Month: January 2011

The Ma Cha Kids

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The last day we were in Sapa, the hotel put together a visit to an elementary school in Ma Cha village to give the kids a tasty treat of baguettes soaked in sweet milk as well as some clothes, school supplies, and a bunch of Aussie Rules footballs.

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The kids were simply crazy adorable and they all lined up to wait for their bread and oranges. It’s quite cold up in Sapa but you’ll notice that lot of these kids either don’t have any shoes on or are wearing plastic slippers. To boot, many of them walk up to 6 km to and from school from their villages every day.

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Ma Cha is just outside of the town of Sapa and the most impoverished area of the region consisting of mainly Black Hmong people. The Vietnamese government is responsible for constructing schools throughout the country but often abandon them, leaving them without proper books, supplies, or teacher support. Sapa Rooms has decided to support the children who attend the elementary school in Ma Cha to provide them with supplies and a better environment to learn in.

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The little guy in the middle looks uncannily like my big brother when he was that age. Apparently, the folks at the hotel tried to bring them more complete meals but the kids just want their baguettes doused in sweet milk.

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I was ready to slip this guy in my pocket and take him home.

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After the snack, of course the boys went straight for the footballs and went at it.

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 … while the girls watched on the sidelines.

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This little girl OWNED this pink scarf.

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As we were snapping away, some of the kids looked curious and J decided to show them how to use his camera.

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They went crazy for it! For the next hour, all they did was pass around our cameras and take pictures of each other and review them.

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The girls came in an joined in on the fun.

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This one’s a ham!

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Here are some of the photos the kids took:

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More pictures the kids took can be found on my Flickr page.

We brought some school supplies to be donated but wanted to do more. If you would like to help out and send a donation, J and I will be gathering some stuff together and sending it to Pete at Sapa Rooms. They are asking for winter coats, gloves, pants, warm socks and knitted hats as well as school supplies (note paper, pens, pencils, etc.)

You can also send the items directly to Sapa Rooms at :

Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel
018 Fanxipang Street
Sapa, Lao Cai, 19999 
Vietnam

To learn more about what Sapa Rooms is doing, you can visit their website or just go stay with them and experience it for yourself. The support Pete and Sapa Rooms is providing not only to the school but the entire area is inspiring and admirable. It’s meeting people like Pete that make me want to give without solicitation.

Sapa Rooms

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We booked our entire stay including the trek and home stay with Sapa Rooms. Sapa Rooms is committed to “travel with generosity.”

“We believe our business has a responsibility to give back to the local community, by staying, dining or trekking with Sapa Rooms you choose to travel with generosity and give back. We also have a responsibility to help those on whom we rely as our suppliers and guides, to improve their standard of living. By buying direct from the ethnic minority people we are trying to support positive change. We think socially aligned sourcing is a step in the right direction for positive change.”

They sponsor a number of community programs you can find out about here. My next post will be about the local school we visited.

Not only was I impressed with their commitment to the local community but I loved the whimsical design of the hotel. They source all materials from the local ethnic minorities and then re-imagine them into the creations that make the hotel comfy and loverly.

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Refashioned seat cushions.

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Dyed from pomegranate juice.

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Tim Burtonesque light fixtures.

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Banana flowers sprouting from Buddha head. Sapa rooms also has a pottery center complete with hundred-year-old kiln where they teach local kids and folks to mold creations to their hearts’ contents! DSC_0198

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Our room key attached to a wooden cow bell and charms. Not only pretty but you can’t lose that jingle jangle.

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They also have a woodshop where they create all of their gorgeous furniture including these fantastical chairs, dining tables, benches, bookcases, and beds out of ironwood. To my delight, they will start selling this stuff in 2011. But how the hell do you transport these hefty pieces and how much would that cost? But I loved these big chairs and the crazy rolly cushions laid on top of them.

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Crazy muppet light fixture.

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Warm beehive-like light fixture.

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I want these giant pansies on my ceiling. They are so luscious!

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Oh yes – and no need to eat anywhere else. The food here is amazing! Better than anything in Hanoi except for their cafe in Hanoi called Cafe Mau at their hotel Six on Sixteen.

Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel
18 Phan Xi Pang St.
Sapa, Lao Cai, 19999
Vietnam

Telephone:
Inside Vietnam: (020) 6505 228
Outside Vietnam (+84 20) 6505 228

Fax:

Inside Vietnam: (020) 6264 020
Outside Vietnam (+84 20) 6264 020 
Email: info@saparooms.com

A Sapa Christmas

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We usually see family for Christmas but we couldn’t make the 9,000 mile voyage back home this year. Instead we headed for Vietnam and spent Christmas in the northern highlands of Sapa. From Hanoi you board a night train that delivers you to the town of Laocai by morning. From Laocai, Sapa is a short drive on winding roads tucked in the hillside. I felt like Alice in Wonderland following the white rabbit. In our case,  the nervous train expediter who picks you up at your hotel, gets you to your train car, and then magically disappears as quick as he got you to the station. I was so sleepy by the time I hit the bed in our car I was fast asleep and the next thing I knew I was waking up in a foggy mountain town at 4 am far from the chaos of Hanoi and even farther from the insanity of Jakarta. It certainly felt quite surreal, especially since I feel like a loony toon in the mornings until I have my first cup of coffee. And I kept forgetting it was Christmas Eve’s Day.

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We booked our stay with Sapa Rooms, which was the best thing we did on this trip. A post solely on the hotel will come later. We booked a trek to a Hmong and Red Dzao village with a home stay with a Red Dzao family that evening. The proprietor Pete was equal parts charm, heart, and whimsy. He made sure we were fed well and ready for our trek later that morning. We were given both Western and Vietnamese breakfast options. John and I both ordered the pho, coffee, and beautifully concocted juices. The Sapa Rooms Special is an elixir of apple, banana, pineapple, yoghurt and mint. And I rarely order chicken pho but the Sapa-specific addition of star anise, fresh ginger, and cardamom was enticing and ended up being a very nice subtle enhancement to the broth.

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By 10 am, we headed out on our 14 km trek to the village of Taphin settled by the Hmong and Red Dzao ethnic minorities. Our guide Thu May (literally meaning fourth girl) was very informative and took us on the winding paths through paddies, villages, and hillsides that eventually brought us to her home.

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indigo dyed fabric

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The Hmong and Red Dzao mainly rely on the sale of their handicrafts as their livelihood. The Hmong traditionally dye cotton and hemp fabric with the plentiful indigo flowers that grow throughout the area.

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The textiles are then sewn with intricate colorful patterns that can take months to complete. Needless to say, we came home with heaps that we are not sure what to do with yet.

After six months in Jakarta where the pollution blackens the snot in your nose down to your lungs, the mountain air was intoxicating. I wanted to sing like Julie Andrews and hoped that all the farm animals would join me and start dancing about. I was seriously getting high off of pure oxygen.

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So many piggies!

Hmong village

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hmong women washing clothes

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The adorably menacing kids armed with long spears who put their game faces on and stomped behind us for a good 200 meters. The little girl who had to hold her pants up with one hand, while grasping her spear with the other, grunted at us while we walked along.

enormous duck

Enormous ducks. I always had the impression that livestock was small in Southeast Asian countries because the village chickens in Indonesia are more bone than meat and the goats always look so malnourished. But everything here was FAT! The ducks, the chickens, and the innumerable piggies. Thu May had a hog that had been penned up for three years just growing to the size of Jabba the Hutt.

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Still not sure what this red stuff is that’s in the paddies but it was beautiful.

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thu may making us lunch

We finally get to Taphin and Thu May and her mother whipped us up some greens and noodles for lunch. We were starved and slurped everything down in less than 30 seconds. While we were chatting, we noticed that both women were wearing these glinting bracelets.

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marriage bracelet

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When two Dzao people get married, they bring a number of silver coins to be melted down and made into these bracelets. They wear these instead of wedding rings. These were made by Thu May’s father in the back of her home. It was amazing to see that craftsmanship can still be so alive and maintained in a culture. I realized how far removed I’ve become and understand the urge to revive true arts and crafts.

After lunch, we headed straight for the herbal baths. We were tired from our journey. We had flown from Jakarta to Hanoi, boarded a train in the evening, woke up in Sapa, and walked 14 km to Taphin. The traditional bath consisting of 32 local medicinal herbs was exactly what my muscles were yearning for.

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the beautiful bath of 32 herbs

The tubs were made from fir and were just big enough for me. I have no clue what herbs they include in the bath but it was completely restorative and magical. Traditionally, the Dzao women partake in the herbal baths after childbirth which is supposed to help with the healing process.

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Always stitching away!

traditional red dzao jacket

These are the traditional Dzao jackets that are dyed indigo and handstitched.

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We stayed with Thu May’s cousin in her home.

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Dinner was amazing! Everything was simply prepared and perfectly so. From the garden greens to the Sapa mushrooms to the stir fried jicama; J and I both feared we were pigging out but didn’t want to seem ungrateful either. The family had also stir fried some cured pork that had been hanging above their wood burning stove and naturally smoking for months. It was priceless salty and smoked slices of pork fat that I will doubtlessly be searching for for the rest of my life.

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watching satellite tv

The only house in the village with satellite TV, which is why kids are constantly streaming in and out to catch their favorite shows.

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They day of our trek was gorgeous but the next morning was freezing and all anyone wanted to do was huddle around the fire and play cards and eat a million fire-roasted sweet potatoes.

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An enormous wok over a wood burning stove.

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family we stayed with in Taphin

I can’t begin to describe how much I actually appreciated this Christmas. Before we had left, I was having a conversation with a friend about how the holidays have become meaningless if not depressing. And I admitted that Christmas for me boiled down to giving and receiving presents; which I tried to contend is not completely materialistic. But spending just a short time visiting Taphin and staying with this family was a shift in my perspective I wasn’t expecting.

The New Majestic

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We love hotels. From the moment we enter a lobby until the sad farewell of a checkout, we can’t help but indulge in all that the hotel works so diligently to offer up to you. And I particularly love researching and discovering the boutique spots that have labored over each painting, chair, bed, pillow, and light fixture that delights each guest upon entry into their temporary home. It’s always nice to find a place that is the perfect launching pad for exploration as well as a place that provides respite from the daily wear and tear of travel.

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So it was completely gleeful to walk into the New Majestic Hotel. Located in Singapore’s historic Chinatown, each of its 30 rooms is designed by 30 different local artists. Staying here was part of the discovery of modern Singapore and its young painters, sculptors, and installationists.

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You don’t know which room you’ll get when you book which is part of the fun of it as well. We scored the goldfish room designed by Kng Mian Tze.

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I loved the gorgeous bathtub outside that made me feel like I was bathing on a houseboat ported somewhere near Seattle.

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New Majestic Hotel
31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road
Singapore 089845
Phone: 6511 4700
Subway: Outram Park

Visit the website to check out all of the different rooms.

We’ve just come back from Vietnam and recovering from our 10 day whirlwind of a trip. Look out for posts soon. Happy New Year!