Shouting Off-key – Goodbye Sapa

View from my $10 a night hotel room

I had a hard time leaving Sapa. One of my travel challenges is deciding how long to stay somewhere – the other hard parts being where to go and what to do. I'm always torn between trying to check off more places on my travel list and the temptation to stay in bed and start the day around 11, with a nice brunch. While those options may not seem so challenging to some, they get me stressed. The pressure to put a whole year off to good use has been daunting. What if, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) I am not hitting all the high notes – not ecstatic over the last meal, in Vietnam almost always fried tofu and tomato – or instead of achieving spiritual resolution on a rooftop under the starlit night sky, I am busy agonizing over what other cheap North Face gear I should buy to ship home.

Cheap North Face gear lining the streets

I had no pressing need to leave Sapa, besides the goal of seeing the rest of Vietnam and about 5 other countries before the end of the year. But I had no drastically compelling reason to stay either – given that I wasn't actually qualified to teach English and there was a steady of stream of volunteers coming to fill in, I didn't feel my help was indispensable at the school. Despite somewhat itchy feet I was still dragging my heels and waxing sentimental when the time came closer to taking the bus out of town.

Just the right evening light

I felt attached to the girls, my new friends, the big green mountains, the moody fog – I was going to miss that fog. To be fair, I was sure I would miss the view of the mountains more than the fog, but most of all I would miss the weather. Because if there was one thing that had me most reluctant to head back south, it was a fear of the heat. The weather's been on my mind since I decided to come to South East Asia at the start of the summer months. From my little research I learned that it's hot, pretty much everywhere, give or take for the whole season. Sapa, it seems, was the exception – the temperature was perfect. Warm with a light cool breeze most days, occasionally sweatier under a bright sun, but most often it felt just right. I knew saying goodbye to Sapa would be the end of spending my days without having to change shirts. More laundry, more sweat and more aggravation lay ahead, along with crowds, noise and traffic in the return through Hanoi.

H'Mong women sellers in Sapa

I'm not entirely sure, but I think this was Vietnamese tourists dressing up (and cross-dressing) in Flower H'Mong and ethnic clothing

Blocked by the stress, fear and sentimentality, I wasn't doing a great job of getting around to leaving. I postponed my departure to bring my stay to almost a full month in Sapa, and I hesitated to spread the word that I was really going. The other volunteers at the school put together a goodbye evening for me all the same – dinner and a night of karaoke. I was touched – there was no holding back in the singing, resulting in a deafening shouting match that left everyone hoarse at the end of the night. John's shouting of “You Ain't Nothing but a Hound Dog” was one rendition that I won't soon forget. The videos were likewise discordant with the music – one Madonna song showed someone in a white tracksuit exercising in a park, while the background to “Night Fever” was shots of the Parliament and buildings in downtown Ottawa. I was trying to point out what they all were, but it was hard to be heard over all the yelling that was going on. We all had trouble hitting the high notes, but the low notes made up for it, and won out.

You ain't got nothin' on this hound dog

On my last day the girls all returned to Sapa to help out with a tennis tournament fundraiser at the fancy hotel in town. Saying a real goodbye was harder than I was ready for, and it was almost enough to make me want to change plans all over again. The fog settled in to hide my favourite view of the mountains, preventing a last look. The time had still come, and I took the bus out of town with three Quebecois guys who were filming our driver as he tried to pass every other vehicle on hairpin turns, racing down through the mountains – a memorial to the last moments, in case we didn't survive the journey. When we made it to Lao Cai in record time that evening to catch the night train, the weather was already noticeably hotter than what we left behind in Sapa.

