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My name is Lara, but my family calls me by my Russian Orthodox saint's name Kira. I was born and raised in Alaska. I have lived in a village called Tanacross, the lower 48, and, for a minute, Bangkok. I love to travel...I was inspired to expand my horizons by my grandmother's National Geographic magazines. I like to take road trips around my beautiful state and go hike my favorite spots before development takes them away. I am a mix of Athabascan Indian and Caucasian. I have a large extended family with adopted cousins from my grandparents Foster Parent days and my mother's adoptive family. Family Tree projects were so tricky! I have some Wildlife, Family, and Party days stories. I am currently working on a book with a good friend.
...as in "Dang, the bus is really leaving me here!" I was the only one to get off in Danang...should've been a sign! The bus stop guy at the local tourist agency was less than helpful...he tried to steer toward a $15 hotel!!!! I said no thank you and was on my way to one of the Lonely Planet recommendations, Hoa's place, leaving my bags behind. I had picked up a card at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel...and went to find a moto driver...I actually had to hunt for one! So different from the other cities. I found a guy and we haggled a bit...he quoted me a distance in kilometers...and I still haggled him down a bit. Almost the same instant I hopped on the back of that bike it started to rain! We DROVE FOREVER!!!! I got soaked in my jeans, tennis shoes...and when we got to the place I was Shocked!!!! It was a clapboard place, far from much else. Deeply disappointed, I felt that I should see the famous China Beach and walked down a few yards to take a peek. It would've been beautiful, if the rain wasn't stinging my eyes. I went over to a stand to ask about a plastic pullover that all the people wear...instead I got a girl that wanted me to buy bracelets so she could go to school...she would not leave me alone! My moto driver found a plastic pullover of his own and off we went to take a look at other options...and this time it wasn't just rain but blowing sand stinging my face!!! It looked like there was a storm a coming!!!! I peeked over at the Marble Mountains and promised myself that I'd go, rain or shine...in sandals. I looked again in the Lonely Planet and found another hotel nearby on the river, the main selling it had cable...and an eerie resemblance to "The Shining"! Or "The Grudge". And was that blood on the walls? It was the cheapest, if not, the cleanest option. I found a place to eat...and rats the size of housecats. I decided that after a nice breakfast to see the Cham Sculpture Museum and met a waiter named Ken, he said that I looked like a rock star with my pink hair...I decided to stay another day and give the people a chance to grow on me!!! He actually sat down and practiced his English with me!!! I found a moto driver and we went to the Marble Mountains, it was spectacular!!! I loved it!!!! I bought postcards because my battery was dead in my camera...good choice considering. I walked in ancient caves...there were quite a few!!! It was lovely. What wasn't so lovely was my moto driver trying to hustle me for 500,000 dong! We argued for twenty minutes about the price...and short of telling him to...do something not so nice to himself...I found my composure and paid him a fraction of the price! I don't know how I did it...I was that angry. I finally got the Cham Sculpture Museum, and that was lovely too. I was also met a nice lady and had a conversation with a phrase book/sign language...she was a lot of fun! I bought some kind of weird coconut jelly dessert from her...delicious! I was VERY happy to get out of Danang and get to Hoi An!!!!
I met a few other travelers in the hostel...they all said the same thing...get out of Hanoi and the people are different. I was really happy to hear this because I was sick to death of being hunted down by all the hawkers!!! I met Kasie on my last day while I was at the post office mailing some packages...that I don't think are going to make it to Alaska and Washington!!! It was wonderful to meet another traveler and hang out and speak English AAAAALLLLLLLLL DAY!!!! She advised me to not speak when the hawkers came up to me...then that way they didn't know where I was from. While I was waiting for the night bus to Danang...some French tourists and I saw an old lady get hit by a cab while riding her moto!!! It was shocking...nobody stopped to help her!!! Just us tourists!!!! The French were well-prepared and brought out one of those shiny blankets to wrap her in...the shop owners (who finally came out) put her into a taxi!!!!! And away she went. Very odd. And sad. We then were all herded onto the night bus and crammed into these tiny seats/beds...and the driver honked the horn all night, which is what they do on the big roads...it was so exhausting!!!! Nobody spoke English around me...it was all very sad after spending the day with Kasie. Off to the Danang experience...which was mercifully brief! *** I became friends with Kasie when she moved to Alaska a few years later, 2010?
