Today on Christmas evening, I planned to visit a local market. Not Bac Ha market since this is a very famous tourist-trip and thus very much commericalised to western wallets and tastes.
Hidden inside the jungle and unknown to most tourists, I prefer to take the bumpy three-hour jeep-ride, though it's only 80 kilometres, it takes over three hours to get to unspoiled Coc Ly market. The market is held once a week, only on Tuesday. When I was preparing my trip back home, I adjusted my itinerary to make sure I could attempt this market. Huong, my lovely lady from Exotissimo - Saigon had strongly advised me to include this in my trip. Now, finally I was ready to go to see what would be the absolute highlight of my entire Asia winter 2002-2003 trip.
Generally, it's the Flower Hmong minority who colours the market, but there are also other minorities to be seen.
The jeep ride often goes on dusty paths, through emerald-green stepped hills and pine forests, and as we almost reached our destination, passing by brightly-dressed hill tribes on their way to the market. It's already nearly 11.00am as we arrive at Coc Ly market, according to Huong - my local guide - the best time to visit the market as it is prime time populated with minorities. Indeed it is very busy at the market. Embroidery, paper tissues, batteries, curiosity, fresh meat ( in the heat of the sun ) and even live donkeys are waiting to change owner.
However, I did'nt came here to do some business or shopping. I came to meet with the locals ! I try to get them in front of my camera and perhaps change some words with them. I can't get enough from this colourful scenery. Everywhere my eyes are looking, I see pure beauty set against a green backdrop of lush vegetation. Young ladies carrying their younger baby sister, smiling girls watching this stranger. I questioned myself, who is watching who ? They are watching me and I'm watching them. I walked the market about 4 times up and when it was time to leave, I even returned once to the scene to catch a last glimpse as I realize, this trip will be deeply memorized forever, so better enjoy while you can. But time runs fast and it is time to go to another village. I decide to go back partly by boat on the river Cray. Also here, natural beauty in abundance. Sailing in this natural unspoiled gorge, with a talkative young female guide who is doing her best to make my life cheerful. It is not given to everyone. It is easy to use your imagination as we took our picnic lunch on board the small boat. Just a low-flying helicopter who could appear on the scene is missing in this setting to complete a real apocalypse backdrop.
We drop anchor at a small village where time seems to stood still 100 years ago. A local home is usually built from dried mud, while the roof is covered with banana leaves. Nothing is visible here of the modern world. Not a single form of civilization, thus not a single way of stress but just a relaxed atmosphere.
Local people kindly invited me inside to join a cup of tea. Of course I accept their hospitality and sat down in their "living room". Magazine posters and pictures decorates the wall and the only modern sign I observe, is a small portable battery-operated transistor radio, also hanging on the wall. The tea is prepared on open fire. To protect themselves from cold winter, the people invented a "hole in the wall" system that blow out the smoke away from the open fire. They even showed me their bedroom. Sometimes an entire family lives AND sleeps together in one single room. In this case, I noticed 4 double bamboo berths all together in one room.
It's Christmas night today and that is easily to be recognized back at the Victoria Resort. Specially the fare of compulsory Gala-dinner which puts a whole in my budget. 35++ US Dollar for a dinner is quite some bill for an average traveller. Usually, I spend Christmas with some company from the opposite sex, however not this time. While all the other guests, mainly French but I noticed Americans as well, are having dinner with their partners or family, I have a table for my own. I order a bottle of 25++ US dollar red wine to complete the night. It is Christmas ! Later when I request my bill, reminding myself to the people in the village. Will they realize it is Christmas today at all ???
Again, I rise early to get the most out of my Sa Pa discovery. Even here on the other side of the globe, Santa Claus has'nt forgotten me ! A giant red Christmas sock, filled with candies, cookies and oranges is hanging on the outside of my room.
Today, Huong will give me her personal company for a hike which will last the entire day. The trek will leads us through rice fields and mountains, sometimes on muddy tracks and paths but she promised me that the hike will be rewarded with beautiful sights and sounds of the Black Hmong who inhabits the area.
In contrast to the people of Coc Ly market, this minority is mainly wearing black dresses, decorated with a silver coloured belt and big earrings.
The Black Hmong, living in the mountain village Lao Chai are known as the poorest minority in Vietnam and that's why education and public transport is free. Public transport means that non-minority people from Sa Pa, will often stop when they see Black Hmongs walking near the road to offer them a free ride.
