Cat Ba Island (mostly)

The next morning, we took a very efficiently run bus-bus-boat-bus trip to Cat Ba island in Ha Long Bay with the Hoang Long bus company. We bought some horrid greasy doughnuts for the journey and when we found we couldn’t stomach them, tried to satisfy our hunger by having a gwadzerr (sunflower seed) eating competition. You should try it. You count out an agreed number of seeds, then race each other to de-shell and eat them as quickly as possible. It is quite stressful, possibly not a sport for those with a weak heart. I don’t like to brag, but in case you were wondering, I won.

On the subject of games invented whilst travelling, I will here take the time to introduce the ‘onny offy’ game. This game is best played in a subway carriage, and would be perfectly suited to anyone bored by their London commute on the tube. You could play it alone, but a sense of competition heightens the excitement. Select a door on which to focus your attention. At a point between stations, you must either say or hold up fingers to indicate how many people you think will board and how many will exit at the next station. For instance, 2,1 would stake your bet as two people boarding and one getting off at your chosen door. Any participants must stake their bets on the same door, which should not be altered for the duration of the journey. The same bet cannot be placed twice in the same round, although one of the numbers is allowed to be the same. All bets must be placed prior to the announcement of the next station. If someone places a bet you were planning to place, you must alter your bet, as the earlier bet takes precedent. As you can see, there are pros and cons to staking your claim early and also by delaying until the last second, when rustling of passengers may give more clue as to their point of disembarkation. When you know a city and its stations well, it becomes all the more interesting and you may find yourself judging people by appearances. On arrival at the station, you count the number of people getting on and getting off. If you get it exactly right, you have a ‘turn up’ and score zero points. The person with the lowest score is the leader. If you stake a claim on 2,1 and the actual number is 3,1, your score would be 1 point, as your prediction deviates by 1 person from the actual number. If the actual number is 4,4, you would score 5 (4-2 plus 4-1). As you can see, the game also helps to hone your mental arithmetic. I do hope that in sharing this thrilling pastime, I can alleviate some of the drudgery of underground train travel.

Ha Long Bay is a stunningly beautiful stretch of coastline in the north of Vietnam, notable for its fascinating karst scenery, where craggy, forested islands jut out of the water and picturesque junk ships ferry visitors around the bay. We did not visit Ha Long itself, having forgone the classic but touristy vistas for the more laidback atmosphere of one of the larger islands. Ha Long Bay is a World Heritage site, and the Cat Ba island archipelago is a Biosphere Reserve, home to numerous endemic and rare species. As our final bus wove its way along the bumpy track that led to the main town of Cat Ba, we passed steep slopes of thick jungle, small clusters of houses peeping out of the greenery and close to the coast, farmers tending fields of bushy plants in knee-deep water, which we later learnt to be mangrove fish nurseries.

Our hotel room, a real bargain at £4.50 a night, commanded wonderful views of the harbour, where colourful little fishing boats manned by fishermen in conical hats bobbed in the water. Behind the boats, limestone outcrops carpeted in lush vegetation reared chaotically out of the sea. Eager to explore the reserve, we went in search of Asia Outdoors, a company that organises treks, climbing and kayaking trips. We signed up for two days’ worth of adventuring: one 6 hour trek and a full day of kayaking.

Not having a plan for the rest of the day, Luke somehow managed to persuade me onto a motorbike. There was very little traffic on the island, the weather was good and the man we hired from had new, automatic bikes and spoke good English. Neither of us had ridden a motorbike before and so he gave Luke a quick lesson. After a short ride around the block to get petrol, Luke was feeling confident enough to take me as a passenger. First of all, we took an uneventful ride to a small beach, where we had a quick dip in the sea, and then Luke drove us on a partial loop around the island. The coastal sections were especially beautiful and the roads were nice and quiet, which was good for my sense of self-preservation! I have to say I was very impressed with Luke’s biking skills, but loathe to try it myself – I just don’t trust myself, particularly on winding, hilly roads! We arrived back at the bike hire place just as it was getting dark. Having spent half a day on bikes we felt a little stiff, but the shop had thought of everything, and we were immediately offered shoulder and foot massages for an additional fee, which we gratefully accepted! It is quite rare for businesses here to specialise in just one thing – the more you can offer, the more customers you are likely to attract, so massage parlours, hairdressers and guesthouses often go hand in hand.

The next morning we woke later than planned, and had to rush to get ourselves ready for the kayaking trip. After a hurried breakfast at the café where Asia Outdoors had their home, we piled into a minivan alongside our companions for the day and were driven a short distance to another harbour, where we boarded a small wooden ferry. The cruise through the bay was spectacular; the karsts were swathed in morning mist and we passed settlements of boat people, whose homes consisted of wooden vessels painted in sky blue and minty green, linked by pathways of floating planks. The washing lines hung with clothes added a colourful splash of decoration and the dogs that guarded each home trotted along the planks watching us intently as we motored past, ready to bark and snarl if we were to come too close. It must be a strange life for a dog to be perched on small floating island like this. Four of our party were picked up by another boat to go climbing, leaving just us and an American called David, for the morning kayak trip.

Our guide for the day was a lovely young English man called Matty. He very much looked the part of the outdoor pursuits instructor, with his dreads and that particular kind of sunglow that comes from spending a long time out on the water. It always seems to me that those in this line of work are particularly lovely people, and Matty was no exception. We clambered into our bright yellow, double kayaks – I in front and Luke behind taking on the responsibility of steering. Matty led us around the karsts, into sheltered bays with quiet lagoons. As we entered them, we all felt the necessity of being silent, the only sound being the gentle splash of paddles and the whirr of insects in the trees. In one we were lucky enough to spot a Cat Ba langur, one of the rarest primates in the world. It was very far away, but it was still a very special moment! There are only 65 left and they are only found on Cat Ba. Apparently they can drink sea water, so their kidneys must be rather impressive! We paddled on, stopping a couple of times to explore secluded coves; one where there was a cave and another where there was a small wooden temple on the beach for the boat people. Every now and then we would see a black kite swooping majestically through the blues skies above.

