The courage it takes to be certain

As I embrace uncertainty and live my life without trying to control the uncontrollable future, I’ve been trying to inspire friends and family to do the same, to leave their comfort zones, and allow themselves to see beauty in the unexpected.

I understand that we all have very different approaches to life, uncertainty, and change; that my level of comfort in not knowing what’s next is not the same as my friends, and I’m no better or worse for that.

Over the past couple of years I’ve learned that my comfort zone consists on being constantly on the move; that I don’t need more than a 50 liters backpack and less than 20 dollars a day to enjoy myself and be happy, to wake up every day feeling excited about life. I’ve also learned more about my sense of unease when it comes to knowing too much about where I’m supposed to be next or what I’m supposed or expected to be doing.

As I encouraged my friends to be more easygoing towards life, they also inspired and encouraged me to approach it in a more structured way, and to have the courage to chose a place and stay there for a while longer than two weeks – that would be way easier if that place was in Laos 🙂

Recently, reading a friend’s blog post, I realized I am brave enough to keep traveling on a budget from one country to another, but not to go back to my native country and stay there for a certain period of time. When sharing her courage to go home, she made me realize how much it takes for someone like me to say “ok, I’m going home, and I’m staying there for a while.” It takes tons of courage to be certain.

So far it’s been an interesting experience. Now I embrace the uncertainty of rediscovering a place where I spent ten years of my life; I embrace the novelty of familiar landscapes through the lenses of fresh traveled eyes. And whenever I feel uneasy about knowing where I’m supposed to be for the next six months, I think of Southeast Asia and the certainty I have that one day I’ll go back.

Wait, did I just say “certainty”?

 

 

Travel notes – Laos

Wow… how hard it is to write about the country that stole my heart…

It was easier to write a Love Letter to Laos than to write about the places I visited during almost 3 months there. The moment I started listing places I’ve been to, people I’ve met, things I’ve done, food I’ve eaten, saudade hit me, and hit me hard. And for more than a month I procrastinated and postponed this post – the first part of my travel notes on Laos.

Hard to explain how and why, but I’ll never forget Delilah’s key lime pie and sunset in Nong Khiaw; the winding roads leading to Xamtai and the amazing weaving work I saw there; the caves in Viangxay; my first sunset on the ❤ Mekong ❤ in Thakhek; Bang Fei Cave in the company of the French who meditate; a bungalow, a hammock, and the best hashbrown ever in Don Det, at Mama Mon’s Guesthouse; the ❤ Mekong ❤ and my “secret” beach in Don Khone; waterfalls in the Bolaven Plateau; Captain Hook and all-you-can-know about coffee; visa runs to Thailand (and not from Thailand, as it usually goes); hangover after meeting the South Africans in Vientiane; duck love 60km North of Vang Vieng; Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang; and the slow goodbye going up the Mekong towards Thailand.

There are so many things to write about Laos. So many things other than simple travel notes. Feelings, flavors, colors, faces, roads, valleys, mountains, rivers. But for now: travel notes.

My itinerary was as shown below.

Vietnam >> Muang Khua > Muang Ngoi > Nong Khiaw > Xamneua (via Viengthong) > Viengxay > Xamtai > Viengxay/Xamneua > Phonsavanh > Thakhek > Thakhek loop > [visa run 1] > Pakse > Don Det/Don Khone > Pakse/Champasak/Don Ko > Thakhek > [visa run 2] > Vientiane > Vang Vieng > Ban Chieng (Tao Guesthouse) > Luang Prabang > Huay Xay >> Thailand [In bold the places I’m going to cover for now].