Bow, Vang #2 and Sho

Mountains in the mist




Picking Rice from Mud

The last week I was in Sapa school was cancelled so the girls could go back to their villages to help plant rice with their families. I decided it was a perfect opportunity to visit some of the girls and offer my help with the planting. After trying my hand as an English teacher, it seemed like a natural next step to move on to volunteer farmer. Kendra, another volunteer from the US, had the same idea, and we hired motorbike taxis to make the long trek to Lee's home outside the village of Ta Van. The taxis dropped us off at the bridge into town, and I was quickly regretting having bought a large watermelon, in addition to a heavy pile of bananas, mangoes and berries, as we followed patchy cell phone directions up through the town, up some hills, and further up a rocky stream bed serving as the entryway to Lee's hillside house, all under the hot mid-day sun. I was feeling like I'd done my part by the time we arrived, the fruit delivery alone left me sweaty and worn out.

View from Lee's doorstep

View from Lee’s doorstep

Luckily, we got there just in time for lunch. It would have been rude not to join them, so Kendra and I had home-grown rice with some of the best-tasting green vegetables I've had so far in Vietnam. We ate with Lee, her younger brother, brother-in-law, her older brother and his wife and son. Lee's older brother is 20, and his wife is around 16, though she looks younger, still nursing her nine-month old baby. Lee is the most advanced English speaker in the class and seems pretty sophisticated for her age. She had told me she didn't want to get married young and raise her babies poor – so it was a surprise to see her brother doing just that.

Lee-ding the way

Lee-ding the way

Me with rice bundles**

The younger boys stayed to watch the water buffalo and the baby while we all went down to the fields to work. Lee went into the sticky muck and water in her jeans and I rolled up my shorts, which I realised later might not have been the best idea. We were in a long muddy paddy with a thick lawn of rice covering one half. What we had to do was pick the rice – the step that happens before it is evenly planted in rows. It seemed counter-intuitive – why plant, then pick, then re-plant, before you can re-pick…? Lee couldn't answer why it was done this way, which left Kendra and I trying to strategise on improvements to the centuries-old practice, as we pulled the rice up from the roots, practiced swishing it around in the water and banging bunches together to get rid of the mud. “I'm sure there must be a good reason for it, there has to be.” These questions were soon followed by “Do you really think we're helping? They're fixing all of my bundles” (Kendra) – “are we not doing it right?” Lee and her sister-in-law had switched from picking rice to tidying up the bundles of plants for eventual re-planting.

Still picking to be done in the paddy**

Every time I looked up, the picture looked the same – the patch of thick dense rice in front of us didn't seem to get any smaller. After about 2hrs Lee suggested we might want to call it a day soon, so we could get taxis in time to get back to Sapa before evening. “But we're not done the paddy! We need to finish it!” Kendra and I were both focused on getting our assignment completion checkmark – how could we feel like we really helped? Lee called some friends to get us taxis for later on, and we plowed forward in the mud, determined to finish.

About a half hour later I realised I was hitting my rice picking wall. I was tired, my back was sore, my arms and legs were itchy (too late I realised the value of long pants and sleeves), and it wasn't looking close to done. When Lee diplomatically suggested again that it might be a good idea to think about leaving, there was no argument. Kendra and I accepted defeat – we had not picked the paddy clean, but we were still done. It had looked like a relatively quick job when we started, but the thickness of the rice and the simpleness of the task were deceptive. Hours of hard work for only part of one paddy! And they still had 3.5 more to pick and re-plant – 4.5 thick paddies of rice plants were just enough to feed the family (about 5 people) for the year – with nothing leftover to sell. I was amazed and at how much labour was involved in growing and harvesting the rice – it seems unbelievable that we can buy it so cheaply at home.

Heading back down the hill

Heading back down the hill

The weather was rainy the next morning and I didn't hear back from the other girls about my offer to come rice planting. Word had spread, but I wasn't too sorry to miss another opportunity. By mid-afternoon that day my aching quads were making walking difficult. I thought it would have been my back, but it turns out I was squatting in the mud more than I realised. And I seemed to have damaged my rice picking muscle – I can't stretch out my right arm without getting a shooting pain.

Now I'm trying to finish all the rice in my bowl, every meal.

