Vietnam: Cinnamon Tea in Sapa

We wake up quite late considering how early we went to sleep. Sleeping at 7:30 made me think I’d be up and about by 4am but no, I sleep for almost 12 hours. I guess I needed it!

Cinnamon Tea in Sapa

We wake up quite late considering how early we went to sleep. Sleeping at 7:30 made me think I’d be up and about by 4am but no, I sleep for almost 12 hours. I guess I needed it!

We take a quick walk to the village general store, which sells bottled water and a couple treats at a highly inflated price. I get it though, carrying all that stuff 7km isn’t easy. We cross a pretty dodgey rusty old suspension bridge on our way.

Song prepares our breakfast which consists of rice, baby bamboo shoots, and green beans. Delicious yet again.

Before we’re finished packing up to leave, Song offers to let us try on her clothing and take photos if we’d like. I WOULD like, but Song is like a size negative 3. Tamara and Ryka manage to squeeze into her tiny clothing though!

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I pull Song aside and pay her quickly before Mark and Ryka notice I’m gone. I want to stay true to my promise not to tell them how little we’re paying…even though I’m super proud of the deal we got. She gives Tamara and I a gift; a small silver bracelet made in her village. All the women wear arm fulls of them!

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The little fabric bracelet was a gift from her children.

We thank Song a million times and hug her goodbye. I wish I could explain to her what an amazing experience this was for me. It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to see how other people live. Especially Song and her family, in such a small simple house with no running water, very little material possessions, in a remote village, but with the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. Living simply really does make you happier. While I’m happy to have a solid home and a hot shower, I find it really refreshing to know that people can live so happily without these things. Song gave me something I could never have received on a generic tour. It was a genuine experience and this is why I like to travel. This is what I search for.

Song takes Mark and Ryka on a hike to another village, because they’ve arranged to stay for three days. Tamara and I say our goodbyes and head up the hill half an hour before finding a main road. From there we ask some locals which direction to go to find Sapa, and head on our way. It’s a much faster walk to follow to road, only about 3km. If we took the route from yesterday we would surely get lost!

Once in Sapa life gets pretty boring. We arrive around noon and have to wait until 6pm for the night bus. Please kill me. We do a bit of a café-hopping in order to charge our phones and use the wifi without overstaying our welcome. It’s a cold and rainy day, so the last thing we want to do is wander around town with our big backpacks on…we prefer Vietnamese cinnamon tea in a cozy café.

Somehow the time does actually pass, and it’s finally time for us to board the sleeper bus. It’s over-booked, as per usual in South East Asia, but we are early enough to snag a bed. We don’t get to sit anywhere near each other, but I plan to spend 90% of my time sleeping anyway. Two poor suckers get stuck sleeping on the floor of the bus between the rows of beds. I watch people jump over them on numerous occasions just to access the washroom. No one is happy about it.

The ride is bumpy, but doesn’t feel as long as the drive there. When I wake up I’m surprised to hear that we’re already in Hanoi.

Vietnam: Trekking to a Hill Tribe in Sapa

We pack our day packs with an extra pair of clothes, and make sure to layer up because Sapa is famous for having 4 seasons in one day. It’s a cold morning with clouds hovering over head, threatening rain. All I can do is hope it doesn’t get too slippery on the trails, because all I’ve got is a pair of running shoes.

Trekking to a Hill Tribe in Sapa

We pack our day packs with an extra pair of clothes, and make sure to layer up because Sapa is famous for having 4 seasons in one day. It’s a cold morning with clouds hovering over head, threatening rain. All I can do is hope it doesn’t get too slippery on the trails, because all I’ve got is a pair of running shoes.

Tamara and I walk down to the same spot we met Song yesterday. We’re a bit early, so we run to the market to buy some fruit for breakfast. I get 3 small bananas for 5,000 dong ($0.25).
As soon as we meet up with Song she explains that we’ll have some company today. Two other people have arranged to trek out to her house with us, which is totally cool with me. She also makes sure to mention that we don’t tell them how much we paid. Apparently they’re paying more and she’s worried that they might be angry if they find out. I promise her I won’t tell them. Now I have a burning curiosity to know exactly how much they’re paying, and I plan to find out.

