Far Northwest and Back to Hanoi, May 20-25
spent five days visiting mountainous far northwest Vietnam. Our primary
base of operations was the town of Sapa, very popular with Vietnamese and foreign tourists
alike. At an altitude of 5400 feet, Sapa actually got a bit chilly in the evenings, the first time
we've felt even remotely cold during our Southeast Asia travels (with
the possible exception of a windy night or two during an ocean crossing). Even
in the low season, weekends can be very busy in Sapa, so we planned our
visit to avoid the weekend altogether: we arrived on Tuesday, and when
Friday hit we moved to the town of Bac Ha, about three hours away. The
Bac Ha area is known for its authentic weekend markets drawing
hill-tribe villagers from miles around. We timed our travels around the
Saturday Can Cau market, another excellent recommendation from
our friend Mor Naaman.
We traveled to and from the mountains by overnight train. Our four-bunk cabins were clean and comfortable (photo 1), perfect for our family. In theory, taking an overnight train is very efficient -- no valuable days are wasted getting from one place to another, and it saves the cost of a hotel night to boot. In reality, a night's "sleep" on a bumpy 8-hour train ride (especially given how excited the kids were when we first boarded for our trip up), with a 5:00am arrival, doesn't exactly leave one fresh for a full day of sightseeing or hiking. Still, we made good use of the extra time, and the overnight trains were novel and fun.
In Sapa, our accommodation set a new record for best value. We had $9/night rooms on the top floor of a decent hotel with a large balcony and killer view (photo 2): the town square buzzing with all kinds of activity five stories below; the valley and mountains beyond.
Our primary activity in Sapa was hiking. We haven't been hiking much during this part of our year off, so it was great to stretch our legs with an afternoon jaunt and two all-day hikes. The longer hikes wandered in, above, and across some of the major valleys surrounding Sapa. Most people hike with a guide, but we went without, not because we're stingy but to give ourselves more freedom and flexibility. We did get lost now and again -- eventually a villager or tourist hiker (with guide) would come along and point us in the right direction. The scenery had three main elements: towering green mountains (when not obscured by clouds or mist), endless contouring rice paddies that are surprisingly aesthetic (photos 3 & 4), and small hill-tribe villages with the villagers often in traditional dress. The two primary hill-tribes in the Sapa area are known as the Black Hmong (photo 5) and the Red Dzao (photo 6).
The town of Bac Ha is far less touristy than Sapa, although it does get crowds for its Sunday market. We opted instead for the Saturday Can Cau market, about 20 kilometers away and considerably less visited. The market draws buyers and sellers, primarily hill-tribe villagers, from the entire region including nearby China. There are separate sections in the market for produce, household goods, clothing, tobacco (photo 7), rice wine, livestock (water buffalo predominating; photo 8), pet birds, haircuts, and so on. From a tourist point of view, the spectacle of color is reason enough to visit this market. The majority of villagers are from the Flower Hmong ethnic group, with stunningly colorful traditional dress (photos 9 & 10). The entire scene is a photographer's dream.
After the mountains we had one more day in Hanoi, so we knocked off some of the tourist must-do's we'd neglected during our earlier day in the city. We braved the remarkable crowds to visit Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum (photo 11). Actually, the crowds -- nearly all Vietnamese -- turned out to be at least as interesting as the monument and the deceased himself (no photos allowed, sorry). We checked out some urban markets, offering plenty of typically Asian sights and smells, and we tracked down a couple of handicraft items the kids wanted to purchase with their dwindling allowance. We also attended a performance of the famous Thang Long water puppets. We'd heard mixed reviews of the water puppets (ranging from "unmissable" to "screeching music and a dirty puddle") but the show was only 45 minutes long so we took the risk. It turned out to be just right for appreciating the puppetry and then catching a quick afternoon (after-overnight-train) snooze.
On some random topics:
Bargaining is standard practice throughout Southeast Asia. It's absolutely necessary if one wants to get a fair price on things like tourist trinkets and taxi rides, and it's occasionally possible (though sometimes hard to know when) for basics like hotel rooms and bottled water. There's a significant time investment to bargaining effectively, so one does have to weigh that against the ultimate savings. Frankly, after 3½ months we're a bit tired of the whole song and dance, though we do still glean satisfaction when we think we did especially well.
We've found that the most effective bargaining tactics vary from country to country. (Naturally, we tend to get a country figured out shortly before we leave it.) In Vietnam, for example, after deciding what one wants to pay -- usually somewhere between ¼ and ½ of the seller's starting price -- it's best to make one offer just below the desired price, wait for a counter-offer or two, raise up to the desired price, then hold firm. After a respectable amount of time listening to the seller's arguments, back away muttering "I'll look around" and bingo, 95% of the time the offer is taken. (The remaining 5% of the time, the desired price was probably too low.)
As we've been progressing northeast from Thailand and moving closer to China, we've been finding the food to be less and less interesting. (Jennifer has long believed that every Southeast Asian country's cuisine is a combination of the cuisines of its neighbors.) Some Vietnamese food is truly superb, but some things we've ordered have turned out to be downright bland. Perhaps we're not ordering the right items, perhaps restaurants tone the food down for tourists, or perhaps we blew out our palettes with those many weeks of super-spicy Thai food.
Fortunately, over time we've been homing in on some favorite items, and don't get us wrong -- Vietnamese food is still far better than anything we had on a regular basis in Europe (excluding Greece) or South America (the culinary bottom of the barrel during our travels, although our upcoming month on the John Muir Trail doesn't hold a lot of promise either). We've just gotten spoiled over the last few months.
We've run into a large number of Australian tourists, and just quite a few tourists in general considering it's the low season. We're told that Vietnam is currently the place for Australians to travel in Asia, thanks to low plane fares and general vogue; Americans and Europeans can't be far behind. The superb bargains and authentic experiences we've been having may not be long for this world. For example, we've been seeing dramatic discrepancies in pricing for exactly the same thing (not just bargainable items but fixed-price ones as well), a sure indicator that the Vietnamese are becoming clued in on how to charge tourists, but equilibrium hasn't yet been reached.
Next: We'll fly from Hanoi to Vietnam's central coast, where we'll split our remaining time among the historic citadel city of Hué, the artsy city of Hoi An, and the surrounding countryside.