Happy Roshoshana

We got up at seven AM and right away I went outside to the porch, that viewed the town and mountains around, and roosters calls could be heard from the distance. We went downstairs to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, that was one of the only restaurants in the area, and an Israeli family with tired parents and two little kids sat next to us – it was Rosh Hashana, the new year’s evening, and I guess that many families went on vacations since we saw many Israelis that day.

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It was Sunday, and Bắc Hà had a big market that gathered people from neighboring villages. The market is also an attraction for tourists that went there by buses for day trips, and we saw them swarming there from the porch. It was still relatively empty in the morning and most of the activity took place in the more touristic area, where they sold souvenirs and clothes. The other parts of the market opened slowly – fruits and vegetables, kitchenware, strange objects, meat and seafood, live goose and chickens, vehicles parts. Women with colorful tribal clothing walked around – similar to the women from Sapa, but with slightly different colors on their clothes. There was a place for restaurants and we sat in one of them on a long bench and ate soft rice leaves rolled with many salty spices. Afterwards we went back to the market’s center and Roni bought a kitchen knife from a man who stood in front of dozens of different sized knives on a table, and a small dog napped beneath it. Then we had some coffee and a strange old lady sat with us and tried to chat, but gave up when we couldn’t understand her and went to order for herself some funky beans-drink from a little child that worked there. We looked at the people – an old man with a donkey, two Americans asked the waitress to take their photo, an Israeli woman sat on the stairs with a bag of popcorn and took photos of the tribal women.

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We went outside the market and took a walk in the town, but outside the center there wasn’t much to see beside the dozy streets. By the afternoon we came back, when booths began to shut and people lead their stock on buffaloes and small horses they led with leashes. We had coffee at a woman who was suspiciously nice who later on took a way-too-hight price, something we’ve met a lot – sometimes we were charged with higher price since we were tourists and we usually went with it, because the difference was just a few Shekels for us. It seemed silly to waste time arguing on something so small, especially if it’s a big difference for the vendor. We went back to the hotel, and as we took the key at the reception the hotel’s manager blessed us with “Happy Roshoshana” with a fake American accent he used when he talked with tourists. He told us that he met many Israelis who explained him that it was a holiday for us. There was something a bit depressing in it that I can’t explain, like waking up from a dream. We didn’t have a festive feeling since we were on the other side of the world, and just didn’t think about it. When the evening came we went to look for something outside but everything was so desolate, so we gave up and went back to the hotel’s restaurant, that was the most lively thing around. Since all the tables were full we sat together with a French couple that looked like they got straight out of a Hallmark’s movie and ate spaghetti Bolognese, and after it emptied a little we moved outside because Roni wanted to smoke. We talked with a chubby man who worked at the hotel about smoking and he told us that his wife and son keep asking him to quit, but he can’t. Even though the cigarette boxes in Vietnam have horror pictures on them of the results of smoking, they are still very cheap and available. They are also relatively good – I don’t usually smoke, but I’ve found myself having one here and there during the trip.

The next day we woke early and went downstairs to have meat soup for breakfast. The French couple from the day before also sat there with tip-top sporty clothes and ate pancakes, and we joked among ourselves that they do everything perfectly. Roni said he didn’t recognized them without the pasta. A man with blond-orange hair who looked European came inside and spoked fluent Vietnamese with the locals as he ordered coffee, and after a few moments another man joined him and they spoke French. I tried to guess what’s up with him – we said that he probably lives and works in Vietnam as a photographer, maybe a journalist or a National Geographic photographer, and indeed he took out a tripod out of his backpack at a certain point.

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After breakfast we strolled around in the quiet city, and towards 11 and a half we went back to pack our things and went downstairs. The hotel’s manager with his fake American accent took us one by one on his motorcycle to the bus station, first me, then Roni and eventually the French photographer, and afterwards said goodbye and drove away. We had half an hour to spend there until the ride back to the center left, so the Frenchman invited us to eat with him at a small place nearby. He told us that his name was Etienne and he’s been living for eight years in Vietnam’s center and working as a freelance photographer, and teaches tourists that want to learn photography in his spare time. Now he took a vacation to travel. A little kitten played under the table when we ate, and the way Etienne spoke so casually with the locals made us want to learn Vietnamese. I tried to learn it a little bit before the trip via some applications, but it’s very hard to learn this language without speaking it with people since the pronunciation of the words changes their meaning.