I was so exhausted by the time my evil cabbie got me to the hotel that I decided to stay an extra night at the expensive hotel....because being up half the night was enough to seek a bed at any price!!!! I had to stay in Hanoi because of my desire to see the Perfume Pagoda and I had already paid for two days with the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (lots of fun!!! I recommend it!) I got a refund on my Mt. Fansipan portion of the trip...and used that toward my tour, my room, and my hop on/off bus ticket down the coast! The cities that I chose were Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Saigon for $50. My tour of the Perfume Pagoda was eye-opening...we went on a rather long ride out of the city into a ghetto-type area...the poverty was just astonishing...the villagers in the Sapa area were better off than these people. There was a lot of flooding and some roads were just small lakes. Our driver drove like he stole the bus! We almost hit a dog, a lady on a bike, and we bottomed out when he took a pothole too fast which caused us to lose our spare tire. The driver tried to get it to fit in the back, it was too big for that, so he jerry-rigged it closed WITH STRING!!! A very nice Korean family (a couple and their grandfather) and I got to breathe in fumes and dust for the rest of the journey there...and back. I got the hook-up from the Koreans with cookies, Almond Roca, and drinks...they were prepared!!!! We got to the dock and there were women all over us trying to get us to buy this and that...the Koreans had to buy Cone Hats to block out the sun since there was no shade on our boats. They were very cute!!! The men had pink ribbons on theirs...hilarious! The scenery on the ride over to the base of the mountain was breath-taking, limestone karsts jutting out like teeth...our rower was in some kind of hurry and we passed the other boats. The butterflies were huge along the way...dark...and no, they weren't bats! The nets on the river were held afloat by empty plastic jugs...to catch dinner. The town at the base of the mountain was flooded and we were actually right above the sidewalks!! We got to a traffic jam of boats and the old Korean man almost fell into the water and we all had to help him up! The base of the stairs that go all the way up to the temple were ancient...just amazing to see! We toured the base Pagoda first and I got kicked out of the temple! I had forgotten to wear my zip away pants instead of my shorts...we had lunch before some of us took the cable car up the mountain and the others walked. Before we all went our separate ways the guide instructed us to stay away from the dogs and monkeys because they might bite!!! Nice. I was still sore from my homestay experience...and took the cable car up, but pride wouldn't let me take the car back down the mountain! We were so high up that it was almost difficult to look down. The cable cars were surprisingly modern! After a brief and painful walk, we entered the cavern...it was so huge!!!! We were allowed to take pictures of the Buddhas but we could not give the pictures away...we were told to hang onto the photos forever. The Buddhas were gorgeous! So gorgeous, they didn't need the neon halos with the hearts radiating from their heads...kind of tacky, but it's not my Pagoda. After a brief turn inside...I started my descent warily looking around for wild monkeys...there were hawkers everywhere, as well as trash, blue tarps covering what looked like homes without walls. People were selling photos of a caged red squirrels and a chained monkey...very sad. I sat down about half way and had a nice cold water with a lady and her baby...she was very sweet!!! I really wish that I hadn't lost all my photos. We made the trip back with the same rower...the guide rode with my group and he told us to give our rower a 10,000 dong tip...which is about, .75!!! The ride back was stinky but uneventful...and I returned to the Hanoi Backpacker Hostel for a space-age shower...the facilities were really clean for the amount of people that they served!!!
