What’s so great about Vietnam?

We left Vietnam five days ago. In this time I’ve been catching up on blog posts and doing massive quantities of laundry. I’ve also been reflecting on all the things that made our trip through Vietnam so amazing that we want to go back. Right now. This surprised us as we have read over and over again how Vietnam is not tourist friendly and how low the return rate is for tourists. We are quite perplexed by the reports. So, what’s so great about Vietnam that we want to go back?

I’ve already shared with you the breathtaking scenery, the inspiring cultural aspects, the beautiful beaches and the great shopping. All of which should already place Vietnam high on your list of must visit destinations but there’s more.

First, there’s the amazing food. We ate many versions of pho (noodle soup) and banh mi (sandwiches on baguette). Every single one was delicious. We sampled xoi cha cua (sticky rice with crab), banh khoai (rice pancake), nem lui (grilled kababs), ban beo (water fern cakes), banh nam (banana leaf wrapped rice cake) and many more deliciousness that I cannot recall the names of now. My mouth is salivating writing this.

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Ban nam

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Hue’s version of banh khoai

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Ban Beo

To wash it all down, you’ll want something cold. And that’s where Vietnam’s surprising beer culture comes in. Every city has its own beer to offer, usually for a $1 CAD. In Hoi An, we even got mugs of local draft beer for 20 cents.

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And for the perfect trifecta of delicious food and cheap beer you add exceptional service. This was consistent throughout Vietnam. From the street food stall to the nice hotel, you can expect to be warmly welcomed and attentively served. And they’re not doing it for gratuities as they are not expected in Vietnam. We have seen restaurant servers and owners chase down customers to give their money back to them.

Which brings me to my last point about why Vietnam is so great. It’s the people. The Vietnamese are genuine, honest, and hardworking. I’m sure you can find a few who are not but in general that’s what we found. I think travelling with children makes us more approachable and we’ve had conversations with locals that I don’t think we would normally have had. I am thankful for these exchanges as they gave me a glimpse into Vietnamese life.

We would happily return to Vietnam in a heartbeat. For now, I’m off to finish the laundry and re-pack as we hit the road again in three days time. Catch our next adventures in Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai while we tag along with Marc on his speaking tour.

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Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An was our final Vietnam destination and as far South as we were going to go since the big city of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) did not interest us. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its tailors, shoe cobblers, and Ancient Town architecture (which is preserved by strict building codes and bylaws). Hoi An has a very relaxed beach town vibe to it. Farms, villages and beaches are all within a short easy biking distance from Ancient Town.

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Hoi An riverfront

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Ancient Town

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Ancient Town is draped with bougainvillea

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One of hundreds of tailors. This was not the one we bought from.

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There were as many fruit sellers as there were tailors

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Hoi An street at night

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Riverfront at night

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Lanterns everywhere

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Famous Japanese Bridge. Built by the Japanese, this bridge connected the town to the Japanese settlement in the 16th-17th century. Only known covered bridge with attached Buddhist temple inside.

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Lanterns and wishes ready to release

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Lots of food vendors come out at night. This one had meat skewers.

Our goal for Hoi An was to get a little sun, grab some beach time and chill out. We had no plans to really check out the temples or other tourist sites other than walking around Ancient Town. Nor did we have plans to get any clothes tailored or shoes custom made which is what many tourists do when they get to Hoi An. But before we knew it, we were measured up for both clothes and shoes and our remaining cash envelope emptied. We did chill out in the sun by our hotel pool and squeezed in some beach time in between fittings though.

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Custom tailored one of a kind jackets. We got to pick out all the material including the cool lining. Marc ordered one jacket and after the first fitting promptly ordered a second one. That’s how nice they were. He regrets not ordering any shirts.

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Two pairs of custom made shoes. You show them a photo and they make it. We got carried away and had five pairs made.

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An Bang Beach. One of two beaches in Hoi An.

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Sibling time

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Body surfing and almost losing his shorts.

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Staying at the beach as long as we could

We’re scheming on when we can squeeze in a return trip to Hoi An. Unfortunately this is highly unlikely given our current travel schedule.

Driving from Hue to Hoi An: Hai Van Pass and Marble Mountains

We hired a private car to transport us the 145 kms from Hue to Hoi An. The drive took us through the Hai Van Pass that would have offered breathtaking views of the coastline if the weather was more cooperative.

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Misty coastline. Pounding waves.

Along the way, we stopped to check out a watchtower and a bunker from the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam).

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American watch tower from the Vietnam war. Notice all the bullet holes.

