Tag Archives: vietnam

Version 0.92 (Cu Chi Tunnels and a Mekong River Tour)


I leave Vietnam tomorrow, not for any new foreign land, but for America (sounds quite exotic actually, now that I think on it). Yesterday I went on a guided tour to a couple of places: one, Cu Chi Tunnels, northwest of Saigon, and two, a short Mekong River trip. I developed a fondness for our guide immediately: intelligent but with a sort of silly sense of humor, a bit like he was playing dumb in order to get a laugh. The biggest surprise in regards to our guide, or, say THE surprise, was his obvious distaste for the communist government and communism in general. Well, that’s not the surprise—I imagine that might be a common feeling—but his outspokenness about his feelings is the surprise. Up to that point I’d not heard anyone talk about anything remotely political the entire four months of my time here. Of course the war itself was much more complicated than communist guerrilla forces vs. America and the American backed nationalist forces, and I will have to do much reading and/or watching into the history of Vietnam and the war when I have time. That won’t be anytime soon though.

Cu Chi Tunnels were in my opinion the best part of a too long tour. I definitely recommend to break these into two separate tours, or even better don’t bother with the Mekong River tour but take a bus to My Tho or Ben Tre, or rent bikes in Saigon and drive yourself instead. Get a homestay for a couple of nights using Air BnB or some other service and explore the area on your bikes or by foot. The Mekong River and its delta are ENORMOUS, and deserve more than an hour of your time. Also they’re not something that requires a guide in order to get the best experience of, unlike the Cu Chi Tunnels which have a significant history that may be explored at length with someone who has the knowledge to do so. Anyway, to put it simply, the Cu Chi Tunnels were fascinating from an historical and educational perspective—far more than just a cutesy tourist ride. The tour turned into a bit of a wildlife walk, too. This was a surprise. I’m not sure what I was expecting of the site, but an open forest plumbed with wandering trails and filled with animal life was defintely not it. I couldn’t take a step without a butterfly fluttering across the path or dancing in the bordering foliage, and birdsong filled the silences between our tour guides explanations and the group’s questions and chatter.  We even spotted three different types of lizards on our walk. The air was clean, clear, and cool (relative to south Vietnam summer temperatures). The forest was how any forest should be. Really, I felt less like I was walking through a tourist site, but more like I was wandering through a war memorial, but without the often accompanying somberness or solemnity of a war memorial.

The Mekong River trip felt a bit too touristy for me. Nothing educational or particularly interesting, just two people paddling, or in our case because the tide was so low, pushing a group of four of us through an island canal that loops back on itself. It seems they once used these boats for fishing and various other things (probably transportation), but now it’s just a tourist ride which simply doesn’t feel authentically cultural to me, no more than a means of generating income (which I’m not saying is bad, these people can use all the extra income they can get, but it’s just not my thing, and leaves me feeling uneasy in much the same way the cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) do even though, again, these are jobs that provide income to people). Anyway, in our case the water level was so low the paddlers couldn’t even paddle but instead pushed us along with long poles they carried in their boats, and because the canal was so narrow at the bottom it became a cluster fuck in places with boats banging up against each other regularly as they passed each other. It probably didn’t help, either, that we arrived very late in the day so that I thought they might refuse us. There was a road closure somewhere between Ben Duoc (where Cu Chi Tunnels are located) and wherever our river tour took place (my guess would be somewhere near My Tho).

The day was long (half the twelve hours sitting in a van) but worth the $55. However, the smarter way to go would be to follow my previous recommendations.

So, I go back to the U.S. tomorrow. Flight from Saigon to Hong Kong at 11 am, then flight from HK to LA six hours later. I’ll meet Danny at some point and hopefully chill with him a few days before cycling north to Seattle then east to Missoula. Those are my vague plans at the least. I would really like to visit Jacob in Missoula.


