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I am a Bansko local since 2001 - when Bansko was a place like out of a fairy tale. A lot has changed since then - but the magic still exists!

At the Ba Be Lake

The Ba Be Lake is about 8km long and surrounded by jungle mountains that are part of the Ba Be National park. This gives it an extremely peaceful and secluded atmosphere – a place where you would like to take some time out if you lead a busy life.

As my life as a “Bansko farmer” and manager of (most of the time rather deserted) Pirin Lodge is not as busy as my previous ones I don’t feel this urge to retreat to pristine, remote nature as much as in the past (also because I have a lot of it at the front of my doorstep) I still very much appreciate the feel and quality of such a spot. And even I thought how lovely it must be to spend a week there with a little boat, fishing on the lake.

As there is only one village facing the lake directly (and it is without hotels) I decided on a “homestay”, a guest house that caters to tourists. In our case the home of the retired communist party chief of the area and his family.

 

The setting was remarkable. A view from the patio onto the rice fields surrounding the village and the beginning of the lake with the mountains in the background.

The accommodation was also out of the ordinary. At least for a spoilt guy like me who was never used to share his quarters with other tourists. After having experienced the lack of privacy during my stay at the rice farm it came easier for me 🙂

The whole living floor was one big open room:

To the backside on the left you see the kitchen area – which looked like this:

To the other end of the big room were the guest quarters:

…basically part of the room separated by plywood boards reaching maybe 2 meters up into individual “guest rooms”.

Here is my own cubicle:

The two combined toilets/bathrooms were in a little outhouse.

As in such Vietnamese houses the roof does not sit on the walls you always have an open space connecting you with nature – and its creatures that may be looking for a home for the night or so. Here the use of the supplied mosquito nets was a must (and not only because of the mosquitoes 🙂 ). On the positive side you also had some birds visiting the inside of the house and chanting away merrily…

So much about the setup.

As to the lake: I rented a boat from my very shrewd landlord (for “only” 45$) and my guide and I set off on a three hour boat tour.

Here are a few pictures from the peaceful excursion:

Setting off into the misty world: …women rowing home after tending their fishing nets – and chatting 🙂

 

Our guest house is obviously very popular as different groups of guests arrived.

On the first evening there was a “family reunion” of three sisters from Saigon with their families. 10 or 11 people. They had flown from Saigon to Hanoi, rented a van and driven the 6 hours from Hanoi – all for the weekend.

I was having my dinner for one on the first evening.

And I watched with disbelieve what was put on the tables of the Saigon people. Uncountable varieties of meats, fish, vegetables and I don’t know what. I tried to take a picture but it turned out to be unfocused and I had to delete it.

The Northern Vietnamese all say that the Saigonese are happy-go-lucky people, not much concerned about the future but enjoying life. There even women drink alcohol! Well, “my” Saigonese certainly had a great time and after dinner they invited me over to their table.

This is already at a slightly more advanced stage when some of them had gone to bed already. The sisters were drinking French red wine out of the box (always “bottoms up”) – and the men banana liquor.  The one next to me (Loan was her name) made sure that my glass was always full with the banana concoction and ready for the next round of “one-two-three-go” as they shouted out before gulping the stuff down. Here husband seemed to become more and more “relaxed” – but also rather tired 🙂

Suffice it to say that I impressed them very much with my Bansko drinking capabilities (in fact, I barely felt tipsy) 🙂 Communication was “a bit” difficult, though, as only one of them had about 10 words of English. No problem. I am invited to Loan’s house when I go to Hanoi. That should be fun and I am planning to take them up on it. They also have three restaurants in Saigon – of what kind I do not know. It scared me a little, however, when Loan told me she loved German hotdogs very much 8)

The next day I was invited to share lunch and dinner with the owner’s family. I have to say that I had the tastiest Vietnamese food there so far. The granny is a genius! Extra special was the fresh bamboo shoot vegetable with duck, the bamboo having been cut in the jungle just a few hours earlier. A fragrance that few of us have ever experienced!

Here is the granny, just having cut the bananas she will serve for breakfast (with pancakes and honey, the honey of an exotic fine taste like orchid that I had never encountered before)

All in all it was a great break at the Ba Be Lake and I am now in Lang Son, on the way to the Halong bay. No time to continue as my boys will pick me up in ten minutes…

 

 

On the Way to the “Ba Be National Park”

19.10.2012

Our trip today from Meo Vac (one of the Vietnamese “outposts” at the Chinese border) to the National Park of Ba Be and its stunning lake not only took us through some breathtaking scenery (and on roads that are comparable only to the one from Belitsa to the bear park – with the slight difference that on one side you had the mountain and on the other side the terrain fell steeply down hundreds of meters!)…but also through some villages with local markets in full swing.

