Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: hanoi, kiva, kiva fellowship, vietnam, xanthi kouvatas
Once when on a cycling holiday from Saigon to Phnom Penh, yours truly passed her time with her fellow intrepid cyclists by discussing “what would you do to get yourself on Oprah”? This question came to my mind frequently during my Kiva Fellowship in Vietnam. Some of my Kiva Fellows had “Oprah worthy” moments like being arrested, visiting clients in prison, meeting both war victims and war perpetrators. I cannot confess to anything as dramatic. Hanoi in terms of a Kiva Fellowship is a bit of a ‘5 star’ placement with an enviable abundance of tasty food of both the street and sophisticated variety, a thriving cultural scene, an active expat community and incredibly safe. Of course I don’t have the amenities, luxuries or shopping options from home, but I am perfectly comfortable and live in a vastly more extravagant manner than our Kiva clients. You cannot help but ask why should you be so incredibly fortunate when others equally worthy are not? All I have really done over and above is to be born in one of the most privileged nations on earth – it’s a game of chance with little skill involved.
Before I commenced my Kiva Fellowship I had naively romantic notions of what our clients would be like and the magnitude of the impact of a Kiva loan. The clients I met were mothers, fathers, daughters and sons who want to work hard to fulfil the universal needs of raising and educating children, building a better home or running a small business to support themselves. There were no miraculous transformation stories, but there is no denying that their access to microfinance enabled them to live easier and not hand to mouth. We in the developed world often use credit cards to make our lives easier – why should someone in the developed world be denied the same opportunity in order to buy piglets to breed, rice seedlings to plant or pay a child’s university fees? In this current time of economic doom and gloom, a statistic that I like to share is that my microfinance institution has a 0% default rate. So Kiva is currently a better form of investment than my super fund!
Now that I have returned back home to beautiful Sydney, I have to admit it’s been relatively easy to slip back into my life of ease and plenty. I did at first develop a new crush on Sydney’s buses – although much maligned, they are cleaner, more spacious and orderly than their Hanoian counterparts. Initially I could not get over the quiet of my inner west neighbourhood – no relentless traffic with accompanying continuous honking horns. I missed the thrill of crossing the road in Hanoi, where my landlord paid me the ultimate compliment of telling me that I crossed the road like a local – look up ‘Hanoi traffic’ in YouTube to see what I mean! And where are all the people? In Vietnam houses are small, so life mainly occurs outside and all ages can be found on every street corner and outside every shop and home conducting all manner of domestic rituals. I become re-acquainted with well lit and cool shops – electricity is so expensive in Vietnam that shopkeepers only turn on the lights and fans when a prospective customer enters.
There are things I miss. I can highly recommend ending a night out with a foot, neck and shoulder massage. Especially when the venue is a local haunt down an alleyway, up narrow stairs and in a room filled with old sofas. I miss the energy – Vietnam is rapidly changing and there is palpable tremendous enthusiasm for that change. I yearn for the constant discovery of the new – new places to eat, sip an iced coffee or just a new way to wander home. Even catching a bus or buying limes is an adventure.
I do notice some meaningful differences. Leafing through a glossy magazine leaves me rather cold and I do not covet the contents. I find it incredibly hard to justify fine dining experiences when I know that the average Kiva client spends on average about $1 a meal. Although I understand that many Australians are currently facing difficult times, I can’t help but compare to the circumstances of Kiva clients and know which one I would rather be. Trivial concerns seem just that – trivial.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that my Kiva Fellowship has changed me. I cannot claim to have truly walked a mile in our client shoes, but I was able to briefly walk by their side and glimpse the view. It might not have been glamorous enough to make me a guest on Oprah, but I will never forget it.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: bun cha, bun cha hang manh, cafe pho co, hanoi, hanoi eating, hanoi restaurants, pho, pho tinh, vietnamese food
We warily look at the little plastic chairs and wonder if our more ample western physiques will fit. The chairs are ubiquitous throughout Hanoi’s numerous street food-stalls. This particular street is covered with hundreds of said chairs which are arranged around equally small plastic tables. There are very few spare ones in sight as twenty-something Hanoians sit and tuck into barbecued chicken. We are in Hanoi’s “Barbecue Chicken Street”, which as the name suggests is the source of delicious barbecued chicken. It’s a regular side-street off a busy road by day, but at night is transformed into a popular barbecue chicken street fair. There are about six different chicken stalls with admittedly very little to differentiate them, but we have been reliably informed that the last stall is the best. We walk past the first lot of spruikers and stop when we reach the end. It is certainly the most popular stall and upon spying us the charismatic woman in charge emphatically dispenses an order and we are promptly ushered to some tiny seats.
There is no menu – it’s just chicken – although you do get to choose between the various body parts of wings, thighs or chicken feet. A combination of basic phrase book Vietnamese and mime ( you can thankfully communicate ‘thigh’ by pointing to your own thigh ) and the order is successfully placed. We sip on draught beer ( bia hoi ) and watch the frantic activity around us. There are two large barbecue apparatus manned by 4 personnel continuously cooking. The young wait staff rush to serve the loud hailing customers – no polite “excuse me” here! The wings are delivered quickly as they are the most popular item and thus always ready, with the relatively more expensive chicken thigh and the more exotic chicken feet barbecued upon order. The chicken is basted in a honey marinade and is deliciously moist – arguably some of the best barbecued chicken we have had and literally finger-licking good as there is no cutlery! We quickly polish off our first serve and with new confidence promptly order more, including the only accompaniments – barbecued sweet potato on skewers and barbecued bread which has also been basted in the special honey marinade. It’s popular as a date venue, university student hang-out and as a treat for young families. Tonight it’s being very much appreciated by two Aussies.
A new day. Another lunchtime. Hanoians take their lunch very seriously. Most workplaces have a 1 – 1 ½ hour break for lunch and the various street stalls and local restaurants are packed from 11.30am to 1pm. None more so than one of the grande dames of the Hanoi lunch scene – Bun Cha Hang Manh. This narrow building in the atmospheric Old Quarter has 3 floors, with the kitchen and a few tables on the ground floor and the main communal tables on levels 2 and 3. If you are spotted hovering out front or curiously peering into the informal kerbside kitchen you are warmly asked if you want to eat. If you answer positively you are steered to a spare seat and the staff scurry off to fetch your meal. There are no menus and no real need to order as there is just one meal on the menu – Bun Cha, a Hanoian lunch-time tradition.
Bun Cha consists of vermicelli rice noodles, grilled pork patties in a “soup” consisting of fish dipping sauce ( nuoc mam ), rice vinegar, sugar and lime juice, with a selection of various greens ( lettuce and herbs ) and sprouts to top it off. These ingredients will be served in separate portions and it’s the lunch-goer’s role to mix and match as they please. The most popular way of approaching bun cha is to start with the bowl of “pork soup”, add some noodles and then top it off with greens and sprouts. Chilli and garlic are added to taste. As you eat away you keep topping up the noodles and greens until gradually you have an empty bowl. Bun cha is served with fried spring rolls ( nem ), which can be eaten on their own or mixed in with the rest of the bun cha ingredients.