Shortly after, we meet our trekking companions. They’re a couple in their late twenties who live in Hanoi full time, teaching English and running a catering business. Mark is from Australia and Ryka is Dutch. They met in Romania and have been together ever since; what a cool way to meet someone!
We wander through the market while Song picks up all our necessary groceries for the next three meals. I try to be patient through the small talk but am eager to find out what a fantastic job of haggling I’ve done. I finally get to ask them what they’ve paid for the trek. They say $20 EACH per day. I keep my promise and tell them we’ve paid the same, when in reality we’re only paying $13 each per day. Mark says he’s heard of people haggling it down to $18, but that you would never get it any cheaper than that. Mark, who lives in Vietnam. It’s pretty hard to keep the smile off my face. Victory!! I love a good deal. The couple have been referred here by their friends, who visited Sapa and found Song the same way Tamara and I did; by bumping into her on the road. They loved her tour so much that they keep her cellphone number handy and recommend her to everyone who goes to Sapa. Today is going to be a good day.

We start out on our 7 kilometre trek to Song’s village. A number of other tribes-women join us and talk to us a little bit, but Song’s English is by far the best. Once we’re out of the town we start along a rocky and pretty steep ascent. The rain has held off thus far, and the sun has even managed to poke through the clouds a little bit!

We make a quick stop, where I take the opportunity to de-layer and gulp back some water. Song points to the left to bring our attention to the marijuana plants growing on the hillside. Wow, she’s not kidding. Now that she’s said it, I can even smell it a little bit. She says it’s grown here to make clothes and that it’s rarely smoked by any locals, but that if foreigners ask they can usually buy some from the farmers. Of COURSE they can. A few minutes later we also pass by a massive plot of land used for growing Vietnamese green tea. That’s more my scene.

The trek is insanely beautiful. Part of me is a little bit disappointed that we can’t see the view from the mountains due to the thick fog, but something about being able to see it creeping towards us and rolling over the rocks along the trail ahead, makes the walk even more incredible. The fog also does a pretty good job of keeping us cool and protecting us from direct sunlight, which I’m sure my skin will appreciate.

It’s pretty hard to put into words how spectacular my surroundings are. Lush green jungle in combination with massive limestone cliffs and orange tinted dirt make for quite an incredible few hours. Photos never do it justice, and I take a few, but I try my best to just absorb my misty surroundings instead, because I know that I’ll never experience something quite like this ever again.

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We stop for lunch in an open and relatively flat area of grassy land next to a farm. Just beyond the fence, some children are playing a game where they release baby chicks into the yard and run around catching them all again, shrieking and giggling with delight.

Song pulls out some soft baguette bread, and slices up pieces of cucumber and tomato while we all relax in the grass. We stuff our bread with the vegetables and call it lunch. After a long morning of hiking I feel pretty hungry and the vegetables taste so refreshing. We have watermelon and banana for dessert.
Then the fun starts. Three of the women who’ve accompanied us on our trek start pulling out their handmade items and encourage us to buy. “You buy this from me and I go home.” in the most pouty tones they can muster. We say no over and over again, but it doesn’t deter them much. This lasts for about 10 minutes before they finally give up and walk off, disappearing into the fog. I hate feeling guilt tripped and pressured into buying something. I also hate feeling that they beautiful hill tribe women are a nuisance, but in all honesty, 90% of the time they are. They act like beggars, are shameless in their sales tactics, and I’ve seen them swarm tourists in Sapa who make the mistake of caving and buying something. Because Sapa is now such a popular tourist destination, the street selling has gotten out of control. There are signs around the town of Sapa asking people not to buy anything from children specifically. I’ve learned that this is because their parents will pull them out of school and send the kids out to whine “buy from me” at tourists in the hopes that their cute, irresistible little faces will turn a higher profit. Some people choose to ignore these signs and do it anyway. I saw one woman hand a camera to her friend and ask her to take photos while she distributed cash in exchange for fabric bracelets to a hoard of hill tribe children. This is another reason I tend to dislike other tourists.

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The last portion of the trek is extra slick with earthy red mud, and all downhill. We are extra careful with our footing, but each of us fall at least once. Song leaps down the mountain in nothing but a pair of plastic sandals and doesn’t trip once.
I’m so happy I wore a pair of jeans that no longer fit me, so I won’t have to feel so bad about them being destroyed. I fall a couple times and the seat and knees of my jeans are instantly stained a rusty orange colour. If I had 1,000 dong for every time I almost fall, but somehow manage to catch myself, I’d be rich.