We returned to the main boat and waited for the climbers to return to join us for lunch. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, we filled the time by leaping off the boat into the sea for a pre-lunch swim. We were pretty shivery afterwards, but lunch made up for it! It was a fabulous spread and no doubt tasted all the better for the fresh air and exercise. Two of the climbers, a Danish couple, left us after the meal, but the Swiss couple stayed to kayak with us in the afternoon. We were relishing the peace and quiet and enjoying the gorgeous scenery, when we were rudely interrupted by a booze cruise party boat from Hanoi Backpackers, with loud music pumping away and scantily clad drunken young tourists gyrating on the decks. We managed to lose them and entered a final lagoon via a low tunnel. Matty told us it was good for swimming, and game as always where swimming is involved, Luke and I decided to take the plunge. Stupidly, we had changed out of our wet swimming things, so we had to contort and wriggle our way back into them whilst sat in the kayak. No one else swam, so we felt all the more conspicuous as everyone waited for us to perform this feat! We succeeded in changing, swimming and getting back into the kayak without capsizing, although I cannot say it was very glamorously done and I think the other kayakers probably had a rather unflattering view of my behind as I launched myself back on board! We paddled back to the ferry and as we were changing, the awful party boat went blaring past again. A half-naked man was stood on the roof thrusting his pelvis at us and whooping. I don’t really understand the mentality of going to a beautiful, peaceful place and ruining the atmosphere with pumping house music. It’s not so bad if it’s in a building as people can avoid that building, but to drive around and foist your music on other people at deafening volumes is inconsiderate. As Matty pointed out, the boat people have this every day – it must drive them mad! He told us that the tourists on the boat have paid for three days on a small island. It sounded like hell to me – trapped on a scrap of land where the main form of entertainment consists of drinking games. Matty said they sometimes have groups from the island – they are either drunk (and so not allowed to do the activities), hungover or simply desperate to escape!

As we motored back towards the harbour, the rosy glow of the late afternoon sun dappled the water with peachy reflections and the karsts, now dressed in varying shades of blue and purple, seemed to be easing themselves in for an evening dip. It was gloriously beautiful, still and calm; a perfect end to the day.

Back at the headquarters, we thanked Matty and gave him Luke’s body warmer. He was very pleased as he had come to Vietnam with no warm clothes and outdoor pursuits instructors don’t get paid very much! Luke was very pleased as his bag would be lighter. We were well aware that we were heading to warmer climates and were carrying an awful lot of clothing we wouldn’t need – I was carrying crampons for walking on ice for goodness sake! I couldn’t bear to throw them away though as it seemed like such a waste, so I decided to shoulder the weight until such a time as we found a willing recipient or got around to posting them home.

We had dinner with the other kayakers later that evening. David didn’t stay long, but we had a lovely chat with Christophe and Marika, the Swiss couple, and got to speak some French, which was fun. They were halfway through an 8 month trip and told us about their favourite places in South America – they said Bolivia was incredible. They had also been to the Galapagos Islands, a place that I would love to visit, but is notoriously expensive. They said it is worth it though and their stories of swimming with sea lions made us feel like it was a must do! Now we just need to figure out how to make it happen…

The next day was trekking day! Now that our arms had had a thorough workout, it was time for our legs. We were picked up by taxi and joined by two other trekkers, a German man, Marcel, and a Taiwanese girl, Erin, who were good friends. We were driven down winding country roads before stopping outside a house with a bamboo veranda, surrounded by plants. Our guide, Tuwon, came out with a big smile to welcome us. He has been running treks from his family home for several years, so knows the area really well.

A man was ploughing part of the field behind the house with a buffalo. Tuwon led us across the meadow and up a steep slope along a goat trail through the jungle. The karst landscape really made itself known, as the path we took was riddled with limestone escarpments, and for much of the trek we were clambering up jagged rock faces or picking our way carefully over a latticework of sharp spikes and deep holes. Physically it wasn’t particularly demanding – climbing is pretty easy with so many handholds – but mentally it was exhausting. If you were to let your attention slip, you could injure yourself very nastily on those rocks! As if to illustrate this, Tuwon showed us a place where he had fallen when a rock gave way; he gashed his wrist and knee and couldn’t work for eight months! Luckily the worst we got were a few scrapes and bruises and we all thoroughly enjoyed scrambling through the rugged terrain. As we moved amongst the rocks, we were reminded of their origins by the occasional fossil shell, and I was very excited to see petrified wood as evidence of ancient trees. Most of the time we were moving through thick jungle and the trees and vines were quite close around us, but now and again we would emerge onto an outcrop with views of the canopy below us. Many of the trees were embraced by lianas, some of which were long and thick enough to swing from like Tarzan! One banyan tree had numerous prop roots extending from it, which formed a bizarre cage-like structure at its base. It looked like something out of a folk tale, and I could imagine an angry tree spirit imprisoning a hapless human there.

After 4.5 hours of hiking, breakfast felt a very long time ago and I began to feel shaky and low on energy. We had thought lunch would be midway and hadn’t brought any snacks with us. I was a bit worried I might stumble and lose my footing if I didn’t eat soon and impale myself like Tuwon had! Luckily, Marcel had a spare chocolate bar and that gave me a much needed energy boost.

We tramped back over the field to Tuwon’s house a couple of hours later and were greeted by a chorus of frogs, and more importantly, dinner. Tuwon’s mother certainly knew how to reward exhausted hikers! There were several delectable dishes and her spring rolls were deliciously crispy. It goes without saying that we polished everything off! Matty had told us about Tuwon’s homemade honey rice wine and I asked if I could try it, thinking I might buy some. It was pretty potent though and not something I felt I could stomach!

The next day was supposed to be our last on the island, so in the morning we dutifully packed our things in readiness for check out. Heading downstairs, we were unable to find a member of staff, so decided to have breakfast in ‘The Like Café’ next door whilst we waited for them to return. The café was a relatively new establishment, owned by a young couple. They had an extensive list of coffees and smoothies on offer and in the evenings were always buzzing with local Vietnamese. I chose an egg coffee with my breakfast, which the owner assured me was very special. It was sweet, but tasty, with a whipped egg white mousse on top of very hot black coffee. Luke got out his sketchbook as usual and set about drawing a motorbike. The café owner spotted him and got very excited about Luke’s artwork. He asked if we would paint the front of their café for Tet. That wasn’t an offer we felt we could refuse, so we decided to stay one more day!

