Taking Off, Again

I walked alone and listened to music, and tried to find the Crazy House – a place I saw marked on the map they gave us at the hotel, but didn’t really know what it was. I found the place after looking for it for a long time in a maze of small streets and alleys. At the entrance some Russian tourists stood and local women sold merchandise and strawberries. I bought a ticket for 40,000 Dong (about a Dollar and a half) and entered. It was lovely inside, special and different, like being in a Doctor Seuss’s book. It’s some kind of a museum that functions as a hotel as well, built of a few buildings with lots of steep staircases leading into and out of strange rooms. There are small cosy bedrooms looking as if they’ve been carved out of rocks or tree trunks. Hidden at the bottom floor of a building, there’s a lobby and a living room with wooden furniture and maps on the walls, a funny gift shop is concealed somewhere, and amongst the buildings there are yards with sculptures and hidden places, ladders, low porches. If you go high enough some of the staircases are becoming bridges that go over the whole Crazy House and whole Đà Lạt and you can see the rooftops of the small colorful houses.

IMG_2287.JPG

IMG_2317.JPG

IMG_2290.JPG

IMG_2299.JPG

I went downstairs, where there was a small kiosk, and bought passionfruit juice. I sat with my book by a lake, while toads cackled with their gruff voices and groups of tadpoles swam in the water. When I finished the chapter I walked around some more – I looked at a big cage where different species of fat doves napped on the branches of a tree. As the skies got cloudy again I walked back to the hotel, where Roni was already waiting. Rain began falling outside and after we showered we sat on the bed and watched “The Social Network” that I somehow managed to download to my phone, and by evening, as the rain stopped, we went for dinner. We sat at one of the places where you get a small grill to the table and order skewers to roast on it, ate fresh meats and drank beer. Heavy rain was falling again, and when it weakened we quickly went back to the hotel. It was cold and we cuddled in the bed, and continued watching the movie until we fell asleep.

IMG_2285.JPG

In the morning we ate soup with mushrooms for breakfast. At the table near us a woman with a Chinese look and an American accent tried Vietnamese coffee for the first time and admired its chocolate flavour. After eating we went to the market again to find me some shoes. At the hotel’s entrance there was a place to put your shoes at, and in one of the days my sandals just disappeared from there. On the second floor of the market there was an area with only different kinds of shoe shops, from practical ones for work to fancy ones, and I found flat colorful canvas shoes which I liked immediately. I still have them in my closet and they’re starting to fall apart, but I can’t throw them yet because they remind me of Đà Lạt.

IMG_2300.JPG

For lunch we ate again at the small restaurant a meal of meat and rice, and then went to the Crazy House because I wanted Roni to see it too. I was glad to go back because everything was so cute and strange, and Roni liked it as well. Meanwhile evening came slowly. It was our last day in Đà Lạt and I was a bit sad to leave – the sweet homey hotel, Hien the receptionist, the chill city. We had dinner at a place similar to the night before, with a small grill served to the table, and for the first time I tried a roasted chicken leg. It was nice but poor with meat and with lots of bones. A local mother sat next to us with two little girls who were scared of the grill’s red sparks.

We moved from there to the night market, which was closed to cars and very busy with people and vendors. At the central square stood two people with huge costumes of a Minion and Hello-Kitty, and some teenagers pushed them to make them fall down. We walked around a little, Roni got himself a pair of shoes, and then we had ice-cream at a small cafe. We went back, organized our backpacks and went to sleep.

We got up at seven AM, got dressed quickly and went downstairs for check-out. We sat with Hien for a breakfast of rice leaves rolled with meat, and coffee. Her cute sister joined us too but her English wasn’t so good so she mostly smiled in silence. A rough rolling sound broke the silence – Nip and Quan, the motorcyclists, parked their heavy motorcycles outside. As we loaded our things on the bikes Hien gave Roni and I scarves as a gift to cover our mouths and noses during the rife. Roni went on the bike behind Nip, a middle-aged man with a smile and a moustache, and I sat behind Quan, a quiet man with moon-face that seemed age-less even though he must be over 60. The motor ignited and rumbled beneath us as we made our way in the heavy morning traffic. After we passed by the central square we catched up with Nip and Roni, who disappeared in the distance for a while. The bike accelerated and the wind began blowing through the hair as we left the city, towards another journey.