As this is “ethnic territory” big time (there are 54 different cultural ethnic groups in Vietnam) here you can find mainly tribes of the Dao, Hmon, Tay and Nung (and their various “ethnic sub groups”). They all live in separate mountain villages, fairly secluded and have not assimilated to Vietnamese life (yet), all with their very own different gods, rites and traditions…

The different tribes come to the weekly market in the nearest “centre” to sell their products and do their own shopping. Here they all mix in a very colourful way. The goods they sell are basic food stuff and hand made tools, accessories and clothes. No tourists ever come to those place where we were at as they are not “listed” in any tour guide (and are rather difficult to access from the tourist hot spots).

For me the most funny thing was that I looked at them a little like at strange animals in a zoo – and they looked at me the same way as I was just as exotic for them as they were for me 🙂 That took my shyness away – and when mothers made their children aware of me and they all started giggling I brought on my biggest grin and we all had a merry laugh 🙂

Here a few snapshots:

Livestock trading at the entrance to the village

I will spare you more landscape pictures. Well, here is just one that I particularly liked:

We arrived at the Ba Be lake in daylight – where we spent two days – and I will report about this experience in a separate entry.

At the Edge of Vietnam – continued

So many impressions and experiences and so little time to share them – especially since I did not have any internet in the “Wild North”.

Here is the continuation to the first part (I had written it in Word) and copy it here now. There is more to follow – but we travelled all day and I am tired and exhausted and there is no way I can write this up now. I hope I will be able to catch up after the 25th when I will be having a break at the beach in Central Vietnam…

October 18th, 2012

This morning I decided to skip breakfast in the hotel – not to become too sentimental when parting with this homely place. We continued to Dong Van, the most northern place in Vietnam – a stone throw from the Chinese border. It took us 2-1/2 hours to cover the 42km of  meandering mountain passes – where sometimes the road seemed narrower than the car. But we were not in a hurry as our total road for the day was only about 100km.

 

We  passed lovely sceneries and many people, animals and motorbikes. Unfortunately on the whole trip it was always misty and my photos cannot do justice to the landscapes.

 

What happy little pigs!Farmers flailing the rice by hand…

…a village very near the border. Big Chinese influence on life there..…uniqute architecture for Vietnam……a woman spinning hemp – that’s what most of their clothings are made from……a local “petrol station”……black rock……endless mountain roads – we drove them all!

In Sa Phin we stopped at the interesting palace of  the White Hmong (a dominant local minority). The French had it build in 1901 to bribe the Hmong warlord (commanding 70,000 people) who had fought them for 15 years into cooperating with them. They even made him a General of the French Army 🙂 That worked well – but after 1945 the warlord changed sides shortly before his death and his son started the liberation of the Ha Giang province from the French. These Vietnamese are not to be underestimated – Hmong or Kinh…

At the palace we stumbled onto a Hmong funeral. The relatives and friends gathered with food and music to mourn the deceased – who usually is displayed at his home for 11 days and all the time kept company by a relative, being fed a portion of sticky rice to his dead lips three times a day. One of my companions told me that the last few of the 11 days the house usually becomes quite “smelly”…

And the relatives and friends come from far and wide, meaning mountain villages accessible only on foot by trekking several hours…

…in the basket of the man to the left you see smoked corn. This is a present to the immediate family of the deceased. The corn beads are used for planting…this way securing a continuation of prosperous life for the deceased’s family.

Dong Van was the perfect place for lunch and the three of us got duly ripped of. We paid a hefty 280,000 Dong (21 Leva/DM, 14$) for less food than we paid 160,000 Dong for (in a better restaurant) yesterday. My Vietnamese guys told me that they, even without me, would have gotten creamed – as the locals know (by the car or the different accent) that they are like “foreigners” too. But their attitude is so fatalistic that they seem to find this quite normal and are not bothered about it. Funny people! The food, however, was impeccable. The lean pork slices as tasty as the “Schweinebraten” my mother used to cook in the old days and the kohlrabi leaf vegetable, dipped slightly in fish sauce, had nearly the full of taste as the roots. The fried, obviously home made, tofu was one of the best I ever had. Everything fresh (harvested or slaughtered the same day), nothing processed (OK, apart from the fish sauce) or whatever…by the way, here so close to the Chinese border people usually have soy sauce on the table. We had to order our fish sauce and chillies additionally…

…watch the floor (after people eating)…:)…the “central serving station”…

And my driver, a man in the know, obviously, told me that the opium from this area was the absolutely best inVietnam! Sadly the socialist government cracked down on them and now you have to go to other places, even more inaccessible, to find the same quality 🙂

 

After checking out Dong Van we continued to Meo Vac. A beautiful, beautiful landscape! After every bend you had new surprising, gorgeous views. And the fact that it was misty since we entered the North did not belittle the impressions. On the road we were several times overtaken by a Spanish guy doing the road to Meo Vac (26km) on foot, as we stopped many times to admire the landscape.

