Time to move on Vietnam

Meat and more meat

Vietnam was like a long slow intro to South East Asia – getting blasted by the heat as I moved down south, the cheap prices, the bold rats, the slow speed of travel, the hassles, the different pace of life, and the people. I hadn't planned to stay as long as I did – over 2 months – but then I hadn't planned anything at all, and my need to make sure I covered all the key stops combined with a lack of desire to be constantly on the move added up to a lot of time in a country that hadn't been at the top of my travel list.

Teacup Transport

I haven't really summed it all up yet. Sapa was definitely a highlight, a volunteer opportunity of the kind I would have hoped to find but wasn't expecting to, especially relatively early on in my travels – combined with big green mountains, a dreamy fog and postcard perfect terraced rice fields. Paradise Cave was another stunning sight, while watching the coloured paper candle lit lanterns float down the river at night through Hoi An was almost prettier than the walking through the lantern-hung streets during the day.

The muddy fields of Sapa

Hoi An at Night

There were memorable places and transport worth remembering to get there – riding the rails with Mario on the way to Sapa, and taking the luxury train on the way back, where my fears of being locked in a small cabin with a group of men overnight were put to rest as the guy in bunk above me start to play Silent Night on his flute while we left the station. His friend told me about the traditional folk songs from his village that are famous across the country, and showed me a video from one of the songs, which I heard performed later at the Heritage Festival in Hoi An. On the bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh I was crowded in with the locals, on the day train from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi I thanked the travel gods that I missed getting a ticket the night before, and thereby didn't get stuck trying to sleep in a dingy cabin on a mattress an inch thick, but instead was able to conk out in a seat after watching A Bug's Life on the tv screen hanging across the aisle. Riding a motorbike in the rain to Phong Nha, where my driver stopped for a phone call along the side of the road, as the clouds approached. The mini-bus from Phong Nha to Hue where the driver blasted his horn at everything in his path from the time he could see it until we'd barrelled our way passed. The day motorbike road trip from Hue to Hoi An. The short and painless flight to Saigon, and the bus ride from Binh Minh back to Saigon, where I dropped my sunglasses in the toilet at the rest stop. I covered a lot of ground on almost every form of transport, from North to all the way south.

In the middle of things in Hanoi

Getting the hang of being on the road – finding my way around, learning how to bargain, feeling the wind and appreciating the scenery from the back of a motorbike, indulging in mango lassis until I realised they were all made with condensed milk and sugar and didn't balance out my french fries and pizza – these were all important discoveries. I had trouble with the rampant littering – cigarette butts tossed over the side of the boat outside a cave of national historic importance, water bottles dropped at the foot of famous pagodas, napkins from my dinner plate tossed by my waitress into the gutter – these were some of the many shocks to the system, and couldn't help calling a comparison to Japan, where garbage seemed to magically disappear even though there were few bins to be found. The more aggressive swindles and outrageous doubling, tripling (and even quintupling) of the prices got on my nerves, and so did the heat.

Street fighting in Phong Nha

There was a lot to see, but I think what won out the most was all the people I got to know – old and new – starting with couchsurfing buddies on my first night in the country, the crowd of teachers and students in Sapa, Ottawa friends welcoming me to their home in Hanoi, making friends in Phong Nha, meeting up again with Sapa friends in Hoi An, new friends in Saigon, and my old high school friend in Binh Minh. That was time well spent.

Fowl Traffic



Hoi An – on the more meaningful side

Afternoon boating in Hoi An

I took the opportunity to stay in Hoi An for a week – I was feeling like staying put for a little while, to revel in having access to a pool in the hotel and a beach relatively close at hand, as well as to reconnect a bit to my experience with the H'Mong girls in Sapa. My first night in Hoi An I went to dinner at the Streets International restaurant with Ms. Hanh, the former volunteer coordinator from Sapa who had moved to work for a non-profit called Lifestart. I met Sang, a past student of Sapa O'Chau, who was graduating from Streets International cooking school.

Ms Hanh and a newly graduated Sang

Sang invited me to her graduation, as her family wasn't able to attend from Sapa, and after working for 18 months learning how to cook Western food and speak excellent English, she wanted some people to be at her side for her big event. Sang was in fact one of two valedictorians for the ceremony, who read a speech in English to thank the heads of Streets for the opportunity she and the class had been given. It was a fancy event with a lot of cheering over the dinner tables, and clearly an important moment for these students who had succeeded in obtaining a certification that would enable them to find jobs in some of the best restaurants in the country. Even though I didn't get to know Sang as a student, it was still rewarding to be there to celebrate the occasion with her.

My Son in the morning

Another meaningful visit was to the jungle-covered ruins of My Son, the intellectual and religious centre of the kingdom of Champa, in charge in south-central Vietnam from the 2nd – 15th centuries. Like Hue, this site was heavily bombed by the American forces, with the most important monument deliberately laid flat by helicopter assault. But in between the craters and jungle, the remaining slowly decaying rusty red brick buildings facing the sacred mountain that resembles a shark fin impart a solemn sense of the long past. In the quiet early morning it is a place to speak in quieter tones than that of our guide who was busy cracking jokes about the large phallic lingua statues throughout the complexes that were part of the fertility worship in Cham culture. Despite being hurried along faster than I would have liked, and a rather dismal boat ride back that included a stop for a soft sell at a village of wood carving shops, the ruins were a sight worth seeing in the morning light.