We spent a peaceful day happily painting the outside of the café with the traditional seasonal blossoms in yellow and pink and the new year greeting ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi 2015’, with ‘Happy New Year 2015’ in English on the other side for the tourists. The local Vietnamese found our employment as artists rather entertaining, but they seemed to approve of our artwork! The café gave us free meals and lent us bicycles to go up to Cannon Fort to see the sunset.

I hadn’t cycled far before I had to get off and push as the road to the fort was so steep! The bunkers there were built during the French occupation but the location was also used during the American war. There were a couple of large cannons manned by model soldiers and some marvellous views across the bay. We bought a beer just before the shop closed and wandered around the fortifications. The sunset was rather underwhelming due to the cloudiness, but the seclusion made up for it. We mounted our bikes just as it was getting dark, but not before I had tripped over mine and bashed my legs on the pedals – more bruises to add to my collection!

On returning to the café, we made a few finishing touches to the paintwork. I then discovered that I had got some of the myriad Vietnamese accents wrong, so the following day I corrected my errors with help of Google translate and supportive thumbs up from watching customers. The owners invited us to have lunch with them before we left the island, and we were treated to fish eggs, steamed fish and shellfish – it was a test for me, not being fond of seafood, but one I feel I passed! After breakfast I had gone to try and buy sleeper bus tickets to take us from the mainland to the city of Hue (pronounced Hway). I was told by the travel agent there were only two left and after getting money, I planned to return and buy them, as I was worried the bus would fill up quickly due to Tet. However, over dinner, the café owner assured us we needn’t buy the tickets beforehand as there would be plenty left. He told us the cheapest route to take and kindly arranged for a bus to collect us and take us to the port. I still felt we ought to buy the tickets on the island and pay the commission, but Luke and the owner were convinced it wasn’t necessary and would be a waste of money, so I reluctantly conceded.

An hour later, the bus arrived and we were driven to the port on the other side of the island. The small passenger ferry that awaited us was rickety looking to say the least. We were among the last to board and found the cabin seating area full, so sat on plastic stools on the deck with around ten other people and piles of luggage. I thought this was bad enough, but then they began to load the motorbikes. There must have been at least fifteen of them. Every inch of space on the battered boat seemed to be occupied by something very heavy. We set off with a sinking feeling (quite literally), and spent the journey mentally plotting our escape route. I noted that the lifejackets were helpfully tied up on a shelf. However, the journey was short and we were never that far from land, so I figured we could swim if it came to it! As the ferry hauled itself into harbour forty minutes later, we heaved a sigh of relief. We then boarded a second bus to the town of Haiphong from where we were to make our connection to Hue. The short walk through Haiphong we had been promised was rather longer when carrying big backpacks. We walked along the riverside, which you would expect would be nice, but the banks were full of junk. Luke suggested playing a game where you had to think of something that couldn’t be found on the banks of the river, and it was rather depressing to think that this was a viable option. The people there were really friendly and welcoming though. It is a pity that they are forced to live surrounded by their own rubbish like this – Ha Long Bay surely must have more rubbish production than here due to all the tourists, but because of the tourists and its World Heritage status it is kept pristine. A little further along the coast and it is a different matter entirely.

We arrived at the bus station feeling somewhat drained, and then, to cap it all, guess what? There were no tickets left on any of the buses that night! We were magnanimously told that we could pay the same price and sleep in the aisle. There would be no discounts for the inconvenience. I felt that flash of anger and self-righteousness that comes with a true ‘I told you so’ moment. We were desperate to move on before New Year, and so we grudgingly had to pay the money for the privilege of sleeping in the passageway. I couldn’t stay cross for long though as Luke was so mortified, and after he had ensured I was well fed (because a full stomach always alters your perspective), we quietly resigned ourselves to an uncomfortable night and decided to try and make the best of it!

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Last day in Hanoi

Evidently having felt the side effects of our early start the day before, we woke to find the morning was slipping away from us. We had planned to meet Bruce and Ash at the Ho Chi Minh museum, but owing to a mutual lack of organisation, we did not succeed in meeting them there. The museum was quite a peculiar place. Given the title, I had been hoping to discover more about Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s legendary leader from 1945 to 1965. However, instead I found the entire set up somewhat frustrating. Perhaps we were missing a trick, or perhaps we should have had the foresight to organise a tour and then our visit may have shed some light on this fascinating man. The information in the first room was very poorly presented, with tiny writing on framed A4 sheets. For someone wishing to browse, it was not particularly attractive – you would do better to sit at home and read a book. The main part of the museum at first glance appeared rather impressive, being situated in a huge room, with a path which swept around the exhibits. However, the numerous promising flip charts scattered about merely displayed copies of letters (in French or Vietnamese) and photographs with no context, translation or explanation, other than to say who the letter was from and to and who was in the photograph. The exhibits consisted of a series of venerated artefacts once in the possession of the great man – his spectacles, his writing desk, his pencil case and even a stone which he had used to remove leeches. In the midst of this, we were confronted by baffling works of modern art imbued with a deep symbolism which I was unable to appreciate. One exhibit, an enormous, towering white table bedecked with a bowl of larger than life fake fruit and a pile of coal lurking in the corner, was representative of Vietnamese youth. The most enjoyable part of the trip was having a four year old Vietnamese boy foisted on me so his father could take a photograph. So, I concluded, Ho Chi Minh was a man who wrote a lot of letters (at a writing desk), appeared in countless photographs, wore glasses and occasionally had a problem with leeches. In essence, the museum (and I suspect this may also apply to the many other Ho Chi Minh museums in Vietnam) was really an edifice constructed to honour his memory; more a place of worship than a place to learn about his life and his struggles. Like a god, he moved in mysterious ways.

So who was Ho Chi Minh and why all the adulation? A promising young scholar, Ho Chi Minh (or Nguyen Tat Thanh as he was then known), decided to leave his home country in 1911 to travel the world working on ships. At this time Vietnam formed part of the French colony of ‘Indochine’, which was under French governance from 1887 until around 1945. During his travels, he visited and stayed in the UK, the USA, France, the Soviet Union and China, and as he travelled his political consciousness was awakened. In France, he became a member of the Socialist Party, and petitioned for an end to colonialism and Vietnamese independence. In Moscow, he studied at a Communist university before moving to the Canton region of China, where he gave socialist lectures to young revolutionary Vietnamese who were living there. By this time, he had another name, Nguyen Ai Quoc, which later on was to change once more to Ho Chi Minh. From 1923-1941, Ho Chi Minh oscillated between the Soviet Union and China, with sojourns in Europe, Thailand and India. Sometimes he moved due to exile; at other times of his own volition. However, in 1941, he finally returned to the country of his birth, in order to lead the Viet Minh campaign for independence. During World War II, following the crumbling of the French colonies under pressures of war, Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese, whilst still ostensibly under (Vichy) French rule. After the eventual defeat of the Japanese in WWII, the Japanese withdrew from Vietnam as the Viet Minh influence grew stronger. The Vietnamese Emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated in 1945, relinquishing control of the country to the Viet Minh. However, the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam was not recognised by the international community.

The French refused to acknowledge the declaration of independence, and Vietnam was plunged into several more years of fighting, both with the French themselves and between Communist and non-Communist Vietnamese. Echoing the situation in Korea, the result of the 1954 Geneva Accords was that Vietnam was split in two, with Communist rule (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) taking hold in the north and anti-communist factions controlling the south. During the assertion of Communist power in the north, many civilians were killed, sent to labour camps or imprisoned because their political beliefs did not harmonise with the Viet Minh vision for the future of the country. In his later years, Ho Chi Minh no longer ruled North Vietnam, but his role as a figurehead for the revolution was reinforced. The split was not set to last for long, and eventually the Vietnam War, that infamous bloody conflict, resulted in a unified Communist Vietnam. Communist sympathisers from the south (the Viet Cong) and the Northern Vietnam army (The People’s Army of Vietnam) defeated the anti- Communist southern Vietnam and the US army. Ho Chi Minh did not live to see this reunification, but the southern stronghold of the South Vietnamese army, Saigon, was renamed to honour his memory. This was no doubt a bitter pill to swallow for many Southern Vietnamese.

‘Uncle Ho’s’ image is one of an irreproachable saint-like ambassador of the people. Kind to children, understanding of the poor; a wise and humble leader who liberated the people from years of foreign rule. Undoubtedly, he was a remarkable man, like many zealous politicians driven by an unshakeable belief in his doctrines. He was imprisoned, exiled and went through numerous hardships to pursue his goal. Vietnam today is a unified, independent country and that is a wonderful thing. The same cannot be said for the Korean peninsula. I cannot pass comment on what the merits of one political system over another might have been; any attempt on my part to envisage a Vietnam where the south had won the war would be mere conjecture and comparisons cannot be drawn. However, no political leader I know of, no human being, is flawless. Political upheaval on this scale inevitably leads to bloodshed on both sides. The pursuit of ‘utopia’ entails sacrifices; it engenders suspicion and paranoia. It follows that a revolution never comes about at the will of one man. Skirmishes and petty rivalries of civilians provide the background against which battles are fought, and the great cause provides the justification for atrocities. This is true for both sides in a conflict; no one side is innocent, and each seeks to validate their actions or else resign themselves to defeat. Our own so called humanity is sacrificed at the altar of some higher goal. The legacy of Ho Chi Minh is apparently one of unity, harmony and peace, but dig a little deeper and you see the trail that led to this point. There can be no saints in politics.

We had a delicious lunch in KOTO, a charity restaurant which provides training opportunities for disadvantaged youths, then headed into the Temple of Literature that lay opposite. It was serenely calm inside the temple walls, with its beautiful courtyards and gorgeous, time-worn architecture. This Confucian temple housed the Imperial Academy. From 1076 until 1779 students were educated here and it is widely heralded as Vietnam’s first university. As a testament to this, one courtyard was lined with stele (stone plaques) commemorating high achievers of the past. There were some incredible and ancient trees in the gardens whose twisting roots seemed to creep down to the earth from the branches, quite unlike anything I had seen before. Upon research, I believe they are banyan trees; whatever they are, I found them extraordinary.

Our visit coincided with high school graduation and the courtyards were full of students celebrating their academic achievements. Looking around at the happy, smiling faces, you could imagine rewinding the clock a few centuries to envisage graduates of the Imperial Academy feeling the same elation on this very same site. However, many of the students here today were girls. They were dressed traditionally in white silken trousers and elegant, high-necked, long-sleeved fitted tunics that were slit at the sides up to the waist level. The cut is extremely flattering and it has to be said that the Vietnamese are graced with beautiful figures. I talked with some of the girls, who were, needless to say, very excited!

In one corner, I spotted a young man painting. I pointed out Luke to him as a fellow artist, and later found them chatting away. He was a trainee in architecture. The temple itself was framed by chunky, bright red wooden pillars with gold accents. I was struck by the contrast of a man in a blue coat sitting on the steps, and sensing it would be weird of me to take a photo of him but feeling seized by some kind of altruistic artistic urge, I told him that he should let me photograph him with his camera. However, I am no Guillermo Ibañez, and I rather feel that my picture fell short of my lofty aspirations. Feeling a little embarrassed, I scuttled off to inspect a pair of identical statues that flanked an altar. A tall crane with a round object in its beak was perched upon the back of a large tortoise. We have encountered this type of statue several times since, and I believe it symbolises good luck and longevity.

Close to our hotel I came across a shop that sold second-hand village handicrafts. The owner was lovely and her little daughter took great pleasure toddling about and pulling out all the skirts in a big heap for me to peruse. I had wanted an embroidered skirt since visiting Sapa, but had not found one in my size at the street side stalls there, so now with the help of the toddler I picked out a colourful Flower H’mong skirt that fitted me. The lady confirmed our suspicions that we had visited Hanoi at the busiest time of year; just before Tet (Vietnamese New Year), everyone is rushing around buying goods and gifts and having repairs done. When Tet finally arrives, the city empties as people return to their village homes to spend the holiday with family.

