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Beijing – The Great Wall

There are always issues when traveling in foreign countries with small children, and it gets ever more serious when you get into emerging markets, where things are unpredictable, and few people speak English.

But one of the biggest “children” issues one faces when traveling in mainland China is the amount of locals who stop, point, crowd around, smile and chase your children.

F is well aware of it and hates it. T is too, and even though she doesn’t like the attention, she secretly does.

Try as we do to make F a friendly, polite young girl, she really isn’t. Especially when it comes to foreigners ogling over her.

Whenever a local person tries to get her attention, she lets out a growl, a grunt, or a whine, turns away, or scowls, hands on hip. It is not a friendly gesture, but who could blame her.

It did not take our guide, Jiling, long to notice this.

“The way F looks at the Chinese people is… funny,” our guide said, meaning it in the nicest and most honest of ways. I didn’t want to tell Jiling that she looks at them that way because they drive her crazy.

We were going to Mutianyu, about an hours drive from Beijing. It’s a section of the Great Wall that is much, much less crowded than a section that is closer to the city (Badaling). In this outskirt, the Wall does get crowded, but we left early enough that we never really felt overwhelmed by the people.

Our guide, Jiling, grew up in northeast China. She went to local schools there and got a government job after graduating but decided to give the big city a try in 2001, when she moved to Beijing. After some corporate jobs where she worked as an administrative assistant, she moved briefly to Germany, learned the language, moved back to China and started touring the country. She passed the state tour guide test and started her own business shortly afterward. We highly recommend her services: http://www.luckyjil.com/.

Our trip to the Great Wall was on a very, very hot day.

From the parking lot, you walk up a hill and through a local market where vendors are aggressive in their sales tactics.

“What’s your name, what’s your name?” asked a lady selling t-shirts. I muttered my name.

“I remember you M. You remember me M? You remember me M when you come back down. See you later M. Bye.”

We got in the chair lift line, as if we were going up a mountain ski resort for a run down in the snow. F thought the chair lift was really cool. T was a bit freaked out by it.

When we reached the top, there was the Wall in front of us.

We fought for five minutes over who had to walk, and who went on my back in the pack.

F realized she was going to have to walk, threw a brief fit. A snack helped her get over this.

“Look Mom, we’re on the Wall!” T yelled from my back.

“We’re not on the Wall, we’re near the Wall,” F corrected. She was right. We hadn’t quite reached it.

Once on the wall, the views are thrilling. Its rocky, rugged surface gives it an authenticity, even though one can arrive up in a chair lift and slide down in a toboggan. Each watch tower takes five minutes or so to walk to. Once we reached these square, stone structures, we’d rest in the cool inside, and look out the rectangle windows cut into the thick stones.

“He doesn’t have a shirt on,” T said, giggling, noticing a guy in jeans, running sneakers and no shirt. It was amazing to see how few locals wear shorts and flip flops, even when it’s nearly 100 degrees in the sun. Jeans were everywhere. It was difficult to comprehend.

F walked the whole way, up and down the slanted, jagged stone steps. The steps leading up and down from the watchtowers leaned whatever direction the wall was angled. One of the watch towers had a narrow staircase up to the tip top, where people gathered for a better view and pictures. F was getting tired, the whimpers were starting to get louder and more deliberate.

So I promised that the next watchtower would be the last one. There, I perched the kids on a thick window ledge. Chinese tourists immediately gathered around and started taking pictures of them. Some would touch the girls, and F would growl at them. T would just let out a squeal and turn her head away. Jiling was very nervous about how I perched the girls on the window ledge. Yes, it was a long drop below, but the ledge itself was 4 feet thick. I wasn’t worried. But every time one of them moved to grab a gold fish or sip water, Jiling would jump and reach out to block them. She stood guard the whole time, petrified that one of them would fall.

I split off for a moment walked down a bit further. I stood by a couple posing with their child near a canon. I recall in reading up to the trip that nobody has every bothered to attack the Wall, though I have not verified this fully.  The Wall did not look impenetrable, but it looked as if the Mongols would have one hell of a time coordinating an attack that would take them up and over. The portion of the wall where we were was perched along a steep ridgeline, making any attempt to go up and over the Wall seemingly impossible. Mongol invaders would have to climb a thousand or more feet straight up the side of several mountains before they’d even reach the part of the wall we were visiting.

The bribe that kept F going for one hour walking solo along the wall (not bad for a 4.5 year old, I reckon) was the promise of a popsicle. We kept passing these snack sellers along the wall, who clearly didn’t sell frozen treats, but of course, F kept insisting they did. The more we passed, the more I said no, the more frustrated she got. The men at these snack stops were all dressed in traditional PLA army garb. I don’t know if they did that because they were at the Wall and supposed to. A lot of older men in China where the army garb simply because its practical to them. Impervious to the heat, it covers their arms, keeps them warm in the shade, etc.

We found a snack seller at the top of the stairs we were descending to leave the wall. When I looked at the selection, I noticed there was a taro pop on sale, an item I doubted F would like. She looked at it, confirmed that she’d had it before, asked for it in Chinese, and immediately tore into it. T kept at her Goldfish.

I prepped the girls on how were getting down, which prompted some excitement from both. You’ve probably seen these kinds of toboggans. They descend down the side of a mountain and are situated on metal tracks. You pull to break, push forward to accelerate, and lean into the turns. In line, we met a couple from Oregon. They were a sweet, older couple. The mom did the talking, and the bearded dad, observed, smiled, occasionally made a remark.  The Mom spoke in a Midwestern, simple drawl, saying things like how good the food was in Shanghai, how hot the weather was in Beijing. Their son lived in Shanghai. He was up ahead in line with his partner.

We climbed into the toboggans and bombed down the mountain. E went alone with the baby in the bjorn. Jiling went ahead with F. I brought up the rear with T.

I thought F would resist the Jiling partnership but she took it on. They were pals now. Jiling kept yelling something up toward us, and I couldn’t tell what it was, but I had a hunch. There was a couple in front, in which the woman was 10 times the age of T, and 20 times more scared of the toboggan. She was going so slow, you could walk past her. Jiling was yelling in Chinese at this woman and the woman’s boyfriend to go faster. So we’d all put on the brakes, queue up, wait for some distance from the slow poke, and head down the mountain, the Great Wall meandering behind us along the ridge line.

The next stop was fresh rainbow trout. Jiling had a local place in mind but a place called the Schoolhouse was recommended to me. When we got there, Jiling looked at the menu and remarked to E that the place was expensive, which they immediately let me know about. When I asked how much the dishes were, I quickly did the math. The local place probably sold exquisite local trout dishes for $5 per plate. This one sold them for $8. We could endure the added cost.

On the way back we did a drive buy of the Olympic sites – the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest.

I’d warned the girls that a colleague had invited us over for a barbecue at the hutong where he and his wife live, located not far from Lama Temple.  They didn’t say anything when I broke the afternoon plan to them early in the morning. I knew the questions and the resistance would come closer to our trip there and they did. They pulled it together and made the best of it. And E and I loved seeing hutong life with the added benefit of being just around the corner from Lama Temple.

The following day Jiling brought us to Dashilan, Qianmen Dajie, Tian’anmen Square, and the Forbidden City. All of these sites were truly astonishing. We probably could have done the sites on our own but it was great to be able to relax, have her guide us around, pay for entrance fees, and tell us interesting facts and history. She was extremely flexible and understanding to our needs and limitations with the three kids.

We lunched at a fantastic Hot Pot place (sorry don’t know the name) where the kids loved throwing dumplings in and trying to fetch them out with their chopsticks. We then spent the afternoon at the 798 Art District. I definitely recommend the trip out – it’s a a  great, vibrant, thriving scene.

We ended our Beijing trip with a dip in the pool and before heading out for  Peking Duck. We got a recommendation to go to Huajia Yiyuan – and it didn’t disappoint. Best of all we could walk there from our hotel so we got a bit more of touring the streets of Beijing before our departure the next morning.

(Note: In that Tianamen Square photo above, there are probably a dozen cameras alone in that one lamp post, filming the people — a true police state.)

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Beijing – Summer Palace

Walking through Beijing’s airport terminal, we followed our hired driver out the automatic doors, and into the main parking lot.

“It smells like elephants,” F said. It was really an astute observation, because, in fact, a herd of elephants is exactly what the outside air smelled like. We’ve been to airports and large urban transportation hubs that smell like gasoline, or jet fuel, cigarettes, or a sewage treatment plant. But it’s still a wonder what blend of odors created that exotic animal zoo scent in the early hours of that Beijing night.

Let me start by saying that I love Beijing. It’s a got a magic to me that I felt the first time I was there, and felt it immediately upon my return. The last time I was in Beijing was November, 2008. Election Day in the U.S. The Obama election results came in just after a bunch of us got out of a meeting. When we got out of the boardroom an hour later, Obama had won Ohio.“He’s got it,” shouted a British colleague. “He just won the election.” People were scouring the internet for images and videos of his victory speech. Local media wasn’t showing it. We crowded around desks that found video. I looked over and saw a British woman crying at her desk. The weather outside was cool, clear and crisp, just like a New England day in November.

So here we were, the whole family this time, in Beijing. I worked pretty long hours that Thursday and Friday, leaving E and the kids on their own those first two days.

Thursday they went to the zoo with friends who live in Beijing. It’s not something highly recommended but if you have extra time and want to do something kid-friendly it’s worth a visit.

Friday E and the kids went to the Summer Palace. An absolutely gorgeous park that was an imperial retreat from the Forbidden City. It’s just on the outskirts of Beijing along Kunming Lake. They hired a driver who waited for them. While this was a bit pricey it was worth it seeing as she was on her own with three little ones and very little mandarin.  Here’s their day:

We walked from one gate to the other and all around the grounds. We started at the Hall of Happiness and Longevity. We loved walking through the Long Corridor, stopping along the way at various sites – Temple of the Fragrance of the Buddha and so on. We wound up at the Marble Boat built by Empress Cixi. On the way back we walked up Longevity Hill as far as I could while pushing a stroller.

At one point we stopped for a snack and before I knew it F was negotiating with a woman for bird whistles. For someone usually reticent to use her Mandarin  she did just fine in securing the correct number and colors she wanted, telling the woman which ones she didn’t want, and then leaving me to work out the price. I definitely overpaid her because when she realized I wasn’t asking for changed she quickly scurried away with her extra cash. F would also miraculously speak whenever she wanted ice-cream and other treats. Yet, if someone spoke to here but not offering anything she wanted she rarely spoke back. Amazing when and where she would and wouldn’t speak.

After spending about 4 hours at the Summer Palace we returned to the hotel, cleaned up, and met our friends for delicious, albeit chaotic (read 3 exhausted kids), dinner.

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We’ve heard from several of our friends that staying at the Westin Resort in Macau is a very good weekend spent away from Hong Kong. So with my parents here we booked adjoining rooms at the resort, and headed there on a sunny, clear, Saturday morning. I was a bit hesitant to get on a ferry to Macau and I tried to not let it show to my parents. The truth is, I hate boats. Hate being on them. I was also aware that my Dad wasn’t crazy about boats, but not from the fear of sinking, which is my issue. His is a sea-sickness thing.

But I have to say that the hydro-foils, which we took, are pretty awesome. Even on a semi-rough day, the base of the boat actually sits slightly above the waves. It’s a cool sight to see. A slick, sporty looking red ferry boat, with three massive blades (one on the front, two at the back) sticking through the water, cruising above the surface. We were there in under an hour.

The Westin is an excellent place to visit. Very, very family friendly. The resort is built onto the side of a large hill/mini mountain, and the structure is layered so that it descends into the shore (if that makes sense). The point is that most of the rooms look out across the ocean, which both of ours did, and they all have these massive balcony’s. It’s spectacular.

Because it was still basically winter when we went, and the kids really wanted to swim, we stuck to the indoor pool. It also got overcast a bit. The indoor pool there is excellent, and it also has a hot tub.

We swam and hung out in the afternoon, relaxed, and scoped out the place. Around 6 we took a taxi to Fernandos, the famous Portuguese beachside restaurant. We hung by the outside bar while we waited a bit to sit. While we waited they served us their trademark Double Bock Portuguese beer in their can cozies and diced up, grilled chorizo.

After dinner, E took the kids back to the Westin, and Mom and Dad and I went to the Venetian to check out the gambling scene there and play a few hands. Mom and Dad were fascinated by all the people flowing in and out of the place. Dad and I played a hand of Black Jack. He won a hand, lost the next, and we called it a night. On the way out Mom played a few rounds of Roulette, and it wasn’t until it was too late that we figured out the best strategy (Odds, Evens, Blacks, Whites as opposed to specific numbers).

After returning, we hung out on my parent’s balcony. We could hear the waves breaking. With the middle door open, we could travel in between rooms and check on the kids. Dad and I drank the mini bottle of wine that came with the room, and Mom ordered a glass of white from room service.

The next morning, F was determined to bring T into the Kids playroom, where some young staffers baby sit the kids and play games and hang out. We basically had an hour without them. F was determined to make this happen, and we weren’t about to stop it. So E and my mom got massages and Dad and I hit the driving range.

Before we got on the ferry, we decided to squeeze in a trip to the St. Paul’s Cathedral ruins. With time running out, we walked across the Largo do Senado plaza and up the hill to the ruins. F was determined to throw a coin at the window slot that she and Grammy hit the last time — where the coin skipped across the window and almost landed on a Chinese tourists head 3 stories down. So I told Pop to give his trademark whistle right before F was going to throw the coin so I could clear out anyone below, or at least be on the look out for a flying coin. F landed the coin perfectly on the sill. We hopped in a cab that sped to the ferry terminal, with only about 10 minutes to spare.

My mom limped up to the line that says “Deficients, and elderly and pretended that she needed special treatment. So we skipped the customs lines, got our passports stamped at the “Deficients” counter and made the ferry.

The ferry ride back was smooth and easy, just like the ride there. We could see after that weekend in Macau how people view it as a mini-vacation. You really do feel like you’re a thousand miles away from Hong Kong, and you’re waited on hand and foot by the staff.

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Last Day in Hanoi

On our last day in Hanoi, we went to a very cool brunch spot in their neighborhood, a district called West Lake (Tay Ho). In the midst of cramped, trash strewn and narrow roads, dark alleys and destroyed buildings, are these beautiful, tall, French style buildings that make up West Lake. Some are even Medieval style in their appearance. Like Mumbai, Hanoi seems to be a city of diamonds in the rough.

Like so many things in Hanoi, you walked down a filthy, crowded, noisy street, down through a tight alleyway and poof — a beautiful old building with a neatly built patio and outdoor tables stood before us. It was as if we walked through this grungy part of a Communist city and arrived in Brooklyn. The crowd at this restaurant was entirely Western.

We then went downtown and checked out the local art scene. Hanoi has become well known for its art in the last 10 years or so. We found some pieces we really fell in love with. Nothing we could afford at the moment, mind you, but we enjoyed looking. And F was into it – she would explain what pieces she liked and why. She says she wants to be an artist when she grows up so hopefully this is inspiration. We wound up buying some small, inexpensive pieces and ended our day at Reunification Park (or Lenin Park as the locals call it). There is an old rickety mini train that goes around the park’s perimeter but only runs when there are a certain amount of people.

Our friends had warned us about the 20 rider rule, but we decided to test the system again. When we got to the train, there was nobody there, except some guys in the last section smoking cigarettes and playing cards. A bent-over old man with a Fu Man Chu and beret shuffled over to us. He said that unless we paid the equivalent of 20 riders, no trip. Our friend (speaking Vietnamese) asked the man what the cigarette smoking, card-playing men in the last two trains were doing, and could they be counted as bodies.

“No,” was the reply. The men were “working” the old man said. That’s right, those men playing cards were “working.”

After a bit of math, we realized that a train trip around the park for 20 people would cost us a total of $10USD. We went for it.  The kids loved the ride, of course. The train rumbled around, and gave us peeks of the lake that’s been drained and rebuilt. When we hopped off, we climbed on a few rides like the merry-go-round and a spinning swing that looked as if it was built in 1949 and was never repaired or upgraded. We thought about playing on the swings and jungle gym, but the sand was loaded with trash, and we didn’t want to clean the kids up before the flight.

We went back to their home, ate, and got ready to leave. On our walk down their alley to our taxi, their baby started to cry. As we gave our hugs and kisses, he cried harder and harder. He was really sad to see us go.  We were sad to go too.

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Halong Bay

We set off for Halong Bay, the Gulf of Tonkin’s scenic, natural wonder. Known in Vietnamese as the Gulf of Bac Bo, it’s famous for the thousands of limestone islands and karst formations that jut up from the water. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to understand why.

I remember hearing something about a two hour ride to Halong Bay from Hanoi, which seemed a bit long for three kids, but manageable. When we got to the minibus, we were told that it’s actually a 3 ½ hour trip. Hmmm, we thought. This is going to be interesting.

We brought the DVD player to kill time. We had books, puzzles, toys. Our friend calls these “weapons of mass distraction.” In the end, we never unpacked the DVDs, using only the books and toys to keep the kids occupied. None of them slept a wink, and as a result, neither did the poor people traveling with us. We did a lot of word games and songs and 20 questions.
The kids were great.

When we got to Halong Bay, we entered a restaurant and checked in. Out the back door was a long dock that led across a wide beach and directly to the boat, the Emeraude, a white vessel modelled after the original paddle-steamer Emeraude, built in 1910.

Part of me was jealous of the traditional junk boats that floated nearby. They were handsome, old school junks with sails and finished wood.

But in the end, we really liked The Emeraude, and not just because it came with a discount thanks to our friend. We quickly got upgraded to the Emeraude Suite, which is on the top deck. The kids were beside themselves when they saw the room. A large mattress lay on the floor (they made the couch into a bed) tucked perfectly into the corner with folded sheets and pillows. They immediately started jumping around on the mattress, marvelling that this would be their room for the night. On a boat!

The boat chugged away, into the heart of the jagged rocks that make Halong Bay a natural wonder and tourist attraction.

We looked out our cabin window, which had a perfect view of everything. The girls continued to horse around, E organized. We played some cards on the deck and then went two levels down to the restaurant for lunch. We really liked the food. It was mainly French food, with ratatouille, chicken cordon bleus, creamy potatoes, etc. To borrow a line from children’s autrhor, Mo Willems, the kids “ate” their lunch and devoured their desert.

The first stop on the journey was the Sung Sot Caves (Cave of Surprises). Our friend mentioned something about “pirates” and suddenly F was petrified that this was indeed a pirate cave.  Little did he know that F has the tendency to take these threats seriously. The fear didn’t last long, because within minutes, she and the other kids were running around the cave, looking for pirates, and pretending to hear pirate voices. The cave’s inside was extraordinary, stalactites, stalagmites, sta-whatever-the-heck-you-call-them, shooting down from the top. Some of the spiralled rock even had various shades of color. The total trip through the cave only took about an hour or so.

The Emeraude towed a mini-shuttle boat that would take us to the various stops. We chugged further into the Bay and visited a floating fishing village. About 50 tin shacks the size of a tool shed sat on rafts in a U shape community. Dogs and kids ran around the docks. One wondered what it would be like in the summer heat, with no trees or anything to shelter them. The question also arose as to where people relieve themselves in a place like this. The answer isn’t very pleasing.

Whenever you stop in Halong Bay, local entrepreneurs speed up in row boats and try to sell chips and drinks, shells and trinkets. For the first trip to the caves, I didn’t think to bring any cash because we were on a boat. I felt bad that I didn’t buy at least one shell or a drink to help these parents and their kids. There were always kids on the boats. But in the fishing village trip we had some money and two boys came in and tied their boat onto ours and enjoyed the ride while trying to sell. We bought some Pringles and a few other items splitting them between the kids and the boys in the boat.

At sunset, we decided to give kayaking a shot. The people on the boat were doing their best to talk us out of it, and we quickly learned why. They were trying to talk us out of it, I think, because it’s a lot of work for them to pull the boats down, get the oars and paddles sorted, etc. The water is so flat and calm that a canoe would move easily enough. Our friends went first. E and F went next. T and I went last. Instead of sitting on the front seat, T sat on my lap.

The boat anchored in a cove called Hang Trong. Three other boats were within view. The rocky cliffs stood above us as we paddled in darkening water. E and F spotted a tiny beach with smoke coming from a rock, so we decided to investigate. It was a beach fire set by somebody. Who, we couldn’t surmise. We spotted a blinking light at another inlet and paddled to have a look at that as well – a buoy. We only paddled for 45 minutes or so, heading back when darkness had just about set in. It was a great way to end the day. The kids were excited to do it. F seemed especially pumped about the experience.

T began to cry a bit when she realized that my paddling was getting her pants and shoes soaked. She only wears one pair of shoes, her blue ones, which are too small. She has sneakers, crocs, school shoes. But she insists on the blue shoes, even though you can see her big toe poking through the front.
As we paddled in we talked about a mission we’d go on the following morning before the boat raised anchor and headed back. Another boat was probably a few hundred yards away, and we felt it was worthy of exploration, particularly due to the possibility it could be a pirate ship. F insisted we go now, but we talked her into the next morning. About 50 meters from the Emeraude, I felt T’s body jerk. She turned a little, then sank back into me. Asleep. It was a brief drift off, interrupted by the deck hands yanking us back onto the ship.

That night, after the kids went to sleep, the adults went to the top deck for the screening of Indochine, a French film that won the Foreign Film Academy Award in the early 90’s. Part of the movie takes place in Halong Bay.

When I awoke at 6, I debated for a good 15 minutes over whether to bag the planned morning kayak. My indecision wasn’t just about handling F’s disappointment, and inevitable tears. It was the packing up, getting dressed, organized, etc. But I realized that it would be a great way for all of us to wake up, and head into breakfast ready to chow down. So we did it. The kids woke up, F sprinting out of bed, looking for her rain pants, T a little slower but still happy to be joining us. It was slightly misty. We paddled slowly toward the other boat, watching a few people onboard as we rounded it. A heavy layer of clouds blocked the sun, but we still had a wide view of the bay.

F was getting more and more confident on the kayak, reaching down to touch the water and swaying their boat. I barked a warning, but I don’t think it was heeded, by my daughter or her mother. E eventually gave her the paddle and let her have a go – coaching her how to use it.

As we ate breakfast, we watched Halong Bay go by – the cliffs and the trees, the boats and cargo ships. Not once did our boat ever rock or sway. It felt like we were on a flat conveyer belt, getting towed around. At breakfast, the adults were chatting in the corner, the kids playing in the next room. The room had a few other dining tables, which sat within view of where we were sitting. T and our friends son were under one of the tables. We assumed they were talking or checking something out. F was nervously hopping around, asking for our shoes, laughing as if we knew the joke. E gave her a Croc and that was that.

I do remember thinking that the kids were suspiciously quiet. I realized then that there is a universal rule with kids that age. If they’re quiet for more than 10 minutes, they have to be doing something bad.

When we went over, T and our friends son had dumped at least two or three toothpick bowls on the floor, probably 100 toothpicks. But the real art of their work was sprinkling salt and pepper on the floor and in people’s shoes, including E’s. F was a witness but not an accomplice, too amused at what they were doing to tattle on her sister and friend.

One of the surprising things about the Emeraude boat is that their Halong Bay trip gets back to the main dock at 9:30am, meaning it’s a pretty short trip, all things considered. Honestly, it turned out to be perfect for us, as we’d be getting back to Hanoi while the kids were still well rested, fed, and not too antsy.

We got back to Hanoi late that afternoon. My friend and I went off to a local restaurant to meet a colleagues  – once of which was a cameraman who has been filming Vietnam for 4 decades.

What a fascinating person. He kept ordering round after round of these Bia Hoi beers, which were 22 ounce bottles, perhaps 40 ounce, but they came in ice cold metal canisters. It looked as if you could take these camping with you and they’d still be ice cold. And here’s the best part. The top of the bottle was a pull top that you yanked off like the top of a sardine can. Fresh, cold, local beer. I listened to him tell stories about the “American War.” I listened to him say what it was like for him to enter Phnom Penh after Vietnamese forces took it over in 1979. And I listened to him explain the changes in his country since 1986.

As the stories rolled, a crowd formed outside. A young man singing hip hop was walking around the main road with a portable karaoke machine. Everybody stopped to watch and hear him croon. The older generation was inside the restaurant, eating, telling stories. The younger folks were outside watching this youngster sing and dance, the crowd getting bigger and bigger.

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A Day in Hanoi

We were back in Hanoi, well-rested, and excited to explore the city again. The day before we had a quiet morning – naps, t.v. time – after the train trip back from Sapa. That afternoon we went to the Temple of Literature. It’s  one of the oldest buildings in Hanoi and was once a place of higher education in Confucian thought for the mandarins. The outer wall and roofs and temple are beautifully crafted in that classic, sweeping Asian style. Our friend lamented throughout the trip about the rampant poverty in Vietnam, evident at historical sites like this one. It’s a site that the government is able to maintain but not really preserve.  The water in the ponds was green and rotten.

The next day, feeling rejuvenated, we set off for a day in the city. We hit Hanoi on our own. Off to the Ethnology Museum we went. We loved it. It features cultural and historical exhibits, photographs, movies, traditional clothing, huts, weavers. There was an excellent traveling exhibition called, Stories of the Mekong, about life along the Mekong river in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This was where we spent most of our time and there were a lot of hands-on features – including a dress up corner. It also featured a section where you were encouraged to write down your wishes and attach it to a prayer tree. F wrote: “I love my sister.”

There was a section where they learned how to pull yarn and thread from sheeps wool. There’s apparently a Discovery Room which sounded great for the kids but it’s closed from 1130 to 130 pm, precisely the hours we were there. And in the back, outside, there are actual thatched, hand made houses and huts you can visit. We ran out of time and opted for lunch instead at the café next door. The place, Baguette & Chocolat, runs vocational training programs to teach street kids the restaurant business and life skills. The gift shop also is associated with a non-profit, Craft Link, that ensures the craft producers receive a fair wage, work in reasonable conditions, and uses profits to fund training programs on business and product development, marketing, and so on. I really think a family with kids could visit the museum and think that 3 hours isn’t quite enough – which is exactly what happened to us. The kids did get bored with some of the exhibits, but there was always something we could move on to. Outside at the gift shop, the girls were told to pick one post card each and instead chose ten, dropping most of them on the wet ground. The gift shop lady was not happy.

We then took a taxi to the Water Puppet Theater, located in the Hoan Kiem Lake area. The theatre is small with about 20 rows of seats and an elevated platform at stage left, where traditional musicians sat with their instruments. The main stage was a decorated series of planks, and the rest was water. To be honest, the water smelled like it was from a mossy pond that could have used a bit of cleaning. The odor indicated it was coming straight from the lake, and I’d argue that that’s a pretty safe assumption.

The opening scene was a fireworks display. F immediately whimpered. T, who isn’t afraid of much, also jumped.

“It’s too noisy,” T said.

The program said there were 18 acts. The acts were brief, probably 2-minute scenes, the puppeteers under the stage pulling and turning the colourful, ornate puppets.

“Is it done yet?” T asked after Scene 2. We were thinking she may not make it. But the tricks in the water, I must admit, were really cool, and she quickly settled in and started enjoying it all.

“Is it done yet?” she asked after Scene 3.

At one point, a Scene entitled “Unicorn” showed a large bird with wings splashing in the water.

“That’s a weird looking unicorn,” F said, loudly and astutely.

The show lasted around 45 minutes, and was well worth the cheap price of admission.

That night, after getting the kids to sleep, the adults went to The Restaurant Bobby Chin. He’s well known throughout Asia for putting Hanoi on the culinary map and has a show on Discovery Asia. He happened to be sitting there when we left, and chatted us up, standing on the restaurant’s patio in his bare feet. He asked us how the dinner was, probably knowing we’d say “great.” It was an excellent meal I have to admit. Bobby was probing us with some questions about the food and explaining why he had to leave his former location closer to the center of the city. The theory is that the government didn’t like his success, jacked up his rent, and sent him and his restaurant packing to Tay Ho (Westlake), where our friends live.

On the way home, I asked if Bobby had actually cooked our meal.

“No,” E said. “He just comes up with the concepts.” I marveled at such a job, coming up with various “concepts” for the menu, not cooking so much as a french fry, and getting all the credit.

We needed a good night sleep, for the next day was the journey out to Halong Bay.

(Photos: Top, Temple of Literature. Middle Top, Temple of Literature. Middle Bottom, The Huc Bridge. Bottom, the Water Puppet Theater)

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When we finally pulled ourselves out of bed, we opened the balcony doors to find the most incredible scene of sunlight beams streaming through the cloud cover over the valley. It was slow going but we finally made it to breakfast (omelets, pancakes, fresh bread, local coffee) and met our guide at 9:30 to start another trek.

Our plan was to walk from the Ecolodge that day through the Lech village of the Red Dao. As we followed the path out of the lodge there was a group of Red Doa women at the entrance ready and waiting. We assumed they’d hawk their wares and be on their way. We underestimated their persistence: Of the 15 or so women who swarmed us, 12 of them joined us for the entire, strenuous, 3 hour journey down into the valley depths and back up to the highlands. It was a bit overwhelming at first as they jostle for position to be close to you, but we all settled into a groove. We walked down the road and then turned onto a path down into the village. The women asked questions about our age, where we were from. Five or six of the women said they were 40 years old, though most looked way above or below that threshold. After a bit of back and forth, they’d quickly drop a line in there about buying stuff from them later.  All of them tried to make connections with us to assure a purchase.

We walked through terraced rice paddies and mountain huts. Whenever there was a steep section several women would grab my arms or hands to help me – they were all concerned with my carrying T on my back – even women who were also carrying a child on their back as well. Also on their mind probably was that a little kindness now would be paid back later.

We arrived at a simple wooden hut with a dirt floor and pigs walking through. We took note of a cute 3 year old boy, and one of the women who followed us said that was her son. We soon realized that this was common. From about 2-years old onward, children are mainly left to themselves in the village while the men and women go to work. Siblings and elders the only ones on the watch. Once while on the main road back to Sapa we saw a boy who was just barely learning to walk scaling up the side of the cliff that stood above the road, nothing on but a tattered sweater. Nobody else in sight except for what looked to be young siblings and neighbors.

During our walk through the village we came to an amazing irrigation/rice preparation system where pipes made of bamboo bring water to a lever system that fills up and dumps water into the rice fields. When the lever comes back down it pounds the rice kernels. Perfect technology and not a single bolt of electricity.

We then visited a school. At the school a similar instance happened where we saw a 2-year old hanging out with just a sweater on. M asked why the little boy wasn’t in the classroom and one of the woman said it was her son and he was too young for school and he just goes around the village on his own. If that was her son, it didn’t show. Not even a hello or a hug.

Next to the school was a hospital and a shop where we stopped for a break.   M decided it was time to make purchases, the thinking being that once we bought stuff, the women would retreat, and we could just hike on our own. What ensued was a complete scramble – and I selfishly just stayed away while he and F picked out items. He basically bought something from each of the women who walked with us, as well as a few others, who sensing the buying, quickly joined the fray. He was really great and made it clear when he was done – as I said they can be very persistent and the same women continued on with us for the remainder of the walk. The most expensive purchase was a $5 scarf.  Everything else was a $1 or $2 or less.

We proceeded onward and we hadn’t walked ten feet when a woman started yelling. We all turned back and watched her throw huge rocks at a wild pig that was trying to eat from her garden. Once again the persistence of the Red Dao were on display – this woman followed the fast moving pig and must have hit it at least 5-6 times with very large rocks. Her accuracy was amazing. She’d  hurl a rock 10 to 15 yards in the air and hit the pig square in the ribs. The pig grunted in pain every time.

It was around this time that a 15-year old girl joined us who’s English was pretty good. She said she was done with school and our guide said some do go to school until 18 but a lot finish between 12-14 – she was one of the latter. Her sister was 20 and married with a baby which we learned is quite common. On our way back we saw a group of Red Doa men — the men dress in plain clothes — helping to build a new house. The men work communally, using the wood that stands right there in front of them.

Towards the end of the trek we asked the women if they would take pictures with us and they all happily obliged. We were about 50 yards from the entrance and as soon as we neared it we realized a whole new group of about twenty or so women were waiting to pounce.  I did want to buy a few more things from three particular women who walked with us the whole way, who were really wonderful, and I talked with the most of the time. But as we got surrounded by the new women our old friends disappeared. We finally got through the crowd and I was lamenting that I felt bad about those women when from a path below the lodge’s main path they appeared. They “technically” aren’t allowed on the premises but they snuck through on a side trail. We bought some scarves and post cards and wished them well.

We immediately sat down to lunch. Afterwards we saw the Danish girls and asked them if they wanted to do the Buffalo Trail with us. This is a path that rings around the ledge that the Topas Ecolodge sits on. Round trip on the Buffalo Trail probably takes 45 minutes max.  At the end of the walk the older girl veered off to the path that lead up the hill to the pig sty, so M & F went with her and wound up at her house just beyond the hill. The girls played Lego’s and M chatted with the parents about their experience running the lodge. They were 3 months into a 1-year stint.

When they got back, we played some games and then returned to our bungalow to shower up for dinner – we were all filthy.  The girls fell asleep at dinner while we chatted up a Spanish-Dutch couple. It was an absolutely invigorating, wonderful day.

Upon returning from dinner the girls went straight to sleep and M and I sat up trying to decide what to do with our last day in Sapa. We needed to decide whether to leave the lodge at 10:30am or 2:30pm. If we left at 10:30am we could spend more time in Sapa town but would we get bored? If we left at 2:30 we would get more time at the lodge but how would we fill up the morning entertaining two young girls? We asked around and we also called our reliable guide, Chuk, to see what we could do. Aside from Ban Ho village, which we were interested in because it was a Tay minority village, we’d done most of the stuff that could be done with kids in that area. So we decided to leave at 10:30am, go to Sapa, and walk down to Cat Cat village where Black Hmong minority live.

We ate breakfast, packed up, said goodbye, and exchanged contact info with the Danish family, who are hoping to visit Hong Kong. When getting on the van to Sapa we saw many of the women from the day before and said farewell again. The drive back is about 45-minutes on slow bumpy roads but it gave us a good sense of where we trekked within the Sapa Valley.

