MATCHA MATCHA MATCHA

I decided to dedicate an individual post to Uji since I really like this area. One day after work, all my coworkers were eager to explore a new place. I got inspired and decided I should be proactive and explore somewhere new in Kyoto as well. I flipped open the Kyoto paper map and had my mind set on Uji. Little did I know that the town was known for their  green tea. I was initially interested in going because it’s the home of the UNESCO Heritage Site, the Byodoin Temple.

Leaving in the early evening didn’t really give me much time to explore Uji since most sites and shops close around 5 to 6 PM. It was not until I walked down the roads leading to the Byodoin Temple did I realize this is the matcha town of Japan. Instantly became more excited, but I did not have much time to explore the tea shops during my first visit. There was a shop right by the temple in which I’ve tried their matcha ice cream. It was the best I ever had. The texture was very unique. I probably would not use “creamy” to describe the texture, but instead it was almost sticky.

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I had arrived too late to go on the special tour to see the inside of the temple so I only explored the outside. When I entered the temple’s surrounding, the hanging wisteria immediately caught my attention. The beautiful purple petals hung from the rack captivating both humans and bees. The weather was excellent for photos. The temple itself is surrounded by a calm body of water giving it a beautiful reflection of the temple’s architecture. An added plus was the museum that was also included in the entrance price. The museum had a very modern Japanese touch to it. The museum was larger than I had expected and was very informative. The walk all around the temple was simply beautiful. Since I arrived closer to closing time, there was not a lot of people there to kill the mood.

Beyond the temple was a small river with several bridges connecting the two sides. This area reminds me of the area by Kamo River in Kyoto. Crossing over to the other side are other temples, shrines, and the Museum of Genji. Unfortunately, everything was closed by the time I got there. The walk along the river was nice nonetheless. I sat by one of the steps to read for a bit.

Another time when I visited, I discovered a spot where I can see sunset. Up the Daikichiyama Park was a lookout point to enjoy the view of Uji. There were paths leading beyond the summit, but there were no signs to where each path lead to so I went back to the summit to wait for the sun to set. It was not the best view during this time of year since the sun was tucked away to the far right which was easily covered the trees. I still remember the sunset that day where the sky reflected an array of pastel colors from soft pink to purple.

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On another visit, I dedicated my time to visiting the tea shops, trying to determine which one to buy matcha from. Not knowing much about matcha, I settled with a popular choice – Nakamura Tokichi. Each shop sold different grades of matcha. The less bitter and more refined matcha powder, the most expensive. I bought something in between. I got to Nakamura just before the café open so I put my name down to dine there. Many of these shops also serves food, usually things that are matcha infused such as matcha soba, matcha tea, and matcha desserts. I opted for the dessert and tea. I only had a short wait before getting served which was lovely since the wait could be up to an hour or more sometimes. The dessert was nice and light, but nothing about it really stood out for me to comment more.

In total, I visited Uji three times during my stay in Kyoto. This was mainly due to the fact that the first two times when I visited many places were closing since I arrived later in the evening after work. I would recommend Uji to anyone who likes matcha and have extra days when visiting Kyoto or Osaka. It’s a small town, but there is enough to see and do for a short half day trip.

Day trips from Kyoto

Kyoto and Osaka are ideal locations to make day trips to nearby towns. Taking advantage of my days off while working in Kyoto, I made day trips to the surrounding areas and cities to explore different temples and mountains. I know these are only brief mementos of each place, but feel free to PM me for me details if you’re keen to know more about my experiences.

Arashiyama

Considered one of Kyoto’s top attractions, Arashiyama is a must-see for many tourists visiting Kyoto. Known for the bamboo grove and monkey mountain, most visitors flock towards these two areas. We made it to Arashiyama early in the morning to avoid the crowd. Our first stop was to the bamboo grove since it seems to be the most visited place and we certainly want to be there before the sea of people come crashing in. As we entered the bamboo forest walk, we thought to hold back on photos until we get further in the forest. Within a few minutes we were already on the other side of the forest. That was underwhelming. The bamboo grove is much smaller than what we had anticipated. We were surprised no one had mentioned how small this was before our visit. To our disappointment, we wandered the surrounding roads and into a neighborhood of beautifully preserved buildings with traditional Japanese architecture. It was quaint with nearly no one around. We later realized that was Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street of historic houses. Following the road, we reached the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. The temple is a bit out of the way and not frequented by tourist since it is not mentioned in most attraction listings for Arashiyama. I happen to hear about it after some digging online of what to see in Arashiyama. I really liked this temple mainly because no one else was there when we were touring the place. The temple is filled with little statues of the buddha’s disciples or rakan with different expressions.

Eventually we made it across the river to Iwatayama Monkey Park. There is a short climb up a series of steps before reaching the park. At the top, you also get a wonderful view of Kyoto. The park had signs advising visitors to be respectful and do not huddle over the monkeys. I was angered by these selfish tourists that crowded over a monkey holding her baby excitedly trying to capture endless pictures of the frightened mother and baby. You can see the eager looks on everyone’s face to capture a “cool” photo to brag to their friends about. I absolutely despise such behavior and I was surprised the staffs at the park did not do something about that. I feel that some people are too obsessed over taking photos and forget to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings.

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Nara

One of the first day trips I made outside of Kyoto is to Nara. Nara is roughly 30-minutes away by train. I made the decision the morning of to visit Nara Park as recommended by my roommates. Initially, I was going to visit Nara after my work in Kyoto is finished, but I was advised that a few hours at Nara is good enough. One of Nara Park’s attractions are the wild deers that occupy the park. You can feed them with deer food and take selfies of course. While the deers are deemed wild, they are so used to human contact that they seem domesticated. I am not in favor of when wild animals has this level of engagement with humans – it is still unnatural. They were cute to observe from afar. Todai-ji Temple is the popularly visited UNESCO Heritage Site at Nara Park with thousands of tourists gushing to visit every year. Despite the crowds, I decided to check out the temple’s Great Buddha Hall or Daibutsuden which had a small entrance fee. Inside stood a giant buddha statue and smaller statues of other deities. The size of the buddha and the architecture of the temple complex was beautiful. Anywhere beyond the main Todai-ji area was evidently a lot less crowded. I proceeded to visit nearby temples and shrines. I really enjoy Nigatsu-dō or Hall of the Second Month which is still a part of Todai-ji, but it did not have an entrance fee. It is situated up several flights of stairs. From the temple, you can enjoy an elevated view of the park. There was a lot less visitors here so it maintained a more relaxing atmosphere. I initially wanted to walk deeper into the park until I reached the forest since online reviews said it is much more tranquil as limited tourists wander that far. However, I decided to stop by this rest area in the park to simply enjoy the sun and pond while folding origami instead. Sometimes plans are forgone when you encounter a nice spot to soak in the atmosphere. I think I could spend an entire day here if I did not have a late start and plans in the evening.

