Monday, March 17, 2014

Vietnam: Sapa

Alright... (pant, pant, pant)  The backlog is almost finished.  It's time for (drum roll) SAPA.  The crown jewel of Vietnam's natural beauty. I've never imagined anything like it, and I doubt I will ever see it's equal.  The 2 days that Risa and I spent there sucked the air right out of our lungs in gasps of amazed wonder. Okay, okay, okay - enough with the drama.  We set out on a night train from Ha Noi (which was both a good idea and a bad one, seeing as you save hotel fare by traveling while you sleep, but it's ultimately pretty hard to sleep).  It took about 6 hours each way as I recall. The real challenge was the bus ride up the mountains after getting off the train... Swerviest roads you've ever seen, neck-breaking speeds, 2 inches of wiggle room between the bus and a plummet down the mountainside - that's Vietnam touring for you.

The real tragedy here is that we can't find ANY of the pictures that we took there. Not one. It grieves me, but I think their final resting place is on a crashed external hard drive that we have yet to try and repair. So, as visual aids to my log, we have shamelessly stolen pictures off of the internet. I will replace them with actual photos that we took the very instant that I find them. Rest assured though - I stole only the pictures that represent things that we ACTUALLY saw.

Let me begin with... the Town of Sapa.

Sapa is a nice little town in the northern mountainous region of Vietnam near the Chinese border. Unlike pretty much everywhere else in Vietnam, it actually gets kind of cold there, and the frequent mist and fog will send you running for a jacket. The view from our hotel was amazing, and we ate most of our meals near the balcony where we could look out over the valleys and mountains. The lake in the middle of town was quite nice and we walked around it and found a really interesting black beetle about 1.5 inches long, and almost as wide. This was the first of several super interesting beetles that seemed to flock to me on this trip. I wish I were joking, but no - really - there was an amazing metallic gold and red beetle that landed on me on a hike and after sending it away 3 times, it flew back and landed on me again every time. I was a veritable "beetlemancer".  +5 Willpower.

Despite the niceness of the town, it was crawling with really obnoxious panhandlers pushing us to buy stuff every 2 steps. At first it was fun, and their regional traditional clothing is super cool, but man... it got to the point where we stopped wanting to leave the hotel because we knew the "swarm" of vendors was waiting for us.  They even followed us down the street on several occasions.  Being American pretty much labels you as "wealthy and wanting to give away all your money".  Unfortunately, they know how to pull on your heart strings in the most unfair ways possible, so we ended up parting with more money than we intended, but... we got some really cool souvenirs out of it.

As seen above, it's also pretty sad that kids are put to work as soon as they can reasonably work a needle, or learn a couple English phrases (which is SURPRISINGLY young in some cases). It was pretty sad, but there are several good groups attempting to teach better methods of livelihood to the locals. I recommend donating to them generously if you get the chance.

The coolest part of the trip, without question, was the hiking tour.  Some of the local peoples (also in traditional clothing, and wearing slip-on heels) led a hike down to one of the rural villages where the people work the terraced rice fields. It was mind-blowingly amazing. These pictures look unbelievable, but they really don't do the place justice. It was 10x cooler than the pictures make it look.


At one point along the path, we came across some dark green (almost black) plants.  The guide stopped and picked some leaves, then asked for a volunteer. Of course I raised my hand... of course. She explained that this plant was used to dye many of the traditional local clothing. I guess we would call it something like "indigo". She smooshed the leaves in her fingers then rubbed them vigorously on my palm.  My palm was stained a weak green. No big deal. She smiled. Then, about 15 minutes later down the path I caught a glimpse of my hand again - it was dark blue!  Whoa - color-changing leaf dye. No problem. An hour later, my hand was pretty much black. It was crazy. It took a couple days to wear off too. :)

There were also some really amazingly cute and lovable pigs with piglets along the way.  I prefer to delude myself into thinking that these are lifelong companions that are faithful to the end and will die of old age at which point they will be grievously missed.