With the Malaysian Dance Troupe

Aside from these events there was also some Heritage Festival fun in Hoi An. I got pulled on stage to dance (briefly) with the Malaysian performers, and got interviewed (briefly) by national television (VTV) for my thoughts on the festival. And at the urging of Ms. Hanh, I had a go at trying to Break the Breakfast Pot. It draws a crowd because it's a great game to watch – participants get a woven-grass darkened pie plate put over their face and have to walk four steps towards a clay pot hanging from a pulley. You have one chance to swing the wooden stick and smash the pot – if you do you win a prize and get a big cheer. Most people swing wildly and miss, because you really can't see anything with a dark plate over your face. My first time I was nowhere near the pot, and the second time I just failed to hit it. But out of all the festival type of games I've seen, I think this may be the best one – cheap, simple, fun and no skills required, besides a willingness to take a swing at the dark. If nothing else, not a bad metaphor to hang onto, in a search for the meaningful.

Paper lantern seller

Picture Perfect



A Word on Vietnamese Massages


Before coming to South East Asia, I had visions of the whole place as a semi-paradise of cheap living and even cheaper muscle-melting massages. A fabled land where such luxuries could be had for less than the cost of yoga class at home, my muscles were tensed in anticipation. What I rather slowly came to realise after repeated attempts, is that Vietnam is not Thailand. In Thailand, I'm led to believe, everyone from the age of 10 and up knows how to subdue seized back muscles and reset a displaced hip joint. In Vietnam, they would like you to think that having someone softly pat, squeeze or karate chop you for an extended period of time is more or less the same thing. And at a bargain rate it often comes as something of a cheap and oily feel-up.

Soaking at one of the nicer 'spa' establishments in Sapa

My first real massage parlour foray was in Sapa, across the street from the Sapa O'Chau cafe, which, by its proximity and having been mentioned by the staff, I assumed to be of a certain caliber. I came to realise it might be a different story for a foot massage out in the lounge chairs in the open than the full body experience. Before realising this, I had decided to go the whole hog and get a one hour workdown. I was led to a small little room in the back to a bed without a hole to allow lying face down, instead with a pillow to lie on with my head twisted towards the wall, in a not-properly aligned kind of way. Part way through the gentle squeezing and feeling for a pulse, I noticed an assortment of dark hairs (not my own) on the mattress sheet below me, and that's when my sense of relaxation came to an end. Not only had they obviously not changed the sheets, I started to wonder what else was going on in this closed off private room in the back. This couldn't be one of those places could it? Catering to those looking for more than just the release of stiff neck muscles? And what if these were the same sheets?! I debated leaving but I was already oiled, mostly in the buff, and still had the second side to go. With muscles partially tensed, I concentrated on maintaining my distance from the hairs and felt grimy.

View from the massage chair at Sapa 'spa'

On my next attempt I decided to play it safe and stick to a foot and calf massage, at a place on the main strip in Sapa. This turned into a more intimate experience than I anticipated, as I sat upright directly facing my male masseuse, who was determined to stare intently into my eyes for the full 20 minutes. It was only afterward that I realised I should have faked sleep – instead I tried looking away, and wondered if I was not following massage protocol and being rude trying to ignore the person who was obviously kneading my lower calf muscle. When I decided to attempt a casual, 'hey, just saying hello' look in his direction he chastised me with a knowing remark of “ah, you can see”. It appeared he was on to my avoidance strategies, and was pushing for more of a response. Moving on to my feet, he began squeezing the tips of my toes as if they were champagne corks he was trying to pop. I watched them turn red and as he braced himself and pulled, I flinched as my toe knuckles went the way of the corks and popped in succession. This at least had the effect of releasing some of the tension of our staring stand-off, as he recognized I wasn't so experienced in such techniques of foot seduction. We managed a little casual chatting after that, while I wondered to myself why 20 minutes was taking so long. When I finally made to the finish and was heading for the door, his manager asked if I didn't have a tip for him. Still feeling uncomfortable, I didn't have any comments on appropriate eye contact at the ready – instead I handed over some small change and directed my oily feet in a hasty retreat homeward.

This didn't put an end to my massage attempts – instead I decided to be more selective in my choice of establishment, which included looking for ones with 'spa' in the title, and coughing up a few more dollars. I tried an energizing type of massage and a hot stone one in Sapa with some rocks that were a little on the burning side, but there was no awkward interpersonal exchange, which upped the comfort factor considerably.

Modern Meditation

In Hoi An, known for catering to Westerners, I decided to find out if the quality of the massages was on par with the food. In a trip advisor-recommended lavender spa, had a slightly more muscular Thai massage, closer to the real thing than anywhere else I tried (Sapa) – on a bed with a proper hole to lie face down on, though no cushiony pillow to make it more comfortable. And as with everywhere else I've been, they only smoothed out the sheets and refolded the towels to place them back on the bed as I got up to leave. But I was able to relax without anyone staring at me, and in knowing, thanks to the presence of rows of beds on the other side of the curtains around me, that any happy endings would be of the decent and massage-appropriate variety. And that in Vietnam, may be as good a cheap massage as you can get.



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