Cabin Sharing

When it came time to board the train for our journey back to Hanoi, we walked on the dimly lit platform at the Lao Cai train station to find the train car that we’re supposed to be on. Fortunately there was only one train in the station that was about ready to leave, so there was no mistake of getting on the wrong one.

After finding our train car and cabin, Kristi and I started to settle inside our cabin for the overnight journey. The layout of the cabin was similar to the one we occupied on the way to Lao Cai a couple of days earlier, a small cabin with four bunk beds that were designed more for Asian-sized passengers (less than 6-ft tall). We only purchased two seats, so we would be sharing the cabin with two more people. When we got to our cabin, there was noone else there yet, so in my mind I was hoping that may be we got lucky that the other two seats were not occupied for this trip (like on air flights, sometimes the middle seat next to you might not be occupied so you could stretch a little bit). But no such luck as few minutes later a couple of gentlemen in their 50s came into the cabin to take the remaining two bunk beds.

After getting their luggage stowed under the bunk beds, one of the gentlemen said hi and introduced themselves to us. His name was Eyal, and the other gentleman was Avi. They were from Tel Aviv, Israel, and they were business partners who were in the middle of a three-week trip in Southeast Asia, visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. They were still in the beginning part of their trip — Sapa was the first destination in their itinerary to visit. They said they did many treks to the villages like what we did, and they also did whitewater rafting. I didn’t know that there was an option to do that activity in Sapa area.

From Sapa, Avi and Eyal were going back to Hanoi and after spending a day there, they would continue down to Central and South Vietnam before continuing on to Siem Reap in Cambodia and ending their trip with some time at the beach in Phuket, Thailand. So it sounded like they had quite a packed itinerary for their trip. I asked if they’re traveling independently. Eyal said it was sort of independent, as they were not part of any bigger group, but all of their travel arrangements were done by their travel agent.

We had many hours to spend in the train on the way to Hanoi. So the conversation continued with us sharing our travel experience so far, which drew their interests as we had gone to Thailand and Cambodia before coming to Vietnam. Eyal said that he’s been to Thailand before, but not to Cambodia yet.

They also shared about their family. Eyal had a family with three daughters back home. He showed us the photos of his daughters. This trip was meant to be a ‘scouting’ trip to check out the places before possibly coming back again to visit with his wife and daughters. He wanted to make sure he knew the places and activities that they would enjoy. Avi said he had two grown children, and his wife didn’t really like traveling, so that’s why he went with his friend for the trip.

After chatting for some time, it’s time to get some rest and we each occupied our little bunk bed to try sleeping for several hours before reaching Hanoi. This time I was able to get more sleep time than during the trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai, probably because I was already tired after doing the trek during the day. Few hours later we were woken up by some noises and feeling the train slowing down. Apparently it stopped a couple of times at stations near Hanoi. So we knew it’s getting closer. Avi was up before everyone else, and when I got up and saw him already sitting and reading a book, he smiled and offered me a breathmint as he took one himself; that was a good way to freshen up after the rough sleep in a moving train.

Once we arrived in Hanoi, we bid each other goodbye, and we continued on our trip with the next segment of our journey.

I took the photo below from the hallway outside our cabin just before the train started to move. Avi and Eyal were on the left, and Kristi was on the right. You can see the small size of the cabin that we occupied. We didn’t get to occupy the whole cabin for ourselves, but instead we had good conversation with travelers from other part of the world.

Avi and Eyal

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Journey Back

After spending the afternoon relaxing at the Sapa Rooms Hotel, it’s time for us to leave Sapa for the journey back to Hanoi. Similar to the travel coming to Sapa, we had the transportation arranged through the hotel. For someone who is used to plan everything in advance myself, it was a bit uncomfortable not knowing what the next thing that’s going to happen in this trip.

I asked Andrew and Cathy, the other Sapa Rooms guests who are also traveling back to Hanoi about how this would work, and they were not sure either. So we asked the hotel’s front desk person about this, and he told us not to worry and just be ready to leave by around 5 pm. A minivan that would take us to Lao Cai would show up, and once we get to Lao Cai, we would be dropped off at a place where we could collect our train tickets. I was so used to having everything planned out in advance, knowing the point of contact in the event of emergency, etc. — not just going with the flow. So even this explanation was not completely making me feel comfortable about the trip. At least knowing that at least there are other people in the same position made me feel a little comfortable.

Around 5 pm, sure enough, a Ford Transit minivan showed up outside the hotel. By then I had just finished settling the hotel bills, and the hotel manager told us that our ride to Lao Cai was ready to take us there. So we loaded up the van and got ready to leave. In addition to Andrew, Cathy, Kristi, and me, there was a family of four tourists that also went with us. The rest of the van were locals who were on the way to Lao Cai. We recognized one of the passengers; it was May our tour guide from the day before. She recognized us as well and said hi. I remembered she mentioned that her daughter stayed with her in-laws in Lao Cai during the week, so she was going to Lao Cai to see her daughter.