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that most streets in Hanoi have a street stall or restaurant that serves bun cha. The choices are endless, but at Bun Cha Hang Manh you will get larger portions than most, especially delicious fried spring rolls and an authentically grungy atmosphere in one of Hanoi’s lunch institutions.
After a traditional Vietnamese lunch a traditional Vietnamese coffee beckons. Vietnam, unlike most Asian countries, has a strong coffee tradition and Hanoi in particular is dotted with charming cafes. There are myriad options to obtain your caffeine-hit, however one worth trying out both for its coffee and view is Cafe Pho Co. Despite being located on one of the Old Quarter’s busiest streets – Pho Hang Gai – it’s not at all obvious as the entrance involves walking through a small art gallery and down a narrow passageway which opens up into the courtyard of a grand old Hanoi home. You place your coffee ( or milk shake or juice ) order at a counter in the courtyard and then proceed up three flights of narrow stairs ( whilst discreetly peering into the old home ) to a small balcony with a modest decor of humble chairs and tables but a spectacular view of Hoan Kiem Lake and its surrounds. While in Vietnam you should try at least one Vietnamese iced coffee with milk ( ca phe sua da ), a strong cold coffee served with a generous portion of condensed milk. A specialty of Cafe Pho Co is ca phe trung, coffee with a whipped egg topping – much like a soft meringue – which is much more delicious than it sounds. You can have it either hot or cold and it makes a perfect dessert substitute as you enjoy a wonderful vista that not too many other establishments in Hanoi enjoy. Cafe Pho Co is busy in the afternoon and especially popular after dinner.
Bun cha – tick. Iced coffee with milk – tick. Meal on street on little plastic chairs – tick. One last obligatory Hanoian gastronomic experience awaits – pho for breakfast. Pho is arguably the most traditional of Vietnamese dishes and consists of a rice noodle soup of either thinly sliced beef or chicken generously garnished with various herbs. Add lime and chilli to taste. Pho is omnipresent, from western style franchises to a little old lady cooking on the sidewalk. One establishment that has been serving Hanoians for decades and sits between these two camps is Pho Tinh.
Your first sight of the venue is of the large stainless steel pots doing their thing in the kitchen, which is right upfront by the entrance enabling a good view upon entry. If you like what you see and decide to partake, you enter, signal your intent to eat to the staff and proceed to the back room. At this point you feel like you are walking into someone’s very crowded living room that is oddly furnished with benches and stools. The floor is littered with napkins but that doesn’t bother any of the patrons – around you dozens of Hanoians of all ages sit, slurp and enjoy their breakfast. To be perfectly frank it’s not the type of venue where you would sit and contemplate at a leisurely pace or gain decorating tips from – you come, eat breakfast and leave. And that is exactly what we are here to do. The pho is promptly delivered, its aroma is inviting and the taste hearty, flavoursome and fresh. Pho Tinh’s well-known “secret” is that they sauté the beef before they add it the broth. Plus they serve their pho with a delicacy that is a cross between a biscuit and a donut which is perfectly designed for dunking.
Ten minutes later you are done and appreciatively full. I might be able to sit, slurp and dunk like a local, but I just can’t bring myself to throw my napkin on the ground. Instead I tuck it into my handbag for later disposal while I am out and about exploring the beguiling city that is Hanoi.
Breakfast: Pho Tinh, 13 Pho Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung district, Hanoi. Breakfast and lunch. One serving of pho costs about $2.00.
Lunch: Bun Cha Hang Manh, 1 Pho Hang Manh, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi. Lunch time and very early dinner ( closes by 7pm ). About $5-$6 per serving. Dependent on size of appetite, one serving can satisfy 2 people.
Afternoon coffee: Cafe Pho Co, 11 Pho Hang Gai ( down the back ), Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi. Average beverage price $1 – $2.
Dinner: “Barbecue Chicken Street”, Pho Ly Van Phuc ( off Pho Nguyen Thai Hoc ), Ba Dinh district, Hanoi. From 6pm to 11pm. Ample chicken, sweet potato, bread and beers for 2 people costs approximately $8.
I am in love. Her name is Luang Prabang. She is a serene yet captivating town in northern Laos, where the mighty Mekong River meets the Nam Khan. She works like a soothing tonic for your soul and possesses a bountiful array of well preserved French colonial architecture, wats ( temples ), monks of all ages in their distinctive saffron robes gliding along the streets and is mercifully free of traffic – a particular blessing when coming from Vietnam!
Miss K ( my latest overseas visitor ) and I boarded the plane for our short 50 minute flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. After an uneventful flight we disembark at Luang Prabang airport which would most definitely qualify for a shortlist of world’s quaintest airports. They only have a handful of counters and use oversized kitchen scales to weigh luggage. It is here however in these unassuming surroundings that we experience our first mishap: Laotian visas are granted on arrival and can only be paid for with United States dollars. For some bizarre reason not even the local currency – the charmingly named Kip – is allowed. I just managed to scrape together the $US 31 dollars required ( an extra $US1 as it was the weekend ) but Miss K could not. Sweet talk was unsuccessful with the immigration man so we – along with several other tourists in the same predicament – pondered our options. At this point the immigration man decided to inform us that those of us with visas would be able to enter the main body of the airport, exchange other currencies into $US and then be allowed back into the immigration area with the requisite dollars. Armed with my mission I joined the currency exchange queue ( the ATM was not working ) and patiently waited. Eventual financial success and after explaining why I needed to go back into the inner sanctum of the airport, I made my way back through allowing Miss K to secure her visa. We quickly left the airport on a tuk-tuk in case they thought of another reason for keeping us.
The air is crisp. It is early morning and Luang Prabang is tucked away in the northern highlands, resulting in cool mornings, hot days and cold nights. We are deposited at our hotel and immediate enchantment occurs. The name of our establishment is ‘Apsara’ which amusingly translates to “heavenly nymphs employed to please the gods”. It’s a stylish chic establishment with a divine restaurant and is well situated and equipped to comfortably accommodate modern day nymphs.
Hotel and room orientation over, we commence our exploration of Luang Prabang. Things move at a slower pace in Luang Prabang. One guide book colourfully informs us that a timetable is a “Laotiian work of fiction”. So it seems is an ATM that works on the weekend. There are only 2 ATMs in old town Luang Prabang and tourist after tourist eventually realises that it is not just a temporary malfunction, they simply will not despatch funds. When this realisation dawns on us, we seek confirmation from one of the ladies that works at “JoMa Bakery Cafe”. “No money on weekend. Must wait until Monday” she explains while serving us a deliciously fresh coconut cake. Hmmm…..we exchange all the cash we have ( which is naively very little ) and make a mental note that no purchases of must-have scarves, traditional quilts, parasols or exquisite wooden hand-crafted bowls can occur until after the ATM opens.
