions I'm traveling in. What intrigued me at one stop was an old guy selling identity tags of American soldiers. I asked our guide if they were real and he assured me they were - after the Americans came and checked all the names off, the tags were fine for the locals to keep (and sell it seems). I don't know how true that is: maybe the guide was in cahoots with the guy selling them.
The next stop was some tunnels that the Vietnamese had lived in for about 12 months (?) during the war. Before we went inside, the guide told us that there was a classroom, meeting room, bathroom, well, toilet, family rooms and a maternity room. I didn't realise that by 'room' he meant 'hole'. The classroom was a long tunnel about 1 metre wide and the maternity room had enough room for a bed and 20cm of space for the doctor. It put being locked up in university into perspective. At least there we had sunshine and headroom.