Mt. Hiei

Excited for going on a real hike in Japan, I was set on hiking Mount Hiei which leads to the Enryaku-ji Temple. Somehow, my intended early morning starts never happen since the night before is always a busy night. To be honest, I was a bit worried about the hike to Enryaku-ji because the trail is rather remote and the path is not clear. The descriptions online made it sound like a maze through the forest as many parts of the path is over grown with plants. A bear bell was also recommended for the hike. I ended up taking Japan’s longest cable car at Sakamoto to the eastern pagoda area of the temple complex. There are noticeably less tourists here in comparison to the temples located in the center of Kyoto. The main temple in the east area (to-do) was under construction so there was not as much to see. There is a 20-minute walk between the east and west area. Luckily you only have to pay an entrance once to access the three areas of temple complex. The west area (sai-do) felt smaller. I did not stay there as long and proceeded to find the path to the last area, Yokawa. Many visitors skip the last area as it is around 1.5 hours by foot from the west area. There is a bus you can take between the different areas. I decided to hike it since I skimped out o the 4-hour trek up the mountain. There was no clear directions for the route between sai-do and yokawa. I got lost at some point and was tempted to hitchhike. Somewhere along the path, I encountered this sign with a scary monkey on it. Unfortunately, Google Translate’s picture feature could not translate the sign for me. Lost and desperate, I decided to continue the trail anyway. I was hoping my loud stomping noise would scare off the monkeys if there are any. At a high point of the trail, I had a nice lookout of the Shiga area. I finally arrived at the Yokawa area. I watched as a shuttle bus depart and I proceeded to the entrance of the third area. A Japanese lady had signaled to me that it is closed. It turns out, the third area closes half an hour earlier than the other two sections. What’s worse is that the bus I saw leave was the last bus to the cable car. Dumbfounded, I tried to communicate with people who were driving away hoping they would offer me a ride down the mountain. At 4:30PM, I was not planning on making my 4-hour hike down the mountain, especially since I don’t know where the start of that trail is or what it is called. I decided to walk towards one direction of the road hoping for a friendly driver to give me a lift. After finding a nice spot for cars to temporarily stop, I stuck out my thumb not knowing if hitchhiking is easy in Japan or if it’s even allowed. Within two minutes, a car pulled up beside me and the driver signaled me to hop on even before asking where I am hoping to go. It was a nice old grandpa who barely knew any English. I was grateful that he knew what “station” meant. Despite the language barrier, we were able to find out a little bit about each other before dropping me off at the Katata Station. Beyond grateful, I had wish to know more Japanese to express my gratitude.

Kurama-Kibune

The Kurama to Kibune hike is probably one of the most popular day trips for those visiting Kyoto. Not far from the city of Kyoto, the trail links to different temples and shrines along the way. The popular route is to go from Kurama to Kibune. I did it in reverse as some online blogs recommended it this way because the hike is easier since many of the uphill would be downhill and there is a famous onsen at Kurama which is a perfect end to a hike. Lies. There is a steeper ascend going from Kibune to Kurama. I almost felt like petty hikers who went from Kibune to Kurama was upset with their choice and decided to advise people to do the same to go through the same pain. If I were to redo this, I would still start at Kibune since there is an onsen at Kurama. The temples and shrines along the way were nice, but none that stood out to me after seeing so many already. I did not end up going to an onsen however. The visit was much shorter than anticipated, I decided to also fit in the Daimonji hike in my day off.

Ginkaku-ji Temple and Daimonjiyama

At the foot of the trail, I decided to visit the Ginkaku-ji temple before making my way up to the Daimonji summit for sunset. Ginkaku-ji is also known as the Silver Pavillion which is modeled after the famous Kinkaku-ji or Gold Pavillion (which I never ended up visiting). Ginkaku-ji is also a popular starting point for the Philosopher’s Walk, which I also did not walk since it was best during the cherry blossom season. Despite the crowd at Ginkaku-ji that kept you moving with the flow, I still thoroughly enjoyed the view. Finding the path to the start of the Daimonji hike was a bit confusing since it was tucked away on this little road. I was warned about the steep stairs before the top of the summit. Eagerly flying through, I was stopped 10 minutes in my trek. A snake has crossed my path! I saw this long rope-like thing within one foot of me and I proceeded to step over it. It hissed at me and slithered off as I was about to step over it. I was so scared, I jumped silently. I was so startled, it shook the energy out of me. Too afraid to back tracked, I continued going upward. Paranoid, I kept my eyes open for any moving creature in sight and stormed through breathing heavily in fear. The climb to Daimoniji was a popular one, but no one told me there could be snakes! I finally reached the summit – I think. There was a trail beyond the summit so I followed it thinking there is a higher point, but when I noticed the path descending, I stopped following the path and walked back to the summit. I was 3 hours early for sunset. I guess I might as well went for the gold hour so I decided to read my book while I wait. People came and left during my 3 hours there. It was not until the last hour did more people appear. And some stood in my way. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful view of Kyoto complimented with the colors of sun setting in the sky.

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Ohara

Ohara is a rural town to the north of Kyoto. No trains go there so you have to either drive or commute by bus. I made the trip for the mossy Sanzen-in Temple. The temple is known for the moss garden. Since this temple is also out of the way, not many tourists were around to ruin the zen atmosphere. The garden was gorgeous. I sat inside enjoying the view along with many other visitors. Taking walk around, you can spot from jizu statues arising from the ground. There were other temples and shrines in the area. I tried to find the waterfall nearby, I was not able to. I was not sure if it’s tucked behind another temple in Ohara, but I gave up since I did not want to pay another entrance fee. While the tickets usually cost only around 400-600 yen, they add up. I walked around the countryside instead. I passed the rice fields and other farm grounds. The zen transcend beyond the temple. The whole area felt peaceful.

Sakura Sakura in Kyoto

I will be staying in Kyoto for five weeks for my first Workaway experience – a setup similar to HelpX. I am excited to be “living” in the cultural city of Japan for a short period of time. I will be helping with cleaning these Airbnb apartments that are rented out in a daily basis. Luckily, I arrived in Kyoto at the height of the cherry blossom season. I can explore the beautiful flowers around work hours or on my off day.