JoMa rapidly becomes one of our favourite places in Luang Prabang and we frequent it daily, enthusiastically sampling its wares in the selfless quest to determine the best cake flavour. ( I think the coconut pipped the coffee chocolate ). Another favourite is the ice fruit stall across the road. Plastic cups are filled with ice and various fruit combinations and once you make your considered selection, the contents are despatched into a blender and the ensuing result served for your consumption. Delicious! As is the south-east Asian way, if an idea is successful it will be replicated and there are many such fruit ice stalls dotting the main street. Some of them have an Oreo cookie ice shake. We never discover the origins of said shake, but it does make me wonder if some tourist somewhere realises what impact they have had on Laotian cuisine! Speaking of tasty temptations, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Indian man with the mobile pancake stand on the main street down the northern end. He cooks up delicious pancakes while you wait. My instincts are confirmed when he confirms that banana and chocolate are his most popular flavour.
I might be giving the impression that all we did during our stay in Luang Prabang was eat. Now although that would be a reasonable assumption if you know both Miss K and I, in this instance that charge would be false. We spent glorious days traversing Luang Prabang’s 3 main streets with their wats, market stalls and rather sophisticated little arts and crafts shops. Saffron robed monks are everywhere and my initial fears that I might not get some “good monk photos” are soon allayed. ( That particular phobia arose after an unfortunate camera battery failing incident in Phnom Penh ). At first you expect the monks to be old and wise and perpetually meditating, reading and pondering, but you soon realise they are of all ages and also indulge in routine tasks such as wat repairs and renovations, laundry and the like. Luang Prabang caters for a more discerning tourist ( and plenty of French and Italians! ) and with its 11pm curfew it’s not ‘party central’, although I must confess that I do discover in a few nights time the local disco and bowling alley where those who are party inclined do go in the wee small hours! There is an abundance of traditional foot massage parlours ( NOT of the seedy variety ) and we partake of their services whilst in Laos. One of things I will most miss when I leave Asia is the readily available and inexpensive foot massage. It’s such a civilised and enjoyable way to end a night out and arguably feels better the morning after than a dodgy midnight pie or kebab.
We dutifully visit the main tourist must-dos of the Royal Palace Museum and several historic wats ( Wat Ho Pha Bung and Wat Xieng Thong ). We completely fall in love with the works of a German photographer Hans George Berger who has a permanent exhibition on at the Royal Palace called ‘The Floating Buddha’. He was allowed to observe up close and personal monks in meditation retreats and the results are breathtaking. During the weekend and while still cash-strapped I attempted to climb Phu Si, a 100m high small hill right in the middle of the old town centre. Clearly however it is viewed as a money-raising opportunity and a fee was asked at ‘base camp’. My limited funds at that particular time meant however that I had to postpone that specific expedition. I fully intended to return later on in the week, but an unexpected yet very pleasant distraction meant that I never got the chance to make another attempt on Phu Si…
The next morning we arise early. Not it’s not the excitement of having fully functioning ATMs, but the fact that we are going to elephant camp! Miss K and I are off to Elephant XL, an elephant project that works at conserving the local Asian elephants, as well as allowing eager tourists such as us the opportunity to interact with these calm yet majestic animals. We arrive at camp via a long tail boat ride along the Nam Khan. When we arrive we have an initial introductory ride on Mae Nam, the matriarch of Elephant XL, at a sprightly 48 years of age. Miss K and I gingerly sit on our “seat” while our mahout ( elephant guide ) guides our grande dame through the beautiful and peaceful surrounds. We gratefully feed her after the ride and she quickly gobbles up the bananas. The best however is yet to come. After lunch we receive mahout training in order to be able to command the elephants. Forwards, backwards, stop, start, right, left. Then before we know it, our elephants kneel down and we are hoisted onto them. No ‘safe’ seat this time, we sit directly on the elephants on the base of their neck. Bare feet brush against the elephant’s bristles and its ears feel soft and supple as they flap against our legs. The angle at which we are seated is initially very disconcerting as you feel as if you are about to slide down the elephant’s trunk at any moment. This sensation is exacerbated when Mae Nam ( I got the grande dame again ) heads down a slope towards the river. I firmly clench my thighs fervently praying that I do not slide off! All memories of the recently learnt commands are forgotten, but thankfully a mahout is sitting further along the elephant high on its back and ensures that it steers the correct course. The relief when we reach flatter terrain is short lived when I suddenly realise that we are actually going to enter the river! And we don’t just tiptoe around the edges, we go all the way in and soon we are up to our hips in water. The mahout gives us a scrubbing brush and we proceed to bathe our elephants. I am not sure how effective we are from a hygiene perspective, but once the initial shock of being immersed has worn off, it transforms into delight and we have tremendous fun. Reluctantly we exit the river and head back up to the main camp. I disembark for the final time off Mae Nam and bid her a very fond farewell with another meal of bananas. Then it’s back to Luang Prabang on a return long tail boat journey, exhilarated by the day’s experience.
Next day another anticipatory start. We arise at dawn to view Luang Prabang’s most famous ritual – the daily giving of alms to the monks known as ‘tak bat’. It is a centuries old Buddhist tradition and faithfully maintained here in Luang Prabang. Every morning on every day at sunrise the monks depart from their wats and walk down the main street. Locals in a kneeling position on mats and with a shawl-like garment draped over their left shoulder are joined by a growing number of tourists to place sticky rice, bananas and the like into the monk’s baskets. You are not allowed to directly look upon the monks or touch them as you present your offering and for those observing, a strict and respectful distance must be maintained. Most tourists respectfully comply but alas not all do. Miss K and I settle back on a bench outside a coffee shop, the proprietor making his first day’s brew, and we quietly observe as the skies brighten. We remain even after most of the tourists have hopped back into their mini-vans and driven off. Just as we think we have seen the last monk, more saffron robes can be spotted in the distance. The procession seems never-ending ( in reality about an hour ) and we are later on informed that nearly a thousand monks partake. I am not sure if all the monks receive alms and whether the order routinely changes to ensure equitable distribution, but obviously it works. This is a way of life in Luang Prabang and for the monks their sustenance for the day.