Here some more pics:

…Hmong girls walking about 10 miles from one place to the next (but not without their mobile phones!)…:)…farmers bringing dried plants home from the mountains…to be used as fuel for cooking the food…now, that’s a life!…boys on their afternoon task after school: to cut some elephant grass for the family buffaloes……the road continues…and continues……locals harvesting beans……and drying them…

For the first time on our trip we arrived in full daylight at our destination Meo Vac – only  3 pm! Unbelievable. Despite that the driver slowed down to a max of 20kmh for the last 5 km. Arriving is obviously not his strength! A “bustling place” as you can see:

…birds and cages on sale!……even a clothes department store…

…and a flower shop……these was the complete night action in the centre of this thriving town Meo Vac…and it finished by 9pm sharp…

The initial plan was to stay in a private home. But as the hotels of the last three nights had put a bit of strain on me I told the guide to put me up in the best available – provided they had WiFi.

Which they (claimed) they had. The room was big and clean, no spots on the walls, crisp towels (Bulgarian bathroom again but I don’t mind) and I felt like paradise. The price of 25$ was also acceptable. There was only one small difficulty: we could not produce the border permit that they required to accept guests. Now, last night in Qa Bang we had been told that this procedure was abandoned – but here they said that was only for one month and that it was in force again since August. Tired of going and finding the police in this place I ordered the hotel staff to arrange procedures for me and forked out 15$ for the pleasure. I hope the permit will give me a memorable (if expensive) souvenir by tomorrow morning 🙂

Well, here it is for whatever it may be good for:

Everything nice and dandy now. My boys set off to stay at the private house as the hotel was too expensive for them. Being an experienced Vietnamese, I immediately plugged in the fridge and turned on the boiler before unpacking my laptop to check my emails. Haha. “No connections available” was the friendly greeting. So, instead of relaxing I had to investigate matters. The fact that no one in the hotel speaks English did not really help.

As it turned out they have a router at the reception but its signal is too weak to reach my room. So to use the internet I should sit in the reception area (full with a load of noisy Chinese nouveau riche – I thought at first but they turned out to be Vietnamese group from Hanoi with money). F..k!!! I asked them to give me a different room closer to the router but was told that the rooms closer to the reception were “staff rooms”. Haha. This is the way the Vietnamese do it: they are always smiling and world champions in excuses. Too tired to call my guys to come and pick me up and find me a different place I gave in!

I went to buy some cold coke to have my stylish Cuba Libre. Back the reception I asked for a drinking glass and some ice. After some unsuccessful attempts of communicating the friendly and smiling lady in the end made a drawing on a piece of paper to verify if we were talking about the same thing. As I did not recognise her scribbling I drew a glass myself (Leonardo da Vinci could not have done it better). Obviously she had meant the same thing and a lot of giggling between the staff started. She assured me “room, room” – and here I am one hour still waiting…I did find a small glass in the bathroom now (that’s probably what she meant), which I thoroughly rinsed under hot water and wiped with some paper hankies. So, at least the drinking is secured…:)

My first attempt to sit at the reception and log onto the internet to publish this failed miserably. Because I stick out like a sore thumb here. End everyone tries to strike up a conversation in whatever foreign language of which he/she knows a few words or more. And everyone invites me to drink green tea with them – the regular social thing. The Vietnamese have no shame, it seems. They will ask you anything about yourself, no bars held. The usual questions (in this order): where do you come from, how old are you, how many children do you have (your age and social status has a certain implication as there is kind of a hierarchy which determines how they should address you (also in language terms) and where to put you in their universe. Then comes their bottomless nosiness: why are you here (me, personally, they usually ask if I am here to find a Vietnamese wife), what’s your profession, how much money do you make…and so on. One should not be offended by this. It’s part of their social culture. The main thing is to be polite (never RUDE!)…and I usually answer them in a joking way (which they seem to appreciate even if they don’t believe me exactly). Like, when they ask me if I want to find a local wife I tell them that my mission is to find a rich Vietnamese husband for my poor Bulgarian women and so on…:)

I will definitely need some time for the fun part on this blog getting from the travel descriptions into Vietnamese life details. Which, after all, brought me here 🙂

Tomorrow we will be driving endless mountain roads again to the “Ba Be” lake. I reckon another 10 hour drive. Sightseeing is not easy in such vast countries with basic infrastructures. Even when you do it in style. On this trip to the North I have not encountered another person travelling alone with his personal driver and guide (no wonder when I consider the price for this). Grand Luxury! On the other side I am seeing places off the beaten track that very few other tourists ever will and I “live” in a completely Vietnamese environment with direct contact to the people. That’s what I wanted and that’s what I am paying for: the real thing  (as far as it can be on such a short trip).

