Goal: 1,380 miles - Miles to go: ZERO!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reinhart Reunion Ropes Course: It just got real

Your chances of being struck by lightning are exceedingly low. So low that most of us never really think about it. But they go up dramatically when you’re in the middle of a lightning storm. And go up even more still when you’re 65 feet up in a tree in the middle of a lightning storm. Then up even more when you’re strapped to a bunch of metal obstacles in that tree, 65 feet in the air, in the middle of a lightning storm. You still probably won’t be struck by lightning but headlines like “family reunion ruined when set of cousins get killed by lightning while attempting to complete a ropes course in the middle of a thunderstorm” start running through your head. Why the hell were they doing a high ropes course in the middle of thunder and lightning?

Of the many memorable moments of our Reinhart family reunion, none will leave me with quite the same symptoms of PTSD as when we were caught on the highest hardest part of a high ropes course when a freak thunderstorm changed course and went right over top of us. Literally. And not even “figuratively” literally like people tend to use “literally” these days. But literally literally it was terrifying.

The day started out innocently enough. It was my Cousin Charlie’s 11th birthday and he managed to talk a bunch of us into going to the Flagstaff Xtreme ropes course. It’s basically a series of five obstacle courses, starting 20 feet high through the trees and getting higher and harder as your progress through.

The skateboard obstacle on the 4th course, approximately 40-45 feet high.

After a quick “how to not get killed” safety briefing, we embarked on the first set of ropes. It wasn't particularly difficult and not even really that scary. While I was up in one of the trees, one of the guides asked me if I was afraid of heights. I replied, “no, but I’m afraid of falling from heights”; which is not only incredibly witty, but also describes the emotion pretty well. When you’re going through the courses, you’re strapped into a harness and have a pair of carabiners that you use to attach yourself to safety lines on each obstacle. It’s designed so that at least one of the carabiners is hooked in at all times. So you can’t really fall. Unfortunately your body doesn't necessarily know that. Occasionally I’d look at the ground 40 feet below and get a little surge of fear mixed with adrenaline. Logically I’d be able to tell myself that it was totally safe, but there was a part of my body that was definitely questioning my sanity. Which I think is a good thing. No matter what our brains tell our bodies, a part of us will always react purely by instincts. And our instincts say that riding around on skateboards 50 feet in the air is batshit crazy. I probably learned that from watching Cosmos. Hashtag evolution.

Uncle Dave on one of the early obstacles.

We banged out the first four courses easy peazy. The last obstacle was maybe a little tough but more than anything we were all just tired from having been climbing between trees for a couple hours. So we decided to take a short rest, refuel and tackle the hardest and highest course – the BLACK course – after lunch. This would also allow my Cousin Tom, Charlie’s dad, to catch up. He’d spent the first half of the morning taking pictures from below since he’d already done the three of the courses earlier in the week. Unfortunately the guides decided to arbitrarily be sticklers about the “you have to complete the courses in order” rule and so Tom had to start from the very beginning before he could join us for the black course.

We climbed down, chowed down, drank some Gatorade and were ready to take on the black course. My mom decided to hold back and just watch us do it. She claimed her arms were tired and that she knew her limits, but I’m pretty sure she just didn't want the rest of us to feel bad when she smoked us on the hardest obstacles. Earlier in the day, whenever I warned her that one of the courses was pretty tough she’d always cruise right through it and say, “that wasn't too bad”. Badass. The rest of us (quick head count, partially to confirm that we all did in fact survive), Gharrett, Jenny, Tom, Charlie, and Uncle Dave began climbing the 60 feet to the start of the black course just as a couple rain drops started to fall. Foreshadow.

My mom on one of the many zip lines throughout the courses.

The black course starts with a super long rope bridge, similar to stuff we’d crossed a handful of times already, but this was easily four times longer than anything we’d tackled before. Gharrett went first, then Charlie, then Tom, then me, Jenny and finally Uncle Dave. One of the challenging things about the black course was that there’s a rule of “only two people on any one obstacle at the same time. For some of the obstacles, you only want to go one at a time so that you don’t mess each other up. Since we all started as a group, this meant a lot more time waiting and contemplating our predicament before beginning each obstacle. And as a rule of thumb, don’t hang out in a tree 60 feet high and contemplate your predicament. Especially when you start noticing really dark storm clouds in the not too distant distance.

We all made it across the rope bridge just fine. Then rope burned the crap out of our ankles on the next leg of the course. At the time we thought our rope burns would be our biggest war story of the day. They were serious business, even a week later I have three inch scabs on each ankle. But it was while we were comparing injuries and getting up the courage for the second to last obstacle that things started to go wrong.