The motivating energy of tak bat prepares me well for today’s trek, which is through some of the ethnic villages north of Luang Prabang. The hills and villages through which we trek provide a breathtaking panorama. At one point however the trek becomes a little interesting as we reach a bridge that barely deserves that name. Only about a third of the timber railings scarcely cling to the edges and it is admittedly with much hesitation that we gingerly cross. Here I must confess that I waited for one of the well built men to cross first, my logic being that if the “bridge” could carry his weight then I should be fine. If that wasn’t bad enough, the next bridge just around the corner was completely submerged in the river. We wade waist deep into the water holding our shoes and day-packs high above our heads until we reach the other side. From there we are just a few minutes from our final destination, the picturesque Tad Sae falls. We arrive like lost wanderers, shoes and in some instances clothing in hand. Our already wet state is all the excuse we need to strip down to our bathers and now go for a proper swim in the thundering waters of the falls and its surrounding pools. Another blissful day ends.
The next few days pass in a happy blur under Luang Prabang’s spell. Yes, I am in love.
I am a little nervous. Not for myself, but on behalf of some of our Kiva clients. The reason? We are heading out to Bac Ninh ( the small town where Kiva’s Vietnamese micro-finance partner has a regional office ) to film some clients. Kivab2b is making a short film about Kiva and the engaging dynamic duo Rachelle ( Canada ) and James ( US ) are here in Vietnam to interview and film a few Kiva clients. They have already criss-crossed the US filming Kiva lenders and now it’s the turn of the borrowers. We have chosen 10 clients who we think will be comfortable being filmed. I am fervently hoping that the cameras, microphones and not least the legal form giving consent ( of which the English version confuses the hell out of me! ) do not prove to be too intimidating.
We arrive in Bac Ninh in relative luxury in a small mini-van we have hired for the occasion. It makes a very nice change from the local buses and hair-raising motorbike taxis I usually take! The mood is a bit like heading to summer camp, as we have myself, Rachelle and James with associated equipment, a translator and a couple of interested head-office MFI staff all coming along for the ride. It’s early as we depart Hanoi ( 6.30am ) and the street markets are at their busiest as vendors sell all manner of fruits, vegetables, breads and meats for the day’s meals – I am sure you can buy virtually anything you desire from a Hanoi street vendor!
We were given strict instructions by Mrs. Lan – the Bac Ninh branch manager – to be there by 8am sharp. I always tell Mrs. Lan that she is the boss and I will do whatever she tells me to, so the early start is to ensure we uphold our part of the deal. Mrs. Lan is impressed to see us already there enjoying a morning cup of Vietnamese tea when she arrives at 7.45am. Introductions over, we depart for our first client, with SEDA’s neighbours curiously observing this motley crew.
The villages around Bac Ninh have not seen many mini-vans and we gingerly progress down tight alleyways and over mud-tracks, Mrs. Lan navigating for the city-slicker driver. We arrive at the home of our first client. She has been expecting us and warmly invites us into her home. I have met most of these clients before and they greet me like an old friend – it’s very heart-warming. Some of them chastise me for not yet providing them with the photos I took of them during my earlier visit – I try to tell them I am waiting until the very end of my stay – and make me promise that I will bring them with me next time. Some of the clients are exactly as they were the first time I met them and have obviously not allowed the fact that they will be filmed intrude on their daily routine. Others however have clearly made a special effort to look a little special for filming and I detect a bit of make-up, some nicer outfits and hair neatly tucked away in elegant buns.
Another notable observation is the stronger presence of the husbands during these filming sessions. SEDA works with the Vietnam Women’s Union and as such well over 90% of their clients are women – as you would expect! Sometimes a client is taking out a loan on behalf of herself and her husband for their joint business but in most instances the wife and husband have separate jobs so as to maximise the family income. Here I must digress slightly to express my admiration for the strength and resilience of Vietnamese women – they really are the back-bone of this country. I am certain that official statistics would show they are key contributors to the nation’s gross domestic product. They do all manner of jobs – I have seen female construction workers, mechanics, garbage collectors – you name it – while also bearing the greater load of the family and household responsibilities. Getting back on track….The husbands are not usually present at the repayment and loan disbursement meetings at which I have previously met the clients, but now that the cameras have arrived they take a more active and visible role, proudly being the man of the house.
James and Rachelle immediately and easily place the clients at ease and scout for a suitable location. These are not closed, controlled film sets – they are people’s homes and businesses – and we are often disturbed by tractors and harvesters passing by, children and neighbours wandering into the midst of filming, ubiquitous mobile phones ringing ( the Vietnamese love to have cutesy pop songs as their mobile phone ring tones) with the call recipient loudly answering and chatting away. Luckily the clients are wearing microphones, which when first shown to them draws the identical response of “I have never worn a microphone before”. Kudos must be given to Mrs. Lan who quick-smart became an expert at discreetly disguising the lapel microphones in the client’s clothing.
If more cameras were available, it would have been fascinating to film “a making of” as word spread and curious neighbours sit, stand and squat at the edges, fascinated by what is occurring. For some, bravery and curiosity combines and they approach the camera lens and peer through it. A special treat awaits me at one the villages which I have visited many times and has become a bit of a favourite. I always draw a crowd, but it’s the warmth as opposed to the quantity of the people which has left the greater impression. In particular I have been enchanted by these 3 magnificent grandmothers. The first time I saw them there were sitting outside a house that was about 25 metres away and they kept their distance. The next time they were sitting outside the same house but got up and pretended to casually walk by, when in reality they were intently watching what I was doing. This time they had no qualms about coming directly coming over to us and asking what I was doing. “We have seen you here before” they stated and I finally got my longed for interaction. Upon spying my camera one of them asked me to take a photo and I was extremely pleased to oblige.
But back to the interviews… As previously mentioned I was a little apprehensive as to how comfortable the clients would be, but it turned out to be needless anxiety as many of the clients comfortably and confidently answered the questions. Responses were direct, succinct and matter-of-fact but also peppered with laughter. They were often puzzled at the question “what was their happiest memory?” but all of them were easily able to answer the question “how long do you expect to have to work for”? The answer – “forever”. When asked “How does it make you feel to know that strangers thousands of miles away want to help you and your business” they become a little emotional and thanks and gratitude are demonstrated in their individual ways.
Our client’s businesses and their specific skills continue to fascinate me, be it rice noodle production, silk production right at the source from silkworms, breeding said silkworms, making roof tiles or making specialty cakes. Tremendous pride is evident but never explicitly stated when we compliment them on their output.
When we finished filming after 2 very successful days, I returned to Hanoi feeling yet again privileged and humbled to have had this unique glimpse into our client’s homes, businesses and indeed lives. Memories to be cherished for a lifetime.
If you want to make a loan to a SEDA client similar to the ones we filmed, please click here:
And then there were two. To refresh your memory, my darling friends Miss A, Miss D and Miss M came to visit me in my new hometown of Hanoi. Alas Miss A and Miss D could only stay a short while, but Miss M remained to keep me company and wreak havoc in Hanoi.
