25 March 2006

Trip Plans

I have one more week of work, then a week off. I have been planning on going to the north of the country for some time, but am just now looking into how to do it.

You can put me on a plane with a suitcase and $100, fly me to any far-off corner in the world where I don’t know a soul and don’t speak the language, dump me on the tarmac, and I will be happy. And not just happy; thrilled. Within a week I will have a place to live and a job. But once I am there, I never seem to travel much.

All of a sudden, getting on a bus alone and going out on tour just seems too problematic. It has nothing to do with being alone, but everything to do with practicality. I mean, who watches your bag when you need to use the bus station bathroom, or when you dive into the surf at that beautiful beach? That being my general mindset, along with preferring to stay home and do all the things I never seem to get done when I am working, I don’t ever take full advantage of the places I have lived. Or haven’t until I came here.

Now, every break I’ve had, I’ve gone somewhere. Once I am on the road I love it and wonder why I’d spent time debating whether or not to travel. In the past week I have, once again, been thinking about not traveling during my break. Should I go, should I stay, should I get a tour, should I go it alone, should I book with this travel company or that? It seems so overwhelming that giving up on the idea presents a fairly nice alternative. Making all those choices and decisions alone, when one has limited information, sucks.

One of the reasons I like to live around the world is so that I can experience the local culture, especially that of indigenous peoples. I am entranced by their lives and clothing and artwork. In Vietnam, the remaining ethnic minority groups, as they are referred to here, live in and around the city of Sapa, way up north. I knew I wanted to go there, but didn’t, and don’t, know very much about them and the area in which they live. This last week of trip planning has proved educational.

First of all, I found out that I can fly to Hanoi, but then must take a 12 hour train ride up to Sapa. (again, who watches your bags on a 12 hour trip when you go to the head?) Staritng to think twice about it all, friends reassured me that the train ride is at night, in a sleeper car, and is very comfortable. Ok, so I guess I can manage that, but then I had to get some sort of tour because you just can’t hike around the hills looking for villages.

Following the suggestions of various colleagues, I went online and checked out what was available. Unfortunately, it seemed all the trips were designed for people coming from outside of the country. I was looking for a 3 or 4 day thing, and the ones listed were a minimum of ten days. The prices were ok, but not cheap, especially considering I would have to pay for the airfare and train trip.
I then remembered Sinh Café Tours. They run those $8 day trips to the Mekong Delta and other places. I hadn’t used them before, but remember running into an older couple who swore by them and who had had a fantastic time in Sapa with one of Sinh’s tours.

I got to their web site and was very happy to see that they had three day trips, starting from Hanoi where you get the night train, and the price was at least two-thirds less than the other companies. However, I then went on to read the details of the trip which included the word trekking. Right. I should have done better research, because I was sort of surprised to find out that one had to walk lots of kilometers to actually get into the village areas.

Once again I thought of not going. I am a walker and can walk and walk for hours. But trekking sounded scary. I walk on my own time at my own pace and a forced march is not my idea of a vacation. Did that also mean I had to be a backpacker? What was I to do but to put it off until a later date and maybe find someone who knew more about traveling in the north and might even go with me? I thought about it. If I don’t go in April, I won’t have a chance until the fall, and by then it would be the rainy season. Trekking down mountain slopes in the cold and rain is simply not an option for me. Besides, I reasoned, I was being very silly to not go to the one area I most wanted to see simply because of the word trekking.

That settled, I went into town to do some power shopping before hitting Sinh Café’s office. And since it was 200 degrees at 2pm, I stopped off for a cold drink where I ran into two friends. Both of the guys had been to Sapa, so I pumped them for info. Tell me about this trekking, I asked. My friend laughed. It’s an easy walk. The jeep drops you off at the top of a mountain; you leave your bags with the driver, who later hooks up with you at the bottom. The other friend went on to tell me that it was lucky there was only on Sinh Café in HCMC. In the land of no copyright laws it seems that numerous industrious individuals in Hanoi have ripped off their good name and ideas to get a piece of the action.

Once at the Sinh office, I requested information about the three day trip. The man at the counter got out a travel itinerary brochure and pointed it out. But this is different form the on listed online, I said. He just looked at me. I tried thumbing through the pamphlet, but couldn’t find what I had seen. I told him I would print out the online one and be back.

At home, I got on the computer and found the trip, then matched it word for word with the brochure I had been given. Well, it was almost the same. I looked at the logo. It was the same. Then I looked at the website listed on the brochure and it was not the same. Similar, but slightly altered. I remembered what my friend had said about the copycats. When I finally got the real Sinh Café online I saw hat they had included a notice about other companies that had stolen their name, logo, and trip description. And people wonder why I opt to vegetate at home.

I really think I might now have the right information. I will check with a few other people on Monday to make sure the local Sinh Café is the outfit to go with. I then have to get a plane ticket, then go book the tour. Which brings up another problem. I either take a morning flight and hang out in Hanoi all day, (who watches my bag?), or take the night flight which doesn’t give you enough time to make it to the train station so you have to stay in a hotel, and then you still have to do Hanoi all day. So why don’t I just stay a day or two and check out Hanoi? Because I choose to do one thing at a time and this time it is Sapa.

I need to buy some warm clothes.