The lotus season in Hanoi

I woke up at 5am and rode my motorbike to the West Lake. Around that area, there are many flower villages. I went to one of them which is located near the West Lake Water Park, in order to take photos of a lotus lake and some activities that only take place in the early hours of the morning.
The lotus season in Hanoi starts from June and lasts 3 months. Every morning from 5am to 7am, the local residents, who own the lotus lakes, tour around the lakes on very small boats (in Vietnamese, we call them “thuyền thúng”) and pick both flowers and leaves, following the orders from their clients who are waiting on the bank. This is a wholesale business. Any business people, who want to buy lotus flowers cheaply, go there to buy flowers directly from the lake owners, then sell them at their shops in Hanoi. We also can see lotus flowers on the back side of street vendors’ bicycles. Some Hanoians also go to the lotus lakes in early morning and buy flowers for their houses. The lotus flower is not only beautiful, but also has a very good smell. 


So I got into the lotus lake at around 6am. I watched a local man standing on a very small boat and touring on his lake. Later I found out his name was Mr. Quang. Sometimes he was back with flowers and handed them to the women waiting for him on the bank. I also watched how people covered the lotus flowers with the leaves, then packed them with bamboo strings and put them into their bikes before leaving for Hanoi’s markets. 

A woman and her son were sitting on the road and taking off the inner parts of the lotus flowers. They will be mixed with tea, as a result, the tea will have a very good smell, in Vietnamese we call it “chè sen” (lotus tea). I asked the woman whether it was possible for me to join the boat with Mr. Quang. She said certainly I could, but I should wait until he finished working. I wondered how it would be, if I could rent a boat and get out on my own. She said it would be impossible, since the boat and long pole may be stuck inside the roots of those lotus trees, 


When Mr. Quang was back, I told him I wanted to join the boat with him and he agreed. His house (a 3-storey building) is located by the lake and he also has a small tent right on the lake, so I went to his tent and waited for him. I changed into a white Áo Dài (Vietnamese traditional dress) and Mr. Quang’s wife gave me her conical hat and a bunch of lotus flowers. Problem is that I went there alone, so we needed to find someone to help me take photos. The boat is too small, so close-up photos would not be good like a great view of the lake, when someone stands on the bank or sits on another boat to take photos of me. 

As soon as I stepped my foot on the boat, Mr. Quang smiled and said “Look at the crowd!” who were standing on the other side of the lake. I wondered why suddenly there appeared so many people (more than 20 people) watching every move of our boat and taking photos. It turned out that they were 

Japanese tourists passing by the place and saw my Áo Dài and the boat. It must have been a beautiful Vietnamese sight for them. 

We were moving toward the bank, where the Japanese tourists were standing. Mr. Quang saw his friend there and asked him to help me take some photos. Mr. Quang also thought that was the best place for taking photos, as the leaves are high and large, I could stand up and be surrounded by green color of the leaves. I handed my camera to his friend, but when we moved far away from the bank and I stood up, his friend struggled with using my camera and there was no way I could be back and explain him how to use my camera. I said “Please help me!” in Japanese, and a Japanese girl offered me a help with some shots by my camera. 

Mr. Quang said that some brides and grooms also went to the lotus lake for taking their wedding photos. My photos were not as good as I expected, since there were only 2 people on the bank who could help me take my shots and they were too far from 


me. I should have been there with a photographer or a friend, but I didn’t want to bother someone to go with me at 5am in the morning. At the end of the boat trip, I gave Mr. Quang VND 100,000 as a tip. 

The boat ride on the lotus lake was the most interesting experience for me, when comparing with the boat rides on the bay, river or stream I’ve done. Imagine you are sitting on a very small and light boat controlled by a long pole, managing to keep the boat balanced, finding your way among the leaves and flowers (sometimes your boat hits them), holding flowers in your hands, having some worms sticking on your dress and the mud made your white dress dirty. 

I said to Mr. Quang “This beautiful place in Hanoi should be preserved. We should not make this place become a land of concrete buildings” and he agreed with me.

Hanoi _girl 



Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080


Eating Snake Hearts and Drinking Blood in Hanoi, Vietnam

 By  Jess Damerst 

Upon our arrival in Hanoi, we’re immediately encouraged to sign up for the big event of the night hosted by our hostel: the Snake Village Tour. The sign-up sheet was complete with an ominous looking red on black logo of an undoubtedly poisonous snake.

