The Mountains Called

back of sapa
The mountains called

With the finite time that I have in Hanoi I knew that getting out of the city to sight-see would be limited so this past weekend decided between going to Sapa and Ha Long Bay. It wasn’t that hard of a decision because given the choice between mountains and the sea; I will always pick mountains. Off to Sapa I went. I took the train overnight (8 hours) in a sleeper car. It’s a bit odd to share a chamber with people you don’t know but everyone went to sleep pretty quickly and only awoke at 6 am as we pulled into Loa Cai. From the train station it was was a 45km drive up to Sapa and the views did not disappoint.Sapa 1I knew as soon as stepping off the train I had made the right choice, the air was so much clearer and thinner. Getting in to the hotel by 8am, I was able to drop my bags off and head to go to Mt. Fansipan (the highest peak in the Indochina region at 3,143 meters and for those of you back in the states 10,312 feet). Looking at the trail map it was feasible to climb with the fastest person going up in 2:30 hours and the slowest being 22 hours, yikes! gondolaI did not bring enough snacks so instead opted for the 45 minute walk to the gondola that would take you to near the top with 700 steps up to the top. gondola 2

The gondola was enough to make me grateful I opted not to hike, the sheer steepness of the peaks made me realize why the slowest was 22 hours. Getting to the top with 700 steps I soon realized that the steps were not made with a size 42 shoe in mind as they were tall and shallow leaving me a few times grabbing the railing as to not fall backwards. Sapa 2Getting to the top the views were incredible at least when the clouds broke. I was surprised at how many people were at the top and then remembered it was only a gondola ride up. I was more surprised at how many people at the top were smoking (a reoccurring theme in Viet Nam). Getting down the gondola was a little more nervous wracking, the first time the mountain drops off my stomach ended up in my throat.

jump on fansipan
I’m sure this doesn’t help stereotypes of Americans

I spent the rest of the day just walking around the town and familiarizing myself with the area, and of course stopping to stare at the views from time to time.

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Down we go!

The next morning I signed up for a trekking route that was 12km. One other reason that I was drawn to Sapa was the Hmong people. I read a book earlier this year, The Spirit Catches you and You Fall Down. A story about a Hmong child and her family as they navigate the medical landscape in America. It’s a book that stuck with me as you see the lack of communication and good intentions by both parties fall short in the best interests of the child. The opening scene of the book is the mother giving birth to this child in a small house in the same room as her other children who were sleeping. They are only awoken by the cries of the new baby as the mother is silent throughout. Damn, now, I’ve never gone through childbirth but if I do I’m definitely planning on all the drugs. My guide who was Hmong talked about how with her first child her water broke on the trail and she hiked home, hopped on the motorbike and went to the hospital because she needed a c-section; one of her friend’s had her child on the trail(!!!!). DCIM100GOPROGOPR0586.JPG

We trekked through terrace rice fields where there was a look of the irrigation system up close. I kept thinking of how many years back this practice has gone and how incredibly intricate it was. The trails were steep and with it raining the evening before a little slick too. Some of the Hmong women hiking with us wore slip on sandals and our guide was in rain boots and they all floated along the trail. Meanwhile I’m in full on trail-running shoes and still struggling to find traction. There is an ultrarace in the area in September of each year, I can’t even imagine how intense that must be given the grades that we were hiking. , It would be fun to come back and do the ultra for the views alone, even if it would destroy me.

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Giant bamboo trees

Part of the economy in the area is based on tourism and the handmade goods that the various ethnic groups sell. I was able to resist the first group of kids that came up to sell bracelets but it must have exceeded all my self-will for the rest of the day as each child that would approach me I gave in, fortunately each bracelet was only 5,000 Dong (22 cents USD). One group there were 3 girls selling them, and I told them I wanted 5 which made their eyes light up. After thinking they were the only ones, I was soon swarmed with many other children–I have no idea where they came from. I won’t tell you how many bracelets I’m coming home with, but if you want one, let me know!

when it rains in Sapa
When it rains, everything just runs straight down

About half-way through the trek it started raining, unlike Hanoi it released the humidity and was a warm rain. It made me think of Forrest Gump and how he talked about it raining so much, “And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.I had this same thought until I realized I was getting sprayed by an irrigation hose leak. My rain jacket did little to overcome the wetness and it was apparently clear why umbrellas are the way to go.

