Hanoi to Sapa, Vietnam

Having bought a ticket to leave tonight at 9pm for Sapa, via sleeper bus. I check out of my room and store my gear with the hotel for the day while I run around and enjoy my last day in Hanoi. I will be back soon so I don’t feel the usual sense of slight melancholy for leaving as I often do when I know I might not ever return to a place.  Rather than talk more about Hanoi (see my previous entry), here are some more shots from around the city. IMG_5805IMG_5825 IMG_5830 IMG_5854 IMG_5867 IMG_5885 IMG_5891IMG_5898 The bus ride to Sapa is 11 hours long. I much prefer to combine travel and sleep whenever possible as in the end it saves me time and money.  Sleeper trains or busses are the best for this as there is no further need to shell out on accommodations for the night and no day “wasted” waiting to get to the next location. It’s as simple as putting your head down to sleep only to find that when you next lift it you are have arrived upon your next destination. Two birds, one stone…works well for me. Once the time comes to leave Hanoi I gather my things and thank Vivian and her sister for their warmth and kindness. I wrote them a great review on tripfinder just because they were so super. When I come back to Hanoi on my return I will stay here again. “See you soon,” I say as I make my way out the labyrinth of little streets I have been slowly learning to navigate over the last few days, as the bus cannot enter there, and meet up with the bus to begin my journey to Sapa.  We start rolling. I locate my seat/bed to find out that it is shared/side by side with some woman who is not happy to see me, nor I her to be honest. We were both under the (mis)understanding that it was not a shared thing, but rather we had our own space. This woman makes a big fuss about it and creates a bit of a spectacle.  Though the people running the bus operation explain things to her (and I) she refuses, saying, “No, I purchased my own ticket and I’m not sharing it with anyone…” She gets on the phone and calls the travel agency she purchased the ticket from…starts complaining. I patiently wait, already having sussed out the situation. The bus is full and there is no other option at this point. “We were both mislead but here we are…deal,” I think to myself.  The whole bus is watching this spectacle unfold.  I’m patient and glad I am not the one making the scene. Ten minutes later, with nothing changing or going to change, I tell this woman, “Look, we were both mislead…but this is how it is. Everyone else on this bus is sharing as well. It’s uncomfortable for both of us i know…but, I purchased a ticket just like you did and I don’t intend to stand the whole way there so you’re going to have to accept the fact and move over to make room for me.” Huffing and puffing, yet with nothing to say (as the truth is the truth), she begrudgingly moves her bags off my side of the bed. I get in and put on my headphones…sit up and do some writing. I think to myself, 11 hours from now this will all be behind me…no worries. At this point it was not the shared space that was so terrible, it was the shared space with an angry person who blames you for being there and wishes you weren’t. Thing is, that’s her problem, not mine. I just did what I needed to do and got on with my life…probably infuriated her more as she sulked away…but, oh well! Now, on with the show… 20131205-165034.jpg On long trips the bus always makes a stop someplace in order for us all, driver included,  to get a bite to eat and stretch our legs, use the facilities. This seems to be typical bus protocol regardless of where in the world one might be traveling.  That said, we pull into a roadside restaurant where we are all pulled out of various stages of sleep and or contemplation… The bus comes to life slowly, as one by one we all funnel ourselves back into our current reality, climb out of our beds, walk down the isle to put our shoes on (pulled from the plastic bags we were given to store them in). From there, one by one, like ducks in a row, we step off the bus into the fresh night air.  We have about 30 minutes to do what we must before the bus will pull out, it’s nose pointed once again towards our destination place of Sapa. I go in and out, like most people, of wanting to be social or not.  You can get by navigating the terrain for the most part as an introvert but, you will speak with others at least three times a day, as you gotta eat.  Traveling in regions where you do not speak the language or vice versa requires a greater sense of courage and adventure. One must be both willing to experience laughter at yourself for getting it all wrong or a warm smile because you got it right, or right enough to be understood.  The appreciation for ones efforts, as well as disdain and rejection for the vanity (privilege of having the luxury to travel at all) to do so with no real comprehension of the language. It’s a fine line to walk but it comes with the territory, quite literally, when traveling.  Learning languages takes years…when one is traveling many countries at once this is not really a viable option.  English, being the universal language is both helpful and hindering at once. When it is spoken it allows you to navigate things easier…but at once it deprives you of having to figure it out.  It also forces the local people to use a tongue they don’t generally speak, just because your privileged ass rolls up without speaking theirs. It’s a weird position because often their English is hardly better than your ability to speak whatever their native tongue may be. Traveling like this forces everyone involved to engage, making everyone slightly uncomfortable for a bit. Again, sometimes it’s received, understandable so, with disdain. Others however, and this always feels better, receive it in stride as part of life, the world we live in.  Often times a lot of laughter is exchanged as we work through our inability to communicate well via words. Yet our ability to do “well enough,” somehow making it happen, at least to a level that keeps the whole thing possible, is a good start indeed.  In the end, you are going to eat, you’re not going to starve to death. You may not always know what it is you have “ordered” or what it is you are eating…but indeed, and most importantly, you are eating and most often times it’s really delicious (if you are open to such things that is). If not, maybe you should just stay in resorts, with a bunch of other people like you, where all the staff speak English and are there to “serve you” in order to make your experience as free of challenges and effort as possible. Or, better yet, stay home and save your money cause you are not really having an authentic experience of the place anyway, certainly not traveling anyway. I get myself a bowl of Pho Bo and am happy as a clam, sitting alone slowly ingesting this, one of my favorite foods in the world, pondering over the simple complexities of languages.  A Vietnamese man comes and sits across from me, starts talking to me in English (interesting timing). Turns out he is an English teacher and wants to learn about me, practice his English further. He is a really nice guy and we have a pretty interesting conversation, which at 1am on some little mountain town roadside restaurant feels really special. We talk while we eat and then further over a cigarette while we await the reloading of the bus. I find myself being really thankful for this nice exchange! It’s the little things like this that somehow are the points that you remember from your trip with fondness in your heart. It’s also the things you recall when you begin to get inspired and put the next big trip into planning. Back on the bus, rolling… The music in my ears tonight feels perfect, and it’s the missing link that synchs everything up.  