upon reaching the northwestern city of lao cai by overnight train, we were greeted to to the thick fog and greyscale vision that was instantly reminded us of our travels through halong bay. we were quickly ushered into a minivan that was filled to capacity, and we ascended to the mountain city of sapa.
even with our visibility reduced to about ten or fifteen feet in each direction, we our driver fearlessly sped up the seemingly memorized winding mountain roads. while i dosed in and out of sleep, i caught glimpses of water buffalo and the sounds of motorbikes whizzing by as we continued to cruise around corner after corner.
within an hour we were once again in another hotel lobby, handing over our passports to the receptionists, and told to eat breakfast. our first day was advertised as a trek to the cat cat village. it was so bad, that i don’t really want to even write about it. all i will say is that it was a short “trek” down a paved road to a tourist trap of souvenir shops. poorly advertised.
just like the groups of water buffalo that cross over the roads, we were herded back to the hotel to eat, yet again. aside from dinner a few hours later, there were no other scheduled plans for the “tour” we had signed up for.
the beautiful weather of day two instantly lifted our spirits. the sun was out, there was not a trace of fog, and there was a slight breeze that kept us from melting. the tour operators assured us that this day would be more of a real trek, compared to the first day. We reluctantly agreed, since we had already paid and only had one more day on the mountain.
before the trek began, we were waiting outside the hotel. the neighboring plot of land was a construction site. there was a concrete skeleton of a hotel with unfinished exterior walls on each floor clinging to the mountainside. i kept thinking to myself how amazing the views might be from the wall-less top floors of the building that faced out across the valley.
i thought about how my dad would simply walk in and explore on his own. i mean, i have seen him do it so many times. my dad’s curiosity has usually led us to places most people never see. after i explain this to sarah, we walked over to ask the construction workers for permission to enter.
the workers agreed without a second guess for our safety or exactly who we were. we crossed the small wooden bridge to the unfinished lobby floor. the workers smiled and encouraged us to continue up the precarious wooden ladders that led from floor to floor.
we were greeted in a language we don’t know, and were immediately offered tea. while we squatted and sipped the very bitter yellow tea another worker handed me a bamboo bong filled with tobacco.he asked us to smoke a little each, as the other poured us another cup of the yellow-colored tea. we tried to communicate in a mix of vietnamese, english, and thai, but our efforts seemed fruitless. either way, it was a very great way to start the day.
this trek was to the ta van village down the mountain from sapa. along with another giant herd of tourists, we walked through the city and along another paved road. however, as the city disappeared, so did the paved roads. we found ourselves sliding our way down muddy hills, and carefully navigating rocky bends.
this trek was all about the views. steps of rice paddies and small homes nestled in the mountain side. a small river ran between the mountains and through the villages, which we eventually entered.
after the day’s trek ended, we rode a bus back to our hotel. we had some free time to eat an early dinner and then explore the city. we went a small bookstore and then to the small produce market where we bought some oranges for the construction workers.
before our trip back to the train station in lao cai, we hung out with the construction workers one more time. they offered us more tea and tobacco, as we photographed the work and the construction site as a whole. (more photos to come)
if anything, sapa reaffirmed our negative opinions regarding organized tours in southeast asia, but it also reminded us to follow through with our gut feelings when we have them. the construction workers made us remember that, aside from all the tourist traps and silliness that comes along with traveling in very popular destinations, there are still some amazing things that most tourists miss. our time with the workers is not something you will read in lonely planet guide books, and is something that i will probably always remember about vietnamese people and my trip to vietnam.
hanoi acts as a connection point for tourists interested in halong bay on the east coast, and sapa in the northwest. ever since i had seen top gear’s excursion to vietnam a few years ago, i had always wanted to see halong bay and the thousands of limestone islands that dot the horizon.
the easiest and most common way of experiencing the bay is by an organized boat tour. our bus left hanoi early in the morning to reach the port of halong city. around ten other travelers joined us on the boat, which included our own cabin for the night and cooked meals.
a fleet of hundreds of boats departed from the bay and followed similar routes to the popular destinations in the bay. it was not necessarily what i had envisioned for so many years. the cold weather was accompanied by thick fog and a greyscale view out to the islands.
without having control over our route, we huddle inside our cabins as we waited to see where we were brought to next. an unflattering cave and a short kayak trip around a little cove eventually led to dinner on the boat, as we sat anchored in the still water.
by the time we were ready to sleep, the crew turned on the heat in our little cabins, so we slept like babies before waking up at 6:30am the next morning. we had to switch boats, in order to head over to cat ba island where we would spend the second night.
a minivan awaited our arrival on the jungle-covered island. seven of us piled in the back and we set off towards our hotel on the other side of the island. the van winded along the coastal road, which overlooked the rocky shore and the valley landscape of the island.
before reaching out hotel, we entered the cat ba national park were we chose to trek up one of the many limestone mountains that formed the island. along with a vietnamese guide, we made our way up the very muddy trail towards the top. without the proper shoes, i am surprised i did not fall, however there were definitely some close calls.
the trek ended with a slow climb up a rusted-metal lookout tower. only five people were allowed at a time, as the tower felt like it would crumble at any given moment. the trek back down the muddy slopes proved to be more difficult, so we took our time before returning to the minivan and back en route to our hotel.
