Star Date:  November 2006
Northwestern  Vietnam

Hello Dear Family & Friends!

Xin chao!

(Hello - Vietnamese Kinh)


"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."

(Thich Nhat Hanh -Vietnamese monk and teacher)



When landing in Hanoi, capitol of Northern Vietnam, it was as if the tape of our lives was suddenly switched to fast forward.  Beep, honk, beep!  This never sleeping city keeps you on your toes, as thousands of 'moto' bike drivers get you in their sites and barely miss you while crossing a street.  Traffic lights mean nothing and if there is an empty space someone quickly fills it - even if they are coming diagonally across the intersection, in the wrong direction.  After waiting in vain for a safe time to cross one soon discovers that there isn't a good time.  Like Indiana Jones on his last crusade, you have to just step out into the void, knowing that you will get caught up in the flow and burped out on the other side.  Wandering through the haven of the many lake side parks and side streets with descriptive names like Chan Cam - string instruments, Hang Dao - silk dyers, Hang Mam - pickled fish, Hang Ruoi - clam worms, Lo Su - coffins, or Thuoc Bac - herbal medicine, is a fun way to explore Hanoi.  This once elegant city, with sights such as the Confucius Literature Temple (founded in 1070A.D. - 30 years before Paris was incorporated) or the ancient art of Water Puppetry, was barely visible through the haze. We woke up coughing each morning, the price of modernization as everyone has traded in their pedal bikes for a new shiny 'moto'.  Luckily we found our niche and blended into life in a quaint side alley.  We would sit out on our French Colonial balcony, like birds on a wire, watching the comings and goings at all hours.  Just across the triangle 'intersection from Hell' was the big area market with everything we needed, or didn't.  It got so that we would make eye contact then step into the wave of traffic, always bobbing up on the other side.  I soon discovered that the eldest generation of Grandmas adjacent to our guesthouse asked the same exorbitant price for everything - whether it was a single potato or a whole bag full of produce.  The winking of the younger family members clued me in and they became our personal next door market.  All four generations gave me a hug or clasped hands when we left and a chorus of "Good bye Madame" was heard from all the 'moto' bike drivers and the baguette vendors as we rolled into the sunset.  Hanoi has a lot to offer but take a big, deep breath of clean air before you arrive.

Having bought a six month Vietnamese visa in Laos we have time and more time to explore this fascinating country.  Taking the slow, arduous route around northwest Vietnam found us staying in Son La, Dien Bien Phu, and Tam Duong.  All with the feeling of frontier outposts they were connected by miles of winding, bumpy roads meandering through scenic mountain landscapes.  A rare combination of high altitude and tropical latitude, the north is rich in biodiversity.  After dusting ourselves off and finding a decent hotel for a hot shower, we would spend time exploring the town, the markets full of bright ethnic outfits, then expand to the surrounding villages in the countryside.  Often the buses themselves were crowded with hats and dresses of all descriptions and we would have hours of fun just 'smoozing' with our new traveling partners.  When the bus would screech to a halt and pick up a passenger at a remote village they would get on, staring at the apparition before them.  One friendly black hat Thai woman, named Bu Hu sat next to me, practically on my lap and held my hand tight for over two hours.  We exchanged the usual info on age, how many babies, showing our photos, etc. and I ended up giving her a bracelet off my arm when she got off.  Her warmth and smile still paint a vivid picture in my mind.  It is so easy to have these close encounters on public buses.  It is perplexing why tourists pay exorbitant amounts to cram into a tour minibus of fellow westerners and get carted out to a nearby "remote" village to have a "genuine" experience with the tribes people; snapping photos in mass, as if visiting a zoo.  Find out where the closest weekly market is.  Catch the local bus there and share experiences like bargaining for vegetables or buying supplies elbow to elbow at the many stalls.  Do what the locals do.  They love it when you walk around with bags full of fruit or vegetables; later sitting down at a stall for a cup of tea or on a rock next to the colorful lady selling fresh roasted peanuts.  It takes a minimum of 10 women, for instance, to help you find where to buy more green beans for making sprouts.  By then you have shared a common experience and they are proud of their new friends, often inviting us to sit down with them or have a cup of tea.  It's so easy, even without a common language.  Give it a try.  Experience their life and their country.  It works both ways; give the locals the gift of a positive experience with a foreigner.