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Exploring and falling in love with Laos

Laos – Part I

I entered Laos from Vietnam. Took a bus in Lao Cai to Dien Bien Phu and from there a minibus to Muang Khua. The border crossing was ok. The visa for Brazilians cost US$30 plus small fees at the border that add to about US$6. Everyone needs a photography. Visa is valid for 28 days. To get a new visa all you need to do is to cross the border (in my case to Thailand) or ask for an extension at the police department (not everywhere, but for sure in Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vientiane); extension costs US$2/day plus admin fees. If the plan is to stay another month in Laos, the best option is a visa run. Or two. Or three 😉

I) Muang Khua – Muang Ngoi –  Nong Khiaw

 >>> Muang Khua is a small village and most people stop there on the way from/to Northern Vietnam. I didn’t do anything special there but heard there are nice walks and hikes to hill tribes. In Muang Khua my love for sticky rice started…
>>> Muang Ngoi is a small village at the riverbank of the Nam Ou (Ou River). From Muang Khua we took a boat (120k kip each) and the journey took approximately 3 hours. The boat leaves when it’s full or you have to pay for chartering it, which can be quite expensive if traveling on a budget. Tip: if you’re the first one on the pier, you’re probably getting a higher price for the ticket. Get there and wait for other people before inquiring about the price.
Muang Ngoi is lovely. Great place to stay for a few days and just relax. There are hikes to local villages where there are homestays as cheap as 10k kip/person. Guesthouses around the village vary from 50-80k kip/person or room. Negotiate and you’ll get a good deal.
The Chinese are building a dam upstream and the project includes a road that will connect Muang Ngoi to other towns in the area. I believe it will impact the peaceful and car-less atmosphere.
>>> The boat from Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw leaves around 8:30am and takes 1.5 hour.
In Nong Khiaw Laos started to steal my heart… I didn’t know it yet.

My favorite place to stay is also where I had the best key lime pie in SE Asia: Delilah’s Cafe. Karen and I offered to help with designing a new menu and were honored by having a pictured of us hanging on the wall 🙂 Let me know if you find it!

What a hard task to put together a new menu with pictures of the delicious dishes prepared by Miss Lie! We had to order the ones we didn’t have a picture yet… and eat! Oh, oh… there goes my healthy diet based on Vietnamese Pho… The highlight of the menu? KEY-LIME PIE! The.Best.Pie in SE Asia! I mean it. Really mean it.

Harps, who manages Delilah’s, also runs Tiger Trails and is a live information desk – he hates it, but it’s true. He knows everything about bus schedules, things to do and see, etc. Tiger Trails organizes tours to the main attractions in the area, including the 100 waterfall. Stop by and spare a few minutes chatting with this unique New Zealander. At first he might seem a bit crazy… but hey! who isn’t?! You can trust his recommendations 100%.

I didn’t do any of the tours despite staying in Nong Khiaw for 6 days – original plan: 2-3 – but I did check out the viewpoint across the bridge to watch the sunset. The view is beautiful! The hike is steep and took me a bit more than 1 hour. If going for the sunset don’t forget to bring a headlamp with you. The trail is pretty closed by vegetation and can be dark even if the sun is not 100% gone. I saw people taking sleeping bags and planning to stay at the viewpoint overnight so they could watch the sunrise. It’s an option – not sure if an officially allowed one – for those who want to get sunset and sunrise but don’t want to hike up twice.

Other places to eat and stay in Nong Khiaw: crossing the bridge there are two Indian restaurants that serve cheap and very good food (Deen and Chennai). No need to feel bad for choosing one over the other; it turns out it’s all in the same family. I preferred the food at Chennai and loved the mint-lime shake at Deen. If in doubt, try both. For accommodation, there are plenty of bungalows with hammock and river view.

I had no idea where to go after Nong Khiaw. First I thought of going northwest to Luang Namtha, near the border with Myanmar, cause the original plan was to cross to Thailand in Thakhek – so it made sense to explore the North before heading South. Karen wanted to go to Luang Prabang, but I didn’t feel like going to a “big” city just yet. What to do? Where to go next? Maybe stay longer in Nong Khiaw? I could definitely do that until I met Remigio, a Mexican visiting Laos to learn more about the country’s silk and weaving. Oh… did I say weaving? Yes… and Remigio pointed me to the Northeastern part of Laos, to Xamtai to be more exact, saying the village was known for having the best silk and weaving in the whole country.

