Monday, May 27, 2013

Travels in Northern Vietnam Part IV: Halong Bay and Hanoi


What felt like mere moments later, the conductor knocked on our cabin door at 4:45 a.m. to announce that we would soon be arriving at the train station in Hanoi.  Wow, we had both slept very soundly on the train. It felt like we had just gone to bed!

When we disembarked from the train, Cuong and a porter were waiting for us. We were at Ga Ha Noi, the French colonial train station with its hub rebuilt in Soviet-style after the war. Though it seemed like a lifetime had passed since we last laid eyes on this train station, we were actually only 2/3 of the way through the trip. We were only passing through town quickly, on our way to the coast.

We hopped into the car and drove through 5:30 a.m. Hanoi traffic to a hotel where we could freshen up before driving to Halong Bay for the next phase of the trip. We arrived at the Skylark Hotel,  and Cuong went to the reception desk to check us in. He was told that since he didn't reconfirm the reservation, they had not held a room for us. Though they spoke entirely in Vietnamese, the word "re-confirm" was spoken in English. Cuong would tell us later that the Vietnamese work for "re-confirm" is very long, so the English word has crept into their vocabulary as a shortcut.

Dawn arrival at Ga Ha Noi (Hanoi Station)
Victoria Express Railways Car
For the first time in the trip, Cuong was visibly flustered. So far, the logistics had all gone like clockwork. He and Mr. Giang worked very hard to make it look effortless. Everything just worked. Cuong was not at all pleased, and he made his disapproval known to the desk staff. Though we couldn't understand the words, it was clear that the desk clerk was telling him that they did not have a room that they could give us.

We told Cuong that it was fine, that we had showered before the train and we were sure that there was some sort of shower on tonight's boat. But Cuong would have none of it. He had promised us a shower this morning and he was going to deliver. "My house is very close. We can go there." This was very sweet, but we didn't want to show up unannounced at their house at the crack of dawn.  That would be quite an imposition on the family.

Someone at the hotel suggested the Marigold Hotel, which was apparently just a couple of doors down. We walked over and Cuong talked to someone at the desk. They had a vacancy, so Cuong booked us a room.  He told us to take a nice shower and eat some breakfast, and that he and Mr. Giang would be back to pick us up at 8:30.

We rode the small elevator to the 4th floor. The building was very narrow, and took up a small footprint, the way that many buildings in the city did. However it was quite tall, with 10 stories. Each floor only had a handful of rooms. The boutique hotel was newly built. Though room #403 was small, it was clean and modern. There were two twin beds and a nice marble bathroom with a large shower. It felt like an interior ship's compartment, as there were no windows. We showered and took the opportunity to write some postcards to our grandparents.

After freshening up, we took the elevator up to the 10th floor restaurant. A young Vietnamese man rode with us. He greeted us in English and asked about our trip. He was visiting Hanoi with his family.
Our room at the Marigold Hotel

When we got to the 10th floor, the elevator door opened and we stepped into the dining room. We were the only Western tourists in the place. As Vietnamese families enjoyed the buffet breakfast, they looked at us with curiosity. The adults avoided our gaze shyly, while the toddlers outright stared at us. There was even an outdoor patio roofdeck, with a sandstone dividing wall blocking the urban view to surrounding rooftops and making it appear more like a courtyard,

We enjoyed the breakfast buffet of fried rice, grilled chicken,  yogurt, fruit, cheese, bread, orange juice, and coffee. A baby at a neighboring table did something really cute. Everyone laughed, including us, and suddenly the ice was broken between us and the local tourist families.

At 8:30, Cuong and Mr. Giang picked us up and we headed off to Halong Bay. It was Friday morning rush houir, and the traffic was very heavy getting out of Hanoi. We were once again back in our comfortable Toyota Innova, with its Vietnamese and American flags on the dashboard. We weren't sure how long the drive would be, but Mr. Giang had stocked us up with fresh water bottles and as usual the time flew as we engaged in very interesting conversations.

On the outskirts of the city, we passed an industrial zone, with large power plants. Then later as we got into more rural areas, we passed a monument commemorating the place where Ho Chi Minh stopped at a rest area while accompanying a dignitary to Halong Bay in 1962.

Cuong told us that on our way, we would stop at a good place to buy souvenirs: a handicraft cooperative started in 1996 to teach people with physical disabilities to make and sell various types of artwork. He explained that there have been many people born with births defects
attributed to Agent Orange during the war, and also DDT used in the rice paddies after the war.

Even many of Cuong's close friends (his brothers-in-arms from the war) had children with birth defects. Cuong and Nhung are lucky that both of their children were born healthy. He attributes it in part to the fact that he was very careful about the water that he drank in the jungle during the war. In five years, he only drank unboiled water twice, when he was absolutely desperate.  Once he hadn't had anything to drink in 2 days. When confronted with water in a stream, he couldn't be picky and boil it first, so he just started to drink it. A flare went off during the course of the battle and he was able to see that the water that many had died in this water which was giving him life.

Cuong was very specific that he wanted us to write about his war experiences and attitudes in our blog. We realize that these are sensitive issues, and we asked whether he could get in trouble for expressing them. "I've been expressing them for twenty years," he told us. He handed us a photocopy of an article from the San Diego Union-Tribune. At his brief visit home this morning, he had thought to grab it for us. "Vietnam: What Is It All About?" by James D. Jameson.  Cuong was Mr. Jameson's guide and interpreter during an interview with a Vietnamese Foreign Minister in the early 1990's. He had echoed to Mr. Jameson the same sentiments he had described to us: that he doesn't feel that Americans should feel that they lost the war. They were fighting against the expansion of communism, and the Vietnam that they have today, with a freer economy, probably wouldn't have evolved without the war.

Artisans at Hong Ngoc Fine Art Company
Embroidery that we bought at Hong Ngoc Fine Art Company

We pulled over at the Hong Ngoc Fine Art Company, the cooperative where handicraft sales benefit the physically disabled artisans. Many tourist buses were stopping here. You could tell by the number of rest rooms that they must do quite a business.

Cuong told us that we would see the artisans creating their works inside the showroom. We feared it might feel exploitative of the artisans, but as we went inside, we realized that it did not feel like that at all. We entered a vast room where beautiful embroidered tapestries (tranh thêu) hung framed on the walls. Stacks of unframed tapestries of all sizes were piled up on tables everywhere you looked. The workmanship was exquisite. There were many motifs to choose from, from portraits to landscapes to abstracts.

Sales people swarmed around the many western tourists who looked through the stacks of embroidery. They were there to answer any questions and help, but were not pushy at all. Rows of artisans sat at tables, doing this delicate work. We definitely wanted to purchase some embroidery. It was beautiful work and the money supported a great cause. We just couldn't make up our minds as they were all so beautiful.

Cuong told us that he would order us coffee at the snack bar while we decided what to buy. We pored through stacks of embroidery. We wanted to buy one which had very delicate needlework.  After much deliberation, we finally decided on an embroidery piece depicting pink flowers and blue mountains reflected in a lake. It was very detailed, and looked more like a watercolor than embroidery.

Once we decided on the one we wanted to buy, our salesperson rolled it up and packaged it for us. She led us out of the embroidery room, through a jewelry showroom, and into an area which had a row of cashiers. We now realized that the embroidery was only a small portion of what was for sale here. There were people using sewing machines to make clothes, and there was a section of ceramicware.We saw some adorable magnets depicting the different ethnicites of Vietnam, and we added a couple of boxes of them to our order.  Though our salesgirl had priced our items in Vietnamese dong, the cashiers had all of the exchange rates and could instantly convert them into any currency desired.

They even have a mini-post office, as they apparently ship so much merchandise all around the world. We were able to buy stamps here and mail our postcards. We headed over to the snack bar with our purchases, and drank the coffees that Cuong had purchased for us. Though he hadn't hurried us along at all during our shopping, it was clear that he was getting edgy and was ready to leave. After my coffee, I wanted to get a couple of photos of the embroidery room. I ran back (it was amazing how huge this place was) and snapped a couple of photros. When I returned, they were already all outside in the car waiting for me. Cuong wasn't kidding that he was now in a rush!

Shrine commemorating Ho Chi Minh's rest stop on the way to Halong Bay
Houses in Halong City being cut in half by road construction

Back on the road, we passed a second place where Ho Chi Minh had taken a rest room break. This one was commemorated by reforestation of trees. Cuong said jokingly that if Ho Chi Minh had taken more rest room break, maybe then deforestation wouldn't be such a problem today.

We arrived in Halong City. A lot of work was being done to widen the road here. We saw many houses which had been half demolished to make way for the wide road to this popular tourist destination. People were still living in them even though walls were torn down. Cuong said that if the houses were legally built, the owners will be compensated by eminent domain. But some houses were built illegally here, so they lose everything if the house is torn down. I guess this explains why people were still try to go about life as usual with a road running through their living rooms. Eventually we could see the ocean and the limestone pillars rising out of it.

We arrived at the marina at around 12:30 p.m. It was swarming with people: tourists waiting to board their boats, crew shuttling supplies to the boats. There were cement stairs leading down to the water, like the ghats we had seen in India. There were small shuttle boats moored at the dock. The bigger boats were out further in the harbor. This portion of the trip was run by a local company named Sea Canoe. We met our Sea Canoe guide, who was also named Cuong, and our captain and crew.
We said goodbye to Mr. Giang. We got onto a shuttle boat and put on life jackets as the crew loaded all of our luggage supplies onboard.  When everything was ready, we wound our way through all of the other shuttle boats and out toward the larger boats. We had no idea what to expect in terms of a boat. At times the crew had to literally push our way in between two other boats. Cuong pointed out that all of the boats from Halong City had to be painted white. It must have been a great boon for the white paint industry in the area.


Boats lined up along the ghats in Halong City
Our cabin on Hoa Binh 28
We pulled up alongside the Hoa Binh 28, a large boat which would be our home for the next two nights. We climbed aboard and realized that we had the whole boat to ourselves; there were no other guests. They showed us to our cabin at the rear of the boat, which had a double bed and a private bathroom. There were towels folded into swans on the bed. We had large picture windows on two walls. as well as a private balcony with a table and two chairs. It was quite comfortable. There was also an adjoining room which was the mirror image of ours. Together the two rooms  took  up the rear of the boat. We had access to the second room as well, which meant access to a second bathroom for showering. The rooms had air conditioning, but it couldn't be turned on until the boat's motor was running. Cuong got settled into his room, which was kitty-corner to ours.

We decided to explore the boat while the captain and crew were preparing to set sail. There was a large dining area with a bar, buffet tables, and a dining table. The table was set for two, and we immediately insisted that they add a place setting for Cuong. Cuong realized that he had forgotten the rice wine, and sent someone back to the docks to pick it up from Mr. Giang.

It was amazing to us how luxurious the boat was. I guess we had thought that there might be other guests on this  part of thetrip, but we should have known better. Toni had totally hooked us up. I guess the dayroom at the Marigold Hotel this morning hadn't been absolutely necessary. The shower situation was quite nice here. Little had we known that Craig, Cuong, and I would have the entire boat to ourselves!

The captain fired up the engines and we were on our way. The ocean was very smooth; no threat of seasickness here (though we had come prepared with motion sickness medication just in case).
We went out onto the deck, where there were tables and chairs set up behind the wheelhouse. We climbed up a set of stairs to a top level deck which had rattan lounge chairs surrounded by many potted plants. Half of the deck was shaded by a large bimini top. Cuong gave Craig a Ha Noi beer and I tried out one of the lounge chairs. It was very comfortable. We could get used to this life for the next couple of days.