After 10 days of only seeing two other travelers we were surprised to be dropped into the beehive of Sa Pa.  Joseph found us a wonderful room overlooking Mt. Fansipan, 3143m., the highest in Vietnam. As the mist rolled back and forth across the mountainside we caught glimpses of the steep rice terraces and what treats were in store on a clear day.  Supposedly a good time to visit this former French hill station, the weather didn't cooperate.   Downpours made the trails to the villages ankle deep in mud.   Still the warmth and friendliness of the local ethnic villagers and the colorful market made up for the cool, misty weather.  We were lucky enough to be there for the gala Children's Autumn Light Festival.  Music and dancing on stage in the town square at night was followed by a parade of large, intricate floats of all shapes and sizes (some 20 ft. high) lit from within, reflecting the excitement in the air. The following day began with a royal procession of elders in elaborate costumes then a full day of games such as tug of war, crossbow shooting, pole pushing; pitting one village against another rival village. The crowds went wild and we spent hours just soaking it all in.  There is a rare combination of old and new in Sa Pa as the new infrastructure provides good restaurants and hotels while the tribes people from surrounding villages hang out selling their handicrafts.  If you say "No, thank you" and smile they get the hint without harassing.  One fun thing is that even though the pillbox hat Black Hmong girls aren't educated past grade 6 (After all why do wives need to be educated?) they have taught themselves good English just from talking to the tourists and love to practice it.  We spent many hours visiting with the girls and finding out about village life while hanging with them at the market, sharing fruit, or walking around the lake together. These ingenious women grow flax for their clothing and can be seen continually spinning the fiber by hand.  This thread is woven into strips on hand looms and dyed with natural dyes such as the dark blue from the leaves of the indigo tree.  It is quite comical to see their hands bright blue, green or yellow from a recent dye session, not to mention an occasional tie-dyed tourist in the rain!  The clothes are then stitched by hand and months later decorated with intricate embroidery and silver beads.  Maybe that trip to Ross's or your favorite department store doesn't seem so bothersome after all. 

Several of our young friends, at 15, were all dressed up and heading to  the "Love Market".  In their finery the young girls are suddenly surrounded by a circle of young men singing songs, playing lip pipes or stringed instruments and giving gifts.  If the girl is interested in a suitor she will give him a small gift of acknowledgment.  She is later 'abducted' from her family home by her suitor and his friends.  Taken to his village she spends several days with him and the family.  If all is well she is returned home and the husband-to-be begins preparations for their upcoming wedding.  Sometimes the girls are matched by parents to future husbands but they told us they always have the final say.  These rituals may seem a bit odd to us but can you imagine how strange internet dating with perfect strangers, often thousands of miles apart, might appear to them?

Many fascinating ethnic groups call Northern Vietnam their home. Coined the Tonkinese Alps by the French, most of this rugged area was first explored by Jesuit missionaries, who were thankfully unsuccessful in their attempts to convert local tribes.  The Hmong who migrated from China during the 19th century come in all flavors: black, white, red, green, and flowery, all proudly sporting different hats and costumes.  Most tribes are king of the hill and inhabit the higher altitudes, cultivating dry rice and medicinal herbs (including opium).  The Red Dzao (Zao, Dao) in the same region are noted for Ban Ho, the worship of spirits (not Uncle Ho the country's idol), at times involving animal sacrifice rituals.  The women shave the front of their heads and the long flowing hair is wrapped in large red turbans.  They wear their wealth in the form of coins and silver beads sewn to their handmade costumes. Other northern hills people we were able to enjoy were the colorful La Ha, Big Ban and Pu Peo.  A surprise at every bend, you simply never knew who would walk onto the bus or be waiting around the corner, all as fascinated to look at you as you were with them.

