Sapa Trek


164_6445-4.JPGThe landscape around Sa Pa is the most beautiful we’ve seen in Vietnam yet. Sa Pa town is perched on a mountainside and the vista from our hotel overlooks the river valley and is dwarfed by the opposing and imposing mountains. To take in more of Sa Pa’s scenery, we signed up to go on a guided day hike with a local tour agency. This morning we met our guide, Mai, a twenty-something year old Black Hmong girl. We also met the sole other trekker on the hike, Caitlin, from Canada. Although the hike started down the main road leading into town, we soon veered off it and began descending down into the valley. Most of the way we just walked down a dirt path that intersected the dozens of rice paddies. Its planting season now and men were out preparing the paddies, plowing and fixing irrigation canals. The path was slightly muddy from yesterday and last night’s rain, but it was manageable (if not a bit slippery). A little girl began walking with the four of us, as well, since she was headed to one of the villages that we’d pass through. Lots of little girls walk around Sapa, hawking handicrafts and other souvenir junk, this girl included. We continued down, down, down the terraced mountainside. Not much to write about- just descending with the occasional stop for a photo. Despite the monotony of the walk, it wasn’t bad. The scenery was spectacular, mainly the rice paddies that blanketed the valley and mountainsides for as far as we could see.




We took a rest break when we reached a rudimentary suspension bridge spanning the nameless river at the bottom of the valley. While we sat, the seven year old girl following us accidentally dropped her umbrella. Although I was pretty sure it landed in the river and sank or got swept away, she was determined to recover it. We watched on in amazement as she clambered down the rocks and jumped from stone to stone on the banks of the turbulent river looking for her umbrella. Her efforts were, however, futile as her umbrella was gone. When she climbed back up to the bridge, we set off again. We came all the way down one side of the valley and now began the tiring climb up the other. Hiking uphill was pretty tiring, but at least it was a river valley that gradually descended in altitude. So we did have some steep ups, but it was generally down. Eventually our path cut away from the river and we walked through paddied hills full of farmers. Men plowed, women planted. Walking, I realized that by days end I would probably have 12 millions rice paddy photos. But at least their irregular lines, colors, and reflections made them a dynamic subject.



After several hours of hiking, we reached Lao Chai, a Black Hmong village. It was a farming village and as the trail ended, we were reduced to walking on narrow walls of dirt/mud separating the paddies. Careful not to fall to either side, we slowly approached the village. We ate lunch in the village and noticed a ton of other trekkers. Apparently all the other groups had taken one trail, while our guide had taken us along a remote trail. I was really thankful that we didn’t run into any other people throughout the whole morning, not to mention groups of package tourists. After lunch, we only walked for about another hour or so, at which point the trail met a road. We piled into an SUV that shuttled us back to Sapa for the evening. Looking back on the day and the hike, it was a relatively easy hike, but very scenic. It was a good way to end our otherwise tumultuous time in Vietnam.

Animals in Vietnam

animals sapa

This guy did not look happy to be in here.

animals sapa (3)

joylani 130pxAfter more than five months on the road, Matt and I found ourselves walking down a dusty road in Cambodia when he had the epiphany, “I think there are more than one kind of chicken.” Maybe it was something he’d been thinking for a while and just hadn’t had the right moment to put it into words, but I found his belated awareness quite entertaining as by that time we’d seen all manner of strange looking feathers and fowl. Reading one tourist’s review of a bike trip through Vietnamese villages, I scoffed at the remark that went something like this, “It was real country, we saw chickens on the road.” Maybe this person had lived in New York her whole life, but if you want to see chickens on the road you don’t have to go all the way to Vietnam. “If you want to see chickens, go to Arcata,” I sarcastically thought, “chickens are not exotic.” To the tourist’s credit, though, there is something interesting about seeing animals in the developing world. They’re used and viewed differently than the way we would see them back home, say, in San Francisco. This chicken has a string tied around its feet. It reminded me of trying on sandals but having trouble because they’re attached by a cord or something.

animals sapa (4)

Water buffalo being used to move the plow. In other places we’ve visited they are used for food—milk (cheese, yogurt, making tea), meat, and skin.

animals sapa (2)

This fella couldn’t hold still long enough for me to take a clear picture, which is probably to the pup’s advantage considering the day after I took this shot I saw a little bit larger dog being taken of a coal pit after a thorough roasting.

animals sapa

Last Day in Hanoi!


