KAT // FIN

Dream. Do.

Morning in Mekong

Pictures taken this morning in Cai Rang floting market, Can Tho, between 6-8am. Loved that morning light!
Some pictures show vermicelli noodle making to which we were introduced during the same trip.

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Tomorrow we head to Chau Doc in order to cross border to Cambodia by boat on wednesday!

-Katariina

Saigon shakes

After three months of travelling arriving to Ho Chi Minh City (unofficially known as Saigon) felt like bumping suddenly into the more sophisticated world we had been for a long time. We had just travelled 26 hours by sleeper bus with one bus change from Hoi An. Our goal was to reach HCMC by New Years and that’s what we did. ‘Sleeping’ places in our bus were that type that could fit easily one slim 1,50cm tall asian person but try that with 1.65cm western person! So after many sleepless hours we arrived to HCMC which welcomed us with warming breezes of +30 degrees. It was definately time to get rid of that fleece which I had bought in Sa Pa!

First we noticed bright lights from skyscapers glimming in the horizon far before reaching the city. That was the first obvious and exciting sign that we were about to enter the real Asian city soon! As soon as I stepped out of the bus I sensed hot and humid temperature and traffic chaos of motorbikes. There is a little bit less than 10 million people in HCMC and almost everyone ownes a motorbike. City isn’t quite prepared for the traffic with so many motos…there’s isn’t really parking spaces as we know them in western countries. Many times you just park in the streets. Another funny thing which works perfectly here but would be hard to imagine having back in Finland is lack of traffic lights. How can all these people deal with this traffic without traffic lights, I first wondered? As I got to notice soon…easily! It’s most difficult for pedestrians as you might feel like kamikaze when you try acrossing the street first time with motorbikes bustling fast around you! The secret is to walk slow enough and not to stop nor speed up. Bikers will surely give you way. Stay calm and keep on walking seemed to work with me…

DSC_2084 Mid-day traffic in HCMC

DSC_2064 Stylish coffee shop

DSC_2068 Reunification Palace

DSC_2075 They had painted this classical General Post Office with this crazy orange colour! :D

DSC_2077Cool floor tiling at Notre Dame Cathedral

HCMC is very modern metropol and as Hanoi is Vietnam’s political hub, HCMC is Vietnam’s economical hub. People seem very stylish, educated and determined. I suddenly felt an great urge of getting a new hair cut and getting my nails and toes done. Haircut we did at Toni&Guy’s but I finally gave up the idea of having either pedicure or manicure. There isn’t really point of having them when you will soon travel to Cambodia where it’s propably wiser to look like a guerrilla. One really selfish and expensive purchase (in terms what is suitable for a backpackers wallet) I did here anyway as I heard there is especially good tailor in the city…I bought a woollen winter coat which was tailored to me according to my instructions. That coat together with 8 packets of world’s best vietnamese coffee Trung Nguyen I sent to Finland afterwards (with fingers crossed that customs duty won’t do any greater inspections in finnish border…)

DSC_2057 Winter coat fitting at Phi Phi Tailor’s

DSC_2024 Propably the best coffee in the world…

Have to say though that after going to the War Remnants Museum which is amazingly good (and horrible) museum about Vietnamese war I couldn’t feel more guilty and more like a ‘western person’ because of these egoistic desires I had been fulfilling…Seeing all that horror Vietnam has been going through for decades made me feel like an imperialist of an new era who just comes here to spend money as everything is so much cheaper that back in Europe. Luckily one-night-visit to the tourist street of Pham Ngu Lao made me realise that I wasn’t the bad white guy. Seeing so many drunken western tourists in one area behaving really disgustingly made me want to stop travelling for a while. I didn’t want to have this ‘badge’ over me being ‘one-of-those-western-tourists’. Especially bad feelings gave one thing we saw in the middle of the night in New Years Eve in Pham Ngu Lao. A young vietnamese girl dressed to a blue bling bling top and miniskirt was showing the way to a young western boy in the middle of the night. They were walking fast to a scruffy hotel and there was no doubt it was only about prostitution.

