Archive for January, 2010

Vietnam – Sapa (Day 1)

So we boarded the train and were shown our small 4-person berth. It was a VERY good thing we paid for train tickets for all of us as I couldn’t imagine another person attempting to share a berth with us. The kids were very excited. We changed them into their pajamas and T immediately laid down and said “I’m ready for bed now.” We had been preparing them that we would sleep on the train and T took that very seriously. It was the first time ever that she voluntarily went to bed.

The room was okay. Our biggest issue was the smell of cigarettes that seemed to be pouring into our berth, either through the vents or underneath the door. The guys next to us were smoking and playing cards. It must have been them because the smell changed to sour cream and onion potato chips for a while. A cart went by early on with cold beer, drinks, and snacks.

We got the berth organized and then played some games, a few rounds of Uno, and by 10pm both kids were soundly asleep in the bottom bunks. T fell asleep singing Christmas songs. “Woodolf the wed nosed weindeah, had a bery shiny nose — like anopoly! (monopoly)” When we watched her roll around after falling asleep, we realized that it was highly likely that T would fall out at some point. We positioned their big duffle bag next to her and put pillows on her side hoping for the best. I woke up when I felt the train  start to ascend and that’s when we heard the “thunk” followed by the whimper.  T had rolled out. M scrambled down, scooped her up, and slept the remainder of the trip scrunched up on the opposite end of T’s bed. The beds were so narrow that she wouldn’t let him sleep next to her. So M lay on the opposite end, his left foot resting on the duffle bag, right foot and leg acting as a barrier to keep T from tumbling off again. That set up succeeded several times in blocking her from a roll over, and also succeeded in defeating all attempts M had at getting sleep.

We arrived in Lao Cai, a non-descript border town set just next to China, at 5:30am. F woke up easily, T did not. We got ourselves off the train and found the Topas EcoLodge van and off we went for the hour plus ride up and around the sides of mountains to the town of Sapa. T slept the whole ride and Ftalked through most of it, keeping me and the others in the van awake.

“Dad, let’s play 20 questions. No, actually, let’s play 7 questions. I’m thinking of an animal. No, wait, a thing. Let’s play the guessing number game next.”

Nobody complained, bless their hearts.

We arrived into Sapa at about 6:45am and were deposited at the Topas Travel Office. It was misty and cold. We met Chuk, our trekking (hiking) guide, who showed us where we would walk on the map and then took us to a local restaurant for breakfast. We had crepes and pho (which the girls loved). F asked if they had any bread and nobody seemed to respond. T wanted to know as well, so she asks: “Do they do or do they don’t?”

We then walked a bit around the town of Sapa for about 45 minutes – up to the market where we got our first view of the local tribes, mainly Black Hmong and Red Doa (pronounced Zao), selling clothing and trinkets and carvings, all for negotiable prices, probably not much more than $10 for anything on sale.

The Red Doa wear red headresses. The married women shave their eyebrows and their lower parts of their heads (see the Red Doa lady in the picture).

Sapa is a town in the Tonkinese Alps that used to be a popular vacation spot in the summer for French colonialists. From the 1950’s on, most of the vacation homes were torn down and the area was primarily left to the minority communities. Since the 90’s when Vietnam opened up to travelers, it’s become a popular tourist destination (if you’re willing to make the overnight train trip) and while it’s certainly has it’s touristy aspects it’s still well worth the trip.

After our short walk around town we returned to the travel office. We got in a van that after a 20-minute drive, dropped us at our starting point for a walk through the Muong Hoa Valley.

We got the girls into the carriers and set off down a path. We were all way over dressed. The cold Sapa morning turned into a beautiful warm sunny day so we all stripped off layers. The only problem was the sunscreen was with our other bags. Poor T would end the day with a sun burnt streak on her left cheek – thankfully it wasn’t too bad.

After about 10 minutes we walked through a Black Hmong village, mostly seeing children, as their parents were in town for the market. We crossed over a shaky, suspended bridge and were supposed to see a waterfall but it was very dry due to the season. We then came to the Red Dao village of Giang Ta Chai. We entered a house and Chuk told us about their lifestyle, food, cultural features, etc. He explained how they harvest rice and cassava, their dress, and so on. He also explained that the higher up you are in the mountains the poorer the minority population tends to be. The socio-economic order is the Tay who live in the lowest parts, Red Dao in the middle, and Black Hmong who live in the high mountain villages.