Work was straightforward and would only be at most 4 hours a day in exchange for accommodations. I spent my first days exploring areas with clusters of sakura trees. I live close by Kamo River, which was filled with blooming cherry blossoms. I remember my first walk by the river ended up in hours of endless photo snapping because everything was so beautiful. To walk along the waters with sakura petals raining down on you feels magical – minus allergies which I thankfully did not have for this. By the second day in Kyoto, I had already found “my” coffee shop, which I will not share the name of to selfishly keep it as my secret place, that was close by my apartment and the river.

By chance, on my way to visiting Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji Temple I passed by the park leading the series of temples. The park was built on an abandoned railroad track with dozens of cherry blossom trees. By the time I visited, it was towards the end of the season so the flower petals were slowly falling off. It was a beautiful time to experience the falling of sakura petals like gentle snowflakes that do not melt. Many people were there for pictures, even wedding photos.

Taking advantage of sakura season while it was shortlived, we had hanami at Maruyama Park. I was extremely excited to be able to use the tarp I had carried with me since New Zealand. The park was filled with other Japanese gathered around the grass with food and drinks, similar to what I experienced in Ueno Park in Tokyo. It was less crowded here though. There were some food stalls at the entrance of the park where we feasted on overpriced street food while sipping our convenient store bought alcohol.

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The beginning days in Kyoto consisted mostly of visiting the top attractions the city has to offer. Despite how busy and touristic Kiyomizu-dera was, I thoroughly enjoyed walking pass the streets with old buildings and cute souvenir shops. It look me longer than expected to get to the temple because I was carried away by all the food and craft stores. I saw a lot of people dressed in traditional robe wandering around the old streets. It is common for people to visit Kyoto and rent kimonos for the day to walk around for the full cultural experience; I want to try that some day too. I intended to stay in the temple complex to capture sunset, but unfortunately, the temple closes by 6PM and sunset was not until another half an hour. Along with a number of other tourist, we were lingering by the outskirts of the temple for as long as we could to enjoy the descending sun. It was beautiful. I have not seen such a gorgeous sunset for a long time; it has been awhile since I set aside time to watch the set sun actually. I definitely want to revisit Kiyomizu-dera.

Another famous attraction that I visited is Fushimi Inari. The shrine is well known for the thousands of tori gates that leads up to the shrine. I was advised to go there early to avoid crowds. I got there by 8AM and even then, there were a handful of people at the bottom of the mountain. I struggle to find the opportunity to take photographs of the red tori gates without other people in the way. Everyone was there for the pictures. There were many different paths to reach the top of the mountain, but I tried to follow the number sequence on the map. Not many people actually made it to the top. I did not stay for too long and headed back down. This is another attraction that I intend to revisit.

Roughly a 20-minute walk from my apartment is the famous Nishiki Market. It is a long narrow shopping area mainly of cooked food and produce. This is right by the other shopping street, Teramachi Street. If you are looking to sample the street foods of Kyoto or do some shopping, this area would provide an overwhelming number of options to select from. I checked out a small tsukemen shop tucked away on the side streets of Teramachi. The shop was small with only 6 or 7 seats and a few food items on the menu. I selected one of the tsukemen since I really enjoyed what I had in Tokyo. Good tsukemen is hard to come by in New York City, so I might as well indulge in tsukemen here while I can. It was really good, but not as memorable as the first one I tried. The good thing is that I still have quite some time to sample more.

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Tsukemen by Teramachi Street

Finally made it to Japan

Despite the hiccups along the way in trying to arrange for my trip to Japan, I finally made it! It was a much needed breather after spending weeks in Vietnam. It is kind of interesting to experience such sharp contrast in culture going from a chaotic rule breaking environment to a highly rule binding and orderly society.

Hello Tokyo after five years! I totally went American on my first night, aka having burgers, fries, and beers with another fellow American instead of something more cultural. I am actually beyond excited for sushi and ramen! I watch my money burn away quickly in the expensive city of Tokyo. The money that would have gotten me through one month in Hanoi only lasted three days in Tokyo. I miss the affordable prices in Vietnam!

Coincidentally, I had visited Tokyo previously around the cherry blossom season and here I am again. Last time, we came right by the end of the season so we did not see the sakura at its prime. I met up with a local whom I befriended when I was in Vietnam for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing which usually takes form as a picnic in a park, in Ueno Park. It brought back memories of wandering around Ueno park in light rain five years ago. It was still drizzling five years later. I was fascinated by how the picnic areas were litter free because even when the Japanese are drunk, they are still responsible enough to remember to throw their garbage in the trash bins. It is common to have alcohol along with the food during hanami. Neither of us brought a mat to sit on, so we scouted for a left behind mat.

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Hanami at Ueno Park

Since I had already visited some of the key tourist attractions in my last visit, I decided to check out more quiet parts of Tokyo. I love how it is not hard to find quiet streets in this monstrous metropolis. I paid a visit to Kongonei Park which was roughly 40 minutes from the central area. I really enjoyed walking through the narrow streets filled with cherry blossoms. The park was less crowded than the ones in central Tokyo. It was peaceful to observe families and friends gather during Sakura season for hanami.

I wish I have more room in my stomach to hold more delicious Japanese food! I tried my first serving of tsukemen, a dipping ramen where thick noodles are to be dipped in a boldly flavored broth. I liked how firm and thick the noodles were and how flavorful the broth was. The dipping broth was very intense; I already felt full after consuming half the bowl of noodles. As recommended by many, I tried the iconic Ichiran Ramen in Ueno on a rainy day in hopes that the line would be shorter. And it was. Yay! I got the classic tonkotsu ramen with an egg. On the selection sheet, it was recommended to select “medium” for the customization of broth flavor, noodle firmness, spices, etc. for first timers. I took the suggestion and later regretted not selecting for firm noodles instead. It was interesting to be seated in a very individualized booth to focus on eating the ramen; particularly nice for solo travelers. I will definitely give the ramen another go since I was not wow-ed by it the first time around.

I booked a female capsule hotel in Akihabara to experience living in these efficient confined coffin-like beds. People who knows me well are aware that I always long to sleep in a small coffin-like bed – yes, I am far from being claustrophobic. I later realized that capsule hotels are really designed for short one night stays. Thus said, I had restless nights during my stay in Tokyo. The walls were not sound proof. In fact, there are no doors or lock for your “room”. There is only a thin shade that you pull down to separate you from the world outside. You also have to pack all your belongings and place them in your locker every day if you had booked for longer than a one night stay. Since it was a female capsule hotel, the hotel was designed to cater towards female needs. The decor was pink and we were provided with sleeping robes, toiletry, and all the bathroom amenities typically used by females. The only room option I had was the one with a TV, but I did not use it since they only had Japanese speaking channels. It was an interesting experience, but I do not think I would opt for it again.