That was it! So we headed East!

[NOTE] >>>> You can also go to Phonsaly, going north on Nam Ou (Ou River). I didn’t go but heard it has some interesting hikes and hill tribes to visit,

II) Viengthong – Xamneua – Viengxay – Xamtai >> from Nong Khiaw you can take a bus on a loooong journey to Viengthong where there’s a national park where you can see – if really, really lucky – tigers. I only spent the night in Viengthong (at a guesthouse at the bus station) to break the journey to Xamneua in 2. The ride was very bumpy, winding and I dont know how people can do it in just 1 day! If you get carsick, make sure you have plenty of Dramin pills with you. Also, be aware that the locals get really – really – carsick, so be prepared to having people throwing up in plastic bags next to you. (sorry… was this comment gross? well, if you plan to travel by bus/mini-bus/van in Vietnam and Laos, you’d better get used to it – also to peeing wherever the driver stops as bathroom breaks don’t usually include bathrooms)

Most people go to Viengthong and continue to Phonsavanh instead of  Xamneua.

>>> Xamneua is just a stop for people traveling to/from Vietnam (there’s another border crossing near, could be another option for you). It’s still interesting, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. NOTE*** if you plan to head to Viengxay, you should take a tuktuk as soon as you get to Xamneua bus station to the other station (it’s far to walk!). Last bus to Viengxay leaves around noon if I remember correctly. You can also take a taxi, but it will be more expensive (150k kip).

Because I was hungry when we arrived in Xamneua, I couldn’t think clearly and was very irritated by the tuk tuk drivers who approached us. I wanted food. That’s all I could think of. Only after finding some sticky rice, we realized the bus to Viengxay left from another station. And we walked, and walked, and walked.

And when we got there, there were no more buses. Luckily we were able to get a ride with a Chinese who’s working in Laos. It was probable the most comfortable road trip we had during all our time in the country. The car was clean, silent, the ac worked, the driver was not “crazy”.

>>> Viengxay is known by the caves where the Lao government hid and operated from 1964-1973, when the country was heavily bombed by the US. Yes… Laos suffered intense bombing during the Vietnam war, even though it was never on war against the US. Still today there are thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnances) in Lao lands, which prevent the land to be worked and still cause many fatalities.
When in Viengxay, you should visit the caves and learn more about the history behind the bombings. In order to do that, you’ll need a guide (they keep the keys to the caves, so you can’t visit them by yourself). Book your tour at the tourist center. It’s worth visiting, and the visit takes around 2-3 hours.

For food, there’s also a good Indian restaurant in town, called Sabaidee Odisha. Try the Uttapam!

>>> Xamtai is the weaving village Remigio told me about. It was quite an adventure to get there. It’s far. It’s cold. Nobody speaks English. Nobody really understands why two farang want to get there. But the weaving… ah… it’s just AMAZING! I felt the language barrier while visiting Xamtai. I wanted to ask so many questions about the silk farming, the weaving techniques, the history and tradition behind the patterns… But I couldn’t find an English speaker (only weeks after I left, I learned there’s one person at the Culture/Tourism center who speaks English and is keen in showing around).

I left Xamtai with plans to go back. Maybe to stay longer, maybe learn from the weavers. That’s for sure a place I’ll go back to.

III) After Xamtai, we finally started to make our way South, through Phonsavanh, the place where the Plain of Jars are located – archeological sites with huge jars that nobody really knows how/why they got there. If you’re into archeology, you should check it out. Another must see while in town in the MAG UXO visitor center, with videos and photos about the period when Laos was bombarded by the US, and the challenges the country still faces due to existing UXOs.