Here in this area life is very Chinese, so close to the border. Only one TV program (Chinese). Even the language is not true Vietnamese (or so I am told by my guys). Everything is more colourful and kitschy, the Chinese way. In some restaurants you have to order Vietnamese fish sauce as otherwise they only put soy sauce on the table. Even people’s faces look more Chinese (especially women’s, much less beautiful than the Vietnamese ladies).  And, in contrast to the greater Hanoi area, where all the motorbikes are Japanese, here they are all Chinese 🙂

OK, I was planning to visit the most Southern Chinese province (Yunan) as well, so I have no prejudice against Chinese, but due to the visa difficulties (and the rather steep Chinese prices nowadays) I have given up on the idea. I can find enough Chinese people in Sofia, around our super-huge market Ilientsi that supplies all of Bulgaria with cheap junk. China is too big a task to take on for me now, being here only for such a limited period of time.

One factor that drives me to this is that I do not see much beauty in China. It’s undoubtedly a country with an unfathomable heritage and old culture. But it is torn up between tradition and commerce. And I moved to Bulgaria to evade the commercial part of life. China and I, I have found out on this trip now, are not so extremely compatible. When I moved to Bulgaria it was a quest for real life. And when I look at myself now, 13 years later, this has not changed. I don’t need riches. I had plentiful in a different, previous, hard-working life – and they did not make me happy.

 

OK, I am in a transition period. The last 40 years or so (an incredible figure) centred mainly around two women.  Now I am “free” again. Whatever that means. For me it certainly does not mean to go back to money and to young women. It means to try and improve quality of life even further. My sole own choice now. And if I should encounter a woman along this way that is “compatible” with my view of life (chances like a “snowball in hell”?) I will go for it. If not? Who knows :)))

 

… enough philosophy in the “Tonkin” mountains (that’s how the powers called this part of the world in the old days). Tomorrow is another day and I will now, after finishing my umpteenth drink, go to the reception to share all this baloney with you. Whether you want

 

At the Edge of Vietnam – Ha Giang province (part 1)

I had awaited the morning in Sa Pa with anticipation. Looking forward to seeing the “Bansko of Vietnam” in all its beauty. But like in real Bansko – the weather is not always your friend and it was foggy and raining. As it did not make much sense to sit around and wait for things to change or to visit some close-by hill-tribes on those unpaved paths that get immediately muddy and slippery when it rains I decided to write off Sapa and to continue our expedition to the most Northern part of Vietnam, the Ha Giang province, next to the Chinese border.

That’s me at the Chinese border. <no desire to cross…

We mastered the 290km to Qa Bang in only 9 hours (as the first part was a big and easy road) including a delicious lunch on the way in Rang, before we turned from the river valley into the mountains again. Lunch was in a popular local restaurant with a nice atmosphere and a simple affair: freshly roasted peanuts, dried shrimps marinated in a lime sauce, beef with greens and the obligatory extra plate of vegetables (can’t see them as they arrived late) plus steamed rice. It’s very pleasant to eat a bit of this and than that and so on. The dried shrimps were delicious. And this was maybe the first time in my life when I ate loads of peanuts – one by one and with chopsticks 🙂

The restaurant:

Some backs of houses facing the restaurant – the fronts to the street all contain shops or small businesses.

People utilising every inch of space – growing veggies on a raft in the river…

Everywhere in this country (even worse than in Bulgaria) people believe in the healing quality of this or that and that’s why they sell Ginseng roots and all other kinds of “will make you strong” to all kinds of concerned Vietnamse and foreign men. Here it’s freshly dug out ginseng roots, on the next picture it’s a “level higher”, with all kinds of potions (I suppose, that you use if you failed to consume the ginseng on time :))

The further we progressed North the more beautiful the scenery became. Views, however, were poor. Unfortunately, haze and mist abandoned all the time.

A pig being transported to or from the market. Difficut to tell…

Here even three on one motorbike:

Here are some impressions from the road.