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For all my wedding planning and wedding photographer friends: epic wedding shot in the wind and rain, standing on remains of the watchtower complex.

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Sneaking a peak from the watch tower

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Inside an abandoned American bunker

We took a longer stop at Marble Mountains; a cluster of five marble and limestone hills. One of them, Thuy Son, is the one that can be accessible via 156 steps or pay 15000 dong (less than a Canadian dollar) for a ride on the glass elevator. We thought we were going up for the view. It was not the case. Thuy Son was filled with caves, Buddhist sanctuaries, altars and temples, statues and even a pagoda. We could have easily spent a day there if our driver wasn’t waiting below.

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Pagoda on Thuy Son

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My peeps

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Entrance to Huyen Khong Buddhist grotto

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Glimpsing a Guanyin statue carved into the stone cavern

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Extreme low light in the grotto. You really had to be there to experience the grandness of being inside a huge cavern that contained a large Buddha and a small temple. Felt like we were in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Hiring a private car was definitely the right choice for getting from Hue to Hoi An (or the reverse). The drive was scenic and we got to visit a couple of sites that we would not have visited otherwise.

Hue, Vietnam

After Sapa, we returned to Hanoi by overnight train and proceeded directly to the airport for our flight to Hue, the ancient capital city of Vietnam. It is in Hue that we experienced the first bumps in our travel. It started with the rain. So much rain that we had no choice but to stay in our hotel for the afternoon. Staying in for an afternoon and evening wasn’t too disappointing as all the sightseeing was scheduled for the next day with an all day tour (warning: long post as many sites are covered). Also the upside of all the rain was some time at the spa for me and some down time for everyone else.

However, the next day we woke up to the streets looking like this:

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Street in front of our hotel

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View from inside the bus. Our tour bus became a boat as it navigated the flooded streets.

We tried not to let the rain get us down. We dressed for the rain as best we could and headed off to fortify ourselves for the day with a buffet breakfast. But the day got worse as Isabella got sick in the elevator on the way to breakfast. Bump number two. A tough decision was made and she and Marc would stay behind at the hotel while Dominic and I went on the tour. If she felt better they would try to catch up to us.

Miraculously shortly after we arrived at our first stop, the rain became a drizzle and then eventually stopped. Things were looking up. If only Isabella was feeling better and she and Marc could join us. Dominic and I were really missing them as we toured the Hue Citadel (inside of which is the Imperial City and Purple Forbidden City). Perhaps it was for this reason or that the Citadel was in a sad state of disrepair, but there was a melancholic air to the place. What once must have been grand was crumbling and leaking. Having once visited the restored and well maintained Forbidden Palace in Beijing, it was hard to not compare the two.

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Outer wall of the Citadel complete with moat

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Outer wall of Citadel with view of main gate

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Gate for the Citadel

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The emperor’s office use to occupy the empty space between the two corridors until it was bombed during the war.

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View of the main gate from inside the Citadel

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Dominic really liked walking through this flooded courtyard

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Crumbling wall that survived a war

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Entryway that once must have been exquisite. Notice the unkempt courtyard and crumbling wall on the other side

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Looking at the Emperor’s thrown room where it was leaking in several places.

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Flooded and unmaintained courtyard.

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Restoration work is slowly beginning. Look how grand this palace must have been in its prime.

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A once grand gate in disrepair

The tour made a short stop at a garden house that was once the residence of a high-ranking Mandarin (court official) and remains privately owned by his descendant today.

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Gate to the garden house

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The path after you enter the gate

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Privacy wall in front of the house

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Inside of the house

Our last stop for the morning before lunch was at the Thien Mu Pagoda.

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Thien Mu Pagoda

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Two guards at each of the three doorways

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Temple inside the pagoda complex

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A pagoda within a pagoda complex

Lunch was a sad affair. In the culinary sense and the emotional sense with half our family still back at the hotel. It didn’t look like they would be joining us. Resigning ourselves to this, we lined up for the tour bus but a surprise was waiting for us on board. My girl was feeling better and she and Marc were on board to join us for the rest of the tour thanks to the efforts of our hotel and the tour company.

In the afternoon we visited two imperial tombs. The first was the Tomb of Minh Mang who ruled from February 14 1820 until his death on January 20 1841.

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Minh Mang’s body was carried through the middle door and after he passed, it was closed and locked forever.)

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So happy to be together!

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We found dogs in random unexpected places in Vietnam. Here’s one such place and one such dog.