I have found, that for me, music is the only thing that can do this. The right mix at the right time and it’s this sensational space that opens up where you are both fully present in the moment, yet all the while you can feel the wholeness of the life you have lived, wrapped up as one as you move into the future with each bit of passing time. I remember Carlos Santana talking about the special moments where you laugh and cry at the same time. This is one of those moments as I sit back, smile big inside myself, and allow the tears to roll down the sides of my cheeks in darkness and silence.  At times life just feels like this amazingly juicy ripe fruit that is starting to drip and run because it can no longer be contained within its skin. These moments are special and when they come I welcome them whole- heartedly! It’s these moments that let you see yourself objectively, how hard you have been living to put yourself in your dreams. “There’s a girl in new york city who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I’m falling, flying or tumbling in turmoil I say whoa, so this is what she means. She means we’re bouncing into Graceland.” “And I see losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart. Everybody sees the wind blow.” -Paul Simon Im awoken in the morning by the herky jerky motions of the bus which usually signify the arrival into town, as both right angle turns and the grabbing and releasing of brakes, due to traffic, enter the the configuration and jerk you back to life.  I open my eyes and sit up to find I am not alone in this activity as all my consequential travel companions are enacting the same ritual. After 11 hours on the bus I gather we are all pretty ready to stretch our legs and wander into our next independent adventures.  The problem traveling in the region is that the adventure always comes to you first. As the bus pulls in to the parking lot, through the window I can see the local “accommodation/transportation industry” chomping at the bit to fight over us.  “Here we go again,” I think to myself.  Sometimes you can’t even off the bus before being “attacked”.  This is one of those times apparently, for as soon as the door opened, they burst in like an explosion, pitching one thing or another. “Hill Tribe this hill tribe that…cheapest rates…”  Having just opened my eyes to the day, I am so not in the mood for this!  We all push our way through the madness, in attempt to make our way off the bus.  Some are snared in the sales trap, willingly or otherwise…  I say, “Look, can we get off the bus first? Excuse me please, excuse me!”  Once off I am immediate surrounded like a swarm of bees.  Shit starts to feel like 28 days later and shit.  Damn people!  I just laugh to myself and shake my head. It’s all so old hat by this point I can do nothing else. I decline I decline I decline, push my way through, get my bags and finally free myself from the noise, head over across the street to get myself a coffee and get my head together, let all the ruckus die down and see where things settle. I grab myself a seat in the little patio section of this cafe, drop my bags and order my usual ca-phe sua da. As mentioned, my purpose to come here is to head into the hills, into the villages in hopes to stay with a local village host family, a home-stay.  I went online earlier of course, read this and that about how to go about accomplishing this. It was all vague and a bit off-putting. The bombardment that just took place on the bus of people offering “authentic home-stays” was certainly not in accordance with my vision of things. In my mind I will just get myself back into the hills somehow and leave the rest up to chance. Seems reasonable enough. I have gotten to a point in traveling where I am no longer worried about things “working out” by sheer tenacity alone. I have found it often best just to relax and roll with the wave that’s carrying me. Things have a way of working out best sometimes when you relinquish control and stay out the way. Here is a case in point: While sitting down enjoying my coffee, eyeing the new town Im in, watching the whole spectacle across the street of swarmed travelers die down and finally disappear. It is now that I feel like I have finally arrived.  I don’t know where I am going or how exactly to accomplish my aim…but the best part about it all is I don’t care. I am simply happy to be where I am, enjoying my morning coffee in Sapa town. As the caffein begins to work its charm I begin to notice Black Hmong women appear here and there in the town. They are easy to identify due to their unique traditional dress they are adorned in.  It’s an amazing feeling to see the pictures you were looking at 6 months ago come to life in front of your eyes.  It is no longer static images you are longing to see come to life, no. Now, everything is real and you are in the picture, the motion picture in fact…rolling!  This one has no script and it is not fantasy…it is indeed real.  Oh what a powerful and liberating sensation…one of such grace.  I become the happiest man on Earth as I peer into this new world I have willed myself into.20131205-181057.jpg Lo and behold and sure enough I am approached by one of these beautifully adorned women.  She tells me, in what (to my surprise) is some of the strongest English I have hear spoken here, that her name is “Momma Chi” and that she would like to know if I would like to come to her village and stay with her family.  Now, here it is…this is the vibe I was looking for!  We talk for a bit and I ask her some questions to vibe out the situation further.  We talk for about 20 minutes before I accept her offer, whereupon she puts a bracelet on my arm that she has made.  This bracelet is the equivalent of a handshake to seal the deal.  It also serves as an identifier to other “mommas” (she tells me that all the women refer to each other as momma) that I am “spoken for”. Momma Chi tells me to take my time and enjoy my breakfast…that I can find her over at the market at the church courtyard right down the road. “Ok, great I say!  See you soon,” thanking her.  While I am sitting there I decide to try to rent a motorbike to get around…back into the hills and what-have-you. I ask the person working at the cafe if she can point me in the right direction. She tells me she will call a friend that rents bikes. 20 minutes later a woman rolls up on a motorbike, comes to greet me. We make a deal for me to rent the bike for 3 days for x amount of dong. I reluctantly give her my passport to hold and she hands me the keys. She tells me to just come to the cafe again in three days to return the bike.  I thank her and sit down again to finish my coffee. Wow, a lot has happened in the last hour. I went from having nothing set up to having everything set up and it was all really quite effortless. I smile and give thanks! I begin to take note of local men walking around with corn on the cob in hand.  