“What’s this?” Dana asks.

“Oh! It’s our snake village tour. You get to eat snake heart and drink snake blood! It’s really fun!” replies the broad gentleman in the cut-off shirt.

Eating snake hearts. Sounds fun. 

But, Dana is enchanted by this idea.

“Oh wow! We have to do that!”

I can think of better ways to spend my evening and 18 USD than watching someone inhumanely kill snakes (one of my favorite animals). Of course, in the end, I’m out numbered and we decide to go. Looking back, I wouldn’t change this decision for the world.

Our hostel van rocks up in front of a deserted and somewhat underwater outdoor restaurant (you can thank the recent typhoon) where we are greeting by what looks like three generations of this family. My reservations are growing by the minute. First they show us the snake cages and let us hold them if we like. I’m trying not to picture them as my next meal. 

After the show, we are led to an open, traditional room with plates for 16 set out and countless bottles of snake infused rice wine. First things first, the hearts. They get a quick count of who wants to give it go (eight). And return shortly with a bag of live snakes. **I have to warn you, this is anything but humane, so if you’re an animal rights activist, you might want to stop while we’re ahead.** 

We’re given a quick explanation on the do’s and don’t’s of snake-heart-ripping-out. It’s a method they seem to have down to an art. DO: Wait 5 seconds before swallowing. DO: Breathe. DON’T: Chew the heart (I’ll explain why in a moment). DON’T: Hesitate. 

The first guy is up. Our snake wrangler squeezes the snake to locate the heart and makes a swift incision while simultaneously popping out the heart (mind you, it’s still functioning and attached to the snake). The first brave snake-eater kneels down and viciously rips the heart out. I notice that they are careful to catch the blood and bile in cups below. No wasting here.

The first guy was a big spectacle, with everyone shooting pictures and making noises of excitement. I also notice at this point that Becky, Dana, and I are the only girls present. The reason becomes apparent as after the first heart is eaten, both girls begin taking steps back. For some reason, a gripping sense of curiosity overcomes me and I end up watching all 8 hearts get pulled from the live, writhing snakes with intensity. Clearly, I’m a bit twisted. 

I know what you are wondering. No, I didn’t eat one myself.

One gentleman ended up chewing the heart (as promised, an explanation). Within about one minute he passes out. In the confusion and upset, the reason behind the “no chewing” rule is explained. Turns out, the heart contains a poison that can be broken down in our stomaches, but not by the saliva in our mouths. So, if you chew it, it goes straight to your brain, causing you to pass out momentarily. No worries, he comes around in a matter of seconds, wondering how he ended up on the floor. The night has only just begun.

After the heart-eating event, we sit down and are served two shots: a bile green shot and a blood red shot. I’m not even kidding. I took both without reservations, but I will say that the blood shot burned unlike any alcohol I’ve ever had before. Then, we all take shots of rice wine and the snake feast begins. We are instructed to take a shot before each course. Which, ends up being a problem as there are 7 courses.

The ones I can remember are: a rice pilaf with snake bits, snake spring rolls, snake meat balls (I later find out these were snake testicles), and snake ribs (definitely my least favorite, as the bones were too small). Mind you, we ate lots of other interesting, snake meat infused dishes, but after my 5th shot, things began to blur. 

We eat, drink, and make merry for about two hours. After our delicious and incredibly filling snake meal, we drag our drunken party of 16 back to the hostel. Not before, of course, accidentally letting out a few snakes in an attempt to get snake skin from within the cages and angering the snake village. Obviously, I wasn’t involved at all.

For anyone with a stomach that can handle it, I highly recommend this. Despite feeling really terrible for the snakes, I enjoyed the experience immensely. I do take comfort in the fact that every last bit of snake is put to use. That said, if you ever get the chance to do this in Vietnam, absolutely, no questions asked, do it.



Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080


Chai Pi: The fascinating life of a Vietnam guide

A guide from Vietnam’s Black Hmong hill tribe takes travelers on a journey into her life

Chai Pi cuts a strange figure sitting quietly in the five-star surrounds of the Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa. Dressed in traditional dress, dark blue fabric supporting a riot of embroidered colors, she stands apart from the visitors to the mountain town of Sapa in northern Vietnam.