IMG_2353.JPG

Flowers, Snails and Raindrops

On the two and a half days Quoc and Giang were in Đà Lạt they took us to resturants, cafes and bars we would never have found on our own. It made me grateful again about the decision to leave the fancy hotel in Nha Trang and move to their cute one.
On the first evening they left us a note at the hotel’s reception saying they’ve booked a cab to come pick us up at eight and take us to their favorite place. The cab took us to the front of a big loud resturant where they waited for us, and after we got inside and sat they ordered for all four of us a big comforting hot-pot, some soup that comes in a big bowl at the center of the table together with vegetables and meats you can cook inside, and everybody share it. I told them we’ve seen people eating snails but never tried it ourselves, so they ordered a dish for us to try. Aside of the snail itself the shells were filled with chopped pork, and were served with a stem of lemon-grass so you could pull out the shell’s content with it. The snail itself had a texture similar to calamari and a very gentle flavour I could hardly feel, because it was blended with the strong tastes of the pork and lemon-grass. When we sat they told us they have a three years old daughter back home named Sushi, since they like sushi. Quoc tattooed her name on one of his fingers.

IMG_2235.JPG

After dinner we went together towards the market. The hotel itself is inside an alley and outside of it there’s a small lake, followed by a steep hill leading to the central square ot the market, a building with four or five floors. We went to a cafe in the area called Windmills and went up to the second floor, where there was a porch viewing the square. Roni and I had tea and Quoc and Giang had green matcha-based coffee drinks, and together we shared a tiramisu and another cake with cheese and berries. We talked about the hotel in Nha Trang. Quoc confessed that when he got our booking and saw we were from Israel he was nervous because they had a bad experience with Israelies before, and asked the receptionist to be extra nice so we won’t have reasons to complain. We said we are aware of it that Israelies can be rude when traveling, and some hotels in the world won’t accept us at all. They told us about customers from different countries they’ve had who complained about strange things, such us not having an elevator even though they knew that when they booked the room, or the place not being fancy enogh, while the price is super cheap. It’s nice you can give a review on Trip Advisor or Yelp, but it can hurt small independent places when people give low ratings for nothing. I said I always check the most negative reviews to see if they are legitimate or just petty.

We really liked the huge marketplace and the area around it. To get there you go down some stairs and reach at the big square with a grass plot in the middle, and lots of resturants and cafes around it. From there you can turn right to a big street where dozens of modern and traditional resturants are under the open skies, together with stalls of jewelries, various hand-made items, souvenirs. Behind the square stands the crowded market building burdened with shoes, clothes, make-up, groceries. Around the building there are more stalls, the merchandise lays right on a rug on the floor in some. From one of the top floors there is another exit to a different, higher street – since the city is so mountainous, it’s built with different levels. In the evening lights are turned on in the square and to the thick crowd thats already there more families are added, dogs, children, young honeymooners, vendors who sells unnecessary items.

On the second day Quoc and Giang took us for lunch at a tiny resturant near the market with two crowded floors and a big grill outside, where we had a delicious meal of rice with grilled meat and small bowls of soup on the side. We went from there for coffee and ice-cream at another place. It began raining heavily, so we sat there for a while and looked at the raindrops from inside. Quoc and Giang are the kind of people you can talk with for hours about anything, and you can also not talk at all.

IMG_2246.JPG

In the evening Roni and I walked around by ourselves. We sat at a cafe by the hotel and talked with some friends back home, walked slowly towards the market and stopped for a nice comforting bún bò, and at 8 thirty we met Quoc and Giang for beer. There were some hostels around with young loud American tourists who sat in nearby pubs, and Giang said that Western tourists always seem to her excited and full of energy. Their stories about the Israelies they’ve met before, and tourists from other countries, made me wonder for the millionth time how we are being perceived in this country, and how tourists see Israel.

