Back in Hanoi

Hey Mom and Dad!

Pooja and I got in to Hanoi via the overnight train about 2hrs ago. Right now we’re sitting in the lobby of the hostel waiting for our room to open up so we can take showers and put on some clean clothes. We spent the last two days (one night) near the mountain town of Sapa, where we were trekking with a local guide. Her name is Kuli, and she was recommended by Max. We took the overnight train out to the town of Lao Cai, then a bus to Sapa where Kuli met us to begin our trek. After paying her ($50 for the two of us for 2 days trekking, a homestay, and all our meals) we followed her to the market, where she bought food for lunch that day and dinner. Wandering through markets is always really interesting, everything crowded and dingy, and you can buy just about anything you could want to eat, as long as all you want to eat is meat, local veggies, coffee, tea, and noodles. And Oreos, those are everywhere. Oreos are vegan, so we eat them a lot. Pooja is vegan, so she’s been dragging me all over the place in each city to find vegetarian restaurants. I don’t mind because the food is usually excellent. The other day we had garlic -roasted eggplant, it’s making my tummy rumble just thinking about it. I’ve also now been up for two hours and haven’t eaten breakfast yet, which doesn’t help. Anyway,  back to Sapa.

After the market, we headed out of town towards Kuli’s house, where we ate lunch. We started on the paved road, which turned into a dirt road and a steep, rocky dirt path. Two other local women followed us, Kuli ‘s daughter -in -law (with her baby strapped on her back) and another woman from their village. There are something like 300 villages in the mountain valleys around Sapa, and most are their own tribe, with a unique language, way of dress and culture. The women are there to give you a hand when the way gets steep, slick, and muddy, which is often. After about 2 hours we arrived at Kuli ‘s house, where she lives with her husband, son, his wife, and their two children aged 6mo and 2yrs. Kuli is 38, and a grandmother. She cooked us lunch herself, tofu in tomato sauce, noodles, rice, cabbage. It was delicious.

Everyone in the villages farms rice, and while we were waiting for lunch we watched Kuli ‘s husband and son bag rice in 50kg bags, which they would then transport into town by motorbike. Pooja told me how they separate the chaff and impurities from the rice by holding it up to a fan. The good rice falls to the ground, while the waste parts blow farther and are swept up separately. This is something you learn in primary school in India she said. I remember vaguely learning how the Native Americans planted corn and beans I’m mounds, but we never learned any farming methods at Sharon Elementary. I feel my US public schooling has left we woefully unprepared for the world sometimes.

After lunch we continued trekking a few more hours to a different village where we spent the night in the home of another family. They are set up to accommodate trekkers, and have maybe 15 beds, a hot water shower, and a western flushing toilet (that was actually clean. I’ve learned that squatting over a hole in the ground is much preferable to having to hover over a questionable seat, which describes maybe 25% of the toilets here. The other 75% are completely disgusting) . We met two other trekkers, very friendly girls from England, and their guide there and had a very pleasant evening with them and the family. Dinner was another feast, prepaired by Kuli and the other guide. We ate beef and onion, chicken and some green plant, tofu, rice, vegetable spring rolls, and fried bamboo. I can now see why panda bears are so enamored of the stuff- it’s scrumptious. After dinner the guides (both women, as most of the local guides are) broke out the “happy water “– rice wine, which is a strong, clear alcoholic liquid I’m fairly certain could strip paint. Tastes awful, though luckily you take it in shots so it goes quick. Unless you’re me and cant do shots, so it takes you three sips to get it all down. I had to eat a few more of the fried bamboo shoots to wash the taste out of my mouth.
We slept on mattresses on the floor upstairs in a loft, under heavy comforters and mosquito netting. Mine, as usual, had a hole in it. Not quite as large as the holes in my net in Ecuador (which I could climb through, which makes me question the effectiveness of said net. But I think the bats that flew through the cabin and pooped on my bed each night kept most mosquitoes away.) It was a cool night, so there were minimal insects and the heavy blankets were welcome. It was very peaceful, to lay in the dark under a warm blanket and listen to the sounds of the river flowing nearby, and the occasional creak of the wooden walls or floor. I fell asleep in about five minutes.

The next day, after a breakfast of crepe -thin pancakes with bananas and honey, we continued our trekking. We only went about two hours, but the going was much rougher. It was substantially muddier (as in both Pooja and I were covered, while the locals somehow managed to stay relatively clean) . It was also steep, and steep muddy mountains are not easy to navigate. Doesn’t help that most of the rock is white marble (extra slippery when wet) and that the dirt is clay (extra slippery when wet, and likes to adhere to everything) . I was very proud of the fact that I only fell on my behind once, and it was only awkward because the guide who was holding my hand helped me to brush off my butt after. I tried not to pull on the guides too much, because I am a good head taller than all of them, and while they are stronger than they look I definitely would have taken them down with me in an inglorious muddy heap. After much slipping and sliding we did eventually make it to the waterfall, where we washed off our shoes and legs in the cold clear water and sat and enjoyed the view for a long time. I cant wait to show you pictures, the country around Sapa is breathtaking. I wish the paths had been easier so I could have looked around more while walking, but we did stop enough to get pictures.

We were not able to go too far, as we were on a short trek, but you don’t have to be very far from the central square in Sapa to be overwhelmed by the views. Everywhere around are mountains, impossibly steep-looking and a vibrant, verdant green. Houses are scattered along the mountainsides, strung out along muddy meandering roads and paths. Terraced rice paddies are in sections all over the place, like someone took a giant broken plastic comb and dragged it along the mountains. The terraces make the view look orderly from a distance, because the jungle that is the rest of the foliage is blurred into a solid green mass, all you see are the straight lines of rice, curving with the mountain contours.

Max spent two weeks here, and I can see why he was reluctant to leave. It’s a beautiful place, a much-needed breath of fresh air after all the cities we’ve been to. I like to visit cities, but I need my wide-open wild spaces to feel right again. Pooja is a city girl born and bred, so she’s taken charge from the get-go, showing me how to ride buses and trains, how to bargain and how to get hotel rooms. While I do want to learn how to do those things, I don’t really want to have to do them all the time. I’m a slow person- I eat slow, I walk slow, I like to look around. I like to be able to walk around and not have to worry about getting run over from eight different directions at once (they drive like Pirates of the Caribbean here: the driving laws aren’t really laws, they’re more like guidelines. It’s perfectly acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the street or on the sidewalk as long as you beep.)

I felt so much more at peace in Sapa than I have anywhere else in Vietnam. This is a lovely country, I’m just not used to being around more than 10 people or so in a day. Hanoi is definitely not McBee SC. However, there are a great deal more birds to see in South Carolina. I’ve only seen about three different species here in Vietnam, where most birds seem to be either caged or chickens. A friend of Max’s said she has colleagues who study birds down in Ho Chi Minh City, so I may make Max take me down there when we come back to Vietnam to collect his things.

Pooja and I head to Halong Bay tomorrow for an overnight stay on a boat in the bay, and then back here to Hanoi to do laundry and shower before parting ways. She heads home to India, and I fly to Singapore to meet up with Max, our mutual friend Joby, and Max’s friend Mallory. The plan is for the four of us to make our way to Nepal for some trekking. I’ll keep you posted.

Tell everyone at home I say hello!
Love, Lauren

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