Version 0.91 (Apocalypse Now and The Vietnam War)


Watched two-thirds of Apocalypse Now last night. Had never seen it before, but since having begun watching it I understand why it is so highly regarded. It’s definitely a bit of a mind-fuck after having walked through the War Remnants Museum. I don’t know what it is about being here in Saigon, but I’ve suddenly developed a strong desire to learn more about The War. Perhaps it’s because here resides histories of four different governments from three different countries—French, American, South Vietnamese under the auspices of the United States, and the current Vietnamese government which took control after the defeat of the Americans and the South. One can find influences and historical artifacts from each and every one of them here. There is none of that in Hanoi. As well, in terms of historical attempts at influence abroad it may be the single biggest blunder in American history; and, being an American myself, and one who is here in Saigon, I am curious about how this came to be: what were the causes for the strongest military power’s on Earth defeat by such a small country with a middling economy and largely undeveloped urban areas? And that has caused me to reflect on the Iraq/Afghan war, and the the general state of politics in the U.S. today. One would think the lessons learned from the Vietnam War would stick, but frankly I think they’ve all been forgotten. Are there any students of history and war in the military today? Were there ever? Sunny thoughts on a sunny morning….

Version 0.90


I have just sat down, and am waiting on my coffee order to be delivered at the La Viet in District 3 that my Grab driver unceremoniously dropped me off at moments ago. I found their cafe to be a good place in Da Lat to do a bit of writing, and as all the reviews on Google stated how great a place this Saigon location is to work from I thought I might go. There are a few other cafes in the vicinity that I can walk to as well whenever I decide to leave.

The Grab ride was a surprising and fascinating one, largely because Saigon is a huge city—one which I am completely unfamiliar with. I must correct myself though. The ride wasn’t surprising in any way, but my arrival at my destination was, as we simply stopped at the opening of an alley and my driver signaled for me to get off. I don’t know where I thought I was when we arrived, but I certainly did not think we were at my destination. I imagine if my interior world had a face, a visage to read, it would have looked similar to Harry’s after going for a bit of a tumble on Dumbledore’s arm. That ride, looking back, was fascinating because of the surprise—the sensation of time and distance passing while on our way was nil. It was just me flowing through the streets on the back of this motorbike driven by a guy in a green jacket and helmet.

Yesterday I was moved. On one occasion, possibly two. I visited the War Remnants Museum. That was one. And I guess I could say the espresso I had at Saigon Coffee Roasters was moving as well. It was certainly the best one I’d had in Saigon, and possibly all of Vietnam, so that would be the second occasion. But before all of that I visited the fine arts museum. The museum building, while a bit run down, is a fabulous old colonial villa constructed in the early 1930’s. A/C is only provided in select rooms—those with particularly important works—and the three story structure encloses an inner courtyard. The topmost floor is my favorite. It is full of artworks pre-1975, meaning they were created before the end of the war. To these eyes they seemed much more cultural than the later and more contemporary works which have a more personal, inward looking, and often abstract form to them, and seem to me less culturally Vietnamese and more global. Many of these earlier works were simply depictions of everyday life, similar to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of Dutch/Flemish life and town scenes. But what moved me and interested me most about the works on the third floor was just how immediate they felt to the war—how they brought it forth into the present day—and how so many of them directly depicted the war’s influence on daily life.

The War Remnants Museum is really special though. I will start by saying that in my opinion it’s fair and objective, and isn’t anti-American, though I could certainly see why some particularly sensitive people might think it is as it is highly critical of America (I would say for good reason!). The combination of written testimony regarding the war by various political figures around the world, and the imagery in photographs and news articles is well arranged, and it’s those photographs and the testimonies of so many against the war, and also certain statistics relating to the supply and usage of munitions during the war that does such an admirable and convincing (if one for some reason needed convincing) job of the absurdity, the madness, the stupidity of war in general, and the Vietnam War in specific. In the two hours I was there I probably only covered three-quarters of the exhibition space, and at only 40k dong entry I am certain to go back. It is an absolute must-visit for any traveler who finds him/herself in Saigon.

Version 0.89 (Happiness)


Been in Da Lat for five days and hardly written a thing. It’s hard to when one is always on the go with very little quiet, peaceful, distraction-less time to himself. But here I am! At last! Yet my initial thought is that I will write very little. That I have very little to write. That despite five days of being in a new and fascinating city nothing has tripped a switch in me to write—the link between external stimuli and internal feeling and thought was not connected.