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Muddy aftermath

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We walk through one last stretch of thick greenery, where Song picks us some berries that look like tiny, yellowy-orange raspberries. They taste bitter, but have just enough sweet flavour to balance it out.
We finally make our descent to her village. I’m not quite sure what to expect as we approach her house, but I am eager to see how she lives. Four or five young, barefoot children run up to greet us, and seem excited to have their mother home. Only two of the children are Song’s; an 8 year old boy and a 6 year old girl. They look just like her. She turns the key to a small padlock hooked between two metal loops on her front door and we step inside. The house is made up of two rooms, a living room/bedroom and a kitchen. The floor is made of solid exposed concrete, the walls are simple hand cut planks of wood, and the ceiling is made of mismatched scraps of metal. Song tells us that her and her husband built it themselves over three years. It’s very modest, but beautiful in it’s way. A small television sits in one corner of the room, and a single lightbulb hangs down from the ceiling. There is no running water, and no bathroom of any kind. Song fetches big barrels of water from her brother-in-laws house down the road to use for cooking and cleaning.
There are animals absolutely everywhere. The children have fun playing with a small puppy, while a funny cat comes and meows aggressively at us all, demanding some attention. Two or three chickens roam around, sometimes letting themselves into the house, and are followed by a flock of baby chicks. Pigs and piglets also hang around outside the home, and on occasion we see a wild dog. Bugs don’t seem to be much of an issue here, though cob webs can be found on almost everything, I don’t see any spiders or even a mosquito.

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I pull out my phone to take some pictures, and the kids all run over to see if they can play with my phone. I check with Song and she doesn’t mind. I don’t have many games at all, let alone games that cater to 6 and 8 year olds, so instead I try to find them a video to watch. All I’ve got is the Of Monsters and Men music video for Little Talks. The kids watch it over and over again. If you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know it’s one of the weirdest music videos of all time, so I kind of understand why they love it so much.

By the third go around I can’t watch it anymore, and my phone has a mega-protective case on, so I let the kids play with it for a while and go to help Song in the kitchen. There isn’t much to do, but we sit around the open fire and chat while she cooks. I notice some miscellaneous pig meat hanging to dry in the corner of the room. Song explains that it’s been cooked in salted water, and after drying for an hour or so, it will keep for months to come. They eat every part of the animal; hooves, tail and ears included. I’m disappointed to find out that her husband won’t be coming home tonight. He works in the rice fields and only comes home every few days. It would be so interesting to meet him! I foolishly made the assumption that they had an arranged marriage, but she tells us that they met in Sapa when she was younger, they fell in love, and were married at 16. In her tribe, you are able to marry whomever you choose, but by age 20 it is common to be seen as old and undesirable. Anything under 16 is too young, so basically, only the time between the ages of 16 and 19 are deemed acceptable for marriage.

There’s no mirror in the house, but Tamara, Mark, Ryka and I all inform each other of our sunburns. I can feel mine burning on my face and chest. I don’t understand how I managed to get so burnt in such thick fog, but it happened.

Dinner is ready, so Song pulls a small wooden table into the middle of the living room and brings out large bowls of food. We all sit on small plastic chairs and fill our bowls with rice, tofu, mushrooms, carrots, and water spinach. Everything tastes especially wonderful after a long day of trekking. I lose count of how many bowls of food I consume. It’s only 6pm when we’ve finished eating but I feel absolutely exhausted! I step outside to use the washroom (aka. any nearby bush of my choosing) and to brush my teeth. It’s so too bad about the overcast sky, because without any light pollution I’m sure the stars would look incredible from here.

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I’ve been confused about where everyone will sleep since I’ve arrived. There are only two places to choose from, and even if we squish I don’t think all seven of us will be able to squeeze into two beds. Song clears away the table from where we had eaten dinner, and pulls out 6 bundles of long dried rice stems. She unties each bundle and starts spreading them on the floor. The last two bundles are used as pillows to complete this rustic version of a pull-out bed. I’m skeptical as to how comfortable some dry sticks can really be, but I also hope that we get to sleep on this make shift mattress because how many opportunities am I going to have to sleep on something like this again?

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I worry about how we’ll make the decision between who sleeps where, because I can see that Ryka and Mark are also eager to sleep on the rice bed, but Song just assigns us each to a bed an fortunately for us, we get the one we want. Song and her children all sleep together on her bed.
She’s hung a bug net from nails in the wood around the room, which makes me feel even more comfortable with sleeping on the floor. I am in the middle of the forest after all, and even if I don’t see the spiders doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The bug net is key. We test out the rice bed and are pleasantly surprised by it’s comfort level. The dried rice is really there primarily to keep us warm, but does provide a layer of padding too which is nice!

By 7:30 we’re all wishing each other goodnight and falling asleep. I see a couple fireflies have made their way thorough the gaps in the wooden plank walls, and are perched on the outside of our bug net, glowing a pleasant red as I drift into a blissful sleep.

I only wake up briefly to the sound of heavy rain on the metal roof top and a quick sight of lightening illuminating the room through the spaces between the walls, before I fall back to sleep.

I think about how lucky I am to be here, and how fortunate I was to have met Song out of all the other hill tribe women. Her opening her home to us like this is extremely humbling and so kind.

Vietnam: Sapa

I wake up briefly in the middle of the night. Did our driver just stall the bus? Yes. He most certainly did. Now it sounds like he’s having trouble getting it started again. It’s 3am and we’re in what seems like the middle of no where…please don’t break down.

Sapa

I wake up briefly in the middle of the night. Did our driver just stall the bus? Yes. He most certainly did. Now it sounds like he’s having trouble getting it started again. It’s 3am and we’re in what seems like the middle of no where…please don’t break down.
I fall back to an in-and-out state of sleep while our driver struggles with the bus. Hopefully we make it, but I don’t have the energy to stay awake and find out what happens.

Apparently he fixes whatever problem the bus had, because the next time I wake up we’ve made it to Sapa. It’s 7am. Everyone groggily exits the bus and we all collect our bags. It’s raining, we have no place to stay, and I realize I don’t even know what direction the town is in. A young local on a motorbike pulls up and starts trying to sell us on his guesthouse. He quotes us $10 per night. I try to bargain him down to $8, but he won’t have it. We consider trying to go out on our own and find something cheaper, but he assures us we “won’t find anything better” and it’s raining. $5/each a night is totally acceptable. I go first, awkwardly getting on the motorbike with all my luggage. He holds an umbrella over my head the whole time. While he’s gone back to get Tamara, I do a quick run around to a couple other hostels in the area but find that they’re all asking the same price. We stick with the first one.

By 8am the rain has stopped and we are settled into our hostel, so we go for breakfast and discuss our plan for the day. In Vietnam, Pho is eaten as a breakfast dish (and lunch. And dinner.) and while the idea of hot noodle soup for breakfast is a slightly foreign one, we order it for breakfast anyway. It’s unlike any other bowl of pho I’ve ever heard of or tried before. The bowl is filled with local mountain vegetables, rice noodles, and a ginger broth. It’s pretty unreal.

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We both want to go on a trek in Sapa despite all the rain, but are torn about whether to book a tour or not. Our hostel staff have been pushing it on us a bit, but I really really like to try and find my own way. A tour is easy, you know what you’re getting into, it might even be cheaper. We don’t know.

