A Travellerspoint blog



Clouds and Rocks galore!

sunny 23 °C


Like being woken from an afternoon nap by puppies licking your toes, Sapa greeted us with that warm fuzzy feeling that can only come from sunshine and beautiful scenery especially after 3 weeks in the busy and loud city of Hanoi.

We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a town about 35 km from Sapa and 5km from the Chinese border. The train bounced around a bit, but was pretty comfortable (as long as you don't mind peeing in a hole on a moving machine). We were able to sleep some in our soft sleeper cabin, which was a huge advantage compared to the overnight bus rides we've taken.



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Our 4-bunk cabin

From Lao Cai we hopped a ride to Sapa, which took about an hour as we were heading uphill the whole way on super curvy roads. I managed to score the passenger seat, Amber was not so lucky and was a couple of rows back with no view of the road to speak of. Luckily for her, and everyone else in the van, John, Paul, Ringo, & George sang to her from the i-pod and no chunks flew. Most of the drive was overcast and misty, but suddenly we broke through the clouds near Sapa and we were smacked in the face with blue skies and bright sunshine.

Our guidebook gave one of those "travelers secret" tips to visit Sapa during the week as the town is empty and prices are way cheaper. Our experience with those great tips usually goes something like this...

Lonely Planet: Coome's Coffee Shop is a terrific place to have a fine cup of joe where the prices are disgustingly inexpensive, great jazz is played, and the friendly staff is always there to top your cup off.

Then, you go there and find a packed coffee shop with high prices, lousy service, and Britney Spears blaring.

So when we got out of the van in Sapa Monday morning and noticed very few westerners and tons of hotel owners offering big hotel discounts, we were delightfully surprised. Don't ask me why tourists stay away on the weekdays, but they seemed to. Sapa is how a mountain town should be, with just the right number of places to grab a coffee or a beer, not an absorbent amount of tacky souvenir shops, and a good mix of mountain bikes and pickup trucks occasionally making their way along the small streets.

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The saleswomen of Sapa.


We settled on a nice room above the town with a panoramic view of the valley and mountains and a fireplace for all of 10 USD

Our room is the one sporting the towel on the balcony.

Morning cloud cover over the valley south of Sapa.

Mount Fansipan in the distant, the highest peak in Vietnam.


Figuring that it was a gorgeous day and we couldn’t spend all our time looking off our balcony, we headed out to a village about 13 km from town. The slow downward walk through the open valley to Ta Phin village was spectacular. Along the way we passed several small "homesteads" with the Mom & Pop working in the fields and the children playing around the house. The rice fields are currently between seasons, but the views were still amazing.


Recently cultivated rice terraces.



A friendly water buffalo.

The different tribes in this region dress in varying traditional clothes. It sounds a bit Disney, but it didn't feel like a tourist attraction, as men and women far from the tourist areas worked in the colorful handmade clothes without attempting to sell anything to us, unlike the villagers who travel the town of Sapa, who surround you trying to sell all kinds of textiles.



Amber showing the kids how to operate a camera, but with a subject like me it's a breeze...

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About the coolest kid in Sapa.

Once in the village of Ta Phin, we wandered around a bit, then were invited into a home of a Xao tribal woman, where we got a no-pressure viewing of some blankets, bags, etc, that she has embroidered.



After walking for most of the morning/afternoon, we opted for a motorbike back to Sapa where we relaxed in a nice café with a hot chocolate. Later that evening, we watched the fog roll back into the valley like a slow-moving body of water. It was breathtaking!

Better than TV!

Pleased with our navigation abilities and quite sick of being told where to go, how long you have, and when to come back; we decided to venture out on a more ambitious trek the following day. We bought what later turned out to be a horrible map of the area (no operator error, of course) and headed down into the valley south of Sapa, with a few villages to see along the way and a 3 pm pick up by our trusty moto-driver, Lum.

