A Hike in Nong Khiaw

The road from Vang Vieng is a bumpy one. It curves and turns and you feel all the uneven surfaces in the pit of your stomach. If you focus on the horizon, or some other point in the distance, perhaps you can stave off the feeling of motion sickness, but these days, it’s been getting the best of me. If I know I have a van or a bus trip coming up, I don’t eat much and I mentally prepare for the bumpy road ahead. After my time in Vang Vieng, I went to Luang Prabang, about four hours north. Four long hours in a cramped van, so I wasn’t in the mood to get in another one anytime soon (especially knowing I bought a plane ticket back to Bangkok), but a photo captivated me and I wanted to see the views for myself. Nong Khiaw, another 3 hours north by van, a village that doesn’t even have a name on my Maps.Me map but in recent years has grown a bit. There are a few westerners who own some establishments, including Delilah’s, the hostel where I stayed.

The road that runs through Nong Khiaw. The viewpoint is on the top of that mountain.

It’s recommended you do the “View Point” Hike as a sunrise or sunset trip, so once I arrived, I brought my small day pack to the hostel, had lunch, cooled off a bit, and let some time pass.
I set off on my own, there are not many tourists in the small village. I thought I may meet someone along the way seeing as it is one of the few things to do around the area. When I arrived to the ticket booth, I paid my 20,000 kip entry fee (about $2.40) and read the signs. “Unexploded bombs still in the area,” and “One of the most bombed areas in Laos.” That means, stay on the trail.

There is still UXO out there.

In the West, at least where I am from in the United States, I feel most people do not know much about this small landlocked country in Southeast Asia. I didn’t know much about it myself until I arrived and have since learned that the official name of the country is Laos, PDR, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic, but at the same time, they are a communist country. Laos made up part of French Indochina (along with Vietnam and Cambodia), but they gained independence in July, 1949. The Laotian Civil War took place from 1953-1975 between their then communist political movement and the Royal Lao Government. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped over two million tons of ordinance in this country. According to some sources, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita and over 580,000 bombing missions were conducted. This time was called the Secret War In Laos and the US wanted to support the Royal Lao Government against the emerging Lao communists and they also wanted to disturb traffic on the trail to Ho Chi Minh. Like in Vietnam, many of the bombs that were dropped never exploded. In some cases, the thick jungle provided a buffer to incoming bombs, and in others, the rice paddies were too soft so bombs did not detonate upon impact. Since the end of the war, over 20,000 people have been injured or killed due to UXO and although over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped, around 80 million did not detonate. To this day, less than 1% (ONE PERCENT ?), have been destroyed. People still die from remnants of a war that ended nearly 40 years ago.

No more bombs and hopefully, no trash.

That brief history lesson to say: Don’t go off the trail! Back to my hike. Because I’d traveled in the morning, I treated the hike as my exercise and activity for the day. I carried a 1.5 liter bottle of water with me and started off at 4:00 pm. The mountain was void of people. I was alone in nature, save for the enormous insects in the dense jungle. The path was muddy and steep. Jagged limestone rocks line the trail, as well as thick bamboo forests and trees of unknown origin to me. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat in the thick humidity. In fact, I was already soaked by the time I got to the trail head. My hike up wasn’t too bad. My knee and legs are strong enough to continuously climb. I only took a few momentary stops to chug some water. Part way in, I noticed my electrolytes were off, I was feeling a bit uneasy from the heat, the beads of sweat dripping off my upper lip no longer tasted salty, and not to mention I’d hardly used the restroom all day. But I’d rest at the top and have a proper dinner when I finished. I was cautious of my every step. Having had surgery in January, I’m still careful with my knee and protect it as much as I can in an unsteady environment.
There was a good stretch of dense jungle, the trail darkened and it was difficult to tell which way to go or how far I was from the top, but I kept on and before I knew it, there was a cleaning towards the sky.

Green and Blue

All the drops of sweat were worth it, the view was incredible. The sun was still high but would soon set. A blue background broken up with pointy peaks of green, a meandering river down below, beauty all around.

Time for a break! Always on a quest.

