Thursday, January 18, 2018

Trekking In Northern Vietnam

We have just returned from a short trek in northern Vietnam.  We had read about the region's people along with its rugged beauty and decided to go check it out for ourselves.  We were delighted with what was waiting for us.

The Sa Pa Valley is a stone's throw away from the Chinese border and is surrounded by towering mountains, majestic waterfalls, thousands of rice fields and thick bamboo forests.

It is cold this time of year.  The houses are not heated, save for small cooking fires.  If it's 6 C outside, then it is most likely 6 C inside.  We were grateful for the puffy jackets, fleece hats and wool socks we bought in Hanoi before we travelled north.

Sa Pa valley is hemmed in by steep mountainsides covered in terraced rice fields.

We stayed in the village of Ta Van for two nights.  The guest house was full of young trekkers from all over the world: Australia, the Netherlands, England and Canada. 

Once we got settled in our guest house, Joe and I went for a walk in the tiny village.  We ended up having a beer at a local bar.  As soon as we sat down, we were surrounded by women wanting to sell us their embroidered handiwork.  We bought something from everyone.  (I find it extremely difficult to say no to anyone.)  The woman with me in the photo, Chie, stepped forward and asked, "Do you want to walk with me tomorrow?  I take you to my house for lunch after?  Yes?"  YES!  We settled on a price and agreed to meet the next morning.

Where one goes, everyone goes.  Even though we told the other women that we had hired Chie as our guide and would not be paying them or buying their wares, they came along for the hike anyway.  These gals are expert trekkers and saleswomen.  Of course we bought something from each of them at the end of the hike.

We headed up through the village and deep into the bamboo forest.

These women trekked with heavy baskets on their backs and their bare feet in rubber sandals.

This is hiking footwear for many Hmong women.

Gorgeous rice fields.

Arranged marriages are the norm in northern Vietnamese villages.  The young woman on the left married when she was 17 and her husband was 15.  She is now 22 years old with 3 young children.

Oh, that's just a herd of water buffalo walking down the path towards us.

These two women literally held my hand for the entire hike that morning.  Even when I didn't need it.  So adorable.

The villagers are very house proud.  This woman insisted Joe and I come into her home and have a rest by her cooking fire before we went to Chie's house for lunch.

The lunch table in Chie's home.

We ate lunch with Chie's daughters and husband.  Chie speaks three languages; Hmong, Vietnamese and English.  I asked her where she learned to speak English so well.  Her answer?  From tourists!

The next morning, we were picked up at our guest house by May Quynh, an exuberant and outgoing 25 year old who was our guide for the next two days.  She, too, excelled at English learned from tourists.  Her beautiful clothing took her 15 months to dye, sew and embroider.

It took us most of the day to hike 17 kilometres from the village of Ta Van to the village of Han Bo.

Again, another woman joined us on our trek and held my sweaty hand every step of the way.

At one point we had to navigate our way along the edge of a rice paddy.  It was extremely slippery due to recent rains.

Holding my hand, this woman showed me how to slowly shuffle sideways along the muddy raised edge of the rice field.

The trek to the village of Han Bo was either straight up or straight down.  Here's Joe heading down the mountainside with his two guides ready to grab his hand at any moment.

While heading down one steep section, we ran into a boy bringing his water buffalo up the hill.

While crossing a river, I slipped and fell into the water.  Oops! 

As we neared our destination for the night, we walked past this little guy helping out some construction workers.  He had pretty good skills with that shovel!

The villages are filled with animals.  Buffalo, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, roosters and ducks all roam free.

Getting closer!  We could see our homestay from this vantage point.  All that was left was the long hike down the hill to the valley floor.  My legs and feet were hurting by this point.

Many things are done the traditional way in this part of the world.  The women are incredibly hard workers.

I was so happy to finally reach our homestay!  The homemade rice liquor was poured freely during our dinner with the family.

Joe and I slept upstairs in the loft area of the family's home.  Sheets and blankets were hung for privacy.  Those mattresses were rock hard.  But none-the-less, I slept well that night.

 The next morning we headed out again with Quynh to see a local waterfall.  This time the hike was much shorter, a mere 4 kilometres.  Thank goodness for small mercies!

The beautiful waterfall.

Thank you Quynh for guiding us safely through the mountains. We loved the two days we spent with you.