Jenny and I were standing behind Charlie, helping him get up the courage to embark on what looked like the hardest part of the entire ropes course. It was a series of rings hanging from ropes that you had to step into and then swing to the next one all the way form one tree to another. Difficult because it relied on balance, strength, and not panicking. Oh, and because it started raining making everything slippery. While we were telling him what a badass he was and how we was going to dominate the last couple hurdles in this course, I saw a bolt of lightning in the distance. It was still a couple miles away but it was definitely lightning followed shortly by the distinctive roar of thunder.

“Okay Charlie, you have to go NOW”.

Charlie (closely followed by me) on one of the hardest parts of the black course.

For all of us, the vague fear of heights was dwarfed by the immediate fear of being struck by lightning. It wasn't on top of us yet, but it felt like it could be at any minute. The guides said it was still far enough away that we didn't need to worry. And apparently it wasn't supposed to come any closer. Because thunderstorms are notorious for doing what they're "supposed to do".

Then it started hailing. Hard.

I didn't bother waiting for Charlie to finish the rings. I was swinging through them as soon as I had a few feet of space. There's a great series of pictures of me right behind Charlie on the rights and then way off in the distance, totally abandoning my entire family in order to save myself. In my defense, how am I supposed to protect them from lightning?

It was while I was in fleeing the group that things got real. The storm that was a few miles away all of a sudden was a few hundred feet away. Lightning flashed overhead and was immediately followed by a deafening clap of thunder. If you were counting Mississippis to see how far away it was, you would've gotten about a third of the way through the M. It was on top of us.

Jenny, right after the first lightning strike. As Tom said, "This just got real".

Another flash. Another clap. Hail pelted our hands and faces. The guides were yelling at everyone, "get down NOW!" "You, jump onto the cargo net now, go go go."

There were probably 50 or 60 people spread throughout the five courses. We were the highest. There was no escape route down, the fastest way to safety was to complete the course. I don't even remember flying down the last zip-line. It should have been the coolest part of the entire day, a rewarding ride through the trees after completing the hardest obstacle course. Instead I was in survival mode. The series of steps to clip and un-clip from the zip-line became automatic.

When I finally got to the ground I turned to see the rest of the family making their way through the course to safety. It was probably five minutes but felt like 45 before everyone was out of the trees. We all had our war stories. Dave's hands had stopped working due to a combination of fatigue and numbness. He'd completed the cargo net by grabbing on with his elbows.

On the car ride home, we were all in a bit of shock. Even now, it feels a little surreal to think about how the events unfolded. It makes for a good story, but I think I'll probably retire from ropes courses. At least ropes courses in areas that get daily thunderstorms. That sort of seems like a recipe for disaster.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vietnam in a Week. Part 6: Sa Pa to Seattle via Hanoi and Taipei

It's sort of ironic that final chapter in our whirlwind week long trip to Vietnam has taken me three months to finally finish and post. And odds are it'll be a bit of a let down. Much like Rocky V or the three Star Wars prequels, sometimes it's better to just quit when you're ahead. Nonetheless, I feel like I might as well put a bow on this trip. Part five of our Vietnam Odyssey is here if you missed it, and it has links to all the other parts. I don't really feel like re-posting links to all of them here.

If you don't remember (because I sure as heck didn't), last episode was about our super awesome bazillion mile trek through a bunch of villages around Sa Pa. We met a puppy who would grow up to become dinner, a bunch of friendly LOWs (little old women) who walked virtually the entire way with us, saw endless beautiful views of rice terraces, and finished the day with a great Italian dinner.

The next morning was the our final day in Vietnam. Really it was the second to last day but the impending overnight train ride made it feel like the start of a single 48 hour day. Actually more like 72 hours when you add in the flights back to Seattle. I haven't done the exact math to see how many full days the entire ordeal took because it would blow up my brain.

We started the day with a short trip to Sung's village. There were some sweet deals on knock-off Northface stuff there. Jenny bought a purple jacket because... well it was purple, what do you expect? We probably bought some other souvenirs too that are now sitting in bags in our basement along with the souvenirs from Singapore two years ago. Actually, I guess they aren't sitting there anymore because our basement flooded a couple days ago (foreshadowing to a future blog post?).
The entrance to Sung's village

After walking around the village for a couple hours it was time to head to the hotel, take a quick shower and prepare for the journey home.
Some (man made) waterfalls in Sung's village

First up was conquering the overnight train ride. If you remember, the train to Sa Pa wasn't terrible, it was just a few hours late. Well, the train ride back to Hanoi was terrible. No, it was worse than that. In the future when I'm trying to find something terrible to use as an analogy I'll use, "it was almost as bad as an overnight train from Sa Pa to Hanoi when the air conditioning breaks halfway through and the nearest window is jammed shut and you end up having to stand by the bathroom for the majority of the trip to avoid sweating out all the moisture in your body and turning into a human raisin." Because that's what happened.