As I love me some corn on the cob I say my thank you’s, pay my bill, grab my pacs and follow the thread back to its source. It’s an all local spot that looks great! People are eating and having coffee and or beer…enjoying each others company to begin their day. Seems like a morning ritual here for these gents. Of course I am looked at by everyone in the place…but not with any kinda funny vibe at all, more just like a “Hmmmm, you’re not from around these parts,” kinda look.  As I need to get some food in me I sit down. Besides, there is no way I’m leaving without some of that delicious corn on the cob! While sitting, I observe a small debate take place between servers over who will come to take my order. I’m sure it has to do with their level of English spoken. “You speak English better than me.”  “No, you speak it better than I.”  “Oh, you said ‘I’, see I told you so, you go take his order.” Something to that effect I am envisioning.  In the end a young man  shyly comes over, we nod hello to each other.  As mentioned earlier, no matter what, I find myself in this scenario at least three times a day, as I must eat.  I manage to order the corn on the cob by pointing, that’s easy. Also, I of course get myself a bowl of pho, my usual go to. You might think oh man, doesn’t this guy eat anything else here.  My answer is simple, one can never have enough pho in Vietnam!  If you’ve spent time here you understand.  If you have not but someday do, you will understand. The hardest part about these transactions is not the ordering of food, it’s in figuring out the money afterwards, how much the bill is.  By this point I understand some numbers through repeatedly hearing them spoken in exchanges.  I look up some more in my phrase book, try to assign them to memory.  If I don’t understand the amount I just hand over an amount that I usually pay for such a meal. Sometimes this gets me change and sometimes this gets me a pause and a stare. When the later scenario occurs I just hand over another equivalent dollar bill.  Most often times that gets me change but not always.  Sometimes, they look at me and smile, say “no no” and make change from my money in hand. This has not happened often, only a couple of times.  I know the denominations well enough to know if I was getting hustled for some large amount.  Fortunately, this has never been the case.  When this has happened it’s always been a warm person who was really kind in doing so, like “Here you go, this amount,” showing me what they took at the same time. One time by mistake I handed over a large bill thinking it was a small one.  The woman looked at me astonished,  then smiled and handed it back, taking the smaller bill and providing me with it’s proper change.  I looked at her with thanks and acknowledgement all over my face, like “Oh yeah, of course, stupid me.” Bill notes in SE Asia have a lot of zeros attached to them.  That little insignificant number, when standing alone, becomes anything but insignificant when following another number that proceeds it!  Traveling through many countries rapidly, crossing back and forth, can be a bit of a mind fuck with the money until you get accustomed to the new notes.  I usually try to watch others pay for their meals, see the denominations they are handing over and the change received as well. I do this to find out the amount but also to make sure I am not charged more. It becomes interesting to me to see who tries to overcharge me and who does not. In Vietnam, as a traveler you become quite used to the necessity of haggling. It is a survival skill here unless you want to pay three to ten times more for things. Street food, restaurants, and hotels are usually an exception to the rule and people seem to be fair across the board but not always. It’s a fine line. Sometimes you allow yourself to pay slightly more for things…it depends upon the situation. After all, the average salary here is the equivalent of $100-200/month. I don’t mind paying an extra 20 or 30 cents more than the locals for things from time to time but I’m not going to pay $3 for something that you sell for .50c. Um, not happening! The food is delicious and my belly is now full. I pay my bill without any snags and decide I am officially ready for the journey ahead of me, whatever that may be. I jump upon my new-chapter steel pony and head off to pick up a couple recommended things for the hills here. I’ve read it can get quite cold at high altitude here in Sapa so I decide it a good idea to get myself a proper coat (at this point I have only had need for a rain-shell). I cruise about the little rolling streets here looking for a store that sells outdoor gear.  It’s kinda funny as the place somehow reminds me of some little ski town. I see a place with hiking gear in the window, pull over to park, head on in to have a look. They don’t really have what I am looking for so I head on down the road in search for other spots. I’ve heard there are a number of places that sell gear so no worries. Sure enough I come across the right place. I try on some coats, engaging myself in a nice conversation at once with the woman who is running the shop. The coat I want is not in my size but I am told they can bring me one from down the street, “It won’t take long,” I am told. “Sure, that would be great” I say, further enjoying my conversation with this pleasant woman. There is a guy that runs out to get the coat, via motorbike of course. He comes back 15 minutes later with the coat. It fits fine but there is a flaw in the drawstrings. He goes out to get another one and 15 minutes later he has returned. Ok, all good. I buy a North Face (or so I think) coat for a great price. I also pick up another pair of good hiking socks. Now, here is how naive I can be at times. I have seen all this North Face gear around for uber cheap. I even bought a daypack for $15 to replace the bag I brought that I sweated out (add broken zipper to the equation). The deals seemed so good I even thought about buying a handful more (coats) and shipping ’em back home for gifts for family and friends.  Well, it was after purchasing the gear that I would come to find out it’s all bootleg imitation gear made in China. See, here we go again man. The Chinese are shameless for this shit. They wont make a similar or comparable product and sell it for the same or less. No, they will make a product that “is” another product. North Face, Samsung (Yes, I know Samsung is a Chinese company.  They bootleg their own shit too) you name it man. Looks legit, feels legit, but is NOT legit. You will find out soon enough when that shit starts falling apart. I’ve never seen so much imitation shit in all my life! I mentioned getting run on the used “Samsung Galaxy” phone I bought for $100 in Saigon. It turned out to be imitation crap that did nothing but malfunction and crash. Not to jump ahead on my timeline here but for the sake of my topic I will tell you, my “North Face” daypack lasted 2 weeks before the seems started coming apart and the straps started breaking off. Um, yeah… North Face my ass! Anyway, word to the wise for the traveler in order to not get taken by the same scams. Yes, I can be a bit naive indeed. I just thought shit was cheaper because it was bypassing all the import costs and first world store markups. Maybe naive is the wrong word, insert um, “dumb” here. Well, we all have our weak spots…now you know mine. Having purchased my necessary gear I guess I am ready to head into the hills. My next stop is to the church lot to find Momma Chi. The church is easy to find and in fact I drove by it on my way to find my gear. Gathered in the courtyard are many different hill-tribe women, mostly Black Hmong, displaying their wares for sale on the ground on spread out blankets. I don’t really have to venture down for as I roll up I am approached by Momma Chi along with another woman, Momma Pain. Momma Chi tells me that Momma Pain will guide me back into the village. Momma pain looks really sweet. She is quite tiny which is good as she will have to fit on my steel pony along with both my packs and her wicker basket which is of considerable depth. “Ok Momma Pain, let’s do this!” We hop on the bike which I parked nearby.  