Monday, August 15, 2016

Kanishka & Arvind's Vietnam Visit - Feb 2016

I will begin with an admission - There is a certain charm in blogging about a trip 6 months after it has happened. You get to revisit it once again - through pics, emails and locked memories. Presently, I am sitting at Cafe Mondo, taking a break on our Independence day and documenting our trip to Vietnam.

Why Vietnam? 
It is an intriguing question. Most of my trips typically have no rationale other than the one reason - it will be nice to explore this place. In Vietnam too, that was the majoritarian reason. But subconsciously, I wanted to explore another developing country in Asia.  Vietnam has a very interesting history due to the US invasion in 1970s and i wanted to see how a country copes out of such an experience. Also, in my mind, I had always visualized that Vietnam will be better than Thailand or Malaysia, as in less touristy and more virgin.
There is another backstory to this one. Actually, we had wanted to go to Vietnam as part of our honeymoon but it had to be cancelled because my passport was close to expiry. Hence, it was on the bucket list.

Trip preparation
TripAdvisor is my go-to guide for trip planning. My logic is very simple -  Find a good hotel, find a good tour operator and book travel tickets. Beyond this i never plan. It did not took us long to zero down on Zoom Zoom Vietnam travel - . Her website images had raised our hopes considerably and we quickly got on a Skype call with her. Choosing which itinerary out of the many options listed on her wesbite was a little challenge but we quickly zeroed on to Sapa and these images of Tam Coc made us difficult to look elsewhere.
As luck would have it, I had also read that world's longest cable car system is coming at Sapa and it is going to be operational by the time we reach there. So, that was also added to the bucket list. Online money transfer from India to Vietnam became a challenge. Vietnam is not a popular tourist destinaion from India and after couple of visits to Western Union, we finally requested Zoom to trust us and we will pay her when we land there. She agreed.
We booked Hanoi Guest House Royal hotel, it looked decent and it had great ratings on TA. It was also next to the  main market which anyways we wanted to visit. I had looked at homestays/airbnb but it was difficult to figure out which one to book.

Day 1
The flight was ok. There was a stop-over at Kuala Lumpur. I did not find anything fascinating about the airport. There was Starbucks there which became the defacto place to pass the time.

The first thing that hit us when we landed in Vietnam was that it is basically India but with a language barrier (for us). We were foreigners in this country and just like how we treat foreigners in our country, we started getting the same treatment. To begin with, they wanted to extract more money from us at every possibility. You have to haggle and question everything which is kind of problematic when there is a language barrier. Our taxi driver was charging extra and was feigning complete ignorance of English. I had to speak with his owner who convinced me of this extra charge which we were eventually able to save thanks to the good concierge of our hotel who quickly said no the driver in local language. (Choosing a good hotel makes takes care of half of your travel worries). But this was a good wake up call and lesson was learnt.

The second thing about Vietnam is the currency conversion. Vietnam's currency has completely melted so everything is in thousands there. The way math works is that 3000 Vietnam dong is 1 USD which is 70 Rupees. Anyways, we had converted INR-USD from India, and at Ha Noi airport we did USD to VND (Vietnamese Dong), so we had anyways paid the conversion price twice.  And now, we had to apply this tricky multiplication in our head every time to understand how much an item will cost in INR. That was fun and challenging.  In terms of standard of living, when compared to India, food et al is definitely more expensive while other items such as clothing is cheaper.

The hotel welcomed us with a nice glass of fresh juice and rice crispies which tasted heavenly. We got 3 packs of that same brand rice crispies back to India, this is after spending 2 hrs hunting the store that will sell the exact same brand. We had tried other variations but they were not that good :)  Hotel was placed at a very strategic location. It had good access and a common landmark point.

Our Day 1 was hectic. We were starving, so the first thing we did was to get some food. Just one block away, there was a great restaurant which served a tofu sandwich was the best meal for me in this trip.  We had already booked a local food tour followed by a puppet show and then we also had to meet Zoom to pay her advance for our travel planning.  Our next day was visit to Tam coc

The local city food tour was not the best. We had two tour guides, one was learning from the other. It seems food tours are good for folks who are non-vegetarians. Our bellies were already full because of late lunch. Plus, the concept of typical Vietnamese food is little strange for us, which i will get to later. Walking the local market was fun. There are hundreds of small road-side cafes where people sit on small sized stools and have alcohol or coffee. In evening, it seems the entire young generation of town is there and sometimes, it is even difficult to step foot in the market.

We met Zoom and she was a great person who had studied in Alaska and she had a great passion for country side. It was infectious. We knew we were in good hands. The food tour was actually a tragic waste, it was very expensive and we felt that the tour guides were very lazy in showing us around.  There is also something called Egg yolk coffee which is a local delicacy which part of the tour but we ditched it. The puppet show was decent but not extraordinary. It is one-time watch but there will not be any regret if it is missed.