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“One day it started raining…” and only lasted for a few hours

I had asked our guide about snakes and she told me not to worry, they eat them so if they hear us talking they run away so they won’t get caught. This made me feel slightly better. I only saw one snake while in Sapa and someone was carrying it on the back of a motorbike, I’m assuming to go home and eat it.

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The calm before the storm of the day

It’s one area that I wish I could have spent more time in but had to get back for a meeting on Monday and took the train back overnight. Walking back to the apartment at 5 in the morning the city was filled with calmness and most of the streets aren’t recognizable with all the shops closed up instead of spilling out.

More photos from Sapa and the Temple of Literature in Hanoi:

sapa tourist
This is not the first person to randomly ask to take their photo with me
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Thankfully I did not regret eating this fruit later– soo good!
Catholic church in sapa
Catholic Church in Sapa
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Also had time for the Temple of Literature
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Temple of Literature
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Water I did not want to fall into
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Figurines at the Temple of Literature
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Outside the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ which came highly recommended by Sen. John McCain….
Hanoi backdrop
Pretty sure this is just a spot used as a photo backdrop–or at least for me!
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And in case you thought I didn’t do any work this past week.

It’s This Whole Other Country

I picked up a book before I left the States about how to be more merciful. It was a bit of a whim purchase only recognizing the author from another piece I had read. If there is anytime to explore a more merciful life it’s in another country with a huge language and cultural barrier. 63947067

One of my first meetings this week was only 2K from the hotel but not wanting to show up sweating I opted for cab and wrote down the address in my notebook. Leaving the abyss of wifi rendered me kneeling before the paper gods to help me. The cab driver spoke little English but more than I spoke in Vietnamese. I pointed to the address and he shook his head no, I shook back yes and we were off.

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I had been to the building previously, unfortunately the cab driver had not

I watched the timer go by from what google maps had showed as a 9, max 12 minute cab ride from the hotel slowly ticked into 23…24…25. Where is he taking me, maybe I was wrong, he had never heard of the company so that was useless and there was nothing else for me to do but sit in the back of his cab and hope that he shows me mercy to deliver me on time. He didn’t and I was about 30 minutes late, fortunately the people waiting for me were very kind and still welcoming as I ran huffing into the office from the cab.

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In my haste I almost ran by security….talk about an international incident

I had sat in the back of his cab for 50 minutes, knowing that something was a miss but nothing to be done about it other than pointing to my address. It was the right address and walking back home was only about a 20 minute walk. I have no idea where the break down happened and it doesn’t really matter but I went to a pretty dark spot in that cab. I cursed the whole country to get influenza, I know petty, and fortunately since I’m so close to a catholic church have already gone to confession for that one. I also thought a lot of people who are trying to get to the US (or another country), either as an immigrant or refugee. What place of desperation or hope that move must come from to abandon every comfort you have and arrive in a country where there is certainly for most a language barrier and even more cultural. I have the ability to Facetime with my parents, almost constant contact with friends by text message and email (when in wifi) and still it’s been a bit of a struggle. I’m leaving in 10 days and even knowing that my mood fluctuates between euphoria and dread.

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Most of the other chickens I have seen do not live in cages

My cultural competency was a little low yesterday when finding a watermelon and purchasing it I returned to the hotel and asked for a plastic fork and was met with glazed over stares. It only took me a moment to realize just how absurd that question was. Thank goodness for China Buffet growing up that I have some idea of what to do with chopsticks. One guy I know has told me the story of coming to the states as a refugee after the Viet Nam war, before they had left Viet Nam his family packed up all their chopsticks. He laughed when he told it because he said there were plenty of places to get chopsticks but they had no idea the world they would encounter.

Finishing the book about mercy left me with this quote, “Love and Mercy are sovereign, if often in disguise as ordinary people…forgiven and included, when we experience this, that we are in this with one another, flailing and starting over in the awful beauty of being humans together, we are saved”. My parents will often send me articles about vaccinations or anything related to a pandemic, I respond with my usual, “viruses don’t know borders.” And it seems that I’ve found being here that kindness and mercy don’t either. Not that I needed to leave the country for this lesson but it’s easy to take for granted in a familiar world.