Lee superimposed on a stunning backdrop

Lee superimposed on a stunning backdrop


**Photo credits for these two images to Kendra (


Canada is Famous for Maple Syrup and Snow

Lyn with a rapt audience

My introduction to the English class was made by Jerre, a Minnesotan who felt that ice fishing is one of the top things that H'Mong girls from northern Vietnam should learn about Canada. This is what all Canadians do – in winter they go out and cut a hole in the ice, so thick you could drive a car across it, and they sit there for hours, trying to catch fish. And they watch the Red Green show. I tried to explain that the Rideau Canal in Ottawa freezes in the winter and all kinds of people skate across it, and then we had to explain skating. And then hockey. Before that the first things that came to my mind were the things that people in Japan seemed to find important about Canada – maple syrup – like honey, cooked from trees; Niagara Falls – lots of water, very high; and Anne of Green Gables – a girl with red hair and no parents who lived in a house with green paint on it… In between trying to explain the wheat and timber trades and snow, it was starting to get a little complicated. When it came time to write about me and Canada for the creative writing segment, the questions boiled down to – How old you? How many brothers and sisters you have? What your favourite food? Canada is very cold, they wrote. My teacher is very pretty (I didn't coach them on that one!) She favourite food is french fries.

Lunchtime at the school

I spent my time in the classroom trying to coach the girls to express their thoughts and opinions – why do they like cats better than dogs? What kind of parties do they go to, and what happens there? Did they like the book they just read? I tried to explain meanings of words like 'decided' and 'specific', which led to explaining choice, result and not exactly 'particular'. I realised how unhelpful a regular dictionary is for simple definitions. Sometimes this was a little less than exciting, particularly in the afternoon. Zur, who was the most like an American H'Mong girl, according to Jerre, wrote a sign that said “Jerre we want some coffee”. Not long after lunch one day Vang #2, otherwise referred to by Jerre as Ms Perfect Complexion or Sleeping Beauty, began to blink her eyes very slowly at me, in a way that was almost hypnotic, so much so that I had to fight to keep the room in focus. “Look at the two of you”, Jerre yelled, “you make a good pair!” Puppy dog cute 13-year old Sho apparently fell asleep while standing up and reading aloud in one class.

Jerre and Sho

But although they might have had a hard time after a rice and pork lunch, the girls did grasp how important it was to be learning English. The opportunity to get a job – likely as a tourist guide – and be able to make money was not lost on them. One of the girls, Zua, the oldest in the class at 18, and who also had the most difficulty with learning, left the school suddenly after the second week I was there. She wrote a letter to her classmates in H'Mong, telling them to make the most of the chance to learn. She had another student read it for her because she was in tears.

Advanced class - Sho, Lee, Vang#2 and Zur

The volunteer teachers at the school were as impressive as the students. Jerre, a sixty-plus year old Vietnam War vet and retired probation officer who worked with H'Mong kids in Minnesota, loudly quoted lines in class from the movie Lincoln and sometimes from True Grit. He has been coming to Sapa for 9 years, getting to know the trekking guides, and taking an English acquisition course in the US to learn how to teach them. Lyn, a retired school teacher from Australia, had just come from volunteering for two months with her husband at an orphanage in central Vietnam, and got the girls singing and making art. Me and several other novice assistants helped round out the instruction for the group of 13 girls and 3 boys, all at different levels of understanding. At the end of each class we were all met with a chorus from the students: “Thank you teachers!” they yelled. “Thank you for being you!” we all yelled back to each other.

There are some politics in the organisation that are putting pressure on the operation of the school, and left a lot of questions unanswered around how decisions are made, the development of a curriculum, and how many more students could benefit. But the biggest thing for me was the chance to work with the girls. I mentioned before that the girls are lovely, didn't I? So lovely that I almost cried when I finally said goodbye to them after almost a month in Sapa and just about 2.5 weeks trying to help teach. The girls are used to seeing teachers come and go, but for me it was an emotional farewell – like the meanings of words, it was hard to articulate just how much it meant to me, and how I felt so attached to them, so quickly.