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Stairs and door leading to the unknown. It is unknown where Minh Mang’s body is buried. It was kept a secret to protect the burial site from robbery.

The second tomb was the Tomb of Khai Dinh who ruled from 1916-1925. The building of his tomb took longer than he reigned as it took 11 years to build due to the lavishness of the interior.

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Looking up at the the Tomb of Khai Dinh

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The guards

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Details of the columns

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Khai Dinh’s mausoleum

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Khai Dinh’s mausoleum thrown room. Every inch from floor to ceiling is covered in glass and porcelain decorations.

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Close up of the art on the walls of this tomb

Following the tombs, the tour made a brief stop at a village that made incense. Incense is burned 2-3 times per day everywhere you go in Vietnam. The smell of incense will be one of the memories I will carry of Vietnam.

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Isabella trying her hand at making incense

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Incense in many colours

In Vietnam, villages specialize in one product. We passed another one that made rapeseed oil, which is apparently used for massages, mosquito repellent and washing every new baby in Vietnam.

The final leg of our tour was a ride on a dragon boat on the Perfume River.

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Our dragon boat coming to pick us up

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Following another dragon

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Many dragon boats waiting to tempt tourists for a ride

We enjoyed our day in Hue but we were definitely looking forward to our final Vietnam destination of Hoi An where we hoped to enjoy some sunshine and beach time.

Sapa, Vietnam

This post on Sapa was more challenging to write than I had anticipated. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much to share. Perhaps it’s more than a post on a travel destination. Perhaps I’m still processing everything that three days in Sapa taught me. Regardless of how inadequate my words will be to describe all that we experienced. Regardless of how inadequate my photos will be to capture the breathtaking beauty of this region in Vietnam. I give you Sapa as we experienced it.

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Surrounding Sapa

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Mountains in the mist

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Mountains and rice terraces

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My photos don’t even come close to capturing the beauty of this region

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Quintessential scene of the region – water buffalo, rice terraces and mountains

Sapa is reached via the loudest overnight train that I have ever experienced. Think squeaky wheels, shifting cars, and loud announcements in Vietnamese for every stop (for which there seemed to be many). All of this plus the fact that we allowed the children to eat a high liquid meal of pho (delicious Vietnamese noodle soup) for dinner resulted in a sleepless night with many trips to the toilet to pee. Thanks to a new highway, visitors also now have an option of a six-hour bus ride. Since we did not travel with this latter option, I cannot comment about its comfort or reliability.

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Ready for bed in our deluxe sleeper cabin

Sapa is a mountain town and home to many of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority peoples, among which are the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho. And of these groups, there is further differentiation such as Black Hmong, Flower Hmong, Red Dao, Lao, Lu, etc.. The history of these ethnic groups and the available anthropological information are fascinating. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this blog (and this writer) to delve into this. I can simply share my experience and what I’ve learned.

We were fortunate enough to spend one day with a Black Hmong family and one day in the company of a Red Dao visiting a village of the Lao Lu people thanks to an amazing organization called Ethos. If you have plans to visit Vietnam, we highly recommend you make the effort to visit Sapa and book an experience with Ethos. And it certainly will be an experience that you will get with Ethos, not a tour.

Our day with our Black H’mong guide So and her family through photos:

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Fruit stand at the market

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Our guide So of the Black Hmong people selecting produce for our lunch. Normally So and her family would be eating what is available from their field. It is my impression that they will eat better today because we are visiting.

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Walking for another kilometre up a steep slope in the rain after the hired car dropped us off. It takes So 2 hours to walk over the mountain (via her “short cut”) into town if her husband can’t take her by motor bike.

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So’s home. Notice the construction. The Hmong use to be nomadic people so their homes are made to be easily dismantled and moved. With the help of the people in her village So moved this home from another village using nothing but the strength of their backs and legs.

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The toilet. Those middle of the night bathroom trips would have to be really necessary.

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The high tech stove designed by Swiss engineers and being tested by So. It needs to be able to cook, smoke food items on the top level, heat the home and vent the smoke so the inhabitants don’t breathe it in. Currently, the Hmong (and the other ethnic peoples) cook with open fire which creates abundant smoke that is inhaled day after day resulting in lung and other health problems, possibly early mortality.

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So’s daughters’ room. Notice the rope to hold clothes and the gaps where the boards don’t reach the floor or ceiling. Notice the dirt floor. Imagine how cold and damp it gets in this region’s cold wet climate. Imagine the toll on the people’s health.

