Break from the big-city grind: motorbikes, trekking, and a million giant butterflies outside of Sa Pa, Vietnam

I just returned from a pretty fantastic 3-day stay in a small village outside of Sa Pa, in far-flung way-northern Vietnam.  The city comes highly recommended by guidebooks, but the city itself is not worth a stay.  Instead, the best experiences that I’ve had on this trip so far came outside by about 40 minutes in teeny-tiny Tả Van.

I took a bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa, where you’re immediately swarmed by dozens of Hmong women shouting, “Shopping?  Shopping?” in an attempt to get you to buy their purses or bracelets.  They’ll follow you around persistently alternating between, “Where are you from?” and “Shopping?  Shopping?” until you flee into a business.  I was looking for a motorbike right away to get out to Tả Van, and eventually had to settle on the crappiest off-brand something-or-other with the least-trustworthy brakes from the sketchiest guy on the corner, because he was the only one that didn’t ask to hold my passport as collateral (just my driver’s license.  My driver’s license, in exchange for the thing that I’m going to drive.  Instantly hoping to not repeat my experience with the Thai cops).

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I set out to find the homestay which was only about 10 km out of town, but for some reason listed as almost 40 minutes away driving.  After a whole bunch of wrong turns to get out of town I quickly realized why it would take so long:  the road was made up of occasional chunks of concrete separated by potholes big enough to fit me, my backpack, and the motorbike.  This was sketchy driving.  After only wiping out twice (!), I made it to the My Tra homestay, run by the fantastic Andrew and his wife and little girl.

What I liked about this place most, aside from the surrounding stunning countryside, was the lengths to which Andrew made his guests feel at home and create bonds between the people staying there.  He described all of the nearby trekking trails with maps, and paired people up who had similar plans so no one was traveling alone.  He also served dinner communally, so that everyone staying (there were only about 10 beds in the place) had a chance to meet each other (so here’s the shout-out to the fantastic Gemma, Lisa, Natalie, Jon, Simon, Tim, Chloe, and Coco with the more complicated French name:  thank you all for celebrating my birthday and also accepting me as the only USA-an in the building).

My first full day I set out on a trek with a few from the hostel to the nearby waterfalls and across the river in the valley.  I hiked through a bamboo forest where huge butterflies landed on my arm; I stuck my feet in the pools of a waterfall that hammered down a sheer-rock wall; I looked in serious wonder at the stepped rice paddies.  I dunno, I honestly can’t explain how beautiful this place is; I’ll let pictures do the talking, but they hardly do Sa Pa’s valley any justice.  All along the way, women and girls from the local tribes tag along as guides, until we shooed them away because Andrew prepared us well.

The next day (In Which I Turn 28, Old, and Decrepit), I took the motorbike out to go up into the mountains and then down into the valley, also on Andrew’s recommendation.  The janky bike didn’t do well in those pothole’d local streets, but once a bit out of the villages the road became smooth and curvy — in some places more so than the road to Pai.  I biked around for almost 3 hours without running into anyone except for local farmer boys who would wave and shout “hello!” from atop a water buffalo.

Later that day I took a bus back to Hanoi, where I treated myself to my whole own room for the inordinate price of $18.  Tomorrow, on to Halong Bay to spend a night on the water on a tour where the evening entertainment options are “stargazing on the upper deck” or “squid fishing.”  Guess which one I picked?

Also, today I ate this fantastic bánh mì.

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Two countries, two ways of doing things. Also, continuing to eat all the food (because I do what I know).

We made it back into Chiang Mai via motorbike again.  Being the biking experts we now are, we didn’t encounter any problems (or, maybe more significantly, any police).  We took the train back into Bangkok late and slept for a few hours at a downtown hostel and then went our separate ways — Tory back to the USA, me on to Vietnam.

