As far as countries go, Vietnam was the one I thought would be the hardest to adjust to. After voyaging through westernized European countries and some semi modern places in Israel, I wasn’t quite confident in my ability to get used to what I thought would be living in the jungle. Of course, I knew that this was a false assumption, and that we would be traveling to the city of Hanoi.
When we arrived on the Vietnamese side of the busy airport we were greeted by our cab driver, who we found was an expert at both honking and maneuvering through traffic. We arrived at our home stay late at night, tired and sore. The owners were very friendly, and showed us to our room. It wasn’t the family sized room depicted on the website. It was two rooms on different floors which looked nothing like the picture. It worked out quite alright, though. After checking in, we went out for late night makeshift dinner and mango smoothies.
Vietnamese mango smoothies are better than anything anyone in the world had ever tried. Ever. Yes, they are that good. And it’s just blended mango and condensed milk. A couple days later we returned to the same smoothie restaurant for another round. I was enjoying the heavenly beverage when my brother said: “um, there’s plastic in this.” Turns out what I thought was mango skin was actually small pieces of plastic. And there was a LOT. I decided against ordering another, unlike the rest of my family. In my mind, that restaurant became forever known as “the plastic place.” We went back there several times.
Another day in Hanoi we went to explore. We navigated the traffic past a church, around several old and new buildings, and arrived at a beautiful lake. We later learned that after 6 pm, the area around that lake is closed to all cars, creating a nice place to walk around after dark. We planned to go see Ha Long Bay My mother had tried to book us the kind of boat she used when she traveled, which was what I would call a “rough it boat.” Unfortunately for her, (and me. I really did want to rough it at some point.) all there was was luxury cruise tour boats. (Of course, they weren’t the massive cruise ships.)
Unchanged by her need to see Ha Long Bay, she booked us the cruise boat. It was a four hour bus ride to the boat, on which we could see more of Vietnam. We passed farm lands, shops, travelling merchants, and large amounts of water buffalo. At the halfway stop, we pulled out into a big junction, where there was a big shop selling paintings. At least we thought they were paintings. When we got closer, we realized that the brushstrokes were actually strands of string, and the picture had actually been sewn onto the canvas. We looked around for half an hour before hitting the road again. When we arrived at the harbour, we were hurried onto a smaller boat that took us to where we’d be sleeping for the next night.
The boat came into full view. Brown wooden hull, white elegant exterior. Multiple decks and masts shooting skyward. We were greeted by a crew member and showed to the dining space. When all the passengers sat down, I started to feel a little out of place in a room full of no-fun-allowed adults who were actually putting in an attempt to have fun. Good for them. A glass of strange cold liquid was forced into my hand, and cutlery was laid down before my eyes. My fingers found their way around the cool glass and I leaned back in my chair. I was officially relaxed. We were served a to-many-course meal that made my tastebuds get up and quit their jobs to be chefs. I shuffled out of the room full of delicious food to where we were told our room would be. Not surprisingly, it was nice. My siblings and I would be sharing a room.
After moving along the water for a few hours, we changed into our swimsuit and hopped on a little transport boat. We were being taken to a fairly large sized island with golden beaches and a towering cliff rising like a spire from the centre of the gorgeous piece of land. When we touched down on the island, we realized that atop the cliff was a pagoda over looking a massive chunk of ha long bay. As soon as we realized you could climb up to the pagoda, we were making our way over to the steep rock stairs. They were dangerously crowded and steep, but we eventually made our way to the top. We were sweating and tired from the climb, but when we saw the view we were instantly energized. We saw all the islands crowded together for hundreds of miles. We saw the massive crowd of tour boats anchored around the island. We saw the rich golden beach and the shimmering sea, dotted with swimming tourists. It was breath taking. We started to head down when all of a sudden, everybody kept asking to take pictures of us. My mom said it was because they don’t see a lot of white people all the way over in Vietnam. We continued on. When we reached the bottom we headed to the beach for a swim. By the time we got there we did an “in n out” dip in the water. We were out of time so we headed back to the boat.