IMG_2322.JPG

In the morning we sat on the colorful couch in the hotel’s loby and had breakfast with Hien, the receptionist we’ve met on the first day. We said goodbye to Quoc and Giang who went back home to Nha-Trang, and went for a walk outside. We walked slowly to the flowers garden – a park that is an attraction in Đà Lạt, which is famous for its flowers and greenhouses. We walked lazily, looking at stores here and there, and got inside a pagoda we’ve seen on the way that was very peacfull and quiet. We almost arrived at a big central lake when a middle-aged man with a blue Eazy Riders jacket approached us and began chatting. He was very welcoming and nice and we were planning to have another motorcycles trip to the next destination anyway, so we walked with him to his office, where we had tea with him and his partner and planned a three days trip and then a bus to Hồ Chí Minh City. They told us that it’s a low season for them since there aren’t many tourists so they lower their prices – they are Buddhist and believe in Karma. What goes around comes around. We took their details, shook hand and went on walking by the lake. We walked on a big grass plot, stopped where two well groomed horses stood and bought a bag of sweet popcorn for snack. The skies got darker and it looked like it was about to rain, so we decided to go back towards the market and visit the flower garden on another day. We arrived at one of the resturants on the market’s square and sat under a big shade right when pouring rain began to fall, and had a spicy Phở bò. A lazy cat took a nap on my bag and covered with my scarf.

IMG_2260.JPG

When we finished eating we ran in the rain to the covered part of the market and stayed there until the rain stopped, and went back towrds the hotel with the thunders still roaring in the distance. At the evening we went again and had peach-tea at a cafe with a gentle smell of coffee and cigarettes. We wanted to have dinner at that tiny resturant where Quoc and Giang took us but they were closing so Roni said we should get some pizza, something that suddenly we both had a craving for. We ate at a great pizzeria, even though the service was a bit too official for us, and looked at drunk tourists in the street and dogs playing on the road. It was the only time during the trip when we had Western food and it was very comforting, but to be honest I loved the local food so much I hardly missed anything.

In the morning we sat again with Hien for breakfast, ate the yummy soup they served for breakfast and had coffee. Hien told us about her job and life. She chose this job because she loved meeting and talking with people from around the world, so she can practice her English and expand her horizons. Her sister works in the hotel as well but more at the back on the house, maintenance and kitchen. We asked how come the stay there is so cheap yet the hotel is so nice and clean and they serve such delicious breakfast for free, and she said that Ken, the owner of the place, believes in giving as much as possible.

It was a bright sunny day, even warm, so we decided to try our luck again and go to the flowers garden. We passed by the big lake again, where the beautiful horses stood. Poeple paddled in the water in small flamboyant boats shaped like swans. After a long walk we found the beautiful entrance, payed 60,000 Dong (about 2-3 dollars) and went inside. It was quiet, clean and very nurtured. Small pathways meandered between lawns and floral gardens where shrubs were trimmed into shapes of pitchers, kettles, tea cups. A miniature house with a roof made solely out of flowers stood by a lake and wind chimes gently chanted on its entrance, and nearby stood some bonsai trees that with a close look seemed like tiny fairy-kingdoms.

IMG_2263.JPG

IMG_2264.JPG

IMG_2265.JPG

We sat for coffee at a nice woman with a stall by the lake, and kept on walking. We saw here and there young local couples, and aside from them the place was relatively empty. We went inside a green house with dozens different species of huge orchids, where a Western women talked with the saleswoman about the cultivation of the flowers. We strolled there some more, enjoying the cool fresh air of the ground and vegetationm until the noon rain clouds apeared in the distance again so we went back to the market’s area. We had a tasty lunch at the small resturant with the grill outside, and when the rains stopped we decided to split for a while and travel by ourselves. Roni went to the market, and I put on my headphones and went to explore the city.

We Are All Brothers

We had a hard time finding dinner on our first night in Nha-Trang since the area where we stayed was a bit desolate, but after walking around we found a busy place that served good phở. After we ate we saw a woman who sold those yummy dumplings with the meat and quail eggs like the ones we ate sometimes in the North, but they had a slightly different flavour which I didn’t really like. Eventually we found a place in an alley that appeared to have a happy vibe so we sat there and had two beers that came with glasses full of huge ice blocks. Aside from us there were a few more couples that ordered meat which came on a hot plate and they fried it themselves, and since we weren’t hungry anymore we decided to come back the next day for dinner.

