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Information on our motorhome trip to Central America.
99 Days to Panama, an Exploration of Central America by Motorhome
by Dr. John & Harriet Halkyard, is available there
by Harriet Halkyard
We toured Hanoi to Sapa in the North, including Halong Bay
(Map Courtesy Lonely Planet)
is hard to walk in the old quarter of
traffic at a busy intersection traveled at a
ten to fifteen miles and hour, crossing between each other with no
Bicycles carry one or two people, and motor scooters have one, two,
four people as they weave between tricycles with a peddler pushing
around and the occasional car. Then a bus pulled up and did a U turn
everyone and turned around the fountain that was not quite in the
middle of the
intersection. All the while an elderly lady was doing her exercises
fountain next to the orderly queue waiting the bus. I could have
night, but we had a train to catch.
We made it to the
We had been
way to get to the mountains in the Northeast of Viet Nam was by train,
unless you want to take the hard seat you travel at night in a tourist
The hard seat was just that; a hard seat. Imagine a wooden slatted park
and you are right there. We selected the four person soft sleeper. I
that “soft” is a relative term, but there was a four inch padded
clean sheets. Our guide and a student returning home for the weekend
There were no platforms and no signs we could see directing us to the
train so we gratefully let
Now we were up in the cool mountains of
The blouses have wide collar and cuffs decorated in the same way. The blouse itself and often the bottom of the skirt, is a made of rather startling velor that looks very out of place.
women all wear head scarves tied in various ways. Most are of a plaid
that would make a Scott proud yet is native to the region.
Around the waist at the front as well as behind, they tie an apron. Over that could be a strip of fabric or they could have a spare headscarf filled with items, used like a rather large pocket. In addition, they usually have one or two heavily embroidered bags across their shoulders. It is a colorful and many layered outfit. And of all the markets we went to, this was the least interesting!
countryside between Bac Ha and Can Cau is dramatic with rolling hills of green on
rice paddy terraces creating irregular steps up the slopes.
The road was an
although it was not wise to look down the steep hillside because I
the bamboo guard rail would do more than to point out where you had
the side. Most of the traffic is motor scooters and one brave sole was
his buffalo along the road from his motorbike. Other traffic was the
little ponies and people walking.
Sunday is market day in Bac Ha, just 18km south of Can Cau in case you miss their Saturday market. Everything a person could need from fresh vegetables to flowers, clothes both modern and traditional, plastic sandals and souvenirs for the visiting tourists is available. Some customers bought a fill of tobacco and smoked it through water in a long bamboo tube squatting together in a little group. Less interest was incurred by the musician who played a wind instrument made from clay that looked like a clarinet and sounded like a flute.
In Vietnam the family of ethnic groups is quite bedazzling if not bewildering. The tribes have come to this land over the centuries. Some consist of just a couple of hundred members whereas the Thai have over a million, and the Viet make up the vast majority of the population with almost sixty six million. In the countryside some tribes can be identified by their full shirts of highly decorated fabrics but others wear black form-fitting outfits with almost no embellishments. We visited villages that ware made up of homes on stilts and others that had have straw or mud huts on the ground. In the towns much of the individuality is lost on Western dress and motor scooters.
Here in Bac Ha the Red, Black and Flower Hmong were a glorious blend of color and smiling faces.
Our hotel in
Bac Ha was very pleasant, clean & we had a good view.
We had been on this trip just three days and had to travel to Sapa to and collapse into bed and a sleep of over exertion and altitude exhaustion.
silver in the hills of northeast
Sapa is well developed for tourists but it is still enjoyable. The narrow streets are lined with interesting shops and restaurants filled with visitors sucking in the noodles of an evening.
