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, socks...you 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.