Wednesday, June 5, 2013

From Bangkok to Sapa, Vietnam---What a contrast!

With a short stopover in Bangkok where it was scorching hot reaching into the 100s most days while experiencing torrential downpours. I continue to be amazed by the scores of opulent Shopping Malls usually located along the Sky Train stations. One mall even has a few floors dedicated cars like Lamborghini, Maserati, and the lowly Mercedes and BMWs. They also have a couple of floors with all types of high quality restaurants which were quite a contrast to the normal street stalls I usually eat at while in Thailand.

Another feature of these huge malls is that they have very fancy theaters with comfortable reclining chairs all sorts of food and drink available. I decided to check out "Fast and Furious 6" which cost me just 160 baht for one of the reclining seats which is much more comfortable than any seats back home. In all of the showings, they show clips of the King of Thailand and family over the years ending with the audience standing to the national anthem.

The movie was wall to wall action adventure so much so my adrenaline was still pulsing through me for hours afterward---whew! On my return I passed a number of street vendors that were selling pirated DVD copies of "Fast and Furious 6" among other DVD that were just showing up in the theaters. Knock off designer bags and watches were also included in the mix of street vendor items for sale.

Fast food restaurants seem to be increasing throughout SE Asia along with increasing number of young, obese children. Despite Ronald McDonald's "wai' which is to show each other respect, his food is offering young Thais the route to childhood obesity along with other assorted health hazards.






On June 4th, I got up at 4 AM for my 6:30 AM flight. As I approached a group taxis, the leader told me he could get me to Don Muang Airport for just 500 baht. That was twice what the Lonely Planet guide suggested. He then dropped it to 400 baht. I told him I was going to use a meter taxi, and ignoring him and about four other drivers hanging around, I flagged down the first meter taxi coming my way, and I was on my way. It was early so I did not have to pay for the tolls since we had not taken the tollway and the final cost was 200 baht including tip. I just hate it when people try to rip you off.

At $65 for a one way, two hour flight from Bangkok to Hanoi on AirAsia, this highlights how inexpensive flying is in SE Asia using local carriers. This flight on a 737 was comfortable, on time, and the cabin crew were very friendly and courteous.

Clearing Vietnamese immigration and customs, I located a bunch of ATM machines and the first one, HSBC, rejected my ATM card. I was hoping that this was not going to be a repeat of my experience in Laos. The next ATM was a Citi---my most unfavorite company in the world for what they did to us in Loreto Bay--and this time it worked when I lowered the amount from 5,000,000 to 3,000,000 Vietnamese Dong. That was a real relief. $1 USD equals about 20,700 Dong.

Loaded with wads of Dong, I sat at an airport cafe sipping some delicious Vietnamese coffee while checking out my Lonely Planet guide on how to get to downtown Hanoi, about 35 km. I chose the local number 17 bus that rattled its way down to central Hanoi with a final stop near the old quarter and cost just 7,000 Dong---about 30 cents.


After walking through the "Old Quarter" of Hanoi, I stopped by Hoan Kiem Lake for some iced coffee. This was the lake that John McCain was pulled out of and then imprisoned in the "Hanoi Hilton" during what the Vietnamese now call the "American War" . While sipping my coffee, I looked at some possible places to stay in Hanoi, but then decided to head to the Hanoi Train Station nearby and book the night train to Lo Cai and then on to Sapa, my first key destination in Vietnam.

The train station was not where it was shown on the Lonely Planet map, but after a few questions to passers by I found it. It looked pretty impressive from the outside, but was pretty grubby inside. when I went to book my ticket, I learned that the soft sleeper tickets had tripled in price since the Lonely Planet guide. I paid 700,000 Dong for an upper bunk bed, and then found the left luggage place to store my bags for 30,000 Dong so I could tour Hanoi until my departure time of 9:50.