Unfortunately, even if I did have our original pictures, our camera died halfway through the trip, so we didn't get everything we wanted to anyway. That was actually a blessing in disguise though, because for half of the trip, we weren't worried about snapping photos and instead just soaked it all in. (and there was SOOOOO much to soak in.)

And that's about all I want to say I guess. We weren't there for very long, but I often daydream about going back to spend a week hiking to all the various villages, hanging out with the rural natives, and scoping out every hidden inch of that magical land.  It will happen... when I'm rich and can fly back to Vietnam again. :)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ha Long Bay

Hey hey.

So... it's been almost a year since our trip to Ha Long Bay, but... I figure we should still get some photos up and some brief explanations. It was a kickin' trip!  Actually, that's a bit of an understatement - it was one of the coolest trips of our lives.

So, like past posts, I'm just going to let the pictures do most of the talking. You know... 1,000 words and whatever. Let me just say - the pictures don't do it justice.  It was overwhelmingly, devastatingly, breath-takingly, gorgeous.

I should begin by saying that this trip was not very well explained to us. We were in Hanoi before moving to Germany and decided to have one last mini-trip to Ha Long Bay. We just went to the travel place and ordered tickets, but we really had no idea what to expect. We kinda just closed our eyes and went where the bus took us (and boats).  It was a bit awkward, but luckily it over-delivered by like, 10,000%.

These are the boats that we took. Super cool.

Our friends Xavier and Geraldine - they came with us and kept us entertained.  We had a great time laughing at the super bad Engrish menus on the boat, featuring cocktails such as the "Mos-Mos Polito" (cosmopolitan), and the "Picolanda" (pina colada). 

So cool. I especially like the totally accidental, artistically flowing Vietnamese flag. 

The deck of our boat. Getting some rays, enjoying the scenes... amazing.  There were also some times when they stopped the boat and we got to jump off the side and go swimming. It was super cool. 

This lady was pretty awesome. She paddled her little boat around to all of the tourist boats, selling snacks and drinks. We totally bought some Oreos. :)

This was a little "floating village" that we passed during the tour.  It was right around here that we also stopped to go kyaking. It was sooooooo great. You could paddle the kyaks through little caves and around all the islands. I wish we had some pictures, but I don't.  Most of our "best" pictures from this trip are on a hard-drive that crashed. :( Maybe some day we'll get them recovered. 

We spent the night on an island called "Monkey Island".  For all you game nerds out there... yes I DID feel like Guybrush Threepwood, but despite my efforts, I couldn't find any pirates ANYWHERE. 

We passed through Cat Ba Island during the tour where they had all sorts of suprisingly edible sealife for sale, including these starfish. 

This is the bamboo hut that Xavier and Geraldine were staying in. Ours was a bit bigger / more luxurious, but it didn't look quite so "Indiana-Jones-style-cool".  

There was a cool (albeit short) hike to the top of Monkey Island where you could look out over the bay. It was pretty much amazing enough to make me barf rainbows.  

Sorry this picture is so crappy. I wish we had a better one. You can't really tell, but this Gecko is easily the length (and probably weight) of my hand. It was really beautiful. The reason we knew it was there because it made this super loud crazy-bonkers sound.  This video gives a pretty clear idea of what it sounded like. :)

The inside of our lovely bamboo hut. 

Risa sitting on the porch of our hut. It was really nice to wake up to the view. We sat out on the porch playing cards with Xav and Geraldine - they introduced us to a fun speed-style game they called "Madame Misure".

And I guess that's it!  Anyway - it was a super great trip, and I really hope we get to go back someday. I would recommend it to anyone. In fact, I command you to go. Don't argue with me - I don't want to hear it. You deserve to see the coolest things in the world, so just go.  And don't wait - go while Vietnam is still super cheap. Someday it might be expensive. :)

Anyway - much love!
Michael and Risa.