We crossed another suspension bridge and T said she saw a volcano. On our climb up to the road, T fell asleep so we stopped to have a drink and a snack. We then visited another Black Hmong village and entered a house – this is where the prosperity difference became clear to us between the minority groups.

There were small children there and F asked “why are they so dirty?” We offered the children snacks which they happily accepted. (Since then we’ve started an ongoing dialogue about privilege, money, etc. that we hope to build on as they get older).

We walked along the road and the scenery became more and more beautiful with the terraced rice paddies surrounding us on either side. By 1pm the van appeared to take us to Topas EcoLodge which was about another 20-minute drive up the road we were walking on.

When we arrived there were a group of Red Dao women at the entrance hawking their wares (bags, scarves, silver bracelets, etc.). They are not allowed into the lodge so they wait there for people coming and going. We declined to make a purchase and walked along the stone path to the lodge. Once we rounded the corner we realized why we decided to stay here – it was stunning. We checked in and headed straight to lunch. The meals are all buffet so you eat what is served. I was worried about the girls but over the course of the next six meals they ate really well (perhaps it was all the exercise they were getting).

We then headed to our bungalow. It was a one room stone building with a bathroom, solar powered. No electrical outlets, no TV. The balcony overlooked a stunning valley with a river, terraced rice paddies, and the Tonkinese Alps. We had read about it in several guide books as well as Trip Advisor. We liked that it was away from Sapa town, uses eco-friendly practices (solar panels for all hot water and electricity and a waste management system), employs and trains the local minority communities (they make up the majority of the staff), and tries to use local produce.  On top of all that the views were stunning.

M and I, after having walked for 3.5 hours on very little sleep, attempted to nap but the girls were too excited and having none of it. So we headed back to the main lodge area and that’s when we met two little girls. They are the daughters of the managers of the lodge – a couple taking on a leave of absence from their jobs in Denmark spending the year running the lodge. The girls are home-schooled and spend most days running throughout the grounds. Not many children their age come, so while all the girls were shy at first, the ice was quickly broken.

As we sat around playing scrabble and some other games the four girls kept spying on one another – very curious about what each was doing. Finally the girls mom came over as if our girls would join her girls on a walk to the hill top just above the lodge. I offered to go with our girls and as sunset approached off we went. It wasn’t an easy walk – lots of scrambling and climbing up for little girls but F was amazing. The first scramble she fell, slid down on her belly, stood up with dirt all over her and said “I’m fine” and went back to it. I helped her from there on out but she was a little trooper.

It was during the hike that I realized that our new friends speak very little, if any English, which didn’t make a difference in the world to them all. They had found children of a similar age and that’s all that mattered. We got to the top and visited the former pig sty (they’ve all been sold), then went to their house, and then back to the lodge.

By the time we got back the girls were filthy but invigorated. F ran up to M saying “we were mountain climbing. It was so GREAT!” She was so proud of herself and I was loving it.

We got cleaned up and returned for dinner. Afterwards F shared her precious “Sharkies” (organic fruit gummies) with the girls – basically saying they were friends for life.

In the dark with the solar powered lanterns lighting the path we returned to the bungalow under the most incredible blanket of stars I’ve seen in a very long time. All of us, including ms. night owl T, quickly fell asleep and slept soundly until 8 the next morning….


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Landing in Vietnam

We landed in Hanoi on the morning of New Year’s Day. We were visiting friends who moved there a year ago and using them as a base to go off and explore the northern areas. On our first day we decided to go to Hanoi’s main gathering place – Hoan Kiem lake. It’s not the lake that John McCain was captured in – Truc Bach Lake – but we drove past that one almost every day and there is a monument there about the capture. Anyway, we walked around the area as best we could with our friends showing us the various sights on a crowded, crazy New Year’s Day.

When we got to the Opera house we quickly realized that nearly every single person also came to this area to celebrate New Year’s Day. We bought balloons and took a break at a café near the lake. We then walked around the Cathedral area before deciding to cut our loses.

We all crowded into the taxi to head back to their house. Driving a taxi or a motorbike through Hanoi is really an amazing experience. The streets are crowded and dirty, and there’s no driving rules. None. It’s just constant mergers and blending and honking. Always honking. It’s not uncommon for a taxi driver to honk 100 times in a single, 10 minute trip. I counted. They honk when they’re going through intersections, even ones with traffic lights. They honk when a vehicle gets close. They honk when a person crosses the street. They honk when they pass a tree.

