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Karma Buddies and War Stories in Hanoi

Xin Chao SEASIA blog readers (moms) and friends alike!
I’m reporting on behalf of Old Greg/Audreezey and crew. This week Audrey, in a last-ditch effort to showcase her PlayWorks skills, initiated a game of Karma Buddies, in which we each draw a buddy from a hat and stealthily make that person feel awesome during the week (without that person knowing its you). It has been fun to share the love with each other and I should clarify – I love Audrey and her many games. On Tuesday we bid adieu to the sandy beaches, greek platters, and ice cream we eagerly sought in Nha Trang, opting for a more culturally intimate experience with the northern Vietnamese. Nevertheless, with PADI certificates in hand, we boarded our 1.5hr flight to Hanoi, relieved to not have been stopped for mechanic failure or public protests. Traveling has never felt so seamless.

Hanoi is a bustling city of millions of motorbikes, taxis, women squatting on the roadside selling fruit, street vendors, enticing aromas, and shameful “no thank-you’s” to to occasional walking human markets. We were lucky enough to Skype call with an intelligible professor Tom, who was able to clear up our many unanswered questions about the Vietnam war. We also listened to an inspiring speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 in NYC: "Beyond Vietnam." His words are more poignant than ever as we stand in the same land of war he adamantly protested. He causes us to reflect on our own constant wars back home today. I high recommend a listen to anyone. In Hanoi, we spent two full days exploring, tripping over vietnamese, showering our Karma Buddies in pollen-dusted flowers and candy, and exchanging the best shops and eateries with one another. We saw one of the infamous water puppet shows, a spectacular scene of fire-breathing dragons accompanied by traditional vietnamese musicians. We found a new favorite dish, a traditional vietnamese dish called bang cuon, which is hot and fresh soft rice paper rolled up with minced chicken (or pork) and mushroom, garnished with freshly chopped herbs all to be dipped in a warm savory broth. We also visited two museums: the Ethnology museum and Fine Arts museum to cue us in on the cultures in the North.

Hanoi, a buzzing place dense with culture, colors, sights, smells, people, can at times be overwhelming. I know I felt sensory overload, so I was excited to board our kush overnight train to the village of Sapa. About 2/3 of Vietnam’s indigenous people live in this northern region, and from the moment we stepped into the fresh, wet foggy air, we found ourselves in a completely different world than we had ever experienced. Sapa, set among authentic Hmong and Dao villages in the far eastern tail of the Himalayas, feels more like a pseudo-European ski town, without the snow or pretentious mountain lodges. Swarms of Hmong women, with their traditional garb, hairstyles, and jewelry, walk the streets striking conversation with us in perfect english. Although they want to sell us their hand-made crafts, we thoroughly and genuinely enjoy talking to them; they are incredibly kind, beautiful, and give us a laugh. My favorite comment was called to Greg by a young girl: “Yo teachah, buy from ME!” Their slang is impeccable, we simply cannot be unimpressed. Sapa is a fairytale town etched into the side of a mountain, overlooking rolling valleys of green rice terraces. I have never witnessed air so clean, earth so fertile, and land so vibrantly colorful. Being a mountain town, Sapa is significantly colder than the rest of Vietnam, so we found ourselves shopping in the villages’ dozens of outdoor gear stores. We had a kick discussing prices and tactics to determine counterfeit products; hey, we’re serious about our knock-off North Face coats. Best of all, we made a few local friends! The first is Huu, a small, organic tea shop owner who loves to chat, and La, a 20yr-old Hmong business owner who treks over an hour and a half from her village to sell her hand-made, 100% hemp products in her tasteful boutique in Cat Cat village. On Sunday, we began our 4-day trek through the rice terraces and villages with our guide Pen, and about thirteen other Hmong women to accompany us for 2 hours to their village. We encountered slippery mud-slides, rivers and streams, water buffalo blocking the path, playing children, wild puppies, as well as ducks, chickens, and the most breathtakingly beautiful views we have ever seen. Pen was open to share her culture with us, she even dressed up Raisa, Sophie, and Iris like real Hmong girls! She also shaved and cut fresh sugarcane for us to chew on. We enjoyed delicious foods at the home stays, such as rice with veggies, crepes, fried bananas, and french fries (our favorite!). We were quite silly to forget our sunscreen, but luckily none of us got too sunburned, thanks to Emily’s ingenuity to put mud on her face. It has been wonderful; I can speak for the group and say we are so excited to have learned more about the complex and incredibly intriguing yet beautiful Hmong culture on this trek. I was not quite ready to leave them but alas, this is travel. This next week, we are traveling to Cat Ba island for further group activities, such as boat tours and kayaking – our buddy Sam will fill you in on the rest.

To end, I want to acknowledge that a very special Sabai member turned 20 this week, and we had a blast celebrating her with family dinner, improv games, and Mafia. Our team wouldn’t be the same without you – we love you Iris!

We've received word that the intrepid Southeast Asia group has safely checked in for their flight homeward from Hanoi.Traveling mercies to you all.  You've been an amazing group.