Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Struggling in Sapa

I don't often give up.  I'm one of those people who learned from an early age that you should stick with something and learn from it, and perhaps you'll enjoy it or at least build some character.  Plus, I'm stubborn.  I want to finish what I've started.  But as I walked down a paved road towards a potential second night "homestay", surrounded by an absolute gorgeous landscape but accompanied by only an emotional and upset guide, hearing massive booms of thunder, and being passed by numerous mini-buses back into town, I threw in the towel.  I waved down the next mini-bus, bargained for a ride back into Sapa, and hoped for the best.


So many people had told me how overwhelmingly beautiful Sapa was and what a wonderful experience the trekking had been, that I actually planned to spend additional days in the town soaking everything in.  I took an overnight bus from Hanoi only a few hours after getting back from Halong Bay, a bizarre set up involving three long rows of "bunks" - open sleeping compartments that I couldn't quite stretch out into.  Despite sleeping a bit, I was still exhausted when I arrived into Sapa at 6 am the following morning.  I managed to find a bed at Sapa Trek Hostel, in an empty dorm where I could take a long nap as soon as I had checked in.  After filling up on eggs and bacon and coffee at nearby "Le Gecko", I set out to explore the local market, and almost immediately one of the local tribe women attached herself to me, following me around being "helpful" and trying to get me to buy something from her, despite my persistent refusal.  I really did not need another purse or small bag, and I didn't want to reward her for following me around.  

I spent the rest of the afternoon at Le Gecko, as well as most of the following day when it downpoured almost the entire day, just getting things done.  I knew Lydia, Kate, and Adam were coming up from Hanoi that second day, but through a number of missed communications or simple misunderstanding, they wound up going straight from the bus to start their three day, two night trek, leaving me behind.  I had my own trek booked to start the following day, so I wasn't too worried, figuring we would meet back up at the end.  

I had a difficult time finding the hotel where I was supposed to meet the following day, and once I found it I struggled to find the actual entrance, up an alleyway to the side on a second story, so by the time I arrived, I was running late, struggling amidst a crowd to get breakfast and coffee, and I missed some of the overview from our guide, Su.  As we started walking, I asked someone to fill me in, and he gave me a quick rundown of how long it would take us to get to the town we were staying, and how we would visit a waterfall and catch a bus back to town the following day. Wait, what?  I was booked on a three-day, two-night trip, not a single night.  I caught up to the guide, and she explained that she had been hired for an overnight, but when she arrived this morning, learned that I would be doing the two night.  Only me.  This wasn't exactly an ideal situation in my mind, so we called the hotel on her cell phone and spoke to the tour manager.  He assured me that we would be meeting up with a group of three when we dropped off the rest of the group, so I would simply have a smaller group for the next day.  It sounded incredibly odd, but I went with it, not feeling like I had much choice at that point.

We followed a paved road until we got well out of town, then we descended down a steep dirt path, surrounded by a gorgeous panorama of tiered rice patties and mountains, a site that would follow us during the entire journey.  My group was mostly slow, and I wound up walking quite a bit ahead with one of the hill tribe women who had been accompanying us, a woman named "Chai" and an eight year old girl named "Zo", both wearing the deep indigo and embroidered hemp fabrics of the tribe, chatting along the way as much as language would allow about their families, Zo sticking by my side as my personal little guide, nimbly traversing the path on tiny feet.  We stopped a number of times along the way, whether to take in a view or get some water, each time harassed by packs of small children trying to sell us cheap, colorful bracelets, their requests an oddly haunting sing-song.

The path was mostly downhill, with occasional long flats, where we stopped to take in the scenery.  Eventually we found ourselves overlooking the village where the ladies and Zo lived.  They had by now given us little trinkets, horses made of long fern stems, and hearts similarly woven out of roadside plants.  I had been walking and chatting with them the entire way, and I was at first disappointed to learn that they wouldn't continue the rest of the trek with us.  But even more sadly, the second we sat down for lunch, they turned on us, harassing us to purchase little bracelets, purses, and tiny bags.  It was so disappointing after what had seemed like such a friendly relationship to see that they only wanted money, and the experienced left a bad taste in my mouth.