The alarm goes off earlyish on Monday morning. Today we are heading off to Tam Coc, which a clever local marketing whizz has dubbed “Halong Bay on land”. It’s a few hours south of Hanoi and we board our bus and settle in. First off a stop at Hoa Lu, an old capital which unfortunately has little left that is preserved so not somewhere you really need to visit. Finally Tam Coc looms and it does not disappoint – it is truly stunning. Rugged rock formations jut out of a sea of green rice fields while a small river meanders in and out.
We admire the vista, ducking down as we enter the cool grottoes. A husband and wife team row us on a small dinghy. The husband amuses us by occasionally rowing the dinghy with his feet in a well practiced manoeuvre he has most definitely showed off many times. On our return journey, amongst the beauty and tranquillity the wife reaches out from beneath her seat and pulls out some table-cloths and proceeds to pressure us to buy! I can appreciate that she wants to make a buck, but clearly consumer psychology has not at all been considered – why on earth would we want to buy a table-cloth right now in the middle of the river?! Unfortunately Vietnam is notorious for people trying to sell you stuff at every single tourist stop and moment no matter how ridiculous the context. Miss M and I however were in no mood to have our lovely row disturbed and we politely but very firmly declined. Sensing that no sale would be made, she yelled out to another boat. We rowed close and she hopped on preparing to push her wares on some other unsuspecting tourists. This now meant that only one person was rowing our dinghy. There were however 2 spare oars so Miss M and I grabbed an oar each and proceeded to row which amused our chief rower no end. Both of us have done a bit of dragon boating in the past ( albeit distant past ), so we tried to remember the old strokes and keep in time. If I do say so myself the boat picked up noticeable speed and stayed on course while we were very much enjoying ourselves. As we pass other boats the local rowers call out to our guy, clearly impressed that he managed to get his tourists to row and help him. Rowing and sight-seeing over, we return to Hanoi with that lovely feeling you get after being a bit physical.
Neither Miss M or I are morning people, so I don’t know what possessed us to plan another trip out of Hanoi with an early start for the next day, but we did. This time it’s Perfume Pagoda, the home of Buddhism in Vietnam and an essential ‘must visit’ place for the Vietnamese, especially during the New Year Tet Festival in autumn. We board another bus and travel south for a few hours. It’s hot. I mean real hot. I was stupid enough to arrive in Hanoi right in the middle of summer which is very hot and humid. Many expats leave town for July and August or at the very least get away from Hanoi as much as possible, but that is precisely when I arrived. So I have experienced some hot and steamy weather and know what I am talking about when I say it’s UNBEARABLY HOT! It transpires that there is a tropical cyclone in the South China Sea which is due to imminently hit north-eastern Vietnam and that is the reason for the heat. To get to the Perfume Pagoda you have to row along a river for one hour to reach the mountain and then climb the mountain for another hour to reach the Pagoda itself. Yesterday we enjoyed our row along Tam Coc, but not today. This dinghy is tiny and they expect us to fit 4 people on it. My Mediterranean back-side needs more room that that! To further enhance the ambience we cannot stretch our legs out so we must contort ourselves and remain in an uncomfortable lotus-style position for the duration of the journey. The one thing that makes it enjoyable is that we have met 2 lovely Aussie ladies from Brisbane on the bus with whom we are now sharing our sardine can on water. Much laughter prevails at our predicament and mercifully we reach the mountain.
Perfume Pagoda is a limestone cave up in mountains which a revered Vietnamese king of old admired and subsequently turned into a Pagoda, a place of worship. Mountain is the key word here. You are supposed to climb up the mountain for 1 hour to reach the Pagoda, but in this oppressive heat the only realistic response is NOT BLOODY LIKELY. Thankfully some inspired soul has constructed a cable car and we climb on and enjoy the view as we float up the mountain. In next to no time we are at the Perfume Pagoda. Maybe it’s the heat or the high expectation due to knowing that this is an important place for the Vietnamese, but I have to sacrilegiously state that it’s a bit of a disappointment. “The Jenolan Caves are much more impressive” Miss M mutters to me. I discreetly concur.
After we have sufficiently explored the cave while monks chanted at the shrine, we head back down on the cable car, board the sardine can and twist ourselves into position for the return journey. Then the bus journey back to Hanoi and we bid a fond farewell to our new friends – one of the best things about travelling is the people you meet along the way.
After all this physical activity we decided that a change of pace was in order and spas and massage parlours ( no not that kind! ) were next on our hit list. Next door to my apartment is a beautician who does the works – facials, massages, body scrubs and so forth. Miss M and I decided that a body scrub would be in order. There are two treatment tables together in one room so we are to enjoy this experience together. I knew Miss M very well before, but I now know her even better. There is no change-room so we disrobe in the middle of the room as discreetly as possible. The beauticians provide us with some disposable spa underwear to wear. Upon putting them on we realise they are designed for Asian bodies and are a very tight fit on our generous Mediterranean curves! We just manage to squeeze into them although the gales of laughter nearly caused us to rip them. The treatment itself was lovely and went on for hours. At one point we were covered in a cream and wrapped in plastic and left to marinate while the beauticians left us – we think they went for lunch. More laughter. Finally we are released and our skin is silky smooth. Next on the list was to try a foot massage parlour which was highly recommended by a local. We walk down an unassuming alley, up some rickety stairs and knock on a door. It opens to reveal a room which could be somebody’s lounge-room. There are sofas covered in plastic and on them are sprawled bodies being pulled and pummelled with varying degrees of strength. There is no individual cubicle, it’s all in together and some customers chat on mobile phones mid-treatment. Miss M and I have a 60 minute foot massage which also incorporates the neck, head and shoulders for all of $US6.
The previously mentioned tropical cyclone delayed our trip to Halong Bay a couple of times, but now we get the all-clear and are ready to go. Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most famous and beautiful sights – hundreds of limestone islands and peaks rising from emerald waters. We are on a traditional sailing junk on which we will spend the night. We sun-bathe while we slowly sail along, picture post-card scenery at every turn. The junk stops for a visit to Hang Sung Sot cave which is spectacular and could easily serve as a set for an Indiana Jones or Star Wars movie. Another stop is Titop Island which provides a breathtaking panorama from its peak. Dusk is tranquil and beautiful, although there are a lot of boats on the water. Here’s hoping that Vietnamese authorities don’t let tourism at Halong Bay get too out of hand. After a relaxing night’s sleep, we enjoy an early morning kayak. It’s quiet and very few others are out on the water. We paddle under grottoes, into caves and on the peon sea. It’s an exhilarating way to start the day. Then all too soon our kayak is over and we board the junk to sail back to the mainland and then journey back to Hanoi.
