Day Seven: Back on the road! We flew North from Hoi An to Hanoi today. Our driver, Jin took us to the airport early in the morning and as we arrived the girls realized that they had left their passports at the house! Jin dropped us off and sped back to pick them up – 45 mins each way. What a kind soul. We missed our flight but luckily there was another one two hours later.
Hanoi is one crazy city and we are staying in the old town which has thirty-six streets, each one named after the wares sold. These narrow streets are packed with scooters, people selling and women cooking on the sidewalk in makeshift ‘kitchens’ with charcoal stoves. Once we settled into our hotel we found a restaurant that prepared a Hanoi specialty – Cha Ca – which is sautéed white fish with green onions and dill cooked at the table and served with rice noodles, fish sauce, morning glories, herbs, and peanuts. So much fun and delicious! Once again there doesn’t seem to be any rule of the road. Mac got hit by an old man on his scooter crossing the street. He was fine but the old man took a tumble.
In the afternoon we began touring the city. The Temple of Literature, which is dedicated to Confucius and was built in 1070 was the first national college. Later in the evening, we watched the water puppet theater which was amusing. The girls are still suffering from either jet lag or lack of sleep so we got an early night.
Day Eight: More sightseeing in Hanoi today starting at Tran Quoc Pagoda which is on a small island and home to Buddhist monks. We have heard a lot about Hanoi egg coffee so found a cafe to try this delight. It is served in small cups sitting in a bowl of very hot water. Egg yolk, condensed milk, sugar, and coffee are whipped together to create a delicious dessert-like beverage. It is so inexpensive here, a cab ride across the city costs $2.
Later in the day we took a guided tour of the old town and learned so much about the way of life in this city. After meeting our guide she led us through a small doorway, typical of any street in the city. What we saw surprised us. We walked down a narrow hallway and as we walked the space opened up to a home with a beautiful open courtyard, and several floors where family members live, an altar room and a coffee shop on the roof. Who would know? We enjoyed a yogurt coffee which was very yummy while she explained Vietnamese customs and the way of life in Hanoi.
Everyone has an altar in their home for loved ones who have died. Deaths are celebrated, not birthdays. Family members are usually buried in the rice field, where they have their own altar for about 27 months, after which time the body is exhumed, bones are washed and reburied in a smaller casket. The family member is then added to the altar within the home.
Until very recently, it was still traditional for the entire family, including two – three generations, to live in the same home. We visited temples, local markets and ended the tour with a bike ride around the city.
Day Nine: Today was not what we expected but another adventure now is on the horizon! We got up early for our drive to Halong Bay for a three-day cruise and after four hours of driving were informed that we had to turn around as there was a monsoon coming! Back to Hanoi where we found an interesting apartment on Airbnb in the old town with vendors on the street selling root vegetables and dried beans.
While everyone relaxed I explored the city a little more on my own. Thanks to the education that we had gotten the day before about what hides behind the narrow doorways I decided to take a second shot at finding Cafe Dinh, which came highly recommended. I found the address- as I had the day before – but this time looked more carefully and saw the sign! Walking through a store selling bags I followed an alleyway, took a couple of flights of dark stone stairs which was a little scary and was greeted by a cozy, bustling cafe with a view of the lake. Eureka! I rewarded myself with an egg coffee. Such a different culture here!
That evening we enjoyed local street food guided by a Hanoi university student who shared more about life in Hanoi. Noodles with beef, fresh rice paper rolls with pork and dried shallots and the best Banh Mi in town! The weather still does not look good for tomorrow so we decided to scrap the cruise and book an overnight trip to Sapa which is located in the mountains.
Day Ten: We were up at 5.30am, although the rooster woke me up around an hour before! Our trip to Sapa starts with a five-hour bus ride. The girls were thrilled to see that the bus had beds including a blanket and pillow. We were given a plastic bag to put our shoes in as we got onto the bus. As we drove up winding roads we had a fantastic view the mountains and rice terraces. Sadly Madeline has a very bad case of food poisoning. This changed our plans as we were supposed to hike with local guides to a homestay in the mountains to help make dinner and stay the night. Instead, we have decided to stay in a hotel in the mountain town of Sapa and will meet our group tomorrow morning. Hopefully, that will give Madeline time to recover. Another issue is that the weather is unseasonably cold for this time of year, our accommodation is at a higher elevation and around 40 degrees and we do not have warm clothes.
We explored the town while Madeline rested in the hotel, checked out the market and had dinner. The people are beautiful and friendly but all trying to sell their wares. They dress up the little girls in traditional clothing and strap babies to their back which is an excellent sales technique and I am finding it hard to refuse to purchase from every child I see. We are told to offer half of the price we are given but it does not feel right considering that the price is still so inexpensive and makes such a difference to them. A Vietnamese tourist stopped us and asked to have her photo taken with Cameron. This has happened several times during the trip and the girls say that they can feel people staring at them. Blonde Goddesses!
Day Eleven: I am happy to say that Madeline felt much better this morning. Our guide – carrying a baby on her back, picked us up at the hotel and we joined a group to walk about 12 km through the rice fields to visit her hometown. We were joined by additional women- all in traditional clothing and we found out why when we got to our destination. Our hike took about three hours and the scenery was breathtaking. Between the terraces of rice there were planted areas of mint and watercress. The locals are able to grow only one crop of rice per year due to the cold winter weather whereas in the south of Vietnam they have four crops per year. On the way, we stopped for water sold by tribespeople outside their home. We saw quite a few wild pigs. They catch the small ones and use them for several traditional dishes which we tried that evening. The bamboo bushes are huge! We passed a house with bamboo drying outside for firewood. It gets very cold and snows in the winter so they need a lot of fuel.
Our guides shared a great deal about their lives and traditions on our walk. There are five tribes in the Sapa region Women marry as young as 15 or 16 years old and start a family soon after. Pigs and cash are exchanged between the families and the wife has to move to her new husband’s family home. In the last 10 years, it has become acceptable for people to marry outside their own tribe. Four days after a child is born they sacrifice a chicken to celebrate the birth and the father in law of the new mother chooses a name for the baby.
We arrived in the Black Hmong tribe’s town of Lao Chia and had lunch. Of course, we were swarmed by the ladies who had walked with us wanting to sell their wares. The had walked with us for hours just to make one or two dollars. The town was pretty poor but it does have a school and children who live too far away to travel daily from the hills surrounding the town board there during the week. They learn Vietnamese and English and each tribe has their own language which is not easy for another to understand. That afternoon we were driven back to Sapa and waited for our bus to arrive. A much more luxurious ride this time but still a five-hour trip back to Hanoi. Another incredible experience to add to the books
Next Stop, Thailand for elephants and tree houses.