Chaotic and delicious Vietnam

In the quest of discovering yet another culture, we were off to Hanoi, Vietnam, where we were perplexed at the horrific traffic and yet mystified at how everything makes sense for the locals.  That was the first shock with Hanoi, were there any traffic rules and what were they if they did exist? Each intersection had us horrified that we would be struck by a scooter as no one ever stops from any direction.  Cars, scooters, people, all crossing simultaneously; an accident waiting to happen to the foreign eye.  A day later, we realized that all the locomotion did have some sense and rhythm, albeit chaotic to outsiders. 
 
Hanoi’s Old Quarter was a very charming area with locals and tourists intertwined in a daily life which brought me back to a time of innocence.  On its streets, one could spot traditionally dressed Vietnamese locals with their cone-shaped chapeaus carrying loads of vegetables on their shoulders and with a balance I had only seen in South African women carrying baskets on their heads.  And so they walk, all day, with their fruits and vegetables hoping to sell some of their load to lighten up their shoulders.  Their loads undoubtedly weigh more than themselves, yet they carry them effortlessly.   
 
All around, there were meats sizzling over charcoal grills, woks flaming with fish sauces, numerous vegetables in their seven shades of green, rice and noodles, loads and loads of noodles.  If you have three miniscule chairs, a palm-sized grill and a tiny wok, in Hanoi, you have a restaurant. At every step, there was another restaurant with locals savouring delightful dishes.  The aroma of the fresh spices was so potent that we were constantly hungry in Hanoi.  The dishes were brilliantly crafted in the simplest ways, but so divine in their flavours that the most expensive restaurants could learn from the street vendors.   
 
The rickshaws circle the streets hoping for tourists to embark on a ride.  At one point, we were on a button street. The next street was the funeral street filled with flowers. Another street over was the toy street which Alessia clearly loved but I refuse to continue to purchase plastic junk for her.  We have damaged our environment to a point of no return and I want to reduce our footprint as much as possible.   
 
There were art streets, there were craft streets and anything in between.  Our hotel was situated next to a bamboo street.  This made Hanoi quite interesting and unlike any other city we’d been to. 
 
Two days after we reached Vietnam we heard of an airplane that overshot the runway in Bali.  This was the same runway where days earlier, I watched planes landing from Jimbaran beach at sunset.  A few days later China’s Sichuan province was hit by a powerful earthquakeNeedless to say, I guess we’ve come to expect this on our travels.  
 
Our rest of the week was filled with visits to the Mausoleum, the Parliament, Bat Trang pottery village and the French Quarter, but none were as magical as the Old Quarter.  This place had a life of its own and was alive late into the night.  Locals were out observing the tourists and tourists were out observing the locals. We studied each other at all times.  I snuck in pictures of the people and things that fascinated me and they got close ups of Alessia.  We were as interested in the locals as they were to us and that was what made it so much more fascinating.  Following our trip, I am certain that Alessia has made her appearance on numerous Facebook pages around Vietnam.   
 
We later embarked on the night train to Sapa, a train also reminiscent of the old days.  The tracks were extremely unstable and the actual trip was very long as it took us nine hours to cover just over three hundred kilometers of tracks.  We were instantly shocked at the beauty of Sapa where you could spot kilometers of rice terraces and valleys filled with minorities of the Black H’Mong people, the Red Dao, the Giay and many others.  These minorities have different customs than the Vietnamese people and even vary among themselves. The Black H’Mong are recognized by the navy colour of their clothes that they craft and dye themselves with a plant.  The Red Dao stand out with their red head scarves.  They are each so unique and extremely beautiful. This is what travelling is all about, going to Sapa for the rice terraces and discovering a whole new world, a world where time really did stand still. 
 
The tribes of Sapa live by their own rhythm and dance to their own music.  Walking around villages, we spotted many children playing outside, with five year olds carrying their baby siblings on their back while their parents worked the rice fields.  Down the path, there was a dog and a pig admiring nature’s masterpiece.  Further down, we arrived at the home of our Black H’Mong tour guide, Bao of Sapa Pathfinder, where baby ducklings were following their mommy duck to the river. Inside their home, one television tube with a few Vietnamese channels was on to keep them entertained.  A few beds were parallel to the ground and the fire in the middle of the room was cooking their lunch.  Bao introduced us to her mother-in-law and her sister.  There, in that one room, resided the entire family.  Immediately, her mother-in-law brought out a bottle of moonshine and offered us a drink.  Gestures like this always remind us of the village in Romania where this is customary when guests arrive.  We did not speak the same language nor did we have the same lives, but in their home, we felt at home.  This kindness that unites us is the reason I travel.  This humanity exists in all corners of the world; we only need to discover it.  It does not matter where we are born or where we live, there is something greater that unites us. 
 
I was in love with Sapa but more so with the people.  Their traditional attire fascinated me; they shine with colour and their smiles were brighter than the sun.  There are days when these minorities only eat one meal of rice per day as the poverty there is extremely high, yet there were no beggars.  All the women work with or around tourists. They are tour guides, they make handicrafts and they go to the market to sell whatever they can.  These women are tougher than most men and even though they are humble and sweet, they can be aggressive when they attempt to sell you their goods. My partner observed that I was tired after half of a day of hiking the rice terraces and said to me: “If you had to climb up and down those valleys as they do, you would be tough as well.” These women have great stamina and could probably run marathons and win against any Western athlete.  The conditions are rough and they walk up and down the cliffs the entire day to provide for their families. In fact, during our three day stay, we spotted four men all together.  The women were out working while the men only laboured the fields when it was necessary.  
 
This trip truly was a memorable experience for us. There are few places in the world where I still feel like the people are genuine and untouched by progress.  The smiles of the elderly women whose years show in the lines on their faces, the babies playing in the dirt and the breathtaking views shall remain indented in my heart forever.  This is all we take with us, our memories and the love that fills our heart in each place where we leave a part of us and take a part of them.

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