Monday, June 25, 2012

Over the clouds in Sa Pa

I just got back to Hanoi after the most incredible weekend in the quiet mountain town of Sa Pa in northwest Vietnam, near the Chinese border. My friends and I spent three days trekking to different villages in the mountains (in high 40 degree weather). Despite the extreme heat and humidity, which at times made the hike almost unbearable, it was definitely worth it because the views were out of this world! The steep ascents were made a bit easier with the help of the 5 local hilltribe women who followed us (the entire way!!) just to sell us things (which we later discovered, of course). It's hard to image that these women have to walk miles and miles through the mountains and rice paddies just to get to and from their homes every single morning and night. It was hilarious to see me and my friends slipping and sliding through the mud when we were fully equipped with high tech running shoes with grips and support, while the local black H'mong women could manoeuvre perfectly down the steepest slopes in nothing but plastic slip-ons!! I was obviously the first to fall on my ass in the mud....but then it wasn't long before the others were following suit. 

On the first day we trekked to the YlinhHo and Lao Chai villages of the black H'mong people, and after a picnic lunch in the village, we kept trekking alongside the Muong Hoa stream and over suspension bridges (!) to Ta Van village, home to the Dzay people. Finally, after a 7 hour hike, we arrived at our overnight homestay in the Giang Ta Chai village, home of a Dzay family with the two cutest little boys ever! Their house was in the middle of nowhere, right near a river (which we immediately dove right into!) The homestay was one of my favourite parts of the trip. We helped prepare the meal, feasted, and then spent the night making our own little party in the middle of the mountains. Our homestay "father" was a cool cat - all throughout dinner, he kept on pouring us shots of his home-brewed rice wine, which, if I had to guess, had the alcohol percentage of something more along the lines of Bacardi than wine. Once we were all pretty tipsy and having a good time, he started playing some tunes for us...with nothing but a leaf! All in all, it was a pretty good night. 

The next morning, we woke up and started off on another 6 hour hike into Hoan Lien Son National Park and Giang Ta Chai village of the Red Dao minority. In the middle of a clearing at the top of a mountain, we were met by a bunch of kids trying to sell us bracelets. The young girls, who couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 years old, even had indigo-stained hands from dying the traditional clothes worn by the women. They surrounded us from every corner and whispered in tiny hushed voices "buy from from me..." How could you say no to those faces?! I immediately did promise to buy from every single one of them. 

After having bought about 20 bracelets in all, I later found out that buying from these children actually brings more harm than good. By buying from them, we are directly encouraging them to not go to school and to sell items to tourists instead, hoping to make money for them and their families. It was absolutely heartbreaking seeing these poor children up in the middle of nowhere so desperate to sell you a bracelet for 10,000 VND (50 cents), which represents, to them, an importance income for that day. 

We continued on our trek to Su Pan for lunch, after which we took a car (thank god) back to Sapa, where we got to rest our feet after all the hiking. That night, we went out into town and had time to have a couple of beers before the entire town suddenly had a power outage and went completely dark. 

The next day was much more relaxed - we spent the morning in the Sapa market, and then made our way down to Cat Cat village, where we saw the beautiful Cat Cat waterfall and the water power station built by the French in the early 20th century. We had a free and easy day motorbiking through Sapa and the surrounding villages until 6 pm when we transfered down to the Lao Cai station for the night train back to Hanoi, where I had 8 hours to rest before coming straight to work the next morning! 

Kids selling bracelets at the top of the mountain 

Beautiful rice terraces 

Above-mentioned homebrewed rice wine
Playin' the leaf

Making our way to Cat Cat village 
Cat Cat waterfall

Feeling at home in the Sapa markets

Water stream near our homestay where we went for a little dip after the long hike

Monday, June 18, 2012

Unspoiled nature in Mai Chau

How many people can you fit on a 28-seater bus in Vietnam? – 42…and 4 birds. I learned that the hard way, squeezing myself onto an overcrowded bus whose destination was more or less unknown. Trying to figure out the bus system in Vietnam is one of the most confusing and frustrating endeavours I have encountered thus far. As soon as we arrived at the station, every bus driver began shouting at us, promising that their bus was the one heading in our direction ("yes, yes, I take you!!!). However, once aboard - and still skeptical of the trustworthiness of the driver - I (thankfully) asked another passenger where the bus was actually going, only to have them point out a spot on the map which was in the complete opposite direction. After two failed attempts, the third bus was a charm! Three and a half hours later, I was in Mai Chau, a mountainous region in the Hoa Binh province, and home of the White Thai, Muong and Dao ethnic minority people.