The scenery was amazing and even more spectacular was that we saw virtually no westerners, and for several hours of the hike, I can safely say we saw none. So, long story short, we ended up way west of where we intended to go, although on wonderful trails through terracing rice paddies and small villages where we got puzzling smiles from the locals and a few encouraging jesters helping us snake through the village.

An amazing trail that we had all to ourselves.



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The salon.

This little guy whizzed passed us on his bamboo stilts.

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Beautiful scenery and the mountains and rice terraces ain't too bad either.

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Yes, we're bringing her home with us.


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Our internal compasses got aligned and we made it back to the main trail and managed to cross paths with a couple of guided tours. We were excited to get a local to tell us (in English) exactly where we were, but were quite disappointed when he told us that we were a 10-hour walk from where we were supposed to be in less than 3-hours. This seemed ridiculous, an even though we knew the map was bad, there was no way it was that far off. So, we continued on assuming we were correct and the local guide wrong, we "stayed the course" and made it to meet Lum 15-minutes early.

Our last day in Sapa we decided to hit the road on our own, and we rented a scooter. Our destination was Tram Ton Pass, elevation 6,200 feet and the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. It is a place where two climates collide, the cool, wet east (towards Sapa) and hot, dry west. We made our way to the west ascending in elevation while the temperature continually decreased. But once we made it to the top of the pass, we were smacked with warm breezes coming towards us from the valley below.

The road into the warm valley west of Sapa.



Thank you for all the comments and Justin will keep the stach a bit longer as it seems to be getting warm receptions.

Anyone know a good spot to watch the SEC final in Laos??

Posted by rebmamber 06:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

Volunteering: Week Two


Week two proved to be a little less hectic than week one, partially because we pushed the starting time back about an hour (lazy Americans on holiday). The work at the village continued with some gardening and quite a bit of weeding, but we also were given a couple of new projects to keep us entertained. At the beginning of the week, we were given the task of repainting the playground's old and rusty equipment.


paint2.JPGThe ever-sharp dresser Khai in his painting sweater vest



We did our best to sand all of the rust and whatever old paint remained, then slapped a new coat on. No Home Depot in Vietnam to rent a pressure washer, so we had to do it the old fashion way. Since we were in the center of the playground, we were also the center of attention for many of the kids. After their initial intrigue wore off, they decided they wanted to help. It was not always "helpful", but it was fun to have them work along side of us.

Joanna and Bach



Hai and Hoa

Joanna and Hoa

This little guy was so focused on painting…

…so was Quan.

The kids during the second week were even more comfortable with us and were always around to distract us from what we were supposed to be doing. Hoa, you may remember him from Week 1, is very into karate, and we all got into many "fights" with him. I think he would win if it were for real!

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We also moved quite a bit of dirt from one side of the village to the other in order to make a new pathway. This was quite a messy job, but we were all glad to not be weeding!




On our last official day volunteering we got to visit a primary school in Hanoi that is geared towards English speaking, and mainly middle class, kids in the area. The kids here were very, very active and for some reason loved to jump all over me (Justin). Amber & I were asked to teach the kids an "American" game or song. So we are pleased to say that the hokey-pokey has been introduced to Vietnam.



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Reading an English story to the kids.

A couple of adorable girls treated us to a song.

And speaking of adorable, look at these outfits!


We were also brought to the school to paint a mural and help work in their garden. But, I have to say I mainly played.






We were treated to a wonderful lunch at the school before heading to the Friendship Village for a goodbye party. We brought pictures of the kids to hand out, small toys, and a lot of sugary snacks. The kids seemed to really enjoy the pictures and many showed us the pictures of them and pointed to where they were taken. It was a nice send off, but we could help not feeling a little sad as some of the kids seemed to have grown attached to us and we just left them. We hope for them it was better to have had a short relationship with us than none at all.


Hai, the happiest guy I have ever met.






One of the many skills some of the people are taught at the village.