She points the way for us and we are off.  Momma Pain hardly speaks any English so most of our communication takes place through pointing, along with simple “yes” and “no’s”. It’s a great feeling to put myself in the picture I imagined and poured over…but I never imagined it like this.  Driving a motorbike with a Black Hmong woman on the back of the bike? “Strange days indeed…pretty peculiar momma.” Welcome to Sapa people! IMG_6070 As we wind our way up into the hills on these little dirt and gravel roads…the views quickly become stupendous! These terraced mountain rice fields I have seen in photos become manifest right in front of my eyes. The surreal nature of me being here with Momma Pain on the back of my bike hits me again. We tool pass many Black Hmong people walking the roadside.  Prior to arrival, months in advance, you begin to wonder what it will feel like to encounter some of these places, some of these people… Now, here it is, I am living it. To explain how bizarre this sensation can feel at times would be quite impossible indeed. Off the beaten path travelers understand what I am getting at here. 20131215-165422.jpgI check in on Momma Pain occasionally, make sure she is doing ok on the back. She wears a helmet as well as the bike came with two. She reciprocates my concern for her by checking in with me, cautioning me here and there about the upcoming road and it’s curvy drop offs. We stop off here and there along the way so I can get some of the shots of this ever so amazing landscape. This place is equally the most beautiful place I have ever laid eyes upon. Nothing short of majestic! While I stop to take photos I become conscious of the fact that this amazing landscape I am just now seeing for the first time, is the only landscape Momma Pain’s eyes have ever seen. It’s all so humbling on so many levels! I realize that the trip to the village, if I stop off to get photos at every little bend in the road that illuminates further the splendor here, it will be an all day affair. I resolve to get us to the village and come out again later, on my own, for photos as I don’t want to make my guide wait. I have no idea what her life is and whether or not she is on a time frame with things to do. We drive on and eventually come to a small little off-road and then again to another. There is a very steep incline that must be made in order to deliver us to the base of her village. Momma pain hops off the bike as two people will not be able to do it together.  Too much weight, particularly on the back and the front tire will be leaving the ground…  Alone it was fine, I put my weight forward and go. I am instructed to park the bike at the local village general store. When I say village general store, I really mean village general store. It is a family owned business of course and is as rustic as a store can be…let’s leave it at that. Momma Pain speaks with the owner and it is agreed that I will be allowed to house my motorbike there during my stay. So much of traveling this way relies upon trust and faith in your fellow human being. I don’t know any of these people, nor do I have any idea where I am at. It’s a weird feeling to just walk away from the bike I am responsible for, as apparently, we have a good hike ahead of us to get to Momma Chi’s house.  Placing yourself into the hands of “strangers” as we are taught, is not advisable. Well, one must use common sense here as well as instinctual awareness. If something feels off it’s usually because it is. If it feels ok, it usually is. This feels ok.  Trust… Leaving the bike behind I follow Momma Pain up a dirt, mud trench kinda ascent. We pass other people in the tribe both going up and coming down. The incline is somewhat steep and after about 10 minutes of it my legs get a good burn on as a result of me carrying all my gear. It’s one of those burns that somehow feels wonderful.  Accompanied by labored breathing, it somehow feels like progress. It’s times like this where I am reminded that you gotta earn the good stuff, which always involves giving something of yourself in one way or another. It is on this ascent that I first take notice of the basic yellow plastic sandals that all the locals are wearing. These things are cheap shoes, plain and simple…far from “proper” shoes more less hiking shoes… It will be a common point of observation and amazement from this moment forward. Well, Momma Pain and her little yellow plastic kicks are burying me and my fancy hiking shoes on the trail, plain and smle. She does not have as much weight with her as I do for sure, but she does have that big woven basket on her back full of stuff, not to mention that she is about half my size. Noteworthy strength to say the least! The incline further steepens and the feeling of “progress” is rapidly declining along with it, humbling me good and plenty . All I can do is watch the little plastic yellow shoes move on ahead of me. I am determined to not be left in the dust by this little billy goat of a lady. At once I am realizing that being “in shape” means many things. This lady walks this path and then some at least once a day, everyday of her life since she started walking about 40 years ago. For her it’s not some ass kicking hill…it’s just the way home. She could walk this thing in the pitch dark without two thoughts about it I’m guessing. My pride and stubbornness gets the best of me as I refuse to let this lady know I am burning up behind her. Every time she looks back at me I just smile as though it’s a piece of cake. I do begin to wonder to myself how far this trail head will continue on before leveling out. My legs are ready for that to happen sooner than later! The nail in the coffin of my pride falling to pieces is when a group of kids passes us, not just on foot, but on stilts, yes stilts! Bored by walking this path, leaping about like billy-goats, apparently they needed to up the anti and cure their boredom with a new challenge, that being stilts added to the equation:20131231-152912.jpg IMG_5933All and all the ascent is about a half an hours walk. I’d be lying my ass off if I said I was not happy to arrive and drop my packs. Once we arrive I get my wish. Drenched in sweat I unload my gear and allow gravity to affix it to the floor. The floor is a dirt floor. Years of packed down and hardened earth. I’m guessing it must be mixed with some type of cement compound to keep the foundation in place.  