View from the classroom window



Free as a Bird

Baby owl

At the Saturday morning market, along the sidewalk lined with baskets of fruit, large tree funghi and wild Sapa orchid plants, I saw my second baby owl in a grass cage barely big enough to fit it. Even more than before, I found this a painful sight. Small, covered in downy grey feathers, blinking slowly in the daylight, it was clearly out of place, ripped from the forest as forcibly as the funghi from the tree. I tried to ask how much it cost but the sidewalk seller just shook his head at me. I bent down to take a photo, which caught the attention of a young Vietnamese man. He picked up the cage for a closer look and after some questions a shining emerald beetle was shaken out of an old water bottle and skewered on a stick to feed the owlet. The man handed over 100,000 Dong – the equivalent of $5 CDN, and left with the owlet.

Deal in progress

The first time I saw a similar owlet, in a similar cage was as my friend Mario and I were leaving the Bac Ha Sunday market, on our way to Sapa two weeks earlier. I had seen songbirds and thrushes hanging in small cages in storefronts across Hanoi, but it wasn't until I got to the Bird Market in Bac Ha that I found out more about the trade. The bird market was full of men eyeing up a variety of birds in small cages, Red-whiskered Bulbuls among the most common, the rest of which names I didn't know.

Red-whiskered Bulbul

I asked our guide Cho why there were so many birds – for pets? “No, decoration!” she laughed. She told us they had one bird in their house that used to wake her up in the morning, “We feed it rice. One day I forget to feed it rice, and two days later it no wake me up in the morning” she laughed again. Birds are decorations, just like flowers, I learned – forgetting to feed a bird is the same as forgetting to water a plant – a silly mistake, but not really a big deal. Fortunately I was in good company when this news hit, Mario also found it hard to take. “In Costa Rica a caged bird is second to cannibalism”, he said. “It is a crime.”

Bac Ha Bird Market

Caged birds are status symbols, and they are sometimes taken in their cages to cafes to show them off. The more rare the bird the more expensive the price.

That day after seeing the caged owlet, I couldn't get away from the pitiful caged birds, and the increasing feeling of despair as I looked at them. In the market, hanging from trees along the lakeside, in the stores selling cheap North Face gear, they were everywhere. I walked down a different street into a fancier-looking hotel complex, where I saw three caged birds, each a different species, hanging close together in a few trees. A fourth small Bulbul-type bird was flying freely between the cages, landing on the tree branches, on the sidewalk near my feet – while the birds were somersaulting in their cages and calling. What kind of behaviour was this, if it wasn't a cry for help? I had a strong urge to just start opening the cage doors and let them all out, and chasing the free bird away before it could be caught. I waited, but there were too many people in the vicinity and I decided I couldn't risk it. I already suppressed my vigilantism earlier in the day, when I thought of just running through the market throwing money at people and taking all the birds. I talked myself out of that one on the basis that it would just encourage them to go out and get more.

Cages upon cages

It makes me wonder about what appears to be a detached view of animals in Vietnam. While some people keep them as pets, many people eat dogs, and it's not clear to me how many people raise them as food. While I know eating other less friendly animals is common place across the globe, carnivores I have met here from the West also share a reluctance for eating animals primarily labelled as pets. Meeting necessary food requirements is one thing, viewing wild birds in the same light as potted plants strikes me as inconsistent with a lifestyle that largely requires living off the land. I just don't get it, and I wish I knew how to change people's minds.

Seeing these caged birds also brings to mind another comparison – that of kidnapped teenage brides, and the beautiful girls in the school I am teaching English in – one of whom was kidnapped after my first week, and now thankfully returned. Like these birds, brides are paid for, and leave their family homes to live with their husband and his family. Married life is a hard one for women in the villages.



Teaching English in Sapa – My Introduction to Child Brides and Kidnappings

Bow, Lee, Chee, Sai and Zua

After my first few days of trekking around Sapa I visited the Sapa O'Chau English school for H'Mong girls (plus a few boys). Before I arrived in Sapa I was hoping to volunteer but was told that they had enough teachers. Then I met Jerre, the cowboy Minnesotan Vietnam War vet cum English teacher, who invited me to join in teaching the class. I stayed teaching for over two weeks, trying to make myself useful in the classroom, until the girls went on holiday to help their families plant rice.