When I entered the first village, I was kindly invited to a typical Black Hmong home. Inside, most women are chatting, while two ladies are busy with cooking rice in a giant pan from wich I guess its width to be about 1 meter.
Outside, a group of little black hang-tummy pigs starting to make some noise as soon they noticed my existance.
The locals, all of them together wanna be in the picture as soon as I opened my camera bag. There's no stopping possible anymore after I showed them the results on the camera's display. They want more... I promised by holy God to these people, to send a printed copy for each of them. The Black Hmong themselves does'nt have personal addresses, so I'll send them to Huong who will transfer them to the right people by a later visit.
Huong leads me over the slippery narrow rims of rice paddies. Once in a while I lost balance, got one of my western legs disappeared in the brown muddy mixture of soil and rice plants.
This results in hilarious situations, greatly appreciated by both local children and my tour guide. For Huong, this kind of treks are daily stuff and she almost "runs" over the slippery rice field tracks.
While my legs are partly camouflaged similar colour as the rice fields, We continued through mud-paradise to the next village.
Although education is free, there are few children who are going to school. Later in the afternoon, this is confirmed when I brought a visit to the local school of Lao Chai. I observed just 5 kids at school. Most others are kept home by their parents to look after their younger brothers or sisters. For this reason, you will often see children carrying the entire day babies on their back. Tough job you might think ?
Somewhat later this afternoon, I met two teenaged girls who were on their way back to the village. Each girl has a woven basket on her back filled with fire-wood from the forest. I've been told that such a basket with wood will have a weight of approx. 20 kilograms.
My watch shows about 4.30 pm when I met these girls. They would arrive back home in their place around 6.00 pm. The two left to collect the wood in the forest in the morning !!! The entire day they are on their way with 20 kilograms of luggage on their back. In winter each day again ! Considering that I have been walking over slippery paths, swinging bamboo hang-bridges and muddy tracks, I definitely prefer to be a sales
A bit further, I heard some people playing instruments which did not sounded really as happy music. Curious as I am, I stepped closer to the home were the music came from.
Huong and myself are kindly requested to enter the home of the Hmong minority family. Huong informed me that this is a funeral, and that even herself, who often is in this area, never was invited to attempt a local funeral.
You can imagine that I can't ignore this 'once in a lifetime' opportunity and accept the invitation to enter the room.
There's a dark room with some 20 people circled in lotus position around one single candlelight.
The neighbouring room, where the mysterious music is played has attracted my attention and I bend myself to be able to enter the low door opening.
Holding up by a few ropes, there's a kind of berth hanging at about eye-height level with on top a beautiful young girl which age I guess at about 8 years. She died the previous day during Christmas eve, after a long-term sickness. The two musicians are using a natural handmade bamboo flute and a drum.
My tour guide whispered in my ear that it would be a nice appreciation to give the family 5000 Dong ( some 30 Euro cent or Dollar cents ) as a way of donation.
I handed the young mother ( I guess she's in her twenties ) 15000 Dong or about 1 dollar in equivalent en let them continue to pray.
I realize that I was the only invited tourist inside their private ceremony as I later figured out that other visitors were kindly requested not to disturb the family.
The happening keeps spinning in my mind for the next few days and that night I have been dreaming about the poor little girl.
The trek goes on through lush vegetation and bamboo. Now and then, I can observe the magnificent deep valleys through the trees and jungle-foliage. The scenery is simply breathtakingly beautiful. Far down, I hear the river rushing, twisting a way through rocks and hills. Every now and then a hanging bridge to cross the valley.
The backdrop is a chain of mountains which tops are hidden in the clouds, which give the entire area even a bigger mysterious factor. Far away down, I can see small dots, homes which we visited earlier today.
That night after dinner, when I had to pay 138000 Dong for two alcoholic drinks at the hotel's lounge, I deeply regret myself that I did'nt gave the family of the poor little girl who passed away, a few more dollars instead.
Exhausted from the long but rewarding day, I fall in a deep sleep...
When I woke up, I hardly could keep my eyes open. Not because I need more sleep but it seems that I catchesed a serious cold yesterday. While returning from Lao Chai, the jeep-driver opened his window to get fresh air. Sweated from the trekking, it felt good to me too.
Not now anymore. My eyes are tearing as the Niagara Falls while my nose is running like a water pipe.
Today is my last day here in Sapa, this afternoon I will be brought back to Lao Cai station where I will board the Victoria Express.
Unfortunately, I have to cancel my last planned trip to Hang Rong mountain or even higher to Fan Si Pan (3143m).
From it's summit you'll be able to have a panoramic view over the entire region, including Sapa and Tavan.
Because it is raining today, I decide wisely to save this trip till next visit, probably next year, because I love travelling in this region...
After a short interruption on the way to the train station due to a landslide resulting from the rainfall, I finally arrive in Lao Cai station where I get onboard the overnight train to Hanoi.
All doors are being locked for safety reasons, to protect from intruders while stopping at stations on the way. Actually, the Victoria Express has two western-style priced carriages + a restaurant carriage.
I have to admit that the luxury of the train is much lower then my expectations. The sleeper cabin is rather small, although the airconditioning works perfect. Too perfect for a guy with a cold.
However the restaurant carriage is very nice with soft red-coloured seats. Tables covered with white cotton, fresh flower on each table and clean silvery. (picture)
Normally the diner is at extra expenses but to me it was free for some reason. Because of the limited seats in the restaurant wagon, people are a bit pushed to rush their dinner as the second seating should take place around 10.00pm
Pity because the beers were cold and served by polite Vietnamese staff although 3 Dollars for a can is not particular cheap.
Once in bed, between snowy-white clean sheets, all you hear is the clickety-clack from the wheels crossing the rails. This unusual sounds will remain for 8 hours as the 380-km long journey from Sapa to Hanoi will lasts.
For most travellers the typical train clickety-clack and gentle rolling will help to fall a sleep, but I can't find my sleep and the 8 hours are passing by, being awake, shutting my eyes from time to time and reading something in between.
Although the train is scheduled to arrive by 6.30am in Hanoi, I decide to give it up, and I get dressed at 4.00am.
It is truly a fascinating sight to see hundreds of motorbike-headlights waiting at railway crossings. Getting closer to Hanoi, houses are built just meters away from the rail track and I am able to watch inside the people's home from my wagon.
This keeps me busy until we reach the end-station in the darkness a little earlier as expected.
Dreaming of the five-star Sofitel which has been booked for a night in Hanoi, I rush to have the first available taxi. That was'nt really needed as boys are waiting at the train station to help you with luggage.
Of course they expect a tipping for their service. If you have'nt a suitcase on wheels, it is value for money. The taxi driver delivered me to the Sofitel, but refused to drive up to the front entrance. Immediately I noticed that he was trying to rip me off. At this time of the day, there's not a single human around, even at the five-star Sofitel. I demanded him to enter the curve up to the front door which he did. I stepped out the taxi and whistled loudly to attend the bellboy who was pitting at this time still. The taxi driver surprisingly opened his eyes wide but did'nt say anything. He was trying to overcharge me about 6 times the regular fare from airport to here. He did not succeeded in his matter...Goodnight, hmmm correction....have a nice day, I'll go to sleep for a few hours.
Hanoi still looks the same as when I came here 7 years ago for the first time. It is a city that one might hate, while another might love it. Personally I prefer cosmopolitan places such as Saigon, Bangkok and Hong Kong instead.
Many travellers simply find it a waste of time being in a big city. To me, bigger cities has their own charm and has always attracted me. Few exceptions not mentioned, usually I spend 3 to 4 nights in a city before moving on. Here in Hanoi, I will just stay one night only but that has mainly to do because I was limited in time.
Still sick from the cold I catchesed in Sa Pa, I spend most time inside the hotel. It is winter and temperatures in Hanoi were not really nice. 7 years ago, I have been sweating even at night, now people were wearing gloves and shawls during the daytime.
However, I did'nt came on vacation to waste my precious time by watching CNN in the room or spending dollars at the hotel lounge. I decide to self-organise a walking tour to Hanoi's Old Quarter, after I visited the West Lake, located very near the Sofitel.
At the Old Quarter of Hanoi, it is amazing to see how shops selling the same goods are all located in the same lane. For example one road is lined with just shoe shops. Another has only households to offer while yet another road holds only pharmacies. Very convenient for the people who are looking for a precise item as they do not need to wander around the entire city to find the right stuff, but just go to one street.
Hanoi and Saigon are both famous for its outdoor barbers ! Don't be surprised to see a barber shaving a client's beard aside of a big road. It is a very common sight in Hanoi to see mirrors hanging on an outside wall, a chair being placed in front and a guy waiting for his clients.
