Vietnam

{This was an email I sent out to my contacts on my first trip to Asia in 2002}

we flew into hanoi, the capital city of vietnam. our first impression was the traffic – it was amazing. our taxi charged down the road honking while the people on motorbikes and bicycles scattered, missing the car by inches.

there are no traffic rules in vietnam whatsoever. the biggest vehicle wins, meaning pippin and i had to dodge everything because we were just walking. there are no crosswalks or traffic lights, and to cross the road you have to put your life into the hands of the vietnamese. you walk slowly across, and they go around you with their motorbikes and bicycles.

there is a roundabout/rotary in the center of hanoi with a fountain in the middle. it has blue arrows informing you that you should go counter-clockwise around the fountain. the vietnamese go in whichever direction is closest to the turn they are taking.

hanoi is beautiful and has a lot of character. it is one of the prettiest cities we’ve seen in asia. there is a large lake in the middle of the city with a pagoda in the center connected by a red bridge. people wake up at 4-5am and head down to the lake to do tai-chi and exercises while its still dark.


everywhere you go in vietnam people try to sell you something. this is true in most everywhere we’ve been so far in asia, save hong kong and japan, but in vietnam it is much stronger. people will swarm around you if they see evidence that you actually bought something. if you are carrying bags people will be much more aggressive. (grab your arms etc.) you have to walk down the street not looking at anything in the stores because people sit by the entrance and yell to you to come inside if they see you as much as look up.

women walk around the street with large baskets on their heads filled with baguettes and try to sell them to everyone. (for 3c each). women walk around with two large baskets hanging by a pole over their shoulder with all sorts of stuff inside: fruit, ceramics, clothing, raw food on one end and a stove on the other… and set up shop on every street corner.

the taxi drivers also are very aggressive. they consist of typical car type taxis, motorbike taxis (anyone who owns a motorbike and sees a tourist and stops and says, “motorbike?”), and cyclos, which are seats attached to the front of a bicycle large enough for two people.

there are also tons of street kids who make a living by selling postcards and photocopied lonely planet guidebooks. if you do talk to them they will follow you for hours.

with all these people everywhere trying to get you to part with your money, you cannot walk more than 5 steps without someone yelling *something* at you. it can get frustrating and overwhelming.


its very hard to be a vegetarian in vietnam. when you can finally get across that you don’t eat meat to the vietnamese, they usually say how wonderful that is, (“very good! very good! buddha!”) and then feed you some cold, wet spinach. pippin said the food was good in vietnam, i’ll just have to take his word for it. i thought it was awful.

we spent four days in hanoi then took a 3 day, 2 night trip to halong bay. halong bay is about three hours away from hanoi, on the ocean. it has thousands of small limestone islands jetting out from the sea, similar to krabi in thailand, but on a larger scale. we spent the first night on the boat and the second in a hotel on the largest island named cat ba.

there are many little fishing villages scattered around the bay, not attached in any way to land. little floating wooden houses with floating wooden yards anchored to the bottom of the sea. some people have strung their houses together, but many live about a house’s distance from one another. they have kids and dogs and chickens running around everywhere. they go out every morning and fish the bay and sell the fish to make a living.

we saw some giant jellyfish in the water of the bay, maybe 20 of them. they were at least the size of watermelons. the bay is an emerald green color and you cannot see through the water more than an arm’s length. we never saw the bottom.

we took a trek on our second day that crossed 12km of cat ba island’s interior, through the jungle, over three mountains and to a village for lunch. we did it in flip flops. all the other travelers thought we were crazy, but we managed better than the people in high tech mountain hiking boots. i was even wearing a skirt. i realized that living in asia for so long has helped me pick up on certain things, like 150$ hiking boots will not make you a better hiker, balance and choice of step will.

the trek was beautiful. it was thick, wet jungle, unlike that of thailand, laos and cambodia. it was more “rainforest” than we’ve seen so far. it had a nice sweet smell to it, very thick and alive. we saw life as well, tree frogs and snails and snakes and spiders. we saw some strange bugs that i don’t know the names of and have never seen before. i saw tiny little red bugs and daddy-long-legs spiders with striped legs. we saw lots of giant broad leaves with perfect 2cm diameter holes cut out of them, evidence of leaf cutter ants!


we took a 10 hour overnight sleeper train to sapa, in the mountains 10km from the chinese border. sapa is the highest area in vietnam and overlooks the highest peak. you are up in the cloud level, and sometimes the view gets blocked by a cloud as it rolls in, leaving you in a wall of mist. when we left our hotel window open we could watch the cloud roll into the room.

sapa has many hill tribe people who live close by. mainly the black h’mong and the red zao tribes, but if you go a bit farther away you can find flower h’mong and others i don’t know the names of. the second you walk out the door you are followed by about 20 black h’mong young girls ranging in age from 5-15 asking you if you want to buy some homemade clothing or bracelets their mothers made.

the kids were great. their english was surprising and they learn it all from foreigners. they would trade little “western” things they’ve learned with us, like paddycake and various things adults try to trick children with. (the trick where you grab the kid’s nose and hold out your thumb and say “i’ve got your nose!” and the other one where you say, “what’s this?” as you point somewhere on their chest, and when they go to look you whack them on the nose.)

i taught them a new version of paddycake where you also use the backs of your hands, and saw the same girl that evening teaching it to another girl. its great to see how information travels.

the children also had a great time lifting up our pants legs and pulling on our leg hair and calling us monkeys. the h’mong people don’t really have any body or facial hair and they find it quite amusing that we do.

the road that links sapa to the town where the train comes in leads you through the mountains. it is not paved, and was under construction when we went. it rains a lot in sapa, due to the mountains trapping the clouds there, and the roads were all slippery mud which made getting to and from sapa a bit difficult. at one point an entire village came out to watch the spectacle of a few buses loaded with tourists trying to drive down the road and spinning around in circles.

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