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A Hmong New Year.

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

After Sapa I made my way towards the newly opened (2007?) Laos-Vietnam border at Tay Trang. It took a few days as I stopped in New Lai Chau, Muong Lay (the old Lai Chau), and Dien Bien Phu. Once past Sapa the mountains turn to more rolling hills as the road follows a river valley.

About the only thing I new about the northern part of SE Asia was that it was home to Hmongs. Hmongs make up a large portion of the EM’s in the areas around northern Vietnam and Laos. I was actually familiar with them as I actually grew up with them in Fresno, California. I don’t know about the specifics, but in the late 70’s a large population was brought in and one of the largest settlements was in my hometown of Fresno. I am guessing as Fresno is mainly an agricultural center right in the central valley of California, the farmlands would be close to what the people would know. Since I grew up with many of them, I found that it would be interesting to see where they had come from. It also won’t hurt when I go back and tell the younger generations that I am more Hmong than them since I have been to the homelands and they have not, just like when I go back and start telling people I am African (year and a half baby.)

While driving along the windy mountain roads, at the highest points there would be villages and it was most of the time the colorful hmongs (EM’s). Being Tet holiday season, there were lots of festivities going on and primarily the women and girls were all dressed to the hilt. I was kicking myself because there would be groups of beautifully dressed girls walking along the road but I was too focused on going to stop and ask for some photos. I thought I had blown it when I pulled up to one village and they were having one of the ball tossing ceremonies. I remember these from school when they talked about the ritual of marriage aged teens getting all dressed up and the initial meeting between candidates would be to stand in lines of males and females and play catch with a potential suitor. Coming over a hill I drove right into one. I stopped and took a bunch of photos as there was a local guy with a nice SLR taking photos and he asked me if I wanted to join him as he took photos. It worked out great as I was able to wander around without feeling like a total outsider. I was even offered a bride of my own but I had to bow out as Sasha couldn’t handle another passenger.

A perfect over view.

My potential wife.

This was the info if you can read the language.

Like most dances, girls hang with the girls and guys hang with the guys.

They guys played this violent game of tops.

From floor level.

Playing catch for love.

Younger girls practicing so they are ready when their big day comes.

That’s right, forever. No more carousing around with the boys, no more late night partying, no more girlfriends, no more, no more, no more. Little guy is just not feeling the love.

A family affair.

A couple of generations.

More playing ball.

Break time.

Girls checking out the action.

Journey to the pinnacle- Sapa

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

After Halong Bay I decided to take an alternative route north bypassing Hanoi and heading in the less popular counter-clockwise route to Sapa. Most motorcyclists go clockwise starting in the central highlands and gradually hitting more rural mountain villages as you go north. My route was more direct but still hit some pretty nice places along the way. My only issue was that I caught a cold and that made things a bit less comfortable as every day it seemed to get colder and wetter.

For those who might want to be doing this route it basically went Halong Bay-Vinh Yen-Yen Binh (Highway 70)- and then I detoured to Bac Ha followed by the farthest north I would be traveling Lao Cai (border town with China)- Sapa.

What made things much more manageable was spending some non-tv time reading my guidebook and learning that there are alternative names for Hotel and Guesthouse that are used especially in non-tourist towns. Ngha Nghi or Khach San were all over the place during my lost times in the central highlands along the Ho Chi Minh trail, but not figuring that out it caused quite a bit of unnecessary hassle.

With my new camera in hand, I took a few more photos so have a look.

The biggest draw to the north is the Ethnic Minorities who live old school. Basically they are farmers but Ethnic Minorities sounds more touristic so EM we shall call them. It seems the higher you go the more rural the look. In Bac Ha their were a dozen or so different EM with the Flower Hmong being the most colorful.

I missed the market day but their is a daily market that still draws them in (tourists and EMs).

Local moonshine mama’s. Bac Ha is known for it’s corn distilled fire water.

People everywhere were getting ready for Tet which is Vietnams New Year, Christmas, and Fourth of July (America), and everyones birthday. Shiny.

Flowery by flowers.

More shopping.

Doing some Vietnamese style coffee. Half sweetened condensed milk and raw filtered coffee. Sweet and bitter. Gets your ass buzzing.

They even have drive up moonshine service. The coffee shop owner yelled down a passing moonshiner and had him fill up his bottle. He ended up pouring it back when the clarity wasn’t good.

Moonshine off the rack.

Young girl in traditional wear.

The end. At least the farthest north that I could go with Sasha. This is Lao Cai the border town with China. That is China in the background. There is a big bridge you have to cross so no possibility of sneaking across there.