We are market driven.  The lure of better weather, down out of the clouds of Sa Pa, brought us to Bac Ha, for yet another surprising Sunday market.  Completely different ethnic groups were represented, with the colorful Flowery Hmong being the most numerous.  This incredible market was a flurry of activity as tribes people from the surrounding villages walked or rode horse carts to buy or sell goods and catch up on the latest hilltop gossip.  Girls wear their best costume and hat, in hopes of attracting a glance from young suitors plainly dressed in hand made outfits, sporting new bowl cuts and a bright pair of mud friendly plastic shoes.  As in Sa Pa, on Monday the tourists disappear along with the hand full of weekend market tour buses. The town was deserted and all ours midweek.  We walked and walked in the surrounding countryside and valleys, keeping to the new narrow paved roads and avoiding knee deep mud in places.  We met several tourists who insisted on trudging through the goop to have a village experience.  Not necessary, we found many villages up the side valleys and quickly acquired a new found respect for pavement or concrete.  This development has freed hills people from the annual curse of being knee deep in mud.  While on our best hike up a mountain past Ban Pho Village (keep to the paved road) Joseph helped a jovial ethnic woman bang the dried corn off the cobs, boys were riding water buffalos to an impromptu soccer match, and a whole school yard of little tiny children were whirling about in brightly colored miniature outfits.  We followed the road through the misty mountains until the pavement ended.  There we were invited under a tarp set up by the side of the road.  With a warm "Welcome to my home", we were greeted by 5 men and 1 woman and served a piping hot cup of tea, followed by 3 or 4 cobs of freshly boiled corn.  The hospitality in these primitive surroundings left us speechless.   We cut a pomegraten from our bag into 8 sections and our new friends slowly savored each seed.  With over 4 miles back to town before dark we had to leave amid strong pleading that we share dinner with them.  We have so much to learn from these simple, generous folks. 

While on an early morning ride through the misty mountains from Bac Ha to Can Cau, we saw the glow of the sun rising ahead.  The brilliant burst of color was in actuality a collage of brightly colored Flowery Hmong women bustling about in the mountain top market.  Their outfits are exquisitely embroidered, with layer after layer of hand work making the full skirt and matching top one of the most elaborate we have seen.  Like walking kaleidoscopes these lovely women waltz around resembling hollyhocks with babies strapped behind, toddlers in tow, tiny young girls walking alongside and baskets overflowing with recent market acquisitions.  We walked with villagers back along the road towards Bac Ha and caught a sardine can posing as a bus, which was absolutely jammed packed with market bundles and hats of every description.  Four to five to a seat and aisles packed we laughed and jostled our way back to continue our week long stay in Bac Ha.

Our most notorious price gouge to date was an asking price of 240,000VND ($15USD) for a kilo of carrots.  I just laughed in disbelief and walked across the aisle to a young honest looking girl named Heiu and purchased our large bag of vegetables from her; carrots 10VND (75 cents) a kilo.  Each afternoon for a week the crooked vendor across the way got to watch longingly at her missed business.  I would sit with Heiu before buying vegetables everyday and teach her a little English.  When we left we gave her an English book of 17th century Chinese short stories, a romantic comedy DVD and a photo.  With tears in her eyes we said goodbye.  Honesty has its rewards.

We admit that Vietnam may be a challenge at times for the faint of heart or thin skinned traveler but don't listen to any disgruntled reports of this stimulating country.  Spend some time with remote country folk before passing a verdict.  As the Aboriginal peoples of Australia say, "Observe and Allow."  Go past the tourist weary touts and find the smiles hidden around every corner.  There seems to be a rule of thumb in Vietnam that tourists have money and thus should be charged double the price of a local.  If they were creative and only added 10-30% they would have more success.  Practice your bargaining skills before arriving.  We ALWAYS get the price of a bus ride from the ticket office, and even have them write it down if they won't sell us a ticket.  This we compare with other passengers before boarding, as the whole bus gets bullied into saying the higher price once the charade begins.  Armed with this information we turn our potential upset into a game, wagging our fingers at the bus sidekicks and laughingly conveying, "You are a real 'scalawag', 'bad monkey' (a term we call each other) or whatever.  We know you can't help yourself, but this is one tourist you aren't going to cheat!  Here's the 25,000 VND you deserve and No, you can't have double or triple that amount!"  Pouting, they acquiesce and the whole bus often bursts into laughter.  If we ever run into an English speaking person we ask prices for everything and get them to put it in writing.  It cuts down on hassles.  Traveling in Vietnam makes one pay more attention.  Hopefully you will never adopt the 'weary tourist mode of thinking' that compares prices at home and just pays whatever is asked.  Flashing money around only destroys the economy and promotes future corruption, not to mention encouraging begging.  People start expecting to get paid for their help or kindness and the days of simply lending a hand fall by the wayside.  As one travels it is easy to encourage or reward honest business people in many ways.  Be creative. Maybe those prone to cheat will realize that tourists don't like it, it hurts their business and will turn over a new leaf.  A traveler recently told us that his friend's impression of China was that all the shop keepers tried to charge you double or triple the price. (All entrance and transportation fees are set and posted in China; wish they were in Vietnam).  Once you understand the Chinese culture you realize that they start with a high price and expect you to counter with about one third and bargain hard until the final price is settled on. In Vietnam bargaining is the norm but all within a closer price range.  Also they will say take it or leave it, and turn away like an aloof cat; something that rarely happens with the astute Chinese business people. Once you figure out what a fair price is for an item shopping gets easier.  Understanding the culture you are exploring helps alleviate misunderstandings.  A dislike of bargaining, the expected norm, causes problems when visiting many countries.  Some travelers we have met would rather frequent the trendy little fixed price shops and pay two to ten times the going amount just to avoid the hassle of bargaining.  Money goes into the pockets of these bigger businesses rather than the small vendors who really need it.  To each his own but when in Rome... 