Timber country. producing veneers. Low quality, unfortunately… out drying…

Buying the most delicious bananas imaginable from farmers at the roadside. Harvested in the morning, sold the same day. Nothing in common with what you have EVER eaten in the West. A sweet fragrance with the hint of apple (these particulate ones). Ripe to the point! As you can see even the Vietnamese rejoice. No better banana on this planet!

Not a “road side kill” but a piglet being grilled for a couple of hours for a birthday celebration, much like in Bulgaria (here in the mountains). I felt sorry for the boy having to turn the spit continuously…

A joyful Hmong woman, getting the hemp ready for spinning…

Another Hmong woman harrowing the field next to her house while her husband is far away working. Watch the baby on her back 🙂

Kids playing around with the “Chinese buffalo” (that’s what they call these machines in Laos)

Coming back from the field with food for the buffalo:

“No comment” pictures:

As our timing is impeccable (we always arrive at our destination a few minutes before nightfall) we managed to finish the last mountain pass, which the Vietnamese call “The Gate to Heaven”, shortly after five before entering the Qa Bang district. What a beautiful scenery and what a peaceful and relaxing setting! Undoubtedly the most beautiful of those parts of Vietnam that I have seen so far.

The weather report talks about god weather tomorrow, so we will stay around and explore the wider area. I hope to be able to please you with nice pictures.

Our destination was Tam Son, the only provincial little town with a few hotels. But, of course, no internet here at the most remote part of Vietnam.

We checked into the government hotel where the muftis from Ha Giang (pronounced: Ha Siang) city come for weekends and hold their conferences. No surprise that it is the only place wide and far that has tennis courts and a swimming pool (which only works in summer, though). The building is decaying, much like one of the run down, unmaintained big ex-Balkantourist hotels as we still used to have them when I came to Bulgaria (my very first impression was: oh, an outlet of the hotel Rilets in Rila, hehe.. .). Rooms are big, the floor is clean (but that’s about all that’s clean), there is even an air conditioner and a TV (no remote controls, however), tea cups and a tea pot – all filthy, Bulgarian bathroom with two used towels…and so on. The difference between here and Bulgaria is that here we still have the real existing “sotslager” and change is not in sight 🙂

The funny thing was that we had to check ourselves in alone – as the receptionist (the hotel being empty) had just left to go to the market 🙂

We also ventured out again – to find the police station. As this is border territory every tourist has to apply for a special permit to be allowed to roam around. At the station was only a young rookie – who had no idea how to go about the permit, so we had to postpone this till tomorrow morning.

But we found a nice restaurant in the “centre” where we indulged in  bacon and pork ribs as the area is famous for its supposedly tastiest pork in Vietnam. And it was finger-licking good – and inexpensive in addition.

Now I am in my room drinking Vietnamese rice brandy out of a thoroughly rubbed small tea cup and writing these note in Word to be able to publish them quickly the next time I have internet (which will not be tomorrow as we will be staying in a private house).

Good night and till soon…

…I got the stuff for the next day ready. But to publish this took me more than 4 hours. And I don’t have the nerve to continue.. see the continuation whenever it happens. Sorry :)))

Northern Vietnam – Part 2 – Son La to Sa Pa

It seems I was a bit hasty yesterday when I criticized our slow progress. Today we only managed 270km in 9-1/2 hours! OK, OK we went through the highlands and the mountain roads were partly in conditions that would make most of our Bulgarian roads stand out as being first-class. For a change I had taken the back seat (which saved me much from listening to my guys’ conversation). The bad side was that my view was limited and was bolted around with all the wholes and bumps and endless turns. Not good for my stomach condition! But I survived.

Before leaving the hotel I took a few snapshots of some interesting room features.

Like the boiler wiring next to the shower head:

I hope the black spot on the bottom of the boiler was not related to the previous inhabitant of the room.

The bathroom door had sliding-locks on both sides. That sent my imagination spinning 🙂

And the view from my room to the restaurant was very practical in judging when to go for breakfast:

After setting off we quickly went to see the old French prison in Son La that also used by the Vietnamese later to re-educate untoward citizens. Despite all the propaganda visible it was not a pleasant place to write about.

Driving soon became cumbersome as we went from mountain pass to mountain pass with uncountable bends. The scenery, on the other hand, was very beautiful with enticing  views and lovely little highland plains and valley sprinkled in.

Here we passed an area where they grow coffee and my curiosity made me get out of the car to check how ripe red coffee “cherries” taste. I prefer the black brew in my cup!

A few farms on the way:

And here a new artificial reservoir – with huge dimensions and very picturesque.

