Sapa, Vietnam

 

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A view from Sapa.

After a steep climb we got to Sapa sopping wet, freezing and on a motorbike short a few key pieces (more specifically, a back break). As much as I rave about this mode of traveling, there are days when I fantasize about throwing my bike off a cliff – this was one of those times. We’d spent the previous night in an all but abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere. It resembled The Shining and was located in a town where we were hard pressed to find food that didn’t feature dog. The violent thunderstorm in the dead of night just added to the ambiance.

We checked into the ‘Honeymoon Hotel’ and were met by a hot shower, a flatscreen TV, a king-sized bed and a fluffy white dog, Poofball, that we adopted for the week. Jesse went out and got supplies (chips, pop, instant coffee and instant noodles) and we spent the next day and a half huddled under the covers watching movies on HBO Asia.

When we finally emerged we were ready for some ‘culture’ and ‘adventure.’ We hired a guide to take us to the top of Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina.  At 2000 metres above sea level we were already two-thirds of the way up (bonus!) and figured we could do it in one day. Most people do it in 2 or even 3 days, but we’re stupid and decided to do it in one. Clearly we didn’t think that one through.

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Our starting point. Mount Fansipan is actually behind these peaks shrouded in clouds!

After a breakfast of custard pies and instant coffee (I know, I know) we started the climb. And then it rained. The next 10 hours were a blur of pain, misery, nausea and regret.

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Our guide. He practically ran up the mountain, putting us to shame.
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Jesse on the path into the Bamboo forest.
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We made it! 3143 metres!
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Too cloudy to see a thing from the top though.

Vowing to never trek again, we tucked back into the Honeymoon Hotel for another two days of rest.

I had mixed feelings about Sapa. The scenery is extraordinary from the small town, but it’s an easy destination for tourists since the train station is only 30km away and many tour companies offer it as a package. The entire town has transformed around the tourism industry now and I can imagine it’s lost some of it’s charm in the last decade or so. The women and children from neighbouring villages come to sell their handmade textiles, jewellery and other hand-made products to the tourists. They are really friendly but very persistent that you buy from them which can get to be overwhelming. However when we talked to a few women we learned a lot about their lives and they were very generous in sharing information and letting us photograph their traditional clothes. They speak some of the best English we’ve encountered in Vietnam so communication came easy.

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During the hottest hours of the day, the kids cool off in the river.
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This little guy found a small bird and promptly put it in his shirt pocket after showing his friend.

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After 6 weeks in Vietnam we headed for Laos. Vietnam was the most foreign, frustrating, chaotic, interesting, beautiful and rewarding country I’ve been to yet. I wouldn’t be back in a heartbeat but feel that as time passes I’ll miss it and eventually will be drawn back.

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On a final note: Jesse’s lucky ear hair glistening in the sun…

Dong Van Market, Vietnam

Dong Van town is set in a little plateau in the mountains, very close to the Chinese border. Several different H’mong people walk or motorbike several kilometres early Sunday mornings to trade, barter and purchase their weekly supplies. It is also a place to eat, drink and socialize with each other once a week. Most H’mong live in very small communities hidden in the jagged rocky landscape, undetectable to westerners like us. Fortunately they found us extremely uninteresting so I was free to just observe and photograph from a distance.

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On our way to Dong Van. You can see a little bit of the mountain road we took on the right side of the photo. Luckily the road was in excellent condition so we could just enjoy the view.
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This is what the terrain changed to as we got higher up the mountain. Notice the sharp rocks! This cluster of homes was close to the road but there was no visible path to get to it.
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We stopped for a water break and this little guy popped up out of nowhere. I guess he climbed up the extremely steep mountainside. We soon realized that many of the children here are accustomed to begging travellers along this route.
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This is the traditional jacket worn by all the H’mong boys and men.

The following photos are from the Sunday morning market.

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Layer upon layer of colourful clothing!

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I am in awe of the things they can make with bamboo!
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Breakfast beers!
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Preferred mode of transport.

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Sewing and repairing garments on the spot.

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A large crowd gathers to watch a man fixing some electronics (a camera or cellphone I think).
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PIGS!

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Vietnam has a very interesting bird culture and several people keep them as pets. All through Vietnam we would see people transporting their precious cargo to the parks to hang out with other birds. There was an entire section dedicated to songbirds that was very popular with the men.
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A girl looks over the market surrounded by mountains.
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Strapping their pigs to the back and heading home.
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Until next week!