On our way back to the hostel, we are approached by some local villagers who strike up a conversation, asking us where we’re from. This is common in Sapa, because many of the hill tribe women come to the village in order to sell handmade goods to tourists. Since Sapa has become such a tourism hotspot, the pressure to buy is always intense. They usually cut right to the chase – “you buy from me now”, as they hold up various items, from small hand sewn change purses to bulky silver necklaces. I’ve found that the only effective way to avoid this is to simply ignore them. A “no thank you” doesn’t cut it. It feels awful, but I’d be living on the streets if I bought something from every woman or child who’s asked me to!
These two women in particular though, we stop to chat with. I’ve read online that it’s possible to book a home-stay trekking trip right from the tribal women themselves. I’m curious about the price. Many of them have picked up English from tourists over the years.
We make small talk with them for a few minutes and then, a little guarded, I start asking some questions. I ask Song, the young woman, if they do guided trekking trips to their village. They do. I ask if they offer home-stay accommodation. They do. Terrified that I’ve just opened up a can of worms that I’ll have to awkwardly run away from, I ask how much it costs.
I get the worst response known to any bargainer; “how much do you think it’s worth?”
Thus far I’ve done no research. This WAS supposed to be my research. It’s a fine line between over paying, and bidding insultingly low. I have no idea. To my good fortune, a very loud truck drives down the street at this very moment, making any speech inaudible. This has bought me 5 more seconds to think.
Prices prices prices. What’s it worth? What am I paying for? Please don’t insult the tribal ladies.
The truck passes and I spit out “twenty dollars?”, still completely unsure if this is even in the ballpark of appropriate prices. She laughs and says each? I too, laugh, and throw out the idea that I meant total, for both of us. I still don’t even know. She raises my price to $30 for both of us. Trying my luck, I push for $25. She chats with her friend for a few minutes in their native language, and in turn I look at Tamara and explain in French that I have no idea what I’m doing. We discuss the numbers and agree that it seems quite good. Finally, Song turns back to us and agrees.
I clarify, “$25? for two people? Two days and one night? Food included? Lunch, then dinner, then breakfast?”
She nods, with a smile on her face.
“Uhh, alright. So tomorrow? When should we meet?”
She suggests 9am.
“Great. Where?”
She suggests we meet in the very place we are standing now.
“Okay. Great. Uh, see you tomorrow then!”
Smiling and waving, Tamara and I walk away, back to the hostel. God I hope I haven’t made a huge pricing mistake. Even if I have just agreed to largely over pay for something, $12.50 seems amazing for two days of activities and accommodation. How wrong can it really go? I actually have a really good feeling about it, I’m pretty excited. No hokey tours for us!

The rain is holding off, but the trails will still be wet from this mornings weather, so we decide to rent a motorbike and check out the Silver Falls, just a half hour’s drive outside town. I fell off a motorcycle, driving my very first time in Thailand. It was a similar situation, we were headed out to see something called the Emerald Cave in Koh Lanta. I got way too excited and confident about my driving skills, and managed to crash my motorbike within 10 minutes of turning it on. I still have the scars to prove it. I feel like Sapa is a good place to try again. It’s quiet here, and if I can just practice driving around in circles on a side road for a few minutes, I think I can get comfortable again. It’s only $4 to rent a motorcycle for the day, and our hostel has two readily available for us to borrow. I get on and do a couple practice runs just getting used to the gas and break. I’m not 100% but I feel alright. Tamara gets acquainted with her bike, and we set off. The tanks are empty so our first stop is to get petrol. I have to weave in and out of traffic, dodging humans, animals, and other cars/trucks before actually making it to the petrol station. I drive 20km/hr the whole way.
While waiting in line at the station I start to get worried. What if I fall off again? I’ll feel like such an idiot. Am I really comfortable enough on this bike to commit to a half hour drive? Are they steep mountain roads? I start to realize this is most likely a terrible idea. I tell Tamara my thoughts, and she supports my decision to turn this bike around and go back. We can take a motorbike taxi out to the falls. At least then if we crash it’s not my fault. I feel like a huge loser, but that’s what we do. By the time we get back to the hostel I feel really confident on the bike and in the traffic, but I still think it’s best to integrate myself back into motorbike driving very slowly.
For the same price as renting a bike for the day, we can hire a motor taxi to drive us up and back from the falls.

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They drive us up a beautiful winding mountain road which, when the clouds break, offers an incredible view of the rice terraces and landscape. Most of the drive up is clouded by mist, but that gives a pretty dramatic and picturesque effect to the lush green mountains around us.

Before we officially arrive at our destination, I see the waterfall as we round a corner. It’s absolutely massive, and water crashes down over multiple tiers of what seems like the tallest mountain peak in sight.
Our drivers wait for us on the road, and mine warns me to be careful and to follow the pathway. Is there an option that does not involve following the pathway? I want that one.
I start to climb some man-made stairs with a hand railing that climbs the side of the falls, until I see an opportunity to step out onto a huge rock in the stream below the waterfall. This must have been what he meant by “dangerous” when he warned me to stick to the pathway.
Maybe it’s because this is just in my nature, but I feel like I must take this route. It’s not insanely intense, it’s just hopping from boulder to boulder above a shallow stream. It’s not like I’ll die if I fall, and it’s so much more fun this way!
I go about as far as I can before I’ll have to start some amateur rock climbing to get up any closer, so I jump back over to the pathway with Tamara and we continue our climb. The stairs only lead us as far as a small bridge half way up the falls, where I see another opportunity to get a little closer. There’s a barrier, but it’s relatively short and no one is around, so I step over it and climb out onto another rock in front of the falls. It makes me feel so small to look up at something so big and powerful. Nature is really cool.