Once aboard again we headed straight for another section of islands. We hopped onto the transportation boat and were taken to a small floating dock, piled with kayaks. Within ten minutes we were on kayaks heading into a huge circular lagoon. We had to pair up so I was with a twenty year old from somewhere in Western Europe while my family paired up with each other. We paddled around for a bit and then we saw it: monkeys! No, I’m not kidding we saw monkeys. Monkeys that were having sex. No, I’m not kidding about that either. All the tourists were watching them so we hung around there for awhile before proceeding to find some monkeys that weren’t putting on a show like that. We paddled around the beautiful lagoon for half an hour before boarding the boat. We had another to-many-course dinner after which we attempted squid fishing. Not easy. Without catching any squid whatsoever we headed to the roof for drinks. The sun had gone down and the bay was dark. Not quiet though. People were cheering on every boat in the whole area because Vietnam was playing in the South-East-Asian. I think they won that game. After the drinks we went to our room and watched a movie.
When we woke up, we were packing. We had breakfast and lunch after which we were shown how to make traditional spring rolls. We were also taken to an impossibly large cave where prehistoric people would live. There were all sorts of stories that were explained to us by our great guide. Eventually we were back on the dock where it all started and loading onto the bust that would take us back to Hanoi. Once there, it would be time to begging the long journey of trekking. We would be taking a night train to Sapa, where we would be trekking for 3 days.we boarded the train and fell asleep. We were woken up to the sound of clanging pots and pans at 5 am. We grabbed our bags, hopped out of the train and into a van that would take us to the trekking base of operations. We arrived an hour later, freezing.
Sapa is way up in the north, so it’s hard to stay warm. We were greeted with tea and eggs and we all had warm showers. Pretty soon people began showing up in the building. From guides to other trekkers, the room was full. The main organizer walked in and we were educated on a little history about the Hmong people and Sapa itself. Eventually, we were walking to a trekking show rental store. Once we had the shoes we made our way to the beginning of the three day trail. We began walking through the cold mist, surrounded by rice terraces. We continued on passed water buffalo, farmers, dogs, mountains and houses. I learned that trekking and hiking are two very different things, and that trekking is much harder. By after about 2 hours we were soaked, dirty and tired. Our guides had other plans. We pressed on for 4 more hours, during which we really got to know our guides: So and Chi. We would be staying at So’s parent’s house during the night. During the first day we stopped in a local Hmong home for lunch. It was made of wooden boards with a concrete floor and a fire pit in the corner. There were animals everywhere. We enjoyed rice, sweet potato leaves (my personal favourite) and tofu.After lunch we thanked the family and then kept walking. We navigated through fog, knee deep water and farmyards. It was the evening by the time we arrived at So’s parent’s house. The house was much like the house that we had lunch in. After dinner we got to bed to prepare for the long day tomorrow.
We woke up to the chickens and headed out after breakfast. All eight of us navigated down through So and Chi’s village. We passed people running shops, metal bridges, farmers and water buffalo. Eventually, we disappeared into the mountains again. The views were as gorgeous as the day before, animals everywhere, villages in the distance, rice farmers working. We passed a school, where children ran and played. We stopped for lunch in a small old restaurant overlooking a village. We enjoyed pho and rice. That night we would be sleeping in a hostel. After a shorter yet no less hard trek, we arrived. My brother and I went for a walk around, and when we returned we came back to garlic fries followed by rice and sweet potato leaves (seriously, they are too good). They gave me some rice wine (or “happy water” as they call it) which made me almost immediately fall asleep. When we woke up, it was time for our last day. There were some Frenchmen staying in the same building, so we waved goodbye and set off with our lovely guides and dirty clothes.
We passed more villages and fog. At one point we ended up in a long stretch of muddy and slippery path with bamboo on either side. I slipped and muddied up myself pretty bad. We continued on and grace stepped in a puddle soaking both of her feet. We arrived at a village beside a roaring waterfall and re-encountered the Frenchmen. All of us pooled our resources to make plastic bag socks to keep grace’s feet dry as possible, then we pressed on. Also on the journey a spotted a booth selling sugar cane. We bought some and chewed it as we walked. Sugar cane is amazing. When they first gave me my piece I was thinking: no. This is bamboo. I’m not eating this. But when I took a bite, I realized it was soft and juicy and sweet like sugar. I ate the whole piece and you bet I got a stomach ache. After hours and hours of walking in the rain and the mud we made it to a place with warm fire, food and coffee. We ate around the fire and waited for our van back to the headquarters. On our way back we returned the shoes we rented. When we got back to the headquarters, we were greeted with tea and goldfish crackers. After saying our goodbyes to So and Chi, we piled into a van. Us five plus uncle Colin would be staying in Sapa for around 4 nights.