We wanted to
the dances of
the some of various ethnic groups which was to be performed on the top
hill in the middle of town. We walked under a sign that read “Tourist
were assured the real name is “Dragon’s
There were well
between great jagged cliffs somewhat reminiscent of
As colorful as the costumes were the musicians. One man played an unusual three or four pipe, meter-long flute as he did summersaults and rolled about and lept from the floor. Later he made music with a piece bamboo leaf.
interesting but only one of the ethnic groups our guide wrote down for
listed in the elaborate picture book I purchased later at the
I was eager to get to the market and see the hand made crafts and clothes. I never left one small area where I was being entertained by a lovely Red Hmong who of course sold me trinkets, and then by a group of Black Hmong. I was having such fun John left and roved the rest of the market and I didn’t see him for an hour.
Red Hmong lady was delighted to show me how she assembled the necklaces
selling and was most amused when I displayed her picture on my camera.
necklaces were 4-5 inches wide strips of fabric about two feet long.
embroidered, often with little figures in order to encourage fertility,
embellished with silver charms on a mostly red background. I doubt that
charms are actually silver but they are charming none the less.
Each of the women wanted me to buy from her and stopped peddling their well-worn Singer sewing machines to encourage a sale.
In the far corner I was fascinated to watch a group of Black Hmong spinning hemp. They had strips of the thin bark pealed from the stalks that they were shredding very thin. Then they were spinning these together and wrapping around their thumb and little finger creating bundles of yarn.
This old lady’s
were a blur
until she paused to look at the pictures I brought of
It was time to
and take a hike to some of the more remote villages. The excuse was
time, but it also saved a long walk to take the car.
little indigo plants were growing everywhere like nettles at the side
path, and farther along you could see where they were cultivated in
rice would not grow. I picked a stem and crushed it between my fingers
was just a clear liquid that wet my hand. A few minutes later I saw
that I had
blue stains on my fingers. It is the juice of the stalks not the
creates the color. The women I’d seen in the market had deep blue in
crevice of their hands.
It was a good hike to the bottom of the valley and over the swinging suspension bridge that traversed a river that would have made an appealing swimming hole had it been hot. We then hiked up the other side but cheated as the car waiting for us where the path joined the road and we went the lazy way to yet another village.
was quite a different experience as most of the women had learned
made it not only more interesting but easier for them to make a sale.
Unfortunately they were so intent on asking inane questions like “Where
from?” and “How many children do you have?” that they didn’t talk about
themselves at all. John is not good at bargaining and they knew a
they saw one.
scheduled to take the night train
We passed rice
paddies cut into
the sides of the sweeping steep slopes and little villages with homes
or thatched houses sitting directly on the ground with walls of
were cinnamon groves and slabs of the bark as big as your arm drying at
side of the road.
stopped at one last village.
Mrs. Tran invited us upstairs and lit the fire in a sandpit in the middle of the wooden floor. She had it blazing in a minute and we were grateful for the hot tea she served in glasses the size of small eggcups. I was very glad that we had brought gifts so we could reciprocate. We always carry packets of seeds. Perhaps next year there will be Sweet Williams growing in there garden along with the vegetables next year. Our guide was disappointed that we didn’t have more flower seeds but insisted that we must not send him any as it was against the law to import seeds.
were also able to entertain young master Tran and grandma with our
making. Perhaps that is why it took 12 hours to make it back to
Grandma is 72 years old. This visit was my
We had sacrificed one of our days in
The first place
to visit was the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. This was not particularly
interesting from the outside, just an overpowering rectangular
corpse of the great man that is usually on display to the public was on
annual pilgrimage to
Near the One Pillar Pagoda we visited a temple where by chance a family was celebrating the life of a member who had just died. They wore predominately black and the immediate family had white headbands. They were sitting in and around the steps of the temple having a picnic. In just a minute they cleaned up and the place was empty except for the offerings on the altar and smoke lingering from the simmering incense.
The prison the
I had been
forward to the Ethnology History Museum. “Brand new ten years ago” our
I don’t think it had been dusted since. It didn’t do the cultures
will take a lot for me to understand the numerous minority groups and
their similarities and differences, or even how many there are. Beside
the Viet ethnic group that makes up 87% of the population, you will be
told that there are 53 other groups belonging to 5 main families.
However, the names in the official books and those on the postcards and
the people we met didn't match so I am now thorougherly confused.