Lunch was not spectacular either.  The chicken with lemongrass they served us was tasty, but there simply wasn't enough food for everyone, and we weren't really full.  Thankfully our homestay wasn't far, only about an hour down a flat, paved path.  After a quick visit to a local fabrics shop, where our guide showed us how the locals prepare and weave the typical clothing, we continued on our way, passing a massive marijuana plant, as their clothes are made from hemp!

I had been surprised at the number of people in our group (about twelve), and I was equally surprised that a single home would be housing us all, even more so when they more or less had actual beds up in a loft area for everyone.  I wound up on a small mattress on the third level with a mosquito net draped overhead, while a few on the second level had actual beds with frames and blankets.  There was also a small patio where we spent a bit of time enjoying the view and later on watching an interesting sunset, and the center of the room was decorated with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh and red paper with Chinese characters scrawled onto them.  

I wandered around the village a bit, but there wasn't too much to see.  There was a bar next door with smoothies and a happy hour to cater to the tourists, and we convened over there for a couple of hours in a casual celebration of the birthday of one of the girls in our group.   We were told to be back at the house between 6 and 6:30 for dinner, but we weren't served until after 7.  Luckily, the food was good and there was plenty to go around.  We played with the two very young little girls of the house, them running and screaming and climbing on us, until they bonked their heads against each other and the fun ended.  That was about the only interaction we had with the family, as our guide had left as soon as we arrived, and the place seemed a bit more like a guest house than a true homestay.

The next morning, we had a breakfast of thin crepes with slices of banana and drizzles of honey.  Incredibly tasty, though not all that filling for a day of walking.  Su met back up with us, and as we started walking she mentioned to me that the group I was supposed to meet up with for the five hours of hiking in the afternoon was taking a different path, so maybe we would see them at the next night's homestay instead.  She also started whining about how "terrible" the next spot was - hot and full of mosquitoes, she said.  At this point I was getting increasingly fed up with the situation, so I posed the question of catching the bus back to town with the rest of the group, and she said that we could call the travel manager when we got to our lunch spot and see what we could work out.

We started our hiking for the day with more stunning views, climbing up along a ridge (passing some locals who had just killed and were prepping a pig to be cooked), and stopping in little shelters along the way.  Then, it started to rain.  I ran up to the nearest shelter to pull out my rain gear and waited for the group.  We waited out the rain for a bit, then continued on into it, diving straight into a bamboo forest, hiking first straight down, then up, then down a very slippery, now slick from mud and rain, dirt trail.  We had another group of ladies and girls with us today, and while I tried not to engage them this time, I found myself quite literally leaning on one woman to get down the steep and slippery slopes.

Amazingly, the rain stopped just as we emerged from the bamboo, and we made our way down just a bit more, to the top of a really incredible waterfall, whose size really couldn't be appreciated but from afar.  Here I also bought a small strip of beautifully embroidered fabric from the only person on the trail who didn't harass me to buy anything.  I didn't even bargain, I was so appreciative of their willingness to let me look and choose what I wanted without getting in my face.  Of course as soon as I did, the woman who I had leaned on along the path started getting in my face, demanding that I buy something from her, because she had "been so nice to me".

By now I had decided that I would go back to Sapa with the group if I could get my overnight bus reservation changed to that night.  We made our way down the hill, crossed the river, and climbed up to a small village where we had a lunch of noodle soup with an egg.  We called Dao, the travel agent I had booked with back in Hanoi, but I was told that no buses were available for that night.  Which of course made me realize just how much I wanted to get away from this situation and return to Hanoi.  But, I resolved to suck it up and continue on.  

I followed Su as we set off on our "hike" to the next town… on a long, flat, winding paved road, with occasional trucks, minibuses, and motorbikes flying past us.  I was even less happy now that my trek was a was a walk on a paved road.  Then I spotted a minibus coming our way with a familiar face sticking his head out the window - Adam.  It was he, Kate, and Lydia, on their way back from their successful three day, two night trek.  They stopped briefly, shocked that I was walking along this road, told me they had had a great time, and that they would look for me back in Hanoi.  As they pulled away I wanted to scream in frustration, and as if the air around me was echoing my mood, great booms of thunder began to make their way towards us, and my guide began getting emotional herself.