Our Sapa guest house was a gorgeous looking massive lodge with foggy gardens and multiple sections. It was owned by a very nice Vietnamese man and his father. We were showed to our rooms. Uncle Colin had a room to himself, and we would be staying in one as a family. Sapa is very cold, so we spent most of the time either doing school, or catching taxi rides all the way up the mountain to the town where we would sit in warm restaurants. Though it was cold, we would also often walk the half an our walk through the fog. On one occasion, we sat for lunch in a restaurant that had a massive snake coiled up in a jar of water. On our last night in Sapa, we had to move rooms. Another family had booked the room we were staying in, and the guy offered us another room in exchange. After we moved my dad and I discovered that there was black mould coating the floor, and water dripping in the corners. My mother and sibling’s room was fine, but my uncle Colin had a bigger room. He offered to let us sleep with him. The family who we traded with were so loud at night, uncle Colin got up and went to shut them up. They didn’t, but we still managed to sleep. We woke up early in the morning and piled into a van that would take us to the EPRC or the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre.
Our van was very fast and our driver was friendly. We made it to the EPRC after a couple of hours. When we arrived we pulled up in front of what I could only describe as the Forest Gump house, but tan and smaller. We grabbed our bags and walked inside. Much like the place we just left, there was a presence of mould. I didn’t care though, I was going to see monkeys. And also, if I have the chance to stay in a Forest Gump house, I’m staying in a Forest Gump house.unlike me, the rest of my family was desperate to find another place to stay. They asked, and discovered there was a whole row of rooms that looked like they were built yesterday. We slugged our packs to the three modern bungalows we would be staying in. I bunked with my uncle Colin for the week that we were there. I quickly learned that there was an abundance of long legged spiders everywhere I didn’t want them.
For that first day we just hung out around the place, not heading to the centre. They aren’t used to having volunteers, so they had to make sure there we things for us to do. There was a cafeteria across from where we were staying, so we would normally head there for dinner and lunch. After our fist day in the national park, I crashed and fell into a cozy sleep. I woke up the next day extremely achy and hot. A headache had developed and I felt drowsy. About half an our later I got very nauseous to the point where I almost didn’t go for the orientation. My mom made me, though. As sick as I was, I wanted to see the monkeys. Only a few minutes after we got there, they took us through the rows of, sadly, cages. There were too many monkeys and too many different species that didn’t get along for the centre to build one big wild enclosure, and the didn’t have enough space to make a bunch of separate open spaces, so they put the endangered monkeys in cages until they were deemed ready to go back into the wild. After the monkey achieved that status, they were put in a massive open enclosure for a while, where they could re-learn to hide and climb actual trees and hunt for bugs. After this stage was complete, they asked the government for permission to release them into the wild.
We were informed that during our volunteer time, we would be building “enrichments” for the 120 monkeys. Enrichments are basically toys that allow the captive monkeys to maintain their sense of critical thinking and basic intelligence. These enrichments could come in the form of fruit wrapped in leaves, or a piece of bamboo with coconut inside of it. Sometimes, however, we were told to make them with nothing inside them. This way, the monkeys were always on they’re toes, trying to figure things out. There were multiple species of monkeys, such as gibbons, langurs, and also a primate (yet not a monkey) called a Loris. It looked like this:
We spent most of the time there just making enrichments. I know it was helping the monkeys, but they were giving us work that they were doing themselves right beside us. My point is, they weren’t used to having volunteers, so when we showed up, the didn’t really know what to do with us. During our time there, we we really got to know the staff. We became friends with Elca, a German lady who had worked there for years. She also had been running the place for a long time. They allowed us a day off, during which we reneged bikes and cycled to a beautiful lake under a mountain. After stopping there for a while we continued on to a cave where prehistoric people used to hide. My uncle Colin had come the day before, so he stayed at the bottom with my mom who just didn’t want to see it. My dad, siblings and I completed to short bike to the damp cave. There were many sections to it, but the only light was natural light and we couldn’t see very well so we explored the main part, mostly. My dad found a steep rust ladder the wasn’t blocked of so he climbed it with my sister. Being the brave one, I stayed at the bottom and wondered who would fall first. After we came back down, we made our way back to the centre. We also hiked to a tower on the top of a mountain. Lucky me, there was a steep ladder. When I eventually buckled down and climbed it, my mom was so happy that I didn’t coward out. I said to her: now all that needs to happen is a snake needs to find us. Yes I’m not kidding. On the way down, a snake ran right passed us. My mom freaked out, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
During one day of work, my dad and I got to go into one of the massive open wild cages (the stage before release) we were going to help someone track the lorises using a device, as well as feed the monkeys that were currently in there. We walked around the circumference of the cage and it must have taken about 30 minutes. It’s a really massive cage. We got the monkeys into a smaller cage and fed them while we looked for the lorises. We didn’t find any. After releasing the monkeys back into their massive temporary home, we headed back to work. During our time there, we really got to know one of the monkeys. He was a gibbons named Lucky, and he was so energetic. He had a kid, so he was very protective, but it was amazing to watch him bounce around. One night after dinner we went in the dark to the centre. The lorises are nocturnal, so they were going to show us them awake. We had a cricket that we placed inside the cage. We slowly watched the loris creep up and snatch the cricket in it’s jaws. It was an amazing sight that I will never forget.
