This blog update may, once again, be more of a photomontage as opposed to an interesting narrative as I never seem to make the time to write! That being said, here’s my feeble attempt to fill you in on the latest details of my whirlwind of a life.
Knowing that I’m leaving Vietnam in the months ahead (July 7th to be exact), I have a renewed appreciation and fondness for this culture and region! I am striving to embrace each day with enthusiasm, along with an innate desire to experience as much as possible before moving on to my next post. And I think I’m being quite successful!
I’ve managed to find a true sense of community with my photography club – something I’m quite proud of starting upon my arrival in Hanoi 2.5 years ago. A small, but committed group of us have gotten together almost every weekend to go out on photography expeditions – whether it’s exploring the streets of Old Quarter or hiring a van and driving out to nearby pagodas and ancient villages.
I marvel over the talent in our group, so many professional photographers! I am definitely the novice in the crowd, continuously learning new ways to manipulate my camera and to view compositions in new ways. I’m just thrilled that I’ve been able to glean some of their technical knowledge and photographic skills.
In addition to photography outings, I’ve also been able to take advantage of a few long, holiday weekends! In celebration of Emperor Hung Vuong, Vietnam’s legendary first king who founded the Vietnamese nation nearly 50 centuries ago, two colleagues of mine (Michael and Brian) and I boarded the overnight train to Sapa.
We stayed at the glorious Victoria Hotel and arranged to hike on the southeastern side of Ham Rong mountain in a valley seemingly unknown by most tour operators as well as visitors. Unlike my previous trip to Sapa, which was rife with hoards of tourists and ethnic minority women hounding you for endless miles to ‘buy from me’…this lovely hike was incredibly non-touristy! In fact, we didn’t see a single foreigner all day, and barely even saw the Hmong people in this narrow, quiet valley! For the first time in Vietnam, I reveled in Sapa’s breathtaking landscape of terraced rice paddies in the Hoang Lien mountain range, overlooking the Muong Hoa valley.
Our five-hour hike meandered through the charming Sa Seng and Sau Chua villages of the Black Hmong people. I delighted in the wooden roofed houses surrounded by rock-walls, pot-belly pigs, chickens, water buffaloes and children playing with hand-made games and toys.
Our second day was equally as beautiful, although definitely more touristy. This full-day hike led us through Lao Chai (Black H’Mong), Ta Van (Dzay tribe) and Giang Ta Chai (Red Dzao minority) villages.
Half way through the hike, two H’Mong women seemed to latch onto me – and what started out rather annoying (primarily because they obviously wanted to sell me something) turned out to be a blessing as they helped me over muddy, steep inclines through the bamboo forest.
And surprisingly, and yet not surprisingly at the same time, I chuckled over the fact that while I was hiking in my uber-expensive Gore-Tex hiking boots, they were in plastic flip-flop sandals. Yet, I was the one who seemingly slid all over the place while they gracefully leapt and bound over boulders, ravines, and muddy inclines. I was grateful for their steady embrace as they helped me clamber over certain sections of the trail. And to show my gratitude, I ended up buying two pillowcases and a handbag ☺
The following weekend, I ventured back to Duong Lam village with my friends from the photography club. This village is known for its ancient houses, some as old as 400 years, as well as its laterite bricks (rusty red in color due to iron oxides)!
And just last week, Vietnam celebrated two back-to-back holidays, Reunification Day (which marks the occasion where Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, signaling the end of the Vietnam War), followed by International Labor Day, which provided an excellent excuse to fly to another destination.
As such, David and I flew to Kuala Lumpur to meet up with another friend of mine from Malawi, Christine Strater, who has recently moved to the region. It was so great to not only see where she lives, but also to explore the city with a ‘local’ tour guide.
One thing that struck me about Kuala Lumpur, the city is massive – covering an area of 94 square miles, yet only has a population of 1.6 million people (compared to Hanoi’s 89 square miles with a population of 6.5 million). Needless to say, the city felt modern, spacious and clean with amazing infrastructure and hardly any motorbikes! That alone is reason enough to fall in love with the place!
Christine was a gracious host and took us all over the city! We started our adventures at the famed Petronas Towers, which were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 until surpassed by Taipei 101. Despite the loss of this impressive title, the towers remain iconic landmarks!
I loved walking around the KLCC Park at the base of the Petronas Towers, which spans 17 acres with jogging paths, fountains, a wading pool and playgrounds. And the place was packed with families and tourists of all ages and nationalities. We went to one of the nearby hotels to enjoy sundowners on their rooftop and admired the stunning sunset, the view of the towers and the city below.
That evening, we walked through the area of Bukit Bintang – an area popular among tourists and locals – lined with swanky bars, outdoor cafés, and night markets. This region is also known as Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle, with a plethora of cuisines available, from Indian to Japanese to Malay to Middle Eastern to Italian to Chinese, etc.
The next day we ventured to South East Asia’s largest museum of Islamic Art, which houses more than seven thousand artifacts, including an exceptional library of Islamic art-books. Exhibits ranged from the tiniest pieces of jewelry to one of the world’s largest scale models of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
We spent hours walking around the museum, but truth be told I think I have attention deficit disorder. I am not patient enough to read all the plaques on the wall. In fact, my attention span only allows me to quickly glance at the first one or two lines before I’m already walking away towards the next exhibit. But seriously, who has time to read thousands of plaques when there’s a whole city waiting to be explored!
So after the Islamic Museum, we jumped on the train to Batu Caves, a sacred place for Hindu’s in Malaysia! The area itself was beautiful, with its limestone cliffs, the Hindu temples, and the long tailed macaque monkeys lining the 272 steps to its main entrance.
From the caves, we ventured to Little India – which was eerily too reminiscent of our time in Bombay! It felt as if we had transported ourselves to India just for dinner. Kind of trippy, to say the least! And we topped off our evening at Central Market; a shopping area dedicated to ethnic craft stalls from around the world.
Our last day in KL was rather mellow. We attempted to go to Sunway Lagoon to cool off in the water park, but the main attraction that lured us there (the Surf Beach) was closed! Alas, our back-up plan included a lovely viewing of The Avengers, followed by a trip to China Town!
We said our good-byes to Christine and made our way back to Hanoi.
I’m off to Kampala, Uganda next week as I’ve been asked to deliver the opening plenary session at a Data Use Conference. I feel quite honored to have this opportunity…and am looking forward to my brief return to Africa as a precursor to my move in August.
And the day I return from Kampala is the same day my brother arrives in Hanoi! I can’t wait to show him around this amazing city…. plus we’re heading to Hue and Hoi An! It’s going to be an adventure.
Finally, I’m starting to make plans for my time in the states…it looks like I’ll be able to return to Kansas City in time for our 25th high school reunion! It doesn’t seem possible that we graduated SME twenty-five years ago!!!
And I’m also planning to travel to St. Louis to visit my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives…and hopefully, I’ll be able to sneak in a quick trip to Treasure Beach, Jamaica, too! After all, Jamaica remains my home away from home.
Sending much love to all,