2015 Spring China External Programs IES Abroad Rachel Tristch

Southeast Asia Part 1: Hekou, Sa Pa, and Hanoi

The last time I sat down to write a blog post, I was stressing, along with the rest of the IES Abroad students, about four final essays and a Chinese exam. That stress is over now, though, and I’m so relieved to say that we’re on our end-of-the-semester trip in Southeast Asia!

From Hekou to Sa Pa

Before heading to Vietnam, we stayed overnight in one of China’s border cities – Hekou (河口). We took a six-hour train ride from Kunming to Hekou (河口), which sits along the Red River. Hekou is as Border Economic Cooperation Zone, meaning that special policies are implemented in the city to promote trade between China and Vietnam. On the morning after arriving in Hekou, we observed the opening of the bridge that connects with Lao Cai, the Vietnamese city directly across the river. Each morning at 8:00 am, Chinese military officials raise the Chinese flag before opening the bridge. After the gate has been opened, sellers from both countries cross with their goods, usually carried on their backs, to sell on the other side. The opening of the bridge was an interesting site, especially since I’d never seen anything like it before. It was a chance to see in person what we’ve learned this semester about trade between China and Vietnam.

Every morning, military officers open the border crossing so that Chinese and Vietnamese merchants can cross so buy and sell goods.

After spending the morning in Hekou, we crossed the border to meet our tour guide who would be with us throughout our stay in northern Vietnam. He first took us to Sa Pa, a small town about an hour’s drive from Lao Cai. In Sa Pa, we hiked down a mountain and into the valley region where different minority groups live and work in rice terraces. We walked with a group of Black Hmong people for a few hours before reaching the bottom to have lunch with them. The scenery during this hike was some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The weather was warm – much warmer than we’re used to in Kunming – but the sunny weather was perfect for a hike. After lunch, we hiked back up to our bus to head on our way to Hanoi.

Sa Pa scenery
Sa Pa scenery
On our way to lunch in a Black Hmong village
On our way to lunch in a Black Hmong village


Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital city, with a population of around 7 million. My biggest first reaction to this city was how incredibly different it is from Kunming. The city is over 1,000 years old, so it’s hard to imagine how historically significant it is. Aside from its age, the European, particularly French, influence seen in its architecture was another feature of the city that stood out to me. Many of the government buildings still have the French design built during colonial rule, which is something Kunming lacks completely. The biggest difference I was able to see, however, was how many foreigners there were in Hanoi. We were all so used to being the only foreigners in Kunming; we’re still getting used to having other Americans around. Perhaps because of how popular it is for foreigners, many of the Vietnamese living in this city can speak English. Vietnamese who can speak Chinese here, however, are more rare than I was expecting. It’s been a challenge, switching off my Chinese completely and shifting back to conversations in English. I’ll admit that I’ve missed being able to have conversations with strangers in Chinese during my time here.

We spent much of our time in Hanoi seeing historical sites. One of the more interesting places for me was the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, because I’ve never seen a memorial quite like this before. Ho Chi Minh is such an important figure in Vietnam’s history, and I enjoyed seeing how the city continues to honor him today.

Ha Long Bay

One of the best parts of our Southeast Asia trip thus far has been our day-trip to Ha Long Bay. Located about three hours east of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s more scenic coastal areas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It opens up to the South China Sea, and contains nearly 2,000 islets. Along with our Vietnamese tour guide, we rode a boat out into the bay, ate lunch, swam, kayaked, and explored the scenery. The weather was beautiful and hot (it’s been around 90 degrees nearly every day we’ve been here), so we all loved having the chance to go swimming. We didn’t do much classwork that day because we were on a boat for most of it, which was a nice break for us all.

Our daytrip on a boat in Ha Long Bay
Our daytrip on a boat in Ha Long Bay
A view from the deck

We have some time left in Hanoi before heading first to Ho Chi Minh City, and then to southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Region. After finishing up our time in Vietnam, we’re headed to Cambodia; with lots ahead of us, I’ll have more blog posts to come soon!

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