After a fun packed five or so months in Thailand I left to spend four weeks in Vietnam. I had booked another trip through Real Gap and this time I would be learning about the Vietnamese culture, including cooking and language lessons, a week trekking, and a week on a beach.
I would recommend Real Gap, especially if you have never been to a country before, because you are with like-minded people and everything is organised for you- arrival, accommodation, food- and you have a choice of which program to do-volunteer teaching or working in orphanages, trekking, and sports. I used them three times in one year- Muay Thai boxing in Thailand, being a Jillaroo (cowgirl) in Australia, and trekking in Vietnam. There are also several destinations that you can choose from and it is an excellent introduction to your country of choice.
The first week is always “introduction” week, in which you meet your travelling buddies, get settled into your accommodation, cooking and language lessons, and getting to know the area where you are staying- this involves the guide showing you round a bit so you get your bearings and know where essentials are like laundry, internet and bars! We went to temples, a water puppetry show, took a boat across Thac Ba Lake and spent the night with a Vietnamese family. We then travelled from Hanoi to Yen Bai, which is located in Tay Bac, in the northern part of northern-central Vietnam.
For the first cooking lesson we had to go to the market and buy vegetables and meat. As we had already had a language lesson we could put our Vietnamese language skills to the test when we bought the food- such a good way to learn the language
although we got a few blank stares from the locals but I think they appreciated us trying. Shopping done we managed to make delicious spring rolls which we had for lunch.
What was nice about this particular trip was that there were only eight of us (including me). They were all younger than me but so lovely, we all got on really well and we have remained friends to this day.
We were the only westerners in Yen Bai and the locals were totally bemused by this group of eight who had come to stay in their town and we got a lot of stares. But after a few days they got used to us and they started to wave and say Xin Chao/Hello. In fact one of the lads, George, had his guitar with him everywhere he went and he used to go off on random nights with the locals. It was very amusing the next day when he told us all about it.
The second week was a cultural week and we had to spend two nights in a Buddhist temple. For one that is not religious in any way this was seriously hardcore for me. We had to get up at 3am and meditate for 45 minutes, the nuns and monks living there do it for an hour and half, twice a day. Not being used to sitting in that position-cross legged and silent is very difficult- I
couldn’t concentrate and got very agitated and as such lasted about twenty minutes. I saw the boys leave so us girls followed suit. There was a monk with a stick and if someone was not sitting straight enough they got a (not so) gentle tap on the back. He didn’t do it to us though, although he did pull my chin up because my head was lolling because I was half asleep! The first morning we were late (not being used to
being awoken in the middle of the night), one of the nuns blamed it on us for the disruption.
Meal times were also strange. We had to walk, silently, in single file, monks first followed by the nuns and, after chanting and prayers, you eat in silence. In our culture meal times are sociable affairs and it just wasn’t natural not to talk, and the food was so awful us girls got a fit of the giggles and really had to concentrate on stopping. We were not being disrespectful, it was just that one of the nuns was pointing at my food and gesturing me to eat it or so I thought (bearing in mind I couldn’t understand anything she said because it was Vietnamese and my language skills were not that good), turns out she wasn’t making me eat it, she was telling me that anything that isn’t eaten goes to the dogs and cats living at the temple, I just looked at the others and that was it- uncontrollable laughter and tears streaming down our faces. We eventually stopped and I don’t think they were offended, in fact some of the other nuns were laughing with us. But I wasn’t sure whether I was laughing or crying at that point!
As we had been told that we only had to get up once to go to meditation to show willing (after all the temple had been kind enough to let us into their lives for two days), the second morning I didn’t get up and one of the nuns came into our room and I pretended to be asleep, and when I thought she had gone, I looked up and all I could see was her shaved head silhouetted in the moon light. You had to be there but I felt like I was in a horror movie- all it needed was some scary music. I couldn’t sleep after that and was so glad when the others came back. To add to that we had to sleep on wooden boxes, which we thought resembled coffins (we were going to hide in them so the nuns couldn’t find us, but thought better of it).
On the last day, out of respect, we made a thank you speech and one of the guys, Nick, had his hair shaved off, something that the monks and nuns actually found hilarious. I found out that people enter the temple for very different reasons, one monk told us he went to decorate the temple years ago and never left; a nun had been there for 35 years since she was a child; yet another entered because a member of their family had died; people go there for quiet time during difficult
phases of their lives. I completely respect the people who live there and I am truly thankful that we were allowed into the temple to share their lives for a couple of days but I was so glad when we left- the life of a nun is most definitely not for me.
I also trekked up Tam Dao mountain which is about 85km northwest of Hanoi located in a protected area zone of North Vietnam. It was by far the best day out, although I know one of my friends might not agree. It was so hot and humid and the way up was really tough going- very slippy in places and leeches attaching themselves to our legs and drawing blood. In some parts it was almost vertical and we literally had to grab onto tree vines and pull ourselves up- it was almost like rock climbing with no harnesses! We eventually made it to the top and my gosh it was such a sense of achievement- we were all delirious with excitement at having made it.