DSC_2013 Pham Ngu Lao area in daytime

After travelling three months and sleeping almost every night in guesthouses or hostels makes you really miss very basic stuff from your ‘normal’ life. Things like doing your own laundry, going to grocery store and making yourself a cup of coffee or a slice of bread. If you are feeling slighly hungry you can’t just go to your fridge and crab something…you have to go out and find every single piece of food or drink you put to your mouth. As Auli has kind of relatives living in HCMC we were excited! Finally we could just enjoy for a ‘normal’ life for a while. Trung and Nam has been amazing hosts for us in the very centre of HCMC. We have enjoyed every night we have been able to sleep in the tatami of their flat and every cup of morning coffee which have been waiting for us in the kitchen table after Trung and Nam have already left for work (this started when Trung noticed we really couldn’t make decent vietnamese coffee). We have enjoyed those days we have just stayed ‘at home’ instead of going to the city and we have enjoyed a lot every time Trung and Nam have taken us for dinner with their motorbikes. When I asked Nam if he enjoyes riding motorbike in the evening after dark in this dazzling city he replied that maybe twice a week. He is just so used to it and hates all the traffic jams and polluted air. Of course Nam’s point is easy to understand but for us riding those bikes has been magical. It was so horrible every time…to notice those familiar ‘landmarks’ showing that we were already near our place. Because we just didn’t feel the ride should never end :)

DSC_2047 View from Trung’s ‘yard’. I used to look at this and drank my morning coffee. This is where all the neighbors gathered every morning for ‘Bun Rieu’ – noodle soup with a lot of stuff a.k.a one type of a breakfast here.

DSC_2049 How much can you enjoy just being able to do your own laudry?

DSC_2052 One day when we stayed at home and got to deal with local police…that’s another story though. Nam doing presentation for his final thesis

DSC_2054 Having finnish dinner one evening with Nam, Tak and Trung

DSC_2055 Finnish meatballs and mashed potatoes can be prepared in Vietnam as well! Raspberry soup wasn’t as big success…Trung was wondering how can we eat something so sweet

DSC_2006 Picture taken when we were seeking for a dinner place one evening. Something we did almost every evening. Nam went to ask the way and I got my chance to be a paparazzi.

We owe you big time guys!!! -Katariina

Weekend trip to Vũng Tàu

Vũng Tàu is small (~500 000 inhabitants so it’s small in vietnamese scale) city in the coast, situated 120 km from Ho Chi Minh City. We took a weekend break away from HCMC to meet Auli´s ‘vietnamese family’. Vũng Tàu is famous for it’s beaches, fishing and oil. It is popular weekend destination mostly for people living in HCMC. Not international tourists – we liked it! Atmosphere and traffic is more relaxed than in HCMC, it was easy to move around by bicycles in the city centre. We spend 3 peaceful days in Vũng Tàu with Nguyen family, biking slowly around the city, climbing 811 steps to the statue of Jesus, swimming and enjoying morning run on the beach.

DSC_1952 Vũng Tàu seen from the top of the Jesus statue

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DSC_1934 Famous statue of Jesus on the top of the hill

DSC_1937 Stairway up to the statue was so narrow and crowded

DSC_1940In the arms of Jesus

DSC_1954 Doorway to Jesus’ arms was tiny!

DSC_1997 Friendliest people in Vietnam! Nguyen family and us

-Katariina

From Hué to Hoi An by motorbikes!

The best way to explore the coast of Vietnam is definately done by motorbike! We met two Austrian girls in Hué who had came from Hoi An by motorbikes…they sounded super-excited about the trip and since motorbike is ‘the’ vehicle in Vietnam we wanted to do the same. So we rent motorbikes with drivers (called as Easy Riders here) and did the 100 kilometer trip in total of 6-7 hours. We stopped a couple of times which made the total travelling time longer but without stops it can be easily done in 3-4 hours. The route was scenic crossing famous Hai Van Pass (‘ocean cloud pass’). It had been raining last days in Hué so we were prepared for the worst and were really heavily dresses against the rain. Luckily weather wasn’t rainy and we were able to enjoy the amazing views. You just sense changing landscape and weather so much fuller than from bus window…and you can sense the freedom!