That evening, we finally managed to make contact with Bruce and Ash and arranged to meet them at a barbecue café at the end of the night market. Unfortunately, events and senses of direction conspired against us and we spent a good hour waiting in the wrong place. Once we realised our error, feeling hungry and frustrated with each other, we battled our way back through the throngs of people who now seemed like they were intent on getting in our way. Perhaps this is how salmon feel when they are trying to reach their breeding site! However, as is wont to happen, all our mutual exasperation evaporated once we found ourselves in company and with a hearty meal before us.

When travelling for a long time, it is always especially lovely to meet people with whom you are acquainted. I had never met Bruce or Ash before, but Luke’s familiarity with them imparted a sense of home to me as well, which made our meeting all the more enjoyable. We were to head our separate ways the following day and whilst Hanoi had been hectic, the encounter with friends had left us refreshed and eager for the next stage of our journey.

To Hanoi!

After an hour’s journey along winding, misty roads, which left Luke feeling rather nauseous, we arrived back in the border town of Lao Cai. The town itself didn’t have much to offer, and we had 8 hours to kill before the departure of our sleeper train to Hanoi, so we decided to pay for a hotel room for a half day so we could nap, have Wi-Fi and just get away from the dingy streets for a bit.

The sleeper train was our best yet! Our compartment had all the old school charm of French colonial era furnishings, with wooden panels, comfy beds, lamps and to cap it all, a table with a lace cloth and a little vase of fake flowers. We slept really well, possibly because the train travelled at such a sedate pace, taking 8 hours to travel 180 miles! We arrived in Hanoi around 5am, and still quite groggy allowed ourselves to be hustled off the train and into a waiting cab. Rather suspiciously, the company name was absent, but the sign on top proudly proclaimed ‘metered taxi’. I watched the meter like a hawk, and as expected, it whirred through the numbers at an abnormally fast rate, so we stopped the cab by a lake in the town centre and walked the rest of the way. The streets were misleadingly quiet at that hour, and it was quite a pleasant walk to our hotel.

As our room was still occupied, we relaxed in the lobby for an hour, helping ourselves to the free tea. At 6.30am, we headed to the park once more and watched people doing Tai Chi and early morning stretches. Feeling stiff from our night on the train and our walk with our heavy rucksacks, we decided it was a very good idea and did some stretches of our own. On our way to find some breakfast, we spotted a shop called ‘Lucy’. Of course, I had to pose underneath it for a photo!

We stopped at a local café for a bowl of pho bo, Vietnam’s answer to the ubiquitous noodle soup we had encountered throughout our Asian travels. This consisted of slender white noodles in a tasty broth, a liberal sprinkling of spring onions and thin slices of beef. There was a bowl of marble-sized cut limes and ground chilli which you added according to taste. The owner and his son were really friendly and enjoyed teaching us a few Vietnamese phrases, including how to count from one to ten. Despite Vietnamese having six tones, we found our pronunciation attempts were more readily accepted and understood than when we had tried to speak Mandarin – but perhaps they were just being kind!

At 10am, our hotel room was ready, so we headed up to shower and made arrangements to meet Luke’s school friend, Bruce, and his travel pal, Ash. A little later we ventured out into the streets once more – and found quite a different story! The early morning tranquillity was long past, and now the streets were packed with scooters, which zoomed unexpectedly around corners, weaving and swerving out of each other’s way. Shops and street side stalls spilled out onto the pavements, so most of the time we had to walk in the road, cringing as the bikes whizzed past. It was much crazier than anything we had encountered in China and I had palpitations when it came to crossing the road. Nowhere have I felt the need for 360° vision so keenly! There were women walking the streets with baskets suspended from a bamboo pole that they wore over their shoulders. They were selling fruit and veg, fried doughnuts and vivid salad greens and had the traditional conical hats on their heads. The traffic that rushed by was equally laden – tuk tuks and motorbikes alike had improbable loads strapped precariously on the back. Where shops did not occupy the prized pavement space, cafés had set up rows of plastic tables and chairs where customers tucked into pho bo, or drank the local bia hoi (a home brew that is drunk the day it is made) and watched the whirlwind of Hanoi life as it seethed around them.

In the afternoon we went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry was invented in rice growing regions of northern Vietnam around 1000 years ago. Flooded rice paddies were used as the stage, and a pagoda was built to hide the puppeteers (who stood waist deep in water) from the audience. It is thought that the performances were staged to celebrate the harvest or to mark special occasions. We filed into the stalls amongst the tour groups and found our places near the front. The front of the large, watery stage was draped in red velvet, whilst the backdrop was a pagoda fringed with embroidered curtains. Below these, bamboo screens reached down to the water’s edge. To the left, an orchestra of traditional Vietnamese instruments was setting up. After a short introduction to explain a little about the art, the band struck up and the show began.

The combination of the music and the colourful, lacquered wooden puppets frisking about in the water was quite magical. The show consisted of a series of vignettes illustrating rural life, folk tales and legends. The puppets were incredibly clever. Operated by wooden poles and strings under the water, they appeared to glide on the surface and some could even move their limbs, in a charming, jerky fashion. We saw a little boy playing a flute on a water buffalo, a cat chasing a duck up a tree and fishermen pursuing beautiful silvery fish whose slick bodies gleamed in the lights and were jointed so well that they writhed and cut through the water like the real thing. There were gaudy, sinuous dragons that breathed crackly flames of sparklers and sent puffs of smoke out across the water and rows of farmers planting rice in the paddy. Many of the scenes had a silly, slapstick sort of humour that had me giggling like a child at a Punch and Judy show. In all this time, we did not spot the puppeteers once. The acts were tightly choreographed and some required quite some coordination – men trying to catch a slippery fish in a basket for example, so it was all the more impressive that the puppeteers were such a distance away behind a screen.

Whilst I was mesmerised by the antics of the water puppets, Luke had fallen asleep because it was warm and dark in the theatre. When I nudged him, he indignantly whispered, ‘What’s up? I’m watching it!’ – but I noticed his eyes were closed when he said this. He is rather adept at sleep talking. At the end of the show, the eight puppeteers emerged from behind the screen in their waders to take their bows. It was fun to see the hidden performers!

