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!

Respirando e vivendo Tailândia

Chegou novembro e com ele um sonho se torna realidade: eu vim parar em Myanmar! Mas ainda não é dessa vez que eu vou escrever sobre esse país que tem me fascinado nos últimos anos. Calma! Calma! Logo mais eu compartilho minhas impressões. Abaixo seguem alguns detalhes sobre minhas últimas semanas na Tailândia.

Como eu já falei anteriormente, eu tive muita sorte de ser “adotada” por uma família tailandesa que me ajudou na aclimatação cultural e culinária. Com eles eu passei minhas primeiras duas semanas. Desde que me despedi deles e de Phuket, visitei lindos lugares – mas ainda falta muita coisa para visitar na Tailândia e já estou planejando a volta e os próximos destinos por lá.

Quando você viaja por viajar, sem ter que estar num lugar específico, numa data específica, você acaba se permitindo passar períodos mais longos em cada um dos lugares que visita. Você se deixar levar pela velocidade, cultura e atmosfera local. E é exatamente isso que estou tentando fazer – claro que reconhecendo que o tempo que passo nesses lugares não está nem perto do ideal para assimilar o modo de vida local – e ainda por cima é bem óbvio que eu sou turista estrangeira por aqui (ou como diriam os tailandeses, farang).

Com a exceção de Ko Phi Phi – de onde eu saí correndo depois de passar 2 noites (uma delas em claro) – eu senti que poderia ficar mais e mais tempo em cada um dos lugares que visitei. Todos esses lugares me colocaram em contato com coisas que são muito importantes para minha vida e bem estar; coisas que eu gostaria de incorporar ao meu dia-a-dia. Racionalmente eu sei que não preciso estar nesses lugares para poder continuar escalando, meditando, praticando yoga, evitando carne e álcool; mas parece que essas coisas fluem com mais facilidade em determinados lugares. Taí algo para trabalhar e mudar daqui pra frente!

O primeiro desses lugares foi Tonsai – uma praia em Railay, Krabi, que é um paraíso da escalada em rocha. Lá eu me reconectei com a escalada e percebi, uma vez mais, o quanto esse esporte alimenta minha alma e me energiza. Mesmo estando fora de forma, mesmo meus braços e pernas não aguentando meu peso por muito tempo, mesmo com hematomas espalhados pelo meu corpo, eu me senti completa, plena, feliz de uma forma que só a escalada me faz – e que eu tinha, mais uma vez, esquecido.

Eu saí desse paraíso apaixonada. Apaixonada pela geologia e sua formação rochosa – sério, no meio de uma via eu virei para quem estava me fazendo segurança e perguntei se podia chorar, tamanha a beleza daquela rocha! Apaixonada pela energia de paz das marés alta e baixa. Apaixonada pelas almas lindas – umas mais que outras 😉 – que conheci por lá. Se não fosse por um dos únicos compromisso que eu assumi para essa viagem – um retiro de meditação em Ko Samui – eu acho que ainda estaria em Tonsai. Certamente voltaria para lá. Provavelmente vou voltar.

O retiro em Ko Samui começou no dia 20. Foram quase 7 dias de silêncio total, acordando às 4h30 e indo pra cama às 21h, apenas 2 refeições diárias, e muita meditação sentada e caminhando. Por mais difícil que tenha sido deixar Tonsai, eu sabia que algo muito interessante me aguardava. E estou estava certa.

Ainda rola muita incerteza no estágio em que me encontro nesse mundo da meditação. Eu não faço ideia quais as peças que minha mente e meu corpo vão me pregar; para onde minha mente vai perambular; como manter o foco na minha respiração quando meus pensamentos vagueiam por aí. Nesse sentido, a experiência de respirar, sonhar, andar, comer meditação por uma semana foi uma agradável surpresa. Enquanto tentava domar meus pensamentos e me concentrar no ar entrando e saindo pelo meu nariz, minha mente me levou para lugares imagináveis e inimagináveis. Eu tive visões – reais e psicodélicas, caí no sono durante as sessões de meditação, fiquei entediada, frustrada, fiz listas de coisas a fazer, e-mails a escrever, telefonemas. Até escrevi e-mails e cartões postais na minha cabeça!

Mas para a minha surpresa, a parte mais difícil não foi lidar com o silêncio e com a minha respiração. O mais difícil foi voltar para o mundo “real”, barulhento, cheio de carros e motos, cheio de opções de comida, de gente falando comigo e esperando uma resposta. Daí que a decisão de seguir para Ko Phangan e ficar hospedada num bungalow na praia (por U$4/noite), com um restaurante delicioso a 5 minutos de caminhada, e aulas gratuitas de yoga foi perfeita! E mais uma vez eu senti que poderia ficar por lá – Haas Chao Pao – por mais e mais tempo.

No entanto, tinha uma outra coisa já planejada – quem disse que eu não faço planos? Meu voo para Myanmar sairia de Bangkok e eu precisava começar a seguir para o norte.

No caminho para Tonsai conheci uma brasileira e passamos a viajar juntas. Acaba sendo bem mais em conta poder dividir as despesas – principalmente de acomodação – com mais alguém. Claro que é preciso dar sorte de encontrar alguém bacana. E esse foi o meu caso. Ela acabou se juntando a mim no retiro, onde conhecemos um russo – professor de yoga – que nos seguiu até Ko Phangan. De lá, nós três resolvemos ir juntos para Ko Tao, uma ilha pequena conhecida pela grande oferta de cursos de mergulho – e que, aparentemente, é um dos lugares mais baratos, no mundo, para aprender a mergulhar.