We then made a
planned itinerary to visit to the Vietnam Red Cross. It was interesting
learn what programs were important to them like constructing “charity
providing wheelchairs, household animal raising, and five programs for
Orange victims. We then took a short walk to visit the delegation of
American Red Cross who have an office that is working on various
projects in Cambodia and Laos as well. They had a great program to make
sure that the children had meals served in the schools. The
ARC was one of eight Societies of the International Federation of Red
Red Crescent Societies that had adjacent offices. It was interesting to
what they were doing and how they were working together. Unfortunately
were no souvenirs, but I left a couple of pins and postcards of
There was an elaborate temple to Confucius and his disciples where the students visited to prey before exams.
puppeteers stand in the water behind the screen and control the puppets
poles. They make fish jump out of the water chased by a fisherman and
planted rice and boys played on water buffalo. All the while there were
musicians and singers providing the vocals. It was fun and entertaining.
That evening we were the honored guests of the owners of the tour company that had arranged our program. They were interested in how we liked it, and because I had operated my own company, wanted our ideas. Among other things, I explained how important it had been to us to see the Vietnamese countryside on our drive back from the mountains. It was just three days later that Typhoon Xangsane hit the coast and disrupted a tour program they were running. After what we had said they added a long tour through the country instead of the now impossible beach time and their clients were delighted. Fortunately we were well out of harms way and although thousands were evacuated from coastal areas, there were few deaths from the typhoon.
had a two
hour drive to
some of the tapestries were really pleasing, but we just don’t have
to hang another picture. We resisted buying one, almost did, but we
But we didn’t
and workshops on the trip. There were towns and villages and all manner
vehicles joining us on the roads between. Most homes were tall and thin
row houses, but many don’t have neighbors. Just in case a home will be
up to it there are usually no windows on the sides. Highly colorful and
decorated fronts face the road with a bare cement wall each side. The
and the grandparents quarters are on the ground floor, the
parents live on the first floor and the children on the top floor
are younger and can climb up more easily.
dust was pervasive in one town with black dust accumulated in the
visible in the air and red brick kilns bristling the landscape.
There were acres of rice paddies. In the 1970’s each person was given a portion of land, but so that a few would not get the best and areas and were closest to the village, the allotments were cut into very small parcels. One person might get a strip near home and another were he would have to carry the rice a long way. Looking across the fields you can see a dozen shades of green indicating the various degrees of ripeness of the rice of an individuals parcel. In this picture you can make out half a dozen shades of green between each paths.
“You have very nice junk” our guide told us as we clambered along a stone dock next to the water, hanging onto our bags, past a mass of wooden boats.
Judging by the number of vessels we were not going to be the only people out there. At peak season there aren’t enough births on the 500 junks.
was the off season and although there must have been over a hundred
that day there are enough islands and coves that the others were soon
Our cabin was
fine with a couple
of petite twin beds and an immaculate bathroom; white tile everywhere.
wasn’t much to tile as you could shower sitting on the commode, but it
everything. (Huong Hai Junk Co. email@example.com or www.halongdiscovery.com
If we look happy we are. I was utterly amazed at the quality of the boat, the service and the food. I had muttered something about being a vegetarian to the tour operator at the beginning of our venture but it hadn’t really be successful. I was just served what John got, less the meat. Here they were served enormous shrimp and crab and all sorts of goodies. I got a dish of something that the waiter insisted was mushrooms but for the life of me I couldn’t tell it from tough meat. Before the next meal the waiter came up to me and said the chef was having trouble with vegetarian food to I told him to forget it and I enjoyed glorious fresh sea food from then on.
There were ten of us and the staff tried to seat us according to our cabins but we mutinied. We scrambled our tables dining with different friends at each meal. We were a really mixed group: a wealthy French couple, an Spanish couple on their honeymoon, a single Dutchman who missed his wife, an Australian couple and a single Australian/Chinese/Malay women. All interesting and entertaining company.
