macado's se asia adventure I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

2Sep/060

The most beautiful place on earth – Sapa

After being in Sapa for only 2 days I have to say it is probably one of my favorite places in all of Southeast Asia and possibly one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Every view (even from my hotel) looks like it should be on the front of a postcard.  Besides some of the Thai islands, and Angkor Wat, it was definitely the most enjoyable experience so far since I've been traveling and honestly, that says a lot..

While I was in Hanoi, I booked the package tour through my hotel which includes hotel, all means, train and bus transportation, and 2 days of hiking to rural minority villages.  I don't remember what I paid since I did it as sort of a package deal with Halong Bay but I think it was around 75-80 USD.  Well worth it.

The train was an overnight sleeper that left Hanoi at 9:00PM and arrives in Sapa around 6:00AM the next morning.  Not the best train in the world but I had a soft sleeper car so it was comfortable enough.  From the train station, it's then another 1.5 - 2 hour bus ride up all sorts of mountainous roads with breathtaking views until finally reaching the main town of Sapa.  Since Sapa is very high in elevation the temperate is actually very cool compared to Hanoi and Saigon.  There is virtually no humidity which made it quite a change from the rest of Southeast Asia.

The hotel I stayed in was called the Royal Hotel and my view overlooked one of the numerous valleys.  The room was extremely nice like most of the hotels I stayed in Vietnam.  The room had old hardwood flooring and a brick fireplace which gets used in te winter when they occasionally get snow high up in the mountains.  The entire place has a sort of cosy small town feel to it where after a while every local remembers your face and will greet you by name. The included food although very few choices (could only choose from a set menu of 4 things) was excellent and the portions were very large unlike Ha Long bay where the food was pretty horrible and was basically re-heated Spring Rolls.

There are a handful of ethnic village tribes up here that don't really fit anywhere else in the world but here.  They're not Vietnamese, not Chinese, or Laos.  They're just what they are; they've lived here for thousands of years and they don't really fall into any boundary of any country.  The tribes here though are probably most closely related to the Chinese minority tribes than Vietnamese.  In fact, some of these villages here use supposedly speak a dialect of Mandarin (or another Chinese language) and don't speak Vietnamese at all as you get closer to the Chinese border.  All of their clothing is made entirely by them.  Everything is extremely colorful and dyed with indigo. I've got some fantastic pictures. What I found most interesting was the Black H'Mong tribe (as seen in many of my pictures) spoke better English than almost all of Vietnam even though they claimed they didn't go to school for it and learned it entirely from tourists.  Most of the girls all wear their traditional clothing and hike up to the main town every day to sell clothing, bracelets and handbags made of hemp and dyed with indigo to all the tourists.  Even though they live in the villages their entire lifes most of them still have some sort of western influence.  Even in the remote tribes, they have televisions with satelite. I also saw one of them with a cell phone of all things and some of the younger girls even have email addresses! Not too bad for a small little minority tribe.   Still their culture is pretty unique.  I don't know enough about it to explain but it definitely warrants more reading into.  They have no religion and basically worship living ancestors, when people die, they're forgotten about.   Men can have wifes and girlfriends at the same time.

I could have definitely stayed in Sapa for a week, I actually felt bad for leaving and didn't feel like I had seen enough.  The people weren't pushy or aggressive like lots of the Vietnamese people who try to sell you stuff in the markets.  Their smiles were genuine unlike most places in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam who see you as a walking ATM machine.  One of the girls actually gave me 2 free bracelets because I was talking to her.  In return, I gave her a bracelet I bought in Cambodia; sort of a trade I guess.

Anyway, I got back from Sapa this morning at 5AM on the train and walked around Hanoi until 11:30AM to catch my flight to Bangkok.  Now i'm back in Bangkok. My AirFlight took 2 hours, passed through Thailand immigration without any problems. For some reason, it just feels like i'm coming home.  This was my first place in Southeast Asia I traveled and stayed the longest. Coming back to it has a good feel.  It's funny, if you read my first post about Bangkok, I mention that I thought it was extremely dirty, crowded and polluted.  After traveling much of SE Asia, I have to say Bangkok now feels very clean, modern and certainly less polluted than Saigon. Bangkok is certainly less crowded than Saigon which has 8 million people and 6 million motor bikes.  Bangkok travel and congestion is nothing compared to the small side streets of Hanoi. Bangkok looks like a sterile hospital compared to Phnom Penh.  Basically, you get my idea.  After revisiting this place, it just feels more impressive than it did 3 months ago when I first arrived.