The next day we needed to change money, so our friends took us to what they call “gold shops.” This is where you get the best exchange rate – roughly 19,200 dong to the US dollar. The shops look like pawn shops, but really it’s just a black market money exchange center. So black market in fact that there’s a paper bag dispenser in the corner when you walk in.

We then went to the Military Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  At the Mausoleum the kids basically ran around the whole time – enjoying the freedom of no cars and open space – a rarity in Hanoi.

When we got back it was time to take a bath. The aim was to get the kids cleaned up before our big train ride we were taking that night. They were absolutely pumped, pumped, to take an overnight train. They’d been asking about when they were gonna take the train since the minute we walked through the airport.

So we got the them dressed and ready for the train, bringing only one big bag, my smaller bag and the backpack child-carriers. Our friend very kindly joined us to the restaurant where we were supposed to meet our Topas Ecolodge representative, or some kind of representative who was gonna give us our tickets. His fluent Vietnamese got us to the back of a building and into a smoky restaurant with a weird lady sitting at a long table across from us. The Ecolodge lady appeared and gave us our tickets. We were told the train left at 8:30 pm, but suddenly at 8 pm, a security officer started to tell us to pack our bags. I’m calling him a security officer because he had this jacket and hat that made him look as if he ran security agency. I was really hoping for a ticket lady or a conductor looking person, but instead we had a guy who looked like he was an ATF agent. So we started walking outside, around a large stationary train. I suddenly wondered, ‘where is this man taking us’. There was a western couple up ahead of us and I knew that that we were going to the same place. They rounded a corner. So did we. A rush of people were entering a train facing the opposite direction. I thought we were taking a shuttle bus to the train but now I realize that this IS the train.

“Sapa” I asked. He nodded.

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The taxi pulled into the correctional facility’s road, misheard us, and kept going. We went all the way to the jail’s gate, where a tiny, eye level window was pulled open by a guard. All I could see was a thick, metal door and a pair of eyes.

We told the driver to turn around.

“What’s a jail, Dad?” F asked. I wasn’t sure how to explain without freaking her out.

Friends joined us on our hike. It was a perfect day. Clear, cool, sunny. When we reached the Dragon’s Back trailhead, instead of going straight and up, we turned left and followed a paved path down and around the side of the mountain. The kids would run ahead and play red light, green light with us.

“Okay, now all the boys need to stand next to me,” F shouted. And then we’d switch. And so on. At this rate, we’d hit Big Wave Bay at sunset.

Our friends son got sick of the hike early, so we had to switch around the backpacks. With T on my back and F holding my hand, E dished off her child-carrying backpack to her friend, who switched the baby from the comforts of their big pack to our smaller one. He was pissed. But he managed.

F is very into riddles now, so we said riddles until we ran out of them, and then I’d make them up as we went.

“Okay, so there’s a pig, and a cow in a barn…” F would then have to figure out things like how…whatever. You get the point.

When the paved road ends, you come to an intersection. Straight down a rocky path is the way to Big Wave Bay Beach. Like most Hong Kong trails, it’s extremely well marked. A sign clearly points right to Big Wave Bay and straight to another part of the Hong Kong trail system.

Down the path we wound. At one point we stopped when our friend noticed a beautiful black and white butterfly chilling out on a leaf. It crawled on his shirt and then my finger.

T meanwhile was carrying Sesame Street Zoe in one hand, and another orange haired doll in the other. Near the bottom of the trail I heard “Dad, where’s Zoe?” We stopped and assessed whether it was worth going back up to rescue Zoe from the trail. It seemed like a gamble. Just then a jogger came down.

“Did you lose another one of those dolls? It’s about 200 meters back up the trail,” he said, huffing past. Our friends pointed out that 200 meters for a jogger is more like half a mile for a hiker. We trudged on. Hopefully Zoe found peace on the trail.

At the bottom of the trail, you come to the Big Wave Bay Beach village. It’s mainly locals with a few pads housing surf dudes too. We walked through the narrow intersections, following signs for the beach. Confusingly, Hong Kong has about four different areas referred to as Big Wave Bay, or Tai Long Wan, which is the Cantonese name (Hong Kong island, Sai Kung, and two on Lantau island).