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I flew right into Hanoi, and the differences between Thailand and Vietnam (or maybe at least more directly, between Bangkok and Hanoi) were immediately clear.  People in Thailand seem to be more reserved; the kids in Hanoi’s airport climbed all over my backpack playing with the straps.  The horn on your car or bike in Bangkok is reserved for dire emergencies.  The horn in Hanoi is used for any or all reasons.  People generally follow traffic laws in Bangkok.  Need to be on the other side of the road in Hanoi?  Then make seven lanes from two going whatever direction you see fit.  The traffic in Hanoi is insane, traffic signals are ignored, the right-of-way goes to the bigger or fastest, and pedestrians are best to just start walking into the middle of the road, and don’t change your pace, because the bikes will veer.  Whatever you do, don’t stop or walk backwards.

Hanoi is completely in your face.  Where haggling is pretty commonplace across the region, at least in Thailand it seemed that it wouldn’t start until you showed interest.  In Hanoi you are constantly being approached to buy!  Buy now!  And immediately!  There is a lot more yelling and LOUD NOISES in Hanoi, and I’ve had to keep a more careful hand on my wallet.

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Overwhelming as it is at first, I started to really like Hanoi.  On Saturday I caught the Hanoi Hilton, famous prison run by the French, then later used to house American POWs (I have some thoughts on how fascinating I found the… verbage… through the prison museum, but I think I’ll wait until I’m out of the country).  Afterwards I did a couple laps around Hoàn Hoàn Kiếm Lake, then collapsed in a heap of heat exhaustion (the heat index hit 113° F Saturday and yesterday).  On Sunday I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (lucky Uncle Ho gets some serious air conditioning) which is apparently what everyone in Hanoi does on Sundays.

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Hanoi highlight was definitely my street food tour.  Super inexpensive way to get into little street stalls that I would have never braved alone.  Highlight was the dried beef papaya salad — pictures below!  Click on ’em to make ’em bigger.

Today I took an early train into Sapa, but more on that once I do some more discovering.  I rented a motorbike to get myself into a homestay about 10 kms out of town.  I am in the middle of an unspeakably beautiful valley.  I also initially thought that I had a really quiet motorbike, but apparently it’s one that just dies halfway through every time I go downhill.  Biking the ridge tomorrow — let’s see how it does uphill.

Thoughts on the 151 km, 762-curve strong, uphill motorbike ride from Chiang Mai to Pai

In no particular order, with no particular importance.

  • The bloggers that have done this have written things like, “only expert bikers should attempt this journey” and, “under no circumstances should you attempt this ride.”  But I learned how to ride a motorbike yesterday, so that doesn’t apply to me, right?
  • Traffic in Chiang Mai is awful
  • Traffic is awful
  • Other vehicles are awful
  • They drive on the left here.  Does that mean the far left is the slow lane?  Is that where I should go?  How fast can I go?  Where should I be?  IF YOU WOULD ALL STOP HONKING I COULD FIGURE SOME THINGS OUT NOW.

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  • Good thing I have this bandanna around my face because that will surely prevent the black gunk from the truck in front of me from getting in my lungs
  • Should I get gas here?  No, I’ll wait
  • Is this a superhighway?  Am I on a Thai superhighway?  
  • What does that police officer want?  Why is he making me stop driving?  What is an International Driver’s Permit?  Oh, if I just pay the fine here you’ll let me go?  NOW JUST WAIT A MINute ok just take my money

  • I am incredulous that that police officer made me follow the law whilst lining his own pockets
  • Oh hey the road is clearing up
  • Whoa hey!  It’s getting a little bendy!
  • Whoa HEY now, that was a great lean into that curve!  I am an expert motorbiker!
  • Whoa hey this is incredible
  • This town smells like SWEET MINT!  The WHOLE TOWN smells like SWEET MINT!
  • Now it’s definitely bendy
  • Now it’s definitely uphill!