I hadn't realised how difficult it is to explain the difference between she and her to someone who doesn't understand what the 'subject' vs the 'object' is , or more the problem, when I don't really know myself. Its been hard to make real progress in a short amount of time, but the girls are lovely. I've never seen a group of teenage girls so friendly, sweet and so nice to each other – I wouldn't have thought it was possible until now. The girls seem younger than their age – the thirteen year olds look about 8, and the 16 year olds not much older than that.

They certainly don't look old enough for marriage, yet two days after I joined the class, one of the girls who I had been working closely with was kidnapped to be taken as a bride, at age 15. Bow was sending text messages to her friends in tears until her phone was taken away, but there was nothing anyone at the school could do – “It's a cultural thing” Jerre and the volunteer coordinator Ms Hanh were told.

In H'Mong culture bride-napping involves taking the girl (by force) to the home of the boy who wants to marry her. She stays there for three days, sharing a room with his sister, after which she is offered new clothes and rice wine, and her father is offered a lot of money – as much as 35 million Dong or $1700 for his daughter. If she accepts, she is married. While this implies some level of choice for the girl, there is often pressure applied by fathers and families who want and need the money.

Sai, Zua and Bla

An older sister of one of the other girls in the class, Bla, was kidnapped at age 13. To convince her to return to the boy who had kidnapped her (after she ran away) her drunken father, who had already left the family, beat up her mother. He couldn't beat her up because that would damage her value. She married the boy and now has several children. Bla's oldest sister Sho, who is a renegade independent trekking guide, afterwards managed to pressure the father into ensuring Bla, the youngest sister, would be sent to school and not be forced into marriage.

The same boy that kidnapped Bow also kidnapped her sister Chee some time ago – Chee was married to him for a few months but made the marriage so difficult that she was able to get divorced and is now in school, a divorcee at age 17. Many other girls run away to avoid marriage after kidnapping. Others in the class believe they will never be kidnapped because they are too clever to be caught, or are sure it wouldn't happen to them.

Vang and Zur

Despite the obvious threats for young girls, this is still a relatively common practice in the region. My 19 year-old trekking guide Mr. Lou told me how his mother wanted him to marry his 15 year-old first cousin, who lived at his grandmother's house. He seemed to recognise the disadvantages in intermarriage, and he admitted to being less than lovestruck, but then he told me that he “pulled her to his house”. He kidnapped her, because his mother told him to marry her and that it didn't matter that she was his first cousin. Luckily for her, the girl declined. My 20 year old unmarried female guide Lam from my earlier Red Dao trek said that it is the girl that gets to choose, because she can say yes or no, but the boy has to take her after he kidnaps her, even if he decides after 3 days that he doesn't want to marry her – so it is better for the girl.

Apparently the practices around kidnapping in this region are much less severe and threatening than those in neighbouring areas in China, and elsewhere. Yet the attitudes still encourage this tradition and the practice of girls to marry young, have children, take care of the household and work in the fields – backbreaking labour. I didn't ask the age of my first homestay hostess Man May, but I think it must be somewhere in the mid to late 30's – yet she could easily pass for a woman in her fifties. A far cry from the beautiful youthful faces of the girls in the class.

Bow was returned unmarried to the school later the following week, brought back by a woman from the Government Women's Committee in Sapa, who was accompanied by Bow's father. She seems to have recovered well and has fit back into life in the school.

Say cheese









Two-night Weekend Trek


Following my fun first two treks around Sapa I decided to do a two-night homestay trek to some different villages on the weekend. Me and one young H'Mong guide named Mr. Lou took motorbikes to Ta Van where we trekked to Ban Ho, overnighted in Ban Ho and walked to Trang Phu, motorbiked from Trang Phu to overnight in Lao Chai, and walked back from Lao Chai to Sapa on the third day.

