Connect the dots

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hiking with the Hill Tribes

What is it about the ethnic minorities/tribes that are so interesting? Maybe it's the fact that many of these people have been forced out of various lands, so retaining their identity is an of utmost importance. With this strong sense of identity, they maintain the things that make them unique. Nowhere is this more true than in the ethnic minorities that inhabit northern Vietnam in the picturesque towns of the Lao Cai province. Ground zero for trekking to explore their villages is the former French hill town of Sapa.

Sleep in style in the Orient Express car
Waking up bright eyed at 6:30am
Games and yummy brekkie at Sapa Rooms Hotel

Everyone was skeptical about us taking Alex on a 9km trek, including myself. But the only way we were going to find out if this was going to work was if we tried. So, day one, we set off through the Black H'mong and Red Dao villages of Ma Cha and Taphin in the drizzle to see how this experiment would turn out.

Shades of green are plentiful with the entire mountain carved into rice terraces.

Lyta May, a Red Dao woman and our trekking guide extraordinaire

Kids are everywhere, especially since school's out for summer.  

If you really want to live with the people, homestays are possible in the villages. We made our lunch stop at this family's home. 

After 9km, Marc and I were pretty pooped. (Our smallest trekker, however, still had her engine revving.) But no worries, a traditional, hot herbal bath awaited sore legs! The Red Dao women use this bath, with over 25 fresh herbs, to quicken post-natal healing. Post-natal or not, it's like soaking in a big wooden cup of tea. Hill tribe calgon, take me away...

Not bad for day one, we had Alex running through 9kms of villages and fast asleep on the way back to town in the van. The only mishap was my 12 year old hiking sandal strap finally breaking. Lyta May, our guide, was astonished that a child Alex's age had completed that trek without a single whimper. In the past, she even carried an 8 year old girl several kilometers on her back who didn't want to walk. I'm glad we weren't those people!

Waking up with sore ankles and quadriceps, we vacillated between taking a day of rest or trekking. Also, there was going to be a change of accommodation so instead of staying in town, we opted to spend one night at the Hmong Mountain Retreat amongst the rice paddies. We could have gone by car which would have taken 10 minutes but spending the day trekking to the retreat's Black H'mong village of Lao Chai sounded much more appealing. (Plus, why come to Sapa if you're not going to trek?)

Lyta May, our guide from the previous day, accompanied us again. This time, she said that it was going to be a much tougher route, 3 more kms than yesterday's trek, less even terrain, more slopes to descend and climb, a few streams and rivers to cross and with the rain, plenty of mud. Looking to make some handicraft sales, we had some Black H'mong girls ready to walk back to their village and help us along the way. 

Again, there was no shortage of breathtaking views along the way. No matter how many rice terraces I've seen, I'm always amazed at the various shades of green, the scale, the way they have been carved into the land and how they resemble contour lines on a topographic map (I heart maps!). 

Did I mention mud? 

And crossing streams and rivers? 

The woman helping me is 5 months pregnant!

Our final destination along the mountain and above fields of rice: our home for the night. Mud huts with thatched roofs, bamboo flooring, and misty views of Lao Chai. 

Almost there...
H'mong Mountain Retreat

Wake up to this

Worth the 12 km of slipping, sliding, soaking wet feet, and muddy clothing? So much, I'd do it again!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Celebrating in Hanoi

I started the day feeling scholarly at the Temple of Literature, 942 years old and considered Vietnam's first university. Students were personally tested by the king himself. Graduates of the royal exam had their names engraved in the doctors' stelae that still stand today. We watched current high school and college grads posing in the serene courtyards and traditional pavilions.

A visit to Hanoi is not complete without seeing this unique and entertaining show. Nothing like seeing a puppet show to make you feel young again. There were definitely more adults than kids in the audience. Here is the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater:

We returned to the hotel with 2 big surprises waiting for me. A birthday cake from the hotel and babysitting by the staff while we had an adults-only dinner!

The Ly Club is housed in an old colonial house formerly owned by a French doctor. Take the  set menu for a 7 course meal that uses fresh produce, seafood and meats to showcase the best of modern Vietnamese cuisine. 

Ginger, herbs, and soy steamed fish
Green tea, ginger, passionfruit creme brulee for my sweet tooth

Another year and a great start to our Vietnamese adventures!