I Chocolate You
China and Vietnam were certainly eye-opening. I'd never been to a country were I absolutely couldn't communicate with anyone, so that was the first challenge. We did see a good amount of "Engrish" on signs and whatnot. Now, anyone in China who speaks more than 5 words of English beats my 4 words of Mandarin but I'm not publishing anything onto billboards. "I Chocolate You" was my first experience with Engrish, found on a cell phone ad in the Beijing airport. I still have no idea what the Mandarin says or what the proper English translation should be.
Our first couple days in China were spent in Xi'an, mainly to look at the Terra Cotta Warriors. We started with Pit 3 based on advice from the Thorn Tree Forum on Lonely Planet. I'm glad we did since we saved the biggest and most impressive excavation pit for last. I knew there were a lot of these guys but I was overwhelmed by the number of them and the size of the pits. That feeling seemed to follow me around China as very few things were how I expected, but many how I wanted them to be, if that makes any sense. I guess I just didn't expect things to actually be how I imagined ...
We made friends with a Namibian family in Xi'an and agreed to meet up with them the next couple days in Beijing. We stayed at a wonderful hostel called Red Lantern House in a traditional hutong area. I bumped into a friend from Biluim who I hadn't seen since we were 17! Over the next few days we went to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, a giant indoor market with great knock-offs (twice), the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple (the biggest Tibetan buddhist temple outside of Tibet, although the Sino-Tibetan Relationship Museum was mysteriously closed), and, the absolute highlight of the entire trip, the Great Wall at a section called Simatai.
I read that this section had been restored enough that it was safe-by-Chinese-standards to walk along, but not so restored that it looked like it had been built in the 1970s like some other more touristy sections. The Wall was exactly how I wanted it to be: very few other people, I could see it snaking off into the distant mountains, very isolated, and decaying enough to give you the sense of time that it had been around. We hiked for 4 hours along the spine of the Wall and yet got nowhere - we really understood the enormity of the whole thing. It was basically a four hour StairMaster but incredibly worth it.
After 6 days in Beijing we boarded a train down to Vietnam. We were put in a room with a British girl and Australian guy and joked that the government arranges so all the foreigners are together and can be easily monitored. I think we were right since nearly everyone else in the whole carriage were tourists! We slept most of the ride, played cards, ate terrible food and instant noodles, and read.
We had to adjust to Vietnam more than I thought we would. The city of Hanoi only has an estimated 5 million inhabitants but it felt so much more crowded and hectic than Beijing, although much smaller. Everyone and their chickens rides motor-scooters. I'm actually not kidding about the chickens. We played the How Many People Can You Spot On A Moto game, and although our record was a measly 4, some friends we made said they saw a family of 6 plus the week's groceries plus caged chickens on one little moto! Now that's impressive.
We toured around Hanoi and saw a water puppet show, visited some temples, did some knock-off shopping and lots of eating, as well as went on trips out of the city. We spent two days on a boat in Halong Bay which was stunningly beautiful. I met a woman whose parents lived in the same tiny Welsh village as Matt's parents! We bumped into her again during our last day in Vietnam on our trip to the Perfume Pagoda.
We also spent 3 days in the North-Western mountainous region in and around a town called Sapa. We walked around the village of Cat Cat which hangs off the hillside of Sapa Town itself. Our guide, Lyly, took us into a typical home there. It was very National Geographic, with an indoor cooking fire, dirt floors, two small sleeping areas for the 9 or so people living there and dirty and bottomless children running around. As we were leaving they of course tried to sell us small trinkets and jewellery. We both bought a few things for the equivalent of about $2 USD each. The next day we set off on a two day trek through the mountains and right through the rice paddies. It poured the entire time. We weren't thrilled. It was amazing to walk through some of those villages though, and we got to see our guide's village and her old school although it was shut for summer vacations. We spent the night in a homestay, but we had very little interaction with the family. There was a British guy, a French couple, and twin sisters staying in the same home so we had lots of fun talking with them. It ended up that one twin went to UVic and the other to UBC! I don't remember if they were from Vancouver or Victoria but it was another funny coincidence in the middle of nowhere.
All in all it was a great experience although not exactly a relaxing holiday. New Zealand felt so empty when I got back!