 

Instead of taking the bullet train, I booked a night bus from Tokyo to Kyoto since it was more economical. I will be helping out a guesthouse in Kyoto through Workaway for a few weeks.

The world outside of pho

Welcome to the galore of Vietnamese foods that I have been feasting on; the affordable prices make it easier to sample many different dishes. I usually do not research a specific place for the dishes since most of the local shops are not listed online.

Known as Vietnam’s national dish, most visitors coming to Vietnam have heard of phở. Phở is rice noodles soaked in a delicious clear broth that is usually either of chicken or beef. Phở is an iconic dish that can be found in many places outside of the country. Phở is consumed throughout the day as breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. This bowl of noodles originated from Northern Vietnam around Hanoi. You can find variations of the noodles in terms of the broth and toppings all over the country. The original phở from Northern Vietnam is served with all the necessary herbs already in the bowl unlike in Southern Vietnam where the dish is usually complemented with a side dish of vegetables and herbs for you to add in the soup.

 

Okay, enough about phở! If you are a huge fan of noodles like me, Vietnam is the country for you. The main types of Vietnamese noodles can be grouped into the following: phở, bún, miến, and my. In terms of phở, I have only tried beef and chicken broths. I think fish and seafood are other popular options, but I have not tried those.

The next most popular type of noodles are bún noodles which are round white rice noodles. They can be served with or without soup and in salads as well. A famous dish up North is bún chả, made popular by former US President Barack Obama. This was the dish he sampled during his visit to Vietnam. Bún chả is a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork, rice noodles, and dipping sauce. You are to dip the bún in the dipping bowl. Similarly, another common dish in Northern Vietnam is bún đậu mắm tôm, a dish served in a large platter with nice noodles,  tofu assortment, vegetables, and a shrimp paste dipping sauce. It was said that the shrimp paste is also used for dog meat dishes.

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A large bún đậu mắm tôm platter for 4.

Bún soup noodle options are endless. You can add beef, snails, curry, thai, innards, duck, chicken, fish, crab, and more. Each eatery has their own recipe for the broth. As a fan of snails, I really enjoy bún ốc, which is rice noodles served in a tomato-y broth with snails. Another local favorite is bún bò Huế, a rice noodle beef soup dish from Hue. I had my share of bún bò Huế when I was around Hue.

Another way to consume bún without soup is to mix it in bowl with vegetables and meat, almost like a salad. Popular dishes of this style include bún thịt nướng, bún mắm, and Bún bò Nam Bộ.

Through my travels in Vietnam, miến seems to be more rare to find and less talked about. Miến is glass noodles or vermicelli. The only dish that I tried with miến is miến lươn, glass soup noodles with eel. My host family has their own miến shop right below where we live. I was told this originated from Central Vietnam. I believe miến lươn is the most popular dish with miến.

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Lastly, mì or my, are noodles popular in Central Vietnam. Mì quảng was the first dish I had in Vietnam. They are wide rice noodles served with just enough soup to cover the noodles and rice crackers. Sometimes the noodles are yellow in color because they are made with turmeric infused in either the noodles or the soup. Mì quảng comes in second as my favorite noodles in Vietnam after bánh canh (thich noodles made from tapioca flour).

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I was too busy indulging in noodles, I barely had any rice dishes. The rice specialty that I am used to eating back in the U.S. is cơm tấm, or broken rice platter that is famous from Southern Vietnam. I did not realize that it is mainly served in the south so I missed the chance to sample it. I finally had it during my last days in Vietnam. Other rice dishes I have tried include cơm gá (chicken rice, a Hoi An specialty) and cơm hến (rice with baby clams, a Hue specialty).

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Bánh mì can be so affordable in Vietnam. There were some street vendors that charge as low as 10,000 VND or around $0.50 USD. You can argue that! I noticed that in some shops, they would flatted the sandwich for in something like a panini press while heating the sandwich. I have not figured out if that is a regional thing, but I have only seen that in Hanoi. Hoi An is known for their bánh mì, but I did not find them particularly spectacular in comparison to other sandwiches I had elsewhere. They are affordable and portable food options to get on the go.

One of the first meals I had in Vietnam was the hot sizzling savory pancake called bánh xèo. It is made with a rice flour batter, shrimp, pork, and bean sprout. The pancake is to be cut into pieces to be wrapped in rice paper and lettuce and then dipped in a sauce. You can opt to add nem lui, or meat skewers, in the wrap. In Hue, they have a dish called bánh khoai which is similar to the bánh xèo. There are different variations of the pancakes depending on which region you are trying them from.

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One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes before coming to Vietnam is their fresh spring rolls, or what I normally call summer rolls, or gỏi cuốn in Vietnamese. They are rolls wrapped in rice paper. I actually did not have any of this in Vietnam. Instead, I was introduced to other types of rolls. I like to have bánh cuốn, thin wide sheets of rice batter filled with meat, for breakfast. It reminds me of the Hong Kong cheurng fun, rice noodles. It is a northern dish which is usually consumed with fried garlic, vegetables, and dipped in fish sauce. I love phở so it was so exciting to learn about this roll made with phở sheets wrapping in the filling. This is also a Hanoian specialty called phở cuốn. The filling include lettuce, ground beef, and herbs served with fish sauce. Although I am not the biggest fan of fried spring rolls, I happen to eat a lot of nem rán in Vietnam and even made some with some students for dinner.

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The list of food to try in Vietnam is endless. It would take a lot to go in-depth describing each one. You just have to go and try for yourself. Why would you want to read about food when you can eat it instead, right? Below is the list of the different dishes I have tried over my 2 months in Vietnam. Feel free to message me if you want to know more about any of them.

  • Banh xeo
  • Banh khoai
  • Bun bo hue
  • Bun cha
  • Bun cha ca
  • Mi quang
  • Pho
  • Banh cuon
  • Pho cuon
  • Banh canh
  • Bun thit nuong
  • Bun mam
  • Com tam
  • Com ga
  • Com hen
  • Cao lau
  • White rose
  • Bun oc
  • Bun rieu cua
  • Bun beo
  • Bun loc
  • Bun nam
  • Bun thai
  • Bun ca ri
  • Banh mi
  • Banh trang nuong
  • Bun bo nam bo
  • Bun dau mam tom
  • Mien luon
  • Banh trang tron
  • Hu tiu kho
  • Che
  • Kem Flan
  • Xoi

Some dishes that I wanted to, but didn’t get to try include:

  • Bo la lat
  • Cha ca
  • Bo kho
  • Bun nang
  • Banh ep

The last banh canh

Two months ago, I booked my flight to Ho Chi Minh City a week before the flight with jitters in my stomach. I never visited a South East Asian country before (other than Singapore). I have heard of the tourist scams, food poisoning risks, and robberies that painted an uneasy image of Vietnam for me. I decided to go because of my volunteer work with Better Life Vietnam. Flash forward two months and I am already thinking about my next visit to this country.