And so it goes...............................................Next Northcentral Vietnam.  As usual it is great to hear from you, even a few lines are appreciated.  Glad you are enjoying tagging along on our travels.  Until then Keep Smiling and pass your joy to those around you.     Take care. 


Love, xoxoox  Nancy & Joseph


Travel notes:

$1.00US = 16,000 VND Vietnamese Dong

Visas:  Always keep asking until you get the answer you want.  Answers to our enquiries on Vietnamese visas ranged from only one month available for $60US - to 6 months for $130, after the 3rd phone call by a travel agent.  Agents can often arrange for special visas, charging a little payola fee on the side.  This saves having to go in and out of the border for renewal, which definitely costs more. Embassies are often by the book and time consuming.

Malaria:   Take the responsibility of your health into your own hands. Do extensive research before taking dangerous immunizations or chemical drugs for traveling.  Concentrate instead on building and keeping a strong immune system. (See March 06 for ideas).  This is your best prevention. For mosquitoes cover up at dawn and dusk and sleep under nets if necessary.  Although in much of Vietnam there isn't a problem with malaria, they, along with China, produce the new, effective Artemisia herb based medication that is in high demand world wide (unknown in the U.S.).  Unlike all the usually prescribed chemical prophylactics with horrible side effects, there are simply no complications.  We searched high and low and thanks to the good folks at the Bodega Hotel finally found a supplier.  Keep in your first aid kit and take for 5 days at the onset, possibly in combination with Doxycycline.  (Artesunat or Artemisiad: $4 per prescription versus $9 a pill for Malarone, or $100 for Larium, or similar.  Walk towards the lake on Hang Bong St. (number 119),  from the Bodega Hotel.  A small modern looking pharmacy on the corner, same side, 3 or 4 blocks down).

Bodega Hang Bong Hotel,133 Hang Bong Str., phone # 84 4903 1771,  Five minutes from Hoan Kiem Lake, the staff is very helpful.  Quiet, air con rooms only, $7-12(some rooms without windows) (dorms also).   

Guesthouse Tam Thuong, in the heart of a busy alley, 37 Yen Thai Str., phone #  (844-4) 82827417,  $7-$10 a night for the newer right side, get a room with a balcony overlooking the alley (2nd floor) or quieter 3rd floor.  Very helpful, friendly, honest and they can arrange tours.

Com Chay Nang Tam Vegetarian Restaurant, 79A Tran Hung Dao phone # 04 9424140. (Give the supposed branch cafe in Old Town a miss).

Sa Pa:
Anh Dao Hotel $6 a night  phone #0913360037- across from the Delta Restaurant.  Quijen, Dao, and all the girls will make you feel at home, although English is limited.  No. 402 has wooden floors, an old fireplace and fantastic mountain views.

Bac Ha:
Suoi Hoa Guesthouse - Dentist, fine men's clothing, film and watch repair, guesthouse and Karaoke.  A real full service agency.  #301 is worn but overlooking the market.  80,000VND.

Can Cau:
The perfect market to visit by public bus.  Take the 8am bus from Bac Ha town square to Can Cau.  Catch the same bus back about 11:30 or a later one about 1pm.







Smiles at every bend!


Red Dzao friends in Sa Pa.


The lush, remote mountains of N.W. Vietnam.


Children's Autumn Light Festival.


Kinh elders in the festival procession in Sa Pa.


Glasses help with the intricate handiwork


Black Hmong man practicing for the crossbow competition.


This Red Dzao woman had a big smile for us everyday.  Here she is
enjoying the village competitions, along with Black Hmong women.


Home from a day in the fields, near Ban Pho Village.


Off to an impromptu soccer match.


Caught in the act of bargaining for sweet potatoes at the Can Cau Market.


All dressed up for the weekend market!








Back to Homepage