Easy Riders can be easily found from Hoi An and Hué. We paid 50$ each for the trip. In case you wish to continue your trip further, Easy Riders will take you all the way to Ho Chi Minh City (approx 1000 kilometres from Hué, it takes 7-10 days depending of your stops) for the price 50$ a day including petrol. That is definately recommended way to enjoy the beautiful coastline of Vietnam (compare this with crowded tourist buses full of western people) and if we wouldn´t been in a rush to HCMC we would have continued the trip with Easy Riders for sure! I can imagine only driving motorbike yourself would beat this way of travelling!

Hai-van-pass-Nguyen-Minh-Son-Photo- Hai Van Pass by http://paowmagazine.com/Nguyen-Minh-Son-Photo

DSC_1871 Our group properly dressed!

DSC_1900_edit Some scenery from Hai Van Pass

DSC_1903 Even backpack could travel this way easily…(I was surprised my backpack didn´t look any more hazardous!)

DSC_1911 From the highest point of Hai Van Pass…it was windy!

-Katariina

Christmas in Sa Pa

This year’s Christmas was different!
DSC_1524 We enjoyed great Vietnamese coffee…

DSC_1526 …and peaceful atmosphere of Sa Pa…

DSC_1696 …went to see the Christmas mass…

DSC_1700 …celebrated pre-Christmas with a huge hot pot…

DSC_1717 …made rice porridge in ‘Le Gecko hotel’ being second guests ever wanting to cook themselves!

DSC_1709 …and sweet raisin soup…

DSC_1723 …which we couldn’t finish all by ourselves so let hotel people try as well…

DSC_1729…bought similar tops to each others by accident…

DSC_1739…were invited to hotel’s Christmas celebrations…

DSC_1731…got eat for free from great buffet table (one big pig was gone!)

DSC_1742…ate cake for dessert with sticks…

DSC_1777…which really made this Australian couple Steve and Kate laugh!

-Katariina

Tales From The North – Trekking 3 days in Sa Pa

One of our main interests in Vietnam was visiting the mountain village of Sa Pa. Sa Pa is situated in northwest Vietnam near China border. It’s approx 6 hours ride away from the capital Ha Noi. There is many ethnic minorities living in the small villages around Sa Pa. Weather in december is very cold and we noticed soon that after warm and humid Southern-India, we needed to upgrade our clothes to warmer ones to better deal with 0 degrees temperature! Too bad that we already had sent our winter clothes to Finland after Nepal…Many hostels don’t have any warming systems, you’ll get an electric mattress to keep you warm during the night and hot shower isn’t guaranteed either…so prepare with proper clothes if you wish to visit there in winter :) We were happy to arrive to Sa Pa though, as we noticed it had exactly the kind of a ‘christmas’-spirit we were looking for (and what is very difficult for a Finn to find under the palm trees). That was the main reason we decided to stay in Sa Pa for one week, so that we could spend Christmas there as well.

We wanted to do trekking in Sa Pa in order to have a closer look to it’s beautiful nature. As well, we wanted to see how local minority people live so we chose a trek which included 2 nights in local people’s homestays. We chose Sa Pa-based organisation Sapa O’Chau to organise our 3-days trek to Muong Hoa Valley. There is many tour operators in Ha Noi who do all-inclusive-trekking-trips to Sa Pa but Sapa O’Chau has great mission of employing local minority people as tour guides and homestay keepers. In that way money gained from trekkers goes directly to improving these peoples’ living conditions. Our trek price including all meals was approx 80 euros per person.

Trek to Muong Hoa Valley was more demanding that we had thought. Our first and second day’s walk were both around 20 kilometers. Route went through terraced rice fields which unfortunately had harvested in august. They were beautiful without rice anyway just filled with water. Sometimes the trail went through thick bamboo forests and across rivers via suspension bridges. Mostly it was going up or down and sometimes in a thick and slippery mud. Almost every tourist who did trekking and to whom we talked to, said they had been falling at least once while trekking. Our shoes were always so muddy after the days walk was over. And how can it be that our guide Mô always had such a clean shoes!?

DSC_1547 Me, our guide Mô and Auli in the beginning of the trek.

DSC_1553 Rice fields were covered with water.

DSC_1572 Terraced rice fields

DSC_1575_edit Boys carrying bamboo

DSC_1625 Damn these muddy and slippery paths!