164_6445-4.JPGYesterday was a low, but I’m feeling pretty thankful today. I woke up really early yesterday morning and went to the train station to buy tickets for the night train to Sa Pa. The clerk informed me that there was only one soft-sleeper berth left. A quick debate ensued in my head, before I told her I’d take two hard-sleepers. Joylani and I went out to breakfast, but spent the rest of the morning in the coolness of our AC’d hotel room. A couple reasons for that. One, its been over 35C/100F degrees the past few days in Hanoi, which is made even worse my unbearable humidity. Two, we had to check out at noon and our train wasn’t schedule to leave until 10pm. I hate the days that we have night transportation (especially when its hot, which has been most of our trip), because its often a wasted day of waiting and killing time.

At noon, we headed out for lunch, followed by some che. Then to a café. Then to an internet café. Then to more food. It was typical time-killing day. Plus, it was sweltering outside and only one of the aforementioned locations had AC. Sweating profusely in the Hanoi heat and humidity with the knowledge that we had nowhere to shower that night began to demoralize us. Plus, I had no idea what a hard-sleeper meant. It was below soft-sleeper and above hard-chair, but what did that mean. I assumed it was just berths of wood with open windows to provide cool air. I had buyers’ regret all day: should we have paid a travel agent a hefty commission to score us some soft-sleepers? Should we have stayed one more day in Hanoi and bought soft-sleepers for tomorrow night? Maybe a chair car would be more comfortable…We were all sticky with a day’s worth of sweat, probably smelly, and resigned to our night’s fate by the time we reached the train station.

We got to the station early and set our bags down while we waited for our train. We met a couple of Canadian girls who we commiserated about our situation with. It made me feel a bit a better though. They had bought their tickets later than us and could only get a pair of hard-chair tickets. Forty-five minutes before departure, we headed to the platform and boarded the train. To our surprise, it was AC’d. Alright! Not only that, the groups of six berths were in enclosed compartments. Then, when we got to our compartment, there were cushioned mats on each berth! Much better than the straw mat on hard wood or metal that I was imagining. I was thoroughly impressed and even more grateful. Not only was it not bad, it was comfortable, contrary to what our guidebook and a few other travelers had said. I drifted off to sleep to the comforting sound and feel the train in motion, trading the reality of hot Hanoi for the dreams of cooler Sa Pa.

I awoke to Joylani poking me in the back at 5:30am. “Matt, Matt! Was that it? Was that stop Lao Cai? Did we miss our stop? A bunch of people got off there.” she said. How should I know? You’re the one who just poked me and woke me up. Instead of voicing my grumpy early-morning thoughts, I just said, “I don’t think so” and tried to go back to sleep. Not that I didn’t care, but I was pretty sure that Lao Cai was the last stop on the line and we were moving again. At 6:30, we did arrive at Lao Cai and jumped in van headed for Sa Pa. There was Dutch group already in the van, all which seemed pretty perturbed with the driver since they had been waiting an hour already. I assumed their hotel had hired van to bring them, but the driver was keen on making a little extra. They assumed we were scheduled to be picked up too, rather than just jumping in a random van as we did. But they got really mad when a bunch of locals jumped in too. They made sarcastic remarks in English and Dutch the whole way up, although I tried to ignore them, contenting myself with a two-foot long baguette I’d bought and the spectacular scenery as we wound up the mountainous road. The van ride isn’t really worth mentioning, except for an extremely gross and funny moment. Vietnam, like most of Asia, has water buffaloes and cows wandering all over the place. Seeing and avoiding big round green piles of dung when walking or driving has become second-nature. So, as a passenger looking out the front window, I noticed the van swerve a bit to the right to avoid the gooey pile of poo, not to mention an oncoming van. But as the van passed by us, I felt a spray of…no…couldn’t be…It felt like being splashed by water, but when I wiped my cheek and looked down at my shirt, yes, the oncoming traffic had sprayed me with cow pie. A couple seconds later, the old Dutch guy next to me said, “Oh, shit,” to which his wife replied, “Yes, it is.” Both the Dutch guy and I, and our wives sitting behind us had been sprayed, not to mention the driver and the whole left side of the car. Tissues were handed out and hand-sanitizer passed around, although we spent the duration of the drive with shit-smeared shirts.

