Sapa – Shaman Sacrifices & Overnight Trains

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cB2FesdS0UEsapa title.jpgThrew together a quick highlights video featuring part of our shaman ceremony, overnight train ride and dogs and adorable children aplenty. Take a peek! ^^

Sapa – The former French colonial hill station nestled in the northwestern corner of Vietnam conjures images of terraced rice patties, wispy clouds and verdant valleys dotted wth the twinkling lights of ethnic hill tribe villages.

Located right next to the Vietnam-China border, the region of Lào Cai is a bubbling pot of Black H’mong, Dao, Tay and other ethnic tribes that have called this area home long before the French ever trooped in. What used to be a small quiet mountain village has now become a bustling hotspot for trekkers with buildings growing taller day by day to compete for their share of the surrounding mountain views.

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I don’t know what it is – and I don’t I’ll ever truly know why, but I have always been in love with trains.

Perhaps it’s because they remind me of Darjeeling Limited and quirky Wes Anderson movies, but every time my family has boarded an overnight train (through Switzerland, Kolkata to Darjeeling and twice from Bangkok to Chiang Mai), a wave of nostalgia washes over me and rejuvenates the ‘traveller’ in me.

I love waking to the calls of “chaiiii, teaaaa, coffeeeee” from the friendly train attendants, and warming myself up with a steamy cup of Chai tea as I watch the limestone peaks appear in the distance as the first break of sunlight filters through the clouds. I love how trains are built into every part of the city. How they push past crowded markets and schools letting out for lunch. How you catch glimpses of farmers on terraced rice fields and families having dinner at home, their faces glowing warmly by the flickering candlelight as they lean in close to scoop seconds . I love the sense of lingering sadness I can’t put my finger on, but will best describe as sonder – when you realize that you will most likely never see these same exact faces again, nor will they ever know your own story.

Well that got deep fast. But yup, trains. Despite the amount of sleep I don’t get on them, I urge you to take the extra time to take one in Asia when the opportunity presents itself.

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5 hours and a Sunburn Later – Motorcycling to Trang An

trang an.jpgRising early, I donned the brightest pineapple yellow helmet I’ve ever seen and set off the road to Trang An. Rather than taking the normal 3 hour route that charges straight down Highway 1, I opted to take the longer, more scenic route down the classic Ho Chi Minh Highway, hoping to make decent time and also see more than just the rear ends of other cars.

A spot on sunglasses tan, multiple layers of grime and 5 hours later, I finally rolled up to the Hoalu Eco Backpacker Hostel – slightly fuming over my decision.

While there were roadside peeks of buffaloes and limestone peaks, my cramped legs and sore butt were beat and my nerves shot from the insolent honking of rubble bus drivers. I had completely underestimated what 5 hours on a motorcycle in blazing heat could do to ones’ body.
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Alas, a quick shower and power nap later, and my spirits were up again. Stepping out of the hostel – a new (cleaner) person, I was finally able to fully appreciate where I was. Set in the middle of rice patties, the hostel was wedged neatly in between peaks of limestone that jutted up from the ground and soared overhead. Testaments to the immovable force of nature, they have carved their way through the valley and stretched all the way to my horizon where their peaks seemed to touch the clouds.

A uneven rocky road, the one that I had putted down earlier, was the only one that led to the hostel’s doorsteps. Had it not been for the beautiful advent of technology, 3G and Google Maps, there was no way I would have found my way here.

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Played motorcycle driver for 20 minutes or so.

I had stopped on the side of the road for a couple seconds to check my map when I felt a tap on my shoulder and these ladies (left photo) appeared. While there was an obvious language barrier, I could tell that they wanted a lift from their hand gestures and cheeky laughter. So off we went down the road for a mile or two until a large supermarket appeared and they clambered off, waving to me as they disappeared through the doors.

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With their motorcycles parked directly in the way of the path, this enthusiastic group of bikers wouldn’t let me pass until I joined my bike with theirs, added one of them on Facebook and left with a packet of shredded meat rice crackers – Ninh Bing’s specialty snack.

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^^ got a tad annoying after the 30th one

(perhaps I shouldn’t complain as I took one myself hehue)

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She then gave me food and we became bffs

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BICH DONG PAGODA

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Nicknamed him ‘Grandpa Mountain Goat’ due to his ability to clamber up rocks like no ones business – in thin sandals
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Photo Essay – Ba Vi National Park

Pho in Love

It was love at first bite. From the first spoonful to the last drop, the perfect blend of tangy and sweet hit home with a final kick of lemongrass and fish sauce. “Ngon?” A voice from behind me asked, I swung around and flashed a big smile and thumbs up to the smiling waitress, “Ngon!” – delicious, I replied. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was eating.
 
