Wearing a Vietnamese hat for 30 days

We arrived in Vietnam with the perception it would be a very communist, touristy and scooterized country, and that its people would be cold, greedy and not very welcoming. But 30 days in Vietnam were enough to change our minds. We felt in love with the people, the food, the scenery, the outdoorsy way of living… and even with the iconic Vietnamese hats, but not with the traffic!

Vietnam’s recent history is marked by the 100 years of French colonialism, the first Indochina War (which led the country into separation) and the cruelty of Vietnam’s war (which translated into the country’s reunification). The country’s economy, which mainly relied on agriculture, got very badly damaged, specially after the US bombings. In the aftermath of the wars the country suffered and was unable to move forward due to strong communist policies. But the introduction of Doi Moi in the late 80s was probably what saved its economy and what put the country on the road to recovery. We feel that in a short time, and unlike Lao and Cambodia, the country has been able to recuperate from the violent wars and it is now looking ahead into a bright future.

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No hay tra chanh sin pipas

Nada más llegar a Hanoi nos estaban esperando Luis Carlos y Leticia. Luis, un antiguo compañero de trabajo, y su novia Leticia están viajando por el sudeste asiático durante tres meses. Antes de llegar a Vietnam ya habían pasado por Filipinas y Hong Kong, y todavía les esperaba por delante el mismo recorrido que habíamos hecho nosotros a la inversa, o sea Camboya, Lao y Tailandia. Por supuesto no perdimos la oportunidad de vernos y nos juntamos en Hanoi por un día. Como ellos ya eran veteranos en Hanoi, nos llevaron a comer a un restaurante muy rico donde nos pusimos las botas probando platos locales. También nos enseñaron lo que hacen los jóvenes hanoienses todas las tardes, tomar tra chanh (té frío con limón) sentados en las mini sillas de plástico en la calle mientras comen pipas. Así que con pipas de por medio compartimos historias de viajes. Ni que decir tiene que nos hizo mucha ilusión volver a ver caras conocidas después de tanto tiempo.

A diferencia de Ho Chi Minh city, Hanoi ha sabido crecer conservando su auténtico carácter norvietnamita, dejándo a un lado los grandes centros comerciales, los rascacielos, las glamurosas avenidas y esa nube capitalista que cubre otras grandes ciudades del sudeste asiático. Las caóticas y bulliciosas calles de la parte vieja de la ciudad, inundadas de motos, contrastan en gran medida con las ordenadas y tranquilas calles del antiguo barrio francés, por donde es fácil pasear sin temer ser arrollado.

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Hill tribes and rice terraces

Our arrival to Sapa was a little bit uninspiring and abrupt. Looking at the grey sky and the dark clouds we were already anticipating that Sapa was going to welcome us with rain… We were hoping the weather would have some mercy, but it didn’t, and as we were reaching Sapa it started to rain heavily. Seriously, such a strong storm that we couldn’t see anything 2 meters ahead of us, it felt as if buckets of water were falling from the sky. Soaking wet we checked in at the first hotel we found with a spare room. There isn’t much to do in Sapa when it’s raining, so a bit disappointed and hopeless, we decided to wait for the sky to clear up having breakfast in our room. Surprisingly one hour later, we were gearing up and getting ready to start trekking around the valleys of Sapa!

On the first day we headed towards the villages of Lao Chai and Ta Van. Although the route between Sapa and Ta Van is supposed to be well defined, we found ourselves a bit lost and walking along the muddy paths (specially after all the rain) in between rice fields. But after cheekily following a group of people who was trekking with a guide for a few minutes, we were back on track. On our way over we walked along the east side of the river, where we run into many tourists, mainly from organized tours. We also met many tribe women along the way trying to sweet-talk the tourists hoping to sell their handicrafts. It really did surprise us how they were able to speak quite a bit of English! On our way back we took a different route, along the west side of the river. This area was far less touristy and much more authentic. Locals had a smile in their face when we passed by, they were more focused on carrying on with their tasks than on selling anything to us. And unlike in Lao Chai and Ta Van, they were happy of being photographed without asking for money.

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Diario de a bordo en Ha Long Bay

No hay turista que pase por Vietnam y que no vaya a la bahía de Ha Long, es como ir a India y no ver el Taj Mahal, o a Egipto y no ver las pirámides… así que nosotros no íbamos a ser una excepción. La bahía de Ha Long ocupa una área aproximada de 1500km2 al noreste de Vietnam y consta de 1969 islas rocosas que mágicamente emergen del agua formando en conjunto un paisaje único.

Mucha gente nos había recomendado pasar la noche en un barco para poder disfrutar plenamente de la bahía de Ha Long, y como parece que la única forma de hacerlo es mediante un tour decidimos organizarlo desde Hanoi. Coincidiendo que unos días antes de llegar nosotros a Hanoi unos amigos nuestros habían hecho un tour de dos días y una noche y les había gustado mucho, no nos mareamos buscando otras opciones y contratamos el mismo tour.

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The Imperial City

After our couple of days in the idyllic Hoi An, our next destination, Hue, was just a bit further up north. The calm and elegant Hue sits along the banks of the Perfume river and it is known as the historical capital of Vietnam. Hue was the the Imperial Capital of the Nguyen dynasty, dynasty that ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945, when the last emperor abdicated in favour of Ho Chi Minh.

