Thursday, December 4, 2008

Vietnam: From the motorbike crowd to the green fields

We cross the border into Vietnam with a small delay due to the damage that Chinese immigration officials did to my passport in a long attempt to try to discover fake passports. As we normally do, we hold a frustrating bargaining over the price for transportation all the way to Hanoi, the capital of the country. After agreeing in paying 100,000 Dong (120,000 less than what they initially wanted and knowing that locals pay around 50,000 less) we hop in a minivan for a 3 hour ride.

Hanoi is messy, Hanoi is dirty, Hanoi is overcrowded, and chaotic, but remarkably interesting. The architecture of the place delights our eyes after seeing so many neon light buildings in China, the housing structures are narrow 3 or 4 floor rectangles with pieces of decaying paint stained with dark spots over pastel colors. Clothes hang over most constructions and balconies are decorated with many plant pots, animals, cleaning utensils and old bikes.

Motorbikes come from all directions, I didn’t even notice that the roads have stop lights until we got stuck about 5 min in a corner unable to cross the street.

We remained in the city for about 3 days, not having any urge anymore to visit sights, we occupied our time with walking around taking pictures and sitting by the lake to people watch. We both are relatively tired, it delights us to be able to sit around, take naps, read, and pretend that we have a normal life for a few days at a time.

The people in the capital are great picture subjects, families gather to eat on sidewalk restaurants, taxi bikes follow us around trying to get us to make their day’s pay, the colors of shops and markets are outstanding with their shiny objects, colorful fruits, and spices.

More than any other place, Vietnam is the hub for ripping off tourists, every time we intended to purchase something we would be given prices as much as 10 times higher than they should be, often provoking us to leave without even trying to bargain.

Finally, we decided to take an overnight train to the North into Sapa. The train was ok, not as big and stable as the Chinese ones, but it allowed us a goodnight sleep. We got into Lo Cai at 6 am and took a bus 1 hour into the mountainous town of Sapa. Rivers, mountains, and green rice fields reigned over the beautiful landscape; unattended children and women dressed in their traditional outfits walked along the road making it a perfect place for photography lovers.

Annoyed by the behavior of two old tourist women being rude to locals and complaining about everything they could regarding the $2 USD ride in a third world country, we were happy to get off. Sapa appears to be more touristy than we expected, yet gorgeous. We walked around town looking for a hotel, after being harassed by a young woman with a big smile for around 20 min she convinced us to follow her way to a hotel, for only $15USD we get a big room with a fireplace and an incredible view clean of any obstruction towards the mountains. 4 days later I am sitting in the same room comforted by the electric blanket on the bed, the town is entirely covered by a thick fog that causes the humid cold to get into our bones and ruins our view.

We were lucky to have one nice day, which we occupied by renting scooters and driving them to the neighboring villages. We were amazed by the amount of unattended children that play by the roads giving us the perfect opportunity to take portraits without someone trying to sell us something. When we rode into one of the villages in a valley, 2 local women dressed with their traditional clothes talked us into giving them a ride back up to the main road, I had rode a scooter only 3 times before, and this was the first time I rode manual, but just to think that she would have to walk hours uphill in a shitty road was enough to be brave and try. It wasn’t as difficult, she was tiny and the road didn’t allow us to go fast anyway. Her name was Mai Ta, she is only 16 years old and plays a crucial role to help sustain her family, she has no money to buy a motorbike, that’s why she hopes that every time she needs to leave her village to make some money someone like us comes along and gives her a ride. We dropped our passengers off at their destiny and drove off for a couple more hours.

Tomorrow we will take another overnight train back to Hanoi, where we will transfer to another one that goes to Danang, and a bus to a port city called Hoi Ann.