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  • Now it’s bendy and uphill at the same time!
  • It’s nice that there isn’t too much traffic
  • It’s hot.
  • Those clouds up ahead mean that it will cool down!
  • Those clouds up ahead mean that it’s going to rain
  • NOW IT IS RAINING a bit
  • The truck that is filled with pigs just passed me
  • 762 turns, eh?  That’s a lot of turns.
  • It’s nice that that car that almost hit me was an ambulance.  That would be real convenient.
  • What a vista!  What a view!
  • Oh this must be that real squiggly part
  • Oh now we’re going to try downhill and bendy

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  • I sure wish my brakes were better
  • Oh back uphill now!  I’m going to need each one of these 125 ccs!
  • I should have packed less stuff
  • Whoa hey this is incredible!
  • What’s that police checkpoint up ahead?  Again?  Hello!  Hi!  Hello!  Go right through?  Don’t mind if I do.
  • Back uphill!  Back downhill!  Real squiggly!  Real slowREALFASTreal slow!
  • Hey some stuff!  We are close!
  • This way?  No that way.  This way?  Let’s try that way.
  • Look at that countryside!  Look at those fields!
  • Look at that sign!  That’s it!  We made it!  We survived!
  • We are expert bikers!
  • Whoa hey that was incredible!

I can ride my bike with no wait definitely hang on to the handlebars

I am in a big bad Harley 125 cc Honda gang now in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Some context:  We made it to Chiang Mai from Bangkok yesterday early afternoon.  We were in need of a restful day, so once we found the hostel decided to stroll but of course ran into a rather large temple complex in the middle of town.  They’re strewn about everywhere here, so it’s bound to happen.  It’s a Buddhist university/library/tomb/etc., and it’s crawling with monks.

Later we ate some real good crispy fish, because everything is delicious.

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We’d been thinking about taking motorbikes out to Pai from here, about a 3-hour drive through 762 turns up a mountain (every website I read is real specific about those 762 turns.  It seemed like a good idea, except that neither of us had ever driven a motorbike before.  We decided to rent some for the day to putter around outside of town and get the feel for it and make a judgement call from there.  After some frustration with some rental places, we ended up with 2 125 cc Honda scooters.

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A brief aside to my mother: if I’m writing this then you know that I survived, so quit worrying.

After about 4 minutes of scooting up and down the alley that our hostel is on we decided we were road-tested and ready, so we went for it.  And a couple notes:  traffic drives on the left here, which is like the least of our worries.  People stack whole families on these motorbikes, and taxis and tuk-tuks and regular ol’ cars just weave wherever they want without regard to anything, especially two newbies who don’t really care to go much past 30 kph (at first.  I got over that).  There were some stressful moments and honking horns, but nobody fell off and nobody is currently still bleeding.

After getting out of Chiang Mai proper we started to get into the mountains.  Right out of town there was a waterfall to hike around, and we needed to quick de-stress from the city traffic, so we stopped there.

Then we continued on to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, except that the road got considerably more… squiggly.  Lots of sharp-ish turns, frequently while being over taken by vans or trucks.  Then some rain.  But we persevered!  We were a little too wiped out to appreciate Doi Suthep as much as we probably should have, but it didn’t help to immediately encounter 309 steps to the top.

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The temple was beautiful though, and a good respite from the road.  We survived the journey back, but downhill is a lot scarier and some brakes that, um, stop would be nice.

Things taste better when they’re passed to you from a canoe

Today was busy again.  We started indecisive, so we got massages.  I’ve never had one!  So that being the case it was maybe more stressful than relaxing (’cause like what are you supposed to DO with like your limbs and whatnot?), but definitely worth it after a couple days of schlepping around a backpack and walking and walking and walking.

Tory was relaxed:

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After that we got some lunch on Khao San Road.  From there we worked out how to get to the Amphawa Floating Market, about an hour and a half outside of Bangkok.  We had to start from Victory Monument, which is a massive traffic circle layered with an equally massive pedestrian bridge encircling the top.  It took a lot of asking many, many people to figure out the right minivan to take, but we did make it to the right one eventually.