Such projects are easy to realise in Vietnam. The government simply builds new basic houses/shacks in some unoccupied territory and orders all the farmers living (who knows for how many generations) in the area that is supposed to be used for the project to move to the new place. Police and military assist the farmers in moving 🙂 As it looks farmers (which represent the largest part of the population) are the most underprivileged group in Vietnamese society. They are pawns in the hands of the powerful – who (according to the locals) often start new (and sometimes gigantic) projects for personal enrichment.

Here is a very shy local lady distilling rakia for her husband 🙂 Of course, she never drinks of it 🙂

As a generous employer I decided to invite my team to an extravagant lunch in the most posh restaurant of a bigger village that we passed on our way.

The fare was steamed rice with my favourite vegetable, some wonderful, juicy pork-ribs and some sliced pork with rice-spaghetti and greens. Simple but absolutely fabulous. My guide, being concerned about my stomach had even ordered the owners to wash my bowl with hot water and obtained a new pair of chopsticks for me. Something very uncommon here as everyone washes dishes, glasses and “cutlery” with cold water, or rather, rinses them…

Another hydro-power project on the way. This one “temporarily” abandoned. Maybe the initiators had filled their pockets already sufficiently and left the country to enjoy a peaceful life – as seems often the case.

The road is the goal…

Now we are nearing our destination for the day (well, another short hour away). This is the highest mountain in Vietnam (3143m): Fansipan. Unfortunately it had just stopped raining and the peaks were in clouds.

Here is, what I find, a rather dramatic view a little later…

…and the continuation of our pass.

When we finally arrived at our destination Sa Pa it was about 10 minutes before nightfall. It might as well have been later as everything was covered in fog – and visibility not more than 10 meters. Absolutely nothing to be seen. I hope tomorrow morning will be better as my hotel room is supposed to have a gorgeous view to close-by Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain.

“Sa Pa” has become one of the “pearls” of Northern Vietnam and together with the Halong Bay one of the two biggest tourist magnets in the North. At 1600m altitude it has become THE mountain resort, the Bansko of Vietnam. Due to its climatic conditions it had its first blossoming period during the French colonial times. After the French left, the little town crumbled. Now it is packed with hordes of foreign tourists and in summer in addition with Vietnamese that try to escape the heat of the plains and seaside. The area is dominated by various colourful ethnic hill tribes and the foreigners come mainly for that exotic experience.

Sa Pa’s main street is lined with restaurants, shops and massage places. Reminds me much of our Bansko Pirin Street in winter – at peak time.

After checking into my  hotel and setting up shop I had to wait for the rain that had set in momentarily to stop to venture out and take a walk on main. Still no chance for any pictures. I had dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant recommended to me by my guide Hung, who told me that the owner was a good friend of his, food was good and prices reasonable.

As it turned out nearly all restaurants offered foreign food – from T-bone steak to pizza – and they were quite busy. My choice seemed to be the only completely empty one. Hmmm.

As I am still suffering I decided on something small, so I had fried flour-coated duck with garlic and some steamed rice. The duck was as tender and juicy as it could have been. An excellent choice for 6.70 Leva/DM. As no Vietnamese ever seems to order only one dish I had some “Sa Pa Spring Rolls” in addition. Not overwhelming but also quite tasty. The local Lao Cai beer was better than the Ha Noi that they sell at most other places.

When I came back to my room I was greeted by a huge black bug sitting on the keyboard of my computer. He disappeared as quickly as normally only cock roaches can do. So, I wonder who will be sharing my room with me. Maybe I won’t keep the window open tonight then. Who knows what other creatures might crawl in.

I am stuffed and tired and will now go to bed, rather early for a change. Tomorrow at 8 am is sightseeing time…

 

 

 

Sidetracked 1

If I won’t be careful this supposedly straightforward travel-blog will dissolve in complete chaos in no time as I am making new experiences by the minute, which I feel like sharing.

After arriving at the hotel in Son La I went out to buy some Coke (as they did not have any in the mini-bar). Obligatory for my nightly Cuba Libre (I bought two bottles of Bacardi in Hanoi last night). To a small around the corner shop bar with an owner inviting me to come again, maybe in the morning for some real coffee.

After finishing my last blog entry I left the hotel again with the intention of going to the night market. But I felt neither hungry nor in a shopping mood. So I went back to “my” place for a beer, as the lady did not charge me the “foreigner price” for the Coke earlier.

Here she is in all her glory as the proud shop owner 🙂

We carried on a very interesting and intense conversation while I was having my Hanoi beer, having about three words in common 🙂  Still (and I don’t know how), I understood that she is divorced having one grown up son. He showed up too (in some kind of uniform shirt) but I did not understand if he was in the police or some other government agency.

