Thursday, 5 May 2011

Back in Sapa 2

Sapa is an interesting mountain town.  Here are a few interesting pictures and a video of the place.

This is the church on the square.  It was built by the French and now I'm not sure who takes care of it since there don't seem to be very many Catholics here any more.

The stairs down to the market at night.  In the day time this tightly packed thoroughfare is filled with all sorts of food:  veggies, blood sausage, fried tofu, dog, sugar cane, etc etc.

A house that's fairly typical outside of Sapa.  In town you won't find any of these.

This is the lake up the hill.  Despite the water being relatively clean for Viet Nam, the girls from Sapa O'chau told me that no one swims here.  Apparently the reason is that a long time ago, there was a massacre and the bodies were dumped in the lake.  No one could elaborate on who was involved on either end.

The clouds roll up the valley and through Sapa town.  Sometimes this can make the weather change dramatically.  Watch as a sunny day on the square gets covered in fog in less than a minute.

Back to Sapa

The first time I went to Sapa, our tour guide told us that the H'mong people were always looking for volunteer English teachers.  Considering I didn't have any gainful employment in Hanoi at the time, I took the bait and planned a return trip.

Within an hour of my second arrival I was an English teacher at Sapa O'Chau.  I just asked a few local H'mong girls and they put me in touch with Shu, the director of the school.  The next day I joined the two other westerners who teach English there and took over the beginner class.

It was an interesting experience.  Below are some pictures of my time there with a touch of commentary.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

This is the Sapa O'Chau school house.  There's only one classroom where 1 - 3 teachers, depending on availability of volunteers, teach some 40 students.  The lower levels of the school are a dormitory for the students.  For most of the students, this is the only way they can go to school because their families live in villages that are several hours' walk from Sapa.

This is the portrait of Ho Chi Minh that is mandatory in every classroom in Viet Nam.  There's also a mandatory Viet Nam flag in the entryway.  I'm not really sure what either has done for the H'mong.

The students' lunch.  Boiled greens, squash, tofu and tomato, and fatty pork with bean sprouts.  Oh, and rice.  In H'mong, you say what sounds like 'no more' before and after you start eating.  It literally means 'eat rice'.

Some of the students from Sapa O'Chau.  From left to right: La, Chi, Sai, (I'm not sure who's on the farthest stool on the left, or who's crouched down), Zuh, Sho, (I'm not sure who has their backs turned to the camera), Thanh in blue in the back, Vang, Thi, Shinh, Sui, Sam and Lam.

Having a little lunch.

Sunday, 27 March 2011


Last week, I hopped a train to the mountainous villages where the H'mong and other minority groups of Vietnam reside.  Here are some pictures of the excursion.

Terraced rice paddies near Cat Cat.  The school is in the background.

Our tour guide, the fashionista.

The waterfall at Cat Cat, a H'mong village.

The hotel I stayed in.

The lot of us, westerners and H'mong ladies vying for a captive audience for their wares.

Lao Chai, a H'mong village.

The rice paddies, waiting to be planted 'once it gets wet enough'.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Happy Lunar New Year!

So, it's the biggest holiday in Asia going on in Hanoi right now and I am... listening to the sound of silence.  Quiet.  It's strange, but kinda nice.  All the pushy street vendors and moto-taxi drivers are gone.  Gone home to their families for the holidays.  Gone for days.  I feel like I'm missing out on some of the cultural experiences I was expecting, but it hasn't been totally uneventful.
Tet gift packs that include dried, sugar-coated fruit and special paper shrines.
The first night of TĂȘt (the Vietnamese word for the Lunar New Year) was a blast!  Literally.  There were fireworks displays all over the city.  Though I only saw one, I was totally blown away.  Puns aside, the display was the most artfully produced fireworks events I've ever seen.  When I was in South Korea I saw a fireworks festival display over the Han River which was put on by three internationally renowned teams from Canada, China and Korea.  That didn't hold a candle to this.

There were three separate launch points set up around Hoan Kiem Lake that all put on a synchronized show.  I didn't get the best spot to watch the fireworks from because it was simply impossible to move through the mass of bodies squeezed together by the lakeside.  It didn't matter much, though.  Even with the trees covering some of the show it was wildly impressive.  It might have helped that the fireworks were fired and detonated so close to where I viewed the show from.  My little spot was right next to one of the launch points and I don't think the fireworks were going any higher than maybe 200 feet in the air.  Reverberations from both the launch and the detonation shook my whole body over and over again.

