Author Archives: S.A.H.

About S.A.H.

Cycling. Espresso. Photography. Words. Travel. Aimlessness.

Version 0.82 (A Brief Note and a Recommended Cafe)


Back in Hanoi, and at Loading T,  a favorite cafe of mine notable for its location (set on the second floor of a beautiful, and gradually crumbling away, French colonial building), ambiance, decor and most importantly, its coffee, distinctly known for the aroma and light taste of cinnamon. I recently read that the cinnamon aroma and flavor comes from cinnamon sticks that are roasted with the coffee (rather than adding ground cinnamon to each and every beverage). Supposedly this is why its aroma is more apparent than its flavor.

This will be, unless I purchase another, my last coffee in Hanoi for a very long time. Tomorrow morning I take a short bus ride to Tam Coc where I will be for a couple of days, then over to Nam Dinh to visit Huyen and her hometown for a day, then Hoi An, then Da Lat, then perhaps Saigon, before heading back up to Da Nang prior to flying back to the U.S.

I really have nothing to write. I knew this was a questionable idea…. Spending time day dreaming about opening a Vietnamese themed cafe back home….

Version 0.81 (Weather)


Bright, misty morning. Nothing but white, white, white.
The air is heavy with them: these vast impenetrable clouds.
Sa Pa hidden below, mountain slopes lost above.
Peering into this nebulous void is like trying to see into the future:
all that is visible: that which is around me now,
and even that is impossibly indistinct at times.

These inscrutable clouds that move in from all around.

Version 0.80 (Personally I Think Smooth, Safe Roads are Priority)


Looking like it’s going to rain all day. It’s been going on since early morning; I woke up to it beating on the metal roof of my homestay in Lao Chai. I was presented for breakfast perhaps the best phơ I’ve eaten in all Vietnam (to add to the great dinner accompanied by a large amount of rice and corn wine). Mama Suu and I settled on a price and then I bought something from her, negating the “discount.” It seems I can’t help not budgeting myself. I could perhaps write out a budget but I am not that kind of a planner. I wouldn’t stick to it anyway. Mama Suu found me a responsible motorbike driver to take me back to Sa Pa, which I didn’t have to pay for. Responsible is the key word. Safe, as well. Because the village is situated at the bottom of the valley and Sa Pa is at the top, or a good distance up, when it rains the rutted out, muddy, gravel and rock strewn road, trail or path (whatever one may consider it) turns into a river. It’s all too easy to imagine an unskilled driver wrecking himself and maybe his bike. It’s rather disappointing to see with all the construction going on in Sa Pa that more important infrastructural improvements such as proper roads, and bulwarks to prevent soil erosion and landslides in important areas are taking a backseat. Small steps perhaps? But as with most government and business related projects, money, and namely what can make them money is prioritized.

Version 0.79 (A Homestay)


I’m jotting down some notes here that I will attempt to put into some sort of clear and detailed summary of my thoughts later when I have the time. Currently I’m just sitting in the gathering space on the first floor of the hostel with a little girl named Matchi. She’s Japanese, and five years old. I think one of the owners of the hostel may be Japanese, or perhaps the husband to the wife who owns it is. I’m not quite sure. Anyway, this cute, little girl, Matchi, is sitting across the table from me watching me write. She’s very inquisitive, but also very shy. She seems to be happy just sitting near me watching what I’m doing. Her understanding of the english language is spotty for sure. Or she’s just very shy and doesn’t want to talk.

At a table nearby is a group of possibly-Israelis. I can’t tell the language because I’m terrible at that sort of thing. At first I thought they were speaking Russian, but perhaps it is Yiddish? I don’t know if those two languages truly sound even remotely similar, but as I stated, I’m no expert on languages. They are basically eating junk food for breakfast. Where they got the awful cereal and milk I have no idea. Perhaps they’re traveling with it because they don’t like Vietnamese food? No idea. People do strange things. As far as I’m concerned Vietnamese food is some of the best on the planet, so why anyone wouldn’t like it is beyond my conception.

I woke up late this morning. Outside: all mist and drizzling rain. The mountains are in the clouds. Not just their peaks, but pretty much their entirety, like a dirty, white sweater has been flung over them. I’m supposed to meet my Hmong homestay host in an hour but honestly I would prefer to just stay at the hostel. The weather discourages me. I’m so intrigued by the thought of the homestay, though, that I will not cancel on her (I have her phone number, and so could call).

