Ninh Binh for the win!

After my parents left I spent more time meandering around Hanoi mixed with side trips northwest to Sapa and east to Ninh Binh. This post will just be a collection of experiences from my last two weeks in Vietnam:

Sapa:

I’d been hearing and reading about Sapa ever since I started researching Vietnam. It is a highlight for many, both for their experiences with the locals and for the beauty of the mountainous rice terraces in the northwest part of Vietnam.

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While I had some good experiences in Sapa, this was not a highlight of my Vietnam trip. I started my trip in a village called Ta Van. I was very happy to start in a village as opposed to Sapa town as the initial Sapa vibe is pretty overwhelming, even for someone who’s been travelling Southeast Asia for three months. Before you can even reach the bottom step of the bus you’re surrounded by women sporting traditional clothing shouting “Where you from? What your name? You trek and homestay with me!” Once you manage to get your shoes on and grab your bag from under the bus you’re again bombarded by little girls with babies strapped to their backs thrusting bracelets in your face yelling “You do shopping from me! Handmade bags, special price!”. I was thankful I had somewhere to be – I jumped into the closest taxi and got out of there.

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Tourist busses parked near Sapa center.

While Ta Van was quieter than Sapa, the attitude was no different. People had talked about how friendly the locals in Sapa were. Well yes, but in my experience only if you are paying them for their kindness. Everything in this city has a price. For example, some girls at my hostel were stranded without a taxi the night they arrived in Sapa and some ladies would only agree to call them a taxi if they agreed to a guided trek the next day. Village women will follow you for miles trying to offer you a hand down from a rock or direct you down a very clearly marked path with the understanding that at the end you’ll buy a purse from them or offer them some money. The only way we found to get them to leave us alone was to say “no money!” at which point you receive a dirty look before they promptly turn and walk away.

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I certainly wasn’t going to overpay for a crappy purse made in China, but I wanted to contribute to the village in some way, so one day I decided to pay for some kindness and have a local guide lead me on a trek. My guide’s name was A (pronounced “ah”, like the letter A). She was twenty years old, married at age 16 and already had two children. I learned that this is a very typical life path for women in the villages, even though it is illegal for a woman to marry before age 18 in Vietnam. Further, the women do ALL of the work in these villages. They raise the kids, learn English, lead treks, work the fields, cook the meals, do the laundry, and sell merchandise. The only thing I ever saw men doing in Sapa was laying across their motorbikes or in a nearby hammock shouting “taxi?” any time a tourist walked by. Sure they work the rice fields in harvesting season but in this region that’s only six months out of the year.

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After a couple of days in Ta Van village I moved to Sapa to experience the “big city”. Walking around the city you see tons of signs like this:

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I asked the manager at my hostel why the signs ask that we don’t buy from the street vendors. This he could not answer, but his guess was that the government discourages this because they receive no cut from these sales. I also asked if he was from Sapa and he responded “No, I’m from Hanoi, of course”. Why “of course?”, I asked. “No one from Sapa works in the hotels”. Interesting. He continued that the local people have no interest in learning about this side of the tourism business. They want to continue living their lives and earning extra income from tourism where they can. I don’t know if this is the general consensus or just his opinion, but I could see his point. Most of the kids in the villages never get educated because they are selling to tourists rather than going to school.

Which brings me to the kids. I’m not saying kids should smile and wave at me everywhere I go, but these kids were hardened in a way I hadn’t seen from even the poorest kids in Cambodia. If they weren’t trying to sell me something they weren’t even looking up at me. It was hard not to think that without tourism these kids would be in school, and not walking around Sapa with a baby strapped to their back selling cheap bracelets. Some pictures stolen from google:

I’ve been to a lot of places in Southeast Asia where I’ve seen the benefits that tourism has brought to a city or community. Unfortunately, it seems like the impact of tourism on Sapa hasn’t been all positive.

Ninh Binh

As the title of this blog suggests, I absolutely loved Ninh Binh. I stayed in Tam Coc which is in Ninh Binh province, and one of the most picturesque spots in Vietnam (often referred to as “Ha Long Bay on land”). Tam Coc hit me as a welcome contrast to Sapa, as the locals were extremely kind and welcoming, always smiling, and kids yelling “HELLO!”.

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View from Hang Múa

The best way to see Tam Coc is by motorbike and I had not yet ridden a motorbike in South East Asia (I’m not counting the e-bike in Bagan). While I was hoping to have some fellow travelers to ride with, the homestay didn’t pan out that way and I was left to my own agenda. Well, I’m actually really glad it worked out that way. Conquering my fear of riding the motorbike and riding through the tiny villages, beautiful rice paddies, and limestone mountains in one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam was incredibly empowering. Together with the next two days riding around the narrow paths on a bicycle (decided not to push my luck with the motorbike…), these were some of my favorite days in Southeast Asia.