It was a shame that it wasn’t a clear day because the views would have been fantastic but as it was we were surrounded by the low lying clouds. The way down was just as hard because it was so steep in places, the easiest way of doing it was literally run down and grab the bamboo to stop yourself falling down the mountain. I nearly went over the edge and at one point and landed in a heap head first looking over a steep slope. But we made it to the bottom of the mountain with a few grazes and completely filthy but it was a lot of fun so we celebrated with a few beers which went down very well that night.
Vietnam is so cheap, cheaper than Thailand- it was about 3 GBP for a beer and on one of the days we ventured out and bought lunch- using our new language skills- and the bill came to 8 GBP including beer for the eight of us. In Hanoi, in “Bia Hoi” corner (Bia Hoi is a local beer), there are bars which are just shop fronts with a few tables and chairs outside- we sat there one night and drank about ten beers (which just get refilled from the beer keg) for about £1.46 GBP. I might add they were small glasses!
During the third week half the group were volunteering, teaching at one of the local schools and the other half of us chose to go trekking in Sa pa, which is located at 1500 m above sea level in the remote northwest mountains of Vietnam. It is a beautifully picturesque town, near the Chinese border, the scenery is stunning- rice terraces and lush vegetation and it is also home of Fansipan (the highest peak in Vietnam).
The trekking itself was good but I would have liked it a bit more intense-only really two days trekking and only two or three hours a day. Myself and one of the other guys, Nick, were leading the rest most of the time. It was harder on the second day as it had been raining and was really slippy, so was more of a challenge. We trekked to a home-stay where we spent one of the nights and some of the guys went swimming in the river to cool off -I collapsed on the bank. The family we stayed with were lovely- we had a traditional Vietnamese meal and they gave us rice wine, which is popular in SE Asia although very lethal, and we managed to get drunk in the middle of nowhere!
During our trek the local hill tribe women accompanied us en route from Sa Pa to our home stay- literally all the way and back again to Sa Pa. This is what they do every day with tourists, and all the way they ask you if “you wanna buy” the things they have to sell- hand made ethnic-style clothes, blankets, wall coverings, and jewellery. Conversation naturally occurs and we had such a laugh with these women along the way. One of them had a wall-covering that I liked, and she cottoned on quickly that I liked it, but I didn’t have any money until I arrived back in Sa Pa. So after trying to explain this in my pigeon Vietnamese, we agreed a price (around £6 GBP) and agreed that I would buy it once I got back to Sa Pa (I actually liked it and did want to buy it). So I obviously thought that I wasn’t going to see the lady again but when we did arrive back in Sa Pa, we were playing chess in a bar and low and behold this same lady spotted me and shouted “Hey, you buy from me now, you say when back in Sa Pa”. Well I couldn’t go back on our agreement and I was actually impressed that she remembered the exact same one that I had wanted.
The last week was “beach week” and we travelled from Sa Pa to Halong Bay on the train. When we arrived in Halong Bay we boarded a “junk” boat, which is an ancient Chinese sailing vessel and it took us to Cat Ba Island where we spent the next few days.
The weather wasn’t great but there are a host of things you can do there- I tried rock climbing for the first time. It was awesome but the first time I climbed I was shaking all over and when I was half way up I started hyperventilating and the guide, Onslow, made me let go of the rock and hang in mid-air to prove that I was safely harnessed and wasn’t going to fall to my death. At the top Onslow told me to take in the surroundings and what a view it was from up there. When I got back onto terra firma my legs literally gave way beneath me and I collapsed onto the sand and then I started crying at the sheer joy of having done it.
On the way back in the boat Onslow asked us if we wanted to do deep water soloing. This is a form of rock climbing but done on sea cliffs. You have no harness but rely on the water to save you from injury (or worse). Basically the boat gets as near to the rock face as possible, you climb onto the rock and go as high as you can and then when you can’t get any higher you drop in the water. It was fantastic although I was a little disappointed in myself because I couldn’t climb any higher than where the boat dropped me-I ran out of energy and gave up and dropped into the water. I don’t like giving up! What an experience though and I recommend that to anyone.
I also did a little tour with a guy that takes you around the island on a motorbike where you learn how the island was a strategic look-out point during the Vietnam War. I visited the Hospital Cave and he showed me the look-out points where the reminders have been covered over by concrete walls (there is just enough room for you to squeeze in to look at the massive artillery guns hidden behind).
Cat Ba island is beautiful as is the northern part of Vietnam and the four weeks I spent there were unforgettable. I have yet to visit the rest of the country but I, for one, will be venturing back there at some point to learn more of what this wonderful place has to offer.