Here is the last blog of my recess week travels, which concluded in Vietnam!
When I look back on Vietnam, I will remember it most clearly as the Vietnam experience, as these four days had a fair share of highs and lows.
Chào mừng bạn đến Việt Nam ! (Welcome to Vietnam! in Vietnamese)
Every now and then (more frequently than I would wish), it is rather inconvenient to be an American. Traveling to Vietnam is one of those moments. Southeast Asian countries, as it turns out, love to charge hefty fees for visas, which mostly just means lighter pockets and a fancy sticker in the passport since the regulation of travelers is very minimal once one leaves the airport. In Laos the visa was $35, in Cambodia $30, in Myanmar $50, and Vietnam $25. It doesn’t get any easier each time handing over money to pay for experiencing another culture, but such is the way of things.
We arrived in Hanoi in the evening just a few hours before we had hoped to catch the night train to Lao Cai, where we would take the bus to Sapa. After begrudgingly paying for another visa, we approached a tourist kiosk, which we had never done in the past, in order to locate an ATM. Unfortunately, we ended up getting sweet talked into a terrible scam instead by a very rude Vietnamese lady I will never forget. All smiles she inquired about our travels and offered to help us book the train from the airport, which she assured us would likely run out of seats before we arrived. Worried we would miss it, we naively agreed to book the train right there, which was an awful idea. As it turns out, it is permissable for tourist kiosks in Vietnam to parade as information booths all the while running covert scam operations. We sadly fell prey to one of these. We asked for the best price on the cheapest tickets, which she told us would be $35. We dumbly believed her, and organized round trip tickets for two people. We also later realized that she had triple swiped my debit card, which forced me to alert my bank in case of fraud, which honestly we wouldn’t put past her. We then asked for the cheapest taxi, to which she answered would be $25 to the train station which we naively believed again. Frazzled with pressing time limit, we paid for the car, only to realize she had charged us for the most expensive option – a private driver in a suit and everything. $25, as we should have realized, is absurdly expensive by Southeast Asia standards, considering we had never paid more than $15, which was high. We instantly rebuffed and demanded a refund of the cash on the premise that she lied in saying was a taxi. She refused and proceeded to yell at us. Frustrated and stressed on time, we took the train ticket voucher and left. At the train station, our frustration boiled over. The voucher we had been given was part of a whole scam network. Tickets were actually only $17, so the lady had had an insider buy the tickets there cheap (which we had to pick up from a shady person at the station) for a small fee and she then pocketed the remainder. Compared relatively to Vietnam prices, this a huge profit margin on each scam. Overall, we lost a little more than $70 to this con artist. Before leaving for the station, we asked our driver to kindly call her for us so we might respectfully let her know this was unacceptable and we hoped she would treat future customers with greater integrity. We were met with several minutes of irrational yelling and a barrage of insults before we finally hung up. Needless to say, it left quite a sour taste in our mouth. Fortunately, the rest of our train ride was rather uneventful and we arrived bleary eyed but safe in Lao Cai at 5:30 the next morning. At this station we were met with another ridiculous extortion by bus driver scouts, who tried to charge us 500,000 dong for the trip (which is another $25). We knew it had to be less, and finally agreed to pay $200,000 after much arguing, only to later find out the actual rate was $100,000. By this point we the corruption and exploitation of naive tourists were starting to really get on our nerves.
The bus to Sapa Town arrived to a cold mountain village of towering hillsides covered in frosty mist. We made our way to the Green Valley Hostel, where we settled for a breakfast of baguettes and headed back to the room for a nap, exhausted from terrible sleep the night before on the rambling train. We ended up spending most of the day inside, as the weather was too cold and stormy for much sightseeing. That night we headed into town to see the one local church residual from the French colonial period and the night market, where women in traditional skirts and colors all sold the same trinkets with frosty breath. We then enjoyed a great meal at a local spot where we ran into Tan, the same weathered man whose cabin we had shared on the ride to Lao Cai.
