A walk through the misty village of Ta Phin near Sapa

The crowds of Red Hmong women gather around the tour vans as they arrive in the hope of selling a souvenir cloth, a purse, an umbrella, or any other of the myriad of items they carry for sale in the woven baskets strapped to their backs. Others just come to check out the people from strange lands that step out of the vans.

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Pretty soon the crowd moves on to the next van that’s arriving and you’re left standing with a couple of women with shaved foreheads and eyebrows, and beautiful red headdresses who become your guides as you wander through their village.

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They don’t ask for money or tips, only that you inspect their wares and hopefully buy one of their beautifully woven pieces of fabric.

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As it is for much of this time of year, the hills were lost in the clouds. The water doesn’t seem to come down as rain; it just floats until you walked into it.

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The women are nice enough to invite you into their homes, in this case to show off how wine is made by cooking and fermenting rice.

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A lot of tourists pass through Ta Phin, however I certainly wouldn’t call it touristy. It’s a traditional village that just happened to be located near enough to a main road to be accessible. Thankfully, it’s filled with people who want to share it with strangers.

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It’s obvious that a life that involves farming by hand and carrying everything everything by foot through the hills isn’t easy.

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Slowly however, small signs of wealth are becoming more visible. There are now a few satellite dishes on the outside of ramshackle homes. In an area that traditional television signals have never reached, the new availability of television will bring even more Vietnamese and foreign influence.

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Young mothers

I asked one very young looking Black Hmong girl if she was carrying her sister. She looked at me funny and said, “No, this is my daughter.”

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Like in the rest of Vietnam, children go everywhere with their parents. In the hills of Northern Vietnam, that means mothers wrap their daughters in cloth and strap them to their backs. It looks like a great vantage point from which wide eyes can learn about the world.

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The Sapa Sunday Market

Sapa was a place in Vietnam that I had been to once, and had always wanted to go back to. I really lucked out by being able to visit on a Sunday when huge numbers of Flower Hmong people come into town to go to the Bac Ha market.

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While the women seemed to be doing most of the shopping, many of the men found a perch to watch big machines build a road.

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Memories of Saigon

It felt great to be back in Saigon for a few days. It was a lot of fun leading colleagues through some of my favourite parts of town, and more importantly to some of my favourite restaurants.

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Exit (with a new lens)

I ordered three new lenses in anticipation of buying a new camera body. The lenses arrived the day before travelling to Ho Chi Minh City. This was one of my first attempts to put the 14-24 mm wide angle lens to use. hensler.ca.0108906.jpg

 

Ho Chi Minh City food highlights

When I found out I was returning to Ho Chi Minh City for a week of work, the first thing I did was make a list of food I wanted to eat. I knew I’d be busy at work so I’d have to prioritize.

First on the list was Pho Hoa Pasteur (260C Duong Pasteur, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City). Everything about the soup, the fresh herbs, the rare beef, and the sauces is amazing. I’ve missed this soup.

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I also found my favourite banh mi stand which serves the most amazing 70-cent sandwiches anywhere in the world. On second thought, they might be the best sandwiches in the world period. Roast pork, shredded vegetables, fresh herbs, hot peppers, and a couple of sauces on a baguette is the ultimate combination of Vietnamese and French cuisines.

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Last night in Saigon

Every weekday for 18 months I’ve walked out of my office building and chatted with Thao who sells roses and gum. She’s possibly the best thirteen year old saleswoman I’ve ever met. It seemed fitting that we would part ways with a photo and one last bouquet of roses.

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I’m sad to be leaving Ho Chi Minh City, mostly because I’ll miss the friends I’ve made and the people I work with. I’ll also miss the food. At the same time, I know new adventures await.

Vietnamese frozen dinner

I’m used to frozen pre-packaged dinners coming in little cardboard trays and tasting like the cardboard they’re packaged in. In Vietnam, the alternative is a clay pot. I found it along side the freedom fries and meats on sticks that dominate the frozen food section An Phu Supermarket.

It was frozen, wrapped in plastic, and labelled with concise instructions to, “1) Thaw and 2) Cook.” The pot is, in fact, made of clay. It was filled with fish, lemongrass, and a broth for it all to simmer in. It weighed over a kilo and cost a shockingly low 27,000 dong ($1.50 US). It was an impulse buy that I couldn’t resist.

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It took about fifteen minutes to cook on the stove top and was absolutely delicious. It’s by far the best frozen dinner I’ve ever had.

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Gates in Hoi An

I only pulled out my camera twice while in Hoi An. Here’s the result of one of those occasions.

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Airport adventures

What do you think when you receive an email from a travel agent that says, “Thank you for booking with us. Your flight is fully booked?”

I think it’s reasonable to go to the airport expecting to get on a flight. That wasn’t exactly the case when we arrived at the airport on Friday afternoon.

Arriving at the airport we found out that the flight didn’t exist. After waiting two hours for the travel agent to return from lunch, she said, “Your flight was already full so I couldn’t book your tickets. Didn’t you get my email?”

Instead, I had a long conversation that led to tickets being purchased for the next flight to Danang. My bag contained a couple pair of surf shorts and some t-shirts for a short flight south to the beach. Danang is North to the cold rain.

Thankfully the nearby town of Hoi An is famous for its tailors that can turn out clothes for tourists overnight. I had two cheap long sleeve shirts ready for me at 8:00 a.m. Saturday so I could explore the city somewhat insulated.

Boredom sets in

Watching Chinese television dubbed over in Vietnamese must be pretty amusing if you speak Vietnamese. For the two English speaking Canadians in the airport boarding lounge, we had to invent the dialogue ourselves. Fortunately the over the top acting gave us plenty to work with.

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Signs that amuse me: Don’t go out

This encouraging sign was on the inside of a gate to a tourist trap gift shop. Somehow we paid a premium price of an extra 200,000 to our driver to take the long scenic way home. I think this washroom break counted as our scenic stop.

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I’m not sure what unsafe conditions exist outside the front gate, other than the possibility of entering another tourist trap.

Halong bay strikes back

This return trip to Halong Bay confirmed my memory that the scenery is beautiful. It was also interesting being there in the low season as the bay was much less crowded with tourist boats. The manager of our boat explained that the weather is actually best now, but most people come in Halong’s rainy or cold season because they include it as part of a larger trip of Southeast Asia and come during the dry season in the south.

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One of the big sights in Halong Bay, beyond the islands themselves, is Surprise Cave. I really couldn’t figure out what the surprise was supposed to be.

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Caves aside, the highlight for me was our short kayak trip.

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In a secluded inlet, we watched this owl as intently as she watched us.

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The Indochina Sails 2 is the only boat I’ve ever been on that has marble bathrooms. Not too shabby for a couple of rough looking backpackers.

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