The bus was already there when we came back to the station. a man with a moustache asked me how old I am, and Etienne said that it’s casual to ask strangers for their age since in Vietnamese there are different ways to approach to different ages. We went on the bus, that appeared as a sleeping bus – three rows with two passageways between them, two floors of bunk beds. It is something common there for long rides. You need to take your shoes off and get a nylon bag from the driver for the shoes, and then hang it on a small hook on the side of the bed. The seat is adjustable and you can raise or lower it. There is a carpet on the floor, curtains on the windows and a pillow and a blanket for each passenger. It’s best to choose a bed on the top floor, so you won’t have to look at passing people’s bare lags throughout the whole ride. The real crazy thing is that the back seat is five beds combined, and Etienne said it’s better not to sit there because then you’ll have to share one big bed with strangers.

The bus began the journey towards Hanoi, where we had to go in order to take the train to the next destination. There were speakers on the ceiling that sounded strident Vietnamese music through two TV sets in the center of the bus, one for each floor, that showed video clips of the beauty of the country with the music in the background. There was a small perfumed tree hanging on the screen, with the pattern of the American flag. At the beginning of the ride there were many shakings and sharp curves as the bus crossed the rice fields. In the bed ahead of me slept a young military officer in a fetal position with his head on the folded blanket, hugging his pillow like you’d hug a teddy bear, and to my left sat a small man who listen to annoying music with his phone and only sometimes used his earphones. Once in a while we stopped to collect more passengers, and one time there was a longer stop when the driver wanted to have a smoke. There was a big box with colorful plastic flip-flops that you could walk outside with, since everybody’s shoes were hanging in bags on the beds. Many people got off the bus and some men stood outside and peed in an arranged row just a few meters from us, and I followed the women because I thought there might be toilets somewhere in the area. Apparently not – we were all just crouching together behind a big bush, and this was another situation that I’ve never thought I’ll find myself in. The long ride continued. I read, listened to music, napped. Roni was in a bed behind me so we couldn’t really talk. People came and went – a fat man with a red shirt fell asleep and snored in the bed next to me, an old military man argued about something with the driver and that sat on one of the lower beds and stared at the TV. They finally changed the channel and the TV now showed dubbed nature films. By the sunset we arrived at another stop, where we ate steamed dumplings with meat and quail eggs. It got darker and when we continued they turned off the TV but also the lights, and when it got too dark to read I tried to get some sleep.

We arrived at Hanoi at seven PM and got off the bus together with Etienne, who put together his motorcycle that waited for him in the bus’ storage. He asked for directions from a local man and then showed us which direction to go in order to catch a bus to the city center, said goodbye and drove away. We began walking with our backpacks in that direction until we reached at a bus station, where a man told us to catch bus number 14. We paid the young ticket seller when we went on the bus but he didn’t speak English and couldn’t help us much, so somebody else said he will tell us when we reach our station. The ride took about half an hour during which we began recognizing familiar places, the big lake in the West, the park with the sculptures, a highway and eventually the stone gate in the entrance of the Hoan Kiem district and our hotel’s street. We thanked the man who helped us and went down to the hot humid air of the city, tired and in need of a shower, and mostly happy to be there for one last time.

Mountains & Markets

We began to feel strange at Sapa after two days. I downloaded Trip Advisor and read some reviews about the hotel we stayed at, with creepy stories about the tall man with the yellow teeth in the reception. Additionally we shared a porch with the neighboring room, where some noisy locals stayed and got drunk and sang loudly right in the shared porch. The city itself had a heavy feeling, mostly because of the many tourists and the poor women who were desperate to sell things.

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We spent most of the afternoon in the market, had different soups and Roni bought some big knives, and by the evening we went to a busy BBQ restaurant. We had fried skewers and shared a table with an Italian guy who told us that he’s back from one of the nearby villages and spent the days at one of the women’s house, together with her husband and five children. He said that each morning she took him hiking, and at noon he joined the men at the rice fields. He gave us her name her number when he finished eating, and a couple of Australians took his place as he left and told us that they don’t really like Sapa since it’s too touristic. After dinner we went to have some beer, and I ordered a random cocktail without knowing what I’m going to get.

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It was still noisy in the room and there was no window apart from the door that opened to the porch where the drunk locals sat, so we’ve felt a bit suffocated. We talked about moving on the following day to the next destination but we sent our clothes for laundry at the hotel, and we had to wait for it to dry. We decided to stay another night.