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This kid was amazing at soccer.

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All in all, it was a great experience and we are so happy to have been able to volunteer over here. It was wonderful to get to know the other volunteers and learn about their culture, especially the Vietnamese volunteers which loved to ask us questions about our culture and quick to introduce us to some of theirs.

Posted by rebmamber 20:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

Volunteer Life

...or how to live with 18 other people

We just finished our stint of volunteering and it was definitely a worthwhile experience. We talked a lot in the past two blogs about the work that we did, but I haven't mentioned much about life outside of the project. I would have to say that the biggest adjustment was living in a house with about 18 other people. When you are used to a lot of alone time, being with people 24-7 is not easy. The Vietnamese culture is very sociable and communal and they don't really see a reason to have alone time. It is actually seen as sad when someone is alone. But, besides the small annoyances, we really made some great bonds over the 2 weeks with our fellow volunteers and wouldn't change a thing (well, maybe more toilet paper!)

Here are some photos from the Peace house where we stayed:


Our humble abode.


Our daily van ride to the village where we passed new condos, supermarkets, rice paddies, and BBQ-ed dogs on tables. Yes, dogs, whole or in half, smiling at us - more on that later...

Most of the time in the house, we hung out together. One very common pastime was playing cards with Khiem and Khai, two very competitive Vietnamese brothers. They were fantastic at counting cards and we were lucky they didn't gamble or we would probably be asking for handouts right about now. While they killed us in playing Hearts, we managed to take the lead when we introduced them to Big 2.


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We also ate most of our dinners together in the house. They were usually prepared by a Vietnamese girl, Hung, but USA took over one night to make an authentic American meal - Mexican food, of course. Ingredients were a little hard to come by, but a little experimenting and the meal was a success (who would have thought we would have to go Vietnam to learn how to make flour tortillas)! The Korean volunteers also took a night to cook, and yes Dad, we tried Kim Chi and Justin liked the cabbagey dishes! Justin tried his hardest to curb the use of MSG, but communication skills were weak and we are now numb to salty food.

Helping out in the kitchen.

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Joanna makes salsa.

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I make tortillas.


In our free time, many of the Vietnamese volunteers and staff showed us around Hanoi. It was wonderful having our own personal tour guides that would prevent us from getting overcharged for everything. Here are some photos from around town:

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We visited a night market.

We were very tempted to buy this tasteful clock honoring Ho Chi Minh, but we couldn't fit it in our packs.

Justin picks up a smoking habit.

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The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where Ho's embalmed body is on display. Too bad you're not allowed to take photos inside! The experience of just getting into the Mausoleum is worth a trip to Vietnam. We have never experienced such unnecessary waiting in line, dropping off of bags, security screenings, picking up bags, dropping back off bags, single-file walking, no hands in your pockets or crossing of the arms (yes, I (Justin) was tapped on the shoulder for both), picking up of bags (in a different location from where we dropped them off), etc. The guy is pumped full of formaldehyde, do you think he minds if I have my arms crossed?????

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Out for some famous Vietnamese Pho.


Aerobics by Hoan Kiem Lake.

Bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake.


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Hanoi is famous for it's water puppet show.

Army training.

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A visit to the Ho Chi Minh museum and house.

Inside the Temple of Literature, a 1,000 year old complex and Vietnam's first university.

A visit to Vietnam wouldn't be complete without a romantic tour on a swan boat. AWWWWW!! (We were forced, I swear)

We were invited to one of the volunteer's (Linh) family's house for dinner one night and were fed a huge meal of spring rolls and soup. Linh lives with her parents, brother and grandparents, which is the norm in Vietnam. Her entire family made us feel right at home. After dinner, I (Justin) won the ping-pong tournament, so I think we are even with Vietnam!


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They lived across from a dog meat restaurant, which kept us entertained for a while. The place had some chopped up pooch on the table and a big live dog hanging out inside. When we asked if the live dog was on the menu for tomorrow, they laughed and said, "No, he's a friend".