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Seeing how local people live was the best part of our trek. Our guide Mô represented Hmong Tribe and said it is five different ethnic tribes living in the Muong Hoa Valley close to each other. Mô is 29-years old and has two children, oldest being 12 years old. Mô had been widowed earlier this year, her husband being only 33 years old when he died due to somekind of a heart-illness. Mô is guiding treks to Muong Hoa Valley and in this way is able to support her small family. We got to see Mô’s house in Lao Chai-village where we also stayed our first night in the homestay of Ms. May. It was pretty shocking to see Mô’s house. It reminded me of a barn houses in Finland having basically only one big room, concrete floors and walls made of bamboo leaves. No windows and as you can imagine wind can get easily in through those thin walls. There obviously wasn’t any heating systems and just a dim halogen lit the common room. All the family was sleeping in one big bed. There wasn’t any great storage spaces for clothes, toys, food or tableware. We didn’t find any bathroom either. Toilet was a separate bamboo house with a hole.

DSC_1587 Mô’s house in Lao Chai village.

Our first homestay keeper, Ms. May, had similar life story to Mô. Widowed at an early age and with three small children, she is now able to support herself and her family through the income she earns from her homestay. May’s house was bigger than Mô’s and had very clean western style toilet and bathroom with even hot water! Many children gathered to her living room to watch tv after the dark. There was me, Auli and and Australian couple staying over night. Mô and Mô’s sister Txuv made a delicious dinner to us and after May came back from her guiding work, we all ate together. We slept upstairs below two thick blankets and after first day’s tough trail, slept 12 hours in a row! Second night we spent in a Ban Ho village and shared a huge sleeping space with two girls from Germany.

DSC_1595 May’s house in Lao Chai Village

DSC_1583 May’s house in Lao Chai Village

DSC_1584Our sleeping settings

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    May’s children

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    Txuv cooking

DSC_1617 Dinner at May’s house

DSC_1638 Dinner at Ban Ho village with Mô, german girls and homestay keepers

DSC_1648 Auli with local ladies in Ban Ho village

In January there can be even snow in Sa Pa and temperature goes easily below 0 degrees. Imagine sleeping in those kind of conditions in a finnish barn house. There is some perspective to the western countries. Do we really need all the conveniences we have (i.e floor-heating or air-conditioning that can be adjusted room by room!) What do we really need for surviving? Seeing life of these people really made me think about the unfairness between our country and these people. We have it all and still it seems nothing is enough for us…these people have almost nothing but they still seem to be happy and enjoying life without even knowing what could they need more.

I really appreciate how people live in these villages. They grow almost everything by themselves from rice and corn to different vegetables, fruits, herbs and animals. All village help when it’s time to harvest huge rice and corn fields in late summer. They prepare all the food by themselves, use every single part of an animal and buy less ready-made-stuff from the markets. Women make their own, traditional clothes: they start by dying the fabrics, drying them, then sewing all the different decorations to them and finally they sew all the pieces together. Cows, buffalos, chickens, geese, pigs, cats and dogs live happily wherever they want, there is no fencing for animals. There is schools for different levels in each village and children play together outside after school. It didn’t seem to matter whose children it was spending evening in May’s house, everyone got to eat there who happen to be there in dinner-time. There was life in these villages! And I doubt it is actually pretty good life. When asking Mô if she was happy with her life, she truly seemed to answer ‘yes’ from the bottom of her heart.

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    Mô was the best!

-Katariina

Winter

The city is wintry
Followed by silly and clumsy early chills
Flattering corner trees
And slowly the dark fills
The sweeper loses his will
Knowing that the autumn is lost.
Away the gold leaves, away the autumn

The city is wintry
Earthen roofs in dry silence
Streets struggle in the empty vastness
Of the stirring afternoon.
The dawn fades away
And away goes the white branch
Long shaken

The city is wintry
The winter, the city, and burdens of life
Dragging rural feet to survive
Shivering under the worn-out rag
The gold light is just lying long
Wander and wander round a cup of coffee
Billowing smoke
Like nothing.

Grizzly hair entangled with losses
The chill is not here, but within
Bewildered to find
Find who, find what…?

Life is long and large
Time refuses to drift
Echoes will just leave
For winter to stay.

Poet ‘Urban winter’ by Tran Tuan Anh

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Have a beautiful and peaceful Christmas guys! We are celebrating it in the mountain village of Sapa in northern Vietnam.

-Katariina