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.

 

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.

Sapa town

It was a four hours bus journey from Hanoi to Sapa a town in the highlands. The Sapa Express bus seats were spacious and comfortable and the journey more pleasant than I had anticipated.

Sapa with mud caked streets and messy wires

Sapa looked disorganized to my eyes. Huge buses bustling down the narrow streets with horns blaring. Cars moving at unsafe speed, turning and twisting to avoid quick motorbikes. The dirt on that covered the streets and made them brown and muddy. The fine dust stirred and hovered in the wake of every passing vehicle making mockery of  the clean mountain air I hoped to find.

The Eden Boutique Hotel is 5 minutes walk from the Sapa Expressbus office

The hotel staff were professional and very hospitable and the room we were assigned beautifully decorated. We were recommended some places for lunch but we decided to follow TripAdvisor and made a beeline to Vietnam Emotion a restaurant frequented by Caucasians. We loved the look on the outside and the look inside and the food. Lovely place to have a lovely meal. We loved the decor and this is not the first time their cafes struck us with their original creations of interesting themes and design and decor.

 

Organic eggplant with rice
Light and crispy outside but juicy inside – spring rolls
Delicious fried rice

There wasn’t much we could do because we arrived at around 12.30pm. So we decided to explore the streets of Sapa around the public square. We even entered to sit in silence in the pews of a Roman Catholic Church that was prominently located near the center. It is called the Holy Rosary Church or the Stone Church.

Exploring the Stone church

With a Google map and a data plan, there was no fear of getting lost. We walked around and found ourselves in streets away from the touristy streets, where most of the people were locals. Until we saw a hotel called Amazing Hotel with beautiful views of the Fansipan and other mountains. We decided to relax at the hotel cafe and enjoy the panoramic view of the distant mountains.

Enjoying juices while viewing Fansipan
View of lovely farms and mountains

Tomorrow we hope to ascend the Fansipan but not by hiking but by the cable car.