It might have been my frame of mind, but it wasn't quite the rewarding experience of my previous walks. The trails were narrow, muddy and tough when we weren't walking down a main road. I fell in buffalo chocolate, which was actually one of the more fun parts – it's slippery and you go down fast! I got covered in mud from the shins down as I sunk into rice paddies and every mud puddle in sight. The ground was wet over the first two days and the heavy red clay was sticking to my boots along with pieces of fallen fruit – my boots felt like they had ankle weights attached, not a workout I was looking for when I was already struggling up the steep slopes.

Notice his shoes are still white

Scenic waterfall

Hard work in the fields

The first homestay wasn't anything like my Red Dao experience – it felt more like being in a village dorm – lots of mats laid out for beds in one big room, and no french fries or lovely barrel bathtub. For the second homestay I changed plans to stay with Ms Mai in Lao Chai – the first homestay set up through Sapa O'Chau, the organisation I stayed in Sapa to volunteer with as an assistant English teacher. Ms Mai made the tasty garlic french fries along with a dinner following the same menu as my Red Dao homestay. Then she invited me to see the shaman ceremony next door being performed for her sick mother.

Dinner at Ms Mai's

I went over to watch the shaman who was dancing and drumming and singing loudly in a mist of incense smoke, as old H'Mong women sat around twisting hemp fibre into yarn, while a few children slept and an old man prepared a fire. I met the shaman part way through the ceremony. “Hello. Where you from?” She looked and sounded just like the women selling handicrafts on the street, it completely threw me for a few minutes. But then she went back to drumming and speaking in other tongues. The shaman ordered a pig and later two chickens to be killed. I saw the pig squealing as it was held down during the incantations, then transformed into a waxen statue after it was killed, stripped of its skin and laid out with incense and powders adorning it.

The Shaman and the Pig

Pig, part 2

I didn't see the end of the chickens, it was late and I was getting tired. I found out the next morning that the ceremony went until 3am – after the rituals ended around 2am they ate the pig.

Ms Mai, a single mother of three, attended the whole ceremony and made my breakfast (banana crepes, a Vietnam staple) before heading out to lead a some other tourists on a two day homestay trek.

Mr Lou, his grandmother and a cousin

Mr Lou took me past the power plant on the least scenic route out of Lao Chai, where we scrambled up the vertical mountain side to meet up with a road filled with crowds of flip-flop wearing tourists going past us down the hill. I was feeling tired and a little crabby as the three day trek had not matched the scenic walks of my first two outings, and even then none of them could really be considered mountain 'treks', with big chunks along main roads. 'Why more up?' I asked Mr Lou for the fifth time. It turns out it's hard to find a straight flat path through the mountains. We scrambled up buffalo trails, I picked my way precariously down rocky drainage ditches and despite myself was not unhappy when we hit the flat roads. Mr Lou made up for it by the end of the day, as we visited the traditional H'Mong home of his grandmother (and his first cousin who he bride-napped) and the more modern home of his family in the valley in Cat Cat village before climbing straight back up to Sapa.

Sapa over my shoulders

Guess which one is mine?


Sapa Trekking


Into the valley

Sapa is the tourist-trekking destination in northwestern Vietnam, with its lush green mountains and H'Mong women wearing traditional clothes selling handicrafts throughout the streets. Homestay visits to homes of different ethnic minority groups are a popular part of the package. I did a few of these, as well as one very soggy hike with Mario through the rice paddies, on the wettest day I've seen out of more than three weeks here.

Rice fields aplenty

It was raining before we started off on our 'Terrace Views Trek' and in between breaks in the rain, it poured. The skies emptied and rivers formed beneath our feet. It was a sea of mud and water and wet. After getting completely drenched we came upon a small wooden shelter along the path, where some other trekkers were waiting out the worst of the storm. We joined them and it was there that I met Doug, fellow CIDA colleague and Chinatown resident in Ottawa, who lives about 5 streets away from me, works one floor below me (together in the same building for the past 7 years) and who I'd never before laid eyes on. Travelling makes the world small alright. First I met my neighbour from 8 houses away in Colonia, Uruguay, in February, now in May another neighbour and colleague.