On leaving the theatre, we decided to do a guide book walking tour of the town, ending up at the hotel where we were to meet Bruce and Ash. It was hectic, but we survived! One street was completely given over to stalls selling trinkets for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. I like to call it Tat for Tet. Lanterns and plastic decorations with tassels and New Year messages were stacked at every stall, which glowed red and gold in the street lights. We each bought a dangly ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi’ (Happy New Year) charm for our rucksacks. Finding ourselves pressed for time, we had to rush through the jam-packed streets as fast as we could to reach Bruce’s hotel, getting a little lost in the process and with the traffic fumes stinging our throats. Eventually we arrived, some twenty minutes late, and I worried in case they were a tad Hanoid…

Bruce and Ash were both extremely tall, and whilst I had been starting to feel like a taller than average person myself after travelling through China and Vietnam, I now felt distinctly diminutive. We headed to a lively street lined with bars and restaurants and had our first burger and chips in a long time! It is nice to ring the changes from noodles and rice now and then! We had an enjoyable chat exchanging news and travel stories. They had come through the US, New Zealand and Australia and showed us some rather terrifying close up photos of a cage-diving trip with great white sharks. On wandering back through town and dodging the traffic, Ash told us he had seen a lot of tourists on crutches – it was easy to see why and we hoped it wasn’t going to be us! Now and then we would see a tourist zooming through the throngs on a hired motorbike; they were braver (or more stupid) than us!

Sapa

We traipsed through the streets in search of somewhere to stay, and were guided by our Lonely Planet to the bottom end of town where a guesthouse with a nice review was located. ‘Lovely and quiet round here,’ we thought. ‘And how strange that none of the lights are on!’ We tentatively opened the door to the guesthouse and were immediately welcomed by a smiley lady with a candle and two children shrieking as they took it in turns to slide down a mattress propped against a sofa. We had walked all the way through Sapa and chosen the only street that had had a power cut! We were led down to our pretty room by candlelight, and were pleased to discover we had a balcony from which we could admire the view. Just as we were about to go out in search of dinner, we heard the clatter thump of someone tumbling down the marble staircase, and rushed out of our room to find a young lady in a moaning heap outside our door. Stiletto heels, marble stairs and power cuts don’t go well together! We helped her up and she seemed okay but rather shaken. Her mother (the guesthouse owner) took her to the clinic for a check over and we continued on into town.

Sapa’s small town centre was lined with the welcoming lights of guesthouses, cafés and restaurants. Everywhere offered set meals, which were a bargain and great if you were feeling indecisive. The shops occupying the spaces between eateries fell into two main categories – outdoor clothing (with cut price hiking clothes and accessories) and hill tribe crafts.

After a lie in the following morning, we ambled into town for a late breakfast. It was still very misty and so we were unable to make out the surrounding mountains. H’mong women had come into Sapa from their mountain villages to sell their handicrafts – traditional headscarves, beautifully embroidered bags and skirts and copper bracelets. It was hard not to get drawn into a conversation no matter how resolute you were about not buying anything! In this part, most of the hill tribes are Black H’mong, but there were a few Red Dzao as well. The Flower H’mong, famous for their elaborate needlework and brightly coloured clothing, do not make it into Sapa. We were approached by a persistent and enterprising 18 year old Black H’mong girl, Lily, who after discovering we were not interested in buying anything, became intent on selling us a village tour and homestay. She was tiny and had the most beautiful smile, spoke very good English and her little notebook contained the most glowing reviews that we couldn’t say no, and arranged to meet her the next morning.

We ate breakfast at the charity café, Baguette and Chocolat, which had been set up to help disadvantaged youths. We had wonderful chocolatey rich Vietnamese coffee and listened to the staff practising classical guitar. Luke asked me to pull a face like a gremlin eating a sock so he could draw me. I obliged, using a napkin in place of the sock. I think it was rather convincing. After a time, I had to relax my face lest it should stay that way, and I wandered over to listen to the guitarist. He had a beautiful voice. When they brought out a bamboo flute, I played Scarborough Fair, which is the piece that so pleased the pig in Yuanyang. Thankfully they didn’t run away! The mist seemed like it was there to stay and so we spent the rest of the day catching up on our own little projects.

We had a somewhat confusing breakfast in our guesthouse the next day. Luke ordered a pancake with egg and cheese from the menu, was given one with cheese and banana and then when we explained, ended up with a cheese omelette, which he ate. I had a delicious black coffee, but was startled to find a puddle of very sweet and thick white liquid at the bottom. I presumed it was a huge amount of sugar which hadn’t dissolved properly, but later found out that it is very common in south-east Asia to drink coffee with condensed milk. This intense sweetness is something I have never got used to and so we always drink it black or specifically request fresh milk, which they often don’t have.

Having packed a small rucksack each, we met Lily outside our hotel and set off on the hike to her village, accompanied by a Korean father and daughter and another H’mong lady, who had a two month old baby boy bundled up in a shawl on her back. He was bound up so well that we didn’t see his face until we arrived at our destination and he was unwrapped. We tramped along the misty road for a few minutes, before turning down a muddy track. After this we started to head below the cloud level and the scenery began to emerge from the swathes of mist. Everywhere we looked was lush and green, with bracken, bamboo and various trees, including banana. There were rice paddy terraces and scattered wooden dwellings. Lily and her friend made us each a heart shaped wand from bracken and then on my request showed us how to make them. They would make lovely and cheap wedding table decorations! The bracken horse they made was a little less convincing, but fun all the same! A small black puppy decided to tag along at this point and gambolled along beside Luke, racing him. As we descended into the village, he spotted some other dogs and, probably quite sensibly, decided to scamper back the way he had come to avoid an altercation.