In the morning we ate breakfast at the strange and fancy hotel’s restaurant together with severe oligarchs from Russia and China. The chairs were wrapped in a white cloth that hadn’t been washed in months, and on the side there were leftovers from a wedding that took place there god-knows-when. We had coffee outside and went to the beach, the one with only pale tourists, and after a long stay there we came back to the hotel for a brief shower and then back outside to look for food. Everything was beginning to close for the noon but we found a place that seemed open and two mama’s were sitting by the entrance, and when they saw us they woke up a girl who worked there and was getting ready for her nap. We’ve felt a bit uncomfortable about it but they insisted that the place is open, and anyway the soup she served was great.

IMG_1981.JPG

The day passed by calmingly. We bought some clothes at a small market on the street and had more coffee, went to the beach again by sunset and watched as the sky darkened, and by evening we came back to the place where we had beer the night before. The menu was in Vietnamese only and the owner of the place was a smiling middle-aged man who didn’t speak a word in English. We decided to be spontaneous and just pointed at a few things from the menu without knowing what we’re ordering, and aside from some fried meats we also got fish parts (mostly fins) cooked in tin foils with a boiling sauce. Everything was delicious even though the fish had a lot of small bones in it, and generally I like the idea of not exactly knowing what we’re gonna get. The man tried to speak with us via Google Translate – he asked about Roni’s tattoo of a fisherman and a fish, and wrote through google “You are not intelligent”. Later on we found out that the words “Fisherman” and “Stupid” are written the same way, so I guess he was trying to ask Roni whether he was a fisherman. He called his friend, who spoke a little English, and they both sat with us. We talked about politics. The guy who spoke English said he thought politicians are like children, just messing around with their stuff, while us, the simple people, looking from outside and not knowing what they are doing. He told us that now they have problems with the neighboring countries – the relationships between Vietnam and Russia are very close, like brothers, but Vietnam has problems with China which affects the relationship with Russia. He said that there is tension on the North border of Vietnam and that sometimes people in South China disconnect their electricity (as some sort of vandalism) and I remembered that there really were many power outrages in the North. He went back to his friends, and we paid and began walking towards the hotel. We saw him again on the way back, sitting by a plastic table in the street together with three more men and a woman, and he said they are his brothers and invited us to sit with them. As we sat he explained that sometimes very close friends define themselves as brothers, and that they know each other since school and now they are 55 years old. On my left one of the men poured beer for us and on the other side a skinny man asked us where we came from, and said that the only thing he knows about Israel is that people used to blow themselves up in public places as a terror activity. They asked us what we thought about Vietnam, and we said that we don’t know if it’s just us but people in the South seem much friendlier than in the North. They said it was impressive we noticed that, and those differences are because people in the North tend to be more poor and hard-working, so it’s harder to “get” to them. We said goodbye and they wished us goodnight while winking, and we strolled drunk back to the room.

IMG_1982.JPG

By morning we packed, checked out and took a cab. It took me a while to figure out why the driver was blushing and saying again and again “Madam beautiful”, until I noticed my blouse was open… The cab took us to the area we saw when we just arrived at the city, a bustling area with a long boardwalk, busy roads, street-food, people. We booked the night before a small humble place right at the center. A young woman with glasses welcomed us and gave us the room key, and when we came back outside she explained about the area and helped us book a snorkeling trip for the day after.

IMG_2050.JPG

It was very refreshing to move from that bombastic hotel into a much more intimate and cute place, not to mention the area – which was also touristic, but had a much younger vibe. We took another cab to the marketplace. We entered a big packed building with lots of booths and people calling us “Sir” and “Madam” from every direction, and after I bought a phone charger we went outside and walked between jewelry , swimwear and pendants made of dried sea horses and star-fish. We looked at swimwear at a shop where a bellied man napped on a hammock, and sat somewhere for tasty Bún bò. We got back to the hotel to change clothes and went to the beach, which was minutes away. The yellow sand, the green trees and the turquoise water. We spread our sheets under coconut trees and drank out of two cold and juicy coconuts that a passing woman sold us, reading and swimming.