It was my first day in Hanoi. I had landed at Nội Bài airport only 2 hours ago, weaved my way through the throngs of motorcyclists pressed up against my window, arrived at my apartment to met my new landlord, made certain that I wasn’t going to be taken – Liam Neeson style, happily signed the lease, and flung myself onto bed with a giant sigh of relief.
 
‘This is it! I’m here! In Vietnam! By myself! Ho mah gad!’ My thoughts ran in quick loops around my head and were accompanied by a slight pang of homesickness. Noting that the walls were much too bare for my liking, I quickly dug into my bag and began to tape photos to my wall.
 
Whenever I move into a new place, I immediately put up photos. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am – Portland, Michigan, Orcas Island, Bangkok or Chiang Mai, my photos go up before my clothes or toothbrush are unloaded. When I cover the naked white walls with my friends’ and families’ smiling faces, it pulls them a little bit closer to my corner of the world. They remind me that one day, I’ll be sticking up photos from my time in Vietnam on the bare walls of my future room, and that even though – like any solo traveler, I’ll get homesick from time to time, this is the time of my life to do it, and better yet, to enjoy it.
 
With the photos up, it already felt a little more like home. In the excitement of arriving, I had neglected my stomach – something extremely uncommon if you know me well, and the hunger came pulsating back in giant waves.
 
As I debated between simply roaming the streets or using my second hand Lonely Planet guide, I remembered my driver excitedly telling me “bun cha Obama, number 1! Must go, must go!” To catch you up, in case you took a respite from social media last month, Obama visited Hanoi and casually ate out with Anthony Bourdain at a local Bun Cha street stall. Needless to say, the web blew up and so has the popularity of this restaurant. So I left my apartment, ready to take on the first challenge of living in Hanoi – crossing the street. Luckily, a little old lady with a pineapple cart happened to be moving at a snail’s pace against the traffic, so I stuck with her as motorcyclists danced around us. Blessing her soul in my head, she broadly grinned at me, but I knew better – ‘you wimp’, she was really thinking.
 
I navigated my way through the winding streets, the chaos and frenzy of hawker stalls and zooming motorcyclists nostalgically reminding me of Bangkok’s Chinatown. But after a couple of minutes, I quickly realised that I was lost. None of the restaurants surrounding me matched the names on my iPhone screen.
 
At this point, I was so overwhelmed by hunger, the enticing smells coming from a nearby vender not doing much to help, that I decided to suspend my bun cha Obama search, and instead, follow my nose. Moseying my way to the nearby cart, I caught the eye of a bored-looking waiter and pointed at whatever occupied the glass case of food. It was only after I had plopped myself down on a neon pink plastic stool that I looked up and locked eyes with the sign directly across the road – “Bun Cha” it read. Of course. Regardless, I spent little to no time brooding over my subpar sense of direction once I took my first bite.
 
Over the past two weeks, most of my trips and outings haven’t gone exactly the way I thought they would. Instead of going straight from A –> B, I’d meet random people in coffee shops or lose myself down another alley, to end up making a new friend or finding the best dish of Bun Bo Nam Bo. Not to say that plans aren’t plans for a reason, but I still appreciate that I can bend them however I want when traveling alone. 
 
As long as I don’t end up eating (or becoming) mystery meat or Dingo’s cousin, it’s okay when your plans don’t end up the way you had expected them to. Occasionally, it leads to a less than pleasant situation, but most times, or in my case, it’ll lead to a new-found appreciation for a soup, that I later learned, is called Bun Rieu.
 
 – – – 

I like to ramble and allow my stream of consciousness to run for miles, so I’ll frequently post on here with photos and all that jazz *jazz hands* Will also hopefully get out of Hanoi every weekend – so stay tuned for more stories about me getting lost *intense jazz hands*

– JM
 

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Pro tip: Don’t carry 12 rolls of tissue with you in a sudden downpour/monsoon

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OLD QUARTER NIGHT MARKET

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Bánh Cuốn
Rice roll stuffed with ground pork, minced mushroom, and onions and eaten with Vietnamese ham (cha lua), steamed beansprouts, and cucumbers.

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Bún Chả
A Hanoi specialty – fatty grilled pork served with small noodles, heapings of herbs and vegetables, with a side of cucumber and carrot dipping sauce 

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TEMPLE OF LITERATURE

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HOA LO PRISON ~ “HANOI HILTON”

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Ngô Chiên, Phố Chuồn
Deep fried corn, pork and herbs wrapped in flat noodles served with cucumber dipping sauce

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ST. JOSEPH’S CATHEDRAL
Sunday mass

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