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Tamara counts 300 steps up to the bridge, we take some photos, and head back down to our motorbikes.
Her bike reaches the bottom of the mountain a few minutes before mine, which I can’t understand because I’ve literally got involuntary tears streaming out the sides of my eyes we’re moving so fast.

It’s only 1:30. I have no concept of time today after taking the sleeper bus here. It feels like 5pm. We’ve got so much time! We decide to hit another tourist attraction in Sapa called Cat Cat Village.
It’s just a three kilometre loop down to a river and small waterfall, where some villagers have set up shops along the way to sell more hand made jewellery, wood carvings, bags and other things.

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The whole walk takes us about one and a half hours, which seems really long for three measly kilometres, but we take our time. I think we choose a wonderful time to stroll through the village, because there are next to no other tourists. I think this is probably something people do in the morning, or maybe people have been deterred due to the thick fog. Really, the weather has worked out well for us today! I don’t mind that it’s a little cold.

On the way back we sit down for a Lao Cai (local beer) and papaya salad. Then it’s time for a nap. I have a glorious sleep, warm under the covers and not bumping around like I was on the bus. It’s wonderful.

We go to the Main Street for dinner and find a cheap restaurant called Michell Restaurant. They have an Italian theme but still serve Vietnamese food. What’s with all the Italian/French themed things in Asia?!
When we walk in, a table of about 10 people all turn their heads and welcome us in. It’s the family who owns the place, and they’ve all just sat down for dinner. It seems that we’re their only customers so far. They are overly accommodating; pulling out our chairs, bringing us free hot tea (in wine glasses) and saying things like “okay thank you for ordering, our kitchen will prepare this for you now”. Their dishes are so cheap, which is why we chose it, but it feels like we’re in a fine dining establishment. Well, sort of.

It’s only 7:30 when we’ve finished dinner so we walk down the road to a bar with a happy hour special. A cheesy old movie, similar to the one we saw in the bus station, is playing on a tv. All the bar staff are watching it intently and laughing hysterically. I see “Sheena” in the top right corner of the screen. I guess that’s what we’re watching, but I’ve never seen it before. It’s brutal, but I totally watch it out of the corner of my eye while we chat with some English and American people at the bar.

Vietnam: Pineapple Ladies and Sleeper Buses

I wake up for the first time on my trip, confused about where I am. I suppose I was dreaming of home, because when I wake up I have to remind myself that I’m in Vietnam. What a nice surprise!

Pineapple Ladies and Sleeper Buses

I wake up for the first time on my trip, confused about where I am. I suppose I was dreaming of home, because when I wake up I have to remind myself that I’m in Vietnam. What a nice surprise!
Tamara and I check out of our mediocre guesthouse, walk to the travel agency where we bought our bus tickets, and leave our backpacks. It’s so nice that we don’t have to carry them around with us all day. Now we can do some sightseeing!

There is a prison here in Hanoi that was built hundreds of years ago by the French colonies, and then used by the Vietnamese to house American pilots and other prisoners during the war. Not all of it is still in tact but what’s left of it has been turned into a museum in the middle of town. By Apple Map’s estimate, the prison is only a 15 minute walk away from the Old Quarter, so I map the directions when we have wifi at breakfast, screen shot them, and use them to find the prison later. Unfortunately, they aren’t the kind of directions I’m used to following. I get weird instructions like “walk west on Bàt Dân Street, turn left at the Vietnam Bank, pass by công ty cō phãn on left” which isn’t really helpful. We try reading all the street signs and shop names but we never find công ty cō phãn. We decide it might be best to just get a motor taxi. This is not a hard thing to do in Vietnam because EVERY ONE drives a motorcycle, and there are always people slowing down or beckoning you over to be driven somewhere. We find two motorbike drivers and ask how much it will cost to go to the prison. They say 100,000 dong ($5) each. Having no idea what a good price is, but making the assumption that they’ve way over quoted us, I laugh and tell them no. They quickly drop their price to 50,000 dong each. I push a little further and say 40,000. They accept. We are given helmets and each get on the back of a motorbike. I’m not really a huge fan of motorbikes after my incident in Koh Lanta, Thailand last year…but I trust that these guys know what they’re doing. At least I’M not driving in this crazy Hanoi traffic. I’d die.