It is Chai Pi, however, rather than the Gortex-clad guests, who belongs here. Sapa, in the Vietnamese highlands, may have become a tourist town for visitors eager to flee Hanoi for the fresh air and trekking, but the town and its villages are home to a number of ethnic minorities.

The Black Hmong tribe

Black Hmong tribe

Black Hmong tribe members walk along the river.

Chai is of the Black Hmong tribe — one of the many sub groups of the Hmong ethnic group, indigenous to the mountains of China, Laos and Thailand as well as Vietnam.

She is somber and traditional in the hotel lobby, but once on the road leading to the day’s trek into the valley Chai’s personality bubbles over as she chats in superb English, punctuated with her sassy smile and frequent laugh.

The effervescent 19-year-old is a fascinating guide as the day reveals as much about her life as it does the surrounding countryside.

“From seven, eight years ago to now most people work as a tourist guide,” she says, illustrating just how much the area has changed over the last decade. “I wished I could do the same to get a little money to help my family.”

Deciding not to work in the family’s fields and home, Chai started working as a guide in 2006 and is clearly a natural.

“I enjoy it a lot,” she says. “I meet people and learn languages. I know a few words in French, Spanish and Japanese. I know English the most.”

Her English is astoundingly good for someone who has never had a formal lesson. Colloquial and natural, she laughs, jokes, explains, and all this simply from absorbing the language from her contact with tourists.

Village life

Black Hmong tribe

Chai’s little sister in her family home.

In her village of Lao Chai, the education system is primitive. No English is taught in the primary school’s lofty classrooms and flag-flying courtyard.

But even in Sapa’s secondary school, education is limited when it comes to locals. “For minority people most girls can’t go to school. Only boys,” she says.

“So we stay home and work on the farm, make clothes, cooking, looking after the family, many things.”

On the way into the valley we pass the family home, a two-room mud-floored wooden hut with space outside for two pigs, three ducks and two dogs.

It doesn’t look like it takes much maintenance, but with such a relatively large family there are always chores. “Sisters work the farm, brothers get the land. When boys marry their parents give them the land, shared between the brothers.”

We pass her father’s shop, and go further into the valley through paddy fields, past water buffalo, and plenty of local women toting souvenirs. In the village primary school her little sister is playing in the courtyard with her friends.

Chai’s stories of village life are the soundtrack to the trek that takes us through paddy fields, along streams, over bridges, and through tiny hamlets.

It’s a well-trodden route for tourists, and at the bottom of the hill two or three day trekkers peel off to continue, staying at homestays.

We carry on until we hit the road and she negotiates two motorbike taxis to putt-putt us back up to town. Chai in her traditional dress, behind a driver in jeans and a T-shirt, flies up the road in front of me.

But the biggest contrast of all comes when we stop at an Internet café back in Sapa.

The first Hmong on Facebook

Chai Pi

Chai Pi.

Chai is straight on to her Facebook page, laughing in pleasure as she opens messages and checks out her friends.

“I started using Facebook in 2007. I was the first Black Hmong in Sapa with a Facebook page,” she says proudly. “I like it because I can see friends’ photos and talk to them.”

Chai works too hard to see her friends frequently. Although it took a while for the rest of her friends to catch on, with Internet cafes rife in the touristy area Facebook has become the way they can most easily stay in touch.

Looking over her shoulder there’s plenty of YouTube posts, messages in Vietnamese and also in English from previous trekking clients. This is just one of her links to the outside world, and more come through movies.

“’Home Alone’ was a very funny movie. The little boy was so cute. The big house for a small family must be very hard to clean. Big family, small house, that’s us,” she smiles.

Keeping in touch with tourists is her way of keeping the dream of traveling to other countries alive, surely a real possibility with her enterprising spirit.

But Chai has moments when she’s as traditional as her dress. “I’ve been to Hanoi a few times, but there’s too much traffic and pollution,” she says. “Maybe in the future I will live in a stone house, or go back to the village, work on the farm and have many children.”

A friend of Chai’s with baby and Chai’s sister in the family home.

Black Hmong village home

Inside a Black Hmong family home.
Black Hmong village home

Another look inside a Black Hmong family home.
Black Hmong village school

The Black Hmong village school.
Black Hmong village

Black Hmong village.



Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080