Living It Up Vietnamese Tribesman Style

Trip Start Jul 12, 2009
Trip End Nov 04, 2009

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Where I stayed
Summit Hotel

Flag of Vietnam  , Quảng Trị,
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Our trip to Sapa was a welcome reprieve from the cacophony of Hanoi, despite a dramatic beginning.

After waiting anxiously in the Hanoi train station for well over an hour (during which I met an American tourist who quickly told me that she was returning to her birthplace of Vietnam after spending the past 20 years living in Texas. When she asked if I liked Vietnam, I politely told her that I did. Her response: Vietnam is nice, but America is much better! I wholeheartedly agreed, although Vietnam is a very fascinating place to visit), we boarded our overnight train on Sunday night at 10 p.m., anticipating our arrival in Sapa on Monday morning. Accompanying us was David, a fellow Californian that we met during our Halong Bay tour. We shared our small room on the train with David and a Vietnamese man who spoke no English and after playing a few games of cards, we fell a constantly disrupted sleep. When a Vietnamese woman came by our compartment at 5:30 a.m. screaming "coffee!! tea!!!," Asia abruptly slammed the door and we all fell back to sleep, exhausted from a night of interrupted slumber.

Suddenly, we woke up and realized that nearly everyone had disembarked. We quickly shooed David out so that we could change clothes and hastily brushed our teeth. As I was packing my bag and Asia was in the restroom, we suddenly realized that the train had started to move backwards. I quickly jumped out of our room and scanned the hallways, a pit of dread welling in my stomach as I realized that we were the only two passengers left (maybe the fact that the water turned off when I brushed my teeth should have served as a warning). I started yelling, "Wait!!! Stop!!!! We need to get off! We are going to Sapa!!" Soon Asia joined me, having felt the train moving mid-squat.The Vietnamese men working on the train seemed to think that the panic rising in our voice was comical. "Hanoi!" they replied, indicating that the train was embarking on the 8 hour journey back to Hanoi. We ran to the other side of our carriage and began begging one such man to stop the train. Suddenly, the train slowed, he opened the door and looked at us, dead panned, "Do you speak Vietnamese?" I looked down at the train tracks below and the thick, grassy embankment leading up to what we could only hope to be a road and immediately assumed we would be walking back to the train station. "No!!!" we responded in alarm. Then he laughed, and the train stopped and began moving back toward Sapa. Relief washed over me. Crisis averted.

We took a van to our hotel, which sat high on a hill that overlooked plush green hills that went on for miles. We enjoyed complimentary breakfast and iced coffees (they sweeten coffee with sweetened condensed milk because the coffee itself is as strong as espresso - it is a delicious treat although not a good habit to adopt in America). At 9 a.m. we began a short half day trek, beginning with a walk through the market in Sapa, accompanied by several women and girls from the local tribes. Sapa has six local tribes. Each tribe speaks its own language and wears a different type of clothing.It is customary for the children to attend school from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day; however, as it was summertime, we had the pleasure of the children's company all morning. Our tour guide, Lam, was a local tribeswoman and spoke English very well. All Children in Sapa are required to learn both English and Vietnamese . When the tribes people speak to eachother, they speak in Vietnamese and when they speak amongst themselves, they speak in their local dialect. It quickly became apparent that the children and women accompanying us on our trek were there to sell us the goods that they kept in the wooden baskets on strapped to their backs. However, the beginning of their marketing campaign involves getting to know the tourists on a personal level. Nothing is off limits. They general begin with our names and home countries. Next they move on to our age, relationship status, and occupation. During these conversations, I discovered that the women in Sapa are typically married at 15 years of age, and they do not get to choose their spouse. The inhabitants of Sapa generally never leave the town for their entire lives. Entire families live in shacks and the women either make or sell crafts, work on tours or in restaurants. The men do hard labor. They never take a day off. Sapa has only been heavily influenced by tourism for the past 10 years; although it has been a good source of income to the residents there, the prices of goods has dramatically risen, therefore making it more difficult for the citizens themselves to buy from one another.

We hiked down into a valley, stopping along the way at small rest stops (oftentimes someone's home) which sold drinks, snacks, and crafts. At one of the stops David purchased some dried wild boar. I tried it - tasted like spicy beef jerky. Eventually we crossed a wooden bridge over a river that led to a gorgeous waterfall. We took a 20 minute break here and enjoyed some local snacks. One of the snacks was a roll of rice that had been cooked in a thick leaf over an open flame. The rice inside is very sticky and is cut it up into small pieces and accompanied by a sesame seed dipping powder. It was delicious! We continued the trek after the waterfall and finished over a bridge. Below the bridge there were several children playing in the water with a group of water buffalo. We said goodbye to our tour guide and put our feet in the water near the buffalo. The brave little boys were scaling the buffalo like frogs jump from one lilly pad to the next.  David took this an indication that the buffalo were harmless, and hopped on the back of one. Luckily, the water buffalo didn't seem to mind and it made for some great photo opportunities.

After our romp with the water buffalo, we hiked an hour uphill to our hotel where we were pleasantly surprised to discover that included in our tour package was a 4 course lunch (unfortunately they consider bananas dessert here so it was more like 3 courses and a snack for later). I ordered my new favorite vegetarian dish, tofu with tomato sauce. After a shower, we met up with a couple that we had met on the hike and had drinks on the balcony of a restaurant. The view was amazing. Asia ordered apple juice and it was literally fresh squeezed apple juice. It was amazing! I had a mango smoothie that was absolutely delicious. Later we headed back to the hotel for dinner and had an early night in anticipation of a long day of hiking the next day.