Somewhere between four and five kilometers into walking along the paved road, we saw another van coming our way, and I stopped to hail it.  I paused for a while, finally surrendering and climbing in to get myself and my guide back to town.  I was giving up.  As we made our way back towards the city, the skies opened up and it started absolutely pouring, perhaps a sign that returning was the right thing to do.  I took a moment to savor the scenery during the drive, which truly was stunningly beautiful.  I was sad that so many little things had come together to make the experience so much less enjoyable than it had the potential to be.

We returned to the hotel int he middle of the storm, surprising everyone, and I was at least given a bite of food, which I wasn't able to finish before urgently trying to call Dao, as the man at the hotel was being entirely unhelpful, and people were starting to leave to catch the bus.  Finally I just grabbed my bags and rushed out the door, determined to try and find a seat on a bus simply by showing up.  Hey, it's worked before. 

And thankfully this time, it did.  I had my prepaid open ticket in hand, found the appropriate company, and asked if they had an open seat anywhere.  The man considered it for a few seconds, then gestured for me to throw my luggage into one of the waiting buses.  Victory!  Finally!  I boarded around 6, and we didn't actually leave town until 7, after stopping to pick up various people and things.  Despite having no time to shower after two days of walking (I ducked into the bathroom to freshen up with baby wipes - a camping shower! - and change into fresh clothes) and having no real food (two nice guys on the bus shared their massive package of Oreos), I was thrilled to be on that bus.  I was happy.  And I realized that yes, sometimes giving up is the right choice.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Independence Day at Halong Bay

While I've now spent plenty of American holidays away from the rituals of home, I have been lucky to have some wonderful, and sometimes very appropriate stand-ins while abroad.  Months after enjoying steaks with a pair of Americans in Argentina for Thanksgiving, I found myself on a beach for America's Independence Day - July 4 - enjoying a barbeque with, ironically, a handful of friends from England.  And while I didn't experience any fireworks, I did have a somewhat fearful display of light and sound from a massive thunderstorm that evening.


Our minibus arrived early in the morning of July 3, right on time, and Adam, Lydia, Kate, and I piled in, happy to see a younger set of faces despite having avoided the party cruise!  The ride was long but not bad, with one extended stop at a store that was clearly meant for us to purchase trinkets, though it wasn't bad for loading up on snacks.  We finally arrived at Halong Bay at a massive pier area, groups packed into the storefront awaiting their departures, others lounging around clearly battling hangovers from a couple of nights on a booze cruise and waiting on buses to take them back to the city.  Our guide, Tiger, quickly whisked us out to the docks, passing massive luxury ships and small boats that looked like they were crumbling, saying silent prayers as we passed that none of those would be our boat!  While the outside of ours could certainly use some work, I think we were all pleasantly surprised at how nice and comfortable it was on the inside, the rooms even borderline luxurious.  We were immediately served a tasty lunch, plates and plates loaded full of food served to us in swift succession as we slowly made our way out in the water.

Our first stop was a large cave with a steady stream of tourists coming in and out.  Inside was indeed spectacular, but there was something about the path, the colored lighting, that just made it seem a bit… fake.  I'm sure most of the structure was naturally occurring, but sometimes it's hard to imagine the natural beauty through pink and purple spotlights!

Back on the boat, we went straight to the roof to relax on the comfortable lounge chairs, soaking in our gorgeous surroundings - the enormous limestone rocks covered in greenery jutting out of the surprisingly calm water against a background of blue skies.  Soon after we were given an opportunity to kayak from a floating village, smoothly navigating our two-person boats through caves and into alcoves that had been featured in the James Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies".  Adam and I were a good team, and we made a second lap around the little loop, having made good time on the first.

Back on the big boat, we continued lounging up top, chatting with our shipmates as we made our way to a little secluded area where we anchored for a while, allowing many members of the group the chance to leap from the roof into the bay.  The sun slowly began to set as we relaxed and hung out, and we watched the sky explode with stunning colors as the sun dipped in between two large sections of rocks, resembling the silhouettes of dragons resting atop the water.

Eventually we descended for dinner, where we were shown how to assemble fresh spring rolls and given plenty of other delicious plates of food (although the fact that they didn't provide *any* beverages - including water - and grossly overcharged for water was definitely a sour note).  After dinner, we took turns getting cleaned up (and begging the staff to actually turn on the hot water), then relaxing on the rooftop, watching the stars and distant lightning flashes, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere despite the nearby party boats.  

The next day was July 4 - Independence Day! - and incredibly ironic that I was spending it in Vietnam with a bunch of Brits.  After breakfast, we landed on Cat Ba Island and piled into a cramped minibus for a drive across the island, where we caught another small boat to take us to our accommodations for the next evening.  We puttered out past a massive floating village, full of fishing and shrimping boats, then out across the water to Monkey Island.

The little resort looked kind of incredible as we approached from the water.  Upon actually entering the property though, we were greeted by a huge group of families, with small kids climbing on the lobby pool table and yelling.  Absolutely horrifying.  Thankfully they hid from the sun most of the day, leaving the beach all to us.  We stashed our bags and were told we could check into our rooms after lunch, giving us nearly two hours to lay on the beach and swim in the ocean, enjoying the rolling waves that were a departure from the placid calm of the previous day.

We broke for lunch - a delicious spread served on the upstairs balcony of the main building - and afterwards were given our keys to our tiny bungalows which were perfectly furnished, both rustic and somewhat luxurious.  After getting settled, a few of us set out on a short hike to an overlook point.  The trail was very poorly maintained and overgrown, and the path was eroding away in some places.  Unfortunately, the viewpoint was similarly overgrown, disappointing after the very sweaty climb, but we were still able to get a decent glimpse of the gorgeous surrounding view.  Back on the beach, we stripped down and got back in the water as quickly as possible to cool down, and I spent the next few hours between the beach chair, the ocean, and the upstairs deck, enjoying the sand, the breeze, and the peaceful sound of the waves.

Later that afternoon, Tiger gathered the group together for a short hike over to Monkey Beach.  We followed a path of well-marked rocky stairs up and over to the very heavily-populated beach on the other side of the island, full of Asian tourists.  We circled around to the back corner of the beach, to a small building and set of trees which were occupied by a large family of monkeys.  The patriarch sat brooding on a low trunk looking like the Dude up until he executed a sneak attack on one of the onlooking tourists, ripping a package of biscuits from a shopping bag, tearing them open, and proceeding to eat each and every one.  Meanwhile, a baby on a high up branch screamed for attention from pink-faced mom, but attracted the attention of a sibling, who wrestled him out of the tree and onto the ground.

Having had enough of monkeys, we returned to our beach, seeking quiet and a refreshing dip in the ocean, startled to see it once again full of families out for a swim.  We went swimming anyway, and after getting enough sun I retreated to the upstairs deck, enjoying the breeze as the sun slowly set.  We regrouped later on for dinner, an expansive buffet including spring rolls, salad, soup, buns, and featuring an open grill with chicken, pork, oysters, and squid rings.  We devoured multiple plates until we were stuffed silly, and I felt like the barbecue was especially appropriate given the holiday I was missing back home.  As other guests drifted off to their rooms, I played cards with some Canadian and Belgian travelers in our larger group, finally turning in myself.

I didn't sleep well that night, as a massive thunderstorm hit our tiny island, with some of the loudest booms of thunder I've heard in my entire life, sounding like bombs ripping apart the air directly overhead.  I said a few silent prayers that the rain wouldn't get in our little thatched roof hut, and thankfully, we stayed completely dry.  Unfortunately though, around 5 am, our little air conditioning unit decided to start beeping loudly at random intervals, sounding like an alarm, with no way that we could figure out to silence it.  Finally it shut off around 7 am, and my own alarm went off only half an hour later.  Groggy and grumpy, I stumbled to a thankfully delicious breakfast of eggs and crepes before gathering my things and joining the group to say farewell to our little island. 

We boarded a small boat to cross the now choppy water back to Cat Ba Island, where we crammed into a very tiny minibus to cross the island back to our larger boat.  As we boarded the bus and our larger boat, we passed huge groups of tourists out for the weekend - I was very thankful we had started our trip on a Thursday instead of a Friday or a Saturday!  We enjoyed the upper deck of the boat for a while until a light rain started, sending us downstairs where we later enjoyed a tasty lunch, our final meal of the trip.  The rain become much stronger as we gradually made our way towards the pier where we had started, and we waited as long as we could before disembarking in the downpour.  After another long wait, we boarded another minibus back to Hanoi, where I would immediately embark for my next adventure:  Sapa.