Welcome to Bac Ha, Vietnam!
Tucked away in the northwest mountains of the Lào Cai Province, Bac Ha is a true cultural gem. It is home to several different minority groups, who all bring their own flavors to the town. Its Sunday market is lively and colorful, full of folks from the surrounding villages. It is quite possibly one of the most amazing places I have ever been, certainly within Asia.
When my friends and I began planning our trip to Vietnam, including an overnight trip to a town called Sa Pa was recommend several times. I enjoy traveling off the beaten path, experiencing real people and real culture. I thought a trip to Sa Pa might offer that insight. However, the more I researched, the more touristy Sa Pa began to sound. I saw one paragraph on a random website that mentioned Bac Ha as a more authentic experience. Since there was little else to go off of, I figured Bac Ha was the place we wanted to go. Knowing that their big market occurred on Sunday mornings, we decided to head out on Friday and spend Saturday and Sunday exploring the town and countryside.
We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. The overnight train is quite the experience! I highly recommend taking it over the bus. We purchased two sleeper cabins, which allowed us to have two people per cabin. That gave the four of us plenty of room to spread out, store our gear and avoid being placed with strangers. Since each cabin technically sleeps four, we had to purchase all four tickets in order to have the cabin to ourselves. So, really, each of us purchased two tickets there and two tickets on the way back. Honestly, given how far the dollar goes in Vietnam, it was not a big deal. The cabins had snacks and drinks for us when we arrived, and we were able to order coffee and snacks to be prepared in the morning.
Once we arrived in Lao Cai, there were a vast number of transports waiting outside. After doing some bartering, we were able to get a ride to Bac Ha. Don’t be afraid to say no and walk away. The drivers want to fill their vans. So they will haggle with you to get you to go with them. The ride up was wild! We would stop in random villages to pick up people, food, supplies. Anything that needed to get to Bac Ha for the market on Sunday was picked up and brought along. It made for a long ride. Plan for about three hours crammed in a van.
Once we arrived in town, we found a place to stay on the edge of town. The owner rented us some scooters, and after a quick bit to eat, we were off to explore the countryside. We followed the main road out of town. The road cut through valleys of rice farms and cow pastures. It ran past waterfalls, mountainside lookouts and small villages. The photos truly don’t do it justice! Even on this overcast day, the landscape was just breathtaking.
Hoang A Tuong Palace is definitely worth the visit if you are spending some time in Bac Ha. For a nominal fee, you can tour this incredible residence turned museum and learn about Bac Ha’s rich past. The architecture and paintings are beautiful. It is an easy walk from the main area of town. I recommend taking a walk around the lake before or after your visit.
Each Sunday, Bac Ha hosts a large market for the locals in the surrounding villages. People come in from far and wide to trade, barter and sell their goods. If there were only one reason to visit Bac Ha, this would be it. Not only was it the highlight of our time in Vietnam, but possibly the entire three weeks we were in Asia. The cultures, colors, and food were just incredible!
Once we arrived in Bac Ha, we were told that the market in Sa Pa had become so crowded with tourists, that tour companies had begun busing folks down to Bac Ha from Sa Pa. The three- to four-hour drive meant that tourists would begin to arrive at the market around noon. Knowing this, we decided to get to the market as soon as it officially started, 7 am. By the time we arrived, plenty of locals were already milling around. Out of everyone there, we were only a handful of “visitors” at the market. This gave us an incredible opportunity to take everything in. We spent the morning eating, shopping, speaking with locals (thanks Google Translate!). We spent five hours wandering the market, taking it all in before the first buses from Sa Pa arrived.
I desperately wanted to be respectful of the people we were interacting with while still trying to capture the essence of what we were seeing. I made sure to keep my distance while taking photos. We saw one woman pleading no and covering her face as a tourist stuck an I-pad in her face to take a picture of her. Visiting places like Bac Ha and experiencing these culture is a gift. We need to respect that these are individuals going about their lives. They are not an attraction. So please, be respectful!
This woman and her son cooked us lunch. Meats were displayed on the table, and you could tell her how much you wanted. It would then be cooked and served in a broth soup. It was delicious! Freshly cut vegetables, dessert and drinks were also on the menu. If you are offered “happy water”, know there is a reason why it is called that. After a few sips, you will be feeling quite happy. Then probably a little hungover. Consider yourself warned!
For my not meat friends, there are vegetarian/meatless options. You will just need to seek them out. Most of my diet while in Asia consisted of eggs, rice and tofu.
My favorite part of our time at the market was watching and interacting with the local children. They are so happy! Most of our interactions were limited to hand signals, but that didn’t matter. There was plenty of laughing and playing. It’s amazing the conversations you can have using the simplest gestures.
Definitely not Dunkin!
These guys sat around playing music together for the better part of an hour. Occasionally, they would stop. Someone would yell at the other for messing up. The group would erupt in laughter and begin playing again.
