China and South East Asia 2001-2002 travel blog

Bac Ha Market

Beaded Babes

Gaggle II

Halong Bay Sunset

Halong Bay View

Hanoi Hilton Guillotine

Hanoi Water Puppets

Pillow Parade

Sapa Market

Sapa Valley

Sister Ship

Tribal Hats

Copyright 2002

Dave Rich

Vietnam the North

Coming from the south of Vietnam you should under no circumstances miss the marvelous Marble Mountains, jutting hills of solid marble the locals sculpt into fantastic figures limited only by the cost of shipping them back home. Then head directly to the old town of Hanoi, the compact confusing heart of the capitol city bordering Hoan Kiem Lake, everything interesting within walking distance, if you're a jock. But then Vietnam is the least expensive SE Asian country, which means dirt cheap. Internet is $.20/hour. Rickshaws are $1 an hour. Nice hotels are $12, the food is scrumptious and fabulous Vietnamese drip coffee costs $.25. This means you can taxi anywhere and everywhere so be extravagant. The world-renown Water Puppet Theater is across the street from the Lake while a few blocks to the southwest of the Lake crouches the Hanoi Hilton, memorialized by the Vietnamese for their unremitting incarceration by the French, temporary home of John McCain.

Two days may suffice for Hanoi, for the Perfumed Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh's modest stilt house, after which you launch yourself to Vietnam's premier attraction, the 1,969 karst limestone islands jutting out of Halong Bay's World Heritage preserve. These funny pointy hills are half covered in shrub, bases eroded by constant lapping from the South China Sea, forming caves and arches galore, the sun setting in a golden beam 8 million miles long, shimmering under hollowed-out islands. Entire towns float in forgotten cul-de-sacs, supreme fishermen over generations immemorial. For $53 you enjoy three days of seafood feasts on a plush sleep-aboard boat and Cat Ba Island, all transport, food and lodging in the deluxe package, a bargain even if the weather drizzles. There are caves to explore, isolated villages to meander and sculptured karst hills ad infinitum, reflected in turquoise waters.

The most colorful adventure in the north of Vietnam is way up on the border with China, out of Lao Cai where you take a minibus to Sapa, an ultra-quaint town sitting below Vietnam's highest mountain climbable in a mere four days round trip. Colorful hill tribes flock to daily markets in outlying villages, attracting tourists like fat flies. Actually colorful is an understatement. These tribes are fluorescent, ladies only. The guys are gray, drab and boring. But ah, the ladies. They make rainbows look shabby, dressed in multi-colored costumes of tiny stripes, blue satin blouses, Joseph's coat of many many colors. There are markets every day of the week but the best is always on Sunday at Bac Ha where a dozen tribes pop into town to buy new frocks, threads of many colors, bulk tobacco, remnants and generally shoot the breeze with the neighbors from the next valley over. The trekking, weather permitting, is mystical above rice paddies cascading down thousand foot slopes of fluorescent green, outdistancing Bali by a mile. Don't even think of missing the color and romance of Vietnam the north.

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