Yes, we are in Momma Chi’s house. Carrying with me no expectations of what type of living conditions I would encounter outside of things being very basic, I am happy to be in what will be “home” for the next couple nights. There is a living room that connects to the kitchen on one side and the bedrooms on another. The toilet is out in back of the house, a classic squat style toilet made out of the same hardened matter. There is minimal plumbing…a dump bucket type of flush system found so heavily throughout all the region.  Having been traveling in SE Asia for a while I’m quite used to it by now. The bedrooms do have mattresses of sorts that are covered in layers of really thick heavy blankets that seem more part of the make up of the bed than additions to it. I can tell just by the look of these well lived in beds that I will have to soup up on allergy medication before I lay myself down to sleep. Yes, I do indeed suffer from some allergies. I am pointed to a room with my own bed in it as the other two beds located in more of a common space are spoken for. All the better as far as I’m concerned. I move my packs into my new room and open things up to find a new shirt to change into as the one I am wearing is totally sweated out from the hike here. I go outside and get struck by the reality now of where I am. The views are stunning…nothing short of beautiful! I go in and grab my sticks and practice pad, take a seat outside and start to work on my hands while I take in the views. For years I’d thought about what it would feel like to have a practice studio that was steeped in nature, overlooking some stupendous beauty. Well, I’m really thrilled to be getting a taste of it now. I work through various stickings and patterns…working on my wrists and fingers… Heavy marching band sticks and a small practice pad is sometimes all you need to make a lot of progress. It’s a compromise but at once it’s a strength. Isolating certain things and putting them under the microscope to develop them further is a worthwhile pursuit! Once you return to the instrument it’s a different game.  The curse of a drummer is you can’t really travel like this with a drum kit, even a most basic one. One must accept the trade off and do what one can…understand that the inspiration and development does not always come from the instrument itself. Time to be a sponge and get my mind opened by this world…keep my hands together/improve them while I’m taking it all in. A little over an hour later I see Momma Chi approaching with three guys, fellow travelers. There is Surgi from Barcelona and Florian from just outside Dusseldorf. They are exchange students that have both been studying in Singapore over the last 6 months. There is also Daniel from Australia who is out traveling the world extensively before he returns to Australia and steeps himself in a new career. These guys are all totally chill and it is laughs and great conversation from the get. I quickly ascertain that Surgi seems to be the instigator/prankster of the group, so with him around there is always gonna be something popping off as a result. This makes me happy!  It’s odd to find yourself in some way remote part of the planet with some of the best company, just by chance, that you could ask for. The stage is set and the characters have been cast. Turn it up…bring the noise! Though these guys arrived into town around the same time I did they are arriving just now as they hiked here with Momma Chi from Sapa town. The hike was about 4.5 hours I am told.  Also with them is Momma Sun who is beyond tiny and seems to always be smiling. Her English is the best spoken here amongst the Momma’s and she is nothing if not a load of fun! Soon we are joined by another guy, Kevin.  He has already been staying here for a couple of nights and just returns from hiking.  A mid twenties French-Vietnameseguy who seems to be somewhat of a more soft spoken soul, extremely pleasant to be around.  I get the feeling that he has a lot to offer from the internal realms.  We all sit down to further get aquatinted, have some lunch that the family prepares. It turns out to be a really tasty tofu dish with rice. The portions are large as well with plenty of seconds for those who still have room. The meal hits the spot and we are all happy and somewhat pleasantly surprised. None of us were sure what meals would be like here but we all thought with certainty that they would be more sparse. Prepared for the latter, we are all pleased to be proven incorrect. After lunch it is decided that we will all head over to the waterfalls for a swim. It’s about a 15 minute hike to get there.  Sounds great!  On the way there my stomach begins talking to me in a way I am not looking forward to entering into conversation with. I decide to sit out the falls once we get there as the idea of being in freezing cold water right now suddenly went from great to bad. Instead I hang out with Momma Chi and laugh along with her. I shoot some photos of the crew and am secretly sad to not be in there. I also am secretly looking forward to emptying the contents of my stomach. As no one else seems to be affected I throw off the idea that it is the food. I’ve been traveling hard and on occasion this manifests itself on the system. So much new and diverse food, on the go, on the move, weird hours, sleeping lord only knows on what type of moving vehicle… After the waterfalls we head quickly back to the house to change before heading off to explore the village. I use this brief time as an opportunity to visit the hole in the ground that is the toilet.  I will spare you, dear reader, the details.  Feeling eons better I am ready to move out and explore the village.  The Mommas bring us around here and there and introduced us to people around the way. Everybody here seems so friendly. Here is a shot with Momma Chi and another Momma we met along the way. I am carrying Momma Chi’s basket.20131231-140558.jpg Here is a picture of Momma Mu, one of the local villagers, with her daughter strapped to her back. This little one had the remarkable ability to not only successfully carry her cucumber up the hillside without once dropping it once, but also, and even maybe more remarkably, was her ability to eat the thing, slowly but surely, with little to no teeth! 20131231-155125.jpg We are brought to the village school where class is in attendance.  We looked into the classroom to an immediately bombardment of excitement as the children yelled “Hello, Hello” non-stop to us, waving and smiling, laughing and giggling.  We just smiled and waved back, returning the hello’s that so warmed our hearts.  To be honest, these kids kinda melted me.  Their school is nothing more than a wooden shack, totally unequipped to be able to get these kids the education they desperately need and deserve.  There is a new school that is being build, that looks more modern…up to date.  It’s sizable as well.  I’m not sure where the money came from to build it but I am only so happy to see it standing there!  Operational or not, it’s becoming a reality and that’s the main thing!  A Los Lobos tune comes dancing into my head, “Angels with Dirty Faces.”IMG_6026 Though the landscape here is nothing short of stupendous, these terraced rice fields that have been maintained here over so many years don’t come easy.  