In the middle of the night I woke up because our tiny little cabin was sweltering and stuffy except a more extreme version of those words. I got up to try to find some train attendant to see if they could turn on the air conditioning. A couple things made this difficult though. First, it was the middle of the night and and there isn't exactly a "flight attendant call button". Second, I don't speak Vietnamese and most Vietnamese people don't speak English. I was feeling adventurous though so I set out to find myself some AC.

As I said before, these train rides are not smooth. If it was an airplane, we would have been experiencing extreme turbulence for the vast majority of the trip. That, compounded with my half asleep overheated delirium made simply walking down the train aisle a bit of a challenge. But because I'm a hero, I eventually tracked down someone who looked official.

Through a series of hand gestures and sweat running down my face, I successfully communicated that it was too hot and that he should turn on the AC. He messed with some controls and gave me a thumbs up. Feeling pretty proud of myself, I staggered back to our cabin and climbed into bed, ready to be revel in the cool air. Except it was still twelve bajillion degrees. After a couple minutes it was clear that there was no change in the AC situation and I set out again to seek help.

The same dude tried to help me again. He fiddled with some more buttons and knobs and eventually got up and left. At the time I hoped he had gone to get more help, but in retrospect, I'm pretty sure he realized there was no fixing the AC and just wanted to get away from the sweaty American who was going to continue pestering him.

When it became obvious that he wasn't coming back, I switched into survival mode. Until then, my survival skills mostly consisted of insuring that my seat and tray table were their full upright and locked positions. So figuring out how to survive another few hours on a train that was a little warmer than I would have liked it was going to be a challenge. Good thing I excel under pressure.

First, I tried to find an open window. The window by our cabin was jammed shut so I walked another few feet down the hall. That ingenuity proved valuable because there was an open window a little farther down the hall by the bathroom. I set up camp there for the next few hours until Jenny came looking for me. We discussed the uncomfortably warmness of the train and decided that if we really wanted to get any kind of airflow, we were going to have to find a way to open the jammed window by our cabin.

Any day now I expect Obama to award me a congressional medal of honor for my heroics in getting that window open.

There were several problems. First, it was locked. And I'd already scared away the attendant in our car by asking him to fix the air conditioning. Time was of the essence so I quickly searched for something that could be used to pick the lock. A toothbrush. Bingo. Taking advantage of my exceptional finger dexterity, honed by years of video games, I used the toothbrush to pick the lock on the window. But it still wouldn't open. Some metal latch was still jamming it shut. To tackle that problem, I grabbed my earplugs that were tied together with a piece of string. Or as I like to call it, a window un-jammer. Using the string to get some leverage on the latch, I was able to free the window, push it open and get a face full of still-pretty-uncomfortably-warm-Vietnamese-air. But it was better than nothing. Probably.

Our adventure home didn't end there though. We survived the rest of the barely bearable train ride, killed a couple hours in Hanoi and went back to the hotel to catch a taxi to the airport. Since any automobile bigger than a motorbike is a novelty in Vietnam, it shouldn't have surprised us when our taxi driver showed up a small sedan expecting to fit four adults with a weeks worth of luggage each. Spoiler alert, we didn't fit. He called for a bigger car but who knows how long it would take to get there. We waited for a while but eventually had to split up and go. Since Jenny and my flight was first, we jumped in the car that was ready and sped off to the airport. Sped off in Vietnam is relative though since it's impossible to go much faster than 15 mph anywhere due to the amoeba of motorbikes that take up every square inch of roadway.

But we ended up being fine. We caught our flight. It was long. Made it to Taipei. The layover was really long. Got on our next flight to Seattle. It was longer still.
Jenny, during our painfully long layover in Taipei.

Travelling halfway around the world takes a while. Especially when you're starting in a super rural town in the remote mountains of Vietnam. But looking back it's actually kind of amazing that through half a dozen different modes of transportation over the course of a few days the biggest impediment was broken air conditioning. First world problems indeed.

The trip was a blast. The world is a big freaking place. On to the next adventure.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Vietnam in a week. Part 5: Sa Pa (Part 2)

(Holy guacamole this is getting out of control. If you haven't read parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, I'd just skip them and wait for the movie, that's what I did with the middle few Harry Potter books.)

When we last left our heroes, we had finished our first eventful day in Sa Pa and PTFO'd in our massive hotel beds (they were literally two queen beds pushed together) in preparation for our first full day of Sa Pa partying the next morning -- or Sa Pa-rtying if you prefer. Fair warning, that's not even close to the worst joke of today's blog.