After 5 minutes of weaving between motorbikes, cars, and buses, (with what feels like a few close calls) we’ve arrived at the entrance to the prison. We pay 20,000 dong ($1) for an entrance ticket.
The prison is interesting; full of historical information, authentic artifacts, a few prison cells still in tact, and even some old torture equipment. I’m not a big history buff at all so I still don’t totally follow the chain of events that lead to French Colonization or the war with the USA, but nonetheless it’s cool to your around. One of the coolest things I see is a small cement tunnel that has been excavated out of the ground for display once the prison was shut down. It shows the small space through which 16 prisoners escaped by crawling through a sewer and past a set of iron bars. The space is TINY and it just proves how malnourished the prisoners were and their desperation to escape.

We walk back from the prison to the Old Quarter, now that we know the direction and don’t need to follow any weird Apple Map instructions.

I’m walking ahead of Tamara when I hear her laughing behind me. I turn around to see a fruit vendor has come up to Tamara and placed her fruit basket balancing stick-tote thing on Tamara’s shoulder so she can test the weight and balance. The woman also removes her traditional sun hat and puts it on Tamara’s head. I manage to snap a few hilarious photos before she comes and transfers everything on to me.

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The next thing you know, slices of pineapple have been bagged up and handed over to us with a demanded price of 150,000 dong ($7). I almost puke. 150,000?! EACH?! For some measley pieces of pineapple and a silly photo? Hella no. Take your bagged fruit back back! While I’m trying to tell pineapple lady (as politely as possible) that she’s crazy, another vendor comes out of the blue, selling little doughnut-like pastries. She tells Tamara they’re free to try so she tries one, but big surprise, she bags up a bunch of them in .001 seconds and forces them into Tamara’s hands. I overhear her demanding a stupid amount of money for a handful of little doughnuts, I think I hear 200,000 dong. Tamara is trying to bargain without being rude. I quickly finish haggling with the pineapple lady, by giving her 50,000 dong in the name of keeping our funny photos and being able to now get rid of the doughnut lady.
I see Tamara handing the doughnut lady 100,000 dong, and being asking for 80,000 more. Doughnut lady wants almost $10 for 10 shitty little doughnuts. No! We tell the doughnut lady that she’s already charged us WAY too much and we walk off.

My first time being scammed in Vietnam.

I guess it’s not really so much a scam as it is some little snack vendor ladies ganging up on poor innocent backpackers. We’re too nice! It all happened so fast. We were bombarded and just couldn’t think quickly enough to get away from the puppy-dog-eyed “sweet” little vendors. Looking back, I wish we had just dropped the stupid pineapple, said no and peaced out. So what if I took a photo? I know that I know better than to let this stuff happen to me! Damn that clever pineapple lady and her tricks.

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I’ll never trust you again.

After (spitefully) enjoying our little snacks and checking the time, we decide we’ve got enough time to visit the West Lake where there is a popular pagoda. We try to find another motorcycle. The weirdest and most annoying thing has happened to us frequently over the last two days. When we walk around aimlessly, we see a billion travel agencies, cafés, restaurants, hostels etc., but when we are looking for a hostel? There isn’t a one to be found for blocks. It’s ridiculous. It’s happening right now with motorcycles. I feel like I haven’t walked 10 feet without someone offering to drive me somewhere…until this very moment when I actually want to be driven somewhere. Classic.
We walk for a while, keeping our eyes out for any taxi motorbikes, until Tamara finds an old man who waves us over from his bike. Score. I do the haggling, because I want to see how low I can push the price this time. We barter back and forth until we agree on a price of 40,000 dong ($2) each to drive three times the distance of what we drove to the prison. I’m starting to think that my haggling this morning still resulted in us getting ripped off. Whoops. This time, there’s only one man and one bike. Tamara and I both have to squeeze onto the back of ONE motorcycle! Ah! I sit on the very back and hold onto the seat for dear life. It’s far more comfortable than I expect, but there’s no where for me to put my feet, so my leg muscles get a bit of a workout while keeping my feet from dragging on the ground.