We walked back from the puppet show. Our mobiles phones were dead out of battery, so we navigated using a physical map which was fun. Now, coming back to Ha noi.  With so many people. the market is just like an old Indian market like Chandni chowk. Old buildings in crumbling condition are there everywhere, almost everything is available to buy, lot of fake items with original branding,  small shops, small alleys. But with some key differences such as even with this big population, the streets were still decently clean and there was a much better sense of lane discipline.  It also felt safer to walk, shops were open till late at night, people hung out at cafes, music going on.

Day 2
Day 2's  plan was to visit Tam Coc with Zoom. The moment you get out of the city, Ha noi's countryside is just like ours - fields and fields of rice. Theirs is also a heavy agrarian economy. The national highways was also similar to ours, little better planned as they had notion of exits, likely inspired by US system.  First thing that we did was a boat ride that went through three caves. We were quite early so there was nobody else there. Our boat was rowed by a lady and she did so using her legs.

After the boat ride we had a giant lunch followed by a walk where in we went into the paddy fields.  It was interesting. Post that, we climbed the Ngu Han Songh mountain. Tam Coc is known to be an inland Halong Bay but this was not the best time to visit. We had anticipated

But what we got was

The yellow color comes when the rice is flowering. When we had gone, rice was being sown hence, it was all brown. Zoom had mentioned this to us when we were planning the trip with her but we were not able to understand her argument. Anyways, the trek to top was good. We were happy. It was a good start of the trip. Vast open country side without much population was a very welcome change and we enjoyed every bit of nature.

Zoom took us to a pure-vegetarian restaurant for dinner.  It is at this dinner that I understood the real meaning of Vietnamese food. Vietnamese food is basically food meant for survival. A good diet should have carbs, fat, fibre, minerals and proteins. That is how Vietnamese have food. There is no notion of pulses or spices. For carbs, there is rice. For protein, there is either egg or Tofu, for vitamins and minerals, there is boiled green leaves. If you want some flavor, there is soya sauce. At this meal, we finished our side dishes before rice came and then finally had rice with soya sauce. 
Their Pho which is Noodle soup also represents the same combination. Noodles are made of rice which is the carb, veggies, green leaves provide the fibre/vitamins and they add some protein to it. Mixed with water to gulp it down. 

Our Day 2 ended with a train to Lao Cai (next to Sapa) It was an overnight train. Train travel is one of my favorite memories for this trip. It is at train travel, train stations, train compartments where this small developing country has totally leapt miles compared to us. To start with, their platforms are incredibly clean. They have no vendors except one or two which i believe are licensed by government. People without tickets are not allowed to enter platforms.  Their trains have toilets which are bio degradable and their compartment is brilliant. Ours was an AC compartment where in they provided clean comforters (not blankets) , pillows and clean sheets with a dustbin and flowers. I was totally blown by this. 

Day 3
Day 3 started very early as our train reached Lao Cai at 5 am. From Lao Cai to Sapa, we took a shared tempo which was ok. It was cold and chilly but enjoyable weather. Sapa is a hill station in true sense. When we reached Sapa, it was raining mildly and everything was covered in mist. Our guide Sanj was there to pick up where he took us to a fancy buffet breakfast place which had a fireplace with burning wood. We just went and took the nearest table and had our breakfast. Food was ok.  Kanishka bought a thicker jacket and gloves to take care of cold weather. And post that, we were all set for our trek. Our destination was a village homestay after 15 kms of trek, the idea was to experience how a Vietnamese village looks like and how people live here.  

Sapa trek is filled of terrace farming views. In the right season, all slopes are yellow and beautiful but it was brown when we went. To top it, it was raining and mist had covered most of our views. It was Go-chala all over again for me. The trail was little uphill but simple. Our lunch was bad as the dhaba (it was not a restaurant) ran out of veg food because of too many tourists. Unfortunately for us, tt was the only dhaba in the entire trail. 

Even though the weather was a little downer, there is still a lot of charm in walking through mistly trails. It is very mystic and a calming experience, full of introspection. Along the way, we even stopped for shopping and bought some amazing table cloths and stoles. We had a 4 kg extra stuff to carry now. For the last hr or so, something snapped in my legs and my knees were paining. The pain went from bearable to horrible after 90 mins of walking. Reaching the home stay was definitely a relief.
I was not prepared for the rustic aspect of this homestay. My biggest surprise was that the walls had giant holes. It was a wooden homestay which the owners had built it themselves. They were a well to do group in this area, they had a stove to cook food . They had their own farm and were in the process of building a good fence around it. 