In Phonsavanh we stayed at Janeeda Guesthouse, and were stuck there one day more than planned because buses to Thakhek only run every other day. And once on our way to Thakhek I opened another chapter of my love for Laos. Soon I would meet, for the first time, the ❤ Mekong ❤

[more about Southern Laos and then my way North again pretty soon!]

Por que você viaja?

IMG_9055.JPGFoi a pergunta feita pelo meu parceiro de remadas, num caiaque perto da ilha de Cat Ba, no norte do Vietnam. Diante do meu silêncio, ele insistiu “Rita, por que você viaja? Qual a sua razão para isso?”

Eu estava sentada na parte de trás e ele não conseguia ver meu rosto – meus olhos de um lado para o outro, tentando encontrar a resposta escondida em algum lugar do meu cérebro. Depois de mais uns minutos em silêncio eu respondi “Ótima pergunta! Eu não sei…”

Eu fui honesta. Nunca pensei ou busquei a razão pela qual eu viajo. Para mim, viajar sempre foi algo mais do que natural. Sempre achei que fosse o meu sangue espanhol, meio cigano. Eu cresci numa família que acha que a ideia de férias perfeitas é dirigir o máximo de quilômetros possíveis durante as férias, fossem 3 dias, 3 semanas, 3 meses ou 3 anos.

Nós continuamos remando, e eu continuei na busca pelo porquê. “Para conhecer novos lugares e culturas? Para ver paisagens diferentes? Para provar novas comidas? Ter novas experiências? Conhecer pessoas?”

“Eu não sei”, eu repeti em voz alta. E eu realmente não sabia.

Por muitas semanas essa pergunta ficou me perturbando. Comecei a perguntar para pessoas ao meu redor. Cada um com uma resposta diferente e eu ainda sem a minha. Até que um dia, enquanto dirigia entre paredões de calcário e observava a mudança de cores no céu antes do por do sol, a resposta veio: eu viajo porque viajar me faz viver o hoje. Porque viajar me mantem no presente.

 

Viajar me permite viver e focar no presente como nunca antes.

Quanto tempo eu gastei nesses meus 30+ anos pensando sobre o passado! Nas coisas que eu fiz ou disse, nas coisas que não fiz ou não disse; nas coisas que eu poderia ou deveria ter feito diferente.

Quanto tempo eu gastei pensando no futuro! O que eu vou fazer? Onde vou estar? Relacionamentos baseados em “deixa eu ver como você vai ser daqui a um tempo para poder decidir se vale mesmo a pena investir nessa relação” me fizeram perder tanto tempo presente. Sempre esperando por algo melhor, por um futuro que nunca chegou.

Nós tendemos a gastar nosso tempo pensando no passado e no futuro e acabamos por viver o presente como um ponto de transição entre o ontem e o amanhã. Não prestamos atenção ao que estamos fazendo agora porque não abraçamos o agora.

Viajando eu encontrei uma forma de viver o presente, um dia por vez.

As pessoas me perguntam como eu passo meus dias. Bem, eu acordo, tomo banho, decido o que vou comer de café da manhã e o que vou fazer com meu dia. Visitar atrações turísticas, trabalhar, escrever, andar sem rumo, ficar deitada na rede. Eu faço uma escolha e desfruto. Se decido trabalhar, eu sei que vou passar horas em frente do computador ao invés de explorar cavernas, cachoeiras, ou me locomover para o próximo destino. Eu decido e abraço minha escolha. Eu não me julgo se escolho fazer nada. Às vezes, “nada” é tudo o que preciso. Às vezes, o que preciso é me jogar na estrada, pegar um ônibus local que leva horas e mais horas para chegar no próximo destino.

Claro que eu penso sobre o futuro. Para onde essa experiência vai me levar? O que eu vou fazer com todas essas coisas que tenho aprendido sobre o mundo, e sobre eu mesma? A questão é que eu não foco apenas no futuro. Viajar me força a tomar decisões hoje, agora, no presente.

Você pode estar pensando “Ah, mas é fácil falar quando você está vivendo desse jeito, conhecendo lugares e pessoas diferentes a cada dia. Fácil quando você não tem que estar num escritório de segunda a sexta.” É verdade que eu não tenho uma vida de escritório, mas isso não significa que não tenho uma rotina e meus rituais diários. Não significa que eu não questiono minhas escolhas ou tenho dúvidas sobre o caminho que escolhi. Não significa que eu não tenho responsabilidades para comigo mesma ou com os outros. Mas o meu processo de tomada de decisão está baseado no presente.

Quando encontro pessoas novas, eu me permito apreciar e aproveitar as curtas ou longas conversas. É provável que eu nunca veja essas pessoas, por isso eu me permito estar presente e apreciar o momento.

O mesmo se aplica às mudanças na paisagem. Nenhuma foto é capaz de capturar a beleza de se observar as mudanças de relevo, cores e aromas de um lugar ao outro. De montanhas para vales, de rios para o mar, da brisa gelada ao calor sem brisa. Se não me permitir sentir tudo isso, como poderei falar sobre isso?

Por que eu viajo?

Para viver o presente; para no futuro contar histórias sobre o meu passado.

E você? Por que você viaja?

Why do you travel?

IMG_8595Was the question my kayaking partner asked me while rowing somewhere near Cat Ba island, in Northern Vietnam. I stayed quiet and he asked again “Rita, why do you travel? What’s your reason for it?”

I was in the back seat and he couldn’t see my face – my eyes going from side to side, trying to look inside my brain in search for something to say. From me he only got a long silence before “That’s a good question! I don’t really know…”

I was honest. I never really thought about the reason behind it. Traveling for me has always been something natural. I blame it on my Spanish-gypsy blood. For my family the idea of a perfect vacation involves driving as many kilometers as possible in whatever number of days you have off – 3 days, 3 months, 3 years.

As we continued rowing I asked myself “To visit different places and cultures?  To see different landscapes? To try different food? Have new experiences? Meet new people?” “I don’t know”, I said again. And I really didn’t.

For many weeks, the question was stuck in my mind. I started asking people around me, they had different reasons, and I still couldn’t find mine. Until one day, I was driving amongst limestone walls and appreciating the changing colors of a pre-sunset sky, and voilà: I travel because it makes me experience today. Because traveling keeps me in the present.

Traveling allows me to live, experience, and focus on the present as I’ve never done before.

How much time I have spent thinking about the past! Things I’ve done or said, things I haven’t, things I should or could have done differently.

How much time I have spent thinking about the future! What am I going to do? Where am I going to be? Past relationships based on “let me see how you’re going to be next so I can decide if you’re good for me or not” made me waste so much present time, always waiting for something better, for a future that never came.

We tend to spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, that we live the present as a transition point, not as the present. We don’t really pay attention to what we are doing now because we are not embracing now.

Traveling I found a way of living the present, one day at a time.

People ask me what my days are like. I wake up, have a shower, decide what I’m having for breakfast and how I want to spend my day. Sightseeing, working, writing, just walking around or laying in a hammock. I make a decision and enjoy it. If I decide to do some work I know I’m choosing to spend a couple of hours in front of the computer instead of seeing waterfalls or caves, or moving to another place. I make the decision and embrace it. I don’t judge myself for doing “nothing” in a city with so many things to do and see. Sometimes all I need is “nothing”, sometimes I feel like taking a local bus and spending hours on bumpy winding roads just to get somewhere new, where I can wake up and decide how I want to spend my day, all over again.

Off course I think about the future. Where am I going from here? What am I going to do with all the new things I’m learning from this incredible journey.  But I do not focus only on the future. Traveling forces me to make present decisions.

One might think “Oh, it’s easy for you, you’re living the life, meeting new people, seeing new places. You’re not stuck in an office five days a week.” Yes, I’m not, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a routine and daily rituals. Doesn’t mean I don’t question my decisions or have doubts about them. But the way my decision making process works is based on the present.