There is no way to describe just how green the rice fields are, or how peaceful it is to find yourself alone in the middle of a rice field listening to the wind rustle all the rice leaves while birds chirp in the background. It was really a special couple of days! Here are some more photos:

Bai Dinh Temple, the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam:

Hang Múa Viewpoint:

Kong: Skull Island set… or was it?

The very beautiful, though eerily empty, Thung Nham Bird Park:

As seen around Tam Coc by bike:

I also found an Aussie owned restaurant in town and really needed a western food fix, so I went three times (cheeseburger, falafel salad, grilled cheese):

Hanoi

Once you’ve spent 4-5 days in a single city, as a tourist, you have to start digging for things to do with yourself. Here’s what I found:

One day I walked south to the far less talked about Bay Mau Lake in Thong Nhat Park. Actually, I never heard anyone talk about it and couldn’t find anything on it online, at least not in English, but decided to check it out anyway. As I approached I was surprised to find the park surrounded by a tall fence with a ticket office indicating 4,000 VDN for entry. Without understanding what exactly it was I was paying for, I decided for $0.20 it was worth finding out.

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So this is where the local people come to exercise! There was a beautiful 100% motorbike-free wide footpath around the lake. I cannot emphasize enough how rare of a find this is in Vietnam. Men were fishing, women were practicing Tai Chi, and tons of people were power walking and jogging around the lake. I was the only white person there and received an appropriate number of stares, rivaling the number of odd looks I got walking around Yangon, Myanmar.

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This is a monument of Ho Chi Minh shaking hands with Ton Duc Thăng, who was the last president of Northern Vietnam and the first president of the reunified Vietnam in 1976.

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter there is a street that looks like any other back alley street in Vietnam, except this street has railroad tracks going through it. And it’s not just some dinky local train, it’s the main railroad line that connects Hanoi to HCMC and the train that runs through it is HUGE. The train runs around 7:00 pm on weekdays and around 3:30 pm and 7:00 pm on weekends. It’s become quite the tourist attraction to watch how life (trash, roosters, pigs, motorbikes, etc.) all get hastily moved from the tracks in the minutes before the train arrives and then immediately replaced as soon as the train goes by. I found a really cute cafe called Railway that served Choo-Choo beer and gave you a certificate upon survival:

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“If our coffee won’t wake you up, the train will.”

One day at the lake I helped a Vietnamese university student practice his English (good practice for my Korean volunteering gig!), and he showed me his accounting homework 🙂 .

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I walked along the longest mosaic mural wall in the world (3.85 km). The wall was built as a result of a Hanoi Architecture Contest in honor of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the capital Thăng Long in 2010 and depicts a visual narration of the country’s history from different periods.

I went to see the John McCain Monument at Truc Bach Lake. This is where John McCain crash landed his parachute before being captured and taken to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. It’s a bit of an odd monument in my opinion. It’s certainly not intended for foreigners as there is no translation of the text presented, and it’s certainly not in honor of John McCain though there is an awkward picture of him in front of it from one of his visits to Vietnam. My guess is it shows the strength of Vietnam that they captured such a high-powered politician?

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“On 26 October 1967 near Truc Bach Lake, the Vietnamese people in Hanoi caught pilot John Sidney McCain. He was captain of a group who flew planes in the sky who attacked Hanoi. The number of plane was A4. The plane fell on the Yen Phu Power plant. This was one of ten planes that fell on the same day.”

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I think I went to every Cong Caphe in Hanoi. Cong Caphe is a chain coffee shop that is Viet Cong themed. They tend to position themselves on busy corners and always have multiple levels offering great views of the streets below. They also have great wifi and a really good coconut coffee (coconut ice smoothie with Vietnamese coffee poured over the top). It’s super healthy.

I sampled a LOT of local food. From various Bun Cha places, including where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama went, to Baht Cuon (rice pillows) to Vegan Banh Mi, to roti, dried beef and papaya salad, plenty of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, to coconut ice cream with sticky rice, and of course, Swensen’s Ice Cream.

I never really got to any of the Vietnamese stuff I learned in the last post so here are some interesting tidbits:

  • After marriage it’s common that girls move in with their husbands families. It’s common that three or more generations are living under one roof and it’s therefore uncommon to have your own room. Makes for a crowded living arrangement and no privacy.
  • In Hanoi, the locals like to keep birds as pets. You see bird cages hanging all over the place.

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  • In the south, where many locals were part of the South Vietnamese Army or assisted the Americans in some way during the war, families are “black-listed” going back three generations. This means if your grandfather fought with the US, you can’t join the Communist Party or become a security guard or police officer or basically anything security related.
  • Farmers bury their dead right in the middle of the rice field. The headstones are often quite elaborate.

Well that’s a wrap on Vietnam! Amazingly I have now spent almost as much time in Southeast Asia as I spent in Europe to start my trip (116 days in Europe and 106 days in SEA), though I only managed four countries in this time. I am excited to move my travels to a slightly different part of Asia – South Korea! First impressions… it’s very clean, cold, and expensive!

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