We were tired of walking the whole day and that too with no bath since morning. We were cold. We were also hungry after that bad lunch. Upon reaching there, we asked for a bath and they said that it will be provided after some time. With language as a barrier, my attempts to understand after how much time, were futile. We went along. After some time, they served us Garlic fries which was finger licking delicious and I write this not because we were hungry. It was one of the best garlic fries that I have had in my life. We were joined by a traveller from Australia, a retired man, who had decided to trek alone while his family and friends were in city. He had been to Vietnam many times and had good stories to tell. Good company and garlic fries suddenly made the evening better. But the best was yet to come. 

After some time, they told that they had arranged for a herbal bath. I had a puzzled look on what is an herbal bath exactly. A Sapa herbal bath is hot water mixed with some minerals in a big wooden can. Like the wooden cans you see in Western Hollywood movies. At first, i was intrigued on how I would squeeze into this wooden can. Our homestay owner lady has mixed it well and told that it was ready. I jumped in. I can't explain exactly how it worked but it was heavenly. I stayed there till water became lukewarm and in those 15-20 mins all exhaustion from the body seemed to go away. We were new souls in new bodies. There are some experiences in travel which takes the wind out of you, in a good way, and this was one of them. It was too good. I still remember that feeling. When we came out, it was pitch dark. We trekked our back to the homestay. We were nimble, energetic. 

What followed was even better. It was a sumptuous meal which we had with the entire host family and the Australian tourist. The lady owner was an excellent cook. Even though it was still the same carbs, proteins, vitamins, it tasted better. Or maybe it was herbal bath that made us like it. 

Day 4
We had rice pancakes for breakfast with coffee and left early. All exhaustion was gone. The nagging pain in my right knee continued but i had to carry on. It had rained during the night and hence the entire trail was sludgy. We walked for about 6 hrs and after that we were picked up by a cab. Day 2  was even more misty and devoid of any views. It was getting comical when our guide would stop at certain points and say - If there was no mist, this would be a lovely view point. 

Fansipan is the tallest peak of Sapa, it is a strenuous trek to go up there and people who have trekked up had great memories about it. Trekkers suffer the pain of climbing up but the views from top is what remains when they come back. It is an experience to trek up there, something of an accomplishment. All that was made easy for lazy bums like us by a newly opened cable car system that happened to be the world's longest cable car system. I had read about it and had decided to put it in our itinerary. That is why we had an early breakfast and left early.  We were a little worried as it was all misty but the operators said that it is all clear at the top. The tickets were quite expensive, 40$ per person. But given that we were there, it had to be done. 

We could see the altitude, how much hard work it would be for trekkers. But we were shameless. We enjoyed every bit of the peak. After Fansipan, we had a great lunch in which we tried a sizzler like dish which was prepared on our table. This was an experience on its own. Post that, we did local shopping and took the tempo back to Lao Cai. Local shopping was an interesting experience. We went to a market where some 50 old ladies stitch traditional clothes. And they had an eye for a customer, all of them pounced on us as we approached them.  From Lao Cai we boarded an overnight train to Ha Noi.  The train experience again was awesome!

Day 5
We checked into the same Hanoi Guest House Royal Hotel upon reaching Ha Noi. To avoid any haggle issues, we even booked a pick up from them. This was 5 am. Even though our check in time was 11 am, they were gracious enough to give us a room in morning. We took some rest. Today's plan was to visit Halong Bay. Our bus + cruise was already booked, again via Zoom :)

Ha Long bay, as I learned upon reaching there, is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the new seven wonders of the world. It is unique as you can see big giant mountains rising on top of sea.  The cruise had people from Phillipines, Australia and Malaysia.  For the developed country foreigners, the bus ride was scariest as they were not used to lane-less driving style. It was an adventure ride for them. We were totally comfortable with it. While Ha Long bay is definitely beautiful, the cruz definitely looked very touristy to us. This is after we had trekked for 3 days and lived in a wooden home stay whose walls had holes :)

But the surprising feature of Ha Long bay is not these mountains but giant caves. The caves are indeed jaw dropping. You feel nature as you enter them, feel those lines as passage of time. You feel their solitude, hear the sound of waves crashing against them.  The caves made up for everything in the cruise trip. 

There are even bigger caves if you go further down and the best way to experience Halong bay is to take an atleast 3 day cruise. We did not had that much time but were satisfied with what we saw. Day 5 evening's plan was set on day 1 when we had stumbled upon an old temple and there was a poster there which said that there would be a concert of some rare and ancient Vietnamese music on Day 5. Upon coming back, we quickly rushed to this concert. Day 5 was Friday and the entire market was in a festive mood.  The ancient music concert was little too heavy for us (not to mention expensive - who says it does not cost money to support art).  Or it may be that after a train ride, a bus ride, a cruise, my capacity to understand anything was gone. 

