July in Vietnam: Sapa

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I hopped on the night train to Sapa hoping that things would get better there. I arrived early the next morning to vastly different weather. In contrast to muggy, humid Hanoi, Sapa was cool and on the verge of chilly, though still quite humid as it was the rainy season. Higher up in the mountains, the weather felt almost temperate. I was surrounded by beautiful hills and verdant valleys again, the quintessential hill country.

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I took a walking day tour to Cat Cat, followed by a 2D1N trip slight further into the hill country. Hmong tribeswomen immediately attached themselves to our group as we ventured out with our ethnic Viet tour guides. I thought it very odd that it was rare to find a Hmong tour guide and that most came from the cities. One of them didn’t even seem to hold a very high view of the local indigenes, which unsettled me quite a bit. Nonetheless, we proceeded on with a procession of Hmong women joining us on the way.

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We walked on in the drizzle and were amused by how the Hmong women whipped out their umbrellas with alacrity and offered to shelter us. A bit discomfited because the Viet guide told us that they would ask us to buy their wares at the end, we kept slightly away from them. But as they helped us up and down slippery muddy slopes along the paddy fields, it was hard to keep a distance. We were soon won over by their charming ways.

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Before long, we arrived at Cat Cat village and its beautiful waterfalls. We spent ages oohing and aahing over the wonderful views and the almost poetic splash of water obeying the laws of gravity.

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Treks on the other days took us through more padi fields cut into the hillside, making for a breathtaking view through the mist into the valley below.

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As we walked on, we gazed longingly at the pack animals going by…

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… and followed behind our guides, amazed that they were wearing rubberised slippers and getting along fine while we were in proper sports shoes slip-sliding behind them at the treacherous bits.

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We paused to admire more of the wildlife, like these too cute ducks posing for postcard souvenirs to send home.

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This was the youngest of the Hmong women joining us, I think she’s probably about 12 years old. Check out her intricately embroidered clothes, especially her sling bag and belt. Later in the less touristy villages I would see progress in the form of villagers choosing the less labour-intensive and probably cheaper way of wearing western-style clothes bought from the market.

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Hmong women really did have the coolest clothes and accessories from all angles. Here you can see their intricately patterned clothes and accessories, from belts to sleeves, to earrings and hairclips. Exquisite.

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We stopped at yet another beautiful waterfall for a breather (note sign of breathtaking scenery fatigue setting in here).

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And also in huts along the way. It was here that the penny dropped and I realised that our informal guides were decked out in ceremonial Sunday best wear, while those who were actually working the padi fields wore far simpler clothes sans heavy embellishment. It spoke volumes on the value of the tourist dollar here.

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We stopped for the evening at a village where I experienced the most beautiful sight of my time in Sapa. A young river flowed past the village, gushing past the boulders in its path, worn smooth by the rushing water. I perched on one of the boulders enjoying the warmth of the setting sun and dipping my toes into the icy water. It was a great ending to a damp day of trekking.

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August in China: Amazing Views of Guizhou

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Guizhou is one of the poorest and most undeveloped provinces in China. It is a mountainous inland area populated by minority groups. Its underdevelopment is mainly due to the difficult transport lines. Good roads are only now being constructed and there are very few major highways passing through the province. What makes development difficult makes the scenery uncommonly beautiful. Throughout the winding journey, we got used to the lovely views of the many shades of green, from the pine trees to the rice paddies.

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Each turn gave us another great view. Why bother with TV and National Geographic when you can look out at this all afternoon?

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I envied the villagers their houses with the amazing views. It looked almost Swiss alpine and was all incredibly idyllic.

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Soon we spied a dark patch in the valley below. This had to be the biggest town in the area, Zhaoxing.

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After an unexpectedly long journey that was half the distance we’d last travelled yet took twice the time of our last journey, we finally arrived at the last Dong village on our itinerary.

November in China: The Wrong Side of the River

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I visit Shanghai once a year. Each time I’ll stay with my parents who live on the wrong side of the Huangpu river.  Real Shanghainese only like being on the Puxi side. The irony is that these “real Shanghainese” people are invariably migrants from the rural Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, and those who’ve lived on Shanghai land for centuries are the farmers from Pudong. Many of the original Shanghainese of vintage cheong sam and period films had largely fled the country when the Communists took over.

With its ever-competing skyscrapers built one after another in a Babel-esque race to the heavens, Pudong is hardly a louche part of town. As Jin Mao Tower and the IFC Building tower over their competition, it’s hard to believe that the other buildings are already taller than your average skyscraper.

On an unusually fine day, I went across the river to Puxi and returned by the incredibly cheap ¥0.50 ferry from Dongmen Lu on the Puxi side to Dongchang Lu at Pudong. It was perfect weather to take a panaroma or two of the buildings, just that a bit of patience was needed to wait for the advertising ferry to pass. These ferries go up and down the river at all hours showcasing brightly lit advertisements to both sides of the river.

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Mum calls the Jin Mao Tower the “bottle” and the IFC Building the “bottle opener.” The Pearl Tower is now relegated to one corner of the skyline. You can just about spot its spire in the extreme left hand side of the photo below.

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As we drew closer to shore, the Pearl Tower came into view. Sadly or not, depending on your views on ghastly architecture, this Shanghai icon is slowly being literally obscured by the new buildings coming up around it. It is gradually being replaced by the IFC Building as the prime destination for tour group visits.

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Dodging motorbikes and bicycles, I scrambled off the ferry and headed over to what was once the tallest building in the world. At the moment  I visited in November 2008, Taipei 101 was the tallest. As I write, the Burj Dubai has already caught up. Looks like the race will continue wherever the new money is. Look carefully at the top of the IFC Building and you’ll see the bottle opener part of it. Legend goes that the rectangular hole was supposed to be a perfect circle. It was changed to the current design because of fengshui reasons. Another legend goes that it was designed by the Japanese and the shape of the building is meant to be a katana in the heart of the business district. A circle at the top of the building would allow the sun to shine directly through, far too reminiscent of the Japanese rising sun for comfort.

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Rumours or not, this building is incredibly imposing, especially right at its foot. It’s near impossible to get the whole building into one frame. I must have craned my neck till it was almost 90 degrees to my body!

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It’s expensive to go up the tower. I found it a bit too cheesy to do it this time because I’d just concluded a hardcore backpacking trip in the region. Going up would blow pretty much what had been a whole day’s budget. It was just as well that the weather turned bad. Mum told me that on bad days, the top of the building would be swathed by clouds and groups going up would pay the same prices but see absolutely nothing. Buyer beware!

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[edited 5 Mar 2009 7.50pm: Mum pointed out that the ferry price was and, at the point of writing, still is ¥0.50, not ¥2.]