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Monday, April 15, 2013

April 11 – 14, 2013 Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi Hilton and then off to Sapa, Vietnam

Returning to Hanoi, we had one day and night to enjoy the city once again before catching the midnight train to Sapa. Ha! Sounds like a song, eh?

We checked back into the Tirant Hotel, and then used what was left of the evening to walk the streets of old town Hanoi. We were impressed that much of the area has maintained its historic significance and tradition. There was a street for everything.  We were surprised that there was a street for eating dog meat. Street cooking is very common here, and you can buy nearly anything barbequed.

Although the weather was deteriorating, we had until roughly 10 PM on Thursday before needing to head to the train station. First we went in search of the famous tomb of Ho Chi Minh. It's a bit hard to miss. The grounds that encompass his tomb and living compound must take up several square kilometers. There is communist propaganda everywhere, and an abundance of armed guards. As in Saigon, school children arrived in organized droves. Gotta start that brainwashing at an early age, although it doesn't seem to be adhering to their young minds so well. Most of the young adults we met are working hard to get out of there, expressing a strong desire to make enough money in order to migrate to America. That's it for my political commentary. I don't want to create flack about it.

Eventually we survived the long queue to see the preserved body of this horrible little man who had wreaked havoc for so many years. The TSA inspectors could take come lessons here from the Vietnamese. Security was tight and the screening process quite impressive. Of course no photos are allowed, and our bags were confiscated and tagged to be retrieved later. There were at least two dozen guards in the tomb and around the body that was displayed in a glass enclosure. He was amazingly well preserved. Creepy.
Afterward we walked over to look at his home that was set up in a very Zen-like environment. If I didn't know better I would've thought he was Buddhist rather than a communist. The grounds were astoundingly and lovingly sculpted and tranquil.

Later on we toured the Hanoi Hilton. To say it was disturbing would be a great understatement. I became disgusted and outraged seeing the prison and reading the contemptible captions depicting the atrocities that our brave men endured. These people were pure evil and heartless.
We both needed a break from the depressing agitprop, so we went to find something to eat. If nothing else, the food here is fabulous!

Eventually it was time to head to the train station. This was one of the most confusing and stressful parts of our journey.  Our agent had booked us 1st class on the Orient Express, which we eventually discovered is just one car on the train, and not so easy to find. There were masses of humanity milling about the station and no one seemed to be able to point us in the right direction. We were wandering around trying to figure out where to go when I was grabbed by what I feared was a hustler who walked us outside the back door; us dragging our luggage along potholes and across several train tracks, and then he deposited us smack in the train yard. I just knew we were going to get mugged, but soon enough more Westerners began to gather about us, led by similarly disheveled looking little men. Our man demanded several American dollars for the assistance. I was getting a little frightened and angry as this point, as were many others, when a train suddenly pulled up and a frenzied bunch of passengers suddenly began trampling by! We had no idea which car was ours and helplessly looked around for our little man. Finally Frank managed to find someone to point us in the right direction (for a few more USD), and we entered to find that we had been actually given a regular class berth as the porter explained that they were out of 1st class but that they reserved this berth for just the two of us instead of cramming 4 persons in. What? How does that make it 1st class? It didn't matter. By now we were exhausted. It was midnight and the beds were relatively comfortable so we ate a small snack that was provided and took a sleeping pill for the long night ride to Sapa.

Arriving in Sapa early the next morning we made two immediate observations: that the village was socked in with fog, very cold and rainy, and the colorfully appointed hill tribe women flock at you and stick to you like glue trying to shove their wares in your face, insisting that you "buy from me!"