After our day at the market, we headed back to the hotel to pack up and catch our ride back to Lao Cai. The hotel owner was nice enough to arrange the transport for us. From there, it was another overnight train ride back to Hanoi.
Our two days in Bac Ha were truly amazing! If you get the opportunity to visit and are looking for something a little off the beaten path, please go. You will not be disappointed.
In July 2018, Alyson, Nathan, Mike and Matt will travel to Grand Teton National Park and attempt to summit its tallest peak, Grand Teton, at 13,776 feet. They will do so to raise awareness for pediatric cancer and funds for Vs. Cancer. They will blog their training and trip on www.alycatswalkabout.com. You can contribute to their campaign here.
By: Nathan Rode
A few weeks ago, the Grand Teton Vs. Cancer team spent a weekend in Linville Gorge, NC. It’s part of the Pisgah National Forest and has been referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East, with the Linville River winding through the bottom of steep cliffs that offer stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Between college and permanent residency, Alyson and I have been in North Carolina for 15 years. This was our first trip to Linville and it’s quite obvious we’ve been missing out.
The point of the weekend excursion was to get in some cold-weather camping—though it wasn’t cold—as well as some hiking and outdoor climbing. We planned for the last weekend of February because our crazy travel schedules wouldn’t be that crazy just yet and we expected winter weather, especially being in the mountains. But we had one of North Carolina’s typical fake springs where it was sunny and beautiful one day and rainy the next. The temperatures weren’t what we’ll experience on Grand Teton, but we accomplished much of what we set out to do anyway.
Everybody finished work on a Friday and we gathered at Mike’s house to load all the gear into the car. If you don’t remember, Mike is our experienced climber friend that will be leading us on this expedition. We jammed hiking packs and climbing equipment into the back of Alyson’s new Hyundai Tuscon and spent the next three-plus hours talking plans and jamming out to 90s on 9 on XM radio.
The plan was to camp out on one of the roadside pullouts on the road leading up to Table Rock Mountain, then drive to the parking lot at the top in the morning. Unfortunately, we were waylaid by a gate. So we parked the car, gathered our gear and hiked the last mile or so up the road. We even cut through the woods at one point, practicing our rock scrambling with heavy packs. We finally reached the top, set up camp and then set out for The Prow.
The Prow is a section of cliff face that descends about 500 feet from the ridgeline down to the Linville River. We were going to rappel down, then climb back up. The last time I went rappelling, I was about 13 years old and I hated it. That experience was replaying in my head as we hiked out and set up, but once I started going, it wasn’t so bad. I had one slip that did a number on my hand, but overall, my 33-year-old self handled it much better than the 13-year-old version.
For Alyson, it was her first time rappelling and she is not a fan of heights. She got through the first rappel fine, though not without some anxiety. On the second pitch, she had a slip of her own and, well, I’ll let her words describe that moment. As she posted on Facebook at the end of our trip…
One of the most terrifying moments of my life occurred yesterday. Some of you know of my uncontrollable fear of heights. This weekend, the Grand Teton Vs. Cancer team went out to Linville Gorge for our first training. Part of that training is rappelling. I have never been rappelling before, let alone 500 feet in the air. Needless to say, I was a little uneasy. As I began my second rappel down, I slipped off the wall. Due to the angle of the rope, I was slingshot into the air and around the other side of the mountain face. I screamed and my belayer pulled the bottom of my rope tight so that I was no longer swinging.
At that moment, I clung to the side of a mountain like Spiderman, shaking uncontrollably and trying not to look at the 500-foot vertical drop below me. My teammate above said when I was ready, I could ask for the slack to be put back in my rope to begin working my way back around to the other side of the mountain face. I was paralyzed with fear, absolutely afraid that if I asked for slack, I wouldn’t be able to control it. But then I thought about why we were there, the children who are faced with the same fear when they are told they have cancer. They have the doctors supporting from above with their families holding tight to that bottom of the rope. But it’s the kids who have the hands on the rope. It is those kids that need to fight past their fears and work to get back on track. After shedding a few tears, I took a deep breath and asked for slack in my rope. Slowly, I worked my way down to the lower ledge where my team pulled me in.
I am not trying to summit Grand Teton just for fun. I want to summit Grand Teton to push myself to achieve something I thought I could never do. These kids continue to be my inspiration to live each and every day with that goal. So I kindly ask for anyone who can to please make a donation to our Vs. Cancer page. Help us give these kids the courage and support they need to conquer this mountain.
Alyson made it to the next ledge where she caught her breath. At this point, due to a later start, it was time to climb back up. Mike went first, setting safety gear along the way. I was next, being belayed by Mike from the top so I could remove the gear he set. That was a new challenge for me. I had only been on an indoor wall before and my only concerns were where my feet and hands go next. Now I had to stop at certain points, make sure I was stable, remove gear from the cliff face and clip it to my harness to it wasn’t lost to the gorge hundreds of feet below. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but it certainly wasn’t as hard as I was expecting.