Surprisingly, we'd only been in Sa Pa for about 12 hours when we met Sung at 9am to begin our long day. Three villages, 15km, infinity views, and probably a bunch of LOWs (Little Old Women who try to sell you stuff, if you missed episode 4).

We left on foot directly from our hotel and walked through town to a small path that would wind down into one of the villages. It only took about 45 seconds before a couple LOWs spotted us. It's not like we were that hard to find, a group of super white tourists carrying cameras and backpacks and towering over the 4'8" natives stick out like a Romney at a pride parade.

After the mandatory introductions "What's your name? How old are you? You buy from me?", they actually relaxed and tucked into the pack, apparently realizing this was going to be a long-sell. And honestly, they were pretty nice. One was named Mong Mai, and the other was her sister-in-law. I can't remember the sister-in-law's name so I'll just call her LaShawnda. That's almost definitely not her actual name though.

During the hike down to the first village we stopped every few minutes to take pictures of the incredible views. This posed a similar problem to what we had in Ha Long Bay: the views were gorgeous but when you go back and look at the pictures, they all basically look the same. Endless terraced hillsides, beautiful mountain ranges as far as the eye can see, yada yada yada. You'll just have to take my word that we weren't simply taking pictures of the same hillside from a bunch of different angles. These views were everywhere and absolutely impossible to do justice with a camera -- let alone an iPhone, which does double duty as my camera.
We entered the first village by way of a family's backyard. Or the equivalent of their backyard. Things are obviously more sprawling and property lines don't exactly exist around there, but this would have been like walking down the Burke-Gilman trail and then hopping a fence into someone's tomato plants. All of a sudden we were hiking past a couple small huts, a family of piglets, and a sleeping dog. And then we were tiptoeing through rice paddies, careful not to fall into the swampy not-yet-planted rice. This wasn't exactly difficult or anything, but Sung had told us that when they're planting the rice, they have to be careful because the fields are infested with leeches. So even though it was easy enough to walk on the 12" stone wall between terraces, I was 90% sure a pack of leeches were licking their leech lips, waiting for me to stumble.
Trekking through the middle of hundreds of acres of rice terraces gives you a new appreciation for what it takes to grow food. And really what it takes to survive in much of the world. When it's growing season there, it's an all-hands-on-deck operation. From before dawn until whatever needs to get done is done, the entire village is working. We talk about how Americans are workaholics. Yeah right. Try going to a rural village outside Sa Pa. I'm pretty sure Mong Mai and LaShawnda don't accrue any PTO.

If I'm honest, the entire trek really was just walking past endless hills of terraces similar to the first ones we hiked through. Which when you put it that way sounds kind of boring. But it was anything but boring. Like I eluded to before, it's impossible to capture the immensity of nature, no matter how many megapixels your camera has. But when you're walking through it and experiencing it in person, it's truly astonishing. And peaceful too. That's one of the things I do miss about running an obscene amount of miles every week: getting away from real life for a few hours everyday and just enjoying what's around you. Sa Pa would be an awesome place to train as a runner. As long as you had enough agility to evade a few LOWs here and there.

Obligatory panoramic shot. You can click it, but it still won't quite be cool enough, but it shows the enormity of what was around us a little better (cool drinking game idea I just had: take a drink for every synonym of the word "big" I use to describe the scenery around Sa Pa)
Trust me, we didn't just walk back and forth on this road. These terraces were everywhere.
About 10km into our hike we took a quick break to drink some Coke and play the "let's see where Woody forgot to put sunscreen" game. Spoiler alert, it was the back of my legs. Red as a Twilight book at a 7th grade girl's slumber party. 

At our little rest stop, I spotted this cute puppy and had to track it down for a picture. But as soon as I took this shot, our guide laughed and said, "when as he grows up, he'll be dinner". I had seen some puppies early and had intentionally not asked about what their future entailed because I was afraid to know answer.
I'm sure this little guy will escape that fate though. How could anyone eat something with a face like that?

A couple kilometers before the end of our trek through colossal spectacularness, we grabbed lunch at a homestead -- those are like hostels for tourists in the little villages. Mong Mai and LaShawnda were still with us, and since it's really hard to say no to a couple nice old ladies who just went on a four hour walk with you, Jenny bought some stuff. It was really pretty handmade stuff, but souvenir-type stuff all the same.

Lunch was really good and I'm almost certain it didn't include any puppy meat. But do you really think you could tell the difference between dog meat and pig meat?
After lunch, we walked the last few kilometers to meet up with our van and head back to our hotel. We said goodbye to Mong Mai and LaShawnda, who hung out while we ate lunch so that they could finish the walk with us. Which was of cool of them. They'd already made their sale so I don't think they were expecting any more money, but I like to think that we sort of made friends with them by the end of the day.

