Well this is a hectic country full of lush beauty and contrasts, it challenges your mind, beliefs and your nerve, while all at once being relaxed, friendly and safe. We are only at the very beginning of out trip but already have experienced so much.
At present there are 5 of us,including the leaders, while we pick up Owen, our 6th tomorrow. We started off in Hanoi, straight into the old quarter and the hustle and bustle. Small narrow streets, choked with vans and what seems like millions of mopeds, all on their horns, all on their own journey with not much care for road rules. Crossing the street is an exercise in holding your nerve. While being what seems to us quite erratic in their driving they are amazingly mobile and skillful at not hitting each other and us as we cross the street - walk slowly, confidently and consistently without any stop, starting  or indecision on our part and they will weave to pass us.
Our first full day included a bit of a wander around the old quarter before moving off to check out some of the pagodas and sites of Hanoi, including Ho Chi Minh lying in state, which we later found out is a wax work and his real body is preserved  at a military base outside Hanoi. These visits opened our eyes to more of what it means to be Vietnamese, their buddhist past, the wars that have been fought, and the reverence in which Ho Chi Minh is held. Later that afternoon we left the city to take to the the rice fields on the outskirts of Hanoi. A pleasant break from the hustle. Riding bikes through the streets in to the fields themselves and back into small villages, while the whole time sweating up a storm in the heat.
That was about to change though, with an overnight train to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, then up into the cool hills of the northwest to Sapa. This is breathtaking scenery, a real Asian postcard. High mountains with mist floating in the valleys and terraced rice fields that creep up the steep slopes. The places being farmed is just incredible, every space is used, no matter how high or how steep it seems. We found this out on a blistering hot day as we trekked to the village of Thanh Phu down in the valley from Sapa. Our guide, Thunh, a local hmong girl from one of the small ethnic minorities of the north west led us thru rice fields, across rivers and in to villages of other ethnic minorities. This corner is home to many groups that are separate from Vietnamese, they have separate languages from Vietnamese and from each other and are come from different backgrounds. They are very traditional in some respects but in these times of increased tourism and technology it is beginning to be change. Our guide, while being dressed quite traditionally, was on her last trek before being married. When asked where she met her husband she replied "on internet dating". A shock for a few of us.

The trek was very rewarding, staying a night at a homestay and seeing a bit more of how life is away from the hotels and restaurants of the towns, but also in just achieving the trek. Trekking in demanding terrain in temps of 37'C is no mean feat and something to feel proud of. While hopefully opening eyes to other cultures is part of goal of this trip, it is great to see that people are also discovering more of what they are personally capable of.

We now sit in Sapa amidst the rain and cooler temps waiting to catch the train to Hanoi where we pick up Owen and head out to Cat Ba island and Halong Bay. A new set of experiences and adventures to look forward to. All is well with John, Sarah and Dannielle a bit of sunburn. A few blisters but plenty of smiles, discussion and opportunities to explore.

More from us later,
Vietnam Program Leader

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Author Aaron Agnew Posted

Program Vietnam and Cambodia Departure 2008