When I meet new people I let myself appreciate and enjoy the short or long conversations I have with them, people I’ll probably never see again. I allow myself to be present, to appreciate the moment.

Same applies to watching the changes in landscape. No pictures can capture the beauty of noticing the changes of scenery from one place to another, from mountains to valleys, from rivers to the sea, from cold breeze to a steam hot air. If I don’t allow myself to feel it, how will I ever be able to talk about it?

Why do I travel? To live the present so in the future I can tell stories about my past.

Why do you travel?

 

“There are only two days in the year when nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live.”

(Dalai Lama)

Uma Carta de Amor*

[Thakhek – 06 de Março de 2017]

Antes de te encontrar me falaram que você era bacana, mas que eu não deveria gastar meu tempo tentando te conhecer melhor. Duas ou três semanas seriam mais do que suficientes; depois disso eu me cansaria e partiria para outra.

Eu tinha planos de voltar para algo que já tinha despertado meu interesse assim que me cansasse de você. Mas eis que aqui estou, ainda olhando para você, apreciando sua beleza. Completamente apaixonada.

Já se passaram dois meses e você ainda me impressiona e me diverte com suas cores, formas, cheiros e sabores. Você me mantém curiosa e cheia de vontade de aprender mais sobre sua história, suas pessoas, seus medos e desafios. Me diga: como eu posso te ajudar? Como podemos trabalhar juntos? O que eu preciso fazer para continuar perto de você?

Quem me conhece anda dizendo que estou mais bonita. Que meus olhos têm um brilho especial e que meu sorriso está ainda maior. Estão dizendo que irradio alegria e, embora não seja 100% por sua causa – estou alegre porque sinto que estou no lugar certo para meu corpo, mente e alma-, você tem sim um bocado a ver com isso.

Você me ajudou a reencontrar uma antiga paixão: tear; me mostrando  trabalhos lindos e inspiradores, feitos for pessoas talentosas, em cantos remotos.

Você me ensinou a relaxar e seguir a energia de cada momento, inclusive me fez quebrar regras de vez em quando. Me fez provar coisas novas e experimentar mais.

Você me deu amantes e me trouxe um novo amor.

Você me fez sentir anos mais jovem, apesar de eu ficar um ano mais velha ao seu lado.

Nas montanhas, lá no norte, você me mostrou vistas de tirar o fôlego enquanto brincávamos de esconde-esconde durante o por do sol.

E quando seguíamos para o sul eu percebi quanta diversidade você carrega. As montanhas deram espaço a planícies, a brisa fresca a ondas de calor; e quando o ar ficou pesado de tão quente você me apontou águas frescas onde me banhar. E assim encontrei um outro amor: o rio Mekong ❤

Como não te amar?! Por suas redes, seu arroz grudento, suas cavernas, canoas, cachoeiras. Você me surpreendeu com sua diversidade cultural: comida indiana, café japonês, petanque & pastis.

E me surpreendeu ainda mais com suas estradas sinuosas que – apesar do meu histórico de enjôos em longas viagens – me mantiveram sã e salva.

Você também me fez chorar e me deu algumas cicatrizes novas. Ao aprender sobre suas bombas e medos eu não aguentei e não segurei as lágrimas.

Mas acima de tudo você me deu novos amigos, novas inspirações, novas histórias para contar.

Histórias sobre pessoas, lugares, sentimentos.

Histórias de amor.

*Para o Laos

A Love Letter*

 

[Thakhek – March 06, 2017]

Before meeting you, I was told you were nice but not worth the time to get to know you better. Two or three weeks should be enough before getting tired of you and moving on.

I had plans to go back to something else  as soon as I was done with you. But here I am, still looking at you, appreciating your beauty. Completely in love.

