Monday, July 21, 2014

Northern Vietnam... Sa Pa

I traveled to the town of Sa Pa. Everyone said that I had to visit Sa Pa, both the locals and the travelers. In the middle of Sa Pa there is a little lake. 
And also this Catholic church. It was the first church that I has seen in quite a while.
Across from the church was an open park where a football match was being played. 

Check out the video.
Around the corner the local version of hackysack was being played by the tuk tuk drivers. 
I walked around the town and found this staircase. I did not know where it would lead but I decided to climb it. It led to nowhere in particular, but sometimes I just go where I feel led. 
Later, and I found the market.
I picked up some bananas to eat for a snack and for breakfast.
I didn't pick up these dried goods, but they looked interesting... some ginger and nuts. 
In another part of the market there were some restaurants that specialized in grilled or barbecued items. You select the items that you want, then the restaurant grills them on an open fire. 
I opted for a different restaurant that served this fish and rice meal. It was perhaps the best seafood meal that I had eaten in Vietnam.
Sa Pa is known as a tourist town. The main attraction is a visit to the hill tribe villages and the rice fields. It can be a lucrative business for the hill tribe people to lead tours through their villages. Rain or shine, every day groups of people would take tours to visit the villages.
Since I had my own motorcycle I decided to take my own tour. I rode down the street and out to the countryside where I came across views like this one with terraced rice fields. 

Mountains with a river running through it. 
With my little moto I was able to visit three or four different villages. I would simply park my moto near a house and walk around the village meeting people. 
I took in the wide angle. 
I came across these oxen. 
And these little ox herders. 

Check out the video.
The red bull of Vietnam. 
I was debating with myself if I should trade in my moto for an ox. 
You have to be careful when rounding some of the corners. Unfortunately some of the hill tribe villagers drink a little bit too much on the weekends. 
Fields of green. 
Towards the end of the day I met this cute little old lady. 

This Hmong lady was sitting by the road all by herself in the middle of nowhere. I drove by and said hello. She started talking to me, but I could not understand her. But she kindly grabbed my arm like a grandmother and would not let go. She pointed down the road. I concluded that she needed a ride to her village... so I offered her a ride. She had trouble getting on and off my moto so I had to pick her up. She probably only weighed 75 pounds. When we were riding on the moto she was yelling "ciao" to people.  I believe that the Hmong speak their own unique language. I believe xin chao is how you say hello in Vietnamese. And chao is an abbreviated version for foreigners. 

We rode together for about 5 km. We reached a little break in the forrest and she tapped me on the side to let me know we had reached her village. I stopped and picked her up and set her down off of my moto. She gave me a big hug and a little woven bracelet. She actually tied it on my wrist.

At the end of the ride we took this selfie, I showed it to her and she really like it. Then we said goodbye, each in our own language, and she disappeared down a dirt trail. 

Northern Vietnam... Dong Van to Sa Pa

Dong Van is at the very most northern part of Vietnam. From Dong Van there was no other direction to go other than South. Venturing North would mean crossing the border into China. 
So I headed South through the countryside. The villages that I passed through consisted mostly of stilt houses constructed of wood. 
When I was stopped on the side of the road taking photos this cart being pulled by a cow passed by.
Inside... a man and a bunch of kids enjoying the ride. 
Along my route I passed by village after village where people were drying thin sheets of wood. The only thing that I could think that this material would be used for would be vaneer finishes. 
Some people simply dried the wood along the road and others stacked their wood in racks. 
For the first few hours I followed a road that paralleled a river. 
I came across these kids playing in a metal cart. I believe that their parents were nearby working in the field.
But these kids were having a great time simply playing with each other in the cart. 
The road wound through the mountains and varied between asphalt and dirt. But my little motorcycle seemed to handle the terrain perfectly. For the most part I was traveling at 25-45 km/h. 
Terraced rice fields up close. 
Clouds, mountains, rivers, roads, fields afar. 

To reach the town of Sa Pa I rode about 10 hours. Every moment was breathtaking. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Northern Vietnam... Ha Giang to Dong Van

I woke up later than I wanted to, perhaps I was tired from the long ride from the previous day. I picked up some bread from the little bakery and headed down the road. 

My objective for the day was to reach the town of Dong Van which is the northernmost town in Vietnam and a place where there is a colorful market on Sunday that is attended by many of the various hill tribe people. It is not well known by the backpacker crowd, and I actually discovered that it is not known by many Vietnamese. But my Vietnamese friends in Hanoi told me about it and encouraged me to try to visit it. 