Last night while I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom of my floor there was a boy smoking a joint, readying himself to go out, preening in front of the mirror just like a little duck, as I’m making for bed.

[Later at the homestay]
I met my homestay host, Mama Suu, late this morning. As we walked from town to her village we talked a bit about what exactly it was that I wanted to do, and the cost. Her first assumption or idea was that I wanted, or would pay for, two days of trekking and an overnight stay plus meals, the cost of that being about $50. This is much more than I want to spend, and I told her so. Really, I’m just not interested in trekking. I just want to spend a night in the valley experiencing the life, or as much of it as I can in such a short period of time, of a Hmong household. We ended up kicking the can down the road on the expenses part of the homestay and will settle on something later for a day of trekking (really just a long walk along a dirt trail through a couple of smaller villages in the hills and through the forest, avoiding what counts for a road out here, to her homestay in the valley), a night at her home, and all meals (lunch, dinner, breakfast).* I really have no idea if this will be worth the money. I know if I had just booked a homestay myself through a website like AirBnb or Hostelworld, and rented a motorbike it would cost me quite a bit less, but the walk, or “trek” was nice, though I have yet to decide if it was worth paying extra for, so…

Well, this valley is a jewel. A long and wide meandering jewel like a great green snake winding beneath the mountains, rice paddies as far as the eye can see, and even further, narrow dirt and gravel paths spreading through it from home to home all along a central corridor like veins and arteries feeding and being fed by a great heart lying somewhere further along, or maybe behind, and the river winding along with it roaring and sparkling in places, trickling in others.

There was a woman in the fields beyond the restaurant I had lunch at spraying fertilizer with a long gun and a pack on her back.

[Later that night]

There is such a special air quality here in the valley. It seems not so much that the sun’s light is simply illuminating the landscape, but that it is illuminating the very air itself. In that way it obscures the landscape, or the details of, and in doing so instills it with a greater mystery but also an unalloyed vibrance, a lambent, shimmering radiance.

Watching a rooster and hen tear up a garden plot here at the homestay, a tiny one on the patio just outside the house, searching for insects, or likely anything edible for that matter. I’ve had a shower, and am sitting at a table on this patio that I’ve just mentioned, outside. The sun above the silent mountains is obscured by what looks like rain clouds. A red motorbike is gliding down the slope on the opposite side of the valley, and the waterfall pours down the rockface in a loving, though swift, caress.

Three young boys and a girl have just rushed onto the patio from outside, immediately making a racket but then quickly quieting (aside from the sounds of gunfire issuing from the oldest’s cell phone.) I’m not sure why I am surprised by the level of technological sophistication and abundance here, but I am. Maybe because my guide only used an old Nokia. Vietnam in general is not very well developed in terms of basic infrastructure and medical care, particularly in rural areas where most of the poor and minority ethnic groups live. I was not expecting wi-fi here, and I would not have been surprised by squat toilets. Mama Suu tells me she and many others love the increase in tourism to Sa Pa, because through homestays and trekking tours in the valley, and selling their handmade goods on the street and in the market they’re actually able to make a decent income, have homes made of brick or stone and with quality metal roofs, as opposed to bamboo structures on a muddy slope. I suppose if it ever turns into a place like Bali or Venice they might change their tune, but until then (IF that ever happens) I suspect they will be more than happy with the extra income. It was only thirty years ago that no one bothered visiting Sa Pa (this I am told), twenty years ago local tourists would sometimes come out on weekends, and the numbers have slowly increasted until now in its current state it seems the cat is out of the bag, and loads of new construction is taking place. It will change in the next few years even more, and besides more money coming to the region it is impossible to say what that will mean.

Version 0.78 (Quibbles, Complaints, Observations, Happiness, Contentment, Sa Pa)


Ahhh, there are seemingly always some sort of little niggling issues when I travel (I’m sure this is true for everyone of course). It’s death by a thousand papercuts. Why is it that every review of these “sleeper” buses states that even though they arrive at 4 a.m. customers are allowed to sleep until six, yet all us riders were promptly notified of our arrival and given the boot? I suppose because I paid more for an extra fancy sleeper bus to see what that was like is why; pay more and receive worse service. Why can’t the cafe I am at make a good Vietnamese coffee? Why is the music so bad? (American pop again) Honestly though, I have little to complain about. I’m in Sa Pa , sitting on a patio at a cafe that I won’t return to, eating a slice of chocolate cake, sipping a coffee (not a very good one, albeit), writing in my journal and watching the world do its thing. The temperature is even tolerable way up here in the mountains (it’s quite a bit cooler, and describing it as tolerable is doing it a disservice as it is certainly quite devine).