The next morning we took advantage of the clear skies and sunshine to finally see Sapa Valley, which is just as lovely and picturesque as the books say. Our guide, a young village girl named Suzy, took a group of tourists through the valley, with the aid of several village women with remarkable balanced who helped everyone make it along the narrow slippery paths on the face of the hillsides. We trudged through several kilometers of thick and sticky mud, in and around beautiful hills of terraced rice paddies. The water in each terrace brilliantly reflected the sky above, and everything was alive with bright lively green. There were pigs and buffalos and farms scattered all throughout the countryside. Perhaps one of the most difficult view was the assorted children trying to sell us bracelets along the path, but they seemed happy enough skipping alongside families and eating sugarcane. According to our guide, each of these rice gardens produces only enough food for one family for the whole year. Since rice planting and harvesting follows the wet season, most of their remaining time is spent occupying the plentiful tourists passing through the area. Sapa has definitely found out how to advertise their culture. The most common form of tourism includes a “homestay”, which contrary to the expected connotation of living with a local family actually means staying in a decently classy and comfortable hostel next to the typical village shacks. As a matter of fact, we found whole villages had become hives for dozens of these homestay hostels. We had the pleasure of trekking through stunning terrain and passing through the two villages of Lao Chai, where we stopped for lunch, and Te Van. The air was briskly fresh, and the view of the lush paddies and valley is unparalleled.
We had booked a bus to Lao Cai for our train later that night at 5 pm, but unfortunately our guide had neglected to ensure we would arrive back by that time. We were therefore forced to ride on the back of motorcycles from the village back into Sapa Town, which was nothing short of absolutely terrifying. Our drivers wound in and around very narrow winding roads and around massive oncoming trucks next to very steep mountain precipices over huge stony potholes. Despite this being a death defying experience, the views were spectacular and the ride overall exhilarating. We arrived thankfully alive and waited for the bus, where we met a very sweet Vietnamese couple in Sapa on vacation. We made it to Lao Cai, and enjoyed a nice dinner at a local restaurant before boarding the train and heading back to Hanoi. Our cabin mates were a kind couple from Europe – she was from Portugal, and he was from Belgium, so their common language was German.
We arrived in Hanoi at 5 am, where we proceeded to wait in the station using wifi until the sun at least rose. We then attended mass at the St. Joseph Cathedral, which is very french in architectural structure and where mass is conducted in Vietnamese. Though we did not understand a thing, the acapella music was beautiful and we enjoyed seeing the service. We then walked around the Khia lake, which is very green but beautifully reflective of the city skyline. Vietnam, and particularly Hanoi, as we have noticed, is particularly fond of flashing neon signs which can be seen just about everywhere. In the park by this rather large lake we saw a group of elderly Vietnamese couples enjoying a morning dance class and several people out running and stretching. We decided to do the tourist thing and take a bicycle carriage ride through the Old Quarter, which is one of Hanoi’s most famous district. This colonial area is a hodgepodge of overhead lights, huge bundles of tangled electrical wires, buildings crammed together, lots of traffic, and people of all sorts. There are numerous little food stalls on the sidewalks, all of which have tiny tables and chairs that I would have thought belong in a kindergarten. Enjoying all the sites and smells, we then made our way to the Vietnam Backpacker hostel, a bustling backpacker hotspot where we had a great breakfast and booked our airport taxi.
Overall our Vietnam trip was an experience. The land is, without a doubt, some of the most beautiful terrain I have ever seen. Sapa at least is exquisite, with lush rolling green hills and a miraculous array of rice terraces. I can only imagine that the rest of Vietnam is likewise breathtaking, and wish we could have taken the time to do the Buffalo Run to see more of the country. However, we also experienced great social and cultural discomfort on our trip. With few exceptions, we were treated with rude disdain by anyone which whom we had to manage a transaction. We were more unfairly bilked than in any other nation we have seen, and felt a score of general bitterness towards our presence from the people that we met. We also felt far more unsafe than we had on any other trip. We were told to lock our train cabin doors for safety, and whenever we had a dispute with a taxi driver or tourist lady, we felt we were always at the disadvantage of the local group. These experiences gave us an overall very uncomfortable feeling. Nonetheless we also met various very kind people, like our guide Suzy and the local couple at our hostel who spent a good half hour talking with us. It would seem that Vietnam is a country of very conflicting struggles. Many old wounds and resentments of the past still burn, and foster bitterness in the present. Yet Vietnam is rising out, rather successfully, of its troubled past. The economy seems to be thriving and there is substantial socioeconomic development taking place. What can be seen in Vietnam, therefore, is an amalgamation of bitterness and friendliness. It is a beautiful land with many beautiful people rising from the ashes of war and poverty; and I am excited to see how Vietnam continues to grow.
Check out the pictures below!