Saturday, March 30, 2013

We're not in Kansas anymore

Not that we ever were in Kansas... but coming to Sapa was like going to completely new place with scenes I've only ever seen in National Geographic.

Unfortunately, most of beautiful photos from Sapa were lost with my camera on the bus... I was devastated to say the least, but thank goodness for iPhones eh?

Sapa is a rural town in the northern mountains of Vietnam. If you google it, you'll begin to understand how breathtaking this place was. I could have spent the entire semester here (I really am a country girl..) but we only stayed for a week. It was really nice to get out of the super busy and crowded city of Hanoi. Looking back on it, this was almost like a pre-spring break trip, because our schedule here was so much more relaxed than usual. We spent the first few nights at a hotel in the actual town before heading to the smaller village of Ta Van where we spent 3 nights. It was such a crazy thing to be doing "homework" with this amazing view around us.

There were water buffalo, chickens, dogs, cats, pigs, and even a few rats running around the village. Casually. We talked with the village leader, went to a Hmong and Dao village nearby, and haggled with the man local women that came up to us saying "You buy from meeeee?"

It was a bit odd how much tourism had become a part of this village. There were tons of backpackers shops filled with knock off North Face jackets, Keen sandals, backpacks, snow pants and anything else a true backpacker might need up these northern mountains. It actually was quite a bit colder up here, so I gave in and bought me a new light jacket. Then I started bargaining a bit more and ended up getting a wonderful $16 backpack (which proved very useful for spring break!)

So after leaving Ta Van, most of us stayed in Sapa for the rest of the weekend. It was oddly foggy in the town, and then we realized that we were literally IN the clouds.

I took a motorbike tour with one of our translators and three other girls in the group and we got to see even more of this beautiful country side. We went up pretty far in the mountain area where most of our group was hiking. (Due to a sore throat I chose not got hiking). But motorbikes are a great way to get around and see stuff! We got to stop whenever we wanted to take photos, and they brought us to a waterfall and several other villages along the way.

There were also a TON of babies all over Sapa and the surrounding villages. Just about every woman had a baby on her back (which was a little weird as well..) But they were all so adorable! I even got to hold one for about 15 minutes while one woman was helping a customer. Made my day :)

Finished off the weekend by making it onto a Vietnamese reality TV show! It's always women who are trying to sell jewelry and bags on the street, and we really didn't see many men while we were in Sapa, so when this 20 year old man came up to us and tried selling us bags, we knew something was up. Then we saw the camera crew behind him, but I figured I'd just go with it and see what he wanted. So my friend Bianca and I chatted with him for a bit and humored him as he tried to sell us the same things that the Hmong and Dao women were trying to sell us but for cheaper. He claimed he was just trying to make money for a train ticket home.. But he was even dressed in the traditional clothing of the Hmong women! After talking with him and "bargaining" for about 15 minutes we found out he was a college student in Hanoi and was studying business, but he wouldn't tell us anything about the cameras. Bianca ended up buying a bag from him and then he headed off down the road, camera crew and all. While we were talking with him, some of the others from our group were talking with the camera men and they found out that they were filming a reality TV show and they gave us the youtube link for where the episode will be posted once it's done being edited. So I checked Vietnamese TV off my list and carried on with my night!

Some food we ate

The view from our hotel

Bianca, the Reality TV man, a Hmong woman, and a Dao woman

We took the overnight train back to Hanoi on Sunday night, and resumed our busy class schedule on Monday. Friday we left for Spring Break (that'll be my next blog) and this Monday (April 1) we leave for South Africa!!! Oh my goodness. So excited.

All for now!


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

We Got a Boat!

So last weekend, about 20 out of the 30 of us students went to Halong Bay for two days. The others also went, but they did a single day tour rather than an overnight. Halong Bay is one of the "must-see" sights in Vietnam, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The tale of the bay is that while the Viet people were fighting foreign aggressors, dragons came down from the sky and spat out pearls that changed into jade stone islands which knocked out the enemy. These islands are what now makes up the breath-taking view that Halong Bay offers.

So the twenty of us got a two day tour and spent the night on the boat. We basically rented our own boat for those two days, because it was only our group on the tour. We were picked up early in the morning from our school in Hanoi and took a bus/van 4 hours east to the coast of Vietnam. From there we took a small boat out to our private boat where we were greeted by Tiger, our tour guide for the weekend.

Not only did we have our own boat, but we also had a dining room with karaoke and a wonderful cooking staff that fed us so well while we were there!

And we had the whole top deck to lay out, read, and enjoy the beautiful weather with great company

After eating lunch, we were taken to a huge cave (it's a bit made up and touristy, but I'm not complaining) that we got to explore, and then we got to go kayaking in the sunset. While we were kayaking, Tiger took us through a little cove where the other side of the rock was where a large group of monkeys lived! They were swinging from vines and climbing on the walls of the rocks, making noise and throwing coconuts! I was hoping one might jump in the kayak, but no such luck...

