Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hello from Hanoi!

Beep, Beep! Ding, Ding! Vroom, Vroom! "Buy Bananas, Madame?"
These are the sounds of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia, bordered by China, Laos and Cambodia. Hanoi is the largest city in the northern part of the country, a fascinating city with narrow, winding streets, tall, ornate houses in every color of the rainbow, and lots and lots of zooming, honking motorbikes. Street vendors wander the streets with their bamboo poles and baskets selling fruit, brooms, baskets, name it! There are also cyclos, three wheeled bicycles with seats that you can hire for short trips around the city. There is a a lot to do in Hanoi: two beautiful lakes to walk around, several museums, and a unique puppet theater featuring floating marionettes. There is also an enormous city market that sells everything from designer purses to motorcycle parts.
The food here is excellent too. A favorite dish here is pho, a noodle soup made with beef, chicken, or veggies that is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vietnam has a long coastline and several rivers so there is plenty of fresh seafood, too. Step out of Hanoi and you will be treated to incredible sights of natural beauty. Vietnam is amazingly green, with lush rice fields and gardens everywhere. Many Northern Vietnamese people are farmers, and the warm climate and abundant rainfall make a perfect climate for growing rice.

A Voyage on Halong Bay
One of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and arguably the world, is the stunning Halong Bay. The Lonely Planet Guide states that "words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay," and I wholeheartedly agree. The towering islands, glassy blue water and isolated sandy beaches took my breath away. Halong means "descending dragon" and the gray limestone rocks that jut out of the bay do indeed look like a dragon's scales. I also really enjoyed watching all the boat traffic on this busy bay. Fishing boats, both large and small, medium sized boats delivering water and goods, and tourist boats like ours all sailed by. Halong Bay also has many fascinating "floating villages" of brightly painted houses sitting right on top of the water. The residents make their living from the sea, either by fishing for themselves, catching fish to sell at market, or fish farming. One home we visited raised cuttlefish, catfish, crabs and shrimp right in their (watery) front yard! I especially liked the "floating convenience stores," boats filled to the brim with everything from sodas and snacks to playing cards and pens. These strong women rowed their boats to the villages and alongside other boats selling their wares.

A visit to Sapa
Another memorable trip I took from Hanoi was a three-day hike through the villages of the H'mong, Tay and Dzay people near Sapa. Our journey began on the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, where I slept (sort of) on the top berth of a sleeping car shaking, twisting and turning its way up a steep mountain (I could almost hear the train saying "I think I can, I think I can...") When I awoke, we were in the mountain town of Sapa, where I ate a nice breakfast and met our guide, a woman from one of the local villages named Zoa, who greeted me wearing her traditional clothing of indigo embroidered cloth and elaborate silver earrings. We started our trek right away and were greeted by the local children who were very outgoing and friendly. The terrain was rough going at times, very rocky and steep with a couple of rickety bamboo bridge crossings, but the scenery was beautiful: terraced rice paddies full of frolicking ducks, spectacular waterfalls, and tidy farms with pigs, chickens, and water buffalo. Many families also had gardens growing cassava, sweet potatoes and indigo. At about 4 Pm we arrived in a the pretty village of Tavan and were greeted warmly by our host, Mrs. Sun. Since my pants were covered in mud from the trek, I bought a pair of traditional Hmong pants from a local woman whose hands seemed permanently stained blue from the indigo dye. Mrs. Sun prepared us a delicious dinner of fish, chicken, tofu and vegetables cooked over a wood fire. Tired from the trek, I went upstairs to Mrs. Sun's sleeping loft and fell asleep right away. The next morning we got off to an early start and saw more incredible scenery, most of it pretty, but some of it sad, such as the new graves of an elderly couple whose house was washed away in a recent flood. Farming rice is very hard work and people who live in these hills are culturally rich but economically poor; however, families like Mrs. Sun's make a little bit of extra money by opening their homes to ecotourists. As we walked along the trail past more villages, I got several thumbs up signs and giggles from villagers who thought it was funny to see a foreigner wearing "their" pants. When we arrived in Ban Ho Village, we took a dip in a local hot spring and met Mrs. Tho, who lived in a beautiful bamboo house on stilts, and sat by her fire and enjoyed another fine meal. Our hosts did not speak English, but fortunately Zoa was able to translate. The next day the trek was shorter. After eating breakfast on Mrs. Tho's porch, which had a spectacular view of the valley below, we crossed over a river where we saw a man taking bamboo to market by lashing the poles together and riding the bamboo down the rapids! We also saw the lovely "La Vie" Waterfall. We hiked back to Ban Ho, said goodbye to Mrs. Tho, and took a jeep back up to Sapa where we caught the train back to Hanoi. If I had to describe Vietnam in one word, it would be this: Wow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Boat Ride Down the Yangzi River