our hotel was in a ghost town. this is mostly because we were there during the off-season, which makes sense, since it is so cold and the bay is not nearly as beautiful as it is in the summer. the downtown area was quiet. a few young adults played street soccer, while other locals tried to sell us pearl necklaces and seashells.
before the day ended, we took a quick boat ride to monkey island. we passed by a floating fishing village, made up of little green houses sitting on little docks along the cascading walls of the islands. there was even an empty schoolhouse that floated among the community, as it was vacation time for the students.
we landed on monkey island’s seashell beach, and found ourselves climbing once more up to the top of a mountain. this climb was shorter, but full of sharp, eroded rocks. the gray spiked pierced through my worn out shoes, but the climb was still worth it, even if the weather was no as ideal as we hoped.
this past weekend i went to another ancient city in the north known as sukhothai. this city is an overnight bus ride from chonburi, so i left right away after school on friday. sarah and i were able to catch a 4:50 bus that eventually made it to the city of phitsanulok around 2 in the morning. phitsanulok is about an hour and a half outside the historical park of sukhothai, so we decided to spend the night before making our way over to the ruins.
rice paddies lined both sides of the highway as we approached the park. i sat in awe trying to comprehend the shades of green that seemed impossible. it was the greenest green i have seen in my life. it was so….. perfect.
we dropped our bags off at a hostel a few kilometers from the bus station, rented motorbikes, and left for the park. the park was very similar to ayutthaya. it was calm, quiet, and full of buddhist statues. there were crumbling brick walls and motionless ponds.
the whole park is essentially what the ancient city was. there are different zones, including a central zone which was surrounded by water and palm trees. since sarah and i had already seen ruins a couple weeks ago, we decided to take the motorbike somewhere random.
we left the ancient city wall to the west, and started picking roads to follow. i would choose one, sarah would choose the next. we stopped as cows crossed the road. we were greeted by local children, as they happily spoke the little bits of english they knew. we found more rice paddies, and found the points where they connected. we also saw the perfect-circle-sun set over the mountains.
it is truly awesome that most places in thailand offer motorbike rentals. the freedom of having a motorbike to explore on our own is one of my favorite perks of traveling thailand. it allows us to adapt when we have no structured plans, and also lets us find those hidden places. as a documenter, i am always trying to find that place that is unknown to everyone. i want to find the places that are real, whether i am in thailand or back home.
thank you, thailand, for making traveling so easy and carefree.
p.s. i have plans for vietnam, laos, cambodia, malaysia, singapore, indonesia, nepal, and india (in that order).
i woke up first the next morning, like usual, and chose to explore on my own. i walked along the empty sunday sidewalks and through a different deserted night market. our plan was to eventually head east to phu chi fa, a very popular mountain destination for both thais and tourists. phu chi fa is popular essentially because it is a point high enough where you are in between the clouds. at sunrise you can see a sea of clouds below and above you. by bus, phu chi fa is about four hours from chiang rai city, so we were lucky when we caught the only bus at 1pm.
schu and i took the bus, while james and blaine rode with danielle and jill on their motorbikes. the bus was just a typical bus. it was cramped and old, but it was instantly nicer than the overnight bus because it used open windows and ceiling fans to keep us cool, instead of that dreaded air conditioner.
half-way through our ride, i woke up to the bus shaking and schu grabbing my arm. we had a flat tire. luckily for us, everything somehow works out perfectly in thailand, and we happened to pull over in the driveway of a tire shop. we all stood, mesmerized, as the man from the tire shop replaced the damaged tire in silence. it was a form of art. the way he did everything step-by-step with tools that you would have mistaken for scraps of metal and broken bicycle parts.
as we continued our journey to the mountains, we began to drop locals one-by-one along the way. we dropped grandmothers at villages, monks at temples, and students at schools. the bus continued to empty out more and more as the outside air became colder and the roads became hillier. the bus winded up steep bends and curves along the mountain roads as we ascended to the first layer of clouds.
schu and i reached phu chi fa at 5:30pm, just enough time to be able to see our way around town and find a place to crash for the night. while looking for some where to sleep, we met a very helpful minnesotan by the name of jeff. jeff helped us translate what we needed and even brought us to the same place where he found a room. i feel like everyone in this country that i run into while traveling is just happy to be here and truly wants the next person to be comfortable and happy as well.
schu bought a snow leopard hat as we waited for the others to arrive. we could only image how cold they were as they made the same trip up the mountain, now without the sun. blaine and danielle reached within an hour, but james and jill were lagging behind. turns out, james bike ran out of gas with about 8km left. again, since everything works out here, they were given a little bit of gas from the restaurant where their bike shut off. we were finally reunited, so we ate, tossed a frisbee, and listened to some music before heading to bed early with our alarms set to 4:15am.
in the morning, we took a short pick-up truck ride up a steep 2km hill, and then hiked the last 700m to the lookout point. since we all did not pack intelligently, we were wearing far less than the rest of the hundreds of thais that shared the mountain top with us. my four layers of shirts and double socks did very little against the early morning temperatures and unbearable gusts of wind. but it was all worth it because there is nothing like seeing the sunrise and a sea of clouds.