In Sapa, we checked out a couple hotels and settled on a room on the fifth floor of a towering hotel that has commanding views of the surrounding mountains and valley. First order of business was to shower (sweating all day in Hanoi, no shower as we slept on a train, plus, now I had splats of dung on me) and change clothes, although after I was out on the balcony trying to capture the grandeur and beauty of Sa Pa. After a quick nap, Joylani and I headed out to explore a bit. The first thing I noticed: it was cool here. The first time since…Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao…for the first time since we were in northern Lao in January have we been in a cool place. For some reason, that was just mind-boggling to me when I realized that, but perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising since we’re relatively close to northern Lao, here in northern Vietnam. The weather wasn’t the only similarity though. The second thing I noticed here in Sa Pa was the preponderance of traditionally-dressed hill-tribe people, just as we’d seen in northern Thailand and Lao. Mostly women of all ages, from young girls to old toothless ladies, they walk around town dressed in their magnificent traditional dress. Most of them walked the streets hawking their wares (mostly traditional handicrafts), although there were some traditionally-dressed men which I’ve almost never seen anywhere. I mean, in most places we’ve visited, its not uncommon for women to dress in traditional garb, but men almost 100 percent of the time dress western. Back to Sapa, I’ve read that there’s three main hill-tribes represented in town; the Black Hmong, Dao, and Giay. The third thing that really struck me while walking around this old French hillstation was the excellent views. From almost anywhere along the main road, you could catch a glimpse of the amazing valley. And its not too hard to wander behind a building or find an opening in the trees to take in a full view of the valley below and cloud-shrouded mountains. Needless to say, Sa Pa is a much needed change from the rest of Vietnam and our past week in Hanoi. The mountains are always therapeutic in a way: cool fresh air, slow paced, mellow people, and beautiful surroundings. Tomorrow, we’re doing a day trek out to some villages and our last day will be spent at the locally-famous Bac Ha Sunday market. For now though, I’m just thinking about a good night’s sleep- its been a looooong two days.

Traveling gives more than you bargain for

(After being on the road for a while, the functions of one’s stomach start to become a normal topic of conversation. So if you’d rather not read the following, don’t.)

joylani 130pxAfter the most disgusting eggy burps all afternoon, I self diagnosed giardia and started taking a course of flaygl which I luckily had recently purchased “just in case” one of us needed it before going home. “Just in case” came a lot sooner than I expected. I realized that any burps I had in Nepal and India probably weren’t from the hardboiled eggs I had been eating (and eventually stopped because the smell of eggs started to gross me out), but from the month or two (or three or four) that my stomach was infected with this nasty disease. Being sick is never fun, but being sick abroad especially stinks because you are in an unfamiliar place (no where is as comfy as home to be ill) and besides, you don’t even get paid time off from work (oh wait, I didn’t get that before I left home…silly non-profit).

A few days ago, as Matt may have mentioned, I got super sick on day two of our “Ha Long Bay from Hell Tour.” As I lay in bed that evening, my body aching and recovering from a day of puking (including once out the window of a bus and once on my way up the stairs to our hotel room…thankfully I had a plastic bag with me), my mind raced with thoughts of what could be wrong with me. Dengue? Malaria? Japanese B Encephalitis? I don’t even exactly know what the symptoms of those are, except that I’d been traveling in some crazy places and been bit much more than I would have liked. Was I dying? It sure felt like it. For the first time, I found myself wishing for SOS to come and Med-Evac me out to some nice hospital, like the Adventist one in Bangkok, where I could be hooked up to an IV of miracle fluids and nursed back to health on BBQ chicken and mangos with sticky rice.

Fortunately my malady on the boat trip was most likely just a case of food poisoning (or maybe that pack of strawberry oreos I ate the night before?…). But now something else seems to be wrong. I don’t know where all the gas comes from, but I imagine that there must be little green giardia oompaloompas (the orange ones are the good ones, they make candy) mixing this with that, causing an explosion, a green cloud perhaps, which causes my stomach to ache like no other. Travel isn’t all beaches and historic sites…

Half my hair left and one mullet later

joylani 130pxAt first I thought my new do was influenced by Carol Brady and Thai fashion, but after a couple of days’ reflection, I think it’s a little bit more Aerosmith, a little bit Linda from Wedding Singer, and a lot horrible. What happened was I thought it would be good to get a little trim before going home in a couple months. I’ve been working on growing my hair out, so I just asked for a little trim, to fix the layers (as in make them more uniform, not all shaggy), and thin out the bulk a bit. At least that is what I told the guy who spoke English. He translated my request to the guy who was to do the actual cutting. You’ve heard the phrase “lost in translation” right? My suspicions are it went something like this, “She said to thin it out and do something about the layers. As you know, we don’t believe in thinning scissors here, so just try to hack off as much of the bulk as possible with your regular scissors. Oh, and she wants to keep it the same length, so make sure you don’t cut too much off the bottom layer.”