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Bags of rice from So’s harvest this year. This will need to last her until next harvest. Most of the ethnic people in the region have only the food they produce as they have no means of earning money to buy food. So is one of the lucky ones as she earns some money guiding that she can use to purchase food should she run out.

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Some of the menagerie that lives at So’s – there are goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and dogs.

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Kids around the cooking fire and the only source of heat on this cold wet day. We all enjoy campfires but would we enjoy them so much if they were our only method of cooking and keeping warm? You can’t tell in this photo but the “ceiling” in this room is completely black from the smoke. Imagine what the insides of the people must look like.

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So dying fabric in indigo. The colour of the traditional clothing of the Black Hmong. The ethnic peoples in this region all make their traditional clothes from scratch – from growing the hemp to weaving, dying, sewing and embroidering. Notice the beautiful embroidery on So’s sleeve and on the ties that keep her leg covers on.

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La, So’s 5 year old daughter, who can stay home by herself and cook on the open fire. Childhood is quite different in this part of the world.

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So preparing our lunch with some supervision from her 3 year old son

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So’s husband My washing the vegetables for our lunch. He would have normally been working in the fields but the rain has kept him at home.

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A special bowl of rice. Grown and cooked by So and My. By the way, our lunch was delicious and one of the best we’ve had in Vietnam which is saying something as the food has been amazing.

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My slicing the trunk of a banana tree as a food source for their pigs

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Mashing the banana trunk slices which will then be mixed with cornmeal for the pigs. My never stopped working the whole time we were there, except to take a quick meal with us.

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Kids playing like they would anywhere when there’s mud, water and freedom.

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Our kids and So and My’s daughters. The oldest is 9 and she wakes up at 4:30 to make breakfast for the whole family before she goes to school.

Our day with our Red Dao guide Man May and our visit to a village of the Lao Lu people through photos:

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Our Red Dao guide Man May on a tree over the side of a cliff picking fruit for us to try. She tells me, “don’t worry, I’m mountain people”.

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Trying the sweet fruit Man May picked. We are still unclear what the fruit is called. It tasted similar to a wine grape but it’s not a grape.

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Marc and I in the company of the mountains before we descend into the valley to the village of the Lao Lu.

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Following our Red Dao guide Man May through a corn field. Notice her traditional clothing and how it differs from So’s indigo dyed clothing.

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Our other leader

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Lao Lu woman with her water buffalo walking through a rice paddy. Here in the valley where the Lao Lu live, the climate is warmer so they can have 2-3 crops per year and their buffalo thrive better than their higher elevation brethren. Buffalo is highly valuable. In Sapa they can fetch between $2500-$3000 usd which is a lifetime of savings for a family.

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A view from the valley

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If water buffalo could gawk this would be the expression they would have on their face. Marc was the lucky recipient of the look until we could no longer see him. Hard to blame him. I would be suspicious of Marc too.

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Lao Lu woman with a full basket on her back. This is the main mode of transporting goods amongst the ethnic peoples. One time, the car we were in drove past a girl not much older than Isabella and a woman with their baskets full of wood. Isabella said she didn’t think she could have carried even one of the pieces of wood;)

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These woman are picking weeds growing in between the rice plants to cook for dinner. Their children are accompanying them.

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A boy and his loaded down water buffalo. As I indicated earlier childhood is different in this part of the world.

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Boy about 8 or 9 years of age riding an adult bike loaded with crop from the field

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Walking in the Lao Lu village. Marc said it reminded him of the villages in Madagascar when he was there over 15 years ago.

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Our Lao Lu host in front of her home where we visited and shared the fruit we brought. Notice the construction of these homes is quite different from the homes of the Black Hmong. These homes have one story and are elevated off the ground. In the Black Hmong homes, they build on the ground using the dirt as their floor as they need to add a second story for storage of the rice since one crop needs to last a year. Here in the valley they produce 2-3 crops per year so no need for long term storage.

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Back of the Lao Lu home

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Inside the Lao Lu home. The floor is constructed of wood boards. The cooking fire is on a bed of mud/dirt placed inside a wood frame. Notice there’s more ventilation in this home than in So’s Hmong home. I’m curious to see if the rate of lung problems is lower here than in homes where there is less ventilation.

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The Lao Lu weave their beautiful traditional fabrics.

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Sharing snack with the Lao Lu family and one or two curious neighbours

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Our host adored Dominic

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Our host in full traditional Lao Lu clothing

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Our host teaching her grandson how to skip a rock in the river behind their home

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Red Dao and Lao Lu. Note how different their traditional clothing is. Compared with the Black Hmong who are not allowed to wear long pants or skirts. Instead the Hmong wear leg covers tied with beautiful embroidery (see photo of So from earlier in the post).