Our main point of connecting was my package of Bulgarian cigarettes which immediately made her utter the words CCCP 🙂 What can I say?  Thank you, Russia, for connecting people?! It reminded me another time how important communication is in life! Without it we are amoebae!

While she had no problem leaning her knee against mine under the table we could not make much more progress. Maybe because I was not looking for it? For me it’s wonderful to meet new people. OK, women too 🙂  But I have spent the last 30 or so  years with mainly two women and my mind is still not free for any kind of new relationship – and, maybe sadly (maybe not), I am beyond the “butterfly years”.

Having said that, I greatly admire Vietnamese women. They are the toughest cookies in this part of Asia. As strong (or maybe even stronger) than the black women I encountered during my life in New York in 1979. Being obliged to hold the family and life together (as most of their men are not very reliable). And they seem to do it with much more strength and devotion than women from other countries or continents I have been to. I have great respect for them.

This whole trip is a great lesson in understanding people more. Vietnam is truly different from the other countries in this area. And it’s absolutely no surprise to me that neither the French nor the Americans could break their spirit or make them surrender. Maybe there is a reason why they used to call the Vietnamese the “Prussians” of Asia. But this, of course, is only an impression from Northern Vietnam. Because the Northern people consider the Southern people easy going and irresponsible, not thinking about tomorrow, just enjoying life and spending their money as it comes in. So, maybe, I will have an even better time there? Who knows?! Travelling progress will tell!

In any case, I am always open to new experiences and keen on listening to the pulse of local life.

See you here again soon 🙂

 

Any feedback?

I noticed only now that the blog-design is in German. I hope this is the reason that keeps people from commenting. Or maybe the simple truth is that no one cares and I am doing this only for my own very vane ego.
As my internet provider is a German company I had to use their instruments to set up the blog. And, as always in life, you want to get some feedback about what you are doing. Which I do not get :( So, please, if you want me to continue leave some comment or other. Simply click on “Kommentar hinterlassen”, enter some name and Email Addresse and write away. “Kommentar abschicken” posts it. I don’t care if your comment is positive or negative (in fact negative postings might stimulate me even more, being the Bavarian-Bansko revolutionary)…

Northern Vietnam – Part 1 – Hanoi to Son La

The first day on this trip started very promising. My diarrhoea seemed under control, my guide showed up on time and my favourite sweethearts at my hotel bared me an overwhelming farewell…

After we managed to get out of Hanoi traffic onto the most modern motorway in the North things calmed down a little. We had about 350km to go and a Ford Everest jeep under our butts. The driver, obviously a sub-contractor running his own transport business, basically an enjoyable mid-aged man, looking like a down to earth peasant with a considerable amount of smartness in his eyes, had decided to save petrol at all cost. He relentlessly clubbed in the next higher gear the moment the rev meter reached 1.2k. So at 40km an hour we were in fifth – and that’s about where we stayed all day!

Rather soon it dawned on me that on this trip indeed the road was the goal and I suppressed my desire to take the wheel and instead surrendered myself to fate. In the end the 350 km took 10 hours. Not without killing an inexperienced puppy trying to cross the street while driving at 40kmh and a few near miss accidents when he overtook an even slower vehicle at 40kmh and shifted into fifth during the manoeuvre with oncoming traffic approaching, slowing down the car immediately! Those who know my own active driving style will understand through which agonies of mind I went. But no more of that.

My guide on the other hand, the one who speaks English is a joyful young man, successful in his career as a tour guide, guiding Vietnamese groups going abroad and foreign groups through Vietnam. He was also a bit talkative. Not with me, though, but with the driver. I had made the mistake to insist on the front passenger seat for better views, so the two of them had to communicate in a loud voice. This went on the whole day, with an only interruption of 40 minutes when the guide, exhausted by speaking so much, napped away.

Here are my two heroes. To the left is the guide Hung (as Vietnamese names often have a meaning, his is “hero”). Next to him is the driver Than (“loyalty”). An extremely compatible team.

The scenery on the road was spectacular – as far as I could make it out. Because, probably due to high humidity, it was very hazy everywhere and visibility was not good enough for photos. But the atmosphere came across very intensely. Sorry that I cannot share this with you.Here is a small example:

We moved from the fruitful plain to buffalo territory and terraced fields, architecture changed from the narrow three story Vietnamese houses to the wooden houses on stilts of the mountain people (very similar to Laos and Cambodia). A very pleasant “deja vu” for me that made me feel much at home 🙂

Here another try, a farm in the valley with its ponds:

We stopped for a smoke (my request being the only smoker) at a few places to which my Vietnamese heroes with their tiny bladders happily agreed to.

Like this little “market” at the highest point of a mountain pass (in its own way much like we have them in Bulgaria, let’s say in Yundula or on the way to Bansko in the Kyustendil district).