That night we had dinner at a little Italian restaurant in Sa Pa. Which might sound weird, but there were actually a lot of good non-Vietnamese restaurants everywhere we went in Vietnam. And there's only so much Pho you can eat before you want to mix it up with a pizza. For me that was after no Pho. I'm one of those weirdos who doesn't really get what all the hype is about with Pho. Isn't it just chicken noodle soup on steroids? And normally, the only time anyone eats chicken noodle soup is when they're sick. But give it a fancy name that allows for all sorts of inappropriate puns, toss in a handful of shrubbery and some comically long noodles and all of a sudden everyone goes crazy for the stuff. Maybe it's the fact that we make ourselves eat it with chopsticks and no one wants to admit how insane the idea of consuming soup with a pair of sticks is.

In ten years, I think we'll look back on this brief Pho frenzy the same way we do about Capri Sun packaging. The target demographic for Capri Suns is 8 year old boys at halftime of a soccer game. Has any 8 year old in the history of the world successfully punctured a Capri Sun without showering him and his entire team with sticky sugary liquid? Who's idea was it to effectively package that stuff as mini hand-grenades with a taped on straw-detonator? They don't still sell those things do they?

But anyway, pizza. We had pizza for dinner that night from an Italian restaurant in the middle of Vietnam that had Columbia Crest wines on their menu. Super exotic of us, but it was a nice quiet way to spend our last real night in Vietnam. The next day we had a quick visit to our Sung's village and then just a couple hours before we had to hop on an overnight train and begin the epic journey back to Seattle. Any hopes of getting to that part of the trip in this episode were dashed by my Pho and Capri Sun diatribe. I swear that wasn't planned, but I'm totally right. Right?

To be continued...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Vietnam in a week. Part 4: Sa Pa

(Jump to previous episodes in this Vietnam anthology: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Sa Pa was the highlight of our time in Vietnam. For me an ideal vacation needs to include the right mix of unique experiences, the kind of stuff that make for great stories (or mediocre blog posts). But also enough relaxing down time that you can actually soak in an appreciate where you're at and what you're doing. Sa Pa had that balance. Mostly. What I don't like about vacations is buying souvenirs. I'm psychotically opposed to buying souvenirs. And Sa Pa has heat seeking souvenir dealers who will trek 15km with you just to make a sale. If everyone had their work ethic and unrelenting persistence, we'd have cured cancer a decade ago. They were annoying, but also make for great stories.

Our first afternoon in Sa Pa called for a trip to a really cool pretty neat mediocre waterfall. It was fine, but honestly any waterfall I see now gets unfairly compared to Igauzu. And come on, no one can compete with that. It'd be like if your wife told you she dated Brad Pitt in college. You'd be forever living in Tyler Durden's shadow.

Like I said, totally unfair.

The mountain roads to and from the waterfall had some spectacular views. We asked Sung (our tour guide, if you missed part 3) what the mountains were called and she told us "Fancy Pants" Mountains. Which is definitely the greatest name for any mountain range ever. Even if we later learned that they were actually called Fancipan, I'm sticking with our original interpretation.
Keep in mind that during our first day in Sa Pa, we still hadn't really slept for a while. As we discussed, the overnight train ride was more on the "experience" side of my experience/relaxation vacation partnership. So the waterfall and beautiful views were cool, but they were experienced in the haven't-slept-in-a-while haze. We were about to get abruptly shaken from that haze with our next adventure though.

Sa Pa is a super small town. The area only opened to tourism in 1993 and only really got going in the last decade or so. It's nothing like the organized chaos of Hanoi. Surrounding the town are lots of even smaller villages inhabited by several ethnic minorities. The villages are effectively only accessible by foot or motorbike (though we did see a full sized bus attempt to navigate a road that was about half the width of a full sized bus), which would make them feel really quiet if it weren't for the swarms of little old women trying to sell you stuff.

We were engulfed by these little old women (LOWs) as soon as we stepped out of our van a couple kilometers from the first village that we visited. And we definitely weren't expecting the insanity. They were the motorbikes of Sa Pa. If motorbikes spoke broken English.
Don't let the babies on their backs deceive you, they're as tenacious as a pack of honey badgers. And I don't think honey badgers even hang out in packs because there wouldn't be a way to measure that level of tenaciousness.
I thought the juxtaposition of the LOWs and the ducks was funny. Heh. There were all sorts of animals running around the villages, waiting to be eaten. Well I guess they didn't know they were going to be eaten. From their perspective they were just chillin' on the farm. But yes, they all get eaten. Even the puppies (foreshadowing for part 5!). They probably live much better lives than most of the stuff we eat though, so I actually didn't feel to bad. Except for the puppies.