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This weighed as much as him, I’m sure.

I’ve been shown plenty of mercy and kindness: from a 4-year-old wanting to engage in English with me in a park; to the barista recognizing me and asking me about my previous order from the day before; to the boy at the hotel who not only carried my suitcase (that might have weighed as much as him) down 5 flights of stairs and into the cab and then my hosts at my airbnb carrying it up 5 flights of stairs; to a woman offering me her phone to call someone when my phone wasn’t doing the trick; to the people who engage in conversation in English with me even if they have no idea what I’m saying. I’ve been amazed at the kindness that has surrounded me.

Sorry for going soft with this post, and if it comes off with political undertones, that was not my intention but instead to express what I’ve experienced and thought while being here.

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Out and about

I haven’t had as much time this week to get out and explore the city but I did download an app that gives me a map offline so my radius of exploring went from about 800 meters to the city as my oyster. I spent one day (that I had a lot of free time) walking 3 miles one way for tacos. I’m still waiting to find an area where the city unfolds and it’s not chaotic or crowded but have yet to find it, so learning to embrace it.

I think the strangest thing is that being 11-13 hours ahead of most of my contacts in the states leaves me in bizarre state where I wake up with all my emails for the day already delivered and my text messages overflowing. After responding it’s radio silence until people begin waking up again and I’m going to bed. It’s almost as if I’m waiting for things to happen on the other side of the world.

all the messages
466 text messages in one night.

Good Morning, Viet Nam

My first thought upon walking off the airplane and into the Hanoi airport was, “Oh wow, I’m tall”. Most days I think of myself as being 5’5-5’6″ even though I’m just over 5’9″. I blame this on the fact that Frank and Mary tower over me. I’ve never thought of myself as being tall before arriving in Viet Nam. Most of the people stood up and I soon realized that they looked much taller when they were seated on the plane. This sense of feeling like a giant hasn’t gone away.

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This church is about half a block away from where I’m staying so how I orientate myself

I walked around a bit Sunday night but with the travel and lack of sleep on the airplanes went to bed at 7pm. Both Monday and Tuesday were holidays here, first International Labor Day and then celebrating the Fall of Saigon.  I woke up at 4am the next morning and was ready to go. I facetimed my parents because it was early evening for them and waited until the noise of the street crept in to let me know the city had awaken. I got up and went to walk around the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, or “Lake of the Restored Sword”.lakeview 2 I also walked across the Huc Bridge into the Temple of the Jade Mountain. Right before the entrance two girls in front of me had to turn around and the man seemed to be gesturing to their shoes. Looking at my sandals I wondered if it was a problem but he let me pass. I later realized it was because they were wearing shorts and had to go back and put smocks on to cover their legs.

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Inside the temple
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View looking onto the lake from the temple
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I’m taller than everyone on this bridge

The temple is still active with people putting money (fake money) to burn as the offering.

I then met up with one of the guys here for lunch to talk about preliminary things, like areas to go running and what places are the best to eat.

near the temple
My shorts were too short for me to go up into the temple

Tuesday was the celebration of the Fall of Saigon, which is probably a similar feeling to a Brit being in America on the Fourth of July, but with less fireworks. Given that everything was still shut down I decided to make my way to the Temple of Literature and maybe the Viet Nam Museum of Art. Unfortunately both of those are off my paper map by a few blocks and ended up instead at Ho Chi Mihn’s Mausoleum and Museum.

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Not as busy as I thought it would be on the holiday

There was a temple there as well, which I could not go in because of the shorts I was wearing and they didn’t offer smocks. I also didn’t go into the Mausoleum because it was closed, which I found a little ironic given the day of celebration. templeI never found the Museum of Art, which is what I was really after. I would go up to a police officer and ask, “English?” and they would respond, “Hello” and that was the just of it so besides trying to point on the map any phrases I knew in Vietnamese that I did not butcher were not sufficient enough to get me to where I wanted to be. I took a cab back to the hotel, which was maybe my first and last cab ride given how terrifying the roads are here.