Big Wave Bay is a great beach. The waves aren’t that big, but the beach is deep, with little shops and a restaurant, which, on this day, was closed.

We hung out on the beach, building sand castles, eating lunch. Big Wave Bay has a pretty decent sized playground that we used for the last hour. The kids ran around like crazy, playing “house” and other games.

“You’re name is John. I’m Katie and T is Sophie,” F instructed.

“No,” T protested. “I’m Kally.”

“I’m not John.” our friends son pointed out.

“But for the game, you’re John. Okay? Okay?” F asked. He wasn’t that into the house game.

Then we started playing rugby. All three were tackling each other and then me. We think the rugby game had something to do with T’s nose being slightly bloody after all the tackling and rough housing. She really is tough.

We took the minibus and MTR home. Our friends returned later for dinner and more horsing around. We ate leftovers and had a bit of wine. It was a great Hong Kong day.

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Dragon’s Back

On Saturday, December 12th, we embarked on a hike we’ve been meaning to tackle for a long time. The weather was perfect. Sunny, cool. Dragon’s Back is a 3 hour hike, according to the guidebooks and friends. We packed sandwiches and snacks. The hike takes you along the ridge line that juts out of the back of the eastern side of the island.

The hike begins at the main road into the correctional facility, funny enough, on Shek O road. A set of steps takes you up and over a high retaining wall. Within a few minutes, you reach the main trailhead. In front of you are two options: Go left, and that will lead you down and around to Big Wave Bay. Go straight up, and you’re on the Dragon’s Back trail. It was nice to finally be on a proper hiking trail. So many trails in and around Hong Kong island are paved. And that’s great if you have a stroller, or young children whom you’d like to have brave the journey.

Dragon’s Back is real trail hiking. It’s easier than it looks, to be honest. Heading south toward the ocean, you encounter two or three really steep parts. The rest of the hike has you rolling along the ridgeline. If you were to imagine it, the dragon is laying on the ground, facing away from the ocean, tail leading into the water. As you’d expect, the midpoint of the dragon’s back is the highest point of the hike.

Scrambling up the rocky, dusty incline, we reached the tree-less Shek O peak. To our left, a hang-glider set up his apparatus.

“Is he going to parachute, Mom?” F asked. We tried to explain hang-gliding but then just said to wait a few minutes and you’ll see how it works.

At the top, we had panoramic views of Stanley, Tai Tam Reservoir, Shek O, Big Wave Bay.

The wind really swirled at this point, making it cold for anyone who stayed for more than a few minutes. We sought shelter behind a small stone wall that held up a map of the area. With the wind blocked, we had our picnic with our backs to the wall.

Looking out over the green, rolling hills, mountains and valleys around us, you begin to appreciate the drastic landscape that is Hong Kong. A short taxi ride away is a jam-packed city of sky scrapers and high rises, noise, crowds, pollution.

The trail bends away from Shek O beach and down to the right leading back to Shek O Road.

When we got to the main road, we kept our eyes peeled for a minibus that would pick us and take us to the Sho Kei Wan MTR station. E went across the street to the toilet. But then the minibus came and we shouted to her. With T still in the backpack, I hustled F into the minibus, keeping my eye on E who was jogging back toward us.

As I stepped into the minibus, my eyes glanced at the 7 or 8 passengers already on board, mostly Westerners. E was now right behind me. On my second step I heard a loud thump, and watched the expressions on these people’s faces turn to horror. Their faces went from “Ahh, cute family” to “Oh my God!” T was in the backpack, something I’d forgotten as I stepped into the minibus. Her head nailed the top of the minibus as I entered, which is what horrified the passengers. I paused for a moment, waiting for a cry. Nothing.

“It’s okay,” I said. “She’s tough.”

We went to the back of the minibus, where I pulled the pack down. T was pissed.

“Does your head hurt?” I asked. Dumb question.

“Yeeeahh,” she said, eyes gazing away from me.

“Are you mad at me?”


“Can I get you something to eat?”

“Anyfing.” That means nothing.

All was forgotten a few minutes later when F and I taught her how to play rock, paper, scissors. F decided to improvise a bit, adding a pencil sharpener (index finger curled slightly) and pencil (straight finger) to the game. It didn’t really work but I appreciated her ingenuity.

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