The next morning we went to the market and had breakfast where we ate the first day, and after a black coffee we got back to the room to change to better shoes and went traveling outside the city. We went out to the fresh chill air, got to a small cemetery with high grass growing wild and strolled around in the dusty paths between the mountains and the small villages. We had coffee at a small place with the view of the terraces with the rice fields, and went back to the town. We had another soup at the market with some sticky rice leaves rolled in meat and salty sauce, and went to have some strong ginger tea and mango juice at that cafe in the yard with the lazy dogs. When the sun set we had a brief shower at the hotel and went to have dinner at the BBQ restaurant where we ate the previous day. It was a big place with many people and a big grill at the entrance with some skewers and a big pig cooking slowly. We ordered some skewers and a slice of the pig and sat next to two locals, who were busy with their phones throughout the whole meal. The food was warm, fatty and comforting. When we finished we tried to find some tap beer, and when we couldn’t find we went to a big area with many restaurants under the open night skies and ordered two bottles of beer. We played with the idea of coming back to Hanoi, that from there seemd like a simple and easy city, but instead we booked a hotel in Bắc Hà – a small town in the area that has a market each Sunday, and people from all the surrounding villages gather there every week. We paid the woman with a twisted arm who worked there and got back to the hotel, payed for everything and took back the dry laundry, and went to bed.

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The next morning we got up early and began walking with our heavy backpacks uphill towards a red bus that waited in front of a small church in the city center, and after about ten minutes we began the ride. I couldn’t sleep because there were many turns and jerkings, but the way wasn’t very long and after about an hour the driver dropped us at Lào Cai – another town on the way to Bắc Hà. We stood in the middle of a parking lot and had no idea where to go next so we just tried to find some coffee, since we didn’t have any in the morning, when a brown van stopped by and a young tattooed guy stood by the door and called “Bắc Hà! Bắc Hà!”. We joined them, since we had no better idea. He put our bags in the back and signaled the driver to go, and the van moved on while honking loudly. It stopped for a few moments at a garage to get something and I used to opportunity to go to the bathroom, where a little boy stood and held a huge dog on a leash. We went on. The young guy loaded the vehicle with more and more people, among them some very old women from the nearby villages with rice baskets on their backs, people who delivered different stuff, some coughing soldiers, a man with a drum that was used as another seat. The van was completely full and stopped once in a while at different places. It seemed endless to me as I was half sleeping, and felt awkward to wake up here and there into this van with all those weird people.

Eventually the young guy signaled us to get down at a station in the dozy Bắc Hà. A shrunken woman led us to the main street where the hotel was, and a nice plump man greeted us at the reception. After we settled in the small room we went for a walk in the town, and noticed immediately that it had a completely different vibe than Sapa – rural, calm, less touristic. We finally had our first coffee, and went on to find something to eat. After we passed by some restaurants where mostly tourists sat we moved on towards the market, but it opened only at the evening and we only saw a few booths of fruits and vegetables. Eventually we found a small place where mostly locals sat, so we joined them on the low benches and ordered small bowls of soup, rice, meat, tofu and other things that you mix together and eat. They also served tap beer in a plastic bottle, and everything was super tasty. The owner served us the food while holding a toddler with one hand and breastfeeded him with her exposed breasts. Some very old local women sat there, probably at least 400 years old, and spat rice out of their mouths as they ate and chattered loudly.

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We passed the afternoon lazily, strolled around the town and brooded at the hotel, and when we were hungry again we went downstairs to eat at the hotel’s restaurant that was pretty good. Afterward we looked for somewhere to have beer in the area of the night market. We walked in the empty streets and followed the few people towards the market, where there were lots of people and a big stage with shows. Some woman played such a strange up-bit music, that I told Roni that if he told me that this is a Gorillaz’s song – I would have believed him. I skinny middle-aged woman with black clothes invited us to have beer at her place, so we sat at the white plastic chairs as her young sons served us the beer and some snacks. She pointed enthusiasticly towards some girls who danced on the stage and shouted “Bangkok! Bangkok!”. One of her sons, who didn’t spoke English, wrote us with his phone through Google-Translate that they are celebrating the many minorities in Vietnam. She sat next to us and tried to have a small talk as she is pouring more and more beer, and we managed to understand from her that all the people around are her children or grandchildren. The shows on the stage changed every minutes and mostly children from different tribes and minorities starred in them. Eventually all the locals formed a circle and danced around a huge bonfire that rose out of no where. We’ve already been a bit drunk and the dance of the people who looked like dark silhouettes against the fire seem pagan and strange. After it was over the whole place shut down at once and emptied, and we finished the day and went to bed.