“Here I am!” means that I am alone—and will be for quite some time. I am also enjoying an excellent V60 coffee from Da Lat at La Viet. Mozzie and her friends have departed for the airport for flights back to Nam Dinh. I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything in particular until 21:30 as I have a bus to Saigon at 22:00. Well, what to do to fill my day? Wander with my camera all over town. Visit a couple of cafes that I have earmarked in Google Maps. Eat bahn xeo; they make a different style here than in Da Nang. Thinking about food, am I ever grateful for Mozzie and her friends. Because of them I tried so many different dishes than I would have otherwise. Most of the places we went to eat clearly rarely, if ever, received western guests. Many of them didn’t bother to have english translations of anything—food or drink. Certainly there are areas where foreigners are more commonly seen, though not many, especially when one compares it to another popular mountain town like Sa Pa, but we spent no time in those areas besides racing through on our scooters.

So, this morning she left. I walked with her up to her waiting taxi and friends. We were lying in bed this morning and she told me she was happy. This may seem like a strange thing to tell your lover the morning of the last day that you will see each other for quite a long time, but it made me happy to hear her say so; to know that I could contribute, nay, to be the sole contributor to that happiness. That is something too easily taken for granted. Like, “of course!” but it’s a thing that is never “of course” (at least with me), for it is all too easy to hurt someone, to cause pain, to cause suffering, and there is already far too much of that all around the world (as there ever has been), so why make more? Furthermore, to be able to make someone happy on a day such as this when in most relationships, there would be tears is another reason to be happy myself. Perhaps it was easier because we knew there was a strong chance of this happening, that our relationship was running on borrowed time, so to speak. I can’t say for sure though. All I know is that it’s all been worth it.

Version 0.88 (Getting to Da Lat)


That was a long and noisy train ride. I definitely recommend the top bunk rather than the bottom bunk of sleepers in Vietnamese train cars. Not sure how much sleep I got but it was sporadic, infrequent, fitful, and constantly interrupted. Luckily I planned for that occurrence. (No, I didn’t. But I did plan to check out a couple of fairly popular specialty coffee shops not far from the station in Nha Trang, which may help me overcome the lethargy from my mainly sleepless night.)

Just finished a surprisingly voluminous espresso at Nha Trang Coffee Roasters that despite its volume wasn’t as bitter as I expected. It wasn’t really good, but I didn’t need to add sugar to it at least. Considering the state of specialty coffee in Vietnam, and the obviously small budget the cafe has to work with, I am impressed. The espresso machine and grinders in total could not have cost more than a couple thousand dollars (really a fair chunk of change over here), and were likely bought second-hand. The roaster is a small two or three kilo one and is clearly where the bulk of the money was spent. However the cafe space is cavernous—perhaps it was an old automotive garage—and is pretty busy, with most of the tables and chairs occupied, so hopefully those profits can turn into better equipment and additional education for the staff.

I have a limousine bus to Da Lat that leaves from somewhere in the city at 11:30. Perhaps I will get some sleep then. But I‘m not there yet. I have over two hours to do whatever it is I wish to do, which at this point will likely be getting another coffee or juice, then lunch, then calling a Grab. I’d like to wander around the city a bit, but it’s not worth it with all the crap I’m lugging around.

[Further Later}
I’ve finally arrived in Da Lat after a fairly dull and uneventful, but also a bit odd, and on occasion, slightly unsettling bus ride. I have showered at last, and, in the sink of our homestay washed my t-shirt and boxers I’d been wearing for the last sweaty 36 hours. Being as we are in the mountains and the temperatures are significantly cooler, I’m looking forward to not sweating through my clothes for the next five days. Writing this I am sitting at La Viet, a highly esteemed specialty coffee roaster here in Vietnam, and I mean “specialty” in the very best way: the way that all players in the industry should want to act, for they not only take special care to roast and brew their coffee as best as possible, but they only roast Vietnamese grown coffee, and they work with farmers in the region to improve the cup quality so that the farmers may have a more sustainable living, one that is bound more by the quality of the product (gasp!) and less by what the commodities market dictates. They do this by improving soil quality, fertilization techniques, improving the picking and processing of the coffee fruit, testing different cultivars to see if one does particularly well in a region versus others, etc. It is a beautiful relationship, and I am happy to finally get to try their coffee which, while pretty unremarkable by specialty standards, is far and away much better than most of the rest of the coffee grown in the country.