Lily pointed out the village school, a smallish yellow painted concrete building. Most of the buildings in the village were made of wood and bamboo, with dirt floors and small earthen yards where a few chickens and pigs ran around, but the official buildings were concrete. Lily attended this school until the age of 14 and so she could read and write, but her parents could not afford to send her to high school, so her education stopped there. Their first language is H’mong, but all children learn Vietnamese at school as well. She, like many H’mong women, had learnt English through contact with tourists, and also had a smattering of French and Spanish. The men, who tend to work in the rice fields or go to the mountains collecting ginger, do not have much contact with foreigners and so foreign languages remain a feminine occupation, something which I feel gives the women an important role in this society, as tourism is the main source of monetary income. Most families, Lily’s included, only grow enough rice to feed themselves, as in this region there is only one rice harvest a year, so there is nothing available to sell on and make a profit. Lily was clearly an intelligent young lady, and I think she would have liked to continue studying, but she is forging her own path and seems fairly optimistic about the future.

On leaving school, she got married to a H’mong boy her own age and moved in with his family. She spoke of this happily and seems very much in love. The following year they had their first child, a daughter called Dinh. Dinh is now three years old and has a one year old little brother, Su. By this reckoning I could easily be Lily’s mother and a grandmother; quite a scary thought! I asked her if they planned to have any more children, and quite sensibly she said they wouldn’t, she is happy with two and indeed once they are grown up, she will still be quite young. Hopefully her children will have more opportunities than she had herself. A year before, there was no electricity in the village, but a hydroelectric power station has now been built, and as tourism channels more money into the region, things are likely to improve further.

As we walked through the village, we were joined by three young girls of 7-9 years who were selling friendship bracelets and in plaintive, pitiful voices with a well-practised mournful lilt repeated, ‘will you help me buy something…?’ Lily had told us we shouldn’t buy anything from children as it encourages them to bunk off school, so we did our very best to change the subject and engage them in conversation and silly games instead. Luke remembered a Catalan clapping game my niece Sylvia had taught him, and we also played I spy and the yes/no game. After a time, they began to relent and giggle and eventually joined in, only occasionally getting back into character and starting up the ‘will you help me buy something…?’ mantra again. The Koreans gave them a pack of Hello Kitty pencils and I gave them each a pen, as I found it so hard to do nothing, though giving gifts is probably just as inadvisable as buying from them. The girls walked with us all the way to Lily’s house and only turned back when we entered the yard.

Lily’s mother in law came out to greet us with big smiles as we arrived. The house was quite spacious, although a lot of people lived there, and was built in the local style with wood and bamboo, a dirt floor and split into large rooms by partitions. The yard contained a bamboo pipe system that diverted water from a stream, so that there was a constant supply of running water for washing, and a drop toilet in a small cabin that was overlain with the ceramic casing of a squatting loo. Most of the house was laid out on one floor, but there was a staircase leading to what we presumed was a bedroom. In the main room, there was an open fire around which the women sat on low stools and cooked and gossiped. The men mostly sat in a smaller separate room where they passed around tea and inhaled smoke through a bamboo bong. There were lots of little children pottering around. One little boy of about two years old was a bit of a nutter, racing about, pushing the other children and lurching and dancing energetically. Lily’s children were beautiful like their mother and very sweet natured. Her eldest, Dinh, had gorgeous dark eyes and a searching, serious expression. Su was wide-eyed and quite shy around strangers. We recognised some of the women from Sapa and some were new to us. All were dressed in the traditional H’mong costume of a dark tunic covered with embroidery, black culottes which were dyed with a local plant, and a colourful head scarf of a kind of lurid tartan in green, blue or fluorescent pink. Their calves were bound with a length of black fabric and most had beautifully engraved bracelets and earrings.

Lily set about preparing our lunch and we sat around a low table, observing the chatter going on around us. In the back room, we could hear chanting and the rhythmic banging of a gong. This was part of a new year ritual and would be repeated twice more over the coming days to ensure good fortune in the coming year. Shortly after the chanting ceased, we heard a horrific squealing noise. This went on for around a minute, and then stopped rather abruptly. Lunch was a simple but tasty meal of chicken, beans, noodles and egg. When we had finished, Lily left with the Korean family to walk them back to Sapa. Whilst she was gone, we were invited out to a field at the back of the house where the family were cooking rice and pork. As a bowl of bright red herby congealed pig’s blood was passed around, we put two and two together and realised that the source of the squealing was dinner being killed. I think this was quite a delicacy and people eagerly slurped spoonfuls before passing it on. I declined, but Luke took one for the team and tried some. He said it was a bit like licking a cut from your hand, or like ketchup with an aftertaste of iron. He has been reluctant to eat ketchup since! We both ate a little of the pork and rice as the dogs darted about our feet, hopeful for bones and titbits. After this second meal, we were instructed to huddle with the family as a man circled around us solemnly banging a gong. We were told that this would bring luck to everyone in the centre. I think we were quite fortunate to be part of it!

After eating, we sketched to pass the time, talked to the women of the family and played with the children. One girl, I will call her Anna, was just a little older than Lily and had a one year old daughter, who was merrily toddling about. Anna was kind hearted and very interesting to talk to. She had a naturally smiley and upbeat character, but there was a tinge of sadness in her manner. She, unlike Lily, was unable to read and write, something which no doubt pained her as she seemed like a very intelligent girl. She told us how an Australian lady had come and stayed for a few days the previous year. The child had apparently grown rather fond of her and the woman had offered to take her back to Australia to live and have a ‘better’ life. She had told them she would be returning in July to hear their decision. The family have decided not to let her go. Life is evidently hard here, but the children seem very happy, and to take a child away from the heart of a loving family is not a decision to be taken lightly. Obviously it was very tempting for them – they see foreigners all the time and are well aware that opportunities are greater abroad and in rejecting the offer they may feel they are closing a door for the child. However, simply having more money and increased opportunity does not mean your life will be happier if it also entails a shift in culture and separation from those you love. What memories would she have of the village and her family? How would she feel to know her family gave her up, albeit with the best of intentions? I am sure the lady would have done all she could to address these issues, and I am sure there are many children who have successfully made a similar transition, but it is always going to be a gamble. It is easy to feel complacent, to feel that we have the best way of life, but I try not to lose sight of the fact that there are other ways of living, other ways of finding happiness. The farmer nomad we met in Mongolia was a case in point. Some might see his life as lonely, hard, unrelenting, with few material possessions and little income. However, he was able to see for himself what life in cities of Russia and China was like and satisfied himself that the life he was living was that which made him happiest.

