Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Vietnam I


There's something exotic about visiting Southeast Asian countries that the rest of the world cannot fulfill - the medley of cultures, the (almost) untainted countryside and the myraid of Asian cuisine bursting in your mouth. Before I went down to London, my family and I headed to Hanoi, Vietnam for an eye-opening backpacking trip. From Hanoi, we took an overnight sleeper train down to Sa pa,  frontier town and capital of Sa Pa District in the Lao Cai province in northwest Vietnam. (Don't be fooled by the word capital) Albeit being a mere couple of hours away from Singapore, it felt like we transited into a different era the very moment we landed.

Some snippets from my travel journal for the first day: "First day of Vietnam. Our taxi from the airport took us speedily to the Central district, we're tailgating the vehicle in front of us (ditto for the truck behind us) and lane markings don't mean anything here. My mum looks at me with concern and we begin to voice our concerns amongst ourselves in Mandarin before telling the driver to slow down. He doesn't care and proceeds to talk loudly on his phone in Vietnamese. Welcome to Vietnam."

"Survived a three hour flight, but almost got knocked over whilst mastering the Art of crossing Hanoi traffic. It is indeed an Art mastered only by the locals, for the traffic here is horrendous. Getting close to being knocked over 20 times a day spells a good day for any tourist. Traffic lights are non-existant, but while some are erected along the junction, no one bats an eyelid!"

We settled in a quaint cafe for lunch by the busy road.

"The streets are bustling, especially along the main market square. Makeshift street stalls are promptly set up, with plastic stools around wooden tables on high bricks. Many locals gather around, shouting their orders across. The sound of the chopsticks, the porcelain bowls, the slurping of noodles. Hanoi is also famous for its narrow alleys of food goodness, with many illegal hawkers peddling Vietnamese delights - bicycles laden with groceries and weariness. They settle anywhere along the road, it's the same process again and again - they perch their goods on an empty plastic chair, call out to hordes of tourists passing by and keep a keen eye for the police all at the same time.

A lady in a white nón lá (leaf hat) does just that, but it's her unlucky day. Seconds after a fortunate bulk sale to a Caucasian couple just a mere 3 feet away from me, a police van swiftly turns down the bend. Three uniformed officers jump down, grabbed her and whisked her away - in the matter of seconds that I barely had time to react. It was excruciatingly heartbreaking to watch as she cried out. But one man's misfortune may be the treasure of another - for the squid balls she was selling weren't put to waste, and was quickly scooped up by an accomplice (who probably went into hiding when the police arrived) and sold them to other oblivious tourists in the vicinity. She takes the 3 second food on the ground rule to a whole new level."

"Shopping is more of a cultural activity than actual retail therapy here. Being on a backpack limit for our necessities, the goods sold were interesting to see, but not exactly my cuppa tea. For the fashion label buyers, there are many branded outlet stores in the Central district to cater to your palette as many have factories based here. That being said, I still bought a lifetime supply of black hair ties and a fleece coat for winter."

"Popped by the famous Thang Long Water puppet show located at 57B Dinh Tien Hoang, an enchanting puppet show showcasing historical legends and tales from the past. Many traditional old Vietnamese speak French, and I see french scattered all around. Marionnettes sur eau du Vietnam can be translated to mean 'Water puppetry of Vietnam'. It's a fascinating cultural experience if you want to get to know more about traditional Vietnam."

"Rushing down to the Hanoi train station was a blur. Securing the train tickets was a challenge, as we didn't know which train company offered the best deal but we got ours from a budget travel counter who helpfully broke down the pros and cons. To make matters worse, the heavy Vietnam rain and the crowd of the locals were making rushing more unbearable. While free ponchos were being given out, it was not so much of a saving grace as the rain was heavy. So there we were, hobbling through the rain with our backpacks and dim lights across train tracks (bright streets would be appreciated!) to find our train and our carriages. The trains here all have fancy names, not numbers so it was pretty hard to find. We found Pumpkin on the Livitrans express and quickly boarded."

"Wet and tired, we were comforted to see our sleeper train beds equipped with seemingly warm blankets. A  train crew comes by and gets us hot green tea - such a treat after all that fuss in the rain. The lights in the cabins are quite dim, and the cabin space itself is very narrow. We change out of our wet attire, and I regret wearing my canvas shoes which are soaked down to its core. There are no shower cubicles, so we dry ourselves using towels and wash up with the icy water running on the tap. My sister and I take the upper bunks, and we pretend it's a mini adventure climbing up and down.

Shortly after, baby cockroaches start to appear one by one. We try to get rid of them, but we're tired and it's dark to even spot them out. We try, hesitate and finally fall asleep."

"The 8 hour train ride was pretty bumpy. Bumpy, but manageable....even though there were times where I woke up in complete oblivion I was on a sleeper train and thought I awoke on an amusement ride. The train also stops at various points through the night, where Vietnamese words are exchanged loudly and luggage are being thrown out  - we were afraid that we would miss our stop so we asked a train crew. He tells us that our stop is at 5am, a few hours away but we fall back to sleep anyway.

5am arrives, and we are back in the bitter cold rain at Lao Cai railway station. We packed up in a frenzy (the baby cockroaches surfaced once again but we were in too much of a frenzy to bother about them) and lament on how we haven't showered for a few days. Alighting and walking out to get a cab, my mum realized that she couldn't find our passports and we dash straight back to the train and banging on the carriage doors to plead the drivers not to drive off. And where were the passports and tickets? Happily nesting in my mum's handbag the entire time."

After a 1 hour's drive, we reached Sa pa - said to be the place where Heaven meets Earth, we'll see ♥

Part II
Part III  

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