Tag Archives: Mountains

Travel Guide: Sapa

When my sister told me she was coming to visit, I knew I wanted to take her to Vietnam, but I also wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. We spent a day and a half in Hanoi before taking a very lovely night train northwest to Sapa to spend two days trekking with local Hmong guides. I first learned about the Sapa trek from someone I met on an airplane on the way to Hoi An a couple years ago and was excited to finally make it there!

We booked this part of our trip with the friendly, helpful, ever knowledgable people at Lily’s Travel Agency. They were very responsive via email and WhatsApp, which made the planning very easy on my end. Lily’s Travel works with Mao, a Black Hmong woman who leads Sapa treks, to provide a “backroads” trekking experience and an authentic look at the lives of the Hmong people.

Our train left Hanoi at 10pm and we arrived at Lao Cai station at 6am. It was very cozy and truly delightful to curl up with a book and listen to the sounds of the train. I’ve always found the whistle of a train to be simultaneously romantic, mysterious, and exciting.

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From there, we took an hour-long bus ride to Sapa where we met the spunky, warm Mao. Everyone we met in Sapa seemed to know her! Mao introduced us to several other local guides and to her sister-in-law, our guide for the next two days. Mao took a particular liking to my sister’s pink curly hair – but then again, who doesn’t?

Our trek started from the town of Sapa at about 8:30am to give us time to swap the glasses for contact lenses and have some eggs and coffee. It was sunny but cold and I was glad for my winter coat and gloves . . . and skiing sweatshirt . . . and thermal leggings. (My sister, on the other hand, had come from the very cold upstate New York and maintained that it was in fact rather balmy.)

I really love meeting fellow travelers and trekking in Sapa provided a great opportunity to do that. Our group included a Malaysian man, several Singaporeans, a French woman, and two German girls. Along the way, we met other travelers from the US, Canada, and Israel. I really enjoy knowing that people from all over the world were on the same trail on the same chilly but sunny day, happy to be where they were and excited for what they would see.

I also really loved that we were all guided on our journey by a group of Hmong women who were wonderfully knowledgeable, liked to talk and make jokes, and made for excellent company.

The trek took us through rice paddies that are dormant in the winter because of the weather. Winter in northern Vietnam is too cold and dry for rice to grow but I’ve been to rice plantations in Malaysia and can imagine what it looks like in the summer. For that reason, though, I loved seeing the landscape at a different time of year. It was beautiful just as it was.

We also saw our fair share of animals! Pigs, water buffalo, and dogs were all in abundance.

By the time we arrived at the homestay, also coordinated by Mao, we were exhausted and very glad to huddle up around a charcoal fire in a large stone bowl on the floor. Our crew for the night was a really lovely group – the German and French women we’d been with all day and an American living in Thailand who we’d met over lunch. One of the girls was brave enough to test the hot water in the bathroom located just outside the house. Thanks to her, we all took a hot shower! The hardest part was figuring out where to keep our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet. Except for my sister, we wore jackets, hats, and scarves indoors because any spot away from the fire was as cold as being outside. I slept in my jacket, too, but I think I was the only one.

It was really relaxing to sit and talk and get to better know the people we’d hiked with all day. Because of that, I’m glad we stayed in the more traditional of Mao’s two houses. Our homestay had a ladder to reach the unlit second floor loft, which housed cozy mattresses and quilts under mosquito nets. There were curtains on the main floor separating one room from the other, single lightbulbs to illuminate the kitchen and main sitting area, and a combination lock to secure the sheet metal door at night. Our guide told me that her home with her husband’s family is very similar to the house where we slept. We visited the newer homestay the next morning and while it was made of brighter wood, better lit, and had private bedrooms with doors and a staircase to the second floor, I feel that we had a far more authentic experience  than we would have otherwise. At any rate, it was an adventure and that’s why I travel.

And speaking of adventures, the second day of our trek was my first day of mountain trekking in mud and rain! The rice fields looked completely different and the mist all around us made for an experience quite unlike the sunshine of the previous day.

It was still pouring when we finally returned to the town of Sapa where we had arranged to spend a night in a proper hotel rather than taking the 9:30pm train back to Hanoi the same day. Since the downpour continued and we were cold, wet, and muddy, I am very glad we made this decision. I would not have enjoyed sitting on a train for eight hours under those conditions, let alone trying to sleep on one.

There isn’t much to do in Sapa, but we enjoyed a calm day of wandering. It was much warmer in town than in the mountains, which also very welcome.

That night, we were back on the train to Hanoi, already missing the mountains and the “trek life”, as my sister termed it.

I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Sapa since my first trip to Vietnam and I’m really glad that my sister and I could experience a new place together. After a couple days in Hanoi, we were off again, this time to one of my favorite destinations – Chiang Mai! Stay tuned!

Up in the Adirondacks

I’ve always wanted to raise a family near wherever my parents are living because I grew up far away from my grandparents. My mum’s parents live in Montreal, QC where I was born and my dad’s parents have moved from Montreal to Toronto, ON where most of my cousins live. Seeing my grandparents was always a scheduled event involving a car trip, overnight bags, passports, and green cards (which we forgot once). I was always envious of friends whose grandparents picked them up from school and friends who saw their grandparents whenever anyone wanted. Spending time with grandparents has really always been something that I’ve treasured, which was exactly the case during our week in the Adirondack Mountains in good ole upstate New York.