Sapa. My ultimate destination. Turned out to be a major letdown as it was semi-clear the afternoon I got there and then was packed in with a really wet fog the rest of the time. Freezing on top of that. It wasn’t possible to walk around for more than an hour and not be drenched from the mist.

It is actually a very pretty town but built in a very precarious spot. It is right on the wrong side of the mountains where the weather is the worst in South East Asia. Just on the other side of the hill it turns almost tropical. This side of the lake was sunny while on the other side where the hotels are because of the view of the mountains it was shrouded in clouds.

Food was rather shit as the town was one big tourist trap. The closest thing I could find that was reasonable was a row of bbq stalls which even then were geared towards tourists (local mainly). The only new thing were the tubes of sticky rice. They billed a bamboo section with sticky rice and then bbq it. Not bad but I prefer regular rice.

Here’s the view.

A different EM which I am not sure of. Possibly white or black Hmong.

Instead of Christmas trees we use, the locals would go out and cut down other varieties of trees and then decorate them with balloons and shiny stuff. They didn’t have to be blooming like this one as many were buying just plain tree branches.

More EM’s to be named later.

Tangerines were my staple fruit for a while. These were unique in that the fruit was almost loose inside the skin.

The day I left was horrible. They woke me up by ringing my room and dropping rug mats right outside my room. Who the hell has 9am check out with no tourists in town. It is pissing down cold rain. I get lost trying to find a gas station because you can’t see more than three meters in the fog. When I get there I don’t have any money so I have to try and find a atm. The first atm I go is on a side of a hill and I park at an awkward angle which causes me to fall. While picking up the bike I break off the mirror. That atm wasn’t working. After finding another atm I go back to the gas station and the coke bottle which I store my oil, the lid is now stuck and I can’t get it off. I finally ended up using a big rock to crush the cap. There is a huge line as everybody is stocking up as the next day is Tet. Since someone has stolen my 1.5L bottle that I use to pre-mix my oil and some petrol, I have to just dump the oil directly into the tank which causes the spark plug to foul out. Since my tool kit is under the seat and my bags are strapped down, I just say screw it and keep going even though the motor is fouling out and I have about half power. It is a grueling climb up over the 1900M pass (highest in SE Asia) as with the motor missing and now my clutch seems to be slipping, one of the last steep hills I have to actually push along with my feet to make it over the top. The whole time it is ripping windy and raining. This was worse than climbing over the passes in N. India. Finally I make it over to the other side where the road returns to being tarred and the wind subsides even though it is still foggy. I cruise down the mountains just rejoicing at how shitty of a day it had been and how fewer things could have gotten wrong. Then I start thinking about those things that could have made it worse, then I remember. They didn’t give me my passport when I checked out of the hotel. I feel the paunch of my money belt and am horrified at the lack of bulk. I had to go back.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Friday, January 23rd, 2009
copy-of-dscn0065-1.jpg I was under a bit of a timeline as I needed to be out of Vietnam by the 30th. I had already gotten a visa extension so I really had to get ... [Continue reading this entry]

Shopping in Hanoi: Merry Christmas to me.

Friday, January 23rd, 2009
Capital cities are not necessarily my favorite places, but when it comes to shopping, often times the capital is the only place to either find items or to get the best deal. Making my way north, the climate definitely ... [Continue reading this entry]

Photos: On the road, Vietnam

Friday, January 16th, 2009
100_7012.JPG 100_7017.JPG 100_7020.JPG Limestone rock formations. If you can picture these around Nimh Binh the place where the camera finally died ... [Continue reading this entry]

Dong Hoi to Hanoi: Lost in rice.

Friday, January 16th, 2009
100_7015.JPG Wow, talk about being lost. Picture this. 8:00 pm (the sun sets at 5pm), it’s been raining the whole day, I’ve been on the road since 8am, your in the farm ... [Continue reading this entry]

Photos from the Ho Chi Minh

Friday, January 16th, 2009
part1-1.JPG Display of weapons from Khe Sahn Museum. part1-2.JPG The old Khe Sahn airport runway. Still there after all these years. part1.JPG[Continue reading this entry]

Hue – Aluoi – Khe Sahn – Dong Hoi – Vinh (ouch) – Nimh Binh

Friday, January 16th, 2009
part1-12.JPG You don’t know how miserable of a feeling you get watching the rain come down out your fully equipped luxury pad and knowing that you have to ride through the stuff back into ... [Continue reading this entry]

Happy New Year 2009!

Friday, January 2nd, 2009
copy-of-100_6946-copy.jpg It was a dark and rainy night. At the stroke of midnight it turned into a dark and rainy New Year. And it kept raining and it’s still raining. Hue ... [Continue reading this entry]