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Slightly terrifying

Yesterday I woke up again around 4 so decided to go for a run when the daylight broke. I decided to go run around Hoàn Kiếm Lake because it was close and that way if I didn’t want to do 6+ miles I could just cut it short whenever. Within about the first 5 minutes I soon realized why I didn’t see more runners, the humidity and the heat even at 5am was miserable. Plenty of people where out exercising, either walking around or doing group fitness, but not a lot of runners. Most of them in normal clothes and a few times seeing their clothes drenched in sweat I wanted to yell, “Cotton kills!” but didn’t.  The side street markets were also unfolding spilling out fruits, vegetables, and handmade goods. I couldn’t believe all the activity happening still in the wee hours. I only last 3 painstaking miles and then went back to my air-conditioned room and did yoga. I only had a dinner on the schedule for the day so spent most of the day just roaming around. The Old Quarter is a mix of tourists interjected with the locals. A lot of shops seemed tailored to tourists and then I turned a corner and found myself on a street that only sold coffins and memorial flowers.

Hoc Bridge
On the Hoc Bridge

Other things:

(1) It doesn’t make much difference whether you look or not while crossing the road, there is always traffic so you just go–sorry mom!

(2) Not speaking anything more than really basic Vietnamese phrases means that I’m surrounded by thousands of people but still very isolated. My mom asked how I would do with it but it hasn’t bothered me yet, I’m actually enjoying it. I do worry that if I do something wrong and someone starts yelling I will have no idea why

(3) I have yet to a store that sells hairbrushes, and I’m in desperate need. I’m debating just cutting it so someone will have to brush it.

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Flowers outside the Ho Chi Minh Museum

 

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Way back in law school when I was looking at different programs I only applied to University of Notre Dame and the main reason surrounding that decision was that it required a 6-8 week international field research component in order to graduate. At the time not sure I would return to law school (I am going back, more on that later), I figured that having the research experience would help me to shift directions. Within about 3 weeks on campus I knew I would be going back to law school and now I am set to go into the field. I’m hoping to be able to update my blog as I travel along. I’m on my way to Viet Nam for 3 weeks and then headed to Switzerland for 4 weeks. To put it in simple terms I’m looking at the intersection of Viet Nam’s domestic policies with an international framework dealing with Pandemic Influenza Vaccines. In 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza, vaccines were donated to low-middle income countries with Viet Nam being one of the eligible countries. They rejected the vaccines citing import restrictions dealing with quality control issues. In 2011 an international framework was developed to ensure that the countries that were giving up virus samples would receive benefits (i.e., vaccines at the time of a pandemic). Viet Nam hasn’t changed it’s policies so mainly the framework is pointless if the country doesn’t allow for the benefits to be revived on the domestic level. I’ll be looking at what barriers are still in place and how to best circumnavigate them to allow the benefits be derived.

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Ready for anything- I hope!

I made it to Chicago with only a few mishaps, mainly getting stuck in one revolving door with my suitcase and then again on the metro going through the turnstile. That one was a little more precarious, with me and my suitcase wedged between the bars and my only thought being, “how is this my life” I had no idea what to do to free myself and instead my body took over and I tumbled over the suitcase and out of the gate. Problem solved. A little girl ran up to me and asked if I was okay. I responded with, I just need to leave this country. And that’s what I did–and they let me!!

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Not at Casa Bonita anymore

I hoped on a plane and headed to Dubai, landing after 13 hours. I’m currently in the middle of a 8 hour layover and with very nice visa restrictions I left the airport and did what any other white girl would do: go to the mall and eat tacos. Actually the mall was recommended to me by a friend from Saudi Arabia (thanks again, Nayef!) because it’s right next to the Burj Khalifa (160 floor skyscrapper-tallest building in the world- no I did not go to the sky deck) and they also have the Dubai Fountains which put on a show every 30 minutes. I was a little nervous to leave the airport because I occasionally get lost on the metro in Chicago, and I don’t speak Arabic in any capacity, and have no cell service except when I’m connected to wifi. Thankfully it was pretty straightforward and I didn’t encounter any hiccups. I arrived safely back at the airport about an hour ago and still have 3 hours before my plane leaves for Hanoi. I’ll land there after close to 40 hours of traveling. Fortunately, Monday is a national holiday in Viet Nam so I’ll be able to use the day to orient myself.

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