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Marc and Dominic’s entourage. We found the children friendly and curious.

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Traffic jam in Tam Duong after we left the Lao Lu village

As I hinted at earlier, many ethnic peoples in the region provide for themselves by farming the land and few earn any money. With the explosion of tourism in the region, many of the women (and often the children) are making handicrafts to sell to earn a bit of money.

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The Hmong artist and the wall hanging we purchased

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This adorable lady with the elephant she made which Isabella is taking home.

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Trying to improve their lives through their art and handicraft. Before coming to Sapa, most reviews I read spoke about the aggressive and persistent tactics of the ethnic woman. After seeing first hand the quality of their life I can see the reason for their desperation. I can see how they believe a purchase of $5 for someone who would spend that on coffee but could mean food for a family for a month was a fair trade.

Ever since we left Sapa, I’ve been thinking about what I learned and what I’m taking with me from our three days there (other than some beautiful handcrafted wall hangings). The ethnic people that we came into contact with were strong, warm, artistic, intelligent, and resilient. But their plight is mighty. I learned that they have lost their written language. I learned that they are separated from their people across four countries (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and China). I learned that many of the girls and women are easily trafficked across the border (to China) as they have no paper identification. I learned of how the living conditions of the ethnic peoples impact their health and mortality. I learned of what it’s like to live in real poverty, one without societal safety nets.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Our Vietnamese journey began in the capital city of Hanoi. The welcome was both warm and intense. Almost everyone we interacted with was friendly, sincere and welcoming. Our hotel in Hanoi was the best example of this. I rarely write about hotels we stay at but the Hanoi Charm Hotel is worth mentioning for their exceptional service. We paid for a 3 star hotel but received 5 star service. It truly was the best hotel service I have ever received and I have stayed at quite a few 5 star luxury hotels during my tenure as a wedding planner. Everyone should start their Vietnam journey at the Hanoi Charm Hotel as they could not be better ambassadors for Vietnam tourism.

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Our hotel. You really do stay in style. Beautiful clean rooms, great location and exceptional service.

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One of two beds in our room that was painstakingly decorated with fresh flower petals and a handmade personalized card welcoming our family to the hotel

Feeling fantastic about being in Vietnam after the warm welcome, we ventured out to explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It is packed with scooters and motorbikes along with its characteristic “tube houses” (long narrow buildings typically 3 meters wide by 60 meters long that house a shop in the front and many living spaces behind and above).

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Eating our first tasty bowl of pho in Vietnam

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Typical Hanoi Old Quarter. “Tube house” on the left.

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Vietnamese flags everywhere

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Motor bike parking on almost all sidewalks makes it dangerous to walk as pedestrians are forced to walk on the street

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The stampede – crossing the street is like being in a game of Frogger – careful you don’t get squashed!

We escaped the intense streets of the Old Quarter with a slower pace stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake or the Lake of the Restored Sword.

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On the lake – the Huc Bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple

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Turtle Tower in the center of the lake

As a reprieve from the heat and walking, we headed to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre after our stroll around the lake to see an art form that started in the rice paddies of the 11th century. The live orchestra and water puppeteering was fantastic and well worth the 100,000 dong or a little over $4 usd for the ticket.

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Orchestra on the left. Puppets in the water. Puppeteers waste deep in water behind the screen.

Our evening was spent eating, thanks to a free food tour I had booked. Yep, you heard it right. Free. There are two organizations in Hanoi that offer free tours led by university students wanting to improve their English skills, Hanoikids and Hanoi Free Tour Guides. I highly recommend both of them. We took advantage of a free food tour with Hanoikids and an all day tour with Hanoi Free Tour Guides. Sorry there are no photos from the food tour. I was too busy eating.

Our second day in Hanoi was after we returned from Halong Bay. Our university students met us at our hotel at 9am and we set off for our day long tour of the city. Thirty minutes into our tour, the rain came. We were not to be deterred and paid outrageous sums of money for cheap plastic ponchos and continued on our way.

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Side view of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum just minutes before the rain came. Unfortunately the mausoleum is closed on Fridays which was the day we were there.

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The French built Presidential Palace

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Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House viewed through pouring rain

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One Pillar Pagoda. Tiny temple built by a childless emperor after the birth of his son to recognize the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who he dreamed had handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. See just like a lotus flower in the lotus pond.