The Floating Market is another sensory barrage.  It’s a canal filled with canoes and motorboats that’s lined on either side with markets going up and down all of the side streets.  To eat, you sit on a bench along the water and order from the canoes, which are filled with charcoal grills and ladies making delicious seafood.  We had squid, prawns, scallops, and crispy fried fish and it was as fantastic as it sounds.  We also tried our luck with the notorious durian fruit — so smelly that guests are banned from bringing it into hotels.  It honestly wasn’t that bad.  Kind of like a less juicy melon.

Tomorrow — on to Chiang Mai, if we can figure out this online check-in.

There is a lot happening all the time.

That’s my first observation.  Bangkok is huge — about 8.3 million people.  I’m very glad that I’m traveling with someone who is much more navigationally inclined than myself.

Tory woke up before me today and went on a walking adventure, but I slept off 36 hours of wide-awake travel for a bit.  After breakfast we headed out to Wat Pho, about a 10-minute walk from the hostel.  Wat Pho is one of the larger and grander temple complexes in Bangkok.  It holds over 1,000 Buddha statues, with a few more significant ones.  Most significant is the massive reclining Buddha — just lying down, and he looks too big for the structure he’s held in.  The complex also has an elementary school, complete with an irritable, ruler-to-table-slapping older teacher, and a medical and massage training grounds.

We strolled for a bit, walking around the massive Grand Palace complex, which indeed looks grand from the outside, but also a little too expensive at the gates.  We found our first pad thai and green curry not far from there.  First food.

Food is definitely a primary objective of this trip.  The vinegar on the right is tongue-meltingly spicy, with little tiny chiles that burn your face right off.

We went back to the hostel to figure out next steps for a bit, then walked in vain to try to find Wat Tramit to find the largest golden Buddha in Bangkok.  As directionally-proficient as Tory is, these thanon and sois are not laid out in a grid, and we didn’t make it in time — that’s probaly OK; apparently temple burn-out is an actual thing.  We did meander various alleys and markets for a couple hours, though, right through the local Chinatown.

We found a quiet local establishment a mile or two away right on a canal.  We watched giant lizard-crocodiles fight each other for fish in garbage water.  We met a couple — she Swiss and he Turkish — and headed down to Khao San road together.  Khao San is the backpacker haven — really loud, and very neon, but with all of the watered-down sights you need in one place.  The street vendors charge you to take pictures of their wares — street-food cockroaches and spiders.  We declined, but settled on some other questionable street sustenance outside the reggae bar.  We had some sort of minced pork in a deliciously tamarind-y broth and a chicken leg chopped to bits in the same with handfuls of basil and long green chiles that taste like a mix of a green bean with a cucumber.

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Other observations:

  • It rains off-and-on constantly.  No one seems to be put off by it.  I suppose it is the rainy season.
  • They drive on the left here.  Only confusing when trying to cross the street; probably marginally more so when we try to motorbike to Pai.
  • The Swiss traveler was definitely on the run from the police.
  • This is a country of extreme temperature fluctuations.

Tomorrow, to the floating market!

Onward!

New entry?  First time in over a year?  Must be time for a new adventure.

This week has a lot of changes with a big professional move that has led to me leaving Onalaska — more on that later — but before those changes come, how about a month in southeast Asia?

I’m sitting at the Detroit airport right now waiting to fly to Tokyo, then on to Bangkok with my friend, Tory.  There’s a bird flying over our heads inside the terminal.  I might switch to a flight to Beijing for an upgrade to business class.  I’ve never flown business class!  I’ll be spending a month traveling through Bangkok, Cambodia, and Vietnam — Laos is a maybe right now.

Why these places?  Most of the answer is below:

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It’ll be an experience of total culture shock… delicious, delicious culture shock.  We’re aiming to do homestays in Chiang Mai, ride motorbikes to Pai.  Tory will leave after 10 days, then I’m on my own for the rest of the month to forge on through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Some things along the way:

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Wish us luck.