We were soon called down to the dining area for lunch.  I don't know what we were expecting in terms of food on the boat, but we certainly didn't expect something as elaborate as this. Three whole crabs sat looking up at us from their plate. There was another plate full of cucumber slices which had all been elaborately carved into fancy shapes, with a tomato peel rose in the center (we knew from experience in Hanoi how delicate and difficult a job this was). Squid was served with lemongrass and garlic. We also had fried chicken, fish, fried tofu, cabbage, and rice. It was all delicious. The young crew had a very delicate touch with the food, and we enjoyed it very much. If we had been expecting to "rough it" in any way, we were pleasantly mistaken.

Lunch on Halong Bay
Craig, Cuong, and "Sea Canoe Cuong"
View of karst pillars from our boat
Local fishing vessel amongst the karst
The Cuongs
"Sea Canoe Cuong" got out a nice map of Halong Bay and showed us where we would be going for the next two and a half days. Halong Bay covers an area of around 1500 square miles, and consists of over 3000 limestone (karst) islands rising up from the sea. The name "Halong" means dragon descending, and there is a legend that says that a dragon spat out jade and jewels that turned into the islands in order to confound enemy ships who were trying to take the bay.

Unlike many of the boats in the area which do day trips and return to the docks in Halong City at night, our boat has a safe place to anchor overnight in the areas where we would kayak, near Cat Ba Island. He showed us the area on the map.

After lunch, we got ready for an afternoon of kayaking. We changed into our bathing suits and changed to new memory cards in our cameras (just in case of any accidents in the water, we didn't want to lose all of our photos from the trip so far.) The crew inflated two kayaks on the deck while we enjoyed the views of the gorgeous karst pillars layered against one another in the distance.

At around 3:30 p.m., we reached the area where we would be doing our kayaking. We climbed down a ladder on the side of the boat into our 3-man kayak. "Sea Canoe Cuong" was in the back, Craig was in the middle, and I was in the front. After we got settled, Cuong and another of the crew members got into a second kayak. Cuong had his nice camera to get shots of us during our paddle.

As soon as we were in the water, we were approached by two women who were running a floating snack bar. They waved and asked if we wanted to purchase anything. We told them that we were all set, as we had our water bottles with us and plenty of food back on the boat.

I tried to keep in synch with "Sea Canoe Cuong" in terms of paddling. Being in the middle, Craig didn't have a paddle. Although we were sitting in a little bit of water that got into bottom of the kayak when we got in, the water was so calm that there was no danger of getting our cameras wet or anything like that.


Cuong prepares to board a kayak

Cuong and one of the crew members kayaking

Kayaking through a cave to a hidden lagoon at Halong Bay

Karst pinnacle and cave in Halong Bay
The limestone karst formations rising out of the water are remnants of a sea bed of coral and sea shells. Over the years, erosion has formed them into pillars that rise majestically from the water. At the water level, the karst is often undercut and caves have been formed. The water was a turquoise blue, and we paddled straight toward one of these caves. We entered the cave and it was pitch black inside. We heard voices, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Then we saw flashlight beams. Two people in a red kayak were in the cave pulling clams off of the rocks. "Sea Canoe Cuong" had a spotlight which he shone to reveal small stalactites and glittery minerals along the walls and ceiling of the cave. As we turned a corner, we could see daylight streaming in from the other end of the cave. We emerged into a  hidden lagoon. It was as if we had passed through a portal to another world.  It was so  peaceful and beautiful. As we paddled, we could see sea life such as sponges and clams below the water's surface.It was a good thing that the inflatable kayaks were every sturdy, so they could withstand brushing up against some sharp clam shells. From this hidden lagoon we could no longer see our boat, or any other boats in the same area. There were no other signs of civilization.

After enjoying our paddle around this hidden gem, we paddled out through the same cave. The tide was coming in and water was filling up the lagoon. We were paddling against the current. At one point we hit some shallow water in the cave and got hung up for a minute or two, but soon we were able to continue and we once again saw light at the end of the tunnel. We emerged to see our boat once again.

We paddled along silently, taking our time and soaking up the atmosphere. We saw a few other kayakers. The Cuongs called out to them, asking if they had seen any wildlife. Apparently there are monkeys in the area. They said that they hadn't seen any. This was disappointing, but they were a larger group and were talking and making some noise. Maybe we would fare better.

We paddled through a second cave. The rock formations were amazing. This was about as opposite from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi as you could get. We totally lost track of time and were fully immersed in the experience.

Before we knew it, the Cuongs were asking, "Are you up for one more cave?"  Daylight was waning, but we weren't ready to quit yet. We paddled through a third cave and emerged in a grotto that seemed lost in time. We paddled around quietly.

We saw a tree shaking far above us on one of the karst pillars, and "Sea Canoe Cuong" pointed out a white-headed langur (also known as a  Cat Ba langur). They are one of the most endangered primates in the world, and there are only 40 known to exist today. We couldn't believe our luck to actually see one! We could hear it chattering as it swung from the trees. We could easily make it out with the naked eye, but our cameras didn't have a good enough zoom to capture an image of the langur. Luckily Cuong was able to use his zoom lens to get one. It didn't come out as clearly as he would have liked (the langur was far away, it was moving, and we were on a moving kayak), but at least he captured it.


Steph, Craig, and "Sea Canoe Cuong" emerge from a cave (photo courtesy of Cuong)
"Sea Canoe Cuong", Craig, and Steph emerging from a cave(photo courtesy of Cuong)

"Sea Canoe Cuong", Craig, and Steph  reflected in Halong Bay (photo courtesy of Cuong)

Cuong and a crew member kayak through a cave
Cuong and a crew member kayak into a cave
White-headed (aka Cat Ba) Langur (photo courtesy of Cuong)
Our boat, Hoa Binh 28
Karst at sunset, Halong Bay

Craig on the upper deck of the Hoa Binh 28 at sunset
I looked back at Craig sitting behind me in the kayak and he was absolutely beaming. As if the scenery here wasn't beautiful enough, we had a rare wildlife encounter. This day just kept getting better and better! The Cuongs were also beaming, utterly thrilled to be able to share this unique experience with us.

Then "Sea Canoe Cuong" directed our attention a few trees to the left, where there was a yellow-faced common monkey holding its baby looking down at us. This was unbelievable. Once again, Cuong was able to capture it digitally. Thank goodness we had decided to go into this one last lagoon. It had proven to be the highlight of the paddle.

As the sunlight waned, we happily paddled back out through the cave and back to the Hoa Binh 28. We climbed up the ladder from our kayaks as the sun began to sink behind a karst island. We had kayaked for just over 2 hours. Cuong looked through his photos, and Craig and I went up onto the top deck to enjoy the twilight scenery. The captain brought us to where we would anchor for the night, near Cat Ba island. There were other boats anchored there as well, and we could see their lights reflected on the water in the distance.

After sunset, Craig and I both took showers. Since we had two cabins available to us, we took showers at the same time in the two bathrooms. When we came out on deck, Cuong and one of the crew were setting up for karaoke. They had a TV and karaoke machine. At the bar area, they turned on some Christmas lights and a disco light to set the mood. Cuong wanted to demonstrate different types of Vietnamese music.

He started out with a Red Song, called "Song of the Long Mountain." Red music, or Nhac Do, is a class of patriotic songs. They come from northern Vietnam, and were officially sanctioned by the government during the wars against the French and the Americans. Red songs have a marching beat, and were used in a martial context to motivate soldiers. They are associated with the color red because it is the dominant color in the Vietnamese flag.

Cuong has a very nice singing voice, and the microphone had a slight echo effect, so he sounded very professional. After the Red Song, he sang a Yellow Song. This class of songs was from southern Vietnam. During the wars it had been illegal to sing them and could get the singer arrested and put in jail. Yellow Songs, or Nhạc Vàng, were usually emotional ballads, and quite often were about anti-war themes. They were associated with the color yellow because it was the dominant color of the South Vietnamese flag.


Then Cuong performed a Brown Song. These were the folk songs of the farmers, identified by the color brown because it was the color that farmers used to dye their clothes. Cuong had started out singing in a seated position, but he got more and more into it as he sang, and he wound up standing and dancing along to the music.

He told us that the fourth category of music was the Blue Song, which were songs from abroad. Today the Vietnamese can sing or listen to any music that they want. After singing a couple more traditional Red, Yellow, and Brown Songs, he burst into Boney M's "Daddy Cool", which I guess would be an example of a blue song.

Cuong provided great entertainment, and taught us a lot. I was starting to wonder what songs this karaoke machine might have that I know. Before we knew it, dinner was announced. Craig looked at me and I could tell that he was thinking "Food again, already? Didn't we just eat lunch?"

Cuong singing karaoke
Cuong singing karaoke
Dinner (photo courtesy of Cuong)

Cuong poured us shots of rice wine and we toasted with a  hearty "Chuc suc khoe!" Cuong assured us that "Sea Canoe Cuong" also enjoyed rice wine, and that he would be joining us for a toast later on.
Dinner proved to be more elaborate than even lunch had been. The presentation of the food was exquisite.Prawns and mantis shrimp were arranged in a wine glass which also contained vegetables carved into the shape of tulips. It looked too pretty to eat! Crinkle cut French fries were served on a plate which had a heart-shaped ring of finely cut cucumbers around it, as well as a rose carved from a carrot. A plate of rice had carrot "petals"radiating from it, making the whole thing look like a lotus flower. Wow, the young crew sure was talented in the culinary department. We also had clams, potato dumplings,beef with onions, and spring rolls. Everything was delicious. Craig looked overwhelmed by the whole spread. He was only picking at his food, which alerted me to the fact that his stomach wasn't feeling very well. Ordinarily he would be digging into this wonderful bounty of food.

Craig started to overheat, even though the temperature in the dining room was quite comfortable.
He decided to stop eating, and headed out onto the deck to get some fresh air. Cuong and I finished up our meals and had another toast. Craig was sitting right out the door so he was still able to participate in the conversation. I brought out our photo album from home and took the opportunity to show Cuong the photos. He said to make sure that we brought it to his house when we have our farewell dinner so that we could show his wife and sons.

Craig wound up getting sick. The whole crew was very good about it, and they soon served him some ginger tea to try to help to settle his stomach. We hoped that whatever was bothering his stomach had been expelled, and that a good night's rest would be all that Craig needed to be back to his normal self tomorrow.

Craig retired to our room shortly before 9 p.m. to try to get some rest. Cuong and I stayed up chatting for a few minutes, and had another toast. Then I decided that I should probably check on Craig. We said goodnight and made plans to meet for breakfast before going out kayaking again in the morning.

When I got into the room it was quite hot. The air conditioner was actually blowing hot air. We managed to turn off the flow of hot air, but it was still very warm in the room, and we could smell diesel exhaust from the engine. Craig was already in bed, though he wasn't asleep yet. I got him an antibiotic, just in case it was something more than indigestion. I wrote in the journal and then got into bed myself.

At 11 o'clock, Craig woke up suddenly and ran to the bathroom to get violently ill. I felt his forehead and he was burning up. Sweat was pouring from his body onto the floor. He tried to drink some water, but each sip would just cause him to get sick again. At this rate he was rapidly dehydrating, and it certainly felt like he had a fever.

Though I hated to wake Cuong, we had to tell him about this. We were several hours from civilization, anchored near Cat Ba island. I knocked on Cuong's door and asked if he could please come to help us. He immediately ran into our room, soon followed by "Sea Canoe Cuong" and the captain, who had heard the ruckus.

Cuong checked Craig's temperature and pulse, and got quite concerned. This seemed like more than mere indigestion, and I believe Cuong was worried that it could be his appendix.Cuong took decisive action immediately. He told me that we would head back to the Halong City marina. He made a few calls and arranged for an ambulance to meet us there. He didn't want to take any chances. Craig was in no condition to make any decisions whatsoever. After cleaning him up, he went back to bed and the rest of us sprung into action.