Linh's family dog was being a bit annoying, so Justin took him to the restaurant to give him a little scare.


Our final night together with all the volunteers we had a huge farewell dinner and managed to jam about 30 people into the "dining room". It was one heck of a meal and we had a great time.



Posted by rebmamber 19:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Halong Bay

Weekend Trip


We went to Halong Bay with the volunteering group for a two-day one-night adventure. About 20 of us left Hanoi at about 8 am and 3 hours later (and a few car sick Vietnamese) we got on a boat and headed off into the bay.



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We didn't have the best weather, but the fog and misty rain added an eerie effect to the spectacular scenery of this UNESCO World Heritage site. There are literally thousands of limestone mountains descending out of the water. For a few hours you are completely surrounded on all sides by these mountains and calm blue waters.





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Fishing villages in the bay.

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Justin and Cuong.

The never-ending card games!

Khai entertains us with his beautiful voice!

On the way to Cat Ba Island, we made a visit to "Surprise" Cave. Which despite it's quite corny name, did surprise us, as it was massive and beautiful.


After a 4-hour cruise on the 2-story wooden boat, we arrived at Cat Ba Island for the night. We checked into our hotel and it was very nice to have our own room and bathroom for one night after living with about 18 people for a week! We then went out to explore the island, but unfortunately, we only had about an hour before dark. Us Americans got wind of a restaurant with a happy hour special and organic (and no MSG) food, so we spent our free hour before dinner to check it out. We were very pleased with our black bean nachos with real guacamole and sour cream!

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We all had dinner together and then tried to decide what we would do for the evening. However, with a group this big, it is very difficult to find something that everyone wants to do, so we eventually split up into 2 groups, and we went to a pub to relax, which turned into a karaoke session. There is not a day that goes by in Asia where you don't see, hear or participate in karaoke (However, this was our first time participating, thankfully). The Vietnamese can really sing, and I think they enjoyed showing off their skills. However, the westerners brought down the house with our ear-piercing rendition of "Sweet Caroline". Neil Diamond would have been proud.

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After leaving the pub, we were greeted with pumping sounds of techno music pouring out onto the street. A few of the Vietnamese girls were very eager to check it out, so we said, "Why not?" and went in. It was only 10 pm and the dance floor full of energy. We soon realized that what we were dancing to was a techno version of the anthem "Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh". It was hilarious and we busted some moves in honor of "Uncle Ho".


We retired somewhat early (around 11pm) since we had to get up for the ride home the following day. We would have loved to have more time out on the island, but it was great to get a chance to see it. We got home Sunday and got ready for another week of volunteering.

Posted by rebmamber 19:56 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Volunteering: Week One

Vietnam Friendship Village

A Brief History

Of course, everyone is familiar with the Vietnam War, whether you lived through it or have only seen "Apocalypse Now". The country has gone through some very difficult times since the war ended, known here as the "Dark Ages". Many people forgot about Vietnam once we left, but unfortunately the Vietnamese people are still suffering the effects of the war today. I just want to list a few things that we have learned since our time here.

During the war, twice the tonnage of bombs was dropped in Vietnam, a country about the same size as California, than were dropped during all of WWII in both Europe and Asia. One of the most devastating weapons used was the defoliating chemical known as Agent Orange. From the years 1965-1971 (when the use of Agent Orange was stopped 2 years before America left Vietnam), the US dropped more than 100 million pounds of Agent Orange, which was more than 3 lbs per person at the time including women and children. The U.S. government recognizes 13 medical conditions stemming from exposure to Agent Orange/Dioxin affecting U.S. veterans. But Washington denies any connection or culpability with regard to the millions of Vietnamese who were “the direct targets of the spraying, and who are living in areas that were sprayed and are eating the food from the sprayed land.” On the other hand, the Vietnamese government has spent little money in doing sufficient research that would back their claims and it will be very difficult, maybe impossible, to pin-point agent orange as the culprit of any deformity or disease as nearly everyone alive has some level dioxins in their system. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the Vietnamese people are suffering from an abnormally large amount of diseases and deformities in past and present generations. Even scarier is that no one can be certain how long it will take for the dioxins from Agent Orange to stop affecting this country.