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Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge

I wrapped up my journey through Vietnam in Da Nang. Da Nang is the third biggest city in Vietnam and the government has the vision to transform this modern city into the next Singapore. Despite ‘being another city’, I was very excited to come visit to see if this is the city that makes me want to stay. Normally, people skip or only spend a night or two here since Da Nang is not very big. It separates itself between the city center and the neighborhoods by the beach. I spent most of my time relaxing by visiting coffee shops and unwind before leaving the country. Perhaps, I had a little too much time here and was pretty bored within a few days. I also decided not to go on any tours to visit the tourist attractions nearby like Marble Mountain, Ba Na, and so on.

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My Khe Beach at Da Nang

Da Nang did not have that big of a draw to entice me to stay and find a job. I did enjoy sampling the foods of Central Vietnam here. My first meal in Vietnam was mi quang. I was more than excited to taste these wide rice noodles again. It is a Central Vietnam specialty so I made sure to sample this again. The wide noodles reminded me of the Chinese hor fun, or flat rice noodles. They are usually served with roasted sesame rice cracker and vegetables on the side. The broth should be just enough to cover the noodles. Note that the yellow color is due to the turmeric used in making the broth.

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Mi quang ca (with fish)

During my visit in Hue, a fellow traveler was asking a local about the name of this noodle dish that sounded like ‘banh ca’. Curious with what she was referring to, I kept an eye out for something that resembled her description and stumbled upon banh canh noodle shops. I was confused by the name since banh means ‘bread’ in Vietnamese. Is this really a noodle dish? My first bowl of banh canh was at a local restaurant I passed by right before a thunderstorm. The delicious bowl of noodles was only 15,000 VND, or $0.66 USD! Banh canh is made with thick rice and tapioca noodles so they are slippery and chewy in texture. There was one restaurant that I particularly enjoyed and that was where I had my last meal in Vietnam. I ordered banh canh xương, which is the tapioca noodles with pork bones. I think banh canh is my favorite Vietnamese noodle dish. I hope I can find this back home!

I’ll have a separate post later on Vietnamese food. There are too many things to eat!

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I did not expect to experience cultural shock or reap a change in perspective in Vietnam. Coming from an Asian heritage and being a well versed traveler, I did not expect to experience cultural shock in Vietnam. I rarely experience cultural shocks since I have been exposed to many different environments and Vietnam being the third developing nation that I have visited, I thought I would be more mentally prepared. I wasn’t.

The first shock was in the heavy traffic with motorbikes charging at you in every direction and on pavements. There really aren’t many rules enforced in Vietnam. After playing the game of Frogger on a daily basis here, I think I have mastered the arts of crossing the chaotic streets of Vietnamese cities. The second uneasy circumstance is the prominence of men dwelling on streets and local establishments; there were many instances where I opted not to go into a local coffee shop or eatery because only older men were there smoking and playing cards. Traditionally speaking, women in Vietnam are expected to be at home adhering to household chores and taking care of children so they would not be hanging out in a coffee shop. Lastly, the difference in mindset for a nation where most of the population had never left the country due to visa challenges and financial limitations. When you are limited to only experiencing the way of life in your home country and can only get a glimpse to how others live through media and other entertainments, your imagination of the possibilities in ways to approach life is limited.

Raised in a privilege society, I never understood the true value of education. Yes, I knew education was important, but I always viewed it as an outlet to getting a better job and leading a better life. I undervalued the importance of education in shaping one’s mindset, values, and mannerism. I used to believe that one’s intelligence is a natural gift; if you are born a bright one, not necessarily a prodigy or genius, you can still excel above others even without special attention or nurturing. Education is a privilege. The opportunity to explore and exploit your full potential is also a privilege. I am grateful to be able to make an impact on the lives of children in Vietnam by providing them with the opportunity for better education since resources are limited in remote areas of the country.

I am looking forward to revisiting Vietnam someday and see how this nation has developed in this land of opportunities.

An overly westernized touch to the ancient town

Locals and travelers alike has hyped up my expectations for Hoi An. Everyone raved about it. It was like the Queenstown of Vietnam. People mentioned about the beautiful lanterns lighting up the town at night and the quaint old buildings still standing giving a feeling of stepping into the ancient times. Many travelers have said that they can spend weeks in this town. I was excited. I was prepared to stay a week or more if needed because I had the extra time. One of the reasons why I forgone the idea of making my way to Dalat and back up was to ensure that I had enough time to enough Hoi An.

Reaching Hoi An in the early evening after the long journey via the Motorvina tour, I took a quick rest before heading out to Old Town in Hoi An. I booked a homestay a bit far from town so I had to bike over despite my poor biking skills. Confused with where to park, I tempted to park my bike at this one spot where other bikes are. The lady guarding over the bikes had asked for 40,000 VND to leave my bike there for two hours! The whole “people in Central Vietnam are very nice and would not try to rip you off” talk from my motorbike tour guide went out the door right there. Disappointed, I left and found a more legitimate parking place for only 3,000 VND for the whole night. I later discovered random places to park for free for future reference.

Leaving the bike behind, I eagerly wandered into the Old Town area. I walked passed a ticket office-like area which sold tickets to enter the Old Town; assuming, that was another tourist trip, I ignored it and entered the ancient town. I later read online that they are trying to enforce an entrance fee for tourists to visit the ancient town. It was not very effective since there are no defined entrances or exits for the Old Town area. Navigating further in the surrounding, I was shocked. I was shocked by the amount of tourist and English signs that plagued the little alleys. Despite the old architecture of the buildings and the festive lanterns, Hoi An Old Town lacked charm. The charm has been masked with the overwhelming tourism and westernization.

Wandering deeper into town by the river, I encountered more lanterns hung on the streets and on old buildings. Many vendors try to sell their boat rides and paper flower candles. I can see why people say Hoi An is for lovers. Despite the lack thereof an ancient charm, it does setup a romantic atmosphere for lovers to stroll down the lantern-lit streets in the Old Town. It reminds me of an Asian version of a Venice and Amsterdam crossover. I think I would enjoy it a lot more of this UNESCO heritage site if it was able to maintain its heritage and keep the signs in Vietnamese. While English menus in restaurants are certainty appreciated, there is no need to laminate English and French words all across town.