Cat Ba Island to Cao Bang: Northeast, Vietnam

We heard the north has some of the most scenic rides in the world and we were by no means disappointed. We started our ‘Northern tour’ by going to Cat Ba Island in the famous Halong Bay. The bay is unique because of the thousands of limestone karsts jutting out of the water. We took the ferry to Cat Ba and spent one day hiking through the national park and the next kayaking around a small part of the bay. The next day we raced around the island looking for the local ferry to Halong City on the mainland. We just made it and for $2.50 it was the perfect way to see the bay on slow, nearly empty ferry.

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Relaxing in the back seat of our kayak-built-for-two!
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Watch Out!

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Stopped at a sandy little spot to try some free climbing. The rock is so sharp it kills your bare hands and feet!
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Our early morning ferry ride was like a private tour through Halong Bay.

We took two days to get to our next destination, Cao Bang. Really the only notable thing that happened in this time was we ate a bowl of pho with some mystery meat in it. At the time I was thinking it was goat but as the days passed and we started seeing dogs being bbq’d on the sidewalk and restaurants with stock photos of lassie on them we put two and two together and realized we had probably eaten dog. Eeek!

Cao Bang is a pretty insignificant town but we stayed two days to see some of the nearby attractions. The first day we rode to Pac Bo caves where Ho Chi Minh hid out during part of his exile from Vietnam. This was right on the border between China and Vietnam so we got to ‘sneak’ into China for a few minutes! We had planned on seeing more sights that day but opted to just ride our bikes around the smooth mountain roads.

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In China and Vietnam at the SAME TIME!
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Occasionally we have to stop and take cheesy timed photos of ourselves with our helmets on or else we’d have no photos together.
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Almost all the women, and even the young children, carry sickles strapped to their waists like this.

The next day we went to Ban Gioc waterfall and a nearby cave. Although it was still dry season the waterfalls were beautiful and we were able to swim in them without being washed away. The waterfall and river divides China and Vietnam so Jesse managed to swim to China and become a minor Chinese celebrity before swimming back. More people were taking photos of (and with) him than snapping shots of the falls! The caves were equally impressive and our favourite caves so far- and that’s saying something since we’ve been to A LOT of caves on this trip. These were impressive because of their sheer size and the fact that we were alone to walk through the kilometre + cave.

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A small part of the Ban Gioc waterfalls.
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Post-swim to China. The boatloads (literally) of tourists in the background were some of the interested spectators.
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Walking to a cave in the blistering heat.
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This photo gives you an idea of the size of this cave.
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‘Dangerocer Area’

Drinking at the Bia Hoi, Visiting a Preserved Icon and Eating Cobra: A week in Hanoi

After being constantly on the go for almost four months you find yourself craving a place you can temporarily call home. Needing to extend our visas was a perfect excuse for us and we shacked up in Hanoi for just over a week. At the beginning of our time in Vietnam I never would have guessed that I would want to stay longer -the constant noise and pace of this country isn’t exactly relaxing – but it has a way of sneaking up on you and blowing a big intrusive air horn in your ear. Joking (kind of) but we’ve found ourselves not ready to leave.

By the time we found the centre of town it was after dark which meant that we grabbed the first guesthouse we could find and ended up right on the corner of the Bia Hoi strip. Bia Hoi’s spill out onto the sidewalk around happy our serving 25 cent draft beers and fresh peanuts. At midnight they either promptly shut down for curfew or usher you into a hidden hallway in their home. The latter happened to us on the first night and we sat with a few friends and ducked the cops. For the next week the owner, a fairly aggressive woman even by Vietnamese standards, would spot us down the block and not let us drink anywhere else.

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Heading into Hanoi from out of town.

After a few failed attempts at getting up early enough (probably a lot to do with being next to the bia hoi) we finally visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Before visiting Vietnam I had no idea how iconic and beloved Uncle Ho was to the Vietnamese people. I think there must be more statues of him — hugging children, smoking a cigarette, making a speech — than anyone else in history. Every town, big or small, has a statue of their hero. He was so important that they decided to preserve and display his dead body for visitors and Vietnamese people alike. The mausoleum is located on the site where he read the declaration of independence in 1945. So we lined up with hundreds of (cute!) uniformed school kids and a bunch of other curious tourists for a peak. It lasts about 15 seconds (if you drag your feet a bit) and is worth every second. You silently shuffle in two rows under the watchful eyes of military guards making sure there’s no one revealing too much skin, crossing their arms, putting their hands in their pockets or showing any other sign of disrespect. You almost expect him to be larger than life, but like most Vietnamese he’s quite small. Lying in a glass case under dim lights, every hair is meticulously groomed and placed just so and his skin looks well moisturized and smooth. It’s a surreal experience seeing him in the not-so-living flesh and it was well worth the wait.