IMG_2053.JPG

By evening we went to look for a place that could fix my phone, which wouldn’t connect to any charger. After we booked another night from the sweet receptionist with the glasses we asked her where you can fix phones, and she showed us on a map how to get to a main street with many mobile-phone shops. When we entered a big store all the employees stood in a line by the entrance to greet us, and a man with yellow teeth led us to a technician and helped us  communicate with him. We had 30 minutes to wait so we went to eat Bánh xèo, some sort of a crispy pancake made of rice and filled with shrimps, sprouts and greens. We collected the phone after they changed some tiny part in it and came back to the hotel. We passed by the night market, a colorful and lit place where they sold mostly jewelry and souvenirs, and when we were nearby the hotel heavy rain began to fall. We ran from building to building, store to store, and eventually sat in a French cafe and ordered two whiskeys on ice. When the rain stopped we strolled on the boardwalk, and went to bed since we had wo get up early the next day.

IMG_2056.JPG

Dragons in the Streets

In the morning a driver in a tall black van arrived and took us to where the bus to Hội An departed from. While we drove by the big river, he told us that he’s Catholic and there are many Catholics like him in Vietnam, along with many Buddhists, but no Muslims at all. We arrived pretty quick to his office, that was a room facing the street, and in the entrance parked many motorcycles and small vehicles. I looked around – there were two small fans on the walls that eased on the heat and a lot of photos with landscapes of the country. The driver went out again and left us with our bags, that took most of the seats in the small office, and came back again a few minutes later with the van, and this time some women with babies – some of them pregnant – got off the car and went into the office, disappearing behind a beaded curtain. We still had fifteen minutes to wait and I wanted to use the bathroom before we go, so I went as well behind the beaded courtain into a big living room where an old couple sat behind a table and drank beer. They kindly smiled at me as I took off my shoes in the entrance and looked for the bathroom around the house.

After a while the driver told us to take our bags and cross the street, where we waited for a few minutes to a big bus with seats with blue decorations and many people from different places. We sat in the back, hoping to catch a breeze once in a while from the window since there was no air conditioning, and after a group of women with long blue clothes got off the bus, we began the ride. It didn’t took long since Đà Nẵng and Hội An are close. A group of Asian tourists kept leaning above us to take photos. We could see through the window the bridge with the dragon, which everybody in the bus was very excited about, then the sea, some resorts places under construction, some shabby neighborhoods. Eventually we stopped at a sunny parking lot in Hội An. As we got off the bus a bunch of bikers approached us and asked if anybody needs a ride, so we joined two of them and they took us to the hotel.

A nice polite woman with a blue dress greeted us at the hotel, and said there is another Israeli couple staying there and the guy’s name is also Roni. A younger woman showed us our spacious room in the third floor, and after a brief shower we went downstairs again. The women in the reception told us about the area and the hotel, and how to get from place to place. I had a hard time concentrating in the conversation because I was tired from the ride and the heat, and my eyes kept wandering to the sweat droplets on the woman’s forehead. They all wore thick and long clothes, and I imagined they must be really hot underneath them. Afterwards we went outside to look for the marketplace. It was about 12 PM and the streets were dozy, but the market was relatively busy. We entered a big building with lots of booths of food and had hot and spicy noodles soup with lemon. After we sweated all our demons out we strolled outside, exploring the city with the little streets and clothing and souvenirs shops, And when it was really hot we came back to the hotel’s swimming pool. Since the beach was a bit far from the city center we chose a hotel with a pool so we could pass the time there in the hot hours, instead of just being stuck in the room.

IMG_1838.JPG

The hotel was medium-sized and very cute and the pool was small and surrounded with plants, and pleasant women worked there. We hade coffee and swam in the chill water and later on a woman with a bottle of beer and two children came there too, and also the Israeli couple, who talked Hebrew quietly and I wasn’t sure if they now we are from Israel as well.

Around 5 PM the weather got better, so we washed ourselves in the room and went outside towards the night market. We arrived at a wide river with lots of small colorful boats and crossed the bridge to the other side, where some fat cows stood between the houses and ate grass. As the skies got darker colorful lamps were lit everywhere in the main street where the market was. Women in simple wooden boats cruised along the river and sold candles in different colored paper boats, and people bought them and floated them on the water. There was a festive feeling all around. Once in a while groups of children passed by wearing costumes of dragons when one is the head and the other is the tail, and together with them walked other kids that some of them are dressed as chubby round-faced idols and others play drums. It was a few days before the mid-autumn festival, which has a back story about a dragon attacking the sinners and the god of earth collecting bribe to calm the dragon down. There were many booths of different objects, special lamps, clothes, jewelry, bags. We sat to eat Cao lầu, a dish unique to the city – noodles with fried pork and lots of greens, and spicy sauce on the side. We walked a lot, in both sides of the river, getting lost in the stylish shops and streets. We went inside a book store with some souvenirs and spent there some time since everything was so beautiful, and we saw various art shops, tailors, housewares – everything so special and diverse, like getting into someone’s attic full of goodies. Like in Sapa we saw many Israelis, perhaps because it was the holidays in Israel. we shared some fatty coconut pastry that Roni bought from a woman in the street, and then had tea at a cafe that looked like a museum. We entered a coffee shop that smelled amazing and looked at the bags of coffee beans they sold, and then tried coffee ice-cream that they made.

IMG_1860.JPG

We walked back to the hotel, since it was getting late and the market was closing. Roni got into a small groceries store and bought ground coffee beans while I stood outside and watched a big dragons parade that blocked the street, and then we had beer at a small pub next to the hotel. We went back to the room, talked with our families back home, and went to sleep on the huge bed.

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.

IMG_1640.JPG

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.

IMG_1642.JPG

IMG_1641.JPG

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.

IMG_1667.JPG

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.

IMG_1616.JPG

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.

IMG_1609.JPG

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.

IMG_1625.JPG

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.

IMG_1630.JPG

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.

The Witches of Sapa

We got up a bit before six AM, packed everything quickly and went downstairs to have coffee. A small woman with narrow face that worked at the hotel’s dinning room made us sandwiches for the ride and packed them, and when the bus to the North arrived we began to make the way outside of Hanoi. I had the chance to say one last goodbye to the streets and houses as the driver gathered more passengers from the Hoan Kiem and then drove through the highway, crossed the big river and went outside to the outskirts of the city. Aside from us were mostly  groups of loud British women on the bus, that slept on the half empty seats most of the time.

We stopped at a gas station where several people were scattered around and sold strange foods. We got some steamed dumplings filled with pork and quail egg from a skinny wrinkled woman, and I tried some kind of meat rolled in banana leaves. I tried to ask her which meat it was but she didn’t know a word in English, so after I tried to mimic some animals and used the few words I knew in Vietnamese, she put her hands by her head like horns and made some low “mooo” sound, so I guess it was buffalo or something.

The wind that blew from the window got colder as the bus climbed up on steep mountains. There were big hills with terraces of levelled rice fields all around, with different hues of yellow and green. I saw this picture so many times in articles about Vietnam before the trip that I couldn’t realize it’s real, that I’m really there. After a few hours of ride between forests and clouds we arrived at Sapa. It’s a strange city, chill and rainy and once in a while it’s covered by a heavy cloud. There are many minorities in North Vietnam, many different tribes and villages, and Sapa is some kind of a center for them – since it’s full of tourists. While the men work in the fields the women walk around the city wrapped with colorful heavy clothes, full of silver jewelry, some of them carry babies on their back, and sell things for tourists. Most of them sell jewelry, scarves, skirts, small instruments that they make. A weird woman with a harelip approached us several time and whispered “Hash hash, opium opium”. Some of them offer lodging in their homes for a few Dollars, including meals with their families and instructed hikes. It gave me an odd feeling. How poor are these women, that they need to open their own homes for strangers? Among them walk around some very old women, like witches, with heavy scarves covering their heads and bony hands, peeking out of their tiny eyes and selling god knows what.