It’s been two months and you still amaze – and amuse – me with your colors, shapes, smells, and flavors. You keep me curious and eager to learn more about your history, your people, your fears, and challenges. Tell me: how can I help you? How can we work together? What do I need to do to stay close to you?

People who know me are saying I look great. That my eyes are shining and my smile is wider. They say I irradiate happiness and although it’s not only your fault – I’m happy because I feel I’m in the right place for my body, mind and soul – you do have a lot to do with it.

You helped me reconnect with an old passion: weaving; showing me beautiful and inspiring work made in remote places by very talented people.

You also taught me to be more relaxed, go with the flow, and even break some rules once in a while. You made me try new things and experiment more.

You gave me lovers, and love.

You made me feel years younger, despite becoming a year older while with you.

Up in the mountains, in the North, you showed me breathtaking views, while playing hide and seek during the sunset.

Heading South, I realized how diverse you could be. The mountains gave space to plains, the cool breeze to heat waves, and when I thought I could no longer breath, you pointed me fresh waters to bath in. And then something else to love: the Mekong ❤

How not to love you?! – For your hammocks, khao niao, your caves, and canoes, and waterfalls. You surprised me with Indian food, Japanese Cafe, petanque & pastis.

You surprised me even more with your winding roads that – despite my lifelong history of car sickness – kept me sane and safe.

You also made me cry and gave me a few new scars. Learning about your bombs and fears was very touching; I couldn’t hold my tears.

But most importantly, you presented me with new friends, new inspirations, and new stories to tell.

Stories about people, places, feelings.

Stories about love.

 

*To Laos

Travel notes – Vietnam

Part II

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First things first 🙂

(Part I here)

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve, on a full train coming from Ninh Binh. We spent the trip chatting with a smiley 9 years-old girl and her family. Everyone going to Hanoi for the weekend.

It was the first time since Livia joined me that we were not attacked by tuk tuk and taxi drivers on the way out of the train station. Point for Hanoi! From there we took a bus (more points to Hanoi!) and walked a few blocks to get to our hostel (Old Quarter View Hanoi), in the heart of the Old Quarter. All we needed after getting settled was to find a place to have our Christmas dinner and enjoy the French wine we bought in Hue.

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Christmas in Hanoi

Just like the other places we visited, we walked, walked and walked around Hanoi. Well, not really “around” Hanoi; maybe around the Old Quarter is a better description of the area we covered. From the hostel to the lake. Around the lake. Back to the hostel. Back to the lake.

It was interesting to see how the Vietnamese people use the public space on weekends. The streets around the lake were closed for cars and bikes, and were packed with people; mostly families with kids. They organize games such as tug of war, jumping rope, and crafts. In addition to the games, many Christmas decorations, lights and this song everywhere [play at your own risk] – even though only 8% of the population is Christian (Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world where 73% of the population declare themselves irreligious).

In Hanoi we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners kept there during the Vietnam War. And we tried to visit the Ho Chi Ming Museum and the Citadel. “Tried” because we picked the wrong days to go to each of them. Sunday and Monday respectively. They were closed. (If you go to Hanoi, go to the Citadel on Sunday and vice-versa).

Also in Hanoi I saw a friend who I met in 2010, in Berkeley, CA. I remembered Dang as this funny guy who thought us a funny warm up exercise to keep us awake throughout the day, despite all the party from the night before. He picked us up at the hostel and took us out for dinner. “No snakes, Dang, I’m not ready for that”, “Chicken, then”. And this is how we tried the traditional black chicken from Vietnam. We were skeptical at first, but pretty amazed by the taste after we tried (until I found the chicken’s head in my bowl and had to covered it to continue eating. Still: delicious). Dang also took is for a coffee with view to the lake we had circled a couple of times. We laughed a lot and had a great time with the Vietnamese hospitality. Thank you Dang!