Anyway, feels good to be back in Thailand.  Though it's much more touristy, the people are friendly, you don't get hassled as much, and of course Thai girls are just beautiful to look at.  Staying here until the 4th and then I fly to Australia!    I'm off for some Beer Chang! 8% alcohol.  Stay turned for updates from Sydney

30Aug/061

Ha Long Bay and Hanoi

I'm currently in Hanoi but I haven't really spent much time here at all. This place is maddening.  Even though Saigon was much larger with a population of nearly 8 million people, Hanoi is just as congested and overrun though it has a distinct almost old world feel to it.  I'm staying in the Old District which is interesting because lots of the buildings here use French architecture.  Because it's the North Vietnam, the majority of the people here were never educated by the Americans like South Vietnamese during the war so it seems the older population doesn't speak English as well as they do in Ho Chi Minh City.  French however seems to be spoken at least by some of the older generation whereas the younger Vietnamese tend to speak or know basic English.

 I just got back from a 2 day boat trip tour to Ha Long Bay.  So far this has been the highlight of my Vietnam trip.  I'd go as far as saying the scenery in Ha Long Bay is some of the best in the world.  No words really can describe it but i'll try my worst to convey what it was like. The pictures can't really capture the magnitude of the bays and cliffs. The entire bay (scratch that), hundreds of individual bays are enclosed by huge towering limestone cliffs that completely encompass the surrounding emerald green waters providing for an extremely calm place for boats to dock and for visiting communities to live.

Besides the fanastic scenery, these bays are also home to many small fishing villages or floating towns on water.  From the looks of it people spend almost their entire lifes living in floating wooden shacks to fish.  Even in this place though, they're not without modern amenities.  Almost every shack has an electric generator, a radio and a television complete with Vietnamese karayoke which the every Vietnamese person seems to love.  I've got some really nice pictures of some of the floating houses and some of the little kids having water fights and being pushed off their boats by other kids.  It was pretty amusing to watch.

Our boat consisted of about 16 people. The trip included breakfast, lunch and dinner and a one night stay on the boat in basic but cramped rooms (exactly what you'd expect on a boat).  For our first day we sort of drifted around going in and out of the various bays taking pictures, later on we visited several massive limestone caves.  The caves are pretty unique because although they're existed for millions of years, they were only recently discovered in 1993. At night, a caravan of about 50 boats all docked in the same bay for people to sleep.  We had dinner there and later went on the roofs of our respective boats to relax and drink. The sight of about 50 boats all with lights enclosed in a bay surrounded by limestone cliffs with a crystal clear sky showing all the stars was also extremely impressive.

There's really not much else to report about Ha Long Bay.  It's probably one of the most beautiful places in the entire world (definitely south-east asia) and everyone should see it if they decide to go to Vietnam.  It would be an absolutely tragedy to miss it.  In the morning we went swimming and rented a kayak for 2 hours where me and another person discovered a small tiny island with a perfect beach. We..okay.. we didn't discover it butwe were the only two people adventerous and foolish enough to paddle to the island. It literally looked like something out of a Corona commercial.

I'm currently waitiing for my overnight sleeper train to leave for Sapa tonight. Sapa is one of the remote places in North Vietnam very close to the Chinese border.  It's very mountainous and is very highly elevated so the climate will be much colder than the rest of Vietnam, something i'm desperately looking forward to.  Can't wait to escape the humidity of Hanoi. The town like Ha Long Bay is also famous for it's breath taking views and colorful minority tribes which inhabit the area.  I will be staying in Sapa for two days for trekking until I go back to Hanoi on September 2nd which interestingly enough is Vietnamese Independence Day so I would imagine Hanoi will be a mad house.  Supposed to be lots of parades and Vietnamese people here on holiday to see Ho Chi Minh's tomb.  Just hope I can make it to the airport in time to catch my flight to Bangkok.  The next time you hear from me again I'll be back in smelly old Bangkok for a couple daying recouperating for my flight to Sydney, Australia!