One of the benefits of having friends in town is that you can share with them all the funny little things you have observed and experienced – it somehow makes it a little more real and also helps prolong the memory as you will have somebody to reminisce with afterwards for years to come. A typically Hanoian experience is all the locals who are out and about in the street wearing their pyjamas at all hours of the day. Usually they are modest affairs – a matching patterned pant suit for ladies and grandpa pyjamas for men. One afternoon however while shopping in the local store we spotted a young woman in her 20s who was shopping in her pyjamas but they were not your typical public pyjamas – they were bright, short and a revealing lingerie-style that would not have looked out of place in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. She was incredibly relaxed as she perused the shelves nearly naked – and to think they stare at Miss M and I while we shop!
One of the loveliest things about Hanoi is the many parks which dot the city. At dawn and dusk they are at their busiest with crowds of people practicing tai chi, playing badminton or doing open-air 80’s style Jane Fonda aerobics ( provocative thrusting manoeuvres included ) in the requisite 80’s leotards. It makes for great people watching.
Another typical Hanoian Old Quarter experience is being harassed by taxi, xe om ( motorbike ) and cyclo drivers even when you don’t remotely look like you need transport. Normally a brief “no” and keep walking or just ignoring them ( best for the not so polite ones ) is the best response, but after a few days we decided to have a bit of fun. As the taxi drivers called out “taxi” we would respond with “airplane” or “train”. This elicited laughter or confusion. To the ambitious cyclo drivers ( a cyclo can only really be ridden a short distance ) we would state that we wanted to go to the airport, which is 40km north of Hanoi. “Too far, too far” was the reaction. Everybody responded in the spirit in which it was intended and much laughter was shared. On Miss M’s last night we do squash ourselves into a cyclo and ride around the Old Quarter at night. It’s actually not too bad a way to travel.
The other great thing is sharing favourite eating places of both the fine dining and street experience. One of my favourite places to take visitors is what I affectionately call “chicken street”. It’s a small street which at night is taken over by hundreds of little plastic chairs and tables at which to consume delicious chicken which is barbecued on the spot. The chicken is accompanied with grilled sweet bread and barbecued sweet potatoes and is washed down with Hanoi beer. There are no menus, no English and chicken bones are cast onto the road – it’s great fun and hugely popular with young locals. I have never seen any other foreigners there so I am particularly pleased with this little local discovery. Other delicious meals were enjoyed at “Wild Rice” ( divine eggplant and pork dish ), “Highway 4” ( very easy to drink passionfruit rice wine ) and “Quan An Ngon” which is a French villa converted into a large street restaurant. Chairs and tables are set up both inside and out while on the edge of the grounds are a number of street stalls which cook up delicious and inexpensive Vietnamese cuisine.
Three wonderful weeks have passed and a lot of laughs, sights and good eating have been enjoyed and memories created, but alas Miss M must leave. I am very sad to see her go and make a quick good-bye in order not to cry. And then there was one.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: kiva, microfinance, vietnam, xanthi kouvatas
I am not a morning person. I know this about myself, but am starkly reminded of this fact when my alarm goes off at 6am. In a zombie trance I get out of bed, put the kettle on and have a shower. I put on the clothes I chose the night before, as I know that at 6am in the morning my brain does not work at its best and there is a high risk I may choose clothes and footwear completely impractical for riding on the back of motorbikes and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Today I head out to Bac Ninh, where SEDA has one of their regional offices and where the actual work of meeting clients, disbursing loans and collecting repayments occurs. All of the Kiva clients are serviced out of Bac Ninh and I travel there twice a week, travelling 2 ½ hours each way on 3 local buses to get there.
Back to my cup of tea. I gulp it down and head to the bus stop down the road to catch my first bus of the day. It’s 6.40am and the routine is to meet Huyen – my university student translator – at Long Bien bus depot at 7am. From there we catch the next bus to Bac Ninh. Long Bien is the largest bus depot in Hanoi and a nightmare to navigate. There is no order to the buses, no signage or timetable to indicate where you can find your particular bus. You basically wait and pray. The one positive is that it’s still early and there are less hawkers about to bother us. The Bac Ninh bus arrives and we get on quickly to ensure we get a seat. Getting a seat on a Vietnamese bus resembles a competitive contact sport and women get no special treatment. I try and avoid any diplomatic incidents despite what I observe. One thing I do admire however is the fact that older people are treated very respectfully and as soon as they board a bus, somebody will instantly get up and guide them to a seat.
It’s a 1 hour journey to Bac Ninh. Huyen and I usually chat away for the first half an hour, but then after a while we put on our respective MP3 players and listen to music to pass the time. The journey is primarily highway and the scenery would not make it onto a postcard. An hour later we reach Bac Ninh town. We disembark and walk to the bus depot to catch our next bus to Yen Phong, a small town in Bac Ninh province where the SEDA office is based. The Bac Ninh bus depot is one of the few places I get approached by beggars. There is one particular young man – I’d guess early 20s – with a severe limp and facial disfigurement who is there every week. The first time we saw him Huyen told me not to give him money as he would most certainly be hired by somebody to beg and would have to pay his ‘pimp’ the bulk of his takings. This knowledge coupled with telling myself that I am already doing some good by volunteering in Vietnam for 4 months makes me feel more comfortable about ignoring the beggars.
Our last bus arrives and we board for the final 45 minutes journey to Yeh Phong. In contrast this is a stunning journey and I still enjoy looking out over the rice fields and slices of life in the small villages we pass. Then we arrive at Yen Phong. It’s 9.30am and it feels like we have done a full day’s work already, but we have just begun.
We are warmly welcomed by the SEDA credit officers. Then onto the back of a motorbike and off we go to visit clients. The credit officers have 3 days of client interaction – Tuesday through to Thursday. In the morning they have their weekly repayment collection meetings and in the afternoon they disburse new loans. On Monday and Friday they are in the office catching up on paperwork. I enjoy the motorbike rides out to visit clients. The preparation beforehand is hilarious. I basically lather my face, arms and neck in sun-cream, put on sunglasses and sometimes a hat. And that’s it. The locals however have a much more fastidious routine. They wear long shirts, gloves, hats and face masks to ensure that no skin whatsoever is exposed to the sun and that they stay white. It makes me laughingly think of the women back home who pay a lot of money for regular fake sun-tans.
We drive through all manner of surrounds – narrow village laneways, along canals, pass cemeteries, through rice fields- arriving at the location for our first collection meeting. The meetings are usually held in a central location such as a school, pagoda or a home and we will meet with 4-5 groups at once. I always get a little nervous at schools as invariably one of the students sees me and then bedlam ensues. They leave their classrooms and jump and dance around singing “hello, hello, hello”. After a few minutes a teacher will appear and yell or dramatically bang a drum and they scurry back to class. Occasionally some persistent little rascals will remain throughout the meetings, intriguingly observing us.