There is something so sad about sitting here watching this little minority, ethnic girl in her native dress walk the street, carrying various souvenirs, and approaching probable tourists to sell them. There has been, on the sidewalk by the little garden across the street, an “ethnic” woman talking to a Vietnamese guy on a motorbike for the last fifteen minutes. She’s strangely remarkable in her dress, and her pink barbie or little mermaid backpack, and the beautiful pale, red hat that looks like several stitched together beanbags resting atop her skull. It has just begun to rain though, and the guy on the bike motored off in his plastic poncho, and the woman wandered off on her own. And a man on a scooter has just driven by with an umbrella open. Driving quite slowly to be sure!

Well, this cafe is awful. I just can’t handle this music. It’s loud. It’s bad. It’s simply intolerable.

Checked into my capsule hotel. Very exciting as I’ve never spent a night in one. Seems cool, and feels like I’m in some future world, a la Star Trek or Star Wars. The family running it is charming. I’m almost sad to be doing a homestay in Lao Chai, and likely Ta Van, the next couple of nights, but Sa Pa itself is busy and isn’t really the point of coming out here unless one is just using it as a base for trekking.

Regarding my homestay in Lao Chai, that all came about from a woman in the village being in Sa Pa, presumably to sell some of her wares as that seems reason for many of them to be in town. This being so, she and her friend from a different village approached me. As an aside, I’m very impressed with the level of English these women have. It’s better than most “non-ethnic” Vietnamese. I guess that’s a natural progeression of catering to tourists. Anyway, we talked, she asked how long I was staying, if I had any nights other than tonight booked, which I did not, and we exchanged numbers agreeing to meet around 11 a.m. at the church tomorrow morning, so that’s that. Afterward I left them for the cafe I was on my way to when they approached me that was recommended by the hotel for its splendid and stunning views. They were right in this regard, and I settled in, gazing over the valley, the river at its bottom, rice terraces bright vibrant green, and forests climbing the mount slopes. Green, green, green everywhere; a defining color, and countless shades of it too. I ordered a lime juice and mixed fruit yogurt. These things were too expensive I thought. When the banging like someone hammering on the bottom of a stock pot began, I was rather dismayed. It went on long enough that I eventually had to leave for it completely shattered the peaceful atmosphere.

I’m writing all of this having found an absolute gem of a cafe, though without the view, around the city center. Quiet, gentle atmosphere, instrumental music playing in the background, view out onto the the main square, baskets of flowers and vases of flowers and pots of plants all over. It’s an absolute gem.

I talked to an ethnic woman while sitting on a bench researching dinner choices. So many of these women wandering around Sa Pa hawking their wares, or, I should say pestering people. It’s a sorry state of affairs….

Version 0.77 (The Grab Bike Driver Prompts Wonderings)


Sometimes when I sit here at the cafe watching the world go by as it does an individual will stop who for whatever reason affects me in such a way that I begin to wonder about his life. I write this because just a moment ago a Grab bike driver stopped at the mini-market on the corner where a table and stools are set up. Even as he was parking his bike I was wondering about his life, for it was clear that he hadn’t arrived to pick anyone up, but had just arrived for a smoke and a drink. I got to wondering about how much money he made in a day or a month, where he lived, if he had a family to support. How many hours does he work and what does he do on his time off? I am thinking about all these things as he sits there contentedly smoking from his pipe. I realize I will never know the answer to any of those questions though. But I am curious, and I think it would be wonderful were I to be a fly on a wall of his home, or could somehow secretly ride along with him on his motorbike as he drives people around the city. And to understand the language and listen-in on his conversations such as the one he is having right now with the other guy at the table!