Here is a shot of a Black Hmong woman hoeing the fields with her child strapped on her back none-the-less:20131231-141336.jpgIf you have any question whether or not these are some hard working people, these two shots should answer that pretty quickly!20131231-152600.jpg Majestic Sapa!IMG_6060 Enter Poppa Chu! Man, where to begin with this guy? What a character! All I will say is take caution if you are drinking the “Happy Water” with the man, for Poppa Chu gets real happy indeed! It’s funny, as during the day Pappa Chu is all business man! He sits for hours diligently working away on making jewelry, really gorgeous stuff at that! It’s inspiring to watch him work. No matter what you are doing, in the background are the constant sounds of Poppa Chu’s hammer, pounding and flattening, shaping metal, or intricately tapping away (ting-ting-ting-ting-ting)  inscribing it with beautiful patterns. His engraving tools consist of drill bits that he has pounded the tips of into various points. It’s really both inspiring and impressive to witness. Once again, poor people making something out of nothing, reinventing the wheel. Here is a few shots of Poppa Chu at work on some gorgeous rings of his own design:20131231-134913.jpg20131231-135149.jpg20131231-135256.jpg The family have two sons, one of which is Ku.  Ku is adopted and from what I can ascertain has had a pretty tragic life. His father, Poppa Chu’s brother, died a couple of years ago. His mom decided to give him away as she felt she could not provide. He lives with his uncle Poppa Chu and aunt Momma Chi. There is only so much money in this family and sadly enough only enough money to send one kid to school. There biological son goes and Ku does not. Though these two boys are near one another in age you can see the developmental difference between the two. Ku also has a huge scar that runs on both sides of his face from the corners of his mouth on back towards the centers of his cheeks. It is a result of a fall he suffered as a kid somehow. It all makes me so sad. I want to send this family money every month or so just for Ku so that he can go to school too. I am told that even if I wanted to do so there is no way the family can receive it as there is no way for them to get mail. These hill tribes are way isolated and somewhat outcasted. They are not really embraced or respected by the Vietnamese or the Chinese and are continually pinched by both. Though these people technically reside within the country of Vietnam, many do not speak Vietnamese at all.  They speak their individual tribal languages of course.  I think of all the people around the world who make some real money, 6 figures, more…  Some small monthly donation from them, money that is to them of little to no consequence, would go such a long way in places like this to help. I must pause to say something here about the process of traveling, being an outsider, someone casually passing through the everyday saga (often times seeming unalterable) of peoples lives, as a very privileged person (comparatively speaking).  I don’t just want to write about these peoples lives, their strengths and hardships, trials and tribulations, equipped with images, without meditating on the fact that maybe they don’t want to be made public…made to be examples, the subject of peoples judgments one way or another, either romanticized, trivialized, exoticized, or any other.  When I travel I try to do so respectfully.  I understand that I am a guest in their country, their home and daily life, and I try to move with the recognition of this, respecting this fact.  This is one of the interior struggles I deal with when feeling compelled to document my journey, in both word and image, bringing it to the public in hopes to both inspire and spread awareness that the world is much more than our little bubble we live in every day.  How much do you reveal, how much do you talk about?  Also, how qualified and informed are you to do so in the first place? What I can tell you, fact for certain, is that there are amazing people in this world, and these people I have chosen to portrait, are some of the most gracious and beautiful souls occupying flesh that I have ever had the good fortune to encounter!  I feel nothing but sincere humility, respect and admiration for these people!  I am speaking of all those amazing people I have encountered, both local and traveler alike.  My hope is that we, as a human race, one global interstellar tribe spinning in endlessly expanding (and potentially contracting) space, might embrace this reality and further learn to give, to respect, to do for your fellow (wo)man as a member of the human family should.  There is more than enough of everything to go around…  Until we recognize this powerful fact, becoming empowered by it, we can only continue ultimately to cause pain and strife, be it intentional or not. IMG_6110Now, enter Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. Night time comes around and the happy water comes out. Pappa Chu turns into a whirling dervish of laughter and games with a fair amount of um, how should we say? Let’s put it like this, you might get kissed on if Poppa Chu is drinking that happy water. He had all us fella’s in hysterics with his after midnight antics! Momma Chi and Momma Sun, quite used to this behavior apparently were as full of laughter as we were. Day in the life here when there are visitors. As if never empty glasses were not enough, regarding the happy water, Poppa Chu had to introduce the most ludicrous drinking game any of us have ever seen in our lives. We had to watch him “enact it” with us several times as we thought we were missing some vital link as to how the whole thing worked. In the end we were missing nothing! Everyone drinks, all the time! Hilarious man! None of us could believe it! To further this evening of exploit, out comes a huge plastic bag full of homegrown (see photo below) along with the commonly seen bamboo bong men smoke there tobacco out of here.       IMG_6011 We all got good and lifted in one way or another and we were not allowed to stop these festivities until that good ol happy water bottle was sure enough empty. Thinking we had completed our mission by running that bottle empty, we were all stunned when Momma Sun introduced a new bottle to the evening. All I can say is yes, yes we did…! Our plan for a 6 hour hike tomorrow morning, starting bright and early is certainly gonna be put to the test by this evening, beyond any shadow of a doubt! God bless us!20131231-153149.jpg Sure enough the day begins with Surgi and Florian waking the rest of us to the day with their wide eyed bushy tailed, ready to take on the world voices. Refusing to be outdone by the youngsters I quickly pull myself together and act as though I too am ready to take on the world. No worries because in 30 minutes, after 2 packs of “instant coffee” (How it’s done here.  Oh how I miss my ca-phe sua da!) and some breakfast and lastly, another trip to the bathroom, I too will be ready to take on the world!  I feel some comfort in the fact that Florian now gets hit with the stomach thing. Ha, good, it’s not just me then than, my stomach, I know it’s now situational and will pass most likely once we leave the village. 20131231-150741.jpg Here is Momma Chi in action, preparing us a delicious breakfast to fuel us for a full days hike.  This meal was really delicious and we all were flipping out over it!  Though the food is getting to our stomachs…it has not thrown off our appetites at all.  Delicious stuff!  