It didn’t take long to load the minivan and off we went. The trip was like the reverse of the ride coming in. We came in the morning when it was still dark when we left Lao Cai but then we saw the sun rising on the way to Sapa. For the trip to Lao Cai, we left when it was still light outside, but the sun set on the way there and by the time we arrived in Lao Cai, it was already dark.

The minivan dropped the local passengers including May along the way as we entered Lao Cai. The last stop was at a restaurant located right across the street from the train station. Apparently this was the drop off place for us, and someone from the restaurant had the train tickets for us. We got the tickets, and not long after, we were told to head to the train station with our tickets, get inside the station, and find the train car and cabin as marked on the ticket. Andrew and Cathy were assigned to different train car than ours, so we said goodbye to each other on the way in, and that was the last time we saw them.

The photo below was taken at the restaurant where we were dropped off by the minivan in Lao Cai. It wasn’t a bad idea for the Sapa Rooms folks to coordinate with this restaurant to help with the travelers’ logistics. This allow them to have someone helping in Lao Cai without having personnel going along from Sapa to Lao Cai. For the restaurant proprietor, I’m not sure if they got a cut from the train ticket purchase, but since we had to wait for few minutes before our time to head to the station, some other passengers ended up getting food to go from the restaurant to take during the train ride. For the passengers, the restaurant also had restrooms they could use before going aboard the train for the overnight journey.

Ticket pick up place

Conversation Starter

One of the aspects that make a trip memorable is the people you meet and the conversation you have with them. I’m not that outgoing and it’s beyond my comfort zone to start up conversations with random strangers I meet during a trip. However, usually when I did have a conversation with someone, often times that turned into an interesting discussion especially when the other person was as interested in a particular topic or shared something in common with me. Sometimes what it takes is a conversation starter and the courage to approach others. Then those who were strangers before can become your friends, even for just a short period of time.

During our time staying in Sapa, Vietnam, we stayed at a hotel that had many foreign guests. In most cases each group of guests went on their own, and didn’t really mingle with others. But after staying for a couple of days, there were some that we came across in many different places at the hotel or somewhere else in Sapa.

When we were done with our trek to Cat Cat village, we decided to spend the remaining three hours we had available before the journey back to Hanoi at the Sapa Rooms Hotel restaurant. We had not had lunch, and it’s a cozy place to hang out (plus we already checked out from our room and our luggages were at the hotel’s front desk). Since it was late afternoon, most of other guests were already left of were out and about. For some time, Kristi and I had the whole lounge/restaurant area for ourselves. It was nice to stretch our legs after walking on the trek for the last few hours. We ordered some appetizers and drinks from the restaurant — only in less than two days we became quite a fan of their mixed fruit juice creations that we looked forward to try out different kinds while we were still there.

Not long after, a couple came to sit at the table next to ours. They looked familiar — we saw them for the first time the previous day when we were driving back to Sapa Rooms from the Hmong Mountain Retreat after finishing our trek. This couple stayed at the Hmong Mountain Retreat the night before, so they shared the same minivan ride with us back to Sapa. We also saw them in the morning when we came down to check out from our room. It looked like they were in similar situation like ours — on their last day in Sapa and having to spend the day in town before heading back to Hanoi at night.

As we were enjoying our appetizers, I took out my camera to review the photos I took in the morning during our trek. The gentleman sitting at the next table saw that, and made a quick comment: ‘That’s a nice lens you have there. I’m a Canon shooter too.’ (referring to the 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens I had on my Canon DSLR — a workhorse lens that is very recognizeable among the Canon DSLR users given its distinguishing red ring). I said thanks to the compliment, and before long we started talking about our photography gears that we brought for the trip. Then I learned that he and his wife (their names were Andrew and Cathy) were from Sydney, Australia, and they’re doing a tour of Northern Vietnam for a couple of weeks. They had been staying at Sapa Rooms for a couple of nights, though for one of the nights they decided to try out the new secluded property that Sapa Rooms proprietor just opened up in nearby village called Hmong Mountain Retreat. Overall they seemed to enjoy their stay like we did. They had done several treks during the three days they were in Sapa, so they shared a little bit about their experience which was slightly different but largely had similar highlights as ours. They also had May as their tour guide for one of the treks, and they liked her as well.

We ended up spending the next couple hours together at the restaurant chatting and enjoying our food, and afterwards we ended up going together on the same minivan ride to head to Lao Cai for the journey back to Hanoi on train.