We had dinner with the whole family that evening, sat around a long table. At intervals we were offered shots of rice wine, a potent home brew. With a shout of ‘HAI!’, the drinks were downed and no sooner did we finish, then our cups were refilled. After a couple of rounds, we took to sipping so that we wouldn’t fall off our stools! I fetched my silver flute and played a few made up tunes. They had only seen bamboo flutes before, so the instrument was passed around and the men turned it over, looking at the mechanisms. The children were playing with paper that the Korean family had brought and Luke gave Lily’s children, Dinh and Su, a coloured pencil each and carved their names into the wood. An older girl of around 10 drew some cute pictures. Dinh really enjoyed scribbling and held her pencil very well. She would quietly observe the others before commencing her own work, and seemed like a bright little spark. In general, the children were all very loving towards each other. They would always be checking on the babies, kissing them and wanting to hold them. Dinh wanted to carry the two month old baby like the adults. He was duly strapped onto her back with a shawl and with a helping hand, she waddled off looking ever so proud of herself!

That night, we slept in a back room on a bed under a mosquito net. As there was not much lighting, the family all retired early, so we had a good night’s sleep. In the morning, Lily made spring rolls with rice paper, carrots, cabbage and egg. Dinh came running up to show me her outfit for the day, which was black with white hearts on it. I was touched that she seemed to like me! Her fringe was a little long and she would thoughtfully sweep her hair from her inquisitive dark brown eyes as she studied newcomers. She carried a little embroidered bag in which she kept a few small banknotes and a marble. Every now and then, she would take the marble out and drop it into my hand and then silently ask for it back. I remembered I had a tiny pottery good luck owl I had bought in Japan, which was around the same size as the marble. I fished it out of my camera bag and gave it to her. She looked at it curiously and inspected it, noticing there was a small hole in the base and seeming to wonder what it was for. I used the hole to stick the owl onto a twig of bamboo as a demonstration as to what it could be used for. She seemed pleased with this, and her auntie broke off the stick and gave it to her to hold. She trotted about for a bit waving the owl stick and stopping now and then to pull it off and put it back on again. Later on, after breakfast, Dinh regarded me quietly from a distance. Then, appearing to have made some sort of decision, she purposefully came over and cupped her little hand around my cheek and looked into my eyes. She took my big, pale, veiny hand and studied my fingers and fingernails, comparing them with hers, which were titchy in comparison and somewhat grubbier! I have to say I felt rather honoured; her eyes burned with such a quiet and wise intelligence, that it was hard to believe she was only three years old.

Not long after this little episode, and rather abruptly, we were leaving. We hiked with Lily a little way out of the village, where we passed a plantation of the indigo dye plant they use for their clothes, and stopped by a waterfall, which was not particularly powerful as it was the dry season. We headed into the Red Dzao village, although we didn’t see many people there. At the next village, we stopped at a café opposite the school and waited for Lily’s husband and his brother to arrive with motorbikes to take us the rest of the way back to Sapa. We hopped on behind, I with Lily and her husband and Luke on the brother’s bike. The ride back was fun, and we watched the scenery emerge and disappear from the rolling mist.

Back in Sapa, we paid Lily and gave her a tip, but then all her friends wanted us to buy from them! It was hard as we really didn’t want more stuff to carry. We eventually relented and bought one of the chequered headscarves as a present for much more than it was worth, but we didn’t feel annoyed as we had seen how much they needed the money.

In the village, I felt aware of a kind of conflict – it is wonderful for us to be able to meet these people and experience their way of life, to observe their traditions and take photos to share with family and friends. However, the people are really poor and rely increasingly on tourism to bring in much needed cash. With tourists comes a greater awareness of the world outside the tribal community; perhaps some would leave if they could, perhaps some are content to continue life as they know it and preserve their traditions. Still others may just wish all the tourists would go away and leave them alone! And what do we want as tourists? Can we be thinking what a pity it would be if all these quaint little villages were to be sucked into the whirlwind of modern life? If every house had a tiled floor, adequate plumbing and windows, would we feel cheated because it is no longer the authentic rustic experience we were seeking? Of course, the stark contrast with our own lives forms a great part of the attraction, but I feel uncomfortable that I relish these differences. Hopefully, opportunities in the village will improve in the coming years, more children will be able to go to high school and healthcare will become better and more affordable. I believe if people can be empowered through education and not held back by sickness or obstruction by the state, then they have the possibility to make decisions of their own free will. It is inevitable that traditions will erode with time, but this is a cultural evolution and the course it takes must lie with the people.

After lunch, we encountered another of Lily’s friends, ‘Buy from me too!’ We didn’t that day, but I felt bad! We had a lovely catch up with family over Skype that evening, before heading out for a late dinner of Vietnamese hotpot.  It was very different to Chinese hotpot – not nearly as spicy as the Sichuan variety and with a delicate lemongrass flavour.

The next morning, we saw Lily’s friends again. Luke had taken to running off in mock horror when he spotted them, which made them laugh, but this time I succumbed and bought a copper bracelet. Anna was there and she thanked me for playing the flute for them. She had never seen a flute like it before and she told me the music would always stay in her heart. I had really warmed to Anna so her comments made me feel rather emotional!

That night over dinner, we got talking to a girl from the Wirral who had been teaching English at a charity school in Siem Reap, Cambodia. She had really enjoyed her time there, and the online reviews were fantastic, so we decided to write to the school to see if we could volunteer. The next morning, we received a very enthusiastic reply, and began to get excited at the prospect of doing something a little different after our Vietnam trip. We had to check out of the guesthouse in spite of an invitation to stay longer and attend the family’s new year party, as our next destination was to be Hanoi, where we were meeting up with one of Luke’s old school friends, Bruce and his friend, Ash. On our way to the bus station, we spotted Anna and her friends again, sheltering from the drizzle in the porch of a shop. They put on their wellington boots and walk from the village into Sapa every day, whatever the weather, and it certainly had been miserable when we were there. Lily was not there, but had given the girls a handful of friendship bracelets for us to give to our family, which was a lovely gesture. Feeling a little sad, we bid the girls goodbye and traipsed off into the damp mist. We never did see that spectacular Sapa view!