Breakfast and coffee accomplished we head out to blaze some trails! Here is some of the visual poetry that is all abundant here in this magical land called Sapa: 20131231-151513.jpgIMG_6058 Here is a shot I really love of Momma Pain out on the trail:IMG_604920131231-154703.jpg20131231-151926.jpgIMG_5963 IMG_6086About three hours into our hike we pass through a Red Zhao village. Of course I am supper excited to encounter more people here! As we approach we are immediately surrounded by these beautifully adorned women. It’s all smiles and niceties until it comes time for business. That time comes real quick it seems as each of them, one by one begin to bring out wares they have hand crafted. Any sense of order quickly disappears as these ladies begin to fight over me, well my money anyway. It really gets out of hand like some small fire that suddenly is burning down everything in sight. These woman start to argue with each other, snatching things out of one another’s hands, including my own. I catch on all too fast. The idea is simple: “If you don’t buy from me, you don’t buy from her or anyone else!” The whole thing is such a turnoff, it’s really sad. It’s easy to understand of course as these people are incredibly poor. Though I have not much money by standards back in the states, I am comparatively quite rich here. Of course I want to buy some things from these people, not just because they can use the money but also because there are some really beautiful things they have made. I would have bought more from them but they just made doing business with them impossible. I would have loved to buy this hat but I just couldn’t go there as the lady selling it was really too much for me. In the end I bought only the first couple of things I set my eyes on before all the fighting over me began.  A common thread traveling, particularly in Vietnam, particularly in the north of Vietnam, as mentioned in prior posts, is the sad feeling of being seen as a dollar sign before being seen as a human.20131231-152048.jpg Here are a couple shots of the local livestock:IMG_6105I wonder how many baby piglets she’s carrying around in her.  Judging by her size I’m guessing it won’t be long from now before that question is answered. The ever present and quite formidable water buffalo.  They are the workhorse of SE Asia.  My Chinese zodiac sign is this creature.  I must say, there are certain traits I see in them that I cannot deny seeing in myself.  We sure do look alike if nothing else…no denying that.IMG_6083 We hike for about 6 hours and it is an amazing time! We are all wiped by the time we return, well, all but the mommas of course. While we sweat and pant they remain cool as cucumbers and look at all the young strapping men with held back laughter. We all decide we have lost the battle to these laddies only because we are playing on their home turf.20131231-143704.jpgSweaty and dirty, it’s bath time!  There is talk of heading down to the waterfall.  I’m all for it as I missed out yesterday.  My friends remembrance of how cold the water was eventually reverses their thinking and they opt to shower, bucket style, in the yard. This simple, private ritual turns into an ordeal and a spectacle as groups of village children sneak around, giggling and laughing, to catch peeks at the naked foreigners accustoming themselves to daily practice here.  I opt to try and sneak away, deciding to head down to the falls alone to bath.  The water is really cold indeed but it feels refreshing and amazing.  I am totally happy to have gone this route rather than the bucket shower!  My hope to have some privacy here is quickly dissolved,  as the one or two trailing children turns into a small audience of about 15 kids, all giggling to each other.  Once again I have become the exotic bird to be beheld.  It’s weird coming from so many years in NY, living together with such a wide array of cultures…easy to forget that so many places in the world are not used to seeing “others”.  It’s fascinating really.  With children, there are no filters…it’s all just innocence still at this point.  Thank goodness, as it would really feel strange to be surrounded by a group of gawking adults.  This is what I ponder as I carry on and enjoy the falls. Here is a shot of the kids in the falls.  They hop around the rocks like a bunch of sure footed billy-goats. IMG_5954 Once I arrive back at the house I am greeted by another Spaniard who has joined the ranks for the night.  He’s a really chill dude who has been traveling for some months and just came in from China, Mongolia, and Tibet, working his way down through SE Asia from here.  We all chill out, get aquatinted and exchange stories while we get settled in for the night ahead; dinner, laughter, happy water and Poppa Chu. I’m always amazed by peoples travel accounts, places I have not yet been.  The thing with traveling is you just never run out of places you want to visit and experiences you want to have.  The next thing is always just a border crossing away.  It becomes crystal clear, and it may sound silly to say as though it’s not a completely obvious fact, but this is one world.  Our neighbors are really are neighbors, like right next to us!  Sitting in large countries like America where are boarders on three directions are sealed by thousands of miles of ocean, you can easily suffer from the disillusionment that others don’t exist, that they are “way over there someplace,” somehow so far away it’s almost like another planet, another reality all together. You begin to see that you could easily spend a lifetime on the road and still never “get to it all.”  Yes, of course it is quality over quantity.  I’m no longer running around at mock speed when i travel attempting to “experience” as many places as possible. No, now I much prefer to move slower, take my time, allowing experiences to further unfold, meetings to develop into friendships…  No, I don’t get to as many places…but the experience(s) I have in those places are far more rich.  At some point I’d like to make a trip of some length to just one country or maybe even just to one area within that country. Pick one spot that I know I love and just be there for a year, two, three years.  As far as cities are concerned thus far, Saigon would be that place.  As far as country/nature…let’s see, further to fly. We enquire into the possibility of purchasing some wares from the families here.  It all started with Papa Chu’s bracelets and rings. The mommas bring out some beautiful traditional clothes they have made as well.  Really some exquisite work!  We pass things around the circle, reserving one thing or another.  I end up buying myself a pair of pants and a beautiful “cumber-bun” type of traditional hip wrap.  I buy two rings and a couple of bracelets in addition to two beautiful hair combs (see the photos of the mommas, they are always wearing them (so pretty!))  I wish I had more money with me to spend.  Equally I wish I had more room in my bag to carry stuff.  Anything I buy I gotta carry.  As I have a long trip ahead of me still I do not want to push that limit too far.  Of course I can’t resist and as a result I decide to ship a package back stateside before I leave Vietnam. IMG_5989Dinner hits the spot and is quickly devoured after a full 6 hour day of hiking.  Tonight we are fortunate enough to have water buffalo in our tofu dish tonight!  Water buffalo is really tasty peoples, just sayin’!  