The rock formations were delightful and everywhere you looked there were different vistas with shades of blue-grey fading into the distance. We paddle gently through a tunnel in one of the rocks and came out into water completely surrounded by high rock walls. It was strange and very quiet and very still. Then suddenly another boat load of tourists burst into our lagoon and exploded the tranquility.
Rock islands jutted around us. Greenery clutched to ledges in vertical cliffs and smoothing the jagged tops of the islands. Some islands were completely bald and others were green to the tide line. Areas were white where the limestone was too smooth and vertical for even the dirt to cling. As the islands receded they became a blur against each other even though the furthest was no more than 2 miles off.
The first day we walked half way up an island and into a limestone cave. The second day we climbed to the top of an island to enjoy dramatic views in all directions. Those who didn’t want to make the hike could take a swim off the little beach. John and I did both.
The only disappointment was that we didn’t get a real sunset as we were moored for the night in a cove and the sun slid behind one of the hundreds of islets long before it really set. Never-the-less John brought out the bottle of scotch he had been carrying around for the past week and we shared a glass all round. There was an ample bar on board, but we had been lugging the bottle for this very purpose. Then we went for a swim as the warm night wrapped around us and the junk stood out like a black ghost ship against the sky. This might look like a sunset shot but actually the sun is muted by the smoke caused by the annual burn-off before the monsoons come.
I was the first
person up in the morning.
I hoped to could sit on deck sipping a cup of coffee but all the staff
strewn about the dining room fast asleep on the pads taken from the
Curled up in a wicker couch on deck I watched as hundreds of islands
out of the shadows. We were in the middle of a forest of islands. They
layers of shadows upon shadows rising like rocky teeth out of the
of rocks cast dark reflections on the rippled water. The light grew
The only things moving were the reflections of the junks around us and
on the red flag of
Women wearing cone hats appeared selling bottled water and fruit. They paddled their dhows standing facing forward in these round baskets boats. Their oars moved awkwardly tied to row locks with string.
An occasional tourist wondered the deck of a neighboring junk. You could tell when a crew member moved as they had purpose to their actions and did not stand on awe of their surroundings.
Suddenly a bright light appeared in the water. It was the sun. It had risen over an island behind me. The breeze picked up and the flags stood out. Small craft were dotting the spaces between the score of junks anchored in the bay and the hum of outboard motors filled the silence. I could hear plates being clattering in the galley and I yearned for that cup of coffee. More people were visible strolling the decks of the larger vessels and our crew was moving. A young crewman brought me a cup of coffee. It smelled rich and black. It was so rich and black that it made my toes curl up. Just the way he liked it. I could have done with fifty percent more water and some cream.
|We were joined
for our last
For our final morning we took a cyclo ride to a French restaurant for a good cup of French coffee and a croissant. The breakfast at the hotel was somewhat lacking in appeal. The cylco ride was fun if not a little of a thrill. A Cyclo is a three wheel peddle bike and you sit between the two front wheels as a kind of buffer between the cyclist and the oncoming traffic. You are at eye level with the motorcycle riders and are completely helpless as they come at you from all sides. Many of the local women wear masks covering their faces, this is more to prevent their skin from being darkened in the sun than for air purification. This becomes evident after dark when the masks and long gloves disappear.
We had an uneventful trip but unfortunately there was a power outage in the part of town with the French café. After a good croissant we returned to the hotel for a cup of the local very dark coffee, that they drink muted with a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk.
At this point I would like to highly recommend
the tour operator who set up this program for us. With my usual system
of planning, I contacted them on the Wednesday and they had it all set
up to meet us at the airport that Friday. They made the changes we
requested as we went along, the guides were good and spoke excellent
English (a most important factor) and the price was good. They have the
5 star hotels, but we requested the 2 star and were more than happy. I
plan to use them again in November and with pre-planning they have set
up a treks by elephant, dugout canoe and bicycle to visit out of the
way villages, and a trip on a xeloi,
whatever that is! I'll tell you after Christmas.
October 5, 2006© 2006 Harriet Halkyard