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Our dog, Puck, posing for a photo on the dock

In order to bring all of us together, though we missed my brother who couldn’t take off work, my parents rented a cabin on the lake just outside the adorable little town of Old Forge, NY. We went into town for ice cream, Mum’s daily latte, and to visit Old Forge Hardware, which sells everything and is a delight to explore.We didn’t have cell service and wifi only worked in certain corners of the cabin, so I read a lot and was very happy to disconnect for a while.

In true holiday fashion, we quite enjoyed our view of the world from the cabin porch:

We had a pontoon boat and a kayak to play with and were out on the water every day. My dad and grandfathers went out fishing a few times and I went with them for the sake of the scenery. In six days, the three men managed to catch two fish. That, according to my dad, is why they call it fishing and not catching.

I love being out on the water.

I also love hiking! One morning, my parents and I hiked Black Bear Mountain and we decided to bring Puck along just to see how he would do. Turns out, the dog is part mountain goat and it’s a good thing, too, because the trail was fairly steep and very muddy.

The view from the summit was beautiful, too:

Later in the week, my dad and I hiked Bald Mountain, so named because it’s very rocky (as opposed to leafy, I guess). It’s a much shorter hike and therefore was also more crowded. I’ve never spent time in the Jurassic Age, but I think it looked like Bald Mountain.

We climbed this tower at the summit . . .

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. . . from which my dad pointed out all of the seven lakes that make up the central region of the Adirondacks:

And of course, because that’s what you do up in the mountains when it gets cold after sundown, we made a fire every night. My trusty Syracuse University sweatshirt reeked of smoke (and so did my hair) but I had packed it just for that reason. I’m a bit of a pyromaniac when I’m allowed to be; I love watching the flames dance and hearing the crackle of the wood and the whistling of the fire. Had some good fun with my zoom lens, too:

In sum, that was the week. Time outside to hike in the mountains, boat and kayak in the lake, and run along the trails. Quiet time to read. Singing, telling stories, and laughing over the fire. Being together with family. Very relaxing and very simple. Can’t ask for more than that.

Travel Guide: The Kinneret

After four nights in Jerusalem and two nights in the Negev on our eighth grade Israel trip, we headed north to the Kinneret, the region of Israel around the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret in Hebrew). We stayed at a kibbutz where I’ve been before and had the best food of the entire trip. Unfortunately, we also had an insect infestation to go along with the stomach bug, fever, and colds freely passing from student to student. This meant changing the kids’ rooms every night to quarantine the sick and avoid the rooms with unliveable colonies of insects. No exaggeration. I slept in a different room each night and spent one night on the couch of a room two colleagues were sharing. Our sleepover was honestly a lot of fun!

As much as I love the desert, I do agree that the Kinneret is beautiful.

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Sunrise

The Kinneret is home to the Banias, which our trip guides consider Israel’s most beautiful hike. The site centers on a waterfall and a cave with shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan. It was a gorgeous day, warm with spring flowers blooming. After our time in the Negev, it was nice to see the world returning to life after the winter.

After our hike, we drove to Har (Mountain) Bental in the Golan Heights, Israel’s most strategic defense point and one that it has so far refused to give up. From Har Bental, you can see the border between Israel and Lebanon, as well as the remains of an army bunker.

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We spent the afternoon in the Golan and visited De Karina Chocolate Factory to learn how chocolates are made and try out making our own. My favorite part of De Karina was the hot chocolate I bought at the café after the tour. It was simply melted chocolate, whole milk (which I never drink), and real whipped cream (which I never have) topped with chocolate shavings and served with a house-made praline. It brought a huge smile to my face.

The next day, we participated in the first of two service projects for the trip (the second was Latet in Jerusalem, which happened three days after this one even though I wrote about it first). This was my favorite activity so far and, I think, my favorite activity from the entire two weeks. We volunteered with Leket, an organization that collects surplus food products from a variety of venues to distribute to people in need, harvests farm produce that will otherwise go unharvested, and also runs its own farm with all products going to the hungry. Our task was to harvest a field of kohlrabi. If we could accomplish that quickly, the Leket staff told us, there was a field of beets that also needed harvesting.

Our eighth graders didn’t need telling twice. It was a bright, sunny day and energy was high. Excited about playing in the dirt, the kids filled buckets and buckets of kohlrabi and emptied them into packing crates. I heard more than a few races and competitions and tried to point out that the goal was the same, no matter who filled the most buckets. However, I ultimately found myself in a flow state much like what Levin describes in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when he mows hay with his peasants.

Time slipped away and I didn’t notice the dirt under my nails, the stiffness in my knees, or the sunburn on the back of my neck until we were done with both fields about an hour later. All I knew was that you use both hands to pull up the kohlrabi, break off the leaves, and throw it in the bucket. The beets were easier to pull out of the ground but the technique was the same. If I could make a living just doing service work with students, I think I would.

That night, two drummers came to the kibbutz to lead us in a drum circle. I was pleasantly surprised at how many Jewish and Israeli folk songs the kids knew – and how many I knew! Songs I hadn’t heard in years and some of the dances that came with them just soared. It was such a great experience to have as a community, especially following an afternoon working together to help others directly from the land that we were singing about.

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One of the drummers playing a shofar as an instrument!

Energy was obviously running high and it took us a while to get the kids calmed down with suitcases packed and into bed. We needed to leave the next morning for host family destinations for the weekend. For my colleagues and me, that meant a free weekend to relax and refresh. More on that soon!