But how did I come to be here? From Da Nang I took a night train to Nha Trang where I whiled away four hours at a couple of different cafes and one very busy, very good pho stall. In no place yet in Vietnam did I get as many stares as I did in my brief time in Nha Trang. I thought it strange considering the size of the city and its magnetism for tourists, granted I was hardly in a touristy part of the city as those places are located predominantly along the beach, and I was nearer to the train station.

It’s an interesting comparison between where I stayed and spent most of my time in Da Nang, and the area of Nha Trang I was in. Mainly I’m thinking of the level of English spoken in both places. Quite a number of Vietnamese where I was in Da Nang are conversational in skill level and are not embarrassed to speak, but in Nha Trang I noticed a severe decline in ability, or possibly they were all just too shy and afraid of making mistakes, because what little english I received was mumbled and barely audible, spoken in a way that suggested nervousness, apprehension, or insecurity, and these were all younger kids in their teens and very early twenties.

After my layover in Nha Trang which was highlighted by my breakfast at the pho stall where a Vietnamese gentleman pulled up on a motorbike as I was attempting to sit down with my cumbersome belongings and repeated the word pho to me several times (whether that was to be sure that I knew what I was going to be eating, or so that I understood the correct pronunciation of the name of the dish, I can’t be sure), and then verbally warned me that I was about to put too much fish sauce in it while I was seasoning it, I took a bus—a “limousine” bus, mind you (basically a slightly larger, glorified mini-van (some with, some without, bucket seats))—here. We were packed to the gills in this bus so that it was anything but limousine-like, and my pack had to be lain on the floor between the legs of other passengers. Add to that squished between me and the driver was a woman with her one year old baby. The entirety of the trip the driver was coughing, and by the end of it, which came a bit sooner than expected, he had to stop to let us out by the lake in order to go see a doctor for his cough. And now I’ve developed a cough. Whether from him or something else I can’t be sure, but the timing certainly is suspicious. I wonder if the woman or her child came down with anything…

Version 0.86 (Just Some Thoughts on a Train, and a Little Poem at the End)


Sitting on a train going nowhere.

Correction: just as I began writing this we began to move. Only about one hour from Da Nang Station now. There is only one track that runs through the mountains and jungle along the coastline, so it is imperative that care is taken when another train is coming.

I left Nam Dinh last night in the rain. Spent half the day in a cafe idling my time way while Huyen was in the office. Afterward she ended up driving me around in the rain so that I could replace my cellphone, which we succeeded at doing, and then dinner at a cheap Korean place. I’m so, so grateful for her. It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t want me to leave Vietnam, but I feel I really have to. So low on funds. Trips to Tam Coc and Sa Pa realized much higher expenditures than I expected, and then I lost my phone. The day spent in Nam Dinh was nice enough though, and I look forward to spending nearly a week with Huyen in Da Lat.

I’m still here for a few more weeks.

I want to see family and friends. Andddd, I miss my bicycle immensely.

Through the window
The sea is spread out far and wide
Soft horizon
Rocky shore

Version 0.85 (This Moment and Bai Dinh Pagoda)


I’m back in town, heading to dinner soon but stopped for a coffee, smoothie, and a scoop of ice cream at a cafe. The girl that owns it with her boyfriend (who happens to be French) makes the ice cream herself, simply because she likes ice cream and thought that making her own would be a fun, and potentially profitable, thing to do.