We zoomed over to the hotel where we had booked a large suite at the Sapa Rooms Boutique. We were really looking forward to this after the last 24 hours of travel. The hotel's lobby was adorable and very cozy but our room wouldn't be ready for a while so we settled in for a delicious breakfast and warmed up by the fireplace, not daring to go outside to get accosted by the aggressive little Hill Tribe women.  Eventually we were taken to our room on the top floor (no elevator). 
OMG. It was dark, dank and had water-spots and mold on the walls! There was no heat, and the room was freezing. We were shattered. Frank tried to speak to the manager about it but because we had booked through Agoda, all they would offer as an alternative was a very small room on the next floor down but for the same price. Apparently those on Agoda who had given this place 4 ½ stars were backpackers from Pluto! The bathroom door had fallen off and was propped back up. The bathroom itself was full of mildew and the shower head spun in all directions when we turned it on (sans shower door or curtain). I think I grew an ulcer from anxiety about using the bathroom. The other really nice hotels had been fully booked when we found this one so we sucked it up and decided not to let it ruin our precious few days here. Eventually they did bring us a radiator and a lamp, and tried their best to repair the shower-head and re-affix the bathroom door. We're thinking we probably wont recommend this hotel to any of our friends.

Sapa is a very beautiful village situated high in the hill tribe region of northern Vietnam. Most visitors come here for the magnificent views and lovely hiking trails through the mountains. Unfortunately for us it was very cold and rainy the entire time we were there. Because of mudslides the hiking trails were all closed. Our first order of business was to get something warm to wear. Every other shop is The North Face, so I found a little jacket but there were no real clothes to be found. Most of what is for sale there is hawked by the little village women selling their handcrafts. I think if the weather had been nicer and if we weren't so distraught then we may have been more amenable to purchasing something from these pesky little women, but they were very off-putting and aggressive. If Frank said "later", then they would follow us around insisting that it was later and that he promised to buy. When we didn't purchase any of their goods, they began to call us ugly names. They were really quite horrible. Frank began to tell them to go away and would put his hand up at them but they were undeterred. I guess they figure they will eventually beat you down but they were no match for Frank.

We did manage to book a tour to the Red Zhao village. Normally one would hike to it but due to the mud and rain problem we were driven in a van. We parked some distance away and slipped and slid along the village road on foot, getting mud splattered all over our clothes but the adventure was worth it to witness how these tribes lived. Villagers followed us throughout and although they displayed their goods, no one was pushy.  We were taken to the bathing house and, while there took an herbal hot tub soak in a wooden barrel. That was both interesting and bizarre. They worked hard to find a barrel large enough for Frank to fit into because you literally squat down inside a barrel! Afterward we were served local tea, and a chance to chat with some locals. We had noticed that the women either had extremely high foreheads or were bald underneath their head-wraps, so Frank asked about it to our guide. Being a local, she removed her head-wrap. Down cascaded her silken black hair, but it began at the middle of the top of her head. Puzzling. She told us that from an early age, the women pluck the frontal hairs from their heads to reveal a very large, shiny rounded forehead. This is considered beautiful to them. I asked her if the hairs grow back, and she replied that they do and are plucked as soon as they appear. They enjoyed speaking candidly with us about their culture and habits. They really are a lovely group of people. It's a shame the aggressive ones in Sapa village give such a bad impression.
On our final day, we finally gave up the hope of hiking when the rain and cold persisted. Streets were even becoming slippery so we walked the town, performing evasive measures to ditch the persistent little ladies. After a while, they will sic their children on you to try to play at your heartstrings. We were now officially desensitized. Eventually we stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants perched atop the hillside. While awaiting our food the sky suddenly cleared and for about 10 brief minutes we caught a glimpse of the beautiful terraced mountains. The view was everything that had been advertised. Then just as suddenly, the clouds closed back in and the mist drove us back inside.

Soon enough it was time to return to the train station for the overnight ride back to Hanoi. Unfortunately the Orient Express car was unavailable so our agent put us in first class on a different line. What a difference! This car was smelly and dirty. The toilet was stopped up and the beds were very uncomfortable. We didn't get much sleep on the return trip.

In Hanoi we went directly from the train station to the airport. Destination: Vientiane, Laos.

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