By the time we got to Sapa it was a hot, clear day. Good thing we packed winter hats and coats, with guide books telling us it would get down to zero degrees Celsius (it was mainly 20 + Celsius while we were there).  We met Chuk and started the downhill walk to Cat Cat village. We were able to get our first look at Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. The walk to the village is a fairly well traveled path by tourists (something the others were not) since it’s walkable and round-trip from town. We stopped at a cafe where we met a group of young Black Hmong teenagers, some of whom were also mothers. Their English was nearly perfect – a result of living so close to the town of Sapa. Black Hmong are known for their indigo dress and of the many houses we passed you can see the vat of indigo-colored water that they use to dye their clothes. The dye is made from a local plant variety. We talked with them for some time about their life before setting off again.

The village itself is a set of small houses made of mud, bamboo, and thatch along a stone path – many of them selling various handicrafts. The highlight of the walk is the Cat Cat waterfall.

We returned to town and said farewell to Chuk. We tried to walk around town some more but we had our first real breakdown – the girls were tired.  We thought we found the reputable restaurant, Baguette and Cocolate but it turns out it was a rip off, stinking of cigarette smoke and occupied by a strange family and a cat. The kids were naughty. The ill-timed lunch was capped off by T falling from her chair and smashing the back of her head. Check please.

We headed back to the Topas travel office and organized the bags for the train trip, had a snack. Pretty soon energy and order were restored – just in time to set off for an early dinner.  We decided on Italian – Delta Restaurant – that was well reviewed in both guide books – we were a bit tired of Vietnamese food. Turns out it was a great choice. We all ate well. Two dishes of homemade pasta. We even had to order another dish for the girls, which has NEVER happened before.

The only real issue with the place was that next to the kitchen, our table and the pizza oven, three workers were doing some serious renovations. It was the first time we’d ever sat down for a proper meal with table saws screeching, dry wall crumbling, and hammers pounding (is any of that dust getting into the pizza?).

The family was really happy to be sitting and eating so I took the opportunity to go off on my own for a quick dash through some shops where I quickly added a few more items to our growing haul. I’ve never bought so much stuff while traveling before. But it was all so cool and so affordable.

We got back to the travel office and the van was ready to go to Lao Cai for the overnight train back to Hanoi. F once again talked through the entire van ride. T was a bit cranky and restless but nothing too unmanageable.

After the hour drive we arrived in the parking lot of the train station where we were unloaded from the van. The other travelers, two Aussie women, were told to go a restaurant to retrieve their tickets but we were told to wait for a person to bring the tickets. A woman came up but then quickly left and after about 10-15 minutes of waiting it became clear we were on our own. M went into the office and while he was gone that same woman came by and I called to her. She was just starting to ask me for the train paperwork when M returned with Aitor, a Spaniard travelling with his girlfriend, Begona, we had become friendly with at the lodge (the same couple we chatted up the night before). I told M she needed the train paperwork but we didn’t have any. Aitor assured her we were at the lodge with them which helped a little bit. I finally gave her our receipt and itinerary – the only paperwork we did have – that did have mention of our train berth. She moved us inside the station – which was much better then the parking lot – and I secured a spot while M and Aitor went off with her to sort out our tickets.

While all of this was going on we had one of those miraculous moments where the girls, from the moment we got out of the van to the moment we boarded the train, a good 40-minutes at least, played unbelievablely well with each other – the timing couldn’t have been better. M and the woman came back to me and again we explained she had all the paperwork we had. They left again and then an announcement was made and most people started lining up and heading out to the train. Aitor and Begona came out at this point to get onboard and wished us luck. Things were not looking good.

A few minutes later Aitor came back. He handed me two train tickets and explained they bought all 4 tickets for their berth so they wouldn’t have to share it. He said if they wouldn’t give us tickets to use these extra ones and we’d share their berth with them. It was one of those great acts of kindness. Imagine traveling with your girlfriend on an overnight train and offering to share a tiny train cabin with a married couple with two young children.

Finally M and the woman came back and we had tickets. I didn’t even want to know how it all worked, I was just relieved it did.

We hustled to the train and Begona was waiting outside to make sure we were onboard. The look of relief when we gave her the thumbs up was so genuine and sweet. We were in the same car as them – two berths down. Once we were all settled M bought a round (and then another) of beers for them and we all chatted in our berth. Upon seeing us and the girls jammed into a berth we all joked about what an interesting night it would have been to all be sharing one.

Wising up this time, M situated himself better in preparation of playing spotter all night for T. While it was slightly more comfy, it didn’t produce much more sleep. At least 3 or 4 times T rolled off, right onto his ankle and leg — a successful catch. At 4:05 there was knock on the door indicating our arrival into Hanoi. F, once again, woke right up, seeming to have a great night’s sleep. T wouldn’t wake up at all. As we were getting our things together we passed a very crowded outdoor market – teeming with people and energy – it was 4:15am, it was pitch black out, and the place was buzzing. We pulled into Hanoi at 4:30am, got in a taxi, and stumbled into our friends home where homemade muffins awaited us.

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