The sun has drifted down to a level now where its light is ever so slightly beginning to wane, and all it touches is burnished bronze. Shadows are getting ever longer, the temperature is finally beginning to cool. It’s an extraordinary scene when walking through town, or just beyond its frayed edges and that light bounces off the still water’s surface or falls softly between tall, rocky crags, refracting and scattering through the distant hazy air, shimmering diaphonously like some ethereal curtain. One might imagine that heaven is like that—sort of a soft, hazy, halcyon, shimmering, euphoric, wondrous place. A place in which one’d wish to be immersed, feeling those feelings for eternity.

Short walk to Tam Coc boat launch where I found a group of children, some in life vests, some not, swimming or learning how to swim amongst the flotillas of boats which where they were pushed together appeared as large, floating islands. Nearby is a woman doing her washing in a basin and the river which a cascade of steps leads down to. Here too is where the children are swimming in supervision of their parents.

The water is gently rippling with the thrashings of the kids reflecting brilliantly the colors of the sky which are still primarily blue, but some apricot skin and rosé accompany, with wispy grey clouds interrupted by the tops of palms and karst formations jutting out of the dark void like termite mounds from a plain.

A young boy whose name is Money or Mani? and speaks little english has sat down next to me. He is maybe eight or nine years old. He mimes something and asks my name, but that is as far as the conversation goes. Currently he is watching me write this. It has been ten minutes.

My big trip this day was driving out to Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest buddhist pagoda in Vietnam, and wandering around for several hours in the sweltering heat that baked or wilted everything it touched (which was everything not tucked away in the shade). Truly an extraordinary place, and well worth the thirty minute drive beneath a blazing hot sky.

I arrived there, and, like everyone else, paid and parked on a dusty, dry patch of ground beneath a tent, so to provide shade for the black seats of motorbikes that everyone gets around on. I bought a bottle of water from a vendor nearby and began walking towards the most obvious landmark in the distance: a tall tower atop a hill pointing like a finger at the cloudless sky. I remember too thinking to myself that I should have applied sunscreen.

The grounds were seemingly deserted, though I don’t find that surprising as there is very little shade to be found anywhere, and to walk around is to be trapped without respite beneath the searing sun for great lengths of time, at least until arriving at the main buildings of the pagoda. I remember on my way back to the parking lot passing a group of French kids in their twenties who were quite obviously fagged out from the heat and the long uphill walk to the tower I first visited upon my arrival, asking how far it was to the tower and if there was any shade. Before even getting to the tower, however, one wanders through a gauntlet (there is always one of these) of vendors—essentially a market—selling various touristy knick-knacks and souvenirs, coconuts for drinking, snacks for eating, etc. With the general desertedness of the place the whole block felt like a ghost town with most vendors napping in a chair or hammock within the shade of their shops.

Beyond the tower one follows meandering paths and probably walks down some stairs, eventually coming to a gate or an entrance of a kind (there are numerous scattered along the shaded hallway that encompasses the three main temples on the grounds). Here one can walk for hours exploring the three temples, the courtyards formed by them, and the series of 500 Arhat, or Buddha, statues that line the halls. I passed several groups of Korean tourists, all with fans in hands, sweating profusely. One woman was even desperate enough to ask me for some water from my bottle.

I spent about three hours strolling the grounds and the temples contained within, taking pictures of other tourists and various objects while doing my best to stay in the shade, which was possible probably 80% of the time. Eventually, tired, somewhat dehydrated, and completely over the heat I walked back to my motorbike, passing the French kids I mentioned earlier.

Version 0.84 (Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province: Recommended)


Did a bit of touristing today as well. Went out to Hang Mua, which is a popular area of enormous karst rocks that protrude from the earth like half buried treasures, and meandering rivers set within a landscape of green rice fields, a short bicycle ride, or an even shorter motorbike ride, from Tam Coc town center. The main attractions are the two buddhist shrines built atop a particular couple of these karst rocks, and the long, undulating stone dragon mounted near the highest one. HOWEVER, in reality the main attraction is the view from high atop these things: stunning vistas where if the air were clear and dry one could see for many miles (though one can still see quite far even through the humid, smudgy atmosphere thanks to the flatness of the land), though much of what is attractive about the landscape is within the immediate vicinity; the distant landscape offers little to feast ones eyes on.