As the kid began to cut away, I sat in horror hoping that what I couldn’t quite see happening behind my head would turn out ok. Inspections and comments from the salon staff increased my suspicion that something really bad had happened back there. “Stupid rookie,” I thought, “Why couldn’t the guy with a utility belt of scissors been the one to cut my hair? Who does this punk think he is anyways? Just because he has tattoos does not make him fit to cut my hair.” I calmed down a bit when two other staff started to blow dry my coif. But making me feel like a superstar for 10 minutes of blow drying didn’t change the fact that some kid had just hacked off at least a year’s hard work of growing out my hair.

The head stylist, Mr. Utility Belt came over to inspect it. His expression read “not good.” He pulled out his scissors and began an attempt at fixing my hair. I was offered iced tea. A fan was turned on from behind me, blowing strands of my hair in all directions before they had a chance to drop to the floor. When it was over, my iced tea looked like Snuffleupagus, and my haircut just as shaggy. A second mirror was lifted so that I could inspect the back. Things did not look well. Too scared to let any of the staff touch my hair again, however, I opted to leave the extra few inches of hair that extended beyond the rest realizing that a ponytail might be my only option for the next couple months (besides, who knew what they would do if the scissors got pulled out a third time), and I hightailed it out of the salon.

So now, a few days later, the shock has worn off and been replaced by marveling at my stupidity in choosing to get a haircut in Hanoi without so much as a picture to show the stylist (I should have at least clarified that he correctly understood my request). Luckily, hair grows. And while I’m disappointed that my attempt to finally grow my hair out has been foiled, well, the reality is I’ve never been so good at waiting for my hair to grow out anyways and actually like having shorter hair (its just that I had wanted to try something new…). Sadly, coming to terms with this new do doesn’t change the fact that this is without a doubt the worst haircut I’ve had, even worse than the time my brother cut my hair. At least a toddler can pull-off a home-cut until it grows out. At least with the party in the back I still have enough hair to pull back into a tiny ponytail.

Currency Risk

“Laos sounds crazy with only 3 ATMs. There are 3 ATMs within 3 minutes of my house driving. There’s an ATM at 7-11 which is 5 minutes walking. I don’t know how I would survive in a completely foreign country with no ATMs. I wouldn’t want to have cash because I’d be afraid of losing it or getting it stolen by some locals. Without an ATM though it seems like you have no choice.” –excerpt of email from my good friend Anthony Salazar

164_6445-4.JPGNow in Vietnam, where the it’s over 16,000 dong to the dollar, I figured it’d be a good time to write a post about currency. I’ve lost count, but we’ve used around 20 different currencies so far on this trip and besides getting really good at dividing any number by multiples of 3, 4, and 10, going through so many currencies has had a few other effects on us.

1. Instead of converting prices into dollars, we usually convert local prices into the last country we were in. In Nepal we converted to Indian rupees to see if we were getting a fair price. Same for Thailand. Then we converted kip to baht, riel to kip, then back to baht before converting ringgit to baht, rupiah to ringgit, and now dong to rupiah. The other day, I asked a street vendor how much for a baguette, to which she replied, “2,000 dong.” I thought, “Okay, we usually paid 500 riel a baguette in Cambodia and 500 riel equals…carry the one….2000 dong.” I bought the baguette. I realized that I do these split-second currency conversions all the time without even thinking about them. Slowly, we’ve gotten a feel for how much things should be in USD though. Local beer 50-75 cents, imported beer 1 dollar, soft drink 25 cents, internet 25-75 cents/hour, DVDs 80 cents to a dollar, fruit ask Joylani.

2. To Salazar’s point, besides having trouble finding ATMs in Lao and Cambodia, high exchange rates really create some maddening problems. Firstly, the numbers start getting confusing when FX rates get into the thousands. But worse is that the bills start coming in really big denominations. My wallet is filled with 100,000 and 500,000 dong bills at the moment. But since sky-high currency rates are usually indicative of past high inflation, there are lots of small bills around too. So my pockets are filled with 500, 1000, and 2000 dong notes, roughly 3, 6, and 12 cents, respectively. So what happens is that you just accumulate huge wads of worthless small bills. The other problem with this is that ATM’s can only physically handle so many bills at a time. So ATM’s usually have a max withdrawal, usually 2 million dong here in Vietnam. If you want more, you’ll have to make another transaction and eat another ATM fee. Its not so bad here, but in Lao where the largest bills were even less valuable, the max withdrawal at the few ATMs was equal to 70 USD (although you could do up to like 10 withdrawals a day). And lastly, since the even the large bills here in Vietnam aren’t worth very much, finding empty ATMs is also a problem. So in review: confusing numbers, big pockets full of small bills, and insufficient ATMs.