It would take two and a half hours to get back. Craig tried to sleep but he was very uncomfortable. I gathered an overnight bag full of necessities to take to the hospital. It was stiflingly hot in our cabin, and at times I had to go out to the deck with the crew to get some fresh air. Cuong brought me his cell phone to talk to Allie and Jen at Myths and Mountains. They were very concerned and told me to hang in there and just make sure to get copies of all medical receipts for our travel insurance.

Craig in the ambulance

At around 1:30 a.m. we arrived at the dock area in Halong City. It was quite a difference from 12 hours earlier. There was no one to be seen, and we didn't need to take a shuttle boat. Our big boat pulled right up to the ghats.  The captain and crew helped to prop Craig up and walk him off the boat. He couldn't suppport his own weight. There was a mini-van ambulance waiting there, and they loaded Craig onto a gurney. "Do you have your camera? Make sure to get a picture of me," he said. Cuong rode in the back with Craig and the EMT's. I rode in the front. The streets of Halong City were deserted so there was no need to turn on the sirens. I took a picture back through the glass at Craig. I'm sure the ambulance driver must have thought I was absolutely nuts.

Within a few minutes we arrived at the hospital. They wheeled Craig into the ER. I followed along behind with the overnight bag. Cuong talked to the doctors and nurses as they took Craig's blood pressure and temperature. Cuong asked me for Craig's MS medication, and I handed it to the doctor.   They poked around his abdomen. I stood awkwardly feeling like despite my best efforts, I was always in the way. Nobody seemed to notice, though.

I looked up and saw Mr. Giang standing there looking at us through a window. It was comforting to have him there. "Look who came to see you!" I said to Craig, and Craig was just as excited as I was. We felt a pang of guilt for causing him to be awakened in the middle of a night he was supposed to have off from work. But we were sure that he wouldn't have had it any other way. He flashed a big smile at Craig. They took Craig's sandals off his feet and Cuong handed them to Mr. Giang for safekeeping.

Cuong was able to pull up the medical forms we had filled out for Myths and Mountains on his phone, so the doctor had all of the pertinent information about Craig's medical history at hand. Technology is wonderful that way.

It was quite hot in the ER, and there was a Vietnamese man sitting on one of the beds waiting for his wife to return from some procedure. There was no privacy. They did an ekg and had trouble getting the bulbs to stick to Craig's chest. This broke the awkwardness a little and Craig, the doctors, and the man waiting for his wife shared a chuckle. The doctor mixed up some rehydration salts in a water bottle and they gave Craig 3 small yellow pills and two large white ones.

Soon afterwards he was feeling like he was going to get sick again. He asked for a bucket and it arrived just in time for him to vomit 5 times in rapid succession. So much for those pills. He was clearly not able to hold down any fluids. They gave Craig an IV to start the rehydration process. Cuong asked me for Craig's passport and he gave it to the staff. They filled out all the paper work and I didn't have to do a thing.

They decided that they wanted to do an ultrasound to rule out any kind of major problem. They told me to have a seat in the office, while they wheeled Craig off. Cuong went with him. I found myself alone in the shabby admit area. Most of the paperwork seemed to still be done on actual paper here. A couple of computer terminals were the only hint that we hadn't stepped into a hospital in the 1960's. I had a Vietnam Heritage magazine in my pocketbook, and I distractedly read through it, trying to pass the time without worrying too much.  A large clock similar to the kind we had in our school classrooms moved slowly from 2:30  to 3 o'clock in the morning. I was so tired, and I had no idea how long I would be sitting on this faded black and white vinyl chair.I had a view into a room where patients in rows of beds were hooked to dialysis machines. I wondered if we would be placed in a similar room, with dozens of other patients and no privacy. A doctor came in, glanced at Craig's paperwork, and then sat at one of the computers, taking no notice of me.

Meanwhile, they had taken Craig to a very small room for an ultrasound. The doctor psyched himself up for the procedure by doing a pull-up on a metal bar protruding from the wall.

Craig rests in our private hospital room
Shortly after 3 a.m., they wheeled Craig back into the ER area. Cuong told me that they didn't find anything wrong,"Except he's a little fat," he said with a smile. I was relieved to hear this. "They will now put you in a room where you can both rest." This sounded great to me. We had been up for almost 24 hours and we were both exhausted. They brought us to a room with air conditioning, overhead fans, two beds, and a private bathroom. Both Cuongs came in to help get us settled. They said they would be back with breakfast in the morning, and they both left.

The doctor told me to lock the door behind everyone. This seemed a bit odd (was it really necessary?) but I wasn't about to argue. I locked the door behind them. I found sheets under the pillows on the beds, and I made up the two beds. I brought a plastic bucket from the bathroom to put next to Craig's bed just in case he needed to be sick again.  There was fresh bottled water in the room, and even a little refrigerator. We decided that we should inform folks at home as to what was going on, since we were no longer on our scheduled itinerary that we had left with them. I tried calling Steve on my cell phone, but the call wouldn't go through. So I texted him to please call me. At 3:20 a.m., the phone rang and I was able to tell him what was going on. We asked him to inform our parents, and we told him that we would keep him abreast of further developments. Then we drifted off to well-deserved sleep.

At around 5:30 a.m., Craig got up to go to the bathroom. He was obviously still not well.  Afterwards the two of us laid on our separate beds, awake, listening to the beeping traffic. Really, on a Saturday? At dawn? But when we thought about it, the weekend is probably this town's busiest time, since local and international tourists come to town. It was quite warm in the room, and we dozed on and off.

At 7:45, the Cuongs arrived and knocked om the door. They came in with a full-fledged picnic brunch. They seemed to have taken all of the food and coffee from the boat and brought it here. They even brought an electric coffee pot. Clearly they were hoping that Craig would be feeling better, and that perhaps we could even resume the boat trip.

They made me a nice cup of coffee and tried to convince Craig to eat sticky rice and pork. Craig told them that he still hadn't even successfully kept down any water, so he was not up for it. I ate some bread but I was too distracted to eat much. At Cuong's urging, Craig ate a small sesame cookie and some mouthfuls of bread.

A cleaning woman came in several times to clean our bathroom. Doctors and nurses were in and out., and one changed Craig's IV. He had been working off the same bag ofsaline all night, so the drip was pretty slow. They upped in to try to get him more hydrated.

After assessing the situation, Cuong realized that there was no way we could resume the boat trip with Craig in this shape. It was disappointing to face up to this fact, but it was the right call. Cuong told us that he thought that we should really do our best to try to make it back to Hanoi today. We could stay at our beloved Metropole Hotel, and there was an international clinic around the corner if Craig needed further medical attention. Nothing sounded better than leaving this loud, hot noisy place behind and retreating to a world of comfortable luxury, where Craig could truly get some rest and start to recover. But would Craig be able to make it through a 3-hour drive without getting sick? It seemed like a daunting prospect. But the more we thought about it, the more determined he became.

The doctors came in and gave him a dose of pills. We don't know what any of them were, but we had to take their word for it. Meanwhile the Cuongs sprang intro action trying to get Craig discharged. While they were gone, a doctor came in with a packet of rehydration salts. He went to pour it into Craig's large water bottle. I tried to stop him and explain via sign language that the water bottle already had a dosage of dehydration salts in it. He smiled and nodded and added them. Those things taste bad to begin with, so I made a mental note not to let Craig drink that double dose. We had brought Gatorade packets with us, and would use those instead. We appreciated how crucial it was to have had Cuong with us to translate, because obviously I wasn't getting anywhere on my own.

Mr Giang arrived with Craig's sandals, which he had been given to hold last night. Cuong came back with a discharge waiver for me to sign. "They want to hold the handle, not the knife," he explained.  I asked how much we owed, and Cuong said, "It is all taken care of." We didn't quite know what he meant or who had taken care of it, but we were certainly grateful. A doctor came in to remove Craig's IV, and by 10:15 we were  leaving the hospital. We thanked "Sea Canoe Cuong" for all he had done, and gave him the tips for the crew that we hadn't had time to distribute in last night's chaos. Cuong handed me his phone to talk to Toni, who was worried about Craig and wanted to check in. I told her that Cuong had handled the entire situation expertly. "He's the best!" she agreed.

We got into the car and got Craig settled and comfortable. We both tried to get a little extra sleep on the ride. Mr. Giang made great time getting back to the city, and we arrived at the Metropole Hotel at 1 o'clock.  Cuong had called ahead and explained the situation, so we didn't even need to check in. We were brought to room 318 in the historic wing.   Cuong had suggested freshening up and then heading down to Nhung's restaurant (Spices Garden) for a light lunch. Craig did not feel he was in any shape to attempt his first meal in public, but we were taking one thing at a time.

We got settled in the room, and Craig got into one of the comfortable terry cloth bathrobes. We were able to dial in a comfortable temperature on the air conditioning, and we turned on an overhead fan for air movement. Craig got comfortable under the puffy white duvet. The duty manager of the hotel called the room. He had been informed by Cuong that Craig wasn't feeling well, and wanted us to know that we could ask him for anything we might need. Craig and I joked that the Metropole Hotel was like the Houses of Healing in the Lord of the Rings books.

I hopped into the shower after the hot and sticky night in the hospital. While I was in the shower, Cuong came up to the room. Craig explained that he wasn't up to eating in public, and Cuong agreed that we should just get room service. We were supposed to have dinner at Cuong's house tomorrow night, and he told us that he hoped that Craig was feeling well enough to do that. We hoped so too!

I was confident that Craig would recover, given time, rest, and hydration. But the day after tomorrow we were scheduled to fly home. It was a miracle that he had survived the three hour car ride. How would he ever survive air travel halfway around the world? That wasn't much time to recover.  If he was still sick, it would be up to me to try to change our flights and get us home again. I tried to push this thought out of my head as it was too overwhelming. Luckily I was sure that Cuong would help me in any way he possibly could.

We looked at the room service  menu and picked out a couple of items for Craig to try. In 20 minutes, it arrived on a nice tray. For Craig, we had ordered a nice bowl of chicken pho and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. I went for comfort food: spaghetti bolognaise with garlic toast. We also got two big bottles of cold water, and I got a Coke. I used the nice cold water to mix up a packet of Gatorade for Craig. He was so dehydrated that he swilled half the bottle. That probably wasn't the best idea, given that he had so little in his system from the past 12 hours. He tried the pho and then proceeded to vomit 5 times in rapid succession. We suspect that it was from drinking too fast. He was determined to keep something down, and he tried the open-faced toasted ham and cheese sandwich. He had better luck with that. Over time he ate the whole sandwich. We also decided that he should continue his course of antibiotics, just to be safe, so we gave him his daily dose.
Our room at the Metropole Hotel
Room service at the Metropole Hotel
We were both still exhausted, so we napped for around 2 hours, waking up at around 6 p.m.  Craig went to the bathroom, and though his system still wasn't perfect, he had managed to keep his food down.  While Craig was in the shower, a man came to turn down our room and bring us our nightly French pastry treat. Craig was thrilled with the unlimited hot water and the water pressure.

I called Cuong to give him an update, but there was no answer. He immediately called me back. He was thrilled to hear some positive news and told us that he would meet us at breakfast tomorrow morning and we would play it by ear from there. He wished us a good sleep. Craig went to bed at around 8 o'clock. I stayed up a bit longer, getting the journal up to date.

The next morning, Craig was feeling even better. We woke up at 6:30, took showers, and headed down to breakfast at 8 o'clock. We stopped in at Spices Garden. If Nhung was working the breakfast shift, we would eat at her restaurant today. We asked the hostess is Madame Nhung was here. The hostess got a worried look and asked if everything was alright. We smiled and said that we were her husband's clients, and that we had just wanted to say hello. She was relieved that we weren;t looking for the manager with a complaint. She told us that Madame Nhung had the day off today. We thanked her and headed over to La Beaulieu for breakfast.

