Tam Coc and good food in Hanoi

My vacation has come to an end. Here am I in a cafe writing while we wait for a 6pm flight. The ending of vacation is like the aftertaste of Vietnamese robusta coffee. There is a bit of bitter aftertaste. I now wish the vacation could be extended. But work awaits me, and I preach on Sunday. I have been lifting up my heart to the Lord about the two messages I have to preach. They are embryonic form now, with skeletal thoughts in my mind. They will have to take form tomorrow!

The last few days in Hanoi has been in a single word: wet. One of the things I looked forward to was a Halong Bay overnight cruise. Sadly, it was not to be. On the morning we were about to leave we received notice from the tour company that all boats are not allowed because of a storm of a few days. What a disappointment! This government ban makes me feel secure. No money was lost. And we went for the alternative, Tam Coc or “Halong by the Bay land tour” – haha a stylish way to ease the disappointment I felt. We went for it. The tour agent started at about US$50 and when we told them we are going to explore the city, the price went down to US$35. Well we took it after the price plummeted.

Entrance to the old capital of Vietnam dynasty
Driven by feet of a woman at Tam Coc
Rain dampened the experience but it cooled the air
We went through three tunnel caves

It bus travel for about 2-3 hours before we had a bit of history of two Vietnamese dynasty and the Temples built to ancestor worship the two kings. Then we went on a boat ride that went under three caves and back. It took about an hour and a half of women powered rowing of sampans with their feet. We had scenic views of limestone structures similar to that of Halong Bay, only with light intermittent drizzles. Of the two the more spectacular thing to see was how the women used their feet to row the boats!

Elaine on the bike

The intermittent rain did not stop us from taking a bicycle ride around the rice fields and farms with the limestone hills and mountains as a backdrop. I must admit the idea of riding my Brompton around this area flashed across my mind. Who knows?

We had some fabulous food on the extra day we had since our Halong Bay tour was cancelled. Great atmosphere and egg coffee in Hanoi Social Club; great pizza at Pizza 4P’s, a chain of profitable pizza restaurants started by a Japanese entrepreneur and featured in an article in the New York Times; and famous street pho, and local meal called Bun Cha. Guess that was a food tour. Thanks to TripAdvisor and Elaine Chee and her Friend, Joelene’s recommendations.

Outside Hanoi Social club in an area full of interesting cafes
Inside the Hanoi Social Club cafe
Egg coffee recommended by Nephew Paul – like drinking melted chocolate with coffee flavour
Surprisingly Great pizza in Hanoi Pizza 4P’s chain
Street food on the last night in Hanoi – a popular street stall
Bun Cha – rice vercimelli, pork stew, salads, fried meat spring roll. Shiok!

It was wonderful to travel with our daughter as she will be heading overseas to work. We had an estimated 24 leisurely meals together, rooming together for seven nights, and that is a lot of conversation, laughter and love. This was a good idea. A memorable trip.

 

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Visit to Lao Chai village, Sapa

Surrounded by colourful women

This village was farther away.  We took a cab there. The moment we arrived and got out, we were surrounded by four colourfully dressed tribal ladies who wanted to sell their wares. Earlier in the car, in the hope we would be left alone, I told everyone to avoid eye contact and to not entertain them. But this was not to be. Truth be told, they did not badger us but quietly accompanied us down the concrete path, try to make conversation by asking questions, “Where you from?”, “Want to buy?”, “Handmade”. But somehow it mildly frustrated us as we could not carry out our conversations and take the photos we wanted.

Joined by Hmong escorts
Padi planted on terraces

22 Years with three kids

Curiosity got the better of my wife and she started conversing with one of the young women of about 22 years of age. She spoke English. She has three children and in the early morning her husband and herself would work on their rice field. In the afternoon, the husband would look after the children while she went out to try to sell handmade craft. “Where did you learn your English?” “At the Hmong tourism training center”. This was one of the good things the 75,000 Vietnamese dong fee (SGD$4.50) to get into the village goes to. And by going out to speak to English-speaking tourists, her conversational English must have improved more quickly than those who learned it in the classroom only.

Lao Chai village

A bargain struck

The four ladies followed us all the way into the Lao Chai village. We had stopped there after about forty minutes of walking, having relished the scenic green rice fields against the background of mist-shrouded mountains. In the restaurant, we ordered drinks, with the rice fields a metre away from where we sat. My wife bargained and bought their handmade stuff, She bought a few things she would never really use except possibly the pouch the size of a mobile phone. From then on, the ladies left us to look for new customers.