After the concert, we went and explored the weekly night market that goes up to 1 am. It had all kinds of chinese items being sold there along with few Vietnamese local ones. We walked and came to our hotel, dead exhausted but after a good day of travel.  

Day 6
The plan of day 6 was to do local Ha Noi sightseeing. We started by going to Vietnamese museum of Ethnology. Museums is another class where Vietnam totally outshines us. This museum was brilliant both in its content and maintenance. They had documented history of some 53 odd local tribes of Vietnam along with their customs. This is a must visit. We spent 3 hrs in this museum and we felt it was  a rushed visit. 

After a high of first museum, we went to temple of literature. This was basically an ancient university which was taught in a gurukul like manner. Since this was a weekend, it was also quite busy and was overall decent.  After this, we went for a lunch at Cafe Koto. Cafe KOTO is an interesting experiment as it is actually an NGO. Not only they serve excellent food, but all servers come from a backward background and KOTO helps them. KOTO accepts donations and is fully packed which is to say something as it has four floors of seating. 

After lunch, we went to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. At this point, I would like to reflect on the political side of Vietnam. Vietnam was a communist country and it still is one, even though most of the countries have adopted capitalism. It meant Vietnam has to answer interesting political questions when it participates in global trade and how they survive the ills of communism. In certain cases, they have been able to get around it using something called Ho Chi Minh doctrine which is similar to the spirit of Ho Chi Minh laws instead of their literal meaning. At the same time, corruption is quite rampant and favors those who are in power.  I didn't go much in detail but it will be a fascinating non-fiction read.

After visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, we decided to call it a day and returned back to our hotel. While we had meant to enjoy a walk in the bazaar, it was crowded beyond measure. All cafes were full with people even sitting on the street. It was quite difficult to walk. We had to buy a new airbag to fit our extra shopping. Vietnamese clothes are quite good in quality and very cheap. OAur shop next to our hotel had a few shirts that i had once bought in US and had liked them. So in between, we had gone there and shopped a lot. We also went for a hunt our favorite brand of rice crispies in the night!

Day 7
The last day. We had 2 hrs of time before heading to airport. We could have gone to an ancient temple or a women's museum or other historical places. But instead we decided to visit Cafe Always which is a cafe based on Harry Potter theme :)

We ordered something at the cafe that was quite bad but it was nice to see this craze of Harry Potter at Ha noi. They had wands and brooms and other accessories. On the way back, we roamed more into Kuala Lumpur and tried samosas there. They were ok.

Lastly, Ha Noi is northern part of Vietnam. In the 70s, when there was war, It was essentially a north vs south war where northerners were victorious. As we know history is always written from the perspective of victors. You could see a sense of pride, a sense of superiority amongst the northeners. Southern climate also tends to be litter warmer, hence they all say that prefer the northern side. 

It is a fair question to ask on whether it makes sense to travel countryside of another developing nation when you have not given due justice to visiting your own country's countryside.   Many people have asked me whether I would recommend Vietnam? What is so special about this?

To all these questions, I think my answer is both yes & no. To many of my friends, I would not recommend Vietnam, to few I would. We had a great time.  We had a very memorable experience. But it is very important to understand reasons behind why you travel. If you travel just to enjoy nature or just to get away from city life or to see new things, such as what you get in developed nations or if you want great beaches, lavish lifestyles, relaxed vacation, then Vietnam is not an ideal trip for you. But if you want a little bit of everything, a different perspective of how other developing nations have evolved, get some context on how two countries with similar background have shaped up differently, enjoy nature, different cultures, then this is a great experience.  Vietnam's economy has also grown at the same pace as us and many feel that with a growing economy, it is brining corruption, killing the countryside and making people more money minded. It is a story very similar to ours.  It is interesting to observe how human beings think similarly even though our backgrounds are completely different. 

Our itinerary was also an highly unusual one as well. We mixed touristy places along with treks to countryside, museums and market walks, it had lot of variations and it was all planned like that. We got a lot of different flavors to this country.  Even in US, you never get a feeling of a foreigner because language is not the barrier. But here, you feel it and you get it in a royal way.  While many a times the food sucked, when it was good, it was extremely good. Also, there are many reasons to crib about this country, but still people identify with this place, there is a sense of nation-hood which is slowly evaporating from our culture. 

Overall, i feel that it is an effort to like Vietnam, it does not come naturally. But as I look back, especially after 6 months, I feel that this kind of experience is better than a trip to another US national park or Europe. While those will make me feel better, I know that this one will stay with me longer.