Tag Archives: backpacking

Backpacking Vietnam – Sapa

Trekking in the Rice Paddies
Sapa is a popular tourist town in the northwest corner of Vietnam that serves as a gateway for visiting the ethnic hill tribes that live in the area. Around Sapa there are rolling hills covered in rice terraces and many small Hmong and Dzao villages, where people still follow their traditional ways of life (although western influence and tourist money is slowly changing that).

Trekkin in SapaMost tourists book a package that includes the train, accommodation, and trekking with a guide, but we contacted a guide ourselves through Sapa Sisters, a group of local guides from the Black Hmong tribe. Our guide, Mao, was excellent and we got a much more personal experience than the larger tour groups had, plus we knew the money we spent was going directly to our guide and not a travel agency in Hanoi.

Market PhoAfter a quick bowl of pho in the market, we were off hiking. I thought it was going to be an easy hike when I saw Mao in big purple boots, but I was wrong – it wasn’t easy, it was just muddy. Mao took us off the main trail and along tiny trails used by the locals. Even though we had a guide, we also had two other women follow us, helping us whenever the trail became slippery or steep. It wasn’t until we stopped for lunch, almost 3 hours later, that they tried to sell us something. Emily bought a small purse. That’s 3 hours of hard work for a $2 sale.
Muddy Trekking Off the Beaten Path Sapa Trekking
Black Hmong Tourist TrapPersistence was a common sales technique for the older Black Hmong women. The young girls relied on their excellent English and their cuteness. I don’t think they understood our responses, but they would ask “Where are you from?” “What’s your name?” and a few other stock phrases in perfect English before trying to sell you a bracelet.

I enjoyed the scenery along our hike, even though the hills were shrouded in fog. The view would be amazing in the summer when the rice is in bloom. The highlight of our hike though was talking to Mao about her life and discussing the interesting cultural differences of life among the hill tribes. Most of the tribes in the area originally migrated from China hundreds of years ago. The women seem to be the bread winners and still dress in traditional clothing, while the men are a bunch of slackers. Mao told us the guys have trouble learning English, so all the guides are women. The women also do a lot of the daily work and cooking.
Corn Mill Water Logged Rice Paddies Emily and the Water Buffalo
The most interesting thing we learned from Mao was about the marriage customs. According to her, she’s been ‘married’ to her husband for a year (she’s only 17) and they live together, but they haven’t had a wedding yet. She was hoping that during the new year celebrations, both of their families would give their blessing and then they could have a wedding.

Our night in Sapa was spent at an “intimate” homestay in a small village, or at least that’s how it was advertised. There were 12 other people and enough bed’s to sleep 30, so it was more of a rural hostel. However, the other guests were friendly and it was good to get advice on places to go on the rest of our trip. We had an excellent, candle-lit (the power went out) dinner and afterwards our hosts brought out “happy water” – home-brewed rice wine. It was served from a water bottle, and even though it was remarkably strong, it was also very smooth.
Sapa Homestay Candlelight Dinner Happy Water
MotorbikeThe next morning we got up early for a motorbike ride back to Sapa and then a bus trip to Bac Ha, home to a popular Sunday market. The hill tribes (mostly Flower Hmong) converge on the city to swap fabrics, foods, and livestock. Unlike most of the other markets we visited in Vietnam, the Bac Ha market is largely geared at locals, with only a small section selling souvenirs. While we wandered around taking pictures, Mao went off shopping for dried beans and a purse.
Bac Ha Market
Continue reading Backpacking Vietnam – Sapa

Backpacking Vietnam – Hanoi

Temple Reflections
Hanoi is very different than Hong Kong. Our introduction to the city was a dimly lit airport, an inefficient visa system, a maniac taxi driver, congested roads, and “helpful” hotel staff that wanted to book a dozen tours for us before we had even dropped our bags.

Luckily, the city looked a lot more pleasant after a good night’s sleep. We spent our first morning in Vietnam wandering Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Every one of the 36 narrow streets is named for a product (like silk, silver, or sweet potatoes) and originally run by a guild. Today, some of the shops match the old street names, but more have replaced their traditional goods with souvenirs and knockoff Northface bags.

Hanoi TrafficThe first thing you notice walking around Hanoi is the traffic. It was terrifying when we were traveling by taxi, amusing when we were sitting in cafes watching it fly by, and exhausting after a day of navigating through it. The Old Quarter has narrow streets, perfect for intimate walking experiences but heavily trafficked by locals on motorbikes.

Hanoi CafeThe first few times we crossed the street were thrilling adventures – we walked slowly and steadily and the motorbikes parted around us; we learned quickly to avoid the cars – but the novelty of parting the motorbike sea quickly wore off.