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Crossing over to the other side of the water, you encounter several shops selling lanterns. Most of the visitors would pose for photos than actually buying a lantern. I contemplated buying one, but carrying a lantern across the countries will be a hassle. Beyond the lantern shops is a night market for souvenir shopping and street food. I really enjoyed the grilled rice paper with quail egg, banh trang nuong. It looks small, but very filling! They also have these ice cream popsicles in the shape of a long thin cone. I took the opportunity to take a durian flavored one!

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Banh trang nuong

Hoi An has many unique dishes. I wish my stomach can fit more food sometimes. Cao lau is an iconic noodle dish only found in Hoi An (of course, you can find modified versions of it outside of town as well). It is made with thick noodles boiled in water from a special Cham well and complemented with pork. I have seen many banh mi chains in Hanoi that has ‘Hoi An’ next to the name. I am not sure why banh mi is particularly well known in Hoi An, but I took the chance to try two of the famous places in town. They were okay – I think they put a lot less pickled vegetables from what I am used to having at home. I did not find anything special about them and one of the places actually served really tough baguettes.  White roses is another special Hoi An dish which are these dumplings with translucent skin. I somehow always end up with noodle dishes instead of rice options, but I managed to try another Hoi An speciality, com ga, or chicken rice. Again, it was only okay.

Coincidentally, we were there during the 60th celebration of Earth Hour. Most of the restaurants in Old Town dimmed their lights in observing the conservational hour. There were many students singing and dancing during the hour of darkness. It was interesting to see a place like Vietnam to dedicate an hour without lights for Earth Hour since otherwise conservation and recycling practices are not in place. I took the liberty to be a part of the pollutant and bought a paper flower candle with a friend to release into the river.

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Hoi An Old Town during the day is much more calm. Perhaps, I had a skewed perception of the general atmosphere of the Old Town since I visited during the weekend where local tourist and other foreigners would flock to town. On my last day, I found it a lot more peaceful here. I wish to stay longer, but my homestay kept hustling me with their services so I decided to make it to Da Nang earlier. I was also tired of the need to bike to town since I always get lost or nervous when cars and motorbikes come close to me. I did not end up getting anything tailor made. There are heaps of tailor clothing shops here where you can make custom clothing for an affordable price. I have no idea what I would have wanted to have custom made and carried with me for the rest of my journey.

Hoi An certainly did not live up to the hype for me. I am just not very keen on staying in overly touristic areas. I do think it is a great place for a family vacation or couples to visit. I did not visit the beach in Hoi An as it was said to be similar to the ones in Da Nang.

I decided to go on a half day tour to My Son during my stay in Hoi An. My Son contains the ruins of the temples from the Cham people. I am not going to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat this time so I guess My Son would give me a small glimpse of the Cham architecture. Just my luck, I picked the day when it rained to visit! I should have listened to my homestay staff and went the day before. The ruins were interesting to see, but the tour was really rushed. I met these travelers from Estonia and they had visited Angkor Wat before and said the My Son sanctuary is only a small fraction of the size of the Angkor Wat. I still wish to visit Angkor Wat some day!

Motorbiking along the coast

Realizing that I have so much time to explore Central Vietnam with my lack thereof planning, I had many options of where to go next after Hue. The next logical location would be Hoi An and then Da Nang where I would fly out, but that leaves copious time to explore both cities. Viable day trips from Hue would be to back track up North to Phong Nha National Park which houses many of the world’s largest caves. Fearing that the cave excursions would be overly touristy, I was hesitant to migrate back up and then down south again. Another option would be to do a day trek south of Hue at Bach Ma National Park. A friend had suggested against it since there is no shade for the trek so I’d be baked in the sun. Fearful of heat and allergic to the sun, the idea of having my skin suffering under the scorching sun sounded treacherous.

Last minute, I decided to hire a guide to drive me from Hue to Hoi An via motorbike. The next day’s weather was too beautiful to waste in a cave and too sunny to trek without shade. Many travelers have mentioned about the Hai Van pass between Hue and Da Nang that is a must-see. Many people opt for the train option between the two locations instead of the bus (a cheaper option) so you can enjoy the beautiful views of the Hai Van pass. The even more scenic option is to hire an easy rider, a popular solution to travel via a motorbiker as a passenger, and have the guide drive up to the top of the Hai Van pass. Without much thought or shopping around, I committed to a day journey through Motorvina, which I had just heard about briefly from my hostelmate.

A bit nervous the next morning since I wasn’t sure what I signed up for, haha. All the anxiety disappeared after my friend guide came to pick me up. We went to the office to drop off my luggage, which is simultaneously being transported in bulk with other luggages via van. My guide has over 10 years of experience driving these roads and taking people on tours. He actually admitted that he’s bored of seeing these sites every day. I cannot believe he has to make his return trip the same evening back to Hue and repeat the next day for the new tour. He rarely takes any days off and only gets a fraction of the tour price as his pay.

My favorite part of the motorbike journey was the beginning part. I really enjoyed the countryside drive through. With the blue sky and shining sun, the scenery of the countryside was tranquil and serene; I knew I made the right decision to do this tour on this day since the weather forecast indicated rain for the following days. You see the farmers in the field with the water buffaloes and some working at the rice paddies. The water was calm and beautiful reflections of the farmers mirrored in the water along with the blue sky. It was peaceful; I didn’t want to ruin the moment with an abrupt stop of me trying to capture the a photo so we just drove on.

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Countryside of Central Vietnam

We drove by the fishing village and many ancestral tombs. They’re really grand, much more fancy in comparison to Chinese tombs. The first leg was all about the countryside, lagoons, and fishing village. I was so excited to see what else was installed, but that was as exciting as it gets. The rest were straight up tourist attractions.

Our first stop was to Elephant Springs. I have heard about it through other travelers and I was looking forward to it as online also mentioned that this as a good spot to visit. They also said that it may be closing down for other development to take place here. It was disappointing when I arrived; it seems like it’s just an area where people hangout in huts and take a dip in the water. It’s pretty touristy. You see backpackers jumping in the water and locals secured in life jackets. I took some photos here and there and that is about it. I went to use the “toilet” here which is just a stall with this mud structure that you should release in and the soil will absorb the urine. I wonder what happens if someone has to poop.