The credit officer meets with each group leader one by one and collects the weekly repayments. I then enquire if I can ask them a few questions. It never ceases to amaze me how open the clients are with a complete stranger and they patiently answer my questions about their family finances, families and hopes for the future. Interview over, I ask if I may take a photo. This usually draws a response of nervous laughter and protestations that they are not suitably dressed for a photo. The credit officers interject telling them that’s nonsense and that they look fine, so they acquiesce whilst patting down their hair or straightening a shirt – the response to having a photo taken really is universal! One time while I was taking photos of clients, one of them was taking a photo of me with their phone – the shoe very firmly on the other foot!
The meeting is repeated 3 times at separate locations and we usually meet with 10 -15 groups per session. Lunchtime. The Vietnamese take their lunchbreaks very seriously. Usually we drive back to the office and will have lunch at one of the food stalls in Yen Phu. Occasionally we are too far from the office and may have lunch at a client’s home. I am always humbled by our client’s hospitality when we visit their homes. They are always delighted to see me and dust off their best chair for me to sit down on. Cups of tea will be thrust into my hand and instantly refilled the moment they are empty. It’s an honour when we eat with them but I also feel a little guilty that we are taking food from their families’ mouths. I quash the strong desire to ask the credit officers to give them some money for the meal as I know that would be incredibly insulting. Thankfully for my western conscience we don’t have meals with clients very often.
After lunch we have disbursement meetings where new loans are distributed. These are large meetings as every member of the group must attend, so 20 – 30 women may be in attendance. These meetings are held in a public area as a home could not comfortably contain this many people. The credit officers commence by talking about loan discipline, the importance of meeting their repayment obligations and also of making savings. Typically a SEDA client will also have a savings account where they will contribute 5,000 Vietnamese Dong ( $US 0.30 ) a week in savings. That does not seem like a lot – and it isn’t – but instilling a behaviour of savings is important and even a small amount will ultimately pay dividends. Once the ‘pep talk’ is over, the groups approach one by one and each member of the group needs to sign a basic contract acknowledging that they have received the funds and will repay accordingly. It’s very businesslike and the women usually count their loans to ensure they have received all their funds. One woman once made me laugh as she did not like the fact that some of her notes were old, so she emphatically asked the credit officer for newer notes!
About 2 – 3 disbursement meetings are held in an afternoon and then it’s back to the office. It’s typically 4 – 4.30pm and Huyen and I bid the Yen Phong team good-bye. We trudge back to the bus stop, fervently praying that we don’t have to wait too long for the bus. The longest we have had to wait is an hour! There is absolutely nothing at the Yen Phong bus station so that was 60 of the longest minutes of my life. Eventually the bus arrives and we make our 3 bus journeys. The music I choose on the way back to Hanoi tends to be mellow, as I am often reflecting on the clients I have met and the sneak peek I have had into their lives. I am always in admiration of the resilience, hospitality and sheer hard work demonstrated by the Kiva clients – there is no ‘woe is me’ self pitying attitude.
Eventually, mercifully, I turn the key and enter my apartment. In reality it’s modest but in contrast to where I have been today it’s palatial. It’s already dark and usually between 7 and 7.30pm. I immediately head to my shower as I am always sweaty and grimy. On these days it’s usually early to bed, exhausted but satisfied that in a small way I am doing my bit to help.
This is what I do two days a week. They are long, hot, tiring and decidedly unglamorous days, but they are also my favourite days of the week.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: kiva, microfinance, sapa, vietnam, xanthi kouvatas
The alarm goes off this bright Sunday morning and instead of my usual automatic ‘hit snooze button and put on black velvet eye-mask to block out the light’ response, I enthusiastically jump out of bed, put the kettle on and with my dulcet tones at their best, hit the shower. Today three of my best friends ( Miss D, Miss M and Miss A ) fly into Hanoi to come visit me. Their flight arrives at 10.30am and I want to surprise them by meeting them at the airport. ( I was very crafty and gave them detailed instructions as to how to get to my apartment in order to throw them off the scent of my surprise ). I catch the local bus to the airport, which is a very scenic 70 minute bus ride from downtown Hanoi and costs all of 5,000 Vietnamese Dong ( approximately 30 cents ).
I arrive at the airport and excitedly head to the arrivals hall. My good intentions however were foiled by the Hanoi airport signage incorrectly stating that my friends would come through Gate B when really they came through Gate A. Luckily one of my friends sent a text message informing me of their arrival and imminent embarkation into a taxi. I broke into a run to the taxi stand whilst simultaneously texting furiously to halt their departure. A little while later we are excitedly hugging, greeting each other and chatting away, safely together in a cab back to my place. The first few hours are spent catching up and sharing their gifts – chai tea, various wines ( including a sticky for which I am notoriously partial ), Lindt chocolate and some of my mum’s homemade spanakopita. I truly have the best mother and friends in the world! The next day and a half I joyfully spend as tour guide showing off my new hometown – my favourite streets, shops, cafes, restaurants. My friends are avid shoppers and provide wonderful assistance to the Vietnamese economy – and I don’t do too badly either!
Tuesday night we are off to Sapa, a stunning mountain region in northern Vietnam full of picturesque rice paddies and ethnic minorities that still wear traditional dress and speak in dialects. The only way to get to Sapa is via train and we depart Hanoi on the 8 hour overnight train journey. We had booked a first class sleeper carriage with 4 bunk beds. Initially I was dazzled by images of the Orient Express and romantic train journeys. Alas the reality was starkly different! The carriage was tiny, the bathroom of the type that makes you cross your legs and will your bladder to stay closed and the pillows….We all got out wraps, t-shirts and the like to cover the pillows as none of us were brave enough to place our heads on them in their faded yellowish condition. After a few hours of playing “Favourites’ and ‘Deserted Island’ ( What’s your favourite concert/ holiday moment/sound etc. and What 5 CDs/movies/books etc would you take to a deserted island ) we sort of fall asleep. Have I mentioned the air-conditioning? It’s near arctic in the carriage and those of us in the top bunks add more layers as the thought of getting under the covers does not appeal! Finally we arrive in Lao Cai ( the train station near Sapa ) and board the bus for the 1 hour trip to Sapa itself. It is 7am and we all sit in the bus in a zombie trance. Mercifully the bus finally arrives at our final destination and it’s like we have entered paradise. A smiling man awaits us outside our gorgeous stone – Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel. An Aussie accent belonging to Pete Wilkes – owner of Sapa Rooms and the perfect host – welcomes us. Pete ushers us in with words which resemble manna from heaven ( “Let’s get you fed and then you can shower and sleep for a few hours as your rooms are ready” ). After a delicious breakfast of fresh local produce we do indeed sleep and after a few hours a new zeal returns. Life is wonderful again. In the afternoon we trek to a village called Cat Cat, only 3 kms from Sapa, but it’s pretty much straight up and down so it’s a good test of the butt and calves. We have wonderful local guide – May – who speaks fantastic English which she taught herself. She tells us about typical village life as well as her own life as we walk past stunning rice paddies, water buffaloes and the like. We reach a waterfall which is obviously a popular location and at this time is being frequented by some local students. May wistfully looks at them and says “I wish I could go to university” and at that moment my heart breaks for her. She obviously has initiative and curiosity and wants to learn and experience more of the world, but does not have the financial ability to be able to do so. Struggling to say the appropriate thing, we comment that maybe her future children will be able to go to university. She perks up at that idea and we continue our trek. We reluctantly bid May farewell at the end of the day – it feels like we have made a friend.