We had a delightful breakfast of fresh fruit, homemade yogurt, fresh-baked baguettes, flan, cheese, bacon and sausage, banana bread, dumplings, fresh orange juice, and coffee. Craig had regained his appetite and enjoyed it all, though he stayed away from anything greasy.

Cuong came in and found us at 9 o'clock. He had called our room this morning and got no answer. He thought that was a good sign that we were up and about, so he had breakfast at home with Nhung and then came over. When he walked into the restaurant and saw Craig at the breakfast table, he was absolutely beaming. It was obvious that he had been quite worried and was so relieved. He had some coffee and orange juice with us, and said that we should probably take it easy today. He would pick us up at 5:30 p.m. to go to his house for dinner. That sounded great to us.

We finished up our breakfast and decided to take a little walk. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, and we had yet to explore the area around the hotel on foot. We walked around the block and were amazed at the number of bridal parties who were getting their pictures taken outside the hotel. We saw at least a dozen. Cyclo drivers tried to get our attention, offering us a ride around the city. We said no thank you, and tried to convey that we had already been on a cyclo ride.

We loved the hustle and bustle of the city. As we walked past parks, we saw more bridal parties getting their photos taken. We passed a plaza with a statue of  Lý Thái Tổ, who is known for relocating the imperial capital from Hoa Lư to Thăng Long (modern day Hà Nội) in 1010 A.D. Families were rollerblading along the plaza near the statue.

We walked down to Hoan Kiem lake. The lake is known as the Lake of the Restored Sword because an ancient turtle is said to have presented King Le Thai To a magic sword in the 15th century which helped him to win a 10-year war against the Chinese. After his victory, he returned the sword to the
turtle. Cuong had told us that a large, old turtle lives in the lake to this day, and that he had photographed it.

People were out on their motorbikes and cars. We saw golf carts full of people taking a scenic tour of the city. A group of young Vietnamese men said hello to us and asked us where we were from. The sun was very hot and we were quite thirsty. We stopped at a little souvenir stand to buy Fantas for $1 each. We walked along the lake front down towards the iconic red Rising Sun Bridge, which we had seen on every travel television show filmed in Hanoi.

We passed some public art on display. One interesting piece depicted the earth being held up by two hands, with a white dove perched on top of the earth. Vietnam appeared oversized on the front of the globe. The statue was surrounded by topiaries shaped like dragons. Beautiful flowers were growing out of decorative tree stumps. An ambulance drove by, and Craig and I thought of how far we had come in the past 36 hours as we snatched a picture of it.

We were out during the hottest part of the day, and I felt like I was starting to overheat. Craig was finally getting his energy back,  but I was starting to feel dehydrated. My body was finally coming down from the state of manic hypervigilance that I had needed to maintain while Craig was sick. I had stayed mentally strong for him, but if I wasn't careful, I could succumb to dehydration as well. So we headed back to the hotel. I sat in the air conditioned lobby while Craig went a few doors down to buy two large water bottles at 50 cents each.



Bridal photos in front of the Metropole Hotel
Opera House

Lý Thái Tổ statue
Rising Sun Bridge

We came back to the room, made some Gatorades out of our new water bottles, packed, wrote a few more postcards, and mailed them at the front desk. My skirt got caught on something and ripped. I had planned to wear it to Cuong's house for dinner tonight. Craig remembered having seen a sewing kit in the bathroom along with the other myriad of amenities. I opened the sewing kit to find that all of the needles were even pre-threaded! This hotel truly had everything you could possibly want. I quickly stitched up the rip in my skirt, happy that it would be able to make it through one last night.

At 5:15,we went down the the lobby. Cuong arrived shortly before 5:30, and led us out to the car.
When Mr. Giang saw Craig up and about for the first time, he ran over to him with a huge smile and gave him a great big bear hug. We were very happy to learn that Mr. Giang would be joining us for dinner as well. Tonight would truly be a celebratory dinner, the perfect way to cap off the trip with friends who already seemed like family.

Mr. Giang drove us down the main road past the mosaic wall and down a perpendicular cul de sac to Cuong's house. It was a gorgeous tall, narrow house with three balconies overlooking the tree-lined street. It is in he heart of the city, but feels more rural. Nhung greeted us at the door and led us in for a cup of tea. Cuong presented us with a bag of goodies - a Vietnamese cookbook ("equal opportunity," Cuong said with a laugh), some tea and G7 3-in-1 coffee left over from the boat, and a stack of around 80 color prints of photos from our trip. We flipped through them together. He really is an amazing photographer, and it wass nice to be going home with physical prints that we could show people. There were a lot of great shots of Craig and I together, something that is usually lacking when one or the other of us is always the one behind the camera.

Cuong and Nhung's 14-year old son Phong arrived home and introduced himself. We had heard so much about him from Cuong over the course of the trip. It was so nice to finally get to meet him. We were called upstairs for dinner. Nhung gave Craig a Ha Noi beer in a festive can decorated for Tet. The can had an old-school pull tab that we haven't had in the U.S. for about 30 years.

More and more food was delivered to the table: beef and noodles, spring rolls, noodle salad, beef jerky,  chicken with broth and mushrooms, and greens. It was absolutely delicious! Craig fully had his appetite back, and was able to enjoy every bite. Mr. Giang had brought the leftover rice wine from the boat. Nhung poured it from a plastic yellow gas can into a decanter and we all toasted, "Chuc suc khoe!"

Cuong and Nhung's elder son Kien arrived fresh from winning a soccer match and joined us at the table. It was nice to meet him as well. He had planned to bring his wife and baby daughter, but the baby was teething and running a fever. A family friend nicknamed Andy arrived. He had gone to school in the Boston area, living with a host family in Roslindale. We discussed the possibility of Phong coming to the U.S. to study. He is a good student and his English is fantastic. Who knows what the future may bring?

The rice wine was flowing, and the whole family kept saying that the only time Cuong drinks like this is when he is with his brothers-in-arms from the war. Cuong said it just proved that we had bonded, like family. We showed them our photos we had brought from home. We showed them our house and our families, which we hope that one day they will be able to visit and meet in person. We had very lively conversation and many laughs. We truly felt like we were kindred spirits with Cuong's family, and we took many photos to commemorate our farewell dinner.

At 8 o'clock, Mr. Giang drove us home, and Kien went along for the ride. He accompanied us into the lobby and made sure that we safely got into the elevator. He was very sweet. When we arrived at our room, the turndown service had already been completed. Our bedtime pastry was different tonight; it resembled a toasted marshmallow. As usual, it was delicious. We laid out our clothes for tomorrow and finished getting everything packed for our long journey home.

Cuong's house
Cuong, Phong, Mr. Giang, Andy, Nhung, Steph, and Craig
Craig, Cuong, Phong, Kien, Steph, Nhung
Mr. Giang, Cuong, and Steph
Kien, Cuong, Craig, Steph, Nhung, Phong
The next morning, we woke up at 6:30 a.m. and took what we expected to be our last glorious showers for the next 2 days. At 8 o'clock, we headed down to breakfast. We lingered over one last breakfast in this exquisite hotel.

We met Cuong in the lobby shortly after 9:30. We loaded our bags into Mr. Giang's Toyota Innova for the last time, and we headed to the airport. We passed the now-familiar mosaic which we now knew was not far from Cuong's house.

When we got to the airport, we said goodbye to Mr. Giang. Cuong accompanied us into the airport and guided us through check-in. We checked our duffel bags the entire way through to Boston, keeping only our small carry-ons and a bag of souvenirs. Cuong walked us up to security and we said our goodbyes. It had been a wonderful trip and it was sad to leave.


A last look at the mural celebrating Hanoi's millennial
After going through security, we sat in the large cavernous waiting area. There were many little shops selling reasonably-priced souvenirs, and we bought several last-minute items. Our flight was 15 minutes late arriving, so we took off at 1:15 rather than our scheduled 1:00.  It was very hot on the plane, and the only complaint that we have against Singapore Airlines is that their planes do not have individual air vents at each seat. It was very stuffy.

We arrived at Changi Airport in Singapore at 5:30 p.m. As we approached the runway, we could see
numerous container ships in various states of full-ness off the coast. It was impressive and lived up to its reputation as a shipping hub. When we got off the plane, we found ourselves in a terminal decorated with many beautiful orchids/

We took the sky Train to Terminal 3. Our flight wasn't until 11:45, so we had a lot of time to kill. This airport is known as one of the best in the world for its amenities, including movie theaters and even a swimming pool. Earlier in the day they run a city tour. Though the airport is massive, there are many nooks where you can relax and not feel overwhelmed by crowds. We found some comfy chairs in front of a high-def TV that was showing the National Geographic Channel. We settled in to watch some shows. Craig got us each an ice cold 7-Up. Nearby was a koi pond with some of the biggest koi we had ever seen. On my way to the ladies room I even passed a door leading to a butterfly farm. The bathrooms themselves were immaculately clean. Attendants were constantly cleaning and shining things, and each restroom had a touchscreen app where you could rate its cleanliness.

One at a time we each took a turn in a chair that massages your feet and calves. It was a free, 15-minute foot and lower leg massage. Our next flight would last 14 hours, so we wanted to be as loosened up as possible.

Comfy chairs at Changi Airport, Singapore

At 10:30,  our gate was announced and we headed to A2. We went through security and waited to board our flight. The gate was full of British rowers who were wearing their London Olympics jackets. We boarded the flight and wound up sitting next to a very unfriendly woman.

The flight attendants passed out the menus to let us know what our food options would be throughout the flight. It was very hot on the plane. The woman next to me was covered head to toe with a blanket. I don't know how she could stand it. When we got up to use the restroom, we could feel cooler air movement elsewhere in the plane. Is there an upgrade fee we could pay to get some of that?

We had a nice pork piccatta with spaghetti for dinner and then tried to get some sleep. Craig was feeling a bit dehydrated and woke up at one point to ask the flight attendant for an additional cranberry juice. Before we knew it, several hours had passed. When we woke up, the flight attendant appeared with a can of cranberry juice. She apologized, saying that she had just remembered it. We all had a good laugh. At least she eventually remembered. And we had been sleeping anyway.

In the morning, we watched The Love Market (Le Marché de L'amour) again. We had watched this documentary about the ethnic minorities in Northern Vietnam on our flight to Hanoi two weeks ago, but it was amazing how much more we were able to absorb it now. We recognized the Sa Pa market and Catholic church. We recognized the Red Dao and Black Hmong interviewees by their style of dress. We now had context in which to place this information.

We were served eggs for breakfast, and after what seemed like an infinite flight, we landed at 5:55 a.m. at Heathrow, London. We went to the Virgin Atlantic counter and waited for them to open at 7:15. They had been unable to assign us seats for this flight upon check in with Singapore Airlines in Hanoi or Singapore, so we needed to see an agent here to get seats for our transatlantic flight.

After getting our seats, we made our way to Terminal 3. We saw signs for No. 1 Lounge Bedroom and Spas, and decided that we would check it out. We had a 9-hour layover, so we asked about the availability of a bedroom with a private bath. The woman told us that she could book us into a double room for a minimum of 3 hours. We did some mental math and booked it for 5 hours.

We went down a little hallway and found ourselves in room # 11, a very small room with bunk beds, fridge, and TV.  Our private bathroom had towels, body wash, shampoo, etc. After 14 hours on a plane, it felt great to take a nice shower and lay down on the bunkbeds , stretching our cramped legs out under a fluffy white duvet.

