The alps of Tonkin


We arrived early morning in a town called SaPa and where taken to a hotel in which we had showers and left our big bags. The town was build on the side of a mountain and around us we could see many peaks, one of them being over 3000meters above sea level, the last great peak of the Himalayas in the east. After a buffet breakfast we where greeted by our guide and met the rest of our group (around 7 others). As we started our trek a group of elderly ladies in traditional dresses joined us and I noticed that they all had something particular in common. Their height, or rather, the lack of it. Vietnamese aren’t exactly known for being very tall but the mountain people where even smaller. Soon I found out that they belonged to one of the mountain tribes, (I don’t know how to spell it, something like ‘hmong’) of which there are about 3 million spread around china and north Vietnam. They speak their own language and the majority live as rice farmers in the mountains.
We left Sapa and started trekking through the rice fields and hills of the surrounding area. On our path we would cross little villages (no more than a couple of bamboo houses) in which we where greeted by a swarm of children trying to sell us their handmade souvenirs. The villages would also usually have chicken, ducks, dogs and black pigs running around. The paths often went down or up steep hills which made going on then very difficult at times, especially when the water had eroded most of the path. Whether it was to cross stream and rivers, climb steep hills or just walk along a washed away path, using ones hands to move along was often necessary. This physically hard going was made even harder by the sun that shun mercilessly on our small group. But every time we reached the top of a hill the struggle to get there was forgotten and one was blinded by the beauties of the mountains and valleys. At the bottom of the Valley a great river made its way through the landscape and on its shores would begin the beauty of the rice terraces. The hills where carved into steps to retain the water rice needs and this made the landscape look like it was a children’s toy. The beauty of these hills is hard to put down on paper, it was simply astonishing to see. As the mountains got either to steep or to high to grow rice a dense rainforest started. The intense green of these forests slowly disappeared in the clouds the higher you looked. The peaks of these mountains always had a veil of clouds around them.
After crossing a bridge that would by no means pass European safety standards we had a lovely lunch at a small restaurant and took a short break. Throughout the hike I would have a conversation with the guide about life in the mountains, which is a bit more difficult than down in the lowlands as they can only have one rice harvest a year. Having studied the land reforms in Soviet Russia and China I was wondering how the land was distributed here, whether it belonged to a community (a sort of kolkhoz) or if people owned their own land. She responded that obviously the land belonged to individuals, arguing that if people shared it the lazy would be rewarded and that incentive would be removed from the farming process. Perhaps the Vietnamese government learned from the failures of China’s ‘Great leap forward” and decided not to collectivise farming. However there was a problem she described which was similar to one Alexander II faced after emancipating the serfs in 1854 in tsarist Russia. When a farmer dies his land gets divided between his children instead of being passed down to just one, which results in smaller and smaller fields which will eventually not be able to feed a family. Interestingly the Vietnamese government has responded by implementing a two child policy to slow down the population growth. Perhaps this will not be enough and a policy similar to Stolypins reform of the early 1900s is needed to combat this issue.
After hiking a while longer we reached a village in which our home stay was. A home stay is, as can be gathered from the name, when you stay at someone’s home. In this case the home was a big barn with two stories, on the top there where thick mattresses with a mosquito net hung over them for about 16 people and on the ground floor the bathroom and dinning hall. We spend the evening playing cards and drinking rice liquor (served from a plastic bottle) with our fellow travellers and a very giggly hostess. 
We had a great night in Sapa as the beds where the most comfortable we have had so far. The early part of the trek led us past a few rice paddies in which I was able to have a closer look at the irrigation system. At first it looks very primitive but when taking into consideration that there are hundreds of layers of fields that need to have a certain level of water one can only marvel at its complexity. As we gained height we started trekking through the rain forest which was made even more difficult than it normally was by the fact that it had rained at night. Climbing through the dense bamboo forest was an extremely difficult affair but was rewarded at the end. As we left the forest we saw a giant waterfall plunge down the rocky Mountain and took a closer look. Our guide took us to an area where we could sit and enjoy the view before we made our descent into the valley. Nearer to the bottom we took a bath in the pool the waterfall had created and cooled of. About half an hour later we reached our final destination and had lunch. It would appear St Christoper the patron saint of travellers was looking out for us because the second we had gotten into the bus it started raining heavily and it had not rained a single time while we where walking (only once at night). Tired and with a little sunburn we took the bus back to Hanoi that afternoon (8 hours).

  
PS
Have I mentioned that a week before we went to the mountains in Sapa some tourists got robbed by Opium dealers with knives ?

Kingdom to Communism 

Tortoises being sold in the market
Overview. First day in Vietnam. 24 Hours in Hanoi.
Our arrival in Hanoi went very smoothly apart from that the hostel we planned to stay at did not have any beds left. However we quickly found a hotel in a small alley, which cost a bit more (10€ in total) but we got our own room, proper beds, bedsheets, towels and our own bathroom so it was worth it. The nightlife is a lot tamer than in Bangkok (apart from one situation in a bar where there was a small situation involving some waiters trying to inflate the prices, which we obviously weren’t happy about) and we wanted to make the most of our day in Hanoi so we went to bed fairly early.
During daytime I was able to get a look at Hanoi. Our Hotel was situated in a part of the city with many small alleys that were beautifully decorated and lined with shade giving trees. The weather was also a lot more pleasant than in Bangkok and we were able to walk around the city the whole day without getting to hot. 

As we got further away from the hotel the things one could observe got more interesting. There where colourful songbirds housed in carefully crafted wooden cages outside of many shops that would sing for us as we walked past. 