There are of course notable sights scattered around Hanoi, most famous tourist attractions includes Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Hoa Kiem lake. It is not my intention to go into detail on every tourist attraction here. There are plenty of travel guides available on the market. In places as Hanoi even copies for a fraction of the copyright version. Anyway, that night I just spent my time in the hotel which is very unusual to me, but I had to take care about myself. Tomorrow, I will depart for Saigon where the temperature might be some 25-30 C° degrees higher.
Indeed it's hot in Saigon when I arrive in the oldest hotel of the city. The nostalgic colonial Majestic Hotel in the city centre's District 1 near the Saigon River, has a great history. That is the reason why I want to stay overnight here. I want to sample the grandeur from the old colonial days. I wont do much sightseeing this time since it is just one year ago that I explored Saigon intensively ( read travel report South East Asia 2001-2002 ).
Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as the city officially is called these days, is excellent explored on foot but there's one drawback - the traffic.
Hundreds of motorbikes are moving through the streets continuously throughout the day. Foreigners make a big mistake sometimes of thinking that the best way to cross a busy street in Vietnam is to run quickly across it. You should cross the street slowly; giving the motorbike drivers sufficient time to move their vehicles so that they can easily avoid you.
I specially enjoy Saigon at night when the heat of the sun is gone. Dong Khoi Street, lined with shops and restaurants is the city's epicentre populated by French and other tourists. These days there's plenty of nightlife available in Saigon, although you will never know when the party ends. By law, no place is allowed to stay open later then midnight. However, during this visit I went a couple of times to the ever popular Apocalypse Now nightclub where they records kept spinning until 2.00am. The Apocalypse club is the most popular venue frequented by both locals and foreigners. I always had big fun here except from that night....
As usual, I made my way to the place at around 10.30pm to make sure I am still able to choose a good spot near the action. Today the crowd was waiting outside coz there was no action inside yet. I did'nt care about it and walked inside to see why everyone is still outside. A few dozen people has come here for the same reason as i did and were waiting for the music to be opened.
On a remote table, in the quieter section of the club I saw three policemen in discussion with the owner of the place. Wondering what might be going on, I kindly asked the waitress when the music will be turned on. "Don't worry sir, the police will soon be gone" she answered my request. "How long might it takes still ?" I asked her. "15 to 20 minutes sir" - "wanna have a drink sir?" "Corona please" I replied.
In the mean time a few more policemen were arriving on the scene, completed with a truck and motorcycles. At around midnight, when I was about to leave the place, a policeman went behind the disco bar with the disc-jockey. They start to remove the music equipment. Amplifiers where carried outside and loaded into the police truck. As soon the police has departed, minutes later other equipment brought in from behind, assembled to the system and the sound boosted again through the speakers. Within 30 minutes the place was crowded again as the previous day and the party went on.
Never before I experienced such an affection. Later I heard that there have been complaints from neighbours about the loud music, but the story goes about corruption and money matters. When the owner paid his "duty", he can continue... that's why he always has a second set of amplifiers ready to be installed immediately whenever his system would be confiscated.
As a way of memory refreshment, today I wander around the city, partly by the popular cyclo - a three-wheeled vehicle - which is both an attractive but slow way to get around Ho Chi Minh City. Many of the drivers are former South Vietnamese army soldiers and speak at least basic English.
It is important to make a deal about the fare beforehand.
Prepare your money counted out and ready before getting on a cyclo. Drivers will sometimes claim they cannot change a 10000d note. It is better to pay the driver by time rather than distance. 1,5 US dollar p/hour is a typical price. Don't be surprised to see the driver again the next morning waiting in front of your hotel to see if you want to hire him again.
To see Ho Chi Minh City from the Saigon River, you might want to hire a motorized boat priced at about 7 US dollar per hour for a small boat. Interesting destinations by boat are Cholon - the Chinese district of the city or the zoo.
Other famous attractions in the city are the War Crime Museum, where numerous photographs can be seen, including photos from My Lai massacre. Outside the museum, in the yard there are several US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and even a full-sized helicopter. The Reunification Palace, another reminder of the American war where the first communist tanks in Saigon rushed on the morning of 30 April 1975 is another nice excursion. Other interesting sights are the Phu An Hoi Quan Pagoda in Cholon, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the colonial Post office.