Bargaining and buying
Taking a rest in front of green padi fields

Lost and found

The grocery shop owner next door said it was about 2 km to the next village where we could get a cab, and if there was none, to get a bus. So we walked on as we thought it would be good exercise. However after about 40 minutes of leisurely walking we found ourselves in front of a family home at the end of a path. Lost. We got some advice and headed back and by the grace of God found a taxi that had just sent a customer to a homestay place we passed. He got us back to Sapa town for about the same amount as a Grab cab would charge, a mere 20,000 VND (SGD$1.20) more than Grab. I was praising God because my absence from the regular hiking group, has made my hiking fitness suspect. The only way back to Sapa town was uphill and we passed many hikers. My estimate is that it would have taken us a good three hours to do that climb back to Sapa.

Elaine did all the planning and booking. On top of that we took it day by day.

Sapa by night: the town square

We went out from the hotel at 8pm. We wanted to see what Sapa felt like at night. This was our first evening out. Like all the other nights, it drizzled.  At the town square we saw young people playing  chapteh, where instead of kicking a ball, a group in a circle would kick an object made of feather tied to a base of rubber discs. The idea is to keep the chapteh in the air.

Playing chapteh in the square
Dancing at the side of the town square

Dancing in the dark

While the youths were chatting and playing chapteh, we spotted a group of middle aged people dancing. We were captivated and saw these people dance about three different kinds of dances. Some of them were good, some looked like they were still learning. It was fun watching but when the drizzle got bad, we headed for a nearby restaurant for our dinner. It was easy to look for dining places that are recommended when you have online access to TripAdvisor. We found one a stone’s throw away from where we were. After dinner, even though we had to walk back in the drizzle, we enjoyed the night. Thank you Jesus!

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Cat Cat Village

A misty and drizzly morning foiled our plans

I feel so thankful today for how the day turned out. We had planned to take the cable car to Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain. However it was very misty and we decided to change plans and do a hike to the Cat Cat Village – a Hmong village about an hour’s hike down and two hours’ hike up on the return leg. As we walked down the street the drizzle steadily became more intense and we went into a cafe to wait the rain out. After an hour of waiting we decided it would be better to return to the hotel and rest while my daughter went for a shoulder and leg massage.

Scenic views of valleys and mountains as we hiked down to the village

At about 12 plus the rain all but stopped and we decided to resume our planned hike. The air was pleasantly cool and fresh and there were many lovely views of the valley and its rice terraces and the mountains with their summit clouded by mists. We took many photos and about halfway down a kind Vietnamese couple signed to us if we wanted a lift to the entrance of the Cat Cat Village. We went in happily and though they did not speak a word of English, they signed to us their intentions. Ten minutes later we were at the entrance and paid about SGD $6 to enter this Hmong village. We were praising God for this was not incidental but God’s provision.

Happily we entered the village
Rice terraces and corn fields
Elaine near a field of flowers
Numerous photo spots make it fun to look around
There were many stalls selling Hmong traditional crafts
Going down to the waterfalls
Mini falls in the background
The bigger waterfall carried brown muddy water
They used this for irrigation in the old days

It was a route of 2 to 3 kilometres that brought us past a school, village homes, stalls selling similar tribal products, and gardens, waterfalls, a theatre with free Hmong musical and dance performances. It was interesting, engaging, and with the mobile and photo taking opportunities, the minutes passed very quickly. By the time we covered the loop it was about 4 pm and it began to drizzle again. We took a cab for SGD$6 and it brought us back to our hotel. Along the way we passed many tourists who hiked up back to Sapa town. We estimated it would take us 2 hours to hike up, with the level of our fitness and a  4 out of 10.

This was a happy day, a happy Sunday, as we saw the Lord guiding and providing for us. However what disturbed me is to see little children as young as four or five selling sourvenirs with minders, sometimes the mother or grandmother several feet away to watch them. There is obvious poverty. I would have thought that the collection of fees and tourism would have made the lives of the villagers better. It probably does but I wished more education, affordable medical care, and marketable skills could be given to the Hmong people so that they don’t have to be tourist attractions the rest of their lives.

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