 Later that night, we took the sleeper train back to Hanoi.  We shared a room with two Korean boys travelling with their family.  I was happy when we reached our destination at 4:30am.   Those berths do not make the most comfortable beds.

And now we are back in Hanoi for a couple more nights.  We are going to take it easy to rest our weary bones.

The next leg of our journey involves a 3 day boat cruise around Halong Bay.  We are really excited and are praying for good weather.

After all that hiking we will be happy to sit on a boat deck for a few days!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What A Week, Luang Prabang!

What a week it has been in Luang Prabang!  

Most of our time was spent wandering streets and back alleys, snapping photos, shopping in all the markets, eating fantastic food, and visiting waterfalls.

The Laotian people have been nothing short of welcoming and friendly.  Good grief, they are quick to smile.  We have shared a lot of laughs with many of them.

The main street of Luang Prabang is bustling during the day.

Main Street at night.  Still bustling.

90% of Laotian homes use wood as their source of fuel.

Many of the city's structures are designated UNESCO world heritage buildings, blending vintage French architecture and classic Lao design.

The night market!

We were given many wonderful recommendations for restaurants.  Most evenings, we planned to have dinner in one of them.  But try as we might, we just could not stop ourselves from eating at food stalls in the market.  The food is fast, it's fresh and oh so delicious!

One morning we got up extremely early to witness the 'alms giving' ceremony of the monks.  The street was pitch black and deserted, save for the woman who immediately shoved a container of rice and packaged sweets into my hands.  " nice!"  I thought for a split second.  "She's giving me this food so that I can participate in the ceremony!"  But of course nothing was free.  The next thing I knew she had her hand out for 30,000 kip.  Joe paid her and I awaited further instructions.

The woman unceremoniously tipped the sticky rice out of its woven basket and onto the sweets.  She showed me how it was done.  I was to grab a ball of sticky rice, put it on top of the package, then place it in the monk's alms bowl.  She then grabbed my wrist and led me to my spot to await the procession of monks.  By this time, the street was lined with noisy tourists sitting on tiny plastic stools with baskets of food in their laps. 

That's me sitting to the right of the green garbage cans.  My food was gone in no time.  I felt badly that the monks had to accept all that man-handled sticky rice and packaged food from the tourists.  I laughed to myself when the young monks walked right past me and didn't stop!
As soon as my food was gone, I left my post on the sidewalk.  It felt like a tourist attraction, not any sort of spiritual experience.  I felt sorry for the poor monks who have to walk that gauntlet every morning! 

Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your life?  This was a basket of food for our Laos fondue at Dyen Sabai restaurant.  It was almost too pretty to eat.  Almost.

For a Laos fondue, a clay pot filled with burning coals is inserted into the middle of the table.  A metal ring sits on top of it.  The dome is for cooking meats and the moat is for broth to simmer noodles, eggs and vegetables.  What a great meal!  We loved it.

We met Wendell and Garythe at the elephant sanctuary last week.  What an incredibly interesting couple!  They've lived all over the world and have travelled most of it too.  We met up for dinner one night in Luang Prabang.

Very early one morning we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Kuang Si waterfalls, about an hour's drive from Luang Prabang.

Nothing prepared us for the beauty of this series of waterfalls.  Luckily we went early enough and had the place to ourselves.  As the morning wore on, it got incredibly busy.

The falls at the top of the hill were stunning.

After our hike to the highest waterfall, we walked back down and jumped in the water.  This turquoise pool was cool and inviting.  We loved our swim.  And apparently, so did a bunch of Chinese tourists!  I think we are now in about 100 people's travel photos. 

Once we dried off, we walked to 'Carpe Diem', a restaurant situated on the lower falls.  Because it was still so early, these four young men were our private cooks and servers for our breakfast.

Me at breakfast, wondering how the hell I got so damn lucky.

Many things are still done the traditional way.

In the morning market, this woman was vigorously chopping kindling with a small machete.  Right next to her bare feet!

 Poultry stall in the food market.

Beauty is everywhere.  

Sunset over Luang Prabang and the Mekong River.

It has been a wonderful week in Laos and Luang Prabang.  This part of the world has a beautiful soul.

We leave for Hanoi tomorrow.  

We are looking forward to see what adventures await us in Vietnam.