Traversing Two Vietnamese Worlds - Hanoi And Sa Pa
In four days, I've experienced two distinct personalities of Vietnam on the Life Before Work, Vietnam Discovery Tour. The group has stayed busy weaving through vibrating streets, gorging on authentic Vietnamese BBQ in back alleys and embracing all aspects of culture offered to us by the welcoming company in Hanoi and Sa Pa.
We began the tour in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, that buzzes with more than three million people. First introductions with the city were made on the way in from the airport. Eyes peeled and pressed to the taxi's window, there were miles of narrow buildings framing the streets with pops of pastel and hints of French architecture to absorb. The city was occupied by the French for almost a century and they left their mark with spiralling terraces, baguettes and the Hỏa Lò Prison where they were captured and murdered political prisoners during their reign. That same prison would later be used to hold American pilots during the Vietnam War. Standing in the same concrete cells where generations of lives were scarred or ended for the sake of political turmoil was eerie, eye-opening and sobering.
Despite a past filled with political and socio economic struggles, Hanoi is not defined by its hardships.
Instead, the city is now marked by overflowing balcony gardens, temples preserved by time and faith, markets etched into the pulsing streets and people who work joyfully and tirelessly for their culture and way of life. Not to mention, endless amounts of pho and spring rolls.
The steady rhythm that Hanoi thrives on is energizing and thrilling, but its busyness can't compare to the rejuvenating qualities of Sa Pa.
Tucked within the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, Sa Pa is spread quaintly over rolling peaks, careful not to disturb the rice terraces layered between homesteads. While Hanoi reveals hints of Western influence, Sa Pa is seemingly untouched. The town is largely a connection point between modern Vietnamese culture and members of the Hmong tribe. The Hmong people are hard to miss in the misty streets of Sa Pa as they're garbed in handmade garments designed with ornate patterns and rich colors. Each day, women of the tribe trek to Sa Pa to sell their handmade bracelets, tapestries, satchels and trinkets. This trek follows a one person path that snakes up, down and around rice terraces, taking anywhere from two to six hours to complete.
Not only do tribe members bring bits of their tradition and culture to Sa Pa, but they openly welcome travellers to join them on their trek home and enjoy time in their village. Hand in hand with members of the tribe, the tour group heaved through mud, climbed up rocky peaks and slipped and slid through the trek. The Hmong women gracefully maneuvered the trek while managing to drag along their Western guests and continued to weave straw as they walked. And then, halfway to the village, we reached the peak of the path - and the peak of my tour in Vietnam.
Standing on this ridge overlooking life unfolding in Sa Pa, muted by the silence of a veil of clouds, was the closest I've ever felt to a higher being. Experiencing this view was nothing less than spiritual. Knowing I couldn't have made it to this moment without the women's help only made it that much more cherishable. Handbags and bracelets aside, this was the best gift Vietnam and its people has given me.
The exhausting trek was followed by home cooked meals in one of the tribe's homestays, herbal baths, coffee with surrounding mountain views and the warm company of the tribe. As we hitched a ride home the next day, my eyes were once again peeled to the van window - in absolute awe of Vietnam's beauty and watering as I wished the town and people of Sa Pa goodbye.
In less than four days, this tour offered sights and experiences from two perfectly contradictory places in Vietnam. The one similarity that remains throughout, though, is the kindness of the people as they fed us, housed us, dragged us up mountains and showed us how to embrace all that is Vietnam.
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