Mergulho, no entanto, ainda não é muito a minha praia. Então quando meus parceiros de viagem se inscreveram num curso de freediving eu decidi cair na estrada a caminho de Bangkok. Lá passei mais tempo com a Namsai, lavei – e sequei!!!! – minhas roupas e organizei minhas coisas seguir, finalmente, para Myanmar!

[Escrito em 08 de novembro de 2016, Yangon, Myanmar]

 

 

 

Breathing and living Thailand

[leia em Português]

Yangon, Myanmar – November 07, 2016

It’s November and a dream comes true: I made it to Myanmar! This post, however, is not about this country that I’ve been fascinated by, but the past few weeks I spent in Thailand. Hopefully on the next one I’ll be able to share some of my impressions on this intriguing place.

As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to spend my first two weeks with a Thai family, getting acclimatized to Thailand and learning the basics about Thai culture and food (so good!).

Since I left my adopted family in Phuket, I have visited a few places – but still far from seeing most of the country. When you travel for the sake of traveling, and don’t necessarily have to be in a specific location by a certain date, you allow yourself to spend longer periods of time here and there. You allow yourself to experience the local pace, its culture and atmosphere. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do, but I have to recognize it’s still not enough time to assimilate the local way of life – and I’m an obvious foreigner – farang – here.

With the exception of Ko Phi Phi – that I left after 2 nights – I felt like I could stay longer and longer on every other location I visited. Somehow, all the places exposed me to things that are important in my life, and that I’d like to do more often. Rationally I know it’s not a matter of place/location, I should be able to climb wherever I go, or meditate, or practice yoga, or avoid meat and alcohol; still it feels like certain places are more favorable than others to do so, and that’s something I’ve been trying to change during this journey.

The first place where I felt it in a powerful way was Tonsai, Railay, a climbing paradise where I reconnected with rock climbing and realized, once again, how climbing feeds my soul and energizes me. Even though I’m out of shape and my arms and legs can’t hold for long, even though I left with bruises all over my body, I felt complete, happy and fulfilled in a way climbing allows me to feel – and I had forgotten.

I also left this climbing paradise a bit in love. In love with the geology and rock formation. In love with the peaceful and calm vibe of the low and high tides. In love with the beautiful souls – some more than others 😉 – that I met there. If it wasn’t for one of the few ‘time and date’ plans I have during this trip – a meditation retreat in Ko Samui – I think I would still be in Tonsai. I could certainly go back. I’m probably going back.

The meditation retreat in Ko Samui started on the 20th. It consisted of almost 7 full days of silence, a 4:30am-9pm schedule, only 2 daily meals and tea, and sitting and walking meditation. As hard as it was to leave Tonsai I knew something pretty exciting was waiting for me. And I was right.

At the stage I am in the meditation world, it still involves a lot of uncertainty. I have no idea what kind of tricks my body and mind will play with me, where my mind will wander to, how to maintain the focus on my breath once it starts wandering. The experience of a week breathing, dreaming, walking, eating meditation was, to say the least, positively surprising. While trying to tame my thoughts and concentrate on the air coming in and out of my nose, my mind wandered to imaginable and unimaginable places. I had visions, I fell asleep during the sessions, I was bored, I was frustrated, I made lists of things to do, emails to write and people to call. I even wrote emails and postcards in my head.

But to my surprise the hardest part was not the silence or the mindful breathing. I pretty much enjoyed the challenge. The most difficult part was coming back to this loud and “real” world. It took me a few days to acclimatize again to people talking to me, to cars and motorbikes on the streets,  to so many food options. So the idea to head to Ko Phangan after the retreat was just perfect. A bungalow on the beach, an awesome Thai restaurant 5 minutes away, free yoga sessions every morning. Again I felt like I could stay there – in Haad Chao Pao – for a long, long time. But the other thing I had planned was a trip to Myanmar and it  was time to move and get closer to Bangkok, from where my flight to Yangon departed.

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Sunset in Ko Phangan

On my way to Tonsai I met a Brazilian girl who was also running away from Phi Phi. She joined me in the retreat and there we met a Russian guy – the yoga teacher – who followed us to Ko Phangan. The three of us ended up going to Ko Tao together, a small island known by the infinite offers of affordable diving courses – apparently it is one of the world’s cheapest places to learn how to dive.

Diving is still not my thing. Somehow I feel claustrophobic when wearing a mask and snorkel under water, I can’t even imagine a full scuba diving outfit. Maybe I’ll try it one day, but not yet. So when my travel buddies enrolled on a diving course I  decided to make my way to Bangkok and spend time with Namsai, do my laundry – yay! clean and dry clothes again! – and organize my things to finally enter the fascinating world of Myanmar.

***

Dealing with uncertainty as I go – Not only my itinerary is uncertain, unexpected things also happen as I go and I have to find ways to deal with them without getting (too) upset. So far – knock knock on wood – the main thing that happened, forcing me to re-plan and rethink my already tight travel budget, had to do with technology and connectivity.

The last thing you want when traveling on a budget is your computer AND your phone to die. Well, that was exactly my case. First the computer in Phuket. Puff! One day it did not turn on anymore. Diagnosis: mother board. Dead. Thankfully there’s Dropbox! 🙏🏼

Then my phone died after we were caught on a heavy rain in Ko Phangan, on our way to Bottle Beach – northern part of the island. No, it did not fall in the sea, or in the toilet, or in the pool – so I told the technician who stared at me skeptically. It was rain. And it was gone. Forever.

I had to decide if I’d buy a new computer + a new phone – which I ended up doing – and how I’d recover this money so I can keep my previous travel plans. I still don’t have an answer to the latter, but as life already showed me many times before, I’m sure things will work out. (by the way, if I can do any freelance to anyone out there, let me know!)