After a few hours of walking around the "Old Quarter", I stopped at one of the many street side Bia parlors where they sold glasses of cold draft beer. When I first came here in 2002, this kind of beer was just 2,000 Dong, but now it is 8,000 Dong or about 38 cents a glass--- still a great value.

I ate lunch at the Mango Restaurant which was just next to the train station and since they had wifi, I caught up on my email. Throughout my travels I find that more and more regular restaurants have free wifi available to its customers although it is fairly slow compared to my home Internet service. I had a beef and mango salad along with a curry vegetable seafood soup while catching up on my emails.

I headed out again and walked by the water puppet theater and the Hanoi Hilton until it looked like I would get some rain. When it was nice again it was a stop by a Bia parlor before I returned to the dry comfort of the Mango Restaurant.

I splurged on a tender steak, medium rare, with some delicious red wine sauce along with mashed potatoes and vegetables for 400,000 Dong. After dinner, I ran in the rain to the train station now packed with travelers. I retrieved my pack and then found a comfortable seat among the clamour of the announcements and the ebb and flow of the travelers. While waiting, I met Lucie, an American from Florida, who had just arrived from Sapa and was now headed to Vinh. She had been traveling a fairly long time in New Zealand and Australia and was now exploring Vietnam. She thought that two nights in Sapa would be enough to see the sights there and said it was cold enough to wear a jacket in the high mountain climate. She found the people there very friendly as well.

I told her to check out my blog for my experience in Laos since she planned to go there next. She was interested in the two day slow boat ride so I gave her some information on places and costs.

It took a bit of checking with the booking agent to locate which platform to go to for my train until finally she got someone to walk me through the gate. I was then directed to walk to the east end of the parked trains where I saw a sign pointing to track 7. We all had to cross about 6 train tracks to get to our designated train. I found my compartment where I had the upper bunk and the other passengers were a Vietnamese family who talked loud into the night.

The ride itself was a nonstop series of the train going around one curve after another as the train wended its way up and through the mountains to Lo Cai and Sapa. It was difficult to sleep with all of the swaying back and forth, but I think I slept some.

In the morning I enjoyed viewing the countryside rolling bay as we approached Lo Cai.

Once the train arrived in Lo Cai, the touts descended on the disembarking passengers. I ended up getting on a minibus after paying $20 for the ride which was posted on a sign at the train terminal. The guy then tried to charge me $50 since I was the only passenger. I said no, that was not the deal and I asked for my money back. He then handed me off to another mini bus for the front seat ride to Sapa which took over an hour on some very narrow twisty roads. As we got off the minibus, we were surrounded by our "new best friends" , the Hmong women in their traditional black garb who offered to take us to various guesthouses, provide tours of their villages, and sell us their handicrafts. I ended up following Manh Min to my Nogc Anh Gueshouse near the Sapa Market.

I ended up also buying for 150,000 Dong another "man" purse from her that she is modeling for me, but did not take her up on her offer for a tour since it was raining a bit.


This room had wifi, a very nice and clean room with a great hot shower, and TV, but no news channels.


Here is the view I have from my balcony and it cost just 250,000 Dong or about $11.75 per night. I plan to stay two nights, and then leave for the night train back to Hanoi about 4:30 pm on Friday.

After freshing up, I had a great omelet breakfast including some hot Vietnamese drip coffee while watching my new "best friends" kept walking by angling for some sort of business.

Every tourist walking about was a target for these groups of Hmongs. they were always friendly, even if their offers were turned down.



My "best friend", Manh Minh, had a little shop in the Sapa Market she took me to that was surrounded by other Hmongs selling similar items. I was looking for a carry bag for my mini iPad and this vendor had just what I wanted which I paid 100,000 Dong for along with two keychains.







After I bought an umbrella the rain stopped, of course, so I took a walk toward a nearby village as the fog and clouds cleared out.

Here are some villagers on their way up to Sapa with the rice field terraces in the background.

Some day these little pigs will get to take a one way trip to the Sapa market.



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