At the end of the show, the crowd cheered before trying to dissipate.  I'm not sure how many thousand people were there, but the flow of people down the street to my house blocked traffic for at least ten minutes.

On the way I saw people burning the little shrines they had erected that morning.  Burnt offerings for their ancestors were followed by offerings of rice scattered about the pavement.  One cute little child was so caught up in the rice-throwing that she tossed some all over me.

The excitement is over and I'm not entirely disappointed.  The daily hustle and bustle of Hanoi can be pretty nerve-wracking.  It's nice to be able to walk down the sidewalk which is normally impassable due to the plethora of stalls and parked moto-bikes.
The Turtle Tower with the Communist Party building in the background.

Happy Lunar New Year to all y'all!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Temple of Literature

Ha Noi is intensely urban. Even with a relative lack of skyscrapers, the skyline seems choked with buildings. Motorbikes clog the streets and foul the air. The only reprieve from the tile and pavement boulevards is the parks and monuments scattered about the city. It was the search for such a sanctuary that led me to the Temple of Literature.

Ahh, fresh air.

The Temple of Literature (or Van Mieu in Vietnamese) is an important historical site in Vietnam. It was built almost 1000 years ago as a shrine to Confucius and soon became Vietnam's first university. Nobles and other big cheeses were groomed here with the Confucian classics and poetry writing. Aside from some damage caused by the French, Van Mieu has remained mostly intact. No wonder its one of the most-visited sites in Ha Noi. I would definitely suggest it to anyone who visits this city.

The roof of the main hall is littered with
money, much like a wishing well.

Entering the temple is affordable. The communist government seems keen on making national treasures accessible to everyone. It only cost me 5000VND (about 25 cents US) and an unforgettable walk from my apartment. I'll go into that walk at a later date.

Sporting an image of the Temple of Literature, this
100,000VND bill is a bit misleading. You'll
never have to drop this much cash to see Van Mieu.

There are a few things that set the Temple of Literature apart from other Asian shrines that I have seen. First is the triple path that runs through the complex. It supposedly represents Confucius' 'middle path' and was originally intended to be walked only by the King. Secondly, the main building at the very back is made of fine, dark wood and has a close, cozy layout. The hall feels almost like a Swiss lodge-- just with a few extra golden statues. Last, there are the turtles.

These happy turtles are retired from lurking Hoan Kiem.

The turtle stelae are the most famous relics present in Van Mieu. There are nearly a hundred of the roughly hewn creatures arranged into rows facing one of the courtyards. Each one has a giant stone slab inserted into its back. They were erected to honor the select scholarly few who managed to earn the title of doctor laureat. Only about 10% of students who studied here were up to the task. Throughout its history, maybe 2500 doctors laureat were ever named on the stones. Not all of them remain to be honored-- some of the turtles have disappeared as the years have passed.

The turtle imagery is everywhere.

To soak in a little culture and history or just to escape from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam's busy capital, the Temple of Literature is a place I highly recommend.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Turtle of Hoan Kiem

The Hoan Kiem Lake turtle is a massive creature that weighs nearly 500 pounds. Its head is usually all that can be seen above the murky, green water of the lake. Its body is only identifiable as the impressive five-foot-long shadow trailing behind.

Hoan Kiem Turtle3

Such a large creature seems like it would have a hard time hiding in a small lake that's only 2 meters deep. That makes it all the more interesting that the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle only makes about a half-dozen appearances each year. When someone does spot the turtle, it's a special occasion.

Passing locals will drop whatever they are doing and gather by the lakeside to watch the magnificent beast. Motor-bikers pull over, mothers brave the busy street crossings with their children, and tourists whip out their expensive cameras.

The legend of the turtle says that he was a messenger from the Golden Turtle--a local god who gifted a magical sword to the Vietnamese hero, King Le Loi. The turtle is said to have sprung from the lake and snatched the sword from the king to return it to the Golden Turtle. Many Vietnamese people believe it is this same turtle that still inhabits the lake 600 years later.

Now, there are new legends associated with the turtle. One of these is that the turtle supposedly appears only on days that are important for Le Loi or Vietnam. Another is that it is good luck to see the turtle. I certainly hope this is true--Naomi and I have seen it twice!