3. Constantly checking and watching FX rates has really shown me how the dollar is just getting destroyed. The Fed and Treasuries actions over the past few years have really sacrificed the dollar in the name of growth and now the effects are becoming clear, albeit even more exaggerated because of the sub-prime crisis. Although we left the US a month before the sub-prime crisis began, we’re feeling its painful effects more than the average American, since we’re abroad. While Americans’ salaries and savings have decreased between 10 and 20 percent in the past year, relative to the world, at least they still live in a dollar denominated world. But we on the other hand, feel the effects of the dollars depreciation more immediately because we’re spending in rupees, riel, and ringgit to name a few. If the economics and forex math are too much, perhaps these charts illustrate my point more clearly.

Each of the below charts is a two-year graph of the dollar’s value relative to the respective currency. The red dots indicate our entry and exit dates in each country.

Dollar versus Indian Rupee

US Dollar against Indian Rupee

Dollar versus Ringgit

US Dollar against Malaysian Ringgit

Dollar vs Sing. Dollar

US Dollar against Singapore Dollar

Dollar versus Baht

US Dollar against Thai Baht

National Museum of Fine Arts

history museum

history museum

These pictures are actually from another museum, the National History Museum, but I really liked this entry way. And I don’t have any good pics from the Fine Art Museum.

joylani 130pxWe went to this museum today and I thought a lot of the works were really great. I was feeling sick though, so I didn’t really retain enough information about the place to write a decent post except that I would definitely recommend it. There was a great minority textile exhibit, a section of paintings with no dates (so who knows how old they actually are), some rocking monk sculptures, and a great collection of paintings and prints from the 20th century (my favorite part of the place). One interesting aspect is a wing that houses changing thematic exhibits. While we were there it happened to be a collection of Buddah sculptures. What was unique about it was that they were all of different styles form different regions. Usually when we see a Buddah collection is at a temple/wat, so the statues look very similar to each other. So it was interesting to see the contrasts among the collection.

Hanoi’s Historic Sights


164_6445-4.JPGWe’ve spent much of the past three days exploring Hanoi and seeing its sights. I don’t really want to detail all the museums we’ve gone to, but I’ll offer a few thoughts. Although today’s Fine Art Museum was pretty good in Joylani’s opinion and the Military History Museum had a lot of interesting war relics, most museums in Vietnam are pretty worthless. Although the presentation is okay, very few museums have anything in English. More importantly though, the museums are all fronts for propaganda. Most of the museums I’ve seen in Vietnam would have you think Ho Chi Minh and the other founding fathers were gods- perfect, no faults, pure altruistic motives in everything they did. Every nation deifies its national heroes to an extent, but the museums in Vietnam have no objectivity and take uncritical looks at its past. We’ve seen so many revolution and independence museums that are just gallery after gallery of propaganda. Although also full of communist propaganda, visiting Hoa Lo prison was interesting just to see John McCain’s flight suit and where he stayed, especially given the current presidential race. The prison is now at the foot of a towering western hotel on a busy commercial street selling electronics. I’ve vowed not to go to any more museums here though, because they’re mostly in Vietnamese and the ones that do have English have zero historical information. One of the most interesting things we’ve seen in Hanoi was Ho Chi Minh’s body. It’s in a guarded glass case in a huge classical looking mausoleum. Its quite the tourist attraction with a continual stream of visitors walking single file passed it, while guards look on. Kind of weird when you think about it, but interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing Mao and Lenin’s bodies now too, though. Besides the museums, we’ve spent a lot of time eating, talking, writing in cafes, and trying to get this blog up-to-date. Hanoi in a nutshell: good art, bad museums, good food, and hot!


Hoa Lo prison


McCain’s flight suit on display

Something’s Gotta Change

164_6445-4.JPGI’ve come to the conclusion that I need a change, although I’m unsure of what that entails. Although I have no desire to go home, our current situation has become tiresome and a bit boring. I’ve narrowed my discontent to two possibilities and found three possible solutions.

  1. We’re over Vietnam. We need to move on- we need to get to mountains, to someplace rural, to somewhere different, to China, to anywhere but here.
  2. We’re burnt out on traveling. We need to take a break.
  3. We’re burnt out on traveling. Its time to end the trip.

I needn’t worry too much though, as I’ll soon discover the answer to my questions. We’re going to get out of Vietnam as soon as possible. If that doesn’t help, we’re going home for a visit this summer. If we get back to Asia and feel the same way as now, then we’ll know its time to go home (or at least start working in Asia).