The homestay experience...was absolutely grueling to get to!!! My group, my guide (Zoum, from the other day), and I went walking from the hotel to the village. The vision of the rice terraces got even closer and I took a million photos of the walk down...we were accompanied by some of the Black Hmong women with babies on their backs, goods for sale, and produce. Once we got to the trail we had difficulty on the slope...I had wrapped myself up in all kinds of layers because my Malaysian friends said it was so cold...as the day cleared up, it got hot! Oh so hot! I shed my layers pretty quickly as we walked down into the valley, stepping aside the water buffalos and their poo. The walk was difficult to say the least! After we had a break at a shack, we headed up the valley and had lunch in Lao Chai...wonderful, wonderful food! The facilities were rather expansive...I was surprised at the size of the restaurant...and I realized that this was a major business, the guided tours...that point was drilled home by the stops we had at the shops! We did get to see the indigo barrels for the Hmong clothing, drying chips for incense along the way, and, of course, the unhulled rice drying in the sun. The weather was so beautiful and the sparse bamboo patches groaned in the breeze...it was so lovely! It would've been better if I didn't feel like I was going to die of exhaustion!!! Or my heart would beat regularly again...instead of like galloping horses!!! The hills were incredibly steep...we started down and the path gave way to rice terrace walls...one girl fell off and got into the mud up to her thighs! She then had to find her shoes...poor thing! While we were climbing around...the Hmong women were helping us along, later when the path became a dirt track the women left us...thus, began the hustle to buy their wares! "No, I don't have any money" really didn't work...I already had a million pillowcases from my other village visit! We finally made it to the homestay which was a family farmhouse...it wasn't too rustic. The upstairs loft area had an array of beds, 15 maybe? And they all had mosquito nettings above. We all French fries for a snack and then some of the folks napped. Dinner was fabulous, we were all served rice wine...which I politely declined...conversation was interesting the group was 2 Danes, 3 Canadians, 1 French guy...I talked to the French guy a bit...that became embarrassing as I looked down at my neck pouch and saw tampons sticking out...classic! So much for being the cool American... After dinner the music started...along with some weird Thai video to go along with it...yes, the family we were staying with had a HUGE tv....so much for the authentic experience. We all started dancing in this farmhouse in Northern Vietnam to techno...other homestay guests congregated to our farmhouse to party it up!!! It was so much fun!!! I met some more Malaysians...sweet people! Our guides were toasted on rice wine and dancing like crazy!!! The next morning we had crepes with a chocolate sauce...delicious! We walked up the valley again through a bamboo forest (breath-taking!!), the trail was muddy and the Hmong women helped us again (different ethnic group). We also went at slower pace with shacks along the way to get us out of the sun. We peaked at the waterfalls, gorgeous, the water made grooves in the solid rock at this point...I took the opportunity to give my guide my knife, he really loved the spring action on the blade!!! I had some other giveaways that were less expensive, but he was a good guy! I almost didn't make it up that last hill...I forget how many kilometers we went exactly...I should've written that down. I stayed one more day in Sapa and was sorry to leave...it was really beautiful, green, and yet, cold. I took the night train back to Hanoi, which arrived at 5:30 am...I got ripped off one last time by the cabbies of Hanoi. I don't think there was an honest one in the bunch!!!!! More on that later.
The second day in Sapa, I decided against going to Mt. Fansipan because of "lady issues"...terrible timing! Camping, hiking...with no toilet? No thank you....any other time and I'd be lacing up my boots!! Instead I went on a half day tour with a guide named Zoum to Ta Phin village where the Red Hmong group live...I did a bad thing and bought candy for all the villagers!!! Zoum was from the village and "guided" me toward this unusual behavior (not the first thing I would've done!) I was popular with the women...they kept touching my hair! I got to see an ancient cave tucked away at the end of the village. The poverty was just stunning...babies running around without diapers, children with split pants exposed to the elements...it was not warm here until about 11am when it got scorching hot but the ride over I could've used some gloves! I toured the entire village and learned a few things...like the beaded hats that the babies wore symbolized the sex of the baby! Some of the villagers did have cellphones, curiously enough....interesting dichotomy...does Vietnam have some kind of socialized cell phone plan or what? I did get cornered in a farmhouse by the women to buy their wares...how could I refuse? I now have a million pillowcases being sent to the U.S.!! There was one lady who looked wizened...absolutely ancient...she was only 60!!! She and I hit it off...she posed for a few photos...I'm just heartsick that I might've lost it!!!! I got to take some one-handed video too...while I was on the back of the scooter!!! It was pretty cool...Black Hmong men and women riding scooters down these winding roads...guess I'll have to do it all over again!!!! The rest of the day I wandered and enjoyed some culinary surprises...more of that wonderful French cooking! I was keeping an eye out for dog meat!!