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Day 123 – Going to Sapa

July 4, 2010

Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam – Sunday, July 4, 2010

I’m terrible with remembering birthdays. It’s so bad that I regularly forget my own. Seriously.

It shouldn’t have surprised me then, that I totally missed that today was July 4th, America’s birthday. I didn’t remember until late this morning when, while buying a train ticket to Sapa, I overheard an American say to her friends say she wanted to go to a July 4th party in Hanoi. Even then, I had to look at my watch to see if today was actually the Fourth.

The Fourth has a mild significance outside it being an American holiday. I’d originally planned on being back in the States on July 4th. My original plane ticket was supposed to put me Stateside yesterday. I’d specifically set it up so that I’d be back for the holiday. I figured it would help me get over jetlag in preparation for a commitment in Chicago on the 12th. My plans in Chicago fell through and I decided to extend my time in Asia another month. Instead of munching on hot dogs, barbecue, and watching fireworks, I’m in Hanoi preparing to take the night train to the Northwest highlands.

I did nothing to commemorate the holiday or the fact that I’d crossed over into the most impromptu portion of my travels. That is, unless, you count me drinking coffee, writing, and eating my way to 7 p.m. when a bus picked me up to go to the train station. Now that I write that out, it looks like any other day. Guess that really means I did “nothing.”

For lunch, I hit 69 Restaurant, Bar, and Café. The stuffed duck breast was tender, but nothing special in my book. I found myself craving more flavor. Better was the Hanoi tea served with dried ginger candy. The tea itself was mild and nearly tasteless. With the ginger candy, though, it came to life. The candy is almost too biting to eat on its own. With the tea, it mellowed and provided a fresh lift to the otherwise mundane drink.

I walked over to Café Ket Noi which employs Vietnamese ethnic minorities. I figured it was an apropos warm up for my Sapa visit where I’d be trekking to a minority village for an overnight stay. I sipped on a banana shake, then an iced coffee, all the while pounding away at my keyboard and swiping at my touchpad, producing a mass of entries and a boatload of pictures. The traffic buzzed outside as waves of heat occasionally invaded the open front of the café. Sitting cross-legged on the straw mat, I was happy for the breeze from the powerful electric fan.

For dinner, a quick return to Highway 4. I repeated my experience with the catfish spring rolls. This time I ordered the Highway 4 beef. Grilled meat wrapped around vegetables and lemongrass sounded good. It wasn’t. There was too much lemongrass for my taste, which made it feel like I was munching on dried straw. I still haven’t found a preparation of lemongrass that I enjoy. When it’s there, it makes me feel like I need cud and an udder.

From there, I got on a bus to the train station, got herded around by a Nazi-esque Vietnamese lady (“You four, stand here! Five, follow me!”) who spent a good portion of our interaction yelling at me for not following her when she called (Me: “Look, you said ‘Five’ and the group of ‘Five’ followed you. I’m a group of ‘One’.”) I made the train and spent the night stacked in a cabin with five Vietnamese people.

When I wake up, I’ll be trekking to a Hmong village for an overnight stay with the minority people. Trekking is a completely un-Asian vacation, who prefer holidaying in comfort (pool, luxury suite, five star restaurant). Hiking through muddy hills with only a backpack and roughing it reminds Asians of stuff that made us flee to America (being poor, hard manual labor, the Bataan Death March). If we wanted that, we’d have stayed on the continent.

Tomorrow should be interesting.

GALLERY: Nothing but the pics above, but bigger.

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