A typical conversation with an LOW goes something like this:

"What's your name?" "How old are you?" "How many kids you have?" "You buy from me?" "Maybe later?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?"

Multiply that by a gazillion and you have our first trek through a local village. Eventually I learned to answer the "maybe later?" questions with "no, never ever ever" which was only mildly effective. If you do make the mistake of buying something form one of the LOWs, it sets of a shitstorm with the rest of them.

"Why you no buy from me?" "Why you only buy from her?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?" "You buy from me?"

Notice the subtle difference in the introductory inquiries before breaking into the chorus of "you buy form me"s. They try to make you feel guilty. Ruthless. When they finally break you and you do buy something, they give you a free bracelet. Which is clearly just a way to flag you as a sucker.

I want to be clear, I had a strange respect for the LOWs. In spite of their obnoxiousness, they were fascinating. I would totally read a Malcom Gladwell book that studied the groups of women selling crap to tourists in and around Sa Pa. Surely some are more profitable than others -- what techniques do they use? Would it be beneficial for them to unionize? Maybe have the better crafters stay at home and knit pillow cases while the top saleswomen focus only on suckering in tourists. Honestly, someone has to write a book on this. Someone get in touch with the guys at FiveThirtyEight, this seems right up their alley.

When it was all said and done, we'd trekked about 4m into the valley, through the village, and then up to meet our van on the other side. And some super skilled photographer took a panoramic of the route.
(click on it for a bigger picture)

It was a fun, full day but we when it was done, we were ready for some food, wine, and relaxation. The next morning we had a 15km trek planned, and at the time fully expected to be fighting off LOWs the entire time. It didn't turn out to be quite that exciting, but was still more action-packed than The Hobbit. But just like The Hobbit, I'm going to split this story into way more movies/posts than it needs to be.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Vietnam in a week. Part 3: Ha Long to Hanoi to Sa Pa

(Links to part 1 and part 2 if you missed those)

Flying halfway around the world is tiring and takes a really long time. An arguably more arduous endeavor however, is traveling from Ha Long bay to Sa Pa without the gift of flight. Vietnam doesn't have a freeway system. Even Seattle's display of civil engineering idiocy where we narrow down to two lanes through the heart of downtown would be a vast improvement over Vietnam's meandering lane-less alleyways that are used to traverse the country. So getting from Ha Long bay to Sa Pa was way harder than Google maps would have you believe.
Google's 8 hour estimate for the 499 km journey is laughable.

That actual trip involved a four hour bus ride back to Hanoi. That's a four drive in order to cover 100 km. Then we had to take an overnight train ride to Lao Cai. A ride that allegedly can be done in less than 9 hours but instead took us about 12. From there, it takes an additional 45 minutes to an hour to traverse the final 30 km mountain climb to Sa Pa. A climb during which we were precariously weaving around trucks and motorbikes the entire way.

But now we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's back up to the train ride.

Mike, Lynn, Jenny, and I had a private four personal sleeper car. We had no idea what to expect from that. But all things considered, it probably met our ill-defined expectations. Adequate but cramped and slightly uncomfortable to say the least. The room was about the side of our Prius. With four beds and an entirely unnecessary table that took up half the floor space.
At least it had air conditioning -- for the way to Sa Pa anyway. We'll have to wait for a future installment of this blog series to learn whether the air conditioner broke on the way back to Hanoi, forcing us to MacGyver open window so that we didn't suffocate in our box car turned oven.

The train doubled as a passenger train and whatever you call the other kind of train. It stopped frequently to grab new cars and unload others, resulting in what felt like an earthquake simulator. Needless to say, this made sleeping difficult if not impossible. Jenny and I were still pretty jet lagged and sleep deprived at this point so I actually did get some sleep despite the turbulence. But I got a lot of not sleep too and was mildly afraid of being thrown out of my bunk whenever the train decided to pretend to be a bucking bronco.

Additionally, we didn't know that the train would end up being three hours late. And you forget how hard it is to figure out where in the world you are without an iPhone to tell you. So we were stuck staring out the window trying to figure out where we were and how far we had to go; attempting to decipher Vietnamese signs and comparing words that were either names of towns or billboard advertisements to a map of scheduled stops for the train. It was hopeless. Eventually we found a train employee (or possibly a stowaway) who spoke a little English and was able to inform us that we were still about two hours from Sa Pa. It was 7:30am. We were supposed to arrive at 6:30am. Blargfanuggin.

We burned the next few hours mostly lamenting about how we still had a few hours to burn. And then wondering whether we should worry about missing our flight if our train was as late on the return trip. Really exciting stuff.

But in the end we made it.