Version 0.76 (An Illusion of Prosperity, and the Joy of a Haircut)


I’m sitting at a bia hơi near the apartment where I’m staying, just a stone’s throw from the lake, watching a few chickens scratch and peck along the sidewalk and the park. The usual hangers-on of dogs are roaming about scavenging for scraps of food and looking for handouts, and up and down the streets the usual and constant parade of motorscooters, the occasional bicycle or car, families out walking (late evening, just as the sun is going down and the heat of the day begins to subside is when neighborhoods become most active), children are shouting gleefully holding their parents’ hands. The lights of highrises across the lake shine brightly reflecting in its surface like dreams of prosperity that should be so easy to achieve if only by walking down to the water’s edge and scooping up with one’s hands or a pail. And then I look around me more closely and see the lights hanging from the corrugated steel awnings, and listen to the chatter of the family having dinner behind me (presumably the family that runs the place) and I see that right here, on this unassuming street corner that is like nearly every other in Hanoi that prosperity of a kind has already been acheived by some, if not many, and that illusion of prosperity rocked gently by the ripples on the surface of the lake is exactly that—an illusion.

I was down around Old Quarter today to enjoy a coffee at a favorite spot, and to have a slice of banana bread that unfortunately wasn’t available. Very basic things, and I had some delicious fried morsels at a little street food stall near the famous cathedral as well as a bahn mi. I’ve been pondering a haircut for probably over a month now, and today it finally happened. Walking back to my apartment it was along a stretch of road by a park where there are always several barbers, their chairs, mirrors, and other accoutrements of the trade at particular spots day in and day out. Each man to his station. I just happened to be looking at a certain gentleman whose chair was empty when he turned and saw me. We made eye contact and he made a shaving motion across his cheeks whereupon I made a cutting motion above my head. It was a fine thing this, having my haircut out in the open, watching children play at the memorial park in front of me, and young girls pose for photos with friends. Something so wonderfully joyous and life-affirming having a haircut outside while the world whirls by around you. The cars, buses, scooters, horns beeping, children playing, people walking and photographing, shop owners selling whatever goods they’re selling on the strip behind me, the trees and the sky overhead, the grass and the sidewalk beneath. It seems almost a crime to force people indoors for a haircut. Here, under the joy of the sky I was able to get one for $5 or so, and I would have gladly paid twice that.

Version 0.75 (Updates, Thoughts, Craft Beer in Hanoi)


I’m writing this at a craft beer bar in Tay Ho. They have one or two more locations scattered around Hanoi as well. This first beer I’m having is inspired by phơ. It is fantastic, though the phơ that I’ve had is not nearly as complex in flavor as this beer (not really sure if that says more about the beer or the phơ). Frankly I think it’s the spices, or lack thereof which they use up here. The phơ I’ve had farther south has been better flavored in my opinion. That said, it’s a delicious beer, and probably not a bad rendition on the theme. And they just brought me another beer as a gift (so she says). Also delicious. Seriously some of the best craft beer I’ve had anywhere on Earth.

Anyway, it’s a quiet Sunday night for me, though it usually is, traveling or not; and seemingly a quiet night in Quang An as well, though it ususally is, weekend or not. Some of the bia hơis—various corner shops selling cheap, fresh beer, snacks, and perhaps a banh mi or fried rice—may be busy however. Maybe that is why I like the area so much. Old Quarter is a mad house 100% of the time, but Tay Ho, and most specificfally Quang An, is quieter, and just western enough to feel comfortable to a westerner, plus it has a variety of food you won’t find elsewhere in Hanoi.

My camera should perhaps be returned from Fuji’s repair shop on the 27th. Right now I am at my apartment until the 28th, so the timing could be perfect. It likely won’t work out that way, but instead some other way, and that’s fine too. There is no great rush into anything.

Prices to rent a motorbike seem to be much cheaper than I first thought, so I may opt to rent one for a month. The freedom of movement that would afford me would be wonderful, rather than having to take trains and busses all over. But again, I will just have to wait, and make sure I read the prices correctly.

Furbrew, the beer bar I am at, is a modern bar set inside a building with windows and a front door. This means there is also a/c. Very different from the bia hơis one see everywhere, usually just set into a concrete bunker with a tin roof, an open front and plastic tables and stools tumbling out onto the sidewalk, which means if it’s hot like it always is this time of year, you know… hopefully there are fans where you’re sitting; there are always some scattered around these open air joints.