After a nice rest, we went out to the lounge. There was a complimentary breakfast buffet which we enjoyed in comfortable chairs with a view of planes taking off. Kids played in a game room (which had foosball as well as computer games), and there was also a movie room. Free wi-fi was available, as well as free newspapers and magazines. Our bedroom had come with full lounge access, but it is also possible to buy lounge access separately.

We checked out at 12:15. It was worth every penny to have been able to freshen up and rest in a quiet, non-crowded atmosphere. We would definitely keep this in mind for future trips.
We went out to the bullpen and people-watched until 1:45 p.m., when our gate was announced. We got singled out for an extra security check, at boarding time, but it wasn't a big deal.

Room 11 at the No. 1 Lounge,  Heathrow
We took off at 3:25 p.m. We were in a row of 2, so we didn't need to worry about disturbing anyone when we needed to use the rest room. We were once again given menus for the several meals we would have on this flight. We watched Crossfire Hurricane, a documentary about the early days of the Rolling Stones. Craig got mincemeat pie and I had an aubergine bake for lunch. It was quite good.

The flight was starting to make me sleepy, so I took a nap. Craig listened to Ten Years After on the iPod (Alvin Lee having recently passed away). We were served coffee, followed by a cheese and onion sandwich, and a cupcake.

We landed shortly after 6 p.m. We went through immigration and for some reason were singled out as having brought food products that needed to be checked. The customs officer asked what food we had. We said that we had no food with us.  He waved us through.

We picked up our luggage and called Craig's brother Steve to come pick us up. We bought drinks at Dunkin Donuts and then headed out to the refreshingly cool 50 degree weather, enjoying the sunset while waiting for Steve arrive.
Sunset at Logan Airport, Boston
Postscript:

When we got home, we inquired with Toni at Myths and Mountains to find out who had paid for the hospital charges.  We had purchased trip insurance, so there was no need for the tour company to be responsible for the cost. Toni was able to get us the hospital receipts easily. The ambulance ride turned out to have only cost $24. The remainder of the hospital fees (for IV, eeg, ultrasound, and the private overnight room) cost $249. We were amazed at the affordability, and our trip insurer covered the whole cost, as well as the unscheduled additional night at the Metropole. The entire process was very straightforward, and we were very happy with Myths and Mountains' recommended insurer.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Travels in Northern Vietnam Part III: Sa Pa



Panhou Village grounds
After a comfortable sleep at the Panhou Village, we woke up and left bright and early, before the hotel restaurant was even open. Cuong wanted to make sure we got to see the Flower Hmong Market in Coc Ly, so we needed to make an early start. Reception didn't even seem to be open this early; Cuong must have dropped our key through the slot.

We drove past many kids who were making their early morning walk to school. We passed a primary school where the youngest were headed, and a while later we passed a secondary school for the older ones. The car wound up over the mountain, past the spot where we had seen the Yao men praying for their brother yesterday. We realized while backtracking that the only reason we had gone that way was to stay at the Panhou Village. It had definitely been worth it; we loved the spa treatments and the property was beautiful. As with any place on the trip so far, we would have enjoyed staying longer.

Breakfast local-style

Breakfast stop
We stopped for breakfast on the drive at a little streetside food stall. We sat on plastic stools at low tables next to locals, some of whom dined in, and some of whom took out food.  A woman was sitting and cooking food, and she scooped sticky rice with pork shavings, pork, and hard boiled eggs into a bowl and placed it in front of us. Cuong made us some coffee. This was not the kind of place where westerners tended to eat, and we were a source of curiosity for locals. As we ate, the woman kept refilling Craig's bowl and commenting on how hungry he was. A young woman with a  baby pulled up on a motorbike. She got breakfast to go, tied her baby onto her back, and took off on the motorbike. It was something that would never be allowed in the U.S., but was commonplace here. We used the rest room at the gas station next door.

After our quick breakfast break, we resumed our long ride. We wound along narrow roads, passing lots of individual plywood plies drying in the sun on the side of the road. We had seen this sporadically during our travels, but here we actually saw the machine which planes the wood into plies.

After several hours of driving, we arrived in Coc Ly at around 11 o'clock. We parked with a lot of tourist vehicles. The market had been going since dawn, so we were actually only catching the tail end of it.  We walked up a hill to where the animal market takes place. Water buffalo are bought and sold here. We looked around and saw men in serious discussion, while a buyer put a potential purchase through its paces. Cuong told us that water buffalo cost between $700 and $900 US, so they are a significant investment. The adult buffalo had rope tied through their nostrils and they were tied to a stake in the ground. Baby water buffalo weren't tied up. We suppose they stay with their mothers.

Flower Hmong women at the Coc Ly animal market

Water buffalo at Coc Ly animal market

After checking out the animal market, we walked down the hill to see the rest of the market. The Flower Hmong, unlike the White or Black Hmong, don't make their own clothing. They buy it at markets like this one. Their outfits are very colorful, and consist of a variety of contrasting patterns. The women wear lightweight pleated skirts with multi-colored horizontal stripes. Under the skirts, they either wear black leggings or multi-colored woven strips wrapped around their legs like bandages. They wore little shawls, with or without sleeves, with intricate woven patterns. Sometimes beads dangled as fringe. Some of them augmented their outfits with brightly colored western plaid shirts. They wore bright colored kerchiefs on their heads, except for some who wore more western-style sun hats. They carried brightly colored woven purses. Some carried umbrellas to protect them from the sun. On their feet most of them wore the white flip-flops that we have seen everywhere.

Chuc suc khoe! Rice wine at the Coc Ly market
Flower Hmong woman at the Coc Ly market
This was a combination of a traditional market and a tourist market.There were plenty of stalls selling items to locals: all of the ethnic Flower Hmong clothing was available, as were flashlights, headlamps, batteries, food, colonial-vestige French pastries, traditional medicine, tobacco, wooden water pipes, mosquito netting, rope, cell phones, conical hats, and sugar cane. There were tables where families were eating bowls of rice noodles together, and other tables where men and women were enjoying rice wine. A chair under an umbrella served as a barber's chair. The barber tried to entice Craig to get a hair cut. Craig took off his hat and showed that he doesn't have much to cut.



Baby watches his mom eat rice noodles at Coc Ly market

Flower Hmong clothing for sale at Coc Ly market
The people were more used to seeing tourists and weren't as overtly friendly as the people in Ha Giang had been. They had handicraft items for sale to tourists, and the sellers were more pushy than they had been at the less-touristed areas. Most of the busloads of other tourists had already left; we were some of the last non-locals here. Some of the sellers were tired out after a morning's work. We saw one man laying down on his pile of wares shirtless, checking his cell phone. I snapped a picture of him and he promptly got up, embarrassed.

Taking a break from selling at Coc Ly market

After fully exploring the market, we got back into the car to find cookies with our water bottles in the seatback pockets. Cuong said that lunch would be a little late today, so he wanted to make sure that we had snacks. Craig and  I smiled; with the wide array of great food available at every meal, we never had a chance to feel hungry during the course of the day.

We drove along winding mountain roads, past trucks so huge that we were surprised that they could even negotiate the corners. We drove along the Red River, which separates Vietnam from China here. The river is about 20 feet wide here, cutting through rural farmland. The Chinese side looks no different than the Vietnamese. Had Cuong not told us, we never would have suspected that this was the location of a national border.

We arrived in the  recently rebuilt city of Lao Cai. In 1979, the Vietnamese were feeling pretty good about themselves after having driven out the French and then the Americans. Apparently they made some boastful statements about first world countries being unable to conquer them.

China took exception to that claim that they were invincible, and invaded northern Vietnam with 100,000 troops to seemingly prove a point, flattening the city of Lao Cai in the process. It has all been rebuilt since into a modern city with tall buildings.

We stopped at Trung Hòa Cơm Phở (translating the name in Google Translate yields "Neutralization of Rice Noodles", which sounds pretty awesome) for lunch. There were two tables out on the sidewalk in front of the narrow kitchen. One  table was full of locals, and we sat at the other with Cuong and Mr. Giang. The sun was very hot, but luckily our table was shaded. There was a lot of traffic, and large trucks spewed diesel fumes. This was a bit of culture shock - definitely the most urban environment we had been in since we left Hanoi.

The proprietor of the restaurant was happy to take photos with us as long as the restaurant's sign was in the picture. His waitstaff served us pork wrapped in crispy jungle leaves, pork shish kebab, rice, tofu, greens with garlic, and an omelette. It was all quite delicious. We had yet to find a dish that we didn't like.


The folks at the other table were looking at us with curiosity. A young woman kept trying to get a photo of us with her phone, but she was too embarrassed to make eye contact. We would have posed for her. The advent of camera phones has really shifted the dynamic between traveler and local. No longer is the traveler the only one with the ability to document their surroundings, and often the locals find the travelers as interesting as the travelers find the locals.

Lunch at Trung Hòa Cơm Phở in Lao Cai
Lao Cai

After lunch, we continued for an additional hour, climbing up and up and up  into the mountains. 
As we left Lao Cai behind, we passed into a more wooded area. Cuong explained that when China gave back the land that they had invaded, the border ended up shifted a bit, so that a previously Vietnamese waterfall was now shared by the two countries.

We arrived in Sa Pa, and went directly up the steep driveway of the Victoria Hotel. At the front desk, they gave us a warm hand towel and a cup of cinnamon tea while we checked in. We were supposed to be on our own for dinner tonight. But we didn't want to just eat alone at the hotel, and we invited Cuong and Mr. Giang to eat with us. We only had so much time left together and we enjoyed their company so much. They happily accepted. Cuong told us that he knows the owner of a good restaurant in town. We made plans to meet Cuong in the lobby at 7 o'clock. In the meanwhile, we would have some free time. Cuong suggested that we could take a swim in the pool, or get a spa treatment.

The lobby of the hotel was decorated with the different clothing styles of the local ethnic minorities. Women gave demonstrations of weaving at a big wooden loom. There was seating around a fireplace,  and a lounge where guests can play pool and watch TV.  As we  walked out into the courtyard, we passed a children's room filled with lots of colorful toys. We crossed the beautifully manicured grounds into the next building where our room (#130) was situated on the ground floor.
The room key was hanging from a small water buffalo bell. It was adorable and I wished that the hotel sold them. It would make a great Christmas ornament.
View from our room at Victoria Sa Pa Hotel


The room was quite nice, with dark wood furniture and floors. The linens were decorated in local patterns. We had a very nice balcony overlooking the town. There were bathrobes and slippers for each of us.The bathroom was quite nice, with a wooden step up into the tub.

As we got settled into the comfortable room, I saw the spa menu. Reflexology and foot massage...that certainly sounded nice. Maybe we should book one during our free time. Of course it was a lot more expensive here than it had been at Panhou Village. 

But our first priority was laundry. We  had brought many layers of clothing, but it was so warm that we were wearing our warm weather clothes all the time. We hadn't really packed enough short sleeve shirts. Looking at the exorbitant a la carte laundry price list in the hotel, we realized why  Cuong had recommended a small shop next door to the hotel for their inexpensive laundry service. At $3 per kilogram, we decided to wash everything we had previously worn. Then we wouldn't need to worry about clothes at all for the rest of the trip. 

We walked out across the hotel driveway to the shop. In addition to laundry, they sold various souvenirs, jewelry, and North Face trekking supplies. The woman who owned the shop went through our laundry bags, taking out each item and making me write it all down. She then weighed it - 5 kg. She told us that it would be ready tomorrow afternoon.

I saw a sign advertising $5 foot massages. The reflexology back at the hotel was very expensive, and needed to be scheduled. A more informal treatment here was much cheaper. Craig's foot and ankle had been sore from when he fell yesterday, and the idea of a foot massage sounded great to him. The owner heard us, and asked if we wanted foot massages.