Back at Sapa Rooms we feel like we are at home. We enjoy cocktails and another delicious meal – it’s going to be hard finding better food than this in Sapa. Have I mentioned how funky the decor of Sapa Rooms is? Pete has eclectic taste and interesting sculpture and local textiles abound throughout the hotel. With the lack of sleep from the previous night, the shock of the day’s exercise and the anticipation of tomorrow’s 17km trek on our minds, we have an early first night in Sapa.
Morning. The local market situated next to the hotel ensures no-one sleeps in. It’s another picture postcard day. As we eat breakfast, we notice a crowd of local Red Dzai women in their intricate costumes outside the hotel peering at us through the window. In transpires that it is their village that we are trekking to today and as we are eventually to learn, each of them adopts one of us for the day and walks with us to Lao Chai, 11kms from Sapa. But more about that in a few sentences. The trek to Lao Chai is truly breathtaking and our digital cameras fill with photos of mountains, rice fields, creeks, locals in intricate costumes. It is just before the beginning of rice harvest season so we are fortunate to enjoy fields of gold and lime green – in a few weeks time they will be gone and stalks will remain in their place. Some villages have already started to harvest and we watch as they toil in their fields, manually harvesting. It certainly looks like hard work. And it’s equal opportunity work as both men and women work the fields. Although the women all wear their full and heavy costumes while working, whereas the men wear modern t-shirts and lightweight pants. Why don’t the men wear traditional costumes we ask? They find it too hot is the response. The poor dears! Through all of this our women remain by our sides, pointing out things in their limited English and holding our hands as we gingerly cross creeks via slippery rocks. They make hearts out of grass and flowers for us to wear in our hair and they compete with each other to make the biggest heart. It makes the day more delightful but we just know that somewhere along the way the hard sell will commence. And it does after lunch. “You buy from me. You buy from me” rings out as we finish our meal. It’s obviously a set routine and they only try to sell to their adopted tourist – no-one cuts in to take another person’s tourist. Although the handiwork is of a high quality, it’s just not to my taste so I politely decline. I do however discreetly press 50,000 Dong ( about $US3 ) into my woman’s hand and she is quite delighted. I know it doesn’t seem a lot, but the average rural Vietnamese family makes about 150,000 Dong a week ( just under $US10 ) so she has just earned nearly a third of her family’s weekly income. She hugs me numerous times and as we leave she rushes after me with a small gift – a small embroidered string which she proudly ties around my wrist.
Trekking over, we get motorbikes back to Sapa. The ride is a little hairy, especially the bit when we ride through a small waterfall while only half a metre away is a sharp drop! Nonetheless we all arrive safely back to our hotel, happy and glowing from the day’s adventure. Before dinner we treat ourselves to a divine foot reflexology massage. Sheer bliss! Then dinner accompanied by a few bottles of wine. At this point we feel very merry and comfortable and raid Pete’s music collection looking for music to dance to – I told you we felt like we were at home! After causing enough chaos we eventually head to bed. Sleep comes quickly until I awake to a sound I have never heard in my life! It sounds like somebody is being murdered in our room! What the hell is that I ask my room-mate Miss D?! Better not to think, she sagely responds. But now my brain is awake and I have worked it out – it’s a pig being slaughtered in some market in our periphery. I mentally note not to order bacon for breakfast. Then back to bed.
The next morning I was the only one keen to head out on a trek – the rest of the ladies decided to have massages and wander around. So I headed out on my personal trek with Su May – another fabulous local guide with a worldliness that belies her roots. She is 25 years old and tells me she is the black sheep of the family as she left the family home to live in Sapa and works as a guide. Her mother initially though her lazy, but now after 7 years they have accepted her less than traditional work. Su May is married with a gorgeous 2 year old daughter and I am quite impressed when she tells me that her husband is 5 years younger than her – you go girl! The village we are visiting ( Tapin ) is actually her village and I get to meet her 3 sisters – 2 older and 1 younger, her brother-in-law and her younger brother – she is 1 of 8 children. Today’s trek is the perfect complement to yesterday as instead of scenery we are deep in the village, visiting people’s homes and having cups of tea. At the end of my village visit I enjoy a hot bath of traditional local herbs whilst sitting in a large wine barrel. It is amazingly therapeutic and I stay in for quite a while. Su May starts to get worried but I assure her that all is okay. She tells me that the local women take these same herbs in baths and teas for 10 days after childbirth and then they are fine to go back to the fields to work.
Back to Sapa Rooms where it’s time to bid Pete a fond farewell and head back to Hanoi via the dreaded train. It feels so sad to leave Sapa Rooms – I have done a lot of travel and I can honestly rate it as one of my top 5 places I have ever stayed at. If you ever go to Sapa you MUST stay there. And no I am not getting a commission! Now I am not sure whether it was the herb bath, but the train ride back home is nowhere near as hideous and this time I sleep. Before you know it we are back in Hanoi. Although I need to add that before sleeping we played charades. Now the problem with playing charades with close friends is that you know each other too well and we were guessing everything after just one word or even no words. My favourite moment is when I chose book and after telling them that it had a 6 word title, Miss M immediately correctly guessed ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a book I absolutely adore but which she hates!
Saturday night. It’s only a few hours until my birthday, which is the main reason my gorgeous friends are here – to help me celebrate in style. Didn’t I say I had the best friends in the world? Tonight we are off to ‘Restaurant Bobby Chin’, which is one of the THE fine dining establishments and cocktail bars in Hanoi. There is also another reason for choosing this restaurant – it is actually the place where I celebrated my 30th birthday at what seems like yesterday, but was in fact a while ago now! The decor these days is opulent red drapes and mood lighting, with a witty menu and attentive service. Good food, champagne and wine follow and we eventually move to the backstairs cocktail/shisha bar. Shishas surprisingly are quite big in Hanoi! For the uninitiated, they are Middle Eastern water pipes used for smoking. In our case we chose various herbal fruit concoctions – not tobacco. Many more cocktails later ( including one interestingly called ‘Sandra’s G-String’ ) and it is now officially my birthday. Much more merriment ensues and eventually a taxi home.
The next day is sad as both Miss D and Miss A must leave due to work commitments. And then there were 2. Miss M remains for another 2 weeks. Initially we were a bit down but then started to perk up as we thought about the adventures that still lay ahead.
Look out for the next instalment – Girls on Tour Part 2.