To get there of course you will probably ride a bicycle or motorbike, and then navigate the gauntlet of restauranteurs attempting to scam you into paying them to park at their restaurant by acting as though they are the official Hang Mua parking (not sure if there is a charge for bicycles at the official parking lot by the entrance). However, if you ignore all these people with their arms waving and flailing and signs for parking, you’ll find yourself at the entrance gate where parking is just beyond. If you fall for the ruse though, life isn’t so bad; you’ll just have a couple hundred meters of walking to do to get to the ticket booth and entrance.

Once you arrive and pay the entrance fee (100k dong) you will wander through a sort of wonderland (in progress when I was there) beside the enormous rocks with flowers and vegetation sprouting up from everywhere, a small, green lake for paddle-boating, and of course the ubiquitous stalls selling coconuts, beer, coca-cola, snacks, etc., until you reach a set of stairs that wind up, up, up quite steeply until splitting in two, one set going left, the other right, each leading up to a different shrine. The views from the top of the highest are quite dramatic, with a wide and calm river winding far below between the bases of the karst rocks, often with the small tour boats, that one can pay a sum to take a two or three hour ride in, gliding unhurriedly along the river too, like autumn leaves carried along by the current of a bubbling creek. Of course once you get up there you’re very nearly surrounded by the numerous tourists that climb the stairs in order to be photographed in a beautiful locale highlighted by an extraordinary backdrop, then later uploaded to the social media of choice (I often think this is the only reason anyone bothers visiting). It’s a bit strange, but nowadays so common as to be expected, so much so that if no one was up there posing for a photograph or taking a selfie there would be a dissonance as if one were listening to a symphony and all at once the members of the orchestra played a portion of it off key.

After leaving Hang Mua I thought I might drive back through town and just cruise along the main road watching as the landscape flowed by me, looking for what I don’t know, but looking at everything because everything caught my interest. Somehow, perhaps I took a wrong turn? though I don’t recall making any turns off the main road, I arrived at Bich Dong Pagoda, a place I was planning to visit, just not on this day. I thought I might possibly be turned back because I was in something like hiking/running garb, and not something that one would wear in a more conservative environment (such as a monastery!), but some old man waved me over and asked for payment of 20k dong to park my scooter. It was a relaxing way to end the day as there were very few people and the monastery is set into a cliff overlooking a pond, and surrounded by lush jungle. The monastery is lived in and used, as a few monks were wandering about in their drab, brown robes finishing up their daily chores. It’s truly a beautiful monastery that effused a calm and contemplative atmosphere. It was obviously quite old as the stone inscriptions were in Chinese calligraphy. Among the banana palms that grew in a grove at the bottom of the pagoda around some of the old buildings was a cat hunting, it’s tiny, shining eyes glancing up at me before running off through the palms. After meandering and sauntering around for about an hour, poking my head in and out of different buildings I finally felt the need to leave as the sun was falling behind the rocks and the shapes of things and the landscape were blending and taking on the hues of mauve and blue as the light dimmed.

Earlier when I had arrived and parked my bike there was an old stick of a woman trying to sell me souvenirs and incense. I didn’t then, waving her off and making gestures that I would buy something when I finished my tour of the pagoda. And so I did making a purchase of a small foldable bamboo boat (a small model of those which they paddle tourists along the river in), as well as a couple of bundles of incense from her. I would have felt a heartless wretch had I not. One only need see the state of this skinny, old woman, a woman who looked like she could have just earlier in the day made her escape from the Gestapo she was so frail and emaciated looking. Many people in Vietnam do not have a decent income and so it only seemed right that I do this for her; she was practically begging me to buy something, reaching out for me, cajoling me….

Today ended as an extreme success, despite the loss of my phone. Quite tired and excited to get back to my dorm which I am only sharing with one other: an amiable woman from Finland.

Peace. Quiet. Calm.

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 Hebrew? 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, 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 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 actually quite divine).

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 progression 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, that was recommended by the hotel for its splendid and stunning views, that I was on my way to when they approached me . 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….