We decided that we wanted to take a walk through town to get some photos in the late afternoon sunlight while it lasted. We told her that we would come back in a little while.




Sa Pa square



We walked down the windy steep road toward town. We passed more stores selling trekking equipment and more hotels and tourism companies. When we reached the bottom of the hill, we crossed a large intersection to the town square, presided over by a modern looking Catholic church from the 1930's.

The town had been a hill-station retreat for the French during the hot summers of the colonial period. 
At 1650 meters, the weather can be considerably cooler than in places further south. Now it has the feel of an alpine village, with steep streets lined with narrow 4- and 5-story buildings. Restaurants, gift shops, bars, karaoke joints, and ubiquitous opportunities for foot and body massages. There were tourists everywhere, both local and foreign. Many of them were backpackers. It seemed very crowded. These curvy narrow streets weren't built to support the amount of traffic that they now receive. You always feel like you are in somebody's way.

We walked around the town, looking at the colorful buildings in the late afternoon sunlight. We wandered into several souvenir stores. They were rather pricey, though the clerks were always willing to negotiate. 

The sun was hot as we made our way back to the square. Black Hmong girls approached us, trying to sell us their handicrafts. "You buy from me!" They were not shy.  We smiled at them but it was not the same kind of interaction we had with the people of Ha Giang. Here they were jaded by constant tourist interaction. Apparently, at one point the government had tried to convince the ethnic minority women to sell handicrafts in the town square. This takes time away from their farming endeavors, and means that they absolutely need to earn money from tourists. They become very forward and unfortunately your natural instinct is to say no thank you and continue on your way.



Sa Pa
Sa Pa
A dozen adults were playing volleyball in the square. We walked back up the steep winding driveway up to the hotel. We stopped into the shop for our foot massages. Although we had been told that it is usually cool in the mountains here, the day was actually quite warm and we were overheated even after our short walk around town. As the owner of the store prepared for our foot massages, we asked if they had any cold drinks. Although their drinks were not refrigerated, someone ran to a neighboring store and returned with two ice cold Fantas. 

The owner motioned us into a small back room where we sat in comfortable chairs and put our feet up on ottomans. She sat on my ottoman and started massaging my feet. About 5 minutes later, her daughter Tham arrived, and started Craig's foot massage. His foot was a bit bruised from yesterday, but the massage helped. Tham spoke very good English and was quite friendly. She asked us questions about ourselves, so we took out the little photo album we had brought from home. She flipped through and she and her mom looked at photos of our home and family. She said that she had never seen photos of a tourist's home. We really enjoyed talking with Tham. Rather than spending a fortune on a foot massage at the hotel, we were getting to spend some time getting to know the locals, which is always one of our favorite things to do.

At the end of our hour-long massages, they asked if we wanted our shoulders done as well. We couldn't say no to that. Feeling fully refreshed, we looked around the store at the various souvenirs. Tham didn't put any pressure on us to buy anything, which made for a more pleasant shopping experience than we had had downtown.We picked up a couple of things for our godchildren as we paid for the foot massages. Tham threw in a package of postcards for free.


We went back to the hotel and stopped in at the gift shop. I found a lovely pink and purple reversible cashmere and silk blend shawl which was woven into a beautiful pattern. I couldn't resist buying it. It was so soft and pretty. We were realizing that so far we haven't really purchased much of anything, aside from some small fragile ceramics pieces which would be lucky to make it home intact.


At 7 o'clock, Cuong met us in front of the hotel. We waved to Tham in her shop and walked down the hill to the main street, where we ran into Mr. Giang. Cuong led us to the Nature Bar and Grill. We climbed the stairs and were shown to a table overlooking the street. The table contained a platter full of raw beef, pork, and chicken with carved pineapple slices along the edge. There was also a smaller plate full of raw prawns. There was a gas burner in the middle of the table, and they soon brought out a large stainless steel covered pot. The pot was divided into two in the shape of a yin-yang symbol. Half of it held spicy broth, and the other half held mild broth. Cuong explained that this was a "hot pot". The raw meat on the table would be cooked in the broth by us.



Cuong, Mr. Giang, Craig and Steph at Nature Bar & Grill (Photo courtesy of Cuong)
Mr. Giang adds meat to the hot pot
We were served chicken wings and a sizzling plate of chicken marinated in honey. It was delicious. Mr. Giang poured us some of the rice wine he had brought from the guest house. He poured us shots and we toasted "Chuc suc khoe!"  Next came a plate of freshwater clams. Mr. Giang began the process of cooking the food. He started with the seafood, placing the prawns and clams into the broth and letting them cook. He and Cuong ordered a bottle of local Hmong apple rice wine and we had more toasts. It definitely had a more cider-like flavor than the guest house rice wine. It had a sweetness to it, and a bigger kick.

Mr. Giang extracted the clams and prawns from the broth. We started eating the clams. I am not normally much of a shellfish eater, but I wanted to at least give them a try. It was fun trying to open a clamshell and eat the meat with chopsticks. They were delicious! The prawns made a quick trip to the kitchen to be shelled and deheaded. I don't normally like the texture of shrimp, but I found these to be quite enjoyable. The hot pot was delicious, and we sampled all of the different meats, as well as tofu and mushrooms. The flavors all mixed with the broth were delicious. We kept eating and drinking, enjoying one another's company. 

We were all within easy walking distance of the restaurant. They were staying at a hotel a few doors down. Mr. Giang walked us down an alley which popped out at a market. We walked up steps until we found ourselves at the Catholic church. It was lit up in a cycle of colors, red, orange, yellow, green, blue.It looked very impressive. We said goodnight to Mr. Giang and walked up the hill to our hotel. Tham's mother waved at us as we passed her store. We went to bed at around 10:20.

Chuc suc khoe! Cuong and Craig toast with rice wine
Catholic Church, Sa Pa

The next morning, we showered and ate breakfast at the hotel. It was a very nice buffet, and we were astonished at how many guests were staying at this hotel. There was a steady stream of folks coming in for breakfast. As we walked back to our room to grab our day packs, we noticed that there were rabbits in an enclosure. They were eating some lettuce which had just been fed to them.

At 9 o'clock, we met Cuong and Mr. Giang out front, and Mr. Giang drove us 5 km out of Sa Pa toward Ban Den. We pulled over at a mile marker and got out of the car. The views of the surrounding mountains and valleys were spectacular.  Green rice terraces as far as the eye can see in the hazy sunshine. Groups of Black Hmong women were gathered here at the road, approaching tourists who started trekking here. 

Soon we had an entourage of four women accompanying us on our trek. They were wearing traditional Black Hmong clothing: dark indigo-dyed short dresses with embroidered sleeves. There is elaborate embroidery hidden under their collars. Their legs were wrapped from their knees down to their ankles with woven strips of indigo fabric. Most of them wore the ubiquitous white flip-flops we had seen all over Ha Giang. They wore silver hoop earrings. Two of them had babies, and the other two carried baskets on their backs. They could all speak English to some degree, and asked us where we are from. One of the ladies took me by the hand as we walked. Her name was La and she was very sweet. Though they would occasionally try to get us to commit to looking at the handicrafts they had for sale, they also chatted with us and warned us to be careful of oncoming motorbikes.


Sa Pa
La holds Steph's hand
Visiting a school
We walked down a dirt road down into the valley. We stopped in at a school to deliver some school supplies that Cuong had brought. The class had 19 students, sitting two to a desk. The classroom was decorated with all kinds of primary school art projects, as well as colorful teacher-made learning aids. I felt nostalgic for my teaching days during and soon after college. The class sang a song for us and clapped along for percussion.  We passed out notebooks, pens, and crayons to the kids, and they were quite excited.

When we came back out, we noticed that the same four women were waiting for us. La took my hand and we resumed our trek. As we passed houses, we noticed that running water was being harnessed to automatically pound rice. A large wooden log would be fashioned into a large spoon which balanced on a fulcrum like a see-saw. Water would flow into the bowl of the spoon. When it got heavy enough,  it would tip. The water flowed out and the now-empty bowl jerked up in the air, causing a blunt instrument on the other end to pound a bowl of rice. Such a simple machine, making use of gravity, to perform a task.

The views in all directions were stunning. It was sunny and a bit hazy, and we could see terraced mountains at all depths until they disappeared into the haze. We stopped at a woman's house to use the rest room. The house was made of wood with a corrugated tin roof. She was sitting on the porch with her baby. He was adorable and gave a toothy smile for a picture. He had some plastic toys and a mirror  that he was playing with. She put him in his western stroller that still had some of the protective plastic on the handle. He was perfectly content while she did a weaving demonstration for us on her loom. Out back there was a barrel full of indigo dye. Cuong showed us the leaves of the plants from which they extract the dye. Cuong then showed us how to manually use a grinding wheel by pushing and pulling a handle in an elliptical motion. A foot-pedal-operated sewing machine sat idle.

Black Hmong mother and baby
Black Hmong mother and her happy baby boy

We continued on our trek, passing an area with a lot of infrastructure construction going on. There were sections of concrete pipe and bricks laying in the newly dug earth. Cuong thought that they might be planning to put in a dam.

We passed some house construction,  with a wooden frame and corrugated metal roof. They were using bricks to seal off the ends. We stopped into a little building for cold sodas. The sun was very hot. It was such a pastoral atmosphere. But it was far from low-key. There were many tourists doing the trek, and each had an entourage of locals who were hoping to get a piece of the money that tourism contributes to the economy.

We crossed a small suspension bridge over a stream and came upon two toddlers. One was half naked and playing with a steak knife. Adults were working here and there in the fields, but these two kids were unattended. Cuong put the knife out of harm's way. We arrived at another school, this one a kindergarten. The students were eating their lunch outside on the porch. Each had a small plastic bucket of rice that they brought from home, and the school augments it with additional food. There are 10 teachers and 120 students at the school. We presented the teachers with stacks of notebooks, crayons, and pens. They were very grateful, and when Cuong went to take pictures of us with them, one took Craig's hat off of his head and put it on her own. Sa Pa is also considered a remote location, so these teachers are also paid double the wages, like the teachers we had met in Ha Giang.  The teachers pointed out one particular student, only four years old and very small, who walks two hours each way to school and back, all by himself.

As we left the school, we noticed that our four companions were still waiting for us. By now we were beginning to feel a bit guilty. They would definitely be expecting us to buy something from them or to tip them after spending the whole morning with us. We had kind of expected them to disappear when we were in the school for so long.

We continued on, stopping in at various houses of people whom Cuong has gotten to know over the years guiding here. We passed water buffalo and pigs in fields. We passed a workshop where men and women were carving soapstone into intricate shapes. There was a large urn with a Buddha on the top and dragons as handles on the side that was about four feet tall.

Kindergarten students eating lunch
Kindergarten teachers (Photo courtesy of Cuong)

Kindergarten students

Soapstone carving

Sa Pa rice paddies

Children, Sa Pa


We passed a shop where they were selling soapstone carvings. Some were white and some had been painted over with black to accentuate the details in the carving. We were tempted by a carving of the  One Pillar Pagoda, but it was too heavy and breakable to carry home. So we opted instead for Tran Quoc Pagoda, which we had seen at West Lake in Hanoi. While we were in the shop, a man passed by outside carrying a huge metal water tank on his back. Despite the obvious weight and awkwardness of it, he was smiling and greeting everyone as he passed.

