Sapa, Vietnam

Visiting My Friend

I traveled to Vietnam to visit my friend Minh, a lovely woman who married a guy from Harvard and  now lives in California. We worked on a lot of finance projects together in graduate school and it was  shocking to witness her ability to put numbers together –and humbling! My stay in Vietnam began in Hanoi, which was a nice, cool city, except for the crazy hotel operator, who was nestled somewhere in between the floors of this tall, skinny 5 floor building. A building so narrow it looked like it might topple in a wind storm. Anyway, he spent the morning on the phone, screaming at the top of his lungs . He had the whole staff shaking and I was wondering if that was the way he conducted business. How he got a machismo like that I wonder? What was wrong with him? Maybe a fallout from the war culture or something?

Leaving for Hai Long Bay, looking out over the city from the bus–you noticed that the city was completely new! President Johnson bombed the city into the stone age back in 1968, but now it looks like he did them a favor. Hanoi seems very very livable, and the climate cool. You don’t realize until you go there and look at the map how close these countries are to each other.

Vietnamese People not Hostile to Americans

Surprisingly, Vietnamese people are not hostile to Americans; in fact, they were glad to see me. This was your experience when taking the bus from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, which I thought was an easy ride. My thinking  of twelve hours was slightly flawed however. You have to not take things for granted. It wasn’t 12 hours but 24 hours! That was a “horse of a different color”!, You should inspect the tickets carefully! Sometimes people don’t understand your questions and you get the wrong answer.

After I boarded I noticed the seats reclined somewhat suspiciously into a sleeping position and I thought that was strange. So I asked people about the time it took to get to Saigon and they said “twenty-four hours”.  What a surprise! Outside of Saigon, about 4 hours, we blew a tire and the bus had to stop, conveniently, at a road-side beverage stand. We all sat there innocently enough, but somehow the owner somehow could tell I was American. That was interesting because there were also Australians and Canadians sitting around.

Are You American?

“Are you American” he asked? He was very happy to see me and quite generously offered me his sister–which was a nice gesture! Of course I wanted to be politically correct and so I didn’t say a word, but she was too old anyway! Let’s be real! Sitting there with thirty people the best response was no response so after a few awkward moments he became embarrassed and realized that he should not  have said that. Thereupon he hopped on his scooter and took off down the road! Good move. I did appreciate the offer. His wife and daughters had wonderful dispositions by the way. The whole family worked together and was very happy to see a bus load of tourists stop off and at their road-side stand.

Hanoi to Hai Long Bay

From Hanoi it is several hours by bus to Hai Long Bay; and I really didn’t know what to expect with this excursion. There was a huge fleet of these wooden pleasure yachts which myself and 8 other people boarded –an unforgettable cruise for two days–the boat being very comfortable and the food  excellent. We sat down at a beautiful table on the back deck and a Swedish guy said– as a woman rowed up in a boat to ply her items, “my heart bleeds for these people”. Swedes are usually very kind people and he was no exception. But she was having fun and the job was easy.

Cruising Among the Mountains

We cruised on a one hundred foot wooded ship among the huge vertical mountains for the day and then a sumptuous meal was served in the moonlight so it surpassed by expectations by a mile. Very memorable. Two days later I was back in Hanoi and barely made it to the train station. It was my first experience in a sleeper car, the kind Cary Grant had some famous movie scenes in. Thirty miles from China and the northern most part of Vietnam, we arrived at 6:00 AM in the morning.

Looking out at the public square as we arrived, the desolation was stark. It was absolutely empty and looked like something out of a movie set or the Stalinist era–kind of run down and depressing. But then it was 6:00 AM and maybe everybody was sleeping?  From there we got in little VW buses and drove for about an hour, ascending into the clouds and eventually happened on this town in the clouds called Sapa.


Sapa is an independent state (I guess), tribal as opposed to cosmopolitan,  made up of the Red Dao and Black Hmong, who are always dressed in tribal colors and hand-made tribal clothes. Tourists out for a innocent walk are generally encircled by about 8-9 tribal members who sell souvenirs–doing everything possible to ensure that you will buy something from them. In the end, you feel obligated to do just that. The crowd things as you walk around to one or two very persistent ladies. The woman who trailed me up the side of a hill with a wicker basket on her back didn’t reveal that she had an infant in the sack! He popped his head out well into the tour. It was funny!

All have babies

As usual everywhere in Asia, the young women all have babies. It is such a natural feeling I get around young mothers with babies, something completely foreign to my life in the United States– I never got that feeling in America–so many career minded women you forget your real purpose in life. It was a place I would like to return to someday.  For more up-to-date information check out:

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