Here is Cathy and Andrew at the Sapa Rooms restaurant area. You can see the nice ambience of the restaurant seating area that was very cozy to stay, and having friendly people to talk to and share experience with made it even better. I’m glad Andrew started the conversation, because otherwise we would’ve been sitting in that big room on our own and treat each other as complete strangers and wouldn’t have the enjoyable conversation to share the experience.

Cathy and Andrew

Restaurant at Sapa Rooms Hotel

The hotel where we stayed while visiting Sapa, Vietnam, the Sapa Rooms Hotel, has a restaurant at its lobby that serves its guests with breakfasts (included in the room price) as well as other meals during the day. Typically I would avoid eating at the hotel’s restaurant as the food is usually not that great and the price might be inflated. But the restaurant at Sapa Rooms Hotel is an exception; they actually have very good food that I think I would consider having even if I wasn’t staying at the hotel.

Our first taste of the Sapa Rooms food was for the breakfast right after our arrival in Sapa. Even though we didn’t stay there the night before, apparently the breakfast was included as part of our stay since that’s a very typical time that guests from Hanoi arrive in Sapa. They had both western and authentic Vietnamese menus available. During our stay, we went mostly with the Vietnamese menus. The food seemed to be quite authentic and were very tasty. The most memorable part for us, however, was not the food, but the beverage. Sapa Rooms restaurant served several mixed fruit juice drinks that were very tasty and refreshing. I think between Kristi and I we ended up trying almost every item on the fresh drink menu.

The photo below was one of the appetizers they served during the day. We had this for lunch on our second day. These spring rolls had grilled snails, fried shallots, spring onions, mixed herbs, and vermicelli noodles for fillings.

Tasty rolls

Imitation

There is a saying that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ While this might be the case in the context of someone imitating the behavior of others, in the case of commercial products especially in the western world you may end up with lawsuits and complex intellectual property issues. No matter how flattering it is to have one’s design imitated by others, if this meant market share erosion or others profiting from one’s design without attribution, one would feel violated and there is law that can help enforcing the right to the intellectual property. When you go to developed countries, however, this becomes harder to enforce, and sometimes it may not be worth the effort trying to seek protection from local law.

When traveling in Southeast Asia, we saw such violation in many places, especially with brand name clothing or footwear. It ranges from something that imitates the design but has different brand (e.g., the three stripes design from Adidas that were imitated by local clothing manufacturers), some that has similar look and feel as the original and even has brand name that is similar to the original (I had seen shoes with brand ‘Rebok’ with one e), or others that looked exactly like the original, and even had the original brand’s name, but with price that is a fraction of the original merchandise.

One thought that came to my mind was how to react to this as a consumer. Should we be avoiding buying these merchandise and only purchase the original articles (that might be much more expensive), or should we take advantage of the lack of enforcement and purchase the merchandise there? For clothing or footwear, sometimes it’s more difficult decision to make when you find out that even when you purchase the merchandise at the official company store in the US, you would find that the merchandise was made in the developed country anyway.

The photo below was taken at a store in Sapa, Vietnam, where Kristi and I stopped by to look for souvenirs. They had these sandals on display. They looked very much like the unique Keen sandals design (with the toe protector and all), but if you pay a close attention, you see that the brand was actualy 5-ten (but from far away, it looked very much like Keen logo). Would I buy these? Probably not, as I purchased my original Keen sandals not because I care for its looks, but more for the reliability of the original product (so getting something that looked the same at cheaper price but wouldn’t last long was not really an option I considered).

Keen knockoffs

Hiking Shoes

One of the important considerations to make when preparing for a trip is the footwear to bring. You need to consider the activities you’re going to do during your trip to make sure you have the proper footwear, otherwise it may result in a miserable experience or even worse increasing risk of injury while you’re going on the trip.

Few years ago, I rarely went on hikes or long travels, so having the correct footwear was not really much of a consideration to me. It changed about three years ago when I was about to go on a trip to South Dakota for a couple of weeks, and I needed to have something to wear that was comfortable to wear in the hot summer, light to carry, and easy to clean. I had a pair of hiking boots at home, but they were quite heavy weight and better suited for going out during the snowy winter time. And my other pairs of shoes were good for work or formal occasions, but not for somewhat rugged use.