After some time, I laid back on a flat rock marveling at the scenery around me and the peaceful sky above. “I’m the only one here,” I thought. Then just at that moment, the serenity was broken by a voice, my heart jumped, but it was just another tourist, and honestly, I was thankful. As it turned out, 6 of us were at the summit for sunset, but my nerves got the best of me. I’d left my pack in Luang Prabang and inside, my headlamp. I never use it, but it’s one of those things that when you need it, it’s incredibly handy and now, I needed it. After watching the skyline transform with the setting sun, I started off on my own. With my knee, the steep descent, and a muddy path, I wanted to beat nightfall.

The bamboo was so thick, you couldn’t see through it.

As I approached the thick part of the jungle, it was as if someone turned off the lights, it was already dark so no way could I beat nature. I went slowly, cautiously, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. Luckily, the rest of the group caught up and I expressed my concern over going back down. I turned on the flashlight on my phone and placed it in my tank top, facing out. It did the trick and lit the path in front of me. The others let me keep the lead and followed my pace. Every step was precarious. A slight slip in my case (or anyone’s for that matter) could result in a serious injury. These things are now always on my mind. I run through different scenarios, what would I do, how would I get out? I was thankful I wasn’t alone. As I age, I grow more cautious. A major injury really makes you aware of your body and movements. But we descended, slowly and surely, eventually down the path and onto solid ground. Enriched with the natural beauty of the setting sun, and even the darkness, for the stars shone bright in the night sky. United in the end by a fortuitous meeting with strangers, grateful for their company and support, another experience in the books. I didn’t use to worry about these things when I was younger. I used to run free and not be afraid of anything, and now, I fear falling, yet when it doesn’t happen, I tell myself I’m stronger, and not to let my fears get in the way of what I want to do. And well, as you can see, I don’t! I go and seek opportunities, often alone, I meet great people along the way, and see epic scenery. Plus, an hour up, an hour and a half down, I got in my exercise for the day.

Another view from the top.

What are some of your fears? Do they change as you age? Have you over come any of them?

Slow Internet

This will be my shortest post ever. I hope you read. ?

I haven’t posted for 2 reasons. 1. I spent two weeks working on a project at a hotel that will soon be opening a new cafe. The cafe will serve meals for the health conscious traveler so I created some recipes to be used once ready. Because I like structure (even though I don’t always have it as a traveler), I spent my mornings after the gym with my face in my iPad. After looking down for a few hours, my neck gets stiff and I need a break, so I didn’t want to do much blogging. 2. The internet here in Laos has been quite weak. Blogging and furthermore, uploading photos and media is time consuming.

Vang Vieng from above.

After two weeks in Vang Vieng, a small town north of the capital, Vientiane, I packed up and came further north to Luang Prabang. If anybody visits any part of Laos, it seems they come here as it’s known for some beautiful nature and some epic waterfalls. I can focus on writing up a blog or two here soon as I think it will help me get some stuff off my chest AND soon I’ll be in Bangkok again. Whhhattt? Yep, travel,plans often change but I’ll have a week of down time while I wait for my next leg: Bangladesh. Woo boo. It will be country #50 in the books for me!

This is one of my favorites from my ride and it was after I got out!

So, stand by. I have some travel and food topics coming up.

Thanks for reading!

How to get From Sapa to Cat Ba

When you’re getting ready to make your next travel move, do you research where to go? How to get there? Do you check fares, schedules, and typical taxi rates? I met a fellow traveler when I was in Bagan back in May and he came to Vietnam just before me. Around the same time, an American family I’d met in Melaka, Malaysia, had also gone to Ho Chi Minh City. I was in a rush to catch up with everyone and accepting suggestions and recommendations along the way. I spent three days in HCMC, a few in Da Lat (where I wrote about coffee), three in Hoi An, and then I took a motorcycle ride from there, passing through Da Nang, ending in Hue. If you know Vietnam, you’ll see I skipped a few places. In my haste to not only catch up with the others and make it to Laos in three weeks, I was in frequent contact with my friend who was just a day or two ahead of me.
“Skip this,” he’d say, or “Don’t go there, it’s a waste of time.” And most importantly, he made a good call on recommending my then travel buddy and I get on the evening bus from Hue to Phong Nha. There was a bus, and arriving in the evening meant my German travel buddy and I could both see the caves! So that we did and at the same time, I caught up with Maz, my Bagan buddy from India.