On the last day we asked Alca if we could go inside one of the cages. She arranged for us to go inside the “kindergarten” cage, a cage where the youngest monkeys were placed. My brother didn’t want to (why!?) so my dad had to stay with him at the room. My sister, mom and I went and sat in the cage. The young monkeys swung down and sprawled themselves out on our laps. They would point to where they wanted us to scratch them. It might have been the best experience of my entire life. Alca pointed out that though she doesn’t get a lot of volunteers, she does get quite a bit of tourists, and that absolutely nobody can go inside the cages. So if you are planning to go to EPRC, there is almost zero possibility that you can enter the cage. I do recommend it as a place to visit or volunteer, however. It is an amazing place where amazing people do amazing work. That night, Alca arranged a Christmas party for the young children of the staff. She kindly invited us. As a random act of kindness, she bought us all Vietnam shirts. I will never forget my time at the rescue centre.
HOI ANN AND HO CHI MIN
Next we hopped in another van that would take us to a night train station. We arrived in the late morning at the station, found a cheap hotel near the train, and dumped or bags in a room. We went out to explore the city and by junk food to get us through the long night. After a shopping spree of sugary things, we headed back to the hotel and scooped up our bags. Shortly later it would be time for the night train. After we boarded, the train set off. Even though I took down an entire pack of m&ms, I drifted off to sleep. Awoken to the sound of blaring music, I rose groggily and gathered my things. All six of us piled into a taxi and sped off to our next place. I just found out on the way that my parents had decided to book a fancy resort for Christmas. How spoiled, I am.
We arrived and were greeted with coffee and room keys. We had three rooms. One for uncle Colin, one for my parents, and one for my siblings and I. We spent our time in the gorgeous area exploring, eating and swimming. I felt like the embodiment of gluttony. There was a buffet breakfast every day, and wave jumping galore. We would be there for Christmas holidays, so we decided to take a week off school. After discovering a delicious and cheap restaurant, we decided to dodge the heavy expenses of the resort and ate at that restaurant almost every meal. On Christmas Day, I slept in. This whole year was one giant gift, and there was no reason to wake up. The breakfast buffet was earlier in the morning, so I got up for that to enjoy the delicious bacon. When we returned to the room, we found about fifteen little wrapped gifts for each of us. It turns out, my parents have been buying things and carrying them since we left! I was so surprised that I could hardly moved. You could say that I was like a kid on Christmas. I opened things that I had eyed in shops along the way. I couldn’t believe that my parents had touched it out and carried so much stuff for so long. We curled up and watched a Christmas movie in the evening. Best Christmas ever.
After that much needed break from school, we headed to Ho Chi Minh city. We were only there for about three days, during which we mostly did school. While walking one day we found a Starbucks coffee, which has been very rare on our travels. We got some iced drinks and walked out. It was deadly hot in Ho Chi Minh. After Ho Chi Minh we set off on a bus tour that would eventually take us to the country of Cambodia. Our first stop on the tour and last stop in Vietnam was Chao Doc. I will talk about everything we did on the journey to Cambodia in the next blog entry. Vietnam was an extremely cool country and definitely the cheapest we’ve been to so far. I would advise going there to someone who was looking for a more cost-effective vacation.