As I searched online to find out what people recommended, I came across a brand that I never knew before as I wasn’t really a serious hiker. Keen makes footwear that were designed to provide protection and comfort for various outdoor conditions. They had a line of sandals that looked like a hybrid between hiking boots and sandals that are rugged enough that you can wear them on a hike but light and comfortable enough to wear even when going out for casual outings. Their unique design includes a black toe protector in front of the sandals that would protect your toes well when you go hiking on rugged, rocky terrains. The sandals interior were made with antimicrobial material that reduces the possibility of bad odor forming when your feet are sweaty, and it’s made so it’s easily washable and quick to dry when it get wet. Many serious hikers recommended it. All of these came with a price however. At more than $100 for a pair, it was the most I had ever spent for a pair of footwear. After wearing the sandals for a while, I purchased another pair of Keen footwear, a pair of hiking boots that also featured the rugged toe protector and lightweight design. The big selling point for me was the comfort that came from having a wider footbed in Keen’s design. It makes a big difference especially when you wear it on long walks or hikes.

Now fast forward more than three years later, I still own both pairs of Keen footwear (I actually added a third one last year, getting a pair of ‘urban shoes’ that has some trait of the other Keen footwear — including the toe protector and the wide, comfortable footbed — to wear on day-to-day basis for work). I only wear the hiking boots during the winter time especially when it’s snowing outside since it provides a nice waterproof protection to keep my feet dry. But at other times I wore the sandals everywhere I go when I don’t need to wear any formal footwear — I would say about 80% of the time. Even during the cooler seasons (fall, spring, and even parts of winter) I often wear the sandals with socks layering. And even after the constant wear and tear, it’s still in good shape — I’d say well worth the amount I paid for it.

During the Southeast Asia trip, I brought both the sandals and the shoes. In most cases I had the sandals on, except when we went to Sapa, where I had the hiking boots on (which was a good choice given the wet and muddy condition that we went through during the trek). During the hike back to the town of Sapa after visiting the Cat Cat village, we were passed by the couple on the photo below. As the gentleman passed me, he said ‘nice shoes!’ I smiled, and when I looked, it turned out that he had exactly the same model of shoes on.

Hikers with Keen shoes

Toddlers

At home in the United States, I help out with the Childrens Ministry at my church on Sundays. The age group that I work with is the preschool age (ages 3 and 4 years old). While I don’t have a child of my own, I get to observe these kids every week when they’re learning, playing, and interacting with others in class. I also get to see them interacting with their parents when they were dropped off or picked up before and after the class; some were more attached to the parents than the other, and some parents were more protective of their children than the other. It’s interesting to compare this to what I saw in other countries / cultures, especially those that may not have as much resources as the United States.

When I was traveling in Southeast Asia, especially as we went to villages in Cambodia and Vietnam, we encountered local children there. Some were a bit older (around 10 years old), but we also encountered kids that were in toddler age (5 years old and younger). I thought what’s interesting was to see these kids running around freely without much supervision from their parents. I suppose from one perspective, when you live in small village, you know everyone who lives there, so it’s probably okay for the kids to go around on their own. However, there are places around the village where it seemed to be dangerous for these kids to go (mountain cliffs, streams, even rice fields). I know if I had my own child with me I would be very careful and don’t want them to go to these places lest they hurt themselves. However, it seemed that the kids were going around fine and no one was worried they would get hurt. Compare this to the United States, where I saw many parents were very protective and for legal reasons we even have to have a strict policy for checking in and checking out kids (even simply to go to rest room, a volunteer cannot take a kid alone due to the worry of child abuse or potential issue around that).

Another aspect that was interesting to note was to see how everything in the United States seemed to be clean and sterilized. Children from young age were taught to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer, etc. All good behaviors to have, but sometimes I wonder if we’ve gone too far in the direction of being dependent on chemical substance that the children’s body were never trained to build their own immunity. Compared to the kids I saw in Vietnam, they pretty much run around, play in dirt, etc. I’m sure when they get home their parents tell them to clean up as well, but I doubt they have all kinds of cleaning supplies like what we have in the more developed country to clean up everything. One thing I noticed from the children in my class was that many these days also have allergies (to peanuts, lactose/milk, eggs, etc.) that even when we want to give them snacks during the class we have to be very careful and only give them a certain brand and kind of snacks that we know is safe from the allergies. This was unheard of in the developed countries — you’re very happy if you can even give kids snacks. So I wonder, is this problem existing everywhere, but only detected in ‘sophisticated’ countries like the US, or has the sterilization of everything caused the immune system of the children in the US to be worse than their counterparts in developed countries?

When Kristi and I were enjoying our little snacks at the food stand during our trek to the Cat Cat village near Sapa, Vietnam, we saw several kids (likely in toddler age) coming by. It doesn’t matter where you are or what culture you’re in, seeing young kids like that makes everyone smile. I wonder, what do these kids think of the foreigners going through their village on daily basis. One thing I learned from my preschool class was that at this early part of their lives, the kids grow and learn quite exponentially. I wonder how seeing these foreigners going through their village at such early age affect their perception of the world as they grow up.

Toddlers