The day included a stop at the Dong Xuan Market, the largest covered market in Hanoi.

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Shoes as far as the eye could see at Don Xuan Market. I didn’t even buy one pair.

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Plethora of dried goods at the market

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Lots of interesting choices for dinner at the market

And a stop at the lovely Temple of Literature.

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Constellation of Literature Pavilion

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At the Imperial Academy where studies began in 1076. Cranes with shiny chests standing on turtles with shiny heads as a result of many hands touching them for luck on exams.

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Well of Heavenly Clarity. Unfortunately the well wasn’t very helpful to me.

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Us in front of the Accomplished Virtue gate I believe

Hanoi is a good starting point for a visit to Vietnam. From here we were able to get to both Halong Bay and Sapa where we are currently. Super excited to share with you the experiences we’ve had in Sapa. Stay tuned!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Greetings from Hanoi, Vietnam! We arrived four days ago but we promptly left for Halong Bay the next day and have been without an Internet connection ever since. It was great to unplug for a couple of days. We couldn’t have had a lovelier setting than the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Halong Bay contains around 1900-2000 limestone karst islets. Formation of these began some 500 million years ago. It is currently home to several endemic flora and fauna species along with about 17000 people living on one populated island and several floating fishing villages.

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Halong City Harbour full of cruise ships

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Almost 2000 of these limestone karst islets

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Sunset on the bay

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Anchoring for the evening along with the other boats

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Sunrise on the bay

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Calm waters

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Another shot of spectacular Halong Bay

This was the part of our Vietnam trip that had caused me the most anxiety due to the reports of tourist scams, underhanded tricks of cruise ship tour companies and the polluted environment of the bay. I’m happy to report that our experience was quite positive but I think it was simply luck of the draw and not as a result of my thorough research and planning.

Our cruise ship tour company picked us up from our hotel in a very nice air-conditioned bus. This was a relief as I had read reports of poor bus conditions. The bus was already quite full when we got on board but it still made a few more stops before heading at a crawl (due to the Hanoi traffic and mediocre road conditions) for our 3+hour ride to the Halong City Harbour. During the bus ride our amiable tour guide hinted that there was some good news and bad news that involved a change in the boat that we would be boarding. My anxiety instantly went up as I had read of tour companies switching boats on you or selling your tour to other cruise ship companies. My anxiety continued until we were on board and given a key to our room. It was lovely. It turns out that we were “upgraded” to the best and newest boat in the fleet owned by the tour company we had booked with. Completely luck of the draw. You think that our tour guide might have mentioned this to us when he first brought up the good news and bad news though. I think part of him was having some fun with the tourists.

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Our little tour guide

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Our ship

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Our captain. The Vietnamese like to go shoeless as often as possible.

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Chillin’ on the Silversea

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Us on the bay:)

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Squid fishing. Didn’t catch any but saw a few. Apparently it’s not squid season.

As if providing us with a spectacular view wasn’t enough, there were delicious meals and several activities scheduled for our time on the boat. One of them was a visit to Surprising Cave. Many of the limestone karsts and islets contain caves and lakes.

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It seems someone was fond of coloured lighting

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Openings in the cave allowing sunlight in

It’s interesting that the bay is not only a tourist destination but it also serves to sustain the community in and around the bay. One of the activities was a visit to a pearl farm where they use three different types of oysters to produce three different kinds of pearls.

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The pearl farm

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One of the three kinds of oysters on the farm. These were the smallest but they could produce pearls in four colours.

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“Impregnating” the oyster

Along with the pearl farm, the bay sustains the livelihood of many fishermen and their families.

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Larger fishing boat plying the waters of the bay

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Lone fisherman

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One of the fishing villages. The children do not have an opportunity to go to school, instead they go out to fish with their parents.

We had booked a two night package where we would spend one night on the boat and one night in a bungalow on a private island. I had read reviews about how rustic these bungalows were. No big deal. We are campers. Turns out we were camping like castaways.

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The boat that will take us to the bungalows

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Following the dragon

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Another shoeless captain

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Small temple tucked into an islet. Not sure who would go worship in this isolated place.

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Cat Ba Bungalows. Not a bad home for a night. It was definitely rustic though.

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View from our bungalow

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Kayaking in the bay treasure hunting for the youngest member of our family

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Nico and his treasure

It was an amazing memorable couple of days in Halong Bay. Another day in Hanoi and then off we go to the Northern mountainous region of Vietnam and the frontier town of Sapa.