We continued on our way and passed a man who was doing construction on a building. He had taken stalks of bamboo and cut them in half length-wise. Then he had scored each of them vertically so they laid flat. He wove them through horizontal wooden slats to make walls. It was very interesting to see the simple ways in which people made use of natural resources. Along our trek, we saw several community guest houses that offered home stays. We were happy that we had done our home stay in a place that was less touristy.
Bamboo construction
Elderly woman, Sa Pa


As we walked further down the road, we could smell rice wine. Since when could we recognize the smell of brewing moonshine? Since seeing Chuong's still in Ha Giang. Cuong spoke to a woman who invited us into a building where she was tending a still. She took the byproducts from the process and fed them to her pigs.

When it was time for lunch, we stopped at a house whose owners were friendly with Cuong.
Our Black Hmong companions took food out of their baskets. They had been carrying our food all day; it was only now that we realized that Cuong had actually hired them as our local guides.  We had wondered if they had stayed with us all day just in the hopes that we would buy something from them. We were glad to know that they were being compensated either way. 

The women sat in the sun embroidering while we ate a picnic lunch of baguettes, Laughing Cow cheese,  tinned pork, pears, bananas, and soda. As usual there was way too much food for the three of us to consume, so we shared it with our companions. When we were done and ready to resume our walk, the ladies asked if we could look at what they had for sale so that they could go home to their families for lunch. Cuong said that we didn't have to buy from them since they had already been paid, but we wanted to buy something from each of them to show our appreciation for the time they had spent with us. We bought an embroidered purse from each of the four women. As a thank you, La and her friend tied little embroidered ribbon bracelets around my left wrist. "To match your shirt," La said. The other two women each gave one to Craig.

We said our thank you's and goodbye's and continued on our way through the gorgeous landscape. We passed a house where raw meat was sitting out on a table next to an old-fashioned scale. The butcher wasn't visible. We passed a little hardware shop where metal heads for pickaxes, hoes, and hatchets were displayed without wooden handles. Brightly colored plastic buckets, synthetic brooms,  hammocks, and extension cords were displayed for sale.

Cuong plays with the baby
Black Hmong mother and baby

Craig and Steph with our Black Hmong companions (Photo courtesy of Cuong)

Sa Pa
We walked a bit further, crossing a bridge over a small river, and arrived at the place where all of the drivers were socializing while waiting for their tourists to finish with the trek.  We waved and called to Mr. Giang and he drove us  back to town.

We would be taking an overnight train back to Hanoi tomorrow night. This meant that Mr. Giang would need to drive the car back to Hanoi to meet us. He would be starting his journey today to give himself a day and a half for the trip, and we would have a local driver tomorrow. So we said goodbye to him and wished him a safe trip. We asked Cuong if there was a more direct route, or if he would have to retrace the same route that had brought us here. He told us that he would need to retrace our route.

Mr. Giang dropped us off at a Foot and Body Massage shop on the main street in Sa Pa. Cuong likes to bring clients here after trekking, to help give business to one of the masseuses, who is legally blind. Craig, Cuong, and I sat in comfortable chairs with big pillows for our heads. We were each brought square wooden buckets full of boiling water and herbs. We soaked our feet and  our masseuses started out perched on the back of our chairs, massaging our necks and shoulders. Then they dried off our feet and massaged our feet and lower legs. It was very relaxing after our morning of walking. Both of us got massages for a total of $15. What a bargain! And we were happy to help out the blind masseuse, who had performed Craig's massage quite skillfully.


Cuong brings us for  foot massages

When our feet were nice and refreshed, Cuong asked if we were ready for some more walking. Up behind the Catholic church, we walked up a path past some stores which were selling traditional remedies. There were glass jars full of alcohol with various flora / fauna items soaking inside. It reminded us of the alcohol that Chuong had shared with us in Ha Giang. There were some taxidermy squirrels on display next to the jars.

Alcohol remedies and taxidermy squirrels
We came upon a gate welcoming us to Ham Rong Tourist Mountain. The mountain gets its name because it resembles a dragon. Legend says that it is the female half of a pair of dragons turned to stone who were washed away by a flood.  Cuong paid for our entrance, and we joined a group of tourists walking up stone steps and along a nice stone path. We passed through a garden of orchids and saw a sign for the Garden of the 12 Earthly Branches. This garden paid tribute to the animals of the zodiac, and there were statues of each animal peppered in amongst boulders, plants, and water features. Some of the statues were pop culture representations of the animals (the cat was represented by Tom of Tom and Jerry fame, and the mouse was represented by Mickey Mouse). This was obviously meant to appeal to kids, but it made the whole thing seem even more surreal.

Dragon statue, Garden of 12 Earthly Branches, Ham Rong Tourist Mountain, Sa Pa
Woman gardening, Ham Rong Tourist Mountain

We continued further up the mountain, through a very nicely landscaped set of gardens. The sun was hot and Cuong was encouraging us to keep moving. We arrived at a building and Cuong led us inside to have a seat. It turned out that he had been in a rush to arrive here for a 3:30 p.m. ethnic music and dance performance. We were the first people there, so we sat on benches in the front where we would have a good view. Cuong got us some cold sodas and the hall soon filled with tourists.


 Parasol dance
Dancers
Flute player
Fan dance

Bamboo pole dance


The performance featured young men and women performing a variety of traditional dances dressed in ethnic costumes. They danced with various props, including parasols and fans. Recorded music was played to accompany them, but in between dance numbers a young man got up and played tunes on traditional flutes. As a grand finale, they brought out long bamboo poles. Three people sat on each side of the stage, each holding onto a pair of poles. They moved the poles in a rhythmic way and dancers stepped between them. They invited audience members up to dance. Of course, the first person they approached in the audience was Craig, who politely declined the offer.
Although this is normally something I would participate in, after all of the walking we did today and with the foot massage on top of it, my feet didn't feel strong enough to attempt such a thing in public. Luckily there were many good sports who did try it. 

At the end of the half-hour long performance, the troupe sold a CD-R which contained video of their performances. We decided to support them by buying one, expecting to pay $10 - 15. It turned out to be less than $3 (they tried to give us change back from 3 dollar bills). It was certainly a bargain.

After the performance, we wandered down the mountain at a leisurely pace, enjoying the gardens in the late afternoon sunlight. We joined in with all of the local tourists who were getting photographed in front of a topiary which spelled out "Sa Pa." We walked through the orchid garden again, and it looked other-worldly and lush. The shadows and long sun wavelengths made us feel like we had stepped into a fairy tale. Cuong called it a Kodak moment. There was a gazebo made of concrete which in the shape of a giant mushroom. From there we had a nice view down at Sa Pa below.

Hats for sale at Ham Rong Tourist Mountain

Ham Rong Tourist Mountain

Cuong in the orchid garden, Ham Rong Tourist Mountain
After descending the mountain, we popped out next to the Catholic church at around 5 o'clock. We were close enough to see the stained glass windows which adorned it. Cuong said he would meet us at 7 o'clock at the Nature Bar and Grill for dinner. We said goodbye to him for now.  

We walked across the square and up the hill toward the hotel. We stopped at Tham's shop to pick up our laundry. When we arrived she was embroidering a small tapestry. We asked if she had done all of the embroiderey for sale in the shop and she said yes. We purchased one, along with a few other souvenir items.  Tham asked if she could be our friend, and we exchanged contact information. She presented us with three larger embroideries she had done as gifts for us and each of our parents. She mentioned seeing our parents in the photos we had shown her yesterday, and she wanted to give us something for them. She also gave us a small woven wallet . It was very sweet of her, and we got some photos with her.

Tham's embroidery
Craig, Tham, and Steph
We went back to the room. It had been a long day of trekking, so we both appreciated a nice shower. We had known that Cuong had been pretty hungry, so we decided to go down to the restaurant a few minutes early.  As we had suspected, Cuong was already there. The proprietor of the restaurant was very happy to see us for the second night in a row and greeted us warmly. Cuong poured us each a shot of Hmong apple rice wine. It wasn't the same without Mr. Giang there, but we toasted in his honor. Cuong called him to say "Chuc suc khoe" in person, and to wish him a safe journey. It turned out that he was at his grandson's house, spending the night there on his way back to Hanoi.

Our appetizer was chicken soup with garlic bread. This was soon followed by vegetable spring rolls, beef kebabs with tomato, mushroom, and onion, as well as  fish, deer meat in sauce, rice, and pork. Everything was so delicious, a complementary combination of textures and flavors. We enjoyed our conversation with Cuong, and as usual, we shared a lot of laughs. A large party of around 25 people were seated at a long table in the middle of the restaurant. They stood up and toasted one another in a foreign language. We thought we heard the proprietor say that they were Latvian. We had banana fritters with honey for dessert. As we left the restaurant, the proprietor asked us if everything was ok. "Better than ok!" said Craig enthusiastically. The proprietor repeated the phrase. He seemed to be amused by it. We thanked him for the wonderful food and wonderful service, and then headed back to our respective hotel

Sa Pa streetcorner
Chuc suc khoe! Cuong and Craig toast at Nature Bar and Grill
The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and met Cuong shortly before 9 o'clock. We had a local driver today. Cuong had wanted to take us to a nearby waterfall, but because it's the dry season, it wasn't flowing, Instead we went the highest point you can drive to, and saw some beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains, which looked purple in the hazy sunshine.

Then we drove to Cat Cat tourist area. We walked down a stone path past souvenir and craft shops. The scenery was gorgeous with houses dotting the landscape of terraced mountain rice fields. We passed simple irrigation systems, where bamboo stalks cut in half were used as pipes to get the water down further into the valley. We also saw more of the now-familiar wooden rice threshers which use flowing water and gravity to automatically pound rice. We passed a pen of black  pot-bellied pigs and piglets.

Cat Cat Tourism Area

Water powered rice thresher
Si Waterfall, Cat Cat Tourism Area

Si Waterfall, Cat Cat Tourism Area
Cuong and his friend Me

We walked down, down, down, getting warmer as we went. We heard someone say you don't come back the same way, and we hoped that this was the case. It would be a lot of uphill in the hot sun otherwise. So much for this supposed cool weather in the mountains. We crossed a bridge and found ourselves at the viewing area for the Si waterfall. It was very pretty. The water was gleaming in the sunlight and it looked magical.

From the waterfall, we had to walk back up on the opposite side of the river. We passed some more shops, and I bought a wooden buffalo bell. It was the smallest one I could find, but it is still much too large to use as a Christmas ornament. I will find some use for it.  As we walked, we ran into Me, a Red Dao guide whom Cuong had known since she was a little girl. She was very friendly, and Cuong told her that we would be visiting her village this afternoon.

The sun was very hot, and we found ourselves sweating a lot. We stopped at a small building where Cuong bought us some cold cans of soda, which were quite refreshing. We had to walk up another hill to meet our rendezvous point with our driver. There were some entrepreneurial young men offering tourists a ride up the hill on the back of their motorbikes "Very slow!" they promised. Some of the tourists took them up on it. The sun was deadly. But our car wasn't that far away, and we continued walking until we reached it.


Baguette & Chocolat
We were driven back to the hotel where we checked out. We stopped at Baguette & Chocolat for lunch. This restaurant in a beautiful French colonial house is run by the Hoa Sua School, founded in 1994 to give disadvantaged children an opportunity to learn culinary arts. Training at the school and at this restaurant prepares students for eventual placement in local hotels and restaurants. Cuong ordered spring rolls as an appetizer to share, and we each ordered an a la carte item off of the menu as a light lunch.   I had an open-faced aubergine, goat cheese, and tomato sandwich which was absolutely delicious! Craig had "chicken and mayonnaise on a baguette." The restaurant has a glass bakery case full of goodies, and Craig and I shared a slice of milk chocolate cake for dessert.