A little dark, but we all made it to the caves!

To pay him back for all his recommendations and being my temporary tour guide as I made my way north, I wrote him a detailed message on how to get from Sa Pa to Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba Island. I’d actually had an idea of how to do it since our homestay host, Andrew, hooked me up with some info, and now I share with you, in more detail!
Taken from my message to Maz:
“I just got to the Cat Ba Central Hostel. $5.00/night, breakfast included. AC. Just north of the main strip.” It’s Not too bad for the price, comfortable beds, and all in all, pretty quiet. I booked it when I arrived in the morning.
Andrew had called a taxi for us before we left Ta Van. I’m sure any guest house owner would do the same and the rate was 200,000 VND. I left the village early to check out the Fansipan Cable Car ride with 3 others.

Fansipan Cable Car Ride

It was a beautiful day and in addition to getting a bird’s eye view of the rice paddies, we climbed 600 steps once we arrived to the top!

Some of the 600 stairs we climbed on the Fansipan Summit.

In order to get a van to Lao Caí where the bus station is located, I waited with two other girls at a hostel for pick up in Sa Pa. We made our way on the curvy mountain road, my right foot often pressing the non-existent passenger side break. We made it, stopped in a small office where a woman told us to be ready to go at 6:40, and had time to get dinner, like Andrew recommended. We were ferried to a different bus station in Lao Cai, waited for a while, and finally, around 8:00, the sleeper bus pulled away in the dark.
“When we arrived at the bus stop in the morning, it was early, maybe 4:00 I think but everyone stayed on the bus until about 6:00, sleeping. I was crashed out pretty hard. No taxi would take us to the Tuan Chau ferry terminal for less than 100,000 VND so we had to go and split it 3 ways. We even left the bus station, one guy followed us out. 4 different guys quoted 100,000 VND. We got there around 6:15 and had plenty of time before the first boat left so we found a bakery and had a bite to eat. The ferry ticket to Cat Ba was 25,000 and took about 45 minutes. It left around 7:45 am. On Cat Ba, there’s a city bus you can take for 25,000. The end of the line is the tourist district, but it’s more hotels and whatnot, less of a backpacker style area although there are plenty of hostels.
All rides were good. Ferry ride is very scenic.”

I saw more pigs, goats, dogs, and chickens than I did people.

Cat Ba is less touristy than Ha Long and it’s beautiful. On my first day I walked up a steep hill to a Cannon Hill Fort. It was interesting, very few people were there, and most importantly, the views were amazing.

It was spooky walking through the underground tunnel alone!

Ta Van-Sa Pa-Lao Cai-Cat Ba. Doable overnight and you get to bypass Hanoi, ultimately saving time.
There’s plenty to do once you arrive, so plan according to your tastes and travel style and if doing the trip in reverse, just ask your hotel or hostel owner to hook you up with info and hit up Andrew at My Tra in Ta Van for an awesome place to stay!

The Cycle of Rice

Rice is life here in Asia. It’s often the main staple and comprises nearly 70% of the calories consumed in some countries. In the west, we just see rice in a bag, but have you ever thought of how it grows or where it comes from? Oddly enough, I always think about it and today, on an unexpectedly long walk, I figured out how it was all done. Take a walk with me through the countryside outside of Sa Pa in northern Vietnam to see the cycle of rice!

Ta Van, near Sa Pa, northern Vietnam.

Even though rice is one of my least favorite foods, rice paddies are beautiful. I always say rice grass green is greener than any green you’ve ever seen! And here in Sa Pa, the rice terraces that curve along the mountainside are spectacular. They look like green carpets descending down from the misty mountains high above, their culms and blades swaying in the gentle breeze between the valley. But rice production isn’t about pretty pictures and scenic views, it’s a lot of hard work! In Vietnam, it is mostly manual labor and that means a lot of work for those involved. The country is the 2nd largest exporter of rice, just behind Thailand, and 7th in consumption. In 2017, forecasts say crops will yield over 44 million tons of paddy rice and there are over 1,600 varieties in the country.

