We recently met up with Katie's father, Bob Proudman, in Bangkok before heading over to Vietnam for vacation. Bob has been a mainstay on the Appalachian Trail for the last few decades and is an avid explorer / badass. Katie and I have had few months of intense work and it was nice to check out mentally and enjoy South East Asia a bit.
In anticipation for the trip we watched Good Morning Vietnam, which was a bit less funny than I remember. I have to say Forest Whittaker was pretty good in that film, I dare say better than Robin Williams.
After a brief stay in Bangkok we headed to Hanoi. Hanoi was decimated during the war by B-52 bombers, however they actually did shoot down a number of the bombers and that anniversary coincided with our stay in Hanoi, it was a strange place to be an American. Have to love being called the capitalist aggressors.
We tried to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, however nothing is open on Mondays or Fridays, wtf Vietnam? Evidently just like Lenin, Uncle Ho was embalmed and kept intact for the ages to view.....fucking creepy. The guards almost pulled guns on us when we tried to approach, I was about to rush them when reason got the better of me. Luckily the the Ho Chi Minh Museum was open next door so we went in. As typical of most Communist propaganda campaigns the museum was a whirlwind of absolutely no facts and tons of imagery. In fact we walked away baffled by how little we learned in the length of time we spent there. On our walk back to the hotel we ran into a couple of local Vietnamese students, who ended up taking a picture with Bob. Asians love white people. Then it was off to the train station to catch a night train to Sa Pa Valley in the North. Again the trains looked like they hadn't changed since 1945, love that kind of nostalgia.
|Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum |
|Larger than life|
|Ho Chi Minh Museum |
|Can't escape it|
|Awkward to be an American.....|
|Le Tigre on the train|
We arrived into Lao Cai, the jumping off point for Sa Pa, around 5 a.m. and got into a bus for higher elevations. The town has a border / frontier feel to it. Lots of casinos, neon signs, new construction everywhere, and a bit delapitated. After about an hour or so we arrived in the foggy, cooler Sa Pa. Such a relief to have to wear multiple layers and see our breathes, really got us into the Christmas spirit. There is a mountain that shadows the town called Fan Si Pan, or as we liked to call it - Fansipants.
The next morning our "trekking" guide picked us up for the day. Evidently trekking to the modern populous means walking on roads and sidewalks, but whatever it was at least good to be outside and moving around.
The Sa Pa valley is home to a number of ethnic groups including the H'mong and Red Dao. Interestingly the H'mong culture area encompasses areas in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Many of these people have also immigrated to the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Anyway, we were able to stroll through a traditional H'mong village and watch them doing thier daily activities. This area is known for its hemp clothing and its distinct blue color derived from the local indigo dyes. One of the unfortunate things in Sa Pa is how touristy it has become in recent years and how much people bother you to buy things. However I will say that the locals still maintain traditional dress, which includes the blue hemp shirts, head scarves, and a distinct skirt / legging combo.
This valley is also known more visually and agriculturally due to the extensive rice terraces. Many of these terraces are over a hundred years old and are passed from generation to generation. Luckily the the high amount of clay and shallow bedrock help keep them intact. The weather is actually quite cold for most of SE Asia, occasionally dipping down to 0º C. Coming from the heat of Thailand it was a nice relief to actually wear layers, plus it made it feel more like the Christmas season.
|Bob and a H'mong woman|
|The first of many terraced fields|
|Some indigo dyed fabric drying|
|Group photo with Sa Pa in the background|
|Classic jump photo|
|Almost put him in my pocket|
We awoke to a thick curtain of fog encapsulating the city. Our objective for our second day in Sa Pa was to hike to a local village down valley, spend the night at a home stay and return the following day. Again we met our guide for the next days, Saw. Saw was a 17 year old H'mong girl that had recently gotten married and who had learned English from listening to tourists (so impressive). We started out again on road but eventually got off on some local trails, slowly making our way down to the valley bottom. The signs of "progress" greeted us at the valley bottom, a new hydroelectric facility to power Lao Cai. After a few hours we were at our destination. It was supposed to be a home stay but felt more like a guest house and we shared the building with a number of other tourists. Luckily we were provided beer and some rice wine that made all of us fast friends. Early night and sound sleep.
|Local H'mong woman|
|Father / daughter in the mist|
|Some Red Dao women|
|Homestay Drinking Crew|
|The crew with Saw, our guide|
The next morning we set off for another day of trekking. It was a bit more involved and pretty fun. The highlight was a waterfall right out of Last of the Mohicans (you know the ones Daniel Day Lewis ran over while dramatic music played), I had to yell "I will find you" just to amuse myself, still laughing. Ended up at a small village on the main road and caught a ride back to Sa Pa to get some grub and then catch another bus to Lao Cai to catch the night train to Hanoi. Almost thought I was going to die on the bus down the valley, think fog + rain + winding mountain roads + excessive speed without braking. We survived if your wondering.
|Our new friend Igor|
|Waterfalls (TLC style)|
|Saying No to the 104th person to offer me something|
|Going to work|
|The fog lifted|
|Last stroll through Sa Pa|
After a brief night in Hanoi we were off for Ho Chi Minh City, formally Saigon. Holy shit, traffic in Saigon is exponentially crazier and overwhelming than Hanoi. So many horns beeping and people dipping and diving everywhere. Luckily having spent some time in Asia and a few days in Hanoi prepared us for the chaos, babysteps across the street (for all of you not hip that was a What About Bob reference, Bill Murray style). Decided to hit up the War Museum, and it was actually very well done. I never realized how much everyone other country disagreed with what America was doing in Vietnam form the get go, even Sweden. A number of US soldiers actually donated purple hearts and other medals with apology notes to the Vietnamese people, very humbling. Some of the pictures were a bit intense, it was definitely a war that was very well documented and shown to the masses. To my estimation it was the first war that was ever really televised before which everything was on the radio, crazy.
So, we decided to take this full day Mekong River Delta tour.....worst day of my life. We get picked up by this Vietnamese guy named Alex, who obviously learned his English and humor from Australians. Now no offense Australia but most of your population that visits SE Asia consists of very loud drunk bros. Needless to say Alex said some very off color and offensive things, worst of all he would not stop talking. I should also mention that there were a ton of other tourists with us. The whole thing felt like a waste of time. The highlights included watching some locals make coconut candy, paddling a canoe for 10 mins, and a ride up the Mekong for 30 mins. In Alex's defense he did inform us of a few things that were not know, namely that the Mekong delta is 4 km across and that there are a number of islands that are contained within the outflow. The day ended with a 10 min stop to a Buddha and back on the bus for a cramped 2 hour ride to Saigon.
|Oh captain my captain|
|Bob went native, or tourist depending on your view point|
|They kept staring at us|
Back in Saigon we rallied for a trip to the local market, which was supposed to be open but was not ( a typical theme throughout the trip). Along the way we received some free hugs with some very energetic white people and had some near death experiences at a number of street crossings. The next morning we woke up and flew back to Chiang Mai, home.
|Pretty dead out....|