It didn’t help that the sidewalks were either informal motorbike parking lots or cafe patios covered in tiny plastic stools. We had to walk on the street most of the time, enjoying the sights while avoiding the motorbikes. But the traffic was part of the spectacle and I took more photos of busy streets and impossibly balanced goods on the backs of motorbikes than anything else on our trip.

We used our Lonely Planet guidebook to figure out what sights to see in the city. Sadly, we weren’t able to see Uncle Ho’s body. The mausoleum is closed on Fridays and Mondays – the only two days we were in Hanoi. But we did see the traditional water puppet show. The water puppets were entertaining and cheap, but slightly spoiled by the constant flash photography of inconsiderate tourists.

Bamboo Pole MerchantThe highlight of Hanoi wasn’t the attractions, but watching every-day life for the locals. The motorbike traffic and constant honking, the street cafes and tiny stools, the fresh fruit and vegetable markets, the bamboo pole merchants hawking goods to locals and tourists, the tangle of wires and cables hanging from poles, the skinny buildings designed to avoid frontage taxes, and the ramps that allowed people to park motorbikes in their living rooms at night (no garages here). It was all so different from life at home. We live in such a regulated world – most of what we saw in Hanoi (for better or worse) would be illegal in Vancouver.
Motorbike Ramp Chinese Chess Hanoi Wiring

Vietnamese BeerThe food in Hanoi was good and the beer was cheap. We found excellent vegetarian food at Tamarind Cafe and the Hanoi Social Club was a funky restaurant that had excellent food and great vegetarian options.

Compared to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, Hanoi was pretty tame and felt more Communist, but as newly arriving tourists it was a lot to take in with all the noise and people. None of the attractions in Hanoi blew us away, but the city served as an excellent base to explore Northern Vietnam. Trips to Sapa and Halong Bay leave from Hanoi, and it was convenient to leave our big packs in our hotel in Hanoi while we explored the more rural areas.

Hong Kong – A Traveller’s Gateway to Asia

View from the Peak
Hong Kong was the perfect place to start are first trip to Asia. It gave us an introduction to the crowds, smells, and food we would encounter in Vietnam, but in a controlled, overly sanitized, and easily navigated environment. Hong Kong is a great mix of traditional and modern – shiny new bank buildings are nestled next to open-air fish markets and ancient Buddhist temples.

Hong Kong at Night Pedestrian Crowds
The biggest culture shock visiting Hong Kong was getting used to the crazy amounts of people jammed into such small spaces. There are highrises everywhere, with tiny apartments in them (we actually stayed in a someone’s spare bedroom, booked on airbnb.com). The markets and shops were almost claustrophobic. And yet, even with 7 million people in such a small area, there were some remarkably tranquil parks and hardly any car traffic.

Airport Express Station Star Ferry View from the Cable Car Hong Kong Streetcars
The transportation system in Hong Kong is amazing. Simply amazing! It’s super cheap, the Octopus smart cards take care of everything, and there’s a plethora of multimodal options – subways, buses, light rail, taxis, ferries, trams, cable cars, and even the a travellator.

I was really impressed with the subway system. At the transfer points, the train you wanted to transfer to was always directly across the platform. Normally, that would be the same train heading in the opposite direction, but they had designed the system so you only had to walk 10 meters to transfer lines. And at the downtown Hong Kong, they have an airport check-in in the subway station, where you can leave your bags in the morning, spend the day exploring the city, and then board a train in the evening that drops you right off in the airport terminal and your bags are already loaded on the plane.

Veggie Hotpot Aztec SaladShanghai Noodles Bun Bakery
The food was excellent. They have lots of vegetarian restaurants (some Western style and several Buddhist ones). Our favourite meals were the Shanghai noodles at Kung Tak Lam, veggie hot-pot at Pure Veggie House, and burgers and salad at Life Cafe.
Continue reading Hong Kong – A Traveller’s Gateway to Asia

Backpacking Vietnam

Partying in Halong Bay
Vietnam is an interesting country. The people are incredibly industrious, hard working, and always friendly. It’s amazing considering that Vietnam has had centuries of violent struggles with China, France, USA, and Cambodia. Even though the country is officially communist, we found little evidence of it as we traveled its length.

The cities are bustling with people, motor bikes, and open-air markets – full of energy, pollution, and noise. The rural areas are home to spectacular scenery – Sapa, the Mekong Delta, and especially Halong Bay were beautiful. We ate great food, had decent weather, and had a great time experiencing a culture very different than the one we live in in. I could spend hours people watching, but after nearly three weeks of traveling, I’m happy to be back in Canada, where the air is clean, cars don’t constantly honk, and I don’t have to haggle for every purchase.
Continue reading Backpacking Vietnam