So how does it grow? It needs a lot of water, so rice grows in a “flooded field,” and Vietnam has many areas suited for such a staple. Seeds must be planted, just like with any other crop and as it grows, roots will reach down into the earth and root below the water. Nutrients from the soil are delivered to the plant and eventually leaves emerge and grow. These young seedlings are harvested and separated and then transferred to the flooded fields. They are evenly spaced with enough room to grow to full size. These are the plants I often see growing throughout Asia, the bright green rice grass.

Can’t get enough of that green!

When the plant has matured, it will reach a height of about 3-4 feet. It produces a tiller, which is a reproductive stem. It keeps growing and will produce a flower head. At this point, the plant is in the reproductive stage. The flower head will produce up to 150 tiny flowers that will form seeds once pollinated. In the next 30 days, the rice seeds change color, some turning golden, the consistency of the grain itself changes (it hardens) and becomes ripe. The seeds can then be harvested for food and this process is what I witnessed today.

As we walked along the windy mountainous roads, we saw what ended up being the rice harvesting process. The bright green fields are all around, but some are turning golden. At one point, we saw some people further down the terraces, harvesting the rice from the flooded fields. They were working hard, bending, cutting, and carrying the loot up to the roadside.

Rice harvesting is hard work.

The golden crops were laying in neat piles along the dusty road, but we wondered how the flower, or the seed, is actually separated from the stem. Luckily, just around the bend, we saw a group of men and the mystery was solved. They had a portable machine that reminded me of a wood chipper. They put the stems in one end, the seeds came out one side, and the rest of the organic material shot out of the machine into a pile below. It actually more reminded me of a snow blower, but you won’t find snow in these parts!

Rice separation on the roadside.

Once the rice is separated, it is set to dry. This process takes time and  depends on the weather and conditions.

Rice drying after separation.

Once the rice is dry, it’s placed into a manually run machine that separates the husk from the grain. These husks are inedible coverings that protect the rice during growth. Often times, you see the husks being used for fuel (burning), but they also can be used as fertilizer or insulation material. I spoke to these two women for a bit and they said they will fill 8-10 bags of husked rice per day.


Separating the husk from the grain.

From a nutrition standpoint, this is where processing should end (aside from cleaning). Unfortunately, in Asia, rice goes off to the mill to be stripped of its nutrients to yield white rice. When I say “in Asia,” that’s very broad because Asia is huge, but everywhere I have been, this is the case. White rice rules, except in one little place, but more on that in a bit. The anatomy of a grain of rice is much more than the “white” part, or the endosperm. This is the carbohydrate and calorie provider of the food. The bran protects the seed, it serves as the outer shell, but it’s not the husk (that’s already been removed). The bran also contains fiber, B vitamins, and some minerals. The germ contains nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin E, a bit of healthy fats, and B vitamins (just like the bran). And wow! If you want a seriously detailed breakdown, check out the FAO’s website.

Whole vs. Refined Grain

The thing is, when rice is milled, so many nutrients are removed. When looking at main staples of the diet, they are a huge source of calories and nutrients, but with milled rice, so much is lost. We (dietitians) often tell clients to incorporate more whole grains in the diet, but when these simple carbohydrates have been king for so long, it’s hard for people to accept the healthier version and make that shift. When malnourishment and nutrient deficiencies are rampant, it’s sad to know so much is wasted.

The rice terraces of Sa Pa are beautiful. It was so interesting to simply walk along the road and actually see all the stages of processing once the rice has been harvested. All in all, my fellow travel buddies and I ended up walking nearly 12 miles. We saw lots of green, lots of grass, lots of rice. And at the end of the day, what do you think was served with dinner? You guessed it, a bowl of shiny white rice, straight from the local fields. Did I have some? Well, it was “rice day,” so I had a bit (maybe 1/4 of a cup). Is it my favorite? No.

Rice is the centerpiece of many Vietnamese dishes. Dinner is served at My Tra Guest House.

The best rice I’ve had in Asia was in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Coincidentally, they don’t mill their rice as often there. It was hearty, healthy, and tasty. In Asia, I’m “riced out.” I’m not Asian, if I don’t eat rice at mealtime, I’m ok, but for locals, a meal without rice is not a meal at all. Hopefully one day, more people will incorporate whole grain rice into their lives. It’s a way to incorporate more nutrients into the diet and what do I always say? Eat a nutrient dense, varied diet!