Wednesday morning we were happy to discover that Lam would remain our tour guide and a new hiking group. There were seven of us- Asia, David and me, a German man named Peter who once worked at Epcot Center at Disney world in the beer garden but has not been to Oktoberfest in his own country, and two French brothers in their twenties. The French brothers were nice, but one of them could barely speak English so it was frustrating to attempt conversation with him. We've discovered that most Europeans speak English practically fluently with the exception of the French, who do not wish to speak English at all. Consistent with the previous day, we were followed by a gaggle of tribe women and girls. We hiked for several hours through scenic hills and valleys, stopping along the way to visit various villages.

About half way through the morning Lam asked if we would like to see her home. She led us inside the shanty wooden shack which looked similar to other homes we had seen. There were several children inside, including her own son. We gave them hard candies (we had been told that if you want to take pictures of the children that you should carry a bag of hard candies and give them one) and took a picture with them. Next Lam said that one of the boys had a bad cut on his thumb and asked if we had any medicine. Asia had her first aid kit with her and she was able to provide the boy with antiseptic cream and a band aid. It was heart-wrenching to know that they couldn't' even provide these essentials for him. His cut was quite deep and despite my lack of medical knowledge, I believe that he needed stitches.

Our "picnic" lunch was actually at type of restaurant (which we assume only caters to the trekking groups) at one of the villages. It consisted of a large variety of Vietnamese dishes, but nothing spectacular (tofu with tomato sauce was included though!). After lunch I bought a bracelet from the tribe woman that had been following me during the trek. She kept grabbing my hand to help me keep my balance while we were going down hills or through mud. I overpaid for the bracelet ($3 when I know I could have got it for $1) but our guide had told us that the only source of income for these women is to follow us and sell us their goods, so as usual, I was sympathetic and helped her. We continued our trek for a couple more hours and reached our final destination - our home stay - around 3 p.m. After dropping our bags, we headed down to the river for a swim. Unfortunately we had left our bathing suits back in our large bags at home so we wore our hiking shorts and sports bras in the water. The icy river water felt amazingly refreshing on our skin. The current was very intense but we managed to swim our way to a large rock upstream. We climbed the rock and sunbathed for a while before jumping in the river and letting the current take us back downstream. It was a nice way to finish the trek.

Our home stay family consisted of a mother, father and two teenage daughters. We were also accompanied by our tour guide and three French women that had been hiking with another guide. We slept on the second floor of the house which was basically a loft with several mattresses. Unlike Halong Bay, we each had our own pillow, blanket and mosquito net. The toilet was located off of a small path in an outhouse. There was no toilet - just a hole in the ground directly above a gushing stream. Surprisingly, we preferred it to the porcelain squatting holes that we are used to because it didn't smell as bad!

Dinner at the home stay was delicious. We started with garlic drenched french fries. They were literally one of the best things I've eaten in Asia! We devoured them (we had to keep up with the boys!) and the waited about an hour for our main meal, which consisted of various Vietnamese dishes, including a water buffalo dish ( I tried it but mostly focused on the tofu and vegetable dishes). For dessert, we had shots of rice wine, which basically tasted like vodka - ie terrible. We spent the rest of the evening playing cards. The French brothers taught the teenage daughters how to play Egyptian War and they were laughing and screaming throughout the game. Watching their reaction to the game was very entertaining to say the least.

Thursday morning we continued our trek through a much more narrow and significantly more muddy trail (due to the rain in the middle of the night). The trek lasted about three hours and we ended up at a waterfall where most people took the opportunity to clean their muddy shoes. Lunch consisted of a vegetarian noodle and vegetable soup, topped with a hard boiled egg. It was served with a chili soy sauce. It was surprisingly delicious, although Asia and I could only finish about half of the massive bowl. David ate his entire bowl and Asia's leftovers. Americans.

After lunch we boarded a bus that took us back to the hotel where we were able to shower and have a very early dinner before heading back to the train station for our overnight train. Luckily this time we actually woke up and got off the train before it left. We spent the rest of the day eating, relaxing and enjoying a cheap massage (although it wasn't a very pleasurable one unfortunately). We checked into a different dorm in the same hostel and found our new room superior to the last despite the fact that it housed 12 girls rather than 10. That night we attended the first ever Hanoi Backpackers Hostel wine tasting night, which included unlimited wine for a cheap price. It was nice to finally have wine again - Asia isn't the ideal climate for the production of wine so it is all imported and therefore much more expensive than beer so we haven't had much of it. We met several new people during the wine tasting event, including a German who said he prefers traveling alone and makes it a personal rule to never travel with a companion as well as several girls from our dorm room, three of which that are traveling down Vietnam as well. Unfortunately they aren't leaving until Monday night, but I'm thinking I may see them during my trip. I also talked to a girl that was traveling with a friend for a month but stayed on for two more months after her friend went home. She gushed about how liberating it is to travel alone and insisted that you are never really alone because you meet so many people. I am actually quite excited to be on my own and I think that it will be an amazing experience. Although I am a bit nervous, I'm also eagerly anticipating the adventures that I'll have. After wine tasting, Asia and I went to a restaurant recommended by our guidebook. Unfortunately, I would not recommend it. Afterward we sat on tiny red stools at Beer Corