Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trekking in Sapa

We awoke early on our second day in Sapa rested and ready for our trek. After some coffee and breakfast, we headed out of town with Zee.
Me and our guide Zee

Our plan for the day was to walk from town to her village – approximately a 3 hour trek – where she would cook lunch for us. Then we would hitch a ride back to town on a moto in time to catch a ride to the train station (for another night train, ugh!) at 5pm.

As we made our way to the village, we strolled through Sapa’s mountains and valleys on foot paths, dirt roads, and mountain trails. Occasionally, a group of locals would walk past on their way to or from the rice paddies, and twice we did cross paths with another small group of tourists, but other than that it was just the three of us and Zee walking through the mountains. The air was crisp, the birds were chirping, and the scenery was breathtaking.

Our route took us through farmlands and past small villages and every so often we were able to catch a glimpse of life up in the mountains.
A group of men working together to cut lumber to build a new house for one family in the village

Some boys playing on stilts in their beautiful back yard
Everyone in Sapa is carrying something on their back – typically it’s either a basket or a baby! In town it’s common to see children as young as 10 years old helping out their parents by carrying the babies around.
Farmers plowing a field where corn will soon be planted
Water buffalo are the most important asset for a farmer in Vietnam and can cost upwards of $1,000 USD for a large one.

The sky was overcast, but most of the fog from the previous day had lifted giving us great views of the mountains. The air had also warmed and the temperature was perfect for a hike – cool and comfortable. Although Zee’s English was a bit difficult to understand at times, she was a great guide and taught us a bit about local customs and culture, while we taught her a bit about ours.
But of course, the most amazing thing about the trek was the stunning scenery.

When you’re looking at the mountains, it’s impossible to miss the human intervention with the natural landscape. But here in the Lao Cai province of Vietnam, instead of interfering with the natural beauty – as we normally do with highways and cell towers – it has only made the region more beautiful. The people of Sapa have converted entire mountains into rice paddies, working in harmony with nature and using the natural contours of the hills as their guide to carve rice terraces out of Sapa’s steep slopes.

 Rice terraces of Sapa
Right now people are just beginning to prepare the paddies for planting this year’s crop. The cold winter has left the hills a bit drab and brown, but I can’t even imagine how incredible the landscape must be when all of the paddies are flooded with water or full of lush green rice. Nonetheless, the sight was as impressive as it was beautiful and left me in awe of the hard work and ingenuity of the people of Sapa.
For almost three hours we walked through the mountains taking in amazing vistas around every turn. Finally, Zee’s village came into view – a small collection of bamboo houses set high up on a hill, overlooking the valley below. It was unlike any village we have visited thus far in that there was absolutely nothing touristy about it – no shops, no tourist traps… just a village that Zee was gracious enough to invite us to visit.
As we approached her house, a small boy came running up and grabbed Zee’s hand. Her son, only 4 years old, left his friends and came to greet his mother.
Once we arrived at Zee’s place, she got out some small wooden benches for us to sit on and began preparing our lunch.
Zee cooking for us

Her house was made of bamboo with a pounded-dirt floor and a corrugated iron roof.
It had two bedrooms, a kitchen (that had a spare bed in it for visitors), a living area, and a small room with a big water reservoir. They also had a loft up top for storage. It was pretty spacious living quarters for a family of 5.
Hanging out in Zee’s living room
The entertainment center – hooked up to a satellite in the front yard
The water reservoir

Just outside of the house is a small garden where they grow corn and some herbs and spices for their personal use and beyond that are rice terraces.
Zee’s front yard

Zee cooked us a great lunch of morning glory, instant noodles, stewed bean sprouts and tomatoes, and steamed rice. There was more than enough food for us all and to wash it all down, she offered us some of her husband’s homemade rice wine. Aimee and I only had two small glasses, but she insisted that Nick have 4 - for good luck, of course!

 Zee was like an Italian grandmother – eat more, you must eat more!!
Pouring rice wine for nick

After lunch, Zee brought out some of her homemade garments and asked us if we’d like to buy something. She was most gracious when we declined and even gave us each something small for free – Aimee and I each got a headband, and Nick got a small money bag (read: purse).

At about 3:00, we moseyed down to the road into town (about a 15 minute walk from Zee’s place) and hopped onto motorbikes for the beautiful ride back to Sapa. One of our driver’s was Zee’s husband and before we left we even got to meet Zee’s daughters who were just finishing up their day at the nearby school.
It was an awesome day, and one of the most memorable experiences of our entire trip. Sapa is definitely a place worth exploring and there is no doubt that I will return there if I ever have the chance.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cooking Class in Sapa

I have been really looking forward to taking another cooking class ever since the wonderful experience we had in Thailand. Finally, we had a chance to do another one in Sapa.

Just like the class we did in Thailand, this class began with a trip to the market. The only people in the cooking class were Nick, Aimee, and myself, so we had a nice private tour of the market.
 Aimee helping to pick out oranges
 Local woman carrying her purchases away from the market in the basket on her back 
Dog meat is a specialty in northern Vietnam... and something we won't be trying while we're  here

After our short trip to the market, we headed back to the hotel to get things started.  It was at this point that we realized that this wasn't the usual backpacker's cooking class. Our class took place in the hotel's small but pristine kitchen which is just off of and completely open to their elegant dining room. To our left were floor to ceiling windows with an amazing view of the mountains and throughout the class we were served glass after glass of amazing red wine.

Our teacher was the hotel's head chef, Son, and instead of actually learning to cook, we were getting a chance to watch a gourmet chef in action. Everything we cooked that night was an original recipe of his and all of it was absolutely amazing.
The first dish we made was deep fried spring rolls. The filling was made of chopped veggies and chicken with the secret ingredient: mayonnaise. It was a bit like a gourmet chicken salad spring roll. After Son made the filling, he let all three of us have a hand at rolling them up.
Then, he dipped them in egg and bread crumbs and deep fried them. They were melt-in-your-mouth fantastic.
The second dish we made was another kind of spring roll unlike anything I've ever had before. The filling consisted of cold rice noodles, sliced cucumber, carrot, and pineapple, and fresh lettuce and mint leaves. Instead of using rice paper for the roll, Son wrapped it all up in a freshly made egg pancake (egg, flour, and milk). They were amazing.
They were hands-down the best spring rolls I have ever had. The mix of flavors was perfect - light, refreshing, and mouth watering. And, what was even more exciting was how easy they were to make. Although Nick has his doubts, I have high hopes that I will use this recipe when I get back to the states.

After the spring rolls, Son set out cooking our main course for us: a special Vietnamese hot pot. While we chatted and drank wine, he cut up all kinds of meats and veggies and whipped up a fantastic broth that was unlike anything I had ever had before.
A plate of delicious meat for our hot pot: pork, chicken, beef, and salmon

In the end we had an entire table full of goodies for our hot pot and ate one of the best meals I've ever had over a second bottle of wine. Although we didn't learn too much about Vietnamese food, we had one of our best evenings yet.
Good friends, good food, and good wine... what more could you possibly ask for in life???

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Our Trip in Sapa... off to a rough start

Sapa is a town way up in the gorgeous Hoang Lien Son Mountains of northern Vietnam very close to the border with China. 
Surrounded by lush towering mountains, full of French colonial buildings, and relatively free of the noisy traffic that characterizes the rest of Vietnam, it's got to be one of the most beautiful and peaceful towns in Vietnam (or in SE Asia for that matter!) 
typical architecture in Sapa

The mountains surrounding the town of Sapa are full of hundreds of ethnic minority villages. Tourism has no doubt had an effect on these people, but still, they continue to live very traditional life styles. They still wear colorful traditional clothing and live off of the land by farming rice in the huge network of rice terraces that blanket the mountains.  The town itself is full of beautifully dressed villagers hawking their wares to tourists and offering their services as local tour guides.
Local girls hanging out in town in their traditional garb

On the advice of fellow travelers, we decided to take the sleeper train to Sapa, foregoing the bus this time. It was a good decision, too. The train is much more comfortable. The beds are big enough for us to stretch out fully and there is room to get up and walk around if you get antsy.
Despite the relatively comfortable beds, none of us got any sleep. The ride was wobbly and the train was squeaky and I was cursing myself for not buying ear plugs when I had the chance in Thailand.

When we finally arrived in Sapa at around 7am things were looking pretty bleak. The weather was very cold and rainy and none of us were in a good mood. The ride from the train station up the Sapa valley and into town was beautiful, but winding roads and reckless driving made it difficult to enjoy the views and we were all feeling a bit nauseous when we arrived in Sapa. When finally reached the top, a heavy fog was blanketing the entire town and surrounding mountains.

Short on sleep, cold, and cranky, I began second guessing the decision to come up to Sapa. At breakfast,  Nick even suggested we might buy a return ticket for that evening!
Nick trying to stay warm with a cup of coffee

We decided to retreat into our hotel room and take a nap. With the weather so cold and rainy, we resigned ourselves to spending the day hibernating inside. At about 3:00 though, Aimee and I decided to get a massage ($6 for an hour) and left Nick to wander the town on his own for a bit. By the time we met up an hour later, Nick had inadvertently planned the rest of our stay in Sapa! In addition to booking a cooking class for that evening, he found us a tour guide for the following day.
Zee made Nick take this picture so we wouldn't forget who our tour guide was

She was from the Black H'mong ethnic group, and her name was Zee. Nick introduced her to us by saying, “I think I found us a tour guide for tomorrow. She doesn’t speak a lick of English, but she’s cute as a button, isn’t she!?” And he had a point, she sure was cute! She gave each of us a bracelet to signify our promise that we would spend the next day with her and we agreed we’d meet up with her the following morning at 9am.
A brief stop at the hotel room for a shower and we were off to our cooking class at the Boutique Hotel. The fun had just begun!

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Walking Tour of Hanoi

a Noi is a fabulous city. Vibrant and fast paced, at times simply walking down the street can feel like a full-out assault on your senses, but we found that with a little patience and an open mind, Hanoi is a wonderful city just waiting to be explored.
We plan to have three full days in Hanoi spred out over our last week in Vietnam, so we spent our first day doing a little walking tour of Old Town. The tour didn't include any typical tourist sights really, but it was a great way to get a feel for the city and soak it all in. By the end of the day we were mastering the fine art of crossing the street and navigating the crowded sidewalks. 
Tip: watch out for hazzards from above! I was hit in the head by a bolt that was dropped by someone working on the city's powerlines!

The streets in Hanoi seem to be organized thematically with stores selling similar wares all lined up together in clusters. As we walked from street to street, we passed enclaves of black smiths, tin smiths, carpenters, barbers, painters, manicurists and more.  In a city as crowded as Hanoi, space is at a premium. Every inch is up for grabs and the city's sidewalks have all been converted into workshops, restaurants, storefronts, and salons with everyone was doing their work out in the open.
 manicure on the side walk in front of an art gallery
 cut and a shave just outside the Temple of Literature
 Lock yourself out of your car? No worries, the locksmith is just hanging out on the roadside
power tools on the side walk

One my favorite stops of the day was the market. It was busteling with activity and full of all kinds of wonderful sights and smells.

At the end of our walk we went by Hoan Kiem Lake and the Temple of Literature to get a little zen in our lives.
 incense at the Temple of Literature

Burning paper money at the temple on Hoan Kiem Lake

With the exception of a brief time when we thought we had lost some money (it's ok, everything is fine!!) we great day exploring the city. We've still got two more days to hang out in Hanoi and get some shopping done, but for now, we're off to the mountains of Sapa!