On December 27th Livia left and I took a bus to Cat Ba island [200K VND], northeast of Hanoi. No goodbyes because neither of us like goodbyes; but also because I didn’t want to think how my next days would be without her. I’d be traveling alone after a month.

I ended up in Cat Ba for a few reasons; rock climbing one of the (i.e. the great time I spent in Tonsai, Railay). There I stayed at Mr. Zoom’s (5 USD room with private bathroom), who also owns Cat Ba Climbing.

The island is a great place to take a break from the busy Hanoi or the touristy Hoi An. And it was all I was looking for: sea, mountain, rock climbing, nice people, and the best Pho Bo I had in Southeast Asia. At first I thought I’d stay 3-4 days there, and ended up staying 6 days, and celebrating the New Year playing pebolim with a group of Italian, Dutch, Mozambican, German, and a Brazilian from Sao Paulo who knows people from the climbing gym I used to go to.

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Best Pho Bo EVER!

In Cat Ba, I strongly recommend rock climbing. Talk to Mr. Zoom or the super helpful people from Asia Outdoors, and ask about the climbing areas (an entrance fee is charged) and/or deep water soloing (DWS). Take a boat trip too (14USD) – unless you go DWS, because you kind of see the same things – and get the impressive and scenic landscape of Vietnam take your breath away. You can also hike to a view point, on the way to hidden valley, where you have an amazing 360 degrees view of the island.

After staying almost a week and starting the new year surrounded by the sea (literally) and good people, I took a bus to Hai Phong (140K VND) and from there to Cao Bang (260K VND) This time with another travel partner: the Brazilian of Japanese descent.

I’m not really sure how we chose Cao Bang. We had no idea what we would do there, but we went anyways. The bus dropped us off at 4am and we walked about 2km to the hostel owned by a lovely Vietnamese family who, despite not speaking English, were great hosts. It was the first time in Vietnam when I felt like “the different” one, mainly because of my height – and traveling with a Brazilian Japanese doesn’t make me less tall.

We walked around town, enjoyed great Vietnamese coffee, and rented a bike to visit Bang Gioc, a waterfall (40K VND) located at the border with China. As in Cat Ba, my breath was taken away by the scenic limestone formations, this time joined by winding roads and rice fields.

From Cao Bang we started a bus adventure to Ha Giang. We left on a van at 5:30 am and arrived 12 hours later, changing to a mini-bus in Bao Lam (120K + 80K VND). The roads were bad because of the rain. Still worth it.

Ha Giang was my alternative destination to Sa Pa, where most of the tourism in Northern Vietnam is, and I was happy with the decision to go there instead. We stayed at Kiki’s House Hostel where we also rented a bike. There I finally completed my process of falling in love with Northern Vietnam.

I can’t find words while writing here to express the beauty of the Ha Giang loop. The mountains, valleys, colors, people, rice fields, roads. Just: astonishing. And cold, so take your winter jacket and/or windproof with you.

Must see/visit in the Ha Giang loop:

Lung Cu – the most northern point in Vietnam, from where you can see China!

Street Market. I was there on the weekend and went to two Sunday markets (in Dong Van and Meo Vac). It is nice to see the people on their best clothes, carrying their best products ranging from rice to cattle, from corn to huge pigs. Women wearing very colorful outfits, while men were mainly wearing black.

Lung Tam – impressive weaving and dying techniques

We were lucky that in the only moment we were hesitant to take a right or left, a local guide told us to follow him. We took the left then.[1] We then took a newly open road through the valley, with spectacular views of the mountains playing hide and seek with the sun.

Back in Ha Giang we took a day off before moving towards Laos, where I fell in love. My Vietnam visa was going to expire in 2 days and I didn’t want to risk dealing with the officials at the border. At 5:30 am we got on a mini-bus to Lao Cai (130K VND, arrives at noon). From there another bus at 5:30pm to Dien Bien (215K VND), and from there 6am to Muang Khua (120K VND in Laos.

[1] When in doubt, always left!