The staff inside Furbrew was mainly young girls, high school age, maybe one was college age, though it’s often difficult to determine age so I’m quite possibly far off target. I find it interesting (though hardly surprising, nor does it bother me in some moralistic or ethical way like it would some other ninnies) that they’re working a bar, although it looks like some really good food is served too. I guess one would describe it as a gastropub or bistro rather than a bar. My bill for my three beers, one of which I received for free was only 95k dong. I left them a 25k tip which is basically a dollar, and their faces lit up like the Christmas tree in Times Square. The appreciation for that extra bit of money is astounding to me, and warms my heart.

I love being here so much. It is unfortunate that I don’t have an unlimited supply of money or else I’d consider buying a place.

Version 0.73 (Cafe Doppio: Nexus of all Quang An)


Rereading messages from Jasper and now I’m not sure what to make of what happened to me in Kuala Lumpur. The only other option means it was just a normal attack that anyone with M.S. would have, and NOT as a result of losing my worms to sickness or food related issues, which it seems I have not. Yet it still seems obvious to me that if certain Indian foods or spices are not affecting my worm family they are at least affecting me. Because it always seems there is a trouble after partaking of the tasty stuff.

I so love this little, yellow cafe that is like a dandelion on a street corner from which I can watch the world whiz about in no apparent meaning, but to each of those lives out there zipping by on a scooter or walking past there is a sense of purpose, at least in the immediate present. However, if there isn’t, there certainly seems a good show of it.

The cafe sits at the confluence of two narrow streets and two separate gated compounds opposite those streets that contain offices, schools, apartments and a fitness studio in one, and government-related business in another. Sitting in here safely behind the glass, and looking out on all that goes on outside is a bit like watching two rivers flow together into a central pool which then flows outward to either of the two compounds, but sometimes in reverse order, or in any other direction so that there are nearly always near-head-on collisions and traffic jams, yet for the most part a regular flow is maintained and very rearely does traffic get so snarled up that it grinds to a standstill.

Sitting in this cafe and looking out through the glass it seems as though I am at the very nexus of Quang An, Tay Ho, that I am a little bit like God looking out at his kingdom, or that I am an eye located in some central vessel of a great body observing its movements, and the flow of cells and microbes through the arteries of this one central part, that I am in the world but not necessarily of the world, and even to say that I am in it is a stretch. The world is temporary and spins by an ever and always new cast of characters, but I am permanent. I am and always will be I am.

Version 0.72 (The Berryfield)


Back at The Berryfield, most certainly my favorite cafe in Hanoi. Up a narrow stairway to the second floor of a building, the first floor of which is used as motorbike parking in evenings, and as a kitchen and place to eat during lunch hour. The third floor is a roasting space.

The cafe is secretively tucked away down an alley off a side street off a main street a short walk south of the Old Quarter. On the second floor one finds the cafe, but no gargantuan espresso machine taking up counter space, and this leaves the intimate room feeling more spacious than it otherwise would. The owner says that he is not fond of the coffee produced by espresso machines, and so makes his “espresso” drinks with moka pots, a unique way for sure to be brewing specialty coffee in a shop. He also does pour-overs utilizing the V-60 by Hario. Opposite the counter where one would study the menu and order is a sliding door which opens onto a small balcony with tiny wooden stools and tables, enough to seat no more than four people I would judge. Photographs of landscapes of coffee growing regions adorn the walls inside, and a bench seat against the walls wraps around the interior with several square, wooden tables and a few more chairs free to move around in order to create the seating environment of your and/or your friends’ choice. The music normally played interestingly enough has a folksy, country tinge to it; very obviously American (sounding at least), but thankfully not the same American pop music that is played in most every other cafe popular with the younger generation in Vietnam these days. The space is comfortable and intimate, cozy in a way, and the owner is a wonderful, quiet and affable man whose love of coffee, and relaxing, comforting spaces has helped him to create the perfect cafe, in my opinion, for enjoying a uniquely and carefully made cup of coffee. It’s unfortunate that it is so far from where I typically stay when I am here.

I’m already a bit exhausted with being back here in the city. It’s just the thought of being here for perhaps a month that gets to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t be thinking about it, but it’s a fact that I will have to be here, for I have to have my hookworm larvae shipped somewhere that I may retrieve them as quickly as possible. And it is necessary to get my camera repaired, and that could take two or three weeks for all I know. However, I still haven’t settled on an apartment. A decision I must make quickly for it just delays shipment of the larvae otherwise.