A world away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, Mai Chau is a paradise of rice fields and rural villages, completely unspoiled by mass tourism or industrialization. Our group of 7 showed up, without reservation or notice, in front of a family’s stilt-house. We soon discovered that our hosts were in fact part of the ethnic White Thai minority, distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos, and China. Immediately, they took us into their home and served us hot tea and a seemingly endless amount of noodles. After settling our belongings on the upper level of the bare house (built on stilts to prevent from flooding), our host father's neighbour offered to take us on a tour of the village. We embarked on a 3 hour bike tour through the rice paddies and through the muddy and rocky dirt roads of the town. Along the way, we saw farmers harvesting their crop, kids playing in the narrow streets, and water buffalos going about their daily farming routines. 

That evening, our host family prepared a delicious Vietnamese meal, and by night, we had the chance to watch a traditional performance of song and dance, each act representing the different tribes and minority groups of Mai Chau. After the show, we walked up to the single-room of the house, and took our spots on our respective bamboo mats, falling asleep immediately after the long day.

The following morning, we woke up at 4 am to climb to the 1000 Steps Cave and watch the sunrise from the top of the mountain. Although it was too foggy to see the sun rise, we ventured deep into the cave and then made our way down the steps. We came home just in time for breakfast – bread (banh) with a fried egg in the middle. Fueled up, we then went kayaking in the Black River, surrounded by all the beautiful mountains of the region. Already having experienced a full-day’s worth of activities by noon, we said goodbye to our host family and grabbed lunch at a street restaurant serving bun cha (rice noodles with minced pork balls) on the main road of the village before taking a bus back to Hanoi - a bumpy (and frightening) ride.

The whole weekend was an adventure and a nice change of pace from the motorbike traffic and incessant honking of Hanoi. 

 Traditional vietnamese meal prepared by our host family
 Locals performing a traditional chop stick dance
Climbing to the 1000-steps cave 
 We made it! 

Farmers harvesting their crop

 The stilt-house in which we stayed overnight 
 Our homestay parents

Friday, June 15, 2012

IPMax Law Firm

One week into my new life here, I am settled in and already falling madly in love with this crazy city. I know the maze of alleyways leading to my house like the back of my hand, I've made friends with the young boy at the café on my way to work (who loves to laugh at my horrible Vietnamese skills), and I'm slowly tasting every steaming bowl of Pho in my neighbourhood!

I started work on Monday at my internship placement: IPMax, a small boutique law firm specializing in intellectual property law. My coworkers - Son, Thanh, Ninh and Thao - are all so happy to have me here and really make me feel like my work here is deeply appreciated, even though I sometimes feel useless. My job pretty much consists of reviewing English emails and documents that the lawyers prepare for their clients, researching the vietnamese IP laws, and preparing a presentation comparing and contrasting the canadian and vietnamese legal systems, with a special focus on the national IP laws of both countries (which will be presented to Vietnamese lawyers and law students at the end of my one month internship!)

The highlights of my job though are the daily english "classes" that I lead. Not so much classes as conversations. Every day, I go for coffee with one of my coworkers and just talk to them to help them improve their conversational English skills. They talk to me about everything and anything - their family, their lives here in Vietnam, and they teach me about their religion (Buddhism). I have already learnt so much from them in such a short amount of time. If I could, I would talk to them all day, learning about a way of life and a culture so drastically different than my own - unfortunately, we can only take an hour off from work! 

In front of IPMax Law Firm, Hanoi
My IPMax family - Ninh, Thanh, Thao and Son (left to right) at Highway4
Cha Ca La Vong is one of Hanoi's most iconic dishes and one that every foodie must try when in the capital city
Ninh, Thanh and Thao teaching me how to prepare the dish which comes to the table on a stove for you to cook yourself
The family