Something seems to be cooking here:

My bet is that it’s rice 🙂

The only interesting thing for me they sold there were wild bananas, something they don’t eat but mix with their rice liquor…

Our first (and only) “sightseeing” stop was in Mai Chau. A place I immediately decided to name “the Bansko of Northern Vietnam”. Not only nearly every tourist coming to Hanoi makes a day excursion there, it’s also extremely popular with Vietnamese from Hanoi. They organise “adventure tours” for Hanoi students (aka drinking sprees). The village is populated by a minority they call “White Thai”  (similar to Thai people), immigrated a long time ago from China. Very hospitable people. So much that the whole village is one big souvenir shop and every house offers the Vietnamese equivalent of B&B, a thin mattress on the floor in a big open room shared with many others.

Here a few impression.

A traditional house (modernised with tourist income as you can see from the concrete bases of the stilts):

A cleverly designed house, utilising space to the maximum. Under the ground floor (which serves like the living quarters in such houses with the sleeping area being upstairs) they have integrated a pond to be able to keep fish and other edible water creatures.

This is what nearly all houses look like towards the street front: And here is what it looks like “behind the tourist stage” – which gives the village its true charm:

This is a harvested wet rice field. The farmers let the roots and stumps nearly dry, then spread buffalo manure on it and give the whole thing time to compost. Afterwards they plough the fields and plant again. In the plains they have three crops a year but, I guess, here (at about 650m altitude) they have only two.

Well, we finally arrived in Son La, the provincial capital. And driver and guide put me up in the “Trade Union Hotel”. A typical socialist masterminded institution, like you can find them close to the Chinese border also in Myanmar and Laos) mainly for “business people”. The rooms are big and there is always something that’s not working, service is a bit less heartily than in privately run places – but it has a certain charm that I cannot explain to Westerners and that only my Bulgarian friends remembering Balkantourist would appreciate. And they do have internet, obviously!

My room is a whopping 35$ a night (listed in my guide book at 20$) – and the fact that my guide and driver are staying here as well tells me that I am heavily subsidising their stay 🙂 So be it!

Now I have wasted enough time publishing this and I should venture to the close by night-market to get a feel of the local action before I collapse in bed, worn out by the driving and talking experience.

Tomorrow morning I expect a serious discussion with my heroes at breakfast about replanning the route since we have one day less than planned. And, I am afraid, their ideas will be different from mine. We will see who gets the better of this 🙂

The Incredible Spirit of Vietnam

Today was, without doubt, my most memorable day in Vietnam so far.

Yesterday I had  called my new Hanoi friends to say good bye to them. And I mentioned my poor condition and that maybe I would have to delay my trip for a day.

Can you imagine my surprise when at noon the reception called me to tell me I had a visitor. It was the chef of the Hungarian embassy who had cooked me a mild rice soup with eggs and had come all the way through Hanoi to feed me and bring me some medicine. Unbelievable.

Even more unbelievable was that merely an hour later my “personal guide” arrived with a girl friend to treat me the traditional Vietnamese way. Also unannounced.

Traditional Vietnamese Healing

She had roasted and chopped some ginger at home that she mixed with tiger balm and rice brandy. Then she wrapped some hair (from her daughter) in a piece of cloth which she used like a tampon to rub the tincture onto all my body (well, nearly).

I certainly have never been pampered so much by any one who I barely know.

It made me feel a little ashamed and it was difficult for me to accept all this attention – who am I after all to deserve this – but I was also deeply touched.

Afterwards it did not come as a big surprise that at 6pm the other lady arrived again with my dinner.

Am I not so extremely privileged to meet such outstanding people that care about others?! This is Vietnam! I wish we also would care more about the people around us in our European countries…I am still in awe!

 

Time out in Hanoi

I had to call my guide this morning to cancel today’s trip as my gastro situation is still dire. Fortunately, I can keep my room till tomorrow.

Tea and toast for breakfast did not really help much. So I will idle the day away in bed hoping to be fit tomorrow.

My itinerary requires quite a lot of driving – which is rather slow here, especially in the mountains. As I will be staying in small places overnight, sometimes in private homes, chances are that there won’t be any internet. The route looks somewhat like this:

Hanoi – Mai Chau – Son La – Dien Bien – Lai Chau – Sapa – Ba Be Lake – Cao Bang – Ban Gioc – Lang Son – Halong Bay – Hanoi.

I will return to Hanoi on the evening of the 23rd and fly out to Danang on the 24th. The idea is to spend maybe a week at the Central coast, with swimming, sightseeing and loads of seafood…