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Mưa

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This morning dawned wet and misty. Despite my scepticism back in November, winter really does come to Hanoi and while it may not be below fifteen degrees celcius there is a definite chill in the air that isn’t helped by the perpetual greyness that hangs over the city.  But today it isn’t so bad, I believe that the hazy sky is the damp fog and not the thick cloud of pollution that it seemed yesterday.  Setting out for the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient in the morning drizzle – they have some English books on colonialism I find interesting – I was reminded of what is so charming and so irritating about this city.

The pavement is slick with the built up grime that had turned mucky in the wet air and my foot slips continually on the uneven pavement. I’m blocked at corners by the crowds of people, men who spend their days drinking at cafes and smoking are scattered on small stools across the footpath and women hawk fruit, fried dough, and steaming bowls of some variation of the millions of noodle soups that staple the diet. I’m heading for the old French quarter and the sight of the decaying buildings intrigue me; the fading glory just visible beneath the black layers of dirt, broken shutters and lines of laundry hanging from the windows. I deliberately walk a certain way so as to visit my favourite buildings. I wonder who lived in them when they were new and who lives in them now. I also walk a certain way so as to avoid streets I know to be a mass of scooters, garbage, and the inevitable rat. This morning is a ratty morning and I don’t enjoy the way the scamper through the gutters, an occasional dead one washed up in the rain water. On mornings such as these, in the streets less frequented by tourists, all modernity slips from the city and it seems to go on as it must have a hundred years ago. Then I’m catapulted back into the present by a scooter tearing down the footpath.

I arrive at library to find it closed. They had changed their hours again and I stand in the small back street wondering where to go next. My computer hangs heavily from my shoulder and I’m reluctant to go back to my study now that I’ve made the effort to go out. I make my way to a café up the road and am reminded of what is so unfavourable about walking Hanoi’s streets. I dash across the road to avoid the bus hurtling around the corner against a red light. A scooter backs onto the footpath, narrowly avoiding my foot. The driver gives me an unapologetic stare, surprised anyway is actually usually the pavement to walk on. A man pisses in front of me and a woman sweeping rubbish throws it into the street without looking. All within the space of two blocks. Hanoi looses is charm at this moment and I long to walk, on the clean uninterrupted streets of home. Then I smell the sweet tangy scent of the kumquat fruit that has been squashed as people remove their Tet decorations and see the colourful Buddhist flags fluttering along the street and I am again reminded of what is so special about the city. If it wasn’t for the bad, the good would not be so sweet. 

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Conquering Mt. Fansipan

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Labor Day long weekend represents the end of Summer in America, but here is Hanoi temperatures are still warm and the humidity is unrelenting – although endless rain is dampening any summery feel. Zack and I were happy to take advantage of the holiday and retreat to the more temperate weather of Vietnam’s north-eastern mountains. Just a “quick” eight hour night train later and we were our of Hanoi’s noise and pollution and into the clean mountain air, relaxing in silence on a mountain top; 45 minutes from the small town of Sapa.

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Tourists flock to Sapa to take in the breathtaking views, hike amongst rice paddies, and interact with the many minority tribes that live in the region.

ImageBut as enjoyable as these activities were, we were on a mission…  to conquer Mt. Fansipan.  Towering over the surrounding hills at over 3000 meters, the mountain is the highest in Indochina and a challenge we couldn’t pass up.

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What I could pass up, however, was a night in a camp surrounded by mud, trash, and rats. So, in defiance of local advice, we attempted, and only just succeeded, in climbing the mountain in one day. A feat, according to our guide, only attempted by Australians and a few Europeans… Never by Vietnamese. We were warned that it would be an eleven hour slog up a seemingly endless slippery slope, decorated with mossy boulders, creeks, and tricky tree roots. The constant mud was just part of the fun. Feeling pretty confident in our hiking abilities we really didn’t give this much thought, perhaps we should have. After eleven and a half hours we limped out of the forest, muddy, bloody and bruised, from a trek that could have been spectacular if it wasn’t for the impenetrable cloud.

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ImageDespite the turmoil of the hike we did in enjoy the challenge… in retrospect. We slept well that night, in a our beautiful eco-lodge, happy in the knowledge that we had made it. The next day we barely moved.