Entering through the main gate of the Imperial City feels like traveling back in time, you almost expect to be welcomed by the emperor. The Imperial City was divided in different areas: the Forbidden Purple City – private residence of the emperor and his servants, the Queen and Queens mother residences, the temples, the palace – where the emperor held receptions, the city gardens, the reading hall, the theater. The imperial city was badly damaged during the fighting with the French and Vietnam’s war, and while it is still possible to get a grasp of its splendor, it is mostly ruins what is left nowadays. But even with the few buildings and temples that are still up (some of which have been beautifully restored) we got an idea of the city’s beauty and magnificence. We were specially enchanted by the serene beauty of the Queen and Queens mother residences and the beautifully carved wooden temples.

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Una pequeña China en Vietnam

Nuestra ruta por Vietnam nos llevaba seguidamente a Hoi An, a muchos kilómetros al norte de Ho Chi Minh City, pero a la vez a muchos kilómetros al sur de Hanoi, es decir justo en el medio de Vietnam.

Hoi An fue durante los siglos 16 y 17 un puerto muy importante en el sudeste asiático. Aquí se celebraban anualmente ferias que duraban de 4 a 6 meses donde comerciantes chinos, japoneses, europeos e indios venían a hacer compraventa de todo tipo de mercancias. Durante este periodo, muchos de estos comerciantes se asentaron en Faifo (la antigua Hoi An) creando sus propias comunidades, siendo las más importantes las chinas y la japonesa. Los chinos se agrupaban de acuerdo a su región de procedencia y en total crearon 5 comunidades. Sin embargo con el paso del tiempo el río Thu Bon fue dejando tantos sedimentos que ya no era posible que los barcos llegaran al puerto de Faifo, y así fue suplantado por el actual puerto de Da Nang, a 30 km de Hoi An. A día de hoy, Hoi An solo es una ciudad turística donde todavía queda una fuerte presencia de las comunidades chinas.

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Who dares to cross?

After leaving behind the Mekong river, we finally arrived to the bustling Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, Vietnam’s largest and fastest growing city. As we had been told, the first thing that struck us was the traffic and the millions of motorbikes. Crossing the street is an adventure by itself, and an adrenaline shot! Waiting for the motorbikes to stop at a pedestrian cross or at the traffic lights is a lost cause, one can grow old… Our tactic: Breathe in deeply, start walking slowly but with determination towards the other side and hope for the best! We are still in one piece so I guess we didn’t do that bad.

Leaving aside the crazy traffic, the wide boulevards and the many parks make wandering around the city very enjoyable. The parks are full of locals exercising: walking, running, playing badminton, aerobic… who says that gyms need to be indoors! It specially caught our attention to see many people playing with something they call in Vietnamese “cau”, something similar to the badminton feather shuttlecock. Locals are seriously addicted! They gather in pairs or in groups and pass the cau from one to another by kicking it with their foot as if it was a football. We couldn’t resist buying one of them, and after playing with it we understood why they are so addicted. Isma got the hang of it very quickly but I’m afraid I’m going to need a bit more practice…

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Visa for China, an Odyssey in Vietnam

We knew that getting a visa for China was going to be a little bit tricky, but what we didn’t know was that getting it in Vietnam was going to be an odyssey. We arrived in Vietnam thinking it would be just a matter of filling in a form, maybe booking some hotels, buying a train ticket, presenting all the papers at the embassy, paying the 30$ fee and wait. But after reading a bit on the web, we realized that getting it by ourselves at the embassy in Hanoi (without the help of an agency) was impossible and that our only alternative was to try luck at the consulate in Ho Chi Minh city. It seems that the Chinese embassy in Hanoi only process visas for Vietnamese residents and not for tourists.

Before heading to the consulate, we spent one day doing our homework. We filled in and printed the forms, we defined our itinerary, we booked hotels, we had flight reservations, our insurance information… we even printed our bank statements to prove we had sufficient funds while traveling in China. We thought that with all these information it was going to be difficult for them to reject our application, but they did.

Even though we arrived with a bunch of documents and printouts as soon as they realized we didn’t have an invitation letter they said no. We tried to reason out with the woman at the desk, we explained we didn’t know anybody in China, but it was impossible. She made it clear that unless we had an invitation letter and flights for getting in and out of the country she wasn’t going to accept and process our application. We felt helpless and a bit infuriated, specially because the invitation letter it’s not a must when applying for a tourist Chinese visa in your home country, but it seems it’s a requirement in Vietnam.

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Good Morning Vietnam!

Gooooooood morning Vietnaaaaam!!! Al igual que Robin Williams gritaba desde Saigon, nosotros lo hacíamos desde el Mekong en la frontera entre Camboya y Vietnam. Teníamos un mes por delante para recorrer Vietnam de sur a norte, que ya son unos cuantos miles de kilómetros, y nuestra primera parada era el delta del Mekong.

Vietnam es el segundo mayor exportador de arroz del mundo por detrás de Tailandia. Una tercera parte de lo que produce procede del delta del Mekong, que solo supone una décima parte de la superficie de todo Vietnam. El delta es una gran planicie verde de campos de arroz entrecortada por los distintos ramales del río Mekong que desembocan en el mar del Sur de China. Para poder apreciar con calma la vida en el delta del Mekong nosotros elegimos pasar un par de días en Chau Doc y otros dos en Vinh Long.

En Chau Doc ya nos empezamos a enamorar de Vietnam… con las mesitas y sillitas de plástico de los puestos de comida en todas las esquinas, las mujeres vistiendo los típicos sombreros tríangulares vietnamitas, el ca phe (café) servido en pequeñas cafeteras individuales, los mercados locales llenos de artículos y comidas de todo tipo, y sobre todo la simpatía de los vietnamitas.

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