We then came back to our boat, had dinner and stayed out on the top deck sharing stories and bonding even more (it seems like we'll soon be out of new things to tell each other because we learn so much everyday about each other's lives) Then we were soothed to sleep by the waves of the ocean :)

The next morning we woke up to calm seas being hovered by a light fog. We woke up early to hike up to a beautiful view, but because of the fog, we couldn't see much. It was still a great way to start the day though!

Then we boated along for the rest of the day, passing several floating villages and boat carts offering little snacks to eat. We bought some Oreos from this woman :) It was really cool watching the fog clear up as the day went on because other boats would emerge from the fog and I felt like I was in one of the Pirate movies. Unfortunately, Halong Bay is not well taken care of, and the water is getting more and more polluted with pollution from boats and trash from the people. It's quite sad that such an amazing place is becoming so polluted..

We were eventually dropped back off at the dock, and driven back to Hanoi. It was such a great little escape weekend, and luckily we left for our rural visit in Sapa a week after returning from Halong Bay. I'll write an update on Sapa in the next few days!


Friday, March 8, 2013

Update: VIETNAM!

As you can probably tell from my lack of blogging, I've been quite busy these past few weeks. Since there's a lot to inform you on, I'm not going to go into too much detail about everything that's happened, but here's a little wrap up:

- Last week in Brazil was fantastic. It was hard saying goodbye to our host families, our country coordinator, and our translators (who also became our very good friends)

-Took a 13 hour plane ride to Doha, had an hour and half layover, and then continued for another 10 hours to Bangkok, and one final 2 hour flight to Ha Noi, Vietnam!


-We were introduced to our new host families!! I am staying with Yenling, a student from Brown who is actually Vietnamese. Her parents were born and raised in Vietnam, but moved to the US in the 80s and this is Yenling's first time in Vietnam! She's speaks the language quite fluently (although she says she doesn't know much.. she's able to translate almost everything for me). We're living in an apartment building with our host mom, dad, and two younger brothers, 7 and 10. Our little brothers are pretty shy but they're warming up to us now!

-Our host grandma and grandpa live a few floors above us and come down for dinner everynight! Grandma is always smiling and giggling and loves it when I say the few words of Vietnamese I know: Thank you and It's delicious!

-Grandma also calls me Helen.. not sure if she just can't pronounce my name or if she thinks that's actually my name. She's too cute to correct, so I just go along with it.

-I brought "snow-to-go" as a gift for my host family, and the little boys are in love! They have a bowl full of "snow" and they told me this is the first time they've ever played with snow. They make little snowmen and are constantly playing with. It made me happy :)

-My host family buys Danish milk, Danish applejuice, and Danish laundry detergent. Why? Because "they have good products." Awesome.

-Woah Vietnam is awesome!

-Ha Noi is another big city, and there is SOOOOO much traffic. Meaning, a few cars, a few more taxis, several bicycles, and OH-SO-MANY motor bikes. Everywhere.

-There is lots of air pollution in Ha Noi. You know those face mask things that ill people sometimes wear? Yeah, just about everyone here owns at least one of those. It's a new fashion actually, and they sell them all over the place with cute patterns and different sizes to fit everyone's personal needs! They have carbon filters in them so they actually help too!

-Crossing the street is a very dangerous task because no one will stop for you. They will, however, swerve around you as you make your way slowly across the deadly road.

-Stop lights and lines on the street really don't mean anything. Why not go on when the light is red? Why not drive against the traffic? It's casual.

-Cars park on the sidewalk.

-I get lots of stares and points when walking down the street or riding on the bus. It's probably just my stunning good looks. But it could also have something to do with the fact that I look nothing like any of the Vietnamese people and I stand out quite a lot with my height as well. Not sure how I feel about all of this staring yet... The children smile and say "hello" at least!

-Food: CHEAP.

-Food: DELICIOUS. lots of rice, lots of noodles, lots of new muscles in my hand from using chopsticks 24/7.

-Food: Dragonfruit is my new favorite fruit. I eat it for breakfast every morning and I'm in love.

-School work has been pretty crazy lately. We dove right into assignments and papers when we got to Vietnam and it was a bit overwhelming. Things are calming down a little bit now.

-Went to the night market and bought tons of cheap clothes, bags, jewelry, and food. It was all worth it.

-Going to Ha Long Bay tomorrow for a weekend trip!

-Going on our rural visit to Sapa on Monday for a week.

-Spring break is in 2 weeks and I can't wait! My plan is to go to Ho Chi Minh City, check out the floating market, take a train to Dalat, check out the country side, then go to Da Nang and spend the rest of the time chilling on the beach.

Here's photos!

Lots of traffic

Dragon Fruit!

Yenling trying to cross the road (she's in pink)

Children on a bus, all very intrigued by the gringo on the bus next to theirs


Snail soup

Our host brothers, Hien and Khan

Just trying to walk down the sidewalk..

Yenling and I by the lake

Happy International Women's Day!

(Hope this update is okay, Mom!)