I encountered a million shades of green. 
I passed over a muddy river. There was farmland all around. 
Away from the city I passed by village after village. The houses were no longer made of brick, but were made of wood and bamboo and elevated on stilts. 
Rice fields as far as the my eyes could see. Some were deeply seeded and lushly green. Some were newly planted in orderly rows. 
When riding around the corners I traveled slowly because on the other side might be an ox, a cow or a kid. There was enough space for us all to share the road. 
A panarama photo of the long and winding road. 
A combination of dirt, water and rice seedlings would hopefully yield a good harvest. 
Around this bend was a mother plowing a small patch of a rice field with a traditional wooden plow attached to an ox. It doesn't get any more real than this. Her two children were trying to help round up two smaller oxen, but they seemed to be playing more than working. One girl that was probably 6 years old was trying to lead a small ox out of the field so that her mother could plow the field. The ox started to pull away. The kid held on to the rope, but slipped and fell into the muddy water. She lifted herself up out of the muddy water up and began to laugh. The other kid then chased the ox out of the patch. It was work, play and family all in one.  
Check out the video on youtube. 
I encountered this little girl and her sister carrying something to the fields. It seemed the further into the mountains I traveled the more colorful the people's clothing became. 
I was trying to ride swiftly because I did not know how long the Sunday market would last. But at the same time I wanted to stop and take a few photos of the beautify scenery and the twisty road. Truly it was a motorcyclist's dream. 
While I was stopped on the road taking the previous photo, this man wearing the traditional clothing of the people in this area walked by. I waved hello to him and he waved hello back to me. I held up my camera to show him the photo that I had taken. He smiled with an assured smile as if to say... yes I live hear and yes it is beautiful. 
I then asked him if I could take a photo with him. He nodded his head in approval. I reversed the camera on my iphone and snapped this photo. I showed him the photo. He smiled, then continued walking on his way. 
Then this gentleman walked by with a look of curiousity. 
I motioned for him to step close to me. He was skeptical. But then I stepped close to him and snapped this photo. I showed him this image and he burst out laughing. I don't know if it was the image  of himself, the image of me or the image of this odd pair from opposites side of the world standing next to each other that was so funny. We both had a good laugh. He was walking in the same direction as I was riding so I motioned to him to ask if he wanted a ride. He nodded in agreement. I did not know how far he wanted to ride, but luckily it seemed that the road was going downhill. After rounding a few corners I saw a mid size town. I assumed that he was heading into the town. 
I did not know exactly where my new passenger and friend wanted to go, but I just assumed that he would tap me on the shoulder when we arrived. He actually knew exactly where he wanted to go. He started to motion to me to turn right, then left, then right, then straight. I saw a gathering of people ahead of me in an area that looked like a market. When we arrived to a clearing I slowed down to a stop. There was a crowd of people staring at us. I'm guessing they the sight of a foreigner giving a local a ride to the market was just not a common experience. My friend jumped off, we exchanged smiles, then he disappeared through these gates into the market. I thought about following him in, but it was already getting close to noon time and I did not know how much further I needed to ride. So I turned my moto around, wound my way through the town and back onto the mountain highway. 
For about another hour of riding, I was surrounded by fields of plenty. 
At around 1 o'clock I finally reached Dong Van. 
The Sunday market had already come to a close. I had an indication that I might be late because as I was entering town, I saw many people leaving town. Oh well. Sometimes you roll the dice and you end up rolling snake eyes. There were a few people still lingering around. 
However, most of the stalls were empty and most of the people gone. 
It has still be a beautiful ride of 10 hours the first day and 6 hours the second day, in order to see... nothingness. 
It was just a reminder that an adventure should really be about the journey and not only about the destination. 
I found a little open air cafe to get a drink. At the table next to me was a group of Vietnamese travelers that had probably come from a big city to see the market. There was five of them sitting at a table, none of them were talking to each other, they were all deeply engaged with their phones or tables. What a shame. I finished my drink and decided to take a spin around the town. 
There was a police station. 
A government building. 
And there seemed to be quite a bit of construction going on. I don't know if the central government had identified Dong Van as a future potential tourist spot or if private investors were looking to jump on an early opportunity, but there was construction of new buildings everywhere. I'm guessing that in 3 to 5 years this place will be completely different. 
The sun began to set. I decided that I should look for a place to stay. I found a hotel. When I was checking in the clerk mentioned to me that I needed to check in with the police station and pay 250,000 dong because the town was situated so close to the Chinese border. I told her that I had a legit passport and visa and should not need an additional visa. She said that I did. We went back and forth about this for a while. I was actually concerned that if I got stamped with a second visa that it might void my original visa which was a 3 month single entry visa. She eventually mentioned that I could check in to the room, clean up, rest and then check into the police station later. This sounded good to me, all except checking in with the police and paying 250,000 dong. 

So I checked in to the hotel and just kind of forgot to get the second visa. 

The next day I rode around the hill country taking photos, then I would start to make my way South and West.