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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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Vietnam – Sapa (Day 2 & 3)

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.

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….

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.

Hike to Big Wave Bay

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.

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?”

“Yeeahh.”

“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.

Sailing in Sai Kung

We got a call last weekend friends called with an offer to go sailing (it’s common here for people to own shares of a boat and have access to it every 3-5 weeks or so). I immediately wanted to but my husband was a bit more hesitant – not being very comfortable on boats/oceans. I explained sailing is very different from the rocky Hong Kong junks we’ve been on and assured him it would go well. He finally acquiesced and we decided to go.

The next morning we woke up, packed, and headed to Sai Kung via the MTR to meet them. Their boat was gorgeous and apparently is a part of Hong Kong sailing history – for exactly what I don’t remember – but I do know that it once was a part of the Jardine fleet (a big deal here). It was a wonderful day – breezy, not too cold or hot. A tiny hint of haze. We  sailed for a while, then anchored near a tiny inlet known as Whiskey beach, located on Kau Sai Chau Island (which is known for its public golf courses that requires a ferry to access). We ate pesto pasta, fruit and chips on the boat and then rowed an inflatable dingy to the beach. We spent about an hour there while the kids frolicked in and out of the water and pretended to be sand monsters.

It was about 3:30pm by the time we got back to the boat. The captain, a sinewy, elder local known as Mr.  Leung, was preparing to return to port. It was really special to see the beauty of Sai Kung by sailboat with just the wind propelling us. The kids had a great time playing and it was incredible to see how comfortable and at ease they were on the boat. We all had that great windswept feeling of being outdoors all day and exhausted – the closest feeling to a ski day I’ve had here in Hong Kong. I think F summed it up best – “it was wonderful and terrific!”

When we were back on the dock packing up, Mr. Leung would squirt the kids with the hose he used to clean the boat. They’d run away, laughing, and ask for more. While the adults pulled all the remaining stuff from the boat, we realized that the children were now only in their shirts and underpants, running up and down the docks. They all discarded their pants when they got too wet. We have this great image in our head of them walking back to the car together, chatting away, in their underpants, like it’s no big deal. Ah to be a kid again.

(Please note, the sailboat to the left is LIKE the one we were on.  The water was incredibly calm on the day we went sailing, unlike the choppy waves shown here. It really was a perfect sailing day).

Our advice: if offered the chance to sail in Hong Kong take it!