Our first stop was the food market in which we where able to watch the hanoians haggle with the farmers from the surrounding country side (the latter recognisable by their rice hats). We saw a large variety of fish and other seafood swimming around in barrels awaiting their impending death. This market was buzzing and beautiful however there was something that upset us. There where cages full of tortoises which are regarded as a delecasy by the Vietnamese. Sadly these tortoises are endangered. 

After we left the market we headed to Lenin park to rest. A giant statue of said Bolshevik acted as a reminder that we are in a communist country. Traversing through the busy streets of Hanoi was even harder than Bangkok, the roads where much wider and there where many more mopeds.

On our way to the museum we passed several food stalls that had caged dogs outside of them and soon we knew why. Outside one of the shops there was a a dog being hog roasted on a skewer. The expedition had mixed feelings of disgust and curiosity about how it would taste. We decided not to have any, for now. 

Soon we reached the museum. A French prison in which nationalists/communists where kept since the late 19th century. During the Vietnam war (the latter stage that involved the USA) captured American pilots where brought here and imprisoned. Supposedly they had a much nicer time than the viets who were tortured by the French in rather horrible ways. Republican Senator John McCain was held here as was a General Secretary of the communist party of Vietnam. Every informative sign or video installation in the museum was accompanied by some propaganda, usually mentioning the strength and will power of the communists or the evil deeds of the imperialist.

After this short dive into history we chose a route home past a popular lake where the locals gather on the weekend. After walking through small alleys with Chinese lanterns, burning incense and exotic foods this place seemed like a different planet. The wide street that went around a central lake was blocked of for vehicles and a large amount of locals gathered here. There was food, games and music on offer. The crowd there was made of the wealthier Vietnamese as one could tell by clothing, attitude and that most spoke English. As I was walking down the street a well dressed 8 year old approached me asking if I had some spare time. After saying yes he walked with the group for a bit talking to me and asking random questions. He told me that on the weekends he would talk to westerners to improve his English. This attitude and his almost perfect English (hands down the best English I have heard being spoken by someone from Indochina) astonished me.
Throughout our stay in Hanoi we looked at different travel agencies and what they offered for trips to SaPa. Thankfully we did not take the first one that came as Jamie found a really good travel agency with great staff run by an Irish expat. In the evening we got on a sleeper bus (3 rows of very comfortable chairs that could turn to beds) that would take us north. This bus was air conditioned, had wifi and free water. Everything we could ask for. According to Jamie and Harry who had previously been travelling in Australia this was better than any bus they had ever been on there. There was a clear change in temperature as the bus was gaining height that was welcomed by the expedition who had wanted to leave the hot city for a while now.
For the next two days we will be trekking through the mountains that lie on the Chinese border. The French named them the Alps of Tonkin.

PS. One thing I did not mention was the food, which is amazing. PHo a beef soup with noodles is the standard meal around here and delicious. The only thing that took some getting used to is the height of the tables and chairs at restaurants as you sit very very low on small Hockers. 

Bangkok has you now

Harry, Random traveler and Jamie

At the airport I got myself some Thai baht and jumped on the sky train that took me closer to the city centre. During the train ride there was a short but heavy rainfall that luckily stopped as I got out. At the last station I showed a tuk tuk driver the address I was heading to, which he did not recognise so I just asked him to drive me to the Center thinking that It was close to where I was supposed to go.
It turned out not to be. Continue reading “Bangkok has you now”

City of the wild peaches

This morning I woke up extremely early, I assume a side effect of my immense excitement, and had breakfast with the relations. After taking the toddler for a spin in the park I head off taking various modes of public transportation to the airport. This whole part of the journey went very smoothly and I soon landed in Amsterdam. I had a little time before my next flight and went for a little wonder. The airport itself is rather ugly, however what the airport was filled with made up for this, from a tulip garden to a cheese house one could find everything you needed and more.
My flight to BKK left late in the afternoon and I was glad to find myself sitting at the window. The flight was spend watching a variety of movies and gazing out the window, at least until the sun set. (Which it did so in a stunning display of purple and violet over Bohemia). After a few bumps just north over the Bosporus we flew over the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian sea. 

Roughly half way through the journey we crossed over Afghanistan and a short while later came to the highlight of the flight. The Himalayas. A crystal clear sky allowed a perfect view of the moonlit snowy valleys below.
I then landed safely in Bangkok (translates to “City of the wild peaches”) Haven’t slept for quite a bit and now have to go meet up with my travel companions. Hopefully I will find them.

The Ides of March

Around 2000 years ago today Julius Ceaser left his home, even thought both a fortune teller and his wife warned him against doing so. Later that day Caesar was stabbed repeatedly by a group of republican Senators including his friend Brutus who delivered, or so the story goes, the final blow.
I on the other hand left my house this morning leaving with a sense of wonderment of what this journey will be like. Having packed and repacked my bag, checked and double checked my travel items I left my home late morning.  Continue reading “The Ides of March”

The Anglo-German Indochina Expedition.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to tell the story of my impending journey. For the next three months I shall travel through the farther Indian subcontinent, nowadays know as Southeas Asia with a few friends that I will link up with in Bangkok.

On the ides of march I will be leaving Lower Saxony on a journey that will take me through Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Bangkok with the final flight taking me to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. From there I have neither planned nor booked anything else apart from my return flight leaving Bangkok sometime in June. The rough idea is that we will make our way south, linking up with friends from the United Kingdom along the way. Throughout this journey I hope to be able to share my stories with you and will try to write as much as time and the availability of wifi permits.