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Elephant Springs

We stopped at a local joint that other easy riders would stop to have lunch with their tourist. There were not too many options at the restaurant so I had the classic bun bo hue. I kind of wish to try something different when I am with a local, but this was what he recommended. The bun bo hue was good so no complaints. After lunch we headed towards the Hai Van pass drive. This was the really hyped up pass between Hue and Da Nang people talked about. I was convinced to hire a guide to go to the top via motorbike because it was said to be so stunning. Overall, the Hai Van pass was a short drive. The coastline was nice, but nothing too spectacular and is definitely not a must-see. Maybe I am spoiled by New Zealand’s stunning coastline? At the stopping point on the top was an old fort that was also the stopping point for tour buses. It is a very touristy area with souvenir shops and hoards of local tourists. I am glad to have seen this on a nice day or else I’d assume the weather had ruined the beauty once again, but no, this time the scenery really isn’t that impressive.

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Hai Van Pass

Passing through Da Nang, I also had the guide bring me to Marble Mountain since it was along the way to Hoi An. I am glad I have made a pit stop here, because I would have been so disappointed to have booked a separate tour for it otherwise. Marble Mountain is even more touristy with tour buses filled with Chinese and Korean tourists. Looking up at the heaps of stairs in the blazing heat, I opted for the cave in the mountain instead since I was afraid I would be disappointed by the time I reach the top of the steps. I’m not sure if I fully understood the concept of the cave. There were neon lights with Buddhist statues around the cave. The lights really threw me off. It looked like some overly commercialized Buddhist place of worship. Also, I was heavily hustled at the marble souvenir shop that the guide dropped me off at for free parking. The visit fell short and I am glad I checked it out now and will not be paying for another visit.

Atlas, we arrived at the Motorvina office in Hoi An. One of their other staff was nice enough to transport my luggage and myself to my homestay.  The motorbike tour was fun, but it was very exhausting towards the end. I guess I can’t complain since I wasn’t doing the driving, but I think I fell asleep for a few seconds when we were nearing Hoi An. I felt myself jerk a little bit so I assumed I have snoozled away for a bit – oops. It was hard not to because the wind was strong and blowing at my face. I kept my eyes closed and was tired from the ride of over 6 hours from Hue. Overall, I enjoyed the tour and the company of the guide, but some of the attractions were not the most impressive since they are highly touristic destinations.

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Tour Guide Dung and I

Into the ancient capital of Hue

My experience of living like a local in Vietnam has come to an end. I am grateful for all the friendly and hospitable people I have met in Northern Vietnam. Despite some not so positive feedback of the different regions of Vietnam, I still find people in northern Vietnam very friendly. Perhaps, I have been lucky and have not met anyone who try to scam me here. I have 2.5 more weeks in the country where I’ll explore Central Vietnam. From here on, I’ll experience the country as a tourist moving from site to site and mainly dwelling in the touristic areas as convenient.

Originally, I had planned to take a train from Hanoi to Hue, but I decided to book a flight via Vietjet Air instead. The long train ride in a potentially cockroach and rat infested cabin worries me. Despite all the negative reviews on the low budget airline, my flight experience was seamless and I arrived in Hue on time.

Hue is the ancient capital of Vietnam during the imperial period until 1945. Home to the Imperial City and the tombs of many of the nation’s emperors and royalties, this city is filled with history and culture. For some travelers, Hue is an easily skipped destination since it does not offer too many thrilling activities or vibrant nightlife. However, majority of the nation’s specialty dishes originated from Hue, which many, were once delicacies served to the emperor. There are just too many things to try! People in Central Vietnam enjoy more bold flavors with more chilies in their food. If you cannot take spicy food, be warned that generally their dipping sauces already have hints of spice in them.

Some of the iconic dishes to try in Hue include Bún bò Huế (beef noodles from Hue), Bánh nậm (flat steamed rice dumpling), Bánh lọc (rice dumpling cake), and Bánh bèo (steamed water fern cake). Variations of bun bo hue can be found throughout the country, but each restaurant has their own recipe. Of the three cakes, my favorite is the banh loc because it’s the chewiest in texture. I also tried Hue’s Bánh khoái, their savory pancake that is similar to Bánh xèo and Hue’s Bánh cuốn which is more like a fresh spring roll unlike the version from Northern Vietnam. As suggested by a local guide, I also managed to fit in a bowl of Bún thịt nướng (rice noodles with grilled pork). I wish to try more dishes if my stomach had space!

I wouldn’t mind spending a few more days relaxing in Hue, but I took a leap of faith to leave that Friday for a guided motorbike ride to Hoi An because of the good weather. Considering myself as a rain chaser, I couldn’t afford not to seize the opportunity. I had met a wonderful bunch in Hue despite my short stay. I always love to get my introduction to a city with a free casual walking tour before deciding on what I want to thoroughly explore. Hue has so much history, I feel like a tour is necessary to truly learn about the country’s past. I joined a very informative free walking tour also hosted by university students who use this chance to practice English and had a very energetic and personable tour guide to tell us more about his city. Everyone from the free walking tour ended up going for the paid tour in the Hue Citadel that afternoon. The Citadel is huge and we only explored a fraction of the Imperial City even after spending a whole afternoon there! On a unique occasion, the owner of place we had lunch gifted us with their homemade bottle opener after one of the travelers from the group displayed a genuine excitement over this crafty bottle opener. Our tour guide said the owner had never given them away to customers before. We were special, haha.

Further out of town, a lovely local Couchsurfer had accompanied to show me other parts of Hue. I enjoyed the visit to the peaceful village of Thuy Thanh the historic Thanh Toan Bridge built two centuries ago. Along the way we also visited the Tiger Fighting Arena, where rigged matches between the sacred elephant would fight a clawless and toothless tiger, and the Long Chau Temple (Elephant Temple). Lastly, we visited Hue’s abandoned water park, Ho Thuy Tien, that is in shambles. Millions of dollars were invested in the amusement park, but it closed due to business reasons. The broken glass and graffiti everywhere really brought out an eerie atmosphere.

My last highlight of Hue is watching the recent release of Kong: Skull Island in theaters. We happened to go on a Tuesday which had discounted pricing that made the already low costs even more affordable. Many of the scenery of the movie was shot in Vietnam. Despite the formulate storyline, I still enjoyed the movie. I now wish to have visited Ha Long Bay! Next time I guess!

 

 

 

 

Fog fog go away from Sa Pa!

After much debate, I finally decided to head to Sa Pa on my last weekend in Northern Vietnam. I had a lot of hesitation because the weather forecast indicated that the region would be experiencing thunderstorms during the entire duration of my visit there. Sa Pa was one of the top places I wanted to visit since coming to Vietnam. Known for its beautiful mountainous scenery filled with rice paddies and rich cultural experiences where many ethnic minorities groups live in, Sa Pa is a popular destination for many.

