My second favorite activity, after making children’s books, is traveling. So I was ecstatic when the United Nations International School (UNIS) in Hanoi, Vietnam, invited me to spend a week at their school as a visiting author/illustrator. But if I was going to fly all the way to Vietnam I wanted to see as much as I possibly could. So I began planning a two-week trip, where I could explore the Vietnamese culture and countryside, as well as visit the UNIS school in Hanoi.
After a painfully long flight I landed in the Hanoi airport, and immediately hopped aboard an overnight train heading north. I shared a sleeper cabin with a French couple, and a girl from Quebec. They were all very nice, and we chatted for a couple of hours before hitting the hay. But I’m a light sleeper, and falling asleep on the clanging, jostling train car proved to be impossible…
CA-CLUNK, ca-clunk! CA-CLUNK, ca-clunk! CA-CLUNK, ca-clunk!
I woke up at the Lao Cai train station, near the border with China, and found a car to drive me an hour west, through foggy, winding roads, to the mountain town of Sapa. The town was a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns: farmer’s markets glowed green with leafy vegetables, motorbikes zigged and zagged over every paved surface, and groups of indigenous women wore their customary handmade attire and patrolled for tourists to whom they might sell embroidered bags and Technicolor scarfs.
I spent the next three days hiking and eating and taking photographs in the countryside surrounding Sapa. My days were spent with Sung, a wonderfully peaceful woman from the Black Hmong tribe, who spoke fine English thanks to years of guiding western tourists around those parts. Sung took me to waterfalls, jungles, terraced rice paddies, small villages, across precarious bridges and along muddy mountain trails.
My favorite moment with Sung had to be when she took me to a little lunch spot in the village of Lao Chai. She sat me down in the main dining area (which consisted of picnic benches under a wooden canopy) and then she disappeared into the kitchen. When I realized she was eating lunch with the cooks, I sheepishly poked my head around the corner and asked if I could join them. I guess most tourists prefer the picnic benches, but I was alone, and much preferred getting to know Sung and her friends. They pulled up a chair for me and the cook brought over some of the most delish sautéed greens I’ve ever had, along with some tasty spiced pork and rice, and a can of coke. While eating, I peppered them all with questions about their daily routines, and Sung translated. They laughed at how excited I was to hear about everyday activities like planting rice and raising buffalo. To top it all off, I sat beside a window with a view I won’t bother describing, just look at the glorious picture below.
After exploring the North for three days, I got back on that overnight train and returned to Hanoi. Once in Hanoi, I quickly found my way onto a bus that took a group of twenty of us west, to Ha Long Bay. Several hours on the bus brought us to a harbor, where our group boarded The Calypso, a worn, but pleasant boat that would take us deep into the fantastical mountain islands that have made Ha Long Bay a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Calypso was one of dozens of boats making the trip, and so a fleet of us set sail for the islands. The Calypso provided us with lovely bedrooms, and meals, and the crew even gave a nice little cooking lesson and a Tai-Chi class the next morning.
The crew must have noticed the date of birth on my passport when I checked in, because after dinner the main lights turned off, strobe lights turned on, Vietnamese techno blasted from the speakers, and a birthday cake appeared before me. It was ridiculous. But it was a fun night. The other guests were good sports to sing Happy Birthday to a guy they hardly knew.
While in Ha Long Bay we stopped off to see a giant cave, and some of us went sea kayaking through tunnels to explore a lagoon in the center of a ring shaped island crawling with monkeys. My imagination couldn’t get enough of the scenery, and so I found a little time for watercolor painting.
Before I knew it we’d landed back at the harbor, and were boarding the return bus to Hanoi. I had an amazing week of traveling around northern Vietnam, but it was time to prepare myself for the United Nations International School. Check back soon to read about my week at UNIS!
Here are a few more photos from my first week in Vietnam.