We were supposed to do another hike this afternoon, ending at Ta Phin village, a village of the Red Dao (pronounced Zao) ethnic minority. Craig was having a bit of trouble with the heat today, feeling
particularly overheated. He thought it might not be a great idea to do another hike in the hot sun. 
 Cuong suggested that we could drive to the village instead, and do a little walking around once we got there. This sounded good to us.  It was nice to have the flexibility to change plans on the fly when needed, one of the many benefits of a private trip.

So we were driven the short distance to Ta Phin, passing a burned-out Catholic church, a casualty of a backlash against French colonialism. Even though it was not that far by car, trekking the distance in the sun would have been too much, and we were glad to be driven instead.

Red Dao elder demonstrates how to wrap her headscarf
Red Dao woman demonstrating their intricate embroidery
Cuong and a Red Dao elder
Red Dao father and baby
When we arrived in Ta Phin Village, a group of Red Dao women were waiting to greet us. They were identifiable by their bright red headscarves. The headscarves of the elder women are very elaborate.  Cuong  asked one of the women to unroll hers for us to show us how it is wrapped. It is a large piece of red fabric with white edging and long red tassels decorated with metal beads. They fold and wrap it so that it looks like a fluffy red pillow with several tassels dangling down.

The headscarves of the younger women are much more simple: a red kerchief secured with a white tie. Cuong explained to us that the women pull out the hair from their eyebrows and foreheads to create a smooth forehead visible under their scarves to make themselves more attractive to their husbands.

The women wore loose fitting indigo pants with geometric patterns embroidered in yellow and white. A long-sleeved indigo wrap tunic is worn with a separate panel covering their backsides. This back panel is very elaborately embroidered, and it can take them a month and a half just to embroider that one piece. Several women had their embroidery out and were working as they chatted. We helped Cuong to pass out notebooks, crayons, and candy to the women of the village for their children and grandchildren.

Most of the women seemed to speak a little English, and they were able to tell Craig how many children  they had that each needed a notebook. Most of them were polite about it, but several were demanding. It is an unfortunate side-effect of tourism that they start to feel entitled.

One of the women, whose name was Mai La, could speak English very well. She told us that because of the climate and cold winters here, there is only one growing season per year for rice and corn. Most areas in Vietnam can usually get 3 harvests per year, so it puts the ethnic minorities of this area at an economic disadvantage. 

Cuong talked to Mai La and she invited us to visit her house. She and six other women led us through
 the village. We saw a group of toddlers, and each was wearing an elaborate tasseled, embroidered, and beaded hat. Cuong explained that these hats are worn to protect the babies from evil spirits.

In this area of town, the "road" was actually a giant slab or naturally occurring marble. We followed it until it turned into a dirt road leading past houses and shops. We passed a newly constructed health clinic and some green rice fields. There was a man selling popsicles to children. He honked an old-school bicycle horn to get attention. Cuong treated everyone around to a popsicle, both adults and children.

Unlike in Ha Giang where people liked the opportunity to get their children's photos taken, older children here seemed to be shielding the younger children from being photographed. With many tourists constantly in and out of the village, it was understandable. But it made us appreciate the openness and genuine interactions that we had with people in Ha Giang.

Mai La's house
Interior of Mai La's house
Red Dao women with Mai La's kitchen in the background
Red Dao woman




We continued our walk to Mai La's house. It was constructed similarly to the Tay guesthouse:  it had a framework of wooden beams. Instead of being on stilts, it was a single story with a dirt floor. Its roof was gabled like the guest house, but with corrugated metal instead of a thatched roof. The walls were made of imperfect vertical wooden planks side by side, whereas at the guest house, everything was square and well-fitted together.

We went inside and it took our eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light coming in from between the wall boards. We met Mai La's husband and son. Like the interior of the guest house, there was an open area in the middle, and beds and other furniture are around the perimeter. We saw Mai La's foot-pedal sewing machine. They have several areas that they use as kitchens, both inside and outside. The indoor "stove" was a block of concrete with a wood fire underneath it.

Cuong knows how to push Mai La's buttons and he teased her about the bedroom area, telling her that the two kids she already has are plenty. "One is good. Two alright. Three - too many!" He had Mai La laughing hysterically. He certainly is a charming man, and is easily able to talk and joke with anyone he meets, always eliciting a smile. Mai La joked with Cuong that he should help her buy a motorbike. "We don't have a motorbike, or a water buffalo. Too expensive." She said that her family does, however,  have two pigs. While water buffalo cost between $700 and $900 U.S., pigs are a more affordable (but still not cheap) $250.

The women started to ask if we would look at their embroidery work. They were savvy, knowing that if we waited until we got back to the car, there would be much more competition for them. They said that it would be too crowded. I told Mai La that I would look at her work before we left, and one of her friends piped up, "Mine too!"

Walking with our local guides
Mai La and her daughter
Our Red Dao companions (Photo courtesy of Cuong)
We walked back to where the car was. Mai La ran into her daughter, and she introduced us. A group of kids were gathered outside a little shop. Cuong bought some sweets and passed them out to the kids. We continued walking back to the car. Mai La noticed the bracelets on my wrist that La had given me yesterday. "Present from Black Hmong," she said knowingly. This also belied that I had bought items from the Black Hmong.

Seven women had accompanied us since our arrival, and each of them wanted us to buy something. They were all digging in their bags to show their wares. The only fair thing I could think of was to at least buy from Mai La, since she had opened her home to us. Depending what they had for sale, we might buy from others as well.

Mai La took several items out of the basket she carried on her back, and I looked through them. I chose a piece which had the same type of delicate embroidery that is featured on their clothing. It was technically a collar but I thought it would look nice hanging on the wall. It had two metal embellishments on it. Mai La was quite happy and thankful that I purchased it, but others felt left out and started accusing me of having promised to buy from them. I apologized and tried to explain that I had said I would look, but that I couldn't possibly buy from everyone.  Their reaction was harsh and made us decide not to buy anything else. It was likely to cause a riot.

A busload of other tourists arrived and a swarm of women surrounded them before they could even get out of the bus. While some of them were distracted, we took the opportunity to say goodbye and hop back into the car before we were harassed further.

Cuong said that he gets frustrated with the women when they behave that way about selling their wares. He has tried to explain to them that it puts people off when they are so pushy. Also, he feels like he had just brought them school supplies and bought everyone ice creams, yet they are not satisfied. But then he said that he reminds himself that they are not as fortunate as he is, and desperation causes them to act that way. Each tourist who comes to town is an opportunity to get some extra money for their family, so there is a lot of competition.

After that, we drove down to Lao Cai. We left the woods behind and returned to the concrete city.
We would be taking a an overnight train from here back to Hanoi. We went to see the official Chinese border crossing. There is a bridge over the Red River, and much commerce goes on, with people crossing over to work and trade. The Chinese had built a welcome gate on their side, and the Vietnamese built a bigger one on their side. There are tall buildings on each side, and the two countries are always trying to outdo one another.

We didn't get pictures at the border as it is generally frowned upon. The last thing we would need is to have our camera confiscated  by the Chinese military. Cuong got a photo of us on the Vietnamese side of the border, sitting on a stone marker.

On the Vietnamese side of the Chinese border in Lao Cai  (Photo courtesy of Cuong)
We went into a temple where people were practicing the fairyism religion. Fairyism is a home-grown Vietnamese religion. The people were tired of having to follow the religions of their colonizers and oppressors, so when they were granted more freedom of religion, they came up with something of their very own. Cuong explained that his mother had practiced this religion. It consists of 36 different characters, and at this ritual, a man was wearing elaborate costumes, changing his clothes to represent each of the characters. Characters are male and female. Cuong commented afterwards that the man portraying the characters appeared to be gay. I took this opportunity to ask how gay people are treated in Vietnam. Cuong said, "Most people understand that they are born that way and it is accepted." This was a pleasant surprise.  He explained that fairyism is not a religion for the poor, as money is collected at their rituals. We saw a lot of money changing hands, and one woman sitting near us was constantly counting and stacking money. Music was being played on cymbals and drums. Altars were piled with offerings of food, flowers, and money.
Fairyism Temple
Fairyism ritual in Lao Cai
Fairyism ritual in Lao Cai
We got a simple day room at the Bordeaux Hotel, a few doors down from the restaurant we had eaten at a few days earlier. This would allow us a chance to freshen up before our overnight train ride. We arrived at around 5 o'clock. The room had air conditioning and a nice clean shower. We were able to relax in comfort after a day in the hot sun. In addition to showering, we also organized our luggage so that anything we might need on the train would be easily accessible.

At 6:45, we went downstairs to the second floor restaurant to meet Cuong for dinner. People were starting to congregate here while waiting for the 9 o'clock train. There was a large table of western tourists we recognized from the Victoria Hotel. 

Cuong had gone out and purchased two bottles of local corn liquor (Sim San) to drink with dinner. He poured it into shot glasses and we toasted. It was not as smooth as the rice wine we had become accustomed to.  He had also bought us a tourist map of the area, which we had been looking for. 

For dinner, we had  baby corn and chicken soup, duck with onion, prawn with bell peppers and lemongrass, pork, rice, beef, and broccoli. Craig had a Ha Noi beer and I had a Coke. We finished off one bottle of the corn liquor and started the second.

A Vietnamese woman walked into the restaurant with a western man. As she stormed through the restaurant, she knocked a pitcher of water over onto the floor. The restaurant had plenty of empty tables, but she chose a table right next to us. And then proceeded to complain that our food smelled like garlic. We observed them and realized with horror that she was the man's guide. He struggled to order his food, as the waitstaff did not speak English. She didn't even help him; she was too distracted by her smartphone. When their food came, the man's order was totally incorrect and she just ignored him. "Why won't you help me?" he asked her.

Cuong was appalled. We said that this was just another example of how a guide can make or break a trip. How can you even compare the wonderful camaraderie that we shared with Cuong with the obvious contempt with which this woman treated her client? We once again made a mental note to be sure to tell Toni how much we appreciated her booking Cuong for us.

Cuong eats dessert at the Bordeaux Hotel restaurant
At 8:30, after having some fruit for dessert, we gathered our bags and walked across the parking lot to the train station. A porter wheeled our luggage over on a cart. Now that it was dark, the nearby buildings were aglow with neon. As we approached the platform, we could feel the rumble of engines. The railroad tracks here actually had three rails; a narrower gauge was laid by the French. Later a third, wider rail was added for compatibility with Chinese railroads. So today both types of cars can travel on one set of tracks.

Cuong helped us to check in, and we said goodnight to him.  Craig and I were shown to our cabin in one of the Victoria Express cars. These luxury cars were operated by the Victoria Sa Pa Hotel. Toni had arranged for us  to have a private 4-berth compartment (cabin 33: berths 34 and 36) all to ourselves. The top two berths were folded up, while the bottom berths were made up with a fluffy white duvet. A pair of slippers awaited each of us. The cabin was made of luxurious looking dark wood. We had a nice window, and a shelf where there were little night kits containing earplugs and small bottles of water.

The conductor came in and introduced himself. He told us that there was a dining car and a bar car. The train offered pre-fixe meals as well as a la carte. The rest room at the end of our car would open as soon as the train started moving. He told us that we would arrive in Hanoi shortly after 5 a.m., and that he would wake us up about half an hour before that.

We had already eaten dinner, and though a cocktail might be nice, we decided that we should try to get as much sleep as we could. It would be an early morning, and we may as well enjoy the private luxury cabin we were paying for.

The train left the station at 9 p.m. This was our first time on an overnight train, and it felt like we were on the Orient Express from my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries from my youth. It felt very old-world posh. I wrote in the journal and went to sleep shortly before 10 o'clock. The movement of the train rocked us both to sleep.


Poster for our train at the Victoria Hotel
Cabin 33 on the Victoria Express from Lao Cai to Hanoi
Cabin 33 on the Victoria Express from Lao Cai to Hanoi
Train corridor