IMG_1618.JPG

The bus stopped at a big parking lot and right away about 20 women ran towards us, and I saw them focusing with their eyes on each of us as we descended the bus. Two women approached Roni and I as we got out and followed us while we looked for a hotel, and probably wanted to offer us lodging at their houses, until Roni told them we didn’t want to buy anything and they left.

After we checked-in at a kind of grungy hotel we went outside to explore the city. It took me a moment to realize that we are alone, don’t know anyone in the city and not depending on any schedule. Until then Belle from the hotel helped us plan ahead the days and the trips, and this was the first time since Bangkok that we were completely spontaneous. We looked for something to eat on the main street but most places were touristic and the food was just pricey and not interesting. Mostly Englishmen and Scots sat there and we saw a group of four Israelis, for the first time since we got to Vietnam. After eating we kept traveling around, going out of the main street to smaller ones. Since Sapa is built on mountains it is very steep and full of narrow staircases made of white rocks, and together with the fresh cool air and the forests all around it kind of reminded me of a strange quiet version of Jerusalem. We sat in a small place and had hot coffee, unlike warmer places in Vietnam where they drink the coffee cold. Aside from us sat there two Scots our age, and after they unsuccessfully tried to haggle on the price the man dived into a book and the woman wrote in her journal with her organized handwriting.

IMG_1582.JPG

We went uphill from there, passing by a cute lake next to a school where many teenagers with green coats hanged around and stared at us, some construction sites with builders that smiled at us and eventually we arrived at a market. On the outside they sold mostly fruits and vegetables that they put in boxes on the orange ground, and on an inside part that was covered with a roof they sold meat and by-product and it took a while to get used to the strong smell. In another part there were tubs full of water with seafood and fish, crabs and oysters, and some silk worms. We entered a big building and at the entrance a woman invited us to have soup at her place, but we weren’t hungry yet so we moved on. There were mostly clothes and housewares, big knives and sets of plants and dried lizards, but the place was closing so after a while we returned to the woman with the soup. We sat on a long bench in a hall where more women sold different foods, and had a hot and spicy meat soup while the locals were staring at us. I was glad to find a less touristic area, and began to get used to the fact that we were the strange ones.

IMG_1601.JPG

We made our way back to the hotel to take a shower and get some warmer clothes, since the evening came and it got chilly. The city was covered with a cloud and we could only see a few meters ahead, and the lake was covered in white and looked enchanted. The shower at the hotel was leaping and creaking and I didn’t feel clean afterwards and while Roni took a shower I noticed that the room was dirty and it kind of disgusted me, so we decided to walk around and look for another hotel. We checked the Lonely Planet and went outside, and booked a room for the next night at a place that seemed nice and humble ran by a tall man with yellow teeth. Afterward we went to a place that served fried meat and had pork and vegetables on skewers, chicken wings and sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo stick, and beer. It was an open and big place, under the sky, and a kid sat in front of a TV in the corner and watched cartoons. We sat next to a young couple and a middle-aged woman with black clothes that held a fried chicken leg, ate it and spat the bones on the floor, and they switched a channel to an Indian movie dubbed into Vietnamese and watched it fascinated. When the movie was over the child, that served us the beers, switched back to the cartoons and a loud woman with red clothes got mad and lightly slapped his scruff and turned the TV off. Later on he climbed on her lap and fell asleep.

We sat there for a while and came back to the hotel and fell asleep. There were two single beds, each one in a different side of the room, and it was weird to sleep like that, reminded me of sleepover parties when we were kids or school trips.

At the morning we packed and moved to the other hotel. It was difficult to climb the stairs to our room in the fourth floor, but the room was nice and clean with an okay shower and a porch with a wide view. We went to get some coffee in some kind of a yard – we had to climb some stairs to get there and there were small buildings here and there, and somebody got a tattoo in one of them. While we tried to plan ahead the trip a few lazy dogs walked around with a small puppy that ran around and played. I’ve felt a complete freedom, that we can stay or leave whenever we want, without committing to anything.

IMG_1595.JPG