We got off the train and realized we were completely relying on there being someone waiting at the train station, holding up a sign with our name on it. We'd arranged the trip through a travel agent and didn't know what hotel we'd be staying at, who we were supposed to be meeting, or really anything at all. Just that someone was supposed to be meeting us at the train station to save us.

And that's how we met Sung.

Sung was amazing. Like, "totally took the trip to a new level of awesomeness" amazing. We found her in the throng of people as we left the train station and were relieved that she knew who we were, didn't appear to be scamming us, spoke very fluent English and had that effortless charisma where she just makes you happy to be around her even when you just finishing a mindbogglingly long overnight train ride in which you don't really remember sleeping even though you're pretty sure you must have at some point.

We still had about a 45 minute drive to Sa Pa -- even though it was only 30 km. The drive was kind of fun though. It was somewhat frightening because we were practically driving up the side of a mountain while zig-zagging around other cars, trucks, vans, and motorbikes. But we also got some spectacular views along the way.

Our hotel turned out to be totally awesome. It way exceeded expectations, which were a little bit deflated after of our boat accommodations. Not only were our rooms sans rats and cockroaches but they were legitimately nice. They were huge with our own (mostly private) balcony and a view of Sa Pa and the surrounding mountains.
The bathroom itself was probably bigger than our room during the cruise and our toilet actually flushed -- I may have forgotten to mention that particular inadequacy about our boat bathroom.

We had a great basecamp from which to begin our adventures in and around Sa Pa. Which is all coming up in part 4.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Vietnam in a week. Part 2: Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

(If you missed part one, nothing really happened. Sort of like how the first billion pages of Lord of the Rings is just walking, smoking, and eating, part one just covered our epic journey uneventful plane flights to Vietnam. Boring, but necessary in order to construct the proper narrative. If you still want to read it despite that incredible recommendation, it can be be found here)

After checking into our hotel in Hanoi, we took to the streets. We were in a bit of a can't-remember-the-last-time-we-slept haze, but managed to navigate the motor bike pandemonium of downtown Hanoi without getting run over. Which is actually a bit of an accomplishment. There are no real traffic lights to speak of, few sidewalks, no crosswalks, no lane lines, and no significant breaks in traffic. I'm not exaggerating. Crossing the street is like fording a river. You just go for it. You can't stop halfway across or you'll get swept away by the myriad motorbikes. No matter what happens, you have to forge ahead. Fortunately the drivers don't want to hit you almost as much as you don't want to be hit so it all somehow works out. The river parts around you and you get to the other side unharmed. When it works, you feel like Moses parting the Red Sea. Fortunately, we never had to experience what it feels like when it doesn't work.

At some point we grabbed a round of Tiger beer. They were only 75 cents each, and easily worth twice that. Compared to some of the local Hanoi beer we had, they were world class. We did our best to avoid a brief rain storm and then headed back to the hotel for dinner. Then we PTFO'd in our bed. Ah, glorious sleep. If you ever want to really appreciate sleep, take the most uncomfortable chair in your house and put it in your smallest closet. Then sit in the chair for 15 hours and periodically eat some really crappy microwave food. Then walk around your block a dozen times while someone follows you around in their car and honks their horn every few seconds. Or just fly to Vietnam and walk around Hanoi for a couple hours. Very similar sleep-deprivation experiences.

The next morning we got on a bus for a four hour drive to Ha Long bay.
Our tour guide, Duk, told us some cool Vietnam fun facts:

  • The are a gazillion motorbikes -- he may have been more precise.
  • Hanoi means "ascending dragon". It's probably supposed to be written Ha Noi, but now I don't want to go back and fix it the dozen places I've already typed it. So deal with it, we're sticking with the Western spelling.
  • Ha Long means "descending dragon" -- it was created when some dragon descended to earth and spit out a bunch of jewels, which turned into those neat rock islands. Either that or they formed through tens of millions of years of limestone erosion. Honestly, if Science ever wants to compete with ancient myths and religion, it's got to come up with some more exciting stories. I'm taking jewel spitting dragons over erosion any day of the week.
When we got to the bay, we checked into our luxurious cabin on the boat. Yes, that's the whole cabin, not just the bed. There also may or may not have been rats in the walls. And I might have found a cockroach in our room. 

But at least there was a hell of a view out the window.
We cruised around the bay for two nights and it was one of those cases where it's simply impossible to capture nature's beauty with pictures. There were hundreds, probably thousands of islands (or dragon jewels, if you prefer) all throughout the bay. Unfortunately, there was even more garbage. That was the sad part of the cruise. We did some really awesome kayaking through caves, saw some monkeys that were literally "monkeying around" (how cliche) as they leaped from tree to tree. But everywhere we went there was trash floating around too. I guess that's one advantage to seeing the bay only in pictures -- I mostly shot around the trash.