There have been very little monetary contributions for pain suffered by the innocent victims of the war (by both governments). For example, in the United States, veterans and their families who have been determined to suffer from the effects of Agent Orange get a payout from the government of from $500-$5,000 per month. In Vietnam, the Vietnam government supplies disabled soldiers (of the North Vietnamese Army) about $7 per month. There is a petition to the US government to assist in the compensation process at http://www.petitiononline.com/AOVN/petition-sign.html?

The Project


We are working for a little over 2 weeks at the Vietnam Friendship Village outside of Hanoi. The village was established by an ex-Vietnam Veteran, once an active member of Vietnam Veteran's Against the War campaign. Once Vietnam reopened its' doors to foreigners in the early 90's, this man worked on establishing a project to help the Vietnamese people. The village currently houses 120 children suffering the effects of Agent Orange and about 40 war veterans. There are medical facilities, therapy, school, a small clinic, work training, and an organic garden to supply food all on the property. The best part about it is that it is free for the people and is continued by grants from the Vietnamese government and foreign donations.

You can check out the websites for some info on the village:




The Work

Our main goals with this project are to help out in the garden (i.e. harvesting vegetables, weeding, cultivating soil, removing bugs, planting trees, etc.) and to interact with the children and the Vietnamese volunteers. There are 8 foreign volunteers in total, from the US and South Korea, and about 10-15 Vietnamese volunteers who periodically assist us.

A portion of the garden that we are working on.

Inside the net house doing a bit of hoeing.

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The Vietnamese volunteers literally dress nicer for gardening than we both did at our jobs. This is Hoa, the secretary of VFP in Vietnam.


Cultivating green beans.


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A bit of dirt hauling.

Haul one-way, ride back the other.


Waiting to be plucked.

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Joanna (Californian) & Amber (Alien)

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Enjoying the organic carrots.

We dealt with a lot of off-and-on light rain the first week. The other volunteers: Young-Ji, Jeong-Ha, Tenley, Dung, and Joon-Hyun.

The Kids

The kids have a variety of deformities, some physical and some mental. So far, we have only had contact with less than half of them, since some are unable leave their beds. The children are extremely friendly, and even though some may not know their ABC's, they definitely know the definition of love and fun; and hugs are given out as though it were as essential as breathing.

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Amber & Hoa, who is mute and deaf.


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A different Hoa. He is a major picture hog, but with a smile like that how can you say "get out of the picture"?! Hoa (pronounced "Wa") is 20 years old and loves karate and dancing and is excellent at both!

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Hoa jumping in another photo with "the organizer", Quan.

Quan, Hoa, and Truoung.

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Amber and a few of the children, the little guy is 28 years old.

This little girl, also named Hoa, is blind, but has no problem with legos. She feels the pieces in her mouth and then stacks them on.

This boy worked on this same puzzle over and over for about an hour. He really had to work to get his hands to place the pieces where he wanted them, but he never gave up.

Bach is 16 and speaks pretty good English. He is so polite and a really nice boy.

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Some of the other kids:








Justin being hugged by his shadow, Hien.

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The boys like to treat Justin as a jungle gym.

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Phu is so adorable and loves the camera - trying to steal them from you that is!

Quy (pronounced "key") is very friendly and also speaks a little English.

The children stay on average of about 2-3 years at the village for treatment and skill training. However, several of them have been there for much more that 3 years and will probably spend the majority of their lives there. Most of the children’s families live far from Hanoi and are unable to visit them.

Posted by rebmamber 00:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (5)

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