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The pagoda is only kinda cool. I’m not a pagoda snob or expert or anything, but I don’t understand why it’s listed as one of the top sites in Hanoi. I’m not überly impressed by it.

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It’s kinda tall I guess. We don’t hire a guide, so it’s very possible that there’s a whole story behind it’s existence that I’m missing to make it significant. There is a lot of good people watching along the lake side, which I find more interesting.

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We slowly start to walk back in the direction of the Old Quarter, where we need to go to catch our overnight bus to Sapa. It’s a half hour walk, but we’re not low on time and walking will allow us to explore more of the city anyway.
The road we follow is lined with lots of bizarre bridal shops. I see more than one 80s themed mannequin bride on display. Big teased hair and everything. We walk for at least 15 minutes down the same, weird street before an elderly man on a motorbike beckons us over. We had planned to walk, but we entertain the idea of quick transportation anyway. I ask him how much it will cost to the lake. He speaks no English, but we are able to show him a picture on Tamara’s phone. He quotes us 80 but we bargain him down to 50,000 dong. 25 ($1) each. That’s the lowest I’ve done yet! He turns his bike in the direction we’ve just come from. We’ve been walking the wrong way the whole time! Both of us are confused but we laugh and hop on the bike, feeling thankful that we found this guy when we did! I sit in the middle seat this time, which is more comfortable for my legs but gives me awkward arms that I don’t know what to do with, so I just hug my backpack against my chest.

Back in the Old Quarter we end up with another hour to kill before the bus leaves. We sit down for two-for-one happy hour and have a beer. We order two sandwiches for take away as our dinner for later. Who knows where the bus will stop for dinner? Or if it will even stop at all.

We arrive at the travel agency for 6pm as requested. We sit and chat with our travel agent lady for half an hour before the bus actually arrives. While sitting there and waiting I see a sign for something called an “open bus ticket”. I enquire. Apparently, you can pay $55 and get a one month ticket that allows you unlimited hop on hop off access to busses stopping at all the major locations between Hanoi and Ho Chi Mihn City. What is this magic? $55 to not worry about transportation for the rest of my time in Vietnam? Don’t mind if I do. I’m willing to bet that we can get a cheaper price if we stay loyal to this agency, too. I keep that idea in my back pocket to discuss more with Tamara later.

A van finally arrives to pick us up and take us to the sleeper bus. The drive is a lot longer than I expect, but it works out fine because our ticket indicates that we won’t actually be departing on the sleeper bus for another hour.
When we get to the bus terminal we sit and wait in a room with nothing but some black chairs, all facing a television playing some really awful really old American film (1940s/50s?) with a Vietnamese voice over. Some guy and some lady crash their helicopter in Africa and happen upon an African tribe. It’s sexist, a little racist, and the special effects are so bad. It’s genuinely the worst film I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but I haven’t watched a lot of old movies so maybe they’re all like that. It’s awful in a kind of funny way, I suppose.

I step away from the riveting film to use the washroom. The electricity seems to be out, and it’s 7:30pm. I get to pee in the dark.

We board the sleeper bus around 8:15pm. It’s the size of any regular coach bus, but with two tiers of “beds” which look like extremely reclined bus seats. Some intense Vietnamese techno beats pump through the speaker system. We climb into a pair of top bunks with super wonderful cheetah print blankets and get comfy. We’re given a bottle of water aboard the bus. Free gifts!
An old couple sitting across from us complain to the driver that there is no toilet on the bus as advertised. They’re like, “but we were told there would be a toilet!” and I just chuckle to myself and think, nothing in Asia is ever what you are told it will be. They’re in for a surprise. We probably (definitely) won’t arrive when we were told we would either. I wonder how they’ll feel about that. The toilet thing kinda sucks I guess, but I pride myself on my ability to hold my pee so I think I’ll survive the next 9 hours just fine.

I fall asleep to the melodic sounds of car horns, the bus engine, my fellow bus mates text message alerts, (why don’t people use silent mode?) and the Vietnamese techno relentlessly being played over the speakers. No doubt the most appropriate musical choice for a bus full of people trying to sleep.

I wish there were a font for sarcasm.