Dinner on the cruise was decent, massive, but redundant. Each meal consisted of close to a dozen courses. We had an ongoing joke that "when the rice arrives, you're halfway done". We'd typically get some kind of chicken dish, a pork dish, at least one squid dish, some shrimp, a couple plates of vegis, and a massive bowl of rice. Plus an occasional bowl of soup, and some sort of fruit at the end. It was fine, but by the third night of surf and turf and surf and more surf, I was on the verge of going vegetarian. The couple meals after the cruise, I think we all did avoid meat entirely. It was just too much mediocre protein cooked in conditions of questionable sanitation in a short amount of time.

There were a few other families with us while we toured the bay. A Canadian family with two kids who were at the start of a seven month journey around Southeast Asia. They were from Victoria and had a delightful Canadian accent. Another couple from the Netherlands, who said only foreigners call them Dutch. And a super self-entitled British family, who we were really relieved weren't Americans. There was some mix up with their rooms -- they were supposed to have adjoining rooms with their small kids but somehow the reservations got messed up and they were in two adjacent, not adjoining rooms. Definitely disappointing, but sort of an unsolvable problem once you're there and every room on the boat is booked. The crew bent over backwards trying to accommodate them, eventually giving them a full refund and free drinks even though, to every one's dismay, the family stayed on board for the full two nights, three days. There was one night where things nearly escalated into a fist fight. Plenty of super awkward yelling and insulting. It was ugly. They were assholes. We still had a really fun cruise, but were definitely ready to get off the boat when it was done.
Oh yeah, and one day we spent on this man-made beach with a little hike. This sign was at the start of the hike. I always love the broken English you find on signs like this in foreign countries. One of my favorite was in Singapore a few years ago by some road-side construction. It said "Be Safe. Then Sorry." Classic.

After our cruise we had the four hour bus ride return to Hanoi and then an overnight train to Sapa. But that will have to wait until part 3.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Vietnam in a week. Part 1: Seattle to Hanoi

Last year, Jenny and I flew to Western Australia. That's like a 9 hour flight, then a 7 hour flight, then another 6 hour flight. Probably even more than that, I may have blocked the specifics from my memory. Plus there's plenty of hanging out in airports all over the globe in between the mind-numbingly long flights. It's really freaking far. Vietnam is pretty far, but it's not Australia far. So when our itinerary called for just a 12 hour puddle-jump to Taipei and then a 3-hour-and-some-change hop to Hanoi, it didn't sound too soul-crushing. The 2 am departure time wasn't necessarily ideal, but when you're flying to the other side of the planet, your body gets so confused as to what day and time it is that it really doesn't matter what time you start the adventure. It's exhausting to matter what.

We landed in Taipei after the first leg of the journey to discover we had more than a six hour layover. Well, I discovered that, Jenny definitely already new. I sort of make a point of being blissfully naive about time-frames when traveling. It's easier to wrap my mind around that way. One time when I flew from Boston to Buenos Aires, I was pretty sure my Atlanta-Buenos Aires leg was something like 6 hours. About 5 hours into the flight, I discovered it was actually closer to 11 hours. But hey, at that point I only had 6 hours left. Somehow that sounded more rational when it was only in my head.

Anyway, back to Taipei. Not a lot was going on in the airport at 5 am, or whatever ungodly hour we arrived. Fortunately, it was early afternoon on Saturday back in the states, and I was able to watch Portland implode against Colorado on the only-sort-of-sketchy wifi.
Rickets took a red card, Timbers conceded two penalties in like 60 seconds and went on to get spanked 0-2 against an extremely mediocre Rapids team. So far the trip was a rousing success. A couple more hours of soccer and a double espresso later, and I felt fully immersed in South Asian culture.
At least it was a decent way to spend of a brutal layover.

Our flight to Hanoi was easy. We had plowed through the overtired stage (with the help of caffeine) and were ready for vacation. And lucky for us, Hanoi decided to make us feel at home by emulating Seattle's weather.
I guess that's normal for Vietnam though. Didn't it rain for like 70 days straight in Forrest Gump?

A few more "hurry up and wait"s later and we had our visas, were through customs, grabbed our bags, found our driver and were off to the hotel to meet Mike and Lynn. It was also our first introduction to the organized chaos of Vietnam traffic. Pictures don't do it justice, but imagine Seattle traffic without lane lines and replace each car with two motorbikes. Oh, and instead of freeways, it's a bunch of super narrow windy side roads. It's actually kind of beautifully in its insanity.

We met up with Mike and Lynn at the hotel. I think it was somewhere around noonish. Not sure what day. I think Sunday. Saturday disappeared into the travel abyss. We hadn't slept since Thursday night, not really anyway. But were ready to start the adventure.

To be continued... (part 2 now available here)