How to get there from Hanoi? People can either take a train (through a private or government train) to Lao Cai and take a bus from Lao Cai to Sapa town or take a bus directly to Sapa town. The bus can be an iffy choice for some as Vietnam is infamous for their crazy bus drivers bustling through the winding roads and heavy traffic. There are also many mixed reviews about the different train companies to take from Hanoi to Lao Cai. After a lot of research, I opted for this company called ET Pumpkin, funny name, I know. Only after booking the ticket did I stumble upon many negative reviews about this company. Why must I read those now? Well technically, I did not pay for it yet. I wanted to go on a “tourist train” where the operator or some staffs can speak English and that I would be sharing the cabin with foreigners. Also, the representative on ET Pumpkin agreed to provide free transport from Lao Cai to Sapa town. I never paid for my train ticket until after I have gotten to my cabin. I booked this a few days before departing since I was undecided about Sa Pa until then. I figure, I had nowhere else to go so I might as well go to Sa Pa. The weather was looking bad all around.

Hanoi Station is separated into A and B station. B station is where the northbound trains are at. My Grab driver did not know how to get to B station so I ended up at Station A. You can just walk around to Station B somehow. There was a lot of confusion on how to get to my cabin and pay for the ticket, but I managed. Aboard the Pumpkin Express! Haha, I sometimes still find the name funny. The cabin has a lamp with a pumpkin carved on it. Just my luck, I shared the cabin with three French speakers (an old couple from Belgium and a local tour guide). Our conversations were minimal due to the language barrier. With my earphones in, I was trying to fall asleep. Asleep or at least almost, I was awoken by the yelling of the tour guide. She was yelling at the people chatting outside the cabin. It didn’t even bother me since I was able to fall asleep. Someone responded saying, “You’re even louder than me!” It was true, it was her loud screaming that woke me up and I had trouble falling asleep then.

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The ET Pumpkin cabin

At Lao Cai station, I had a lot of difficulty finding the shuttle bus provided by ET Pumpkin. The ET Pumpkin contact gave such vague instructions on how to find the office so it took an hour of fumbling around and waiting before I got on the shuttle.

For the first day, I had asked my homestay to arrange for a local tour guide to trek with me to Ta Van village, where the homestay is. I was a bit worried that the weather would be too harsh for trekking, but luckily there was only light drizzles here and there and fog. My tour guide was Mama Zi. Dressed in traditional Hmong attire and spotting her gold teeth, she shook my hands with her dark finger nails. Her English was enough to get by the basic conversations. In the beginning of our trek, all I saw was fog. I was concerned that that would be the weather condition throughout our trek. Luckily, further along the way, the fog dissipated so I was able to see some of the beautiful alignment of rice patties and little animals grazing upon them. People online had said that you can easily just trek on your own. I disagree -there were no signs for where we trekked, how can you do it on your own? Perhaps people were referring to the inner tracks further in the mountains that were doable alone. Those did have signs to villages, but not from Sapa Town.

At our first rest stop in Cat Cat village I believe, I encountered my first set of four little girls trying to persuade me to buy their bracelets. I have read online not to support them because they’ll just take the money and not go to school. From the resting hut, another local villager starting following us. I did not realize at first. I thought she was just heading that direction. After a while, she continued to talk to mama zi so I thought maybe she’s her neighbor. She helped me through slippery parts of the path and even gifted me with a bamboo horse. I figure she is what online had said to be one of the villagers who follow tourists hoping they’d buy something from them in the end. The whole time I was thinking about whether or not I should tip her or how much to tip her. I did not realize the basket she was carrying was filled with handcrafts.

I am grateful that the sky opened up a bit for me to enjoy the view although the fog crept in from time to time. I was most in awe of Lao Chai village. Mama zi said her daughter and mother lives there. People had said Cat Cat village is extremely touristy. I thought it was beautiful nonetheless. I did not see many tourists along the way.

At lunch, lady who followed us on the trek showed me her crafts. Since she followed me all this way, I guess I should buy from her. I later learned that buying from street vendors is not recommended. Some teacher in the village was excited to talk to me, he shook my hands like 6-7 times at lunch. Mama zi made us drink shots after shots of happy water, a type of rice wine special to the Sa Pa area. I think I had 8 before continuing on the trek.

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Mama Zi and I

It started pouring later in the early evening. I was lucky to have miss all that. The homestay was basic, but the host was welcoming. We gathered around a small fire pit in the living room as they roasted sweet potatoes.We had a barbecue that night and I was so stuffed!

It was raining all night and foggy in the morning. By early afternoon, we decided to take a walk to the other villages. I was wearing a handmade Hmong skirt that my host has lent me to wear. During the journey, many locals looked at my skirt in awe. It was a beautiful skirt – until now, I regret not buying it from my host. Just to have a destination on Google Maps, I entered Sa Pan village. It has gotten really foggy as we walked and we did not see anything for hours. We reached Sa Pan according to the maps, but there was no point of interest and we were starved as it was past lunch time. We finally found a café and got lunch. As we sat by the window, we watched as the fog slowly dissipate and formed again.  After being fed, we figured we might as well walk to the waterfall and then back to Ta Van.

The fog finally cleared up and we were able to see the beautiful rice paddies. We encountered a Dao lady who told me I am wearing a dress from the Hmong and she doesn’t like them. She had suggested for me to buy something from her. The “waterfall” was underwhelming. The waterfall was super small, we had to ask a local to make sure we did not mistaken the waterfall for something else.

I had an urge to extend my stay for a bit longer just to relax in the hammocks here if I had packed more clothes! It’s been a lovely experience in Sa Pa. The host and the guests here were all fun. Our host is adorable. They gave me a nickname as ‘fish sauce’ because my name sounds like the fish sauce brand.

On the last day, I booked a bus back to Hanoi. Getting on the bus was confusing. The driver kept refusing me; it wasn’t until another staff who insisted that I get on the bus. The bus company has terrible ratings online. I got the middle top spot in front of the bus so it is the prime spot for a casualty if there was an accident. It was hot and not the most comfortable. They are sleeper buses where you slant on the bus the whole time; you cannot lay down flat or sit up straight. Towards the end of the ride I saw a roach crawling on the side of the bus – thank goodness I was in the middle aisle!

Despite how popular of a destination Sa Pa is, I did not get the overly touristic and commercialized feeling. I am glad that I visited before leaving Northern Vietnam.