Alyson made her way after me, followed by the fourth member of our team, Matt. We repeated the exercise for the last pitch with the sun setting and Mike topping out as darkness fell across the area. We hiked back, turning our headlamps off for a time to use the bright, silver lighting of a nearly full moon. Once we were back in camp, we had our dinner around a fire and soon passed out after an exhausting day.
On Sunday, our plan was to get some more climbing in, but a storm came through during the night and the next morning was cold and wet—very undesirable conditions for clinging to rock. So we packed everything up, headed back to the car and stopped at a popular Mexican restaurant on our way home.
It was a short trip and certainly didn’t go as expected or even hoped at times, but it was a good experience and another step toward completing our goal.
In July 2018, Alyson and Nathan will travel to Grand Teton National Park and attempt to summit its tallest peak, Grand Teton, at 13,776 feet. They will do so to raise awareness for pediatric cancer and funds for Vs. Cancer. They will blog their training and trip on www.alycatswalkabout.com. You can contribute to their campaign here.
By: Nathan Rode
Welcome back, friends. It’s been a little bit since we’ve had an update on Grand Teton Vs. Cancer, but we’ll certainly be picking up the pace now. Last summer, we announced that we would attempt to summit Grand Teton to raise awareness for pediatric brain cancer and funds for Vs. Cancer and Duke Children’s Hospital. Saying and doing are two completely different things, but right after the New Year, we took an important step toward reaching our goal. On Jan. 3, Grand Teton National Park opened the process for reserving permits for backcountry camping. To stay overnight in the backcountry of the park, you have to have a permit. While it’s possible to summit Grand Teton without spending a night, it’s not easy—relatively speaking of course.
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Welcome to Fort Vancouver National Historic Site! Located primarily in Washington state, Fort Vancouver is situated along the Columbia River just across from Portland, Oregon. A portion of the park, the John McLoughlin residence, is located in Oregon City.
Fort Vancouver was founded as a fur trading post in 1825 by the Hudson’s Bay Company . When it was abandoned in the mid 1800’s, the US military took over operation of the fort. While the historical park is no longer in operation as a military post, there is still a heavy military presence and significant history at the site. This includes Pearson Field and the Vancouver Barracks.
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In Summer 2018, Alyson and Nathan Rode will travel to Grand Teton National Park and attempt to summit its tallest peak, Grand Teton, at 13,776 feet. They will do so to raise awareness for pediatric cancer and funds for Vs. Cancer. They will blog their training and trip on www.alycatswalkabout.com. You can contribute to their campaign here.
By Nathan Rode
A couple years ago, my wife, Alyson, and I joined a rock climbing gym—Triangle Rock Club in North Carolina. We’ve always been big outdoor enthusiasts and try to stay as physically active as possible in our busy lives. We never thought we’d venture outside on the rocks, but we have slowly developed the itch. Last September, we traveled to the Northwest for vacation—visiting friends in Seattle before heading to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. As we flew over Washington’s Mount Rainier, we thought about our climbing friends who had taken a trip to summit the fourth-tallest peak in the Lower 48 of the United States. Our sense of adventure started to lure us. How cool would it be to stand on top of a mountain, getting there with your own two feet—and hands—and looking out to the horizon with miles of beautiful landscape in between?
As we traveled to Grand Teton, we researched what it would take to summit Mount Rainier. Then we saw the Grand Teton Range for the first time in our lives. It’s absolutely striking. Our research turned into a compare and contrast. Rainier or Teton?
We decided on Teton and have been planning a trip since. One of our climbing friends is qualified to lead us so we don’t have to go through an expedition outfit. Going with a Teton group was our original plan, but our friend allows us to save some money and operate a little bit more freely in our attempt to climb.
We’re not so vain that we want to share our vacation plans with the world. Instead, we’re taking this opportunity to promote something we care about deeply.
As outdoor enthusiasts, Alyson and I are passionate about the environment. Anybody following our expedition can see just one example of what our country has to offer in its natural state. You don’t have to climb Teton to experience or appreciate its grandiose views. Our National Park system has so much to offer and is for everyone to enjoy.
Another passion we have is simply serving the community. We volunteer in several different facets and we’re going to use this trip to promote one of our favorite charities. Vs. Cancer raises funds for pediatric cancer research. Our friend, Chase Jones, founded the organization and we have supported it since its inception. If we can raise awareness for a cause while taking on our own personal challenge, why wouldn’t we seize that opportunity?
If you would like to donate to our Vs. Cancer campaign, we’ve set up a page with information. Half of the money raised will go toward research and the other half will benefit Duke Children’s Hospital, located in our hometown of Durham, N.C. Most Vs. Cancer campaigns are done by sports teams with athletes cutting or shaving their hair at an event. We don’t plan on being any different. Upon reaching the summit of Teton at 13,776 feet, I will pull out the clippers and Alyson will pull out the shears.
For the two of us, this will be the hardest thing we’ve done, but still easier than what hundreds of thousands of kids and their families go through fighting cancer. We hope you follow our journey and support our cause. We certainly look forward to sharing the story.