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Sunset at the lodge

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Rất mưa (very rainy)

ImageHeading home from dinner with friends on Friday night, the air was hot and thick… more so than usual. A typhoon was predicted for the weekend and we could feel it building in the dark air. We woke Saturday morning to heavy rain that continued throughout the day. While perhaps not typhoon level – Hanoi is a way inland – the rain was bucketing down. With no food in the house we ducked around the corner to pick up some fruit and veges from the market. We returned home drenched, but with a good looking pineapple and ingredients for soup, bread and marmalade.

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Despite the downpour, vendors and market goers seemed relatively nonplussed. People were plucking ducks, wringing chickens necks, chopping mystery meat, hawking bananas and custard apples. Scooters, still on the road despite the lack of visability, zoomed past, their drivers sheltered by colored ponchos, only visible as colored blurs in the rain. The bia hoi sellers brushed a never ending stream of water away from the small tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Zack gazed out the window and planned future holidays while I cooked… the marmalade was a bit bitter but I was happily surprised to find that my bread turned out perfectly.

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Sawadee Ka

ImageSkidding down the steep, eroded hill I was wondering if we should have forked out the extra money for a four-wheeler ATV. Sure the old scooter was $40 cheaper but how much would the medical bill be when these dodgy brakes failed. Up ahead, our friends had developed a new plan… As Sait pulled the bike over the broken bitumen drops, Emily got off and walked along beside. I decided to follow suit.

We were at Koh Samet, Thailand. A small island approximately 200km from Bangkok airport, an easy long weekend from Hanoi. The previous day we had sped into our cove, lined with palm trees and small hotels, ready to enjoy the sandy beaches, warm water, and many meals of fresh seafood and Pad Thai. Despite the rainy season the weather was lovely; refreshingly cool after Hanoi, which was getting too hot and humid to enjoy time outside. With two full days we decided to first explore the island on scooters before spending a day snorkeling off shore.

ImageDespite the (literally) rocky start on the scooters, the day picked up when we “discovered” a stunning clifftop lookout with views down the coast and out to the sparkling blue water. This side of the island, less sheltered than the cove where we stayed, had a small surf and the day passed in a salty, sandy haze of eating and playing in the waves. Emboldened by our relaxing afternoon we jumped back on the scooters for the 15 minute drive home. An hour later we had driven in a circle, twice. Thinking we would try a different route home, my confidence in my directional capabilities had gotten us lost.

ImageEnergized by our adventure we decided to catch a taxi to a nearby restaurant – the taxi turned out to be a pick-up truck with benches nailed to tray. Tightly gripping the sides and trying not to swallow too must sand, we barreled along dark, bumpy roads before arriving at a quiet, rickety restaurant built on stilts in the sea. Watching the water lapping through the floor boards I ate the best Thai meal I have ever had – vege spring rolls, addictive fried rice, aromatic curry, fresh fish, and, in Sait’s case, more fried rice. In desperate need of exercise after such a meal we stumbled home through the headland forest, following a woman who sprang across exposed roots and outcropped rocks, invisible in the dark until we nearly tripped over them.

ImageThe following morning brought more adventure and as we started out in a speedboat ready for a day of snorkeling, black clouds began to gather on the horizon. The sheltered geographic location of Koh Samet means that it gets very little rain in the wet season and throughout the day we watched as dark thunderheads, flashing with lighting, passed around us.  Swimming over small coral reefs in the glowing aqua water, we watched small fish, some with noses as long as their bodies, dart around sea anemones, and schools of transparent fish float by, unconcerned by the many spectators watching their progress. Although the rain didn’t reach us, the wind did. Speeding between islands, the boat crashed through the choppy water, airborne for a moment before slamming back into the waves, jarring us all and sending up shrieks among some of the passengers. I loved it and the ride reminded both Zack and I of when we would take out the speed boat in Gambia.

Our final evening we walked along the beach to watch a wedding at a neighboring hotel. As the wedding guests sent sky lanterns (like mini paper hot air balloons) in to the inky sky we danced in the sand to the cheesy love songs played by the wedding band.  The next day we woke to rain on the roof of our small cabin, making it easier to leave. On the journey home we were already planning our next beach holiday… where to next? Image