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Great sign.

Ahh and finally we come to the cobra. Ever since Jesse got the idea of shooting back a beating snake heart I wasn’t exactly pursuing the idea, but on our last night in Hanoi it couldn’t be put off any longer and we headed out of town to a ‘snake village’ for our ‘dinner.’ When we first arrived very few other guests ere there and we had the full attention of the staff. They were quite amused at my fear of snakes! After a bit of bargaining we chose a live cobra and took a seat on the floor with a low table. I’ll spare you the gory details (and video) of them killing the snake but we ended up with a warm shot of blood, a heart (for Jesse) and snake served seven different ways. I can’t say I enjoyed this experience too much – it’s a bit too gruesome seeing your dinner killed in front of you. I think I should recommit myself to eating vegetarian!!!

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The crime scene.
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An overhead shot of our table: 6 of our 7 snake dishes.
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Bon Appetite!

The DMZ, Vietnam

Just north of Hue is the DMZ (demarcation zone). This was an imaginary line between north and south Vietnam during the war. As soon as we arrived we dropped off our bags at one of the worst guesthouses we’ve ever stayed in and took the beach road to the Vinh Moc Tunnels – an extensive network of tunnels built 10 metres and eventually 30 metres underground so the bombs couldn’t reach them during the war. The tunnels connect small rooms where people ate, went to the bathroom, had babies, and lived life as normally as possible. The network is about 2km long with 6 land entrances and 7 entrances on the shore of the South China Sea. Since these tunnels were less touristy we were free to explore them alone using my camera flash to light the way. Every once in a while when we thought we were lost a guy would pop up that was actually born in the tunnels and direct us back to the lighted route.

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Our tour guide was pointing to the baby saying that was him when he was born.

The next day we hired a guide, Mr. Ting, to show us some of the sites and memorials around the DMZ. They are all several kilometres apart so we set off for the day on our motorbikes. Mr. Ting was a south Vietnamese soldier and had some personal stories and insight n the war we wouldn’t have heard otherwise. Here’s an example:

A Vietcong Love Story
“There was no way for American soldiers to identify between South Vietnamese and the Vietcong (who supported the north). The American soldiers often were looking for company and a girlfriend while overseas and would date Vietnamese women. The Vietcong women would take advantage of this and invite the soldiers to their family home to meet her parents and eventually they would go to her bedroom. The soldier would be anxious to get back to the base camp before curfew but it was important for the family and girl to distract him until after dark. When the soldiers got undressed the Vietcong would be hiding a weapon on her and kill the unclothed, and therefore unarmed and defenseless soldier. As soon as she did that there would be men outside her window to take the body away secretly in the night.

 

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Mr. Ting!
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Khe Sanh
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Mr Ting and Jesse walking through the many rows of graves. Many people place lit cigarettes on the incense sticks as an offering because “they are still smoking with us.”

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The Highlands, and small town stops to Hoi An, Vietnam

The epic four day ride through the highlands to Hoi An didn’t start out too well. A looong day that included two bails and several kilometres of loose gravel and construction up a steep mountain got us to Dalat. By the time we got to the top I had road rash, some nasty bruises that stayed with me for weeks and an utterly sore body. With an intimidating 700 km left to the next big city I was ready to sell my bike and hop on the sleeper train for a few days. Luckily I persevered because the next few days were the best we’ve had in Vietnam. We had great roads (for the most part), traveled over several mountain passes with the most incredible views, and through some valleys filled with the most vibrant green rice paddies. We also stopped in several small towns for a lunch break and sometimes overnight which were … interesting.

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Dalat – with a very strong French influence. This is where many Vietnamese come for their honeymoon.
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A much quieter and more peaceful existence here.
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No matter where you are in Vietnam there is ALWAYS kids riding their bikes to and from school.
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The great thing about hammocks is they can be strung up anywhere.
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One night we found accommodations right across from this waterfall. Amazing!
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At the top of a mountain pass.
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When we weren’t riding through the mountains we were coasting through vibrant green rice paddies.

The small towns we stop in rarely see tourists and are usually incredible welcoming. Although we lack a common language we get by on gestures, smiling and looking at our Vietnamese road map. Buuut, there is also a lot of alcohol to be had at these little pit stops as well. We are almost always offered several shots of rice wine (and that stuff is strong!) which is incredibly hard to refuse without feeling like you’re insulting them. We often play a little game of charades where we imitate falling off our motorbikes drunk and eventually convince them. Here are a few photos from those small town stops.