Never far from the sales pitch

Through the rain


And through the streams

Doug, his trek-mate Chelsea, Mario and I all had lunch together at a small food stop along the way, before they headed on to a homestay and we continued to the village of Ta Van, where we got a drive back to SaPa. Despite the rain, or maybe because of the ridiculous amount of water, everything was funny, and it was a beautiful walk.

Working the fields by hand


My next trek was the following day, where I joined two Norwegian best friends on an overnight hike to a Red Dao homestay outside of Ta Phin village. Dagny-Elise and Kaia were friendly and impressively mature for 19 year olds. The weather was sunny and bright, my boots were still wet, but the walk was gorgeous – some fantastic scenery of black rock jutting out between rows of corn plants and terraced rice fields.

One stunning view

After another

We saw men plowing fields with water buffalo, families including little kids plowing fields by hand and scraping grassy growth from the side walls of the terraces. I was sweating non-stop under the hot sun and panting up the steep slopes, thinking that I wouldn't last any time at all swinging wooden shovel-plows over my head into sticky mud. When we arrived at our homestay, part way up a hillside in the midst of trees, banana plants and a small farm, I laid down on a bench and fell asleep.

Farming with the family

Going down the road

And up the hill

Our hostess Man May prepared my new favourite, french fries with garlic, as an appetizer before we helped make spring rolls in the smoky dark kitchen. Dinner with Man May's family started with shots of moonshine rice wine, followed by deep-fried veggie spring rolls, fried tofu in tomato sauce, stewed morning glory (apparently not quite what we have at home) a bitter vegetable with egg, along with the obligatory pork. It was tasty and filling and a bit of an eating marathon as our hostess wasn’t satisfied and kept pushing us to eat more, more. Apparently the homestay owners think that people don’t like the food if they don’t eat it all.

Dinner at Man May's

After dinner was the real treat – a medicinal herbal bath in a large wooden barrel bathtub, something the Red Dao do as a speciality. It was hot and steamy and wonderful after a sweaty day.

With Dagny-Elise, Man May and Kaia

Rice fields and buffalo

These kids were having so much fun


On the Road to Sapa

Soft sleeper train

Mario decided at the last minute to join me for the trip to Sapa, so the good times from the Tamarind Cafe continued. After making it to the overnight train with a few minutes to spare, we had to just enough time to negotiate turning the ticket voucher into actual tickets before take-off. On boarding we were met by a silently hostile European man in our tiny 4-bunk cabin. It was awkward trying to enjoy the adventure in such close quarters with someone who was determined not to, so we moved the party to the bar car for a while. The train lurched and swayed like it was going off the tracks, not quite soothing enough to put me to sleep. Nine sweaty sleepless hours and 300km later, we made it to Lao Cai, the closest stop to Sapa.

Flower H'Mong Women

After a few hours the tour bus arrived to take us to the Bac Ha Sunday market, one of the largest ethnic minority markets in the region, where colourfully-dressed women come to buy and sell. The market is divided into areas for birds, horses, pigs and water buffalo, and the handicrafts market, which dominates all the rest. The animal markets were largely painful to see – captive songbirds in tiny cages being weighed up like little trophies, the water buffalo with a look of quiet suffering, the tired bony horses.

Bird market

Water Buffalo for sale

The handicraft market was more uplifting, with so much stuff to buy! H'Mong women were walking around flogging the same embroidered bags for sale and the same sales pitch that has followed me through the streets of Sapa – “Hello. Where you from? Shopping? Buy from me”.

After a hurried lunch at the market we headed to a nearby village to follow the other busloads of tourists parading through the small array of houses. Mario declined to participate on the grounds that it amounted to poverty voyeurism. I followed our guide through the village and learned about the still practiced tradition of bride kidnapping by the H'Mong people, along with a long story about how our (H'Mong) guide married her husband to get back at her previous boyfriend. They were both interesting accounts, and listening to her the kidnapping sounded like a relatively friendly kind of practice – the women were teenagers, but they had the option of saying no and returning to their parents house if they didn't want to marry the boy (their kidnapper) after spending three days in his house. I've since learned a lot more about this practice and its unromantic realities. More on that to come.

Outside the village

The next stop after the village was the Bridge to China (Yunnan province) from Lao Cai. Despite having flown through China on the way to Vietnam (and spending hours sitting on planes at two different Chinese airports) I was still surprised to find China right next door. I guess I really am a long way from home. Here, you really could dig a tunnel to China…

China - who knew it was so close?


Other Things I Did in Hanoi

Durian fruit

Worked on the Blog

Working on my blog was the theme of my week in Hanoi and my excuse to stay put for so long. With technical glitches conspiring to prevent me from posting photos or much else, I could have stayed indefinitely. But I did write – what you are reading now.

The source of my technical woes? Maybe not but still problematic

Watched the Rain

I watched the rain pound off the pavement – the first time sitting on a little stool offered to me by two Vietnamese girls taking cover under an awning. The rain was fierce, and we watched saran poncho-wrapped people on motorbikes and bikes make their way past through the water. Later in the week at another couchsurfing event we watched the restaurant owners whip into action to clear their tables and items from the sidewalk before the torrents came down, and then we watched the rain. People were using large patio umbrellas to cross the street, and one guy had a huge rectangular umbrella several meters long. Rivers started to form on either side of the street, and turning back into the restaurant we saw it was raining inside – water pouring down around the stairway, with containers filling up faster than they could be replaced, and streams running down past our table, soaking the bags on the floor.

Rain outside

And in

Went to Hoa Lo Prison

I felt compelled to do at least some sightseeing in Hanoi, so in addition to the obligatory Water Puppet show (wooden marionettes in water – nice, but not riveting) I went to visit the prison. The Hanoi Hilton, as it is otherwise known, is where Vietnamese political prisoners were held during the occupation by France, and where American pilots shot down in the Vietnam war resided – apparently treated much better by the Vietnamese. The small rooms with leg irons and no sanitation looked like a miserable existence for the Vietnamese captives, some of whom were put to death by guillotine. The American pilots on the other hand were captured in photos showing them playing volleyball, watching a movie, receiving souvenirs on departure. Former Presidential candidate and Senator John McCain was among those detained during the war – his uniform and a number of photos are on display, including one taken during a return visit in 2000. It was an interesting glimpse into some of Vietnam's storied history. A country that has never been defeated in war.

Hanoi Hilton


The Tamarind Cafe

Rats and Good Times

The best part of Hanoi for me was by far all of the great people I met, mainly through couchsurfing events. I met Des, Daniel and Mario on my first night in Hanoi and we met again later the next week at the Tamarind Cafe, first on Wednesday and then Thursday. I had already been there on Monday and Tuesday, the second time with another fun couchsurfing friend Simon. It was nearby and with an extensive vegetarian menu – and unfortunately only two cds on constant rotation – playing Careless Whisper, Billy Ocean, and an earworm song with a chorus of 'On a Sunday, a Sunday, a Sunday…'. As we left at closing on Thursday and the staff said see you tomorrow, we laughed. But Mario had reached a breaking point with the music, and protested against going back until they got some new cds.

Simon and Ling and egg coffee

Tamarind regulars - Des, Mario and Daniel

I hadn't been planning to go back after Wednesday when Des pointed out the rat running up towards our table, after which we saw them darting back and forth, near our table, at the other end of the restaurant – reflected in my ipad screen I saw one run across the skylight in between the two floors. “For every one you see, there's 12 you don't see” Daniel said several times.

But on Thursday after I finished my second art class I got an email from Mario saying they were there again, and I made my way back to hang out with my new friends at our cafe – kind of like home, except I don't even manage to do this at home. The same music, some of the same friends and no rats in sight that time around.

Same place, different night

We stayed there for hours at a time, talking about travel and plane tickets, eating the condiments that came with Mario's coffee – sweet cinnamon bark and carmelized sugar cubes. Mario who is from Costa Rica said howler monkeys are the most beautiful things in the world, after sluts. Sloths, that is, if you say it without a Spanish accent. It was a really good time.