Sapa, Vietnam

Visiting My Friend

I traveled to Vietnam to visit my friend Minh some months ago, a lovely woman  now living California with her two kids and a high-powered husband whom I heard was a guy from Harvard Busines School. I guess that means she is alive and well. We worked on a lot of finance projects together in graduate school and she had a phenomenal talent for numbers, so much so that in fact,  it was alittle it  shocking. (That’s not a stereotype by the way!)

My stay in Vietnam began in Hanoi. It was surprising after living in humid Thailand, how much cooler Hanoi was; except for the crazy hotel operator nestled somewhere in between the floors of this tall, skinny 5 floor building, it was a remarkably peaceful experience. His management style however could only be destribed as Neolithic. The building was so narrow it looked like it might topple in a wind storm–or maybe from the tremors caused by the owner’s screaming. He litterally had the whole staff shaking and anyone else who wandered into the auditory zone. I couldn’t help but wonder where he got that management style like that? He would have been a better interrogator!

Leaving for Hai Long Bay in the morning, one notices a city of all crisp, new concrete buildings. In 1968 President Johnson bombed the city into the stone age, but now it looks like he did them a favor. Hanoi seems very very livable. You don’t realize until you go to these countries and look at a map how close Thaliand and other countries are to each other in South East Asia, each with its own language, traditions, and food! It was really a priviledge to travel around this region.

Vietnamese People not Hostile to Americans

Surprisingly, Vietnamese people are not hostile to Americans. Given the amount of people who died in the war it seems rather miraculous. But Vietnamese are quick to see the advantages in life, and welcoming Americans can lead to one of them. In  taking the bus from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, my thinking  of a twelve hours trip was slightly flawed. You need to  inspect the tickets carefully because sometimes the verbal information one gets is the result of misunderstanding!

After boarding the bus I noticed the seats seemed to have a never-before-witnessed feature, that is they somewhat suspiciously  turned into a prone position. I thought that was strange and it was the first sign of my misunderstanding. So I asked people about the time it took to get to Saigon and they said “twenty-four hours”.  What a surprise! I was off by 12 hours!  The journey was relatively uneventful, however about 4 hours outside of Saigon, we blew a tire; the bus had to stop. Conveniently we found a road-side beverage stand right where the tire blew! It was all so innocent, sitting there drinking ice tea. There was a full bus load of Australians and other Europeans. Somehow the owner somehow could tell I was American.

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 I couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction of the group would be if I did! Sitting there with thirty people the best response was no response! So after a few awkward moments he realized that this was not a good idea, became embarrassed and hopped on his scooter,  taking off down the road! Good move. I really did appreciate the offer though it wasn’t politically correct!  His wife and daughters had wonderful dispositions as they poured the beverages. They were very happy to see a bus load of tourists stop off at their road-side stand; it must have been desolate before we got there. Anyway thirty or forty people was manna from heaven.

Hanoi to Hai Long Bay

From Hanoi it is several hours by bus to Hai Long Bay; and there is no hint of what your experience will be as you board the bus in Hanoi. There was a huge fleet of  wooden pleasure yachts which I and 8 other people boarded  for an unforgettable two day cruise–the boat being very comfortable and the food excellent. We sat down at a beautiful table on the back deck and a Swedish guy remarked to me– 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. Having a European heritage we always feel advantaged towards other groups of peoples, but my experience tells us every culture has it’s uniqueness and quality.

Cruising Among the Mountains

For two days we cruised around on a one hundred foot wooded ship among the huge vertical mountains with sumptuous meals served  in  the moonlight, surpassing all expectations. Very memorable. Two days later I was back in Hanoi and at the train station for another adventure. This was to be my first experience in a sleeper car–the kind Cary Grant had some famous movie scenes in with Eva Marie Saint. The destination was thirty miles from China and in the northern most part of Vietnam. Arrival was 6:00 AM in the morning.

As we arrived the desolation was stark. The city square looked like something out of a movie set from the Stalinist era. It looked depressing but maybe it was because nobody was there so early in the morning.  From there we boarded VW buses and ascended  into the clouds about an hour, eventually happening on this town in the clouds called Sapa. Sapa is really quite famous by the way.


This is a town where everybody dresses in traditional clothing, which is quite colorful. In fact the colors denote their tribal affiliations. It is common practice for the young women to marry young, some having several children by the age of twenty. The two main tribes are the Red Dao and Black Hmong. Nowadays they make their money from tourism.  Tourists out for a innocent walk are generally encircled by about 8-9 tribal members doing everything possible to ensure that you will buy something from them in a friendly but very persistent way.  In the end, you feel obligated to do buy something from them. The crowd of hawkers thins out as you walk around for an hour or two– with one or two very persistent ladies remaining. The woman who trailed me up the side of a hill with a wicker basket on her back didn’t reveal the infant in the sack! He popped his head out well into the tour. It was quite a surprise!

All have babies

It is such a natural feeling about life one gets here. 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. It was a place I would like to return to someday.  For more up-to-date information check out:

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