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One minute you’re taking photos with peoples kids, the next minute you’re friends on facebook.
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The kids and adults alike love looking at the roadmap with us and usually the whole neighbourhood crowds around the table to get a look. The atlas is extremely detailed (thank god!) and they can usually find their town on the map.
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The people in this restaurant were particularly insistent on sharing their drinks.

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Vietnamese soup called pho was pretty much our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most of the time it’s a beef broth with noodles, beef, bean sprouts, mint and other fresh leafy vegetables. It was hit and miss for us but when it was good it was REALLY good.

After many pit stops we eventually made it to Hoi An. Most people we met said this was their favourite place but I was a little disappointed. Maybe it was just over-hyped for me. It was quite expensive in comparison to where we had just come from and I found the sites to be mediocre. However it was fun to get custom clothes and shoes made; something Hoi An is known for.

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First fitting for Jesse’s three piece suit.
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Trying on my new boots and very asian skirt.

After blowing our budget in Hoi An we took the High Van Pass to Hue. This mountain pass has an old war bunker that the French and eventually the Americans occupied during the war. The roads were amazing and riding through the thick fog was surreal.

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At the top of High Van Pass, exploring the old war bunker in the fog.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

We crossed the border to Vietnam without any problems. We were a little worried about this since we didn’t have any international licence, insurance or ownership in our own names (it’s technically illegal to own a bike so you must have the ownership papers registered to a Vietnamese person), but the officer barely looked at them. We crossed at the southern-most Cambodia/Vietnam border crossing, Ha Tien.

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Crossing the Cambodia/Vietnam border at Ha Tien.

The first major city we went to was Can Tho. The ‘quintessential tourist experience’ here is a riverboat tour of the Mekong Delta to see the floating markets. The Mekong Delta is a maze of small and big rivers all connecting to the large Mekong river. So we signed up for an 7 hour tour (ya it was a bit long!) that started at 5:30am and ended around noon. Besides the floating markets, one of the coolest things on this tour was a rice noodle factory where we learned how they make rice noodles from start to finish.

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Our river guide and I bright and early!
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One of the boats heading to the floating markets. They advertise their products by placing a sample on a very high pole.
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At the floating market you could buy anything from produce to cups of cafe sua da (iced coffee).
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Carrying steaming trays of rice noodles (before they’re cut) outside to dry.

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Walking along the paths between rice fields.

We went to Saigon (also called Ho Chi Minh city) and spent a few days visiting the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi Tunnels and trying to navigate the notoriously bad traffic.

The War Remnants Museum gets a bad rep for being full of propaganda against the US, but I found it to be well worth the visit and full of photos with simple descriptions of what they are. Their were some hard things to look at including the section on Agent Orange – a chemical sprayed in North Vietnam by the US that has had some serious consequences that are still evident today. We’ve seen many many amputees and children born with birth defects in Vietnam. However the war vets are extremely proud that they fought for and won independence for their country.

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The slogan “Independence or death” was seen everywhere in the streets of Ha Noi when fighting the French colonialists.
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Now this was propaganda! Watching a video before touring around the Cu Chi tunnels.
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Trying to fit in the tunnels. There are hundreds of kilometres of tunnels that the Viet Cong dug during the war to hide and fight off the US soldiers. These particular tunnels were rebuilt for tourists but we visited some better ones in the DMZ (later post!).
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Crawling through the tunnels – it was a tight squeeze and incredibly hot. Gives you a real appreciation and admiration for the people that lived down here for months at a time.

After several days in Saigon we made our way to Mui Ne, a beachtown on the coast. We had to take hwy 1 which we were advised to avoid and now we know why! When stopped for coffee the locals looked at us like we were crazy and couldn’t believe it when we said we were biking ourselves. Some of them said they wouldn’t even bike on this hwy! But after a long day we finally made it and took some time for a little relaxation on the beach. Besides being EXTREMELY touristy, Mui Ne had some spectacular places to visit that more than made up for it!

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Sundown – in front of our accommodations, right on the beach!
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Walking down the Fairy River surrounded by sand dunes.
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A fishing port just outside of town.
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Several kilometres of sand dunes.

The next day we reluctantly left Mui Ne on an epic, exhausting, beautiful four day 1000km ride to our next destination, Hoi An …