As the buffalo is so valuable throughout SE Asia for work purposes, people don’t eat them until they get older, past their ability to plow the fields anymore.  Their meat fetches a good price at market as well!  The happy water flows and good conversation abounds.  I cannot express enough how thankful I am for this life and the moments like this that make it all worth living!  We get to talking about what we do back home in our individual lives…  I bring up my music and art.  People are genuinely curious it seems so rather than try and explain what I am working on I opt to just show them.  I break out my iPad (a bizarre piece of technology in a place that hardly has electricity.  Kinda felt like time travel, something transported from the future through some wormhole to appear into the present) that has some images as well as some video clips of stuff I’m doing with solo drums and ensemble.  People were really pulled in and captivated with my solo drum music.  Those 20 plus hours a week in the studio back home working on building my language for the instrument are baring fruit.  This makes me feel really proud!IMG_6121 This is a painting I got commissioned to do before I began my trip:IMG_1929 Here is the trailer to a documentary I recently finished on my band Mysterium.  If you like it you can follow the link to the full length feature. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWSRlW7YQ84 Here is some of my solo drum music: http://youtu.be/c1FbTRH7q40 We all begin the day by packing.  We have a lot of kilometers ahead of us if we are to make it to Halong Bay by tomorrow afternoon.  Our plan is to head back to Sapa town, figure out how we plan to get back to Hanoi.  We will be catching a bus from there to Halong City in route to the bay.  The earlier start we get the better.  Because I have the motorbike to get out I have more time to play with which is good because I want to just cruise around the hills here and take it all in a bit more, shoot some more photos.  Everyone else is on foot so we make a plan to meet up in a handful of hours by the bus station. We decided we needed to take a group photo together in traditional dress before we depart.  It’s really pretty silly as you can see.  The two young “princess” in the center crack me up with those hats man!  On the serious side though, these are some really beautiful clothes.  The pants I am wearing are the ones I bought.  Made from 100% hemp, they are both strong and gorgeous at once!IMG_6128 As Momma Pain is heading back to the church lot to sell her wares I bring her on the back of the bike.  It’s just like old times…  Once I drop her I double back to cruise alone.  I paid for the bike for 3 days and haven’t really touched it the entire I time I was back in the village so I’m trying to make good use of it today before returning it.IMG_6145 Here are some more shots of these breathtaking terraced rice fields I just can’t look at enough!   Down in the valley you can see the new school that is under construction.  Nice!!!IMG_6051IMG_6031 IMG_6095 I roll on and enjoy cruising these mountain roads abounding with awe inspiring scenes, stop where I like and get a few more photos in the can.  I figure I will most likely run into the crew walking along the roadside someplace and can offer a lift to one of them.  Oddly enough I don’t see them at all.  I’m guessing they have gone another route.  This turns out to be exactly the case.  I head back out eventually and return the motorbike, get my passport.  All good!  I sit back down in the same cafe I started in and enjoy my first ca-phe sua da.  Tastes delicious and feels so satisfying at once.   Soon I rejoin the fellas here, as one by one as they trickle into town.  Turns out they are paying to use a shower and electricity at one of the local guesthouses.  I will join in with them as I need to charge up my gear as well and lord knows I could use a nice shower before I’m back on some moving vehicle for the next 11 hours.  Before we leave we decide to head back over to the church lot to say one last goodbye to the Mommas for taking such good care of us, thank them again.  This experience in Sapa was one of those powerful moments where things bonded really tight, really quickly.  I will miss these people for sure!  This is one of my most favorite shots from my whole trip.  It’s me and Momma Sun.  I think I had just finished swinging her around on my back.  This lady was just too cool!IMG_6174 We begin to talk over our travel options to get us back to Hanoi.  Do we take a sleeper bus or the train?  If we are to take the bus from Sapa, the last one leaving today leaves in under an hour.  We arrange with the guesthouse we are utilizing to get picked up by a shuttle to bring us to Lao Cai, the next main town over, about 30 minutes drive from here.  Sleeper busses run from there, as well as is the train station located there.  It gives us a bit more time to sort out our details.  We have less time than anticipated however, as before we know it and much to our surprise, the shuttle is out front for us.  None of us anticipated it arriving so soon and we all still had our gear scattered about.  The shuttle is pretty full and it’s a little embarrassing to be caught with our pants down, holding up the show, as everyone watches out the window to see us scrambling to get our things together.  We throw things in our packs with much haste, thank and pay the lady who runs the guesthouse and jet out to catch the shuttle, apologizing to the people inside we held up.  Everyone is totally chill about it, kinda laughing at us at once.  They’ve all been there I’m sure.  A few minutes down the road Surgi realizes he has left some books.  Somehow he was able to jump out, run to get them, then run back to meet us at the next pick-up spot before we pulled out of Sapa.  Impressive! Once we get to Lao Cai we head towards the train/bus station.  We pass a travel agency along the way where an agent that comes out and asks if we are going to Hanoi.  We tell her we are indeed.  She tells us she has a handful of tickets left for the next train leaving in 30 minutes.  If we buy 4 tickets (one cabin) she will give us a discount as she wants to sell them before the train leaves.  The tickets work out to be about 20% cheaper than if we bought them in the station, with the added bonus that we will all be together in our own cabin.  Agreeing that this is a fine way to rock it back to Hanoi we snatch em up. Next up is a quick sit down for dinner before boarding the train.  Always a good idea to eat first!  From there we rush out to make the train and do so just in time.  We load in, find our cabin, grab bunks and resume the charging of our gear and organizing of our packs from our mad rush out the guesthouse in Sapa.  There is a lot of laughter and joking about as we get our own individual nomadic lives “re-grounded”.  I think we are all appreciative of the next 11 hours of downtime ahead of us, a chance to get some proper rest after a very active last few days.  We are all reflective as we scroll through the photos and memories of our lives unfolding on the road.  Soon we will be in Hanoi again in route to Halong Bay and our next adventure.


2 thoughts on “Hanoi to Sapa, Vietnam

  1. Ohh man!!! I just went thru the photos! You really made me wanna be there right now!! And the painting is awesome!


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