As a little girl, I was enchanted by the story of Ping, a mischievous little duck who lived on "a wise-eyed boat on the Yangzi River in China", so I was very excited as I got ready to travel down that very river myself. The Yangzi, at over 6000 km in length, is the third largest river in the world. Our journey begins in Chongqing, a steep, hilly city that reminds me of San Francisco (only much, much larger). The bus ride to the dock goes through narrow, winding streets, surrounded on all sides by brand new tall buildings. Chongqing is growing very fast because many of the families displaced by the Three Gorges Dam Project have been relocated here (more about that later). Around sunset, we take a funicular railway car down a steep slope to the dock to board the ship. As soon as I get settled in my cozy cabin, I go upstairs to the top deck to look at the view. The bright and colorful lights of Chongqing reflected in the river at night make for a beautiful scene. Later that night we set sail, and I fall asleep quickly, rocked to sleep by one of the world's great rivers. The next day after breakfast I go up on deck to look at the scenery, which is beautiful. Red earth, terraced green farmland and mysterious caves. There is a lot of boat traffic on the river. We pass large container ships that look like the ones we see passing through the Golden Gate, barges carrying gravel and coal, and small traditional fishing boats trailing their nets. Many pleasure boats go by too, full of tourists from China and all over the world. The boat is rocking me to sleep again, it's time to go to bed...
The next day, after breakfast, we get ready to pass through the famous Three Gorges of the Yangzi River. I scurry up to the top deck to look at the view and it really is lovely. Arching gray limestone cliffs, tall evergreen trees, and the river water is a mossy green. Here there are no other boats, and we seem to have the river all to ourselves. It is peaceful, quite and still, and I pass the day just watching the land go by.
The following day, we get off the boat for a sampan ride down Shennong Stream. We are helped onto the boat by three boatmen who paddle and pole the boats with long wooden sticks. When the water gets shallow, they go ashore and tow us with ropes. It is very hard work! But later I found out that these men bought their boats together and formed a cooperative business, so they get to keep all the money they make. I like that idea. The stream is clean and fresh, and runs through the beautiful limestone cliffs that are all around the river. While they paddle, the men sing us traditional boating songs and point out sights on the way, like the ancient burial sites of the Ba people, who laid their dead to rest in wooden caskets in the limestone caves high up in the mountains. If I look carefully, I can see some of them. How did they get those coffins way up there? Nobody knows. We also see the ruins of an ancient temple to one of the local gods. Out of the corner of my eye I see something moving on the rocks...monkeys! Troops of Rhesus monkeys live in these hills too. We say goodbye to the boatmen and get back on our larger boat. Tonight we pass the Three Gorges Dam.

Three Gorges Dam
This dam is one of the largest engineering projects in the history of the world, and also one of the most controversial. The Chinese government built the dam for two reasons: to control flooding and to provide electricity for China's growing population. With 1.3 billion people, China is the most populous country in the world. That means one billion TV's, hair dryers, and computers, and they all need electricity to run. The force of the water running down the dam runs turbines to produce the electricity that the Chinese people need. Additionally, the Yangzi is known for severe floods that can ruin crops and wash houses away, and building the dam will help alleviate this problem. However, damming a large river like the Yangzi has a downside, too. About 1 million people have had to leave their homes because after the dam is completed next year their homes will be underwater. Although the Chinese government will provide new housing for them, many are unhappy to have to leave their homes, especially farmers whose families have lived on the same land for generations. Most people are being located to cities like Chongqing, and it can be hard to adjust to city living if you have lived on a farm all your life. The ecosystem is a concern too. Some environmentalists say that stopping the flow of the river will cause sewage and garbage to accumulate behind the dam, and fish will die because they cannot cross over the dam to spawn and lay eggs. The government has relocated the fish, but like humans, fish sometimes have trouble adjusting to a new environment. Many people in China say this dam is necessary, but others say it will do more harm than good. What do you think?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jou Sahn from Guangzhou, China!

"Jou Sahn" is how people greet each other in Guangzhou, and it means "Good Morning". Guangzhou City is sometimes called Canton by people who speak English, and the local language here is Cantonese. Mandarin, the national language of China is also spoken in Guangzhou. Did you know that there are many different variations of spoken Chinese, but only one writing system? It's true. And instead of using an alphabet, as we do in America and Europe, the Chinese have a character, or picture word, for every word they write. Learning to write Chinese takes a lot of hard work! The Cantonese language has a very familiar sound to me because it is widely spoken in San Francisco. Immigrants from around Guangzhou have been coming to San Francisco for over 100 years, and have brought their language with them. Because I worked in a bilingual preschool for five years, I know a few phrases in Cantonese (including the all-important "where's the bathroom"). The smells here are familiar too; incense, roast meat, and the indescribable tang of the herbal medicine shop. This morning, I followed my nose to the outdoor market and found the herb and spice bazaar. The market is devoted to the sale of herbs, and the aroma is incredible. Cooking spices like star anise and saffron, herbs for traditional Chinese medicine such as astragalus and ginseng, and various herbs for making tea are all for sale. Since the market takes up an entire city block, I spent almost the entire morning winding my way through the narrow alleys, sniffing to my heart's content. There are lots of other things for sale in the market: fruits and vegetables, bonsai trees, eggs, meat, and even pets! (the puppies here are adorable!) There is a big pedestrian mall near the old market, and lots of people come out at night to eat, shop, or just hang out. They also love to show off their dogs: poodles, pomeranians and pekinese pups are all proudly paraded at the pedestrian mall. Guangzhou has an amazing Buddhist Temple filled with beautiful statues of Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy, Quan Yin. Nearby Shamian Island is a quiet green oasis where one can sit by the water and escape the hustle and bustle of the city. I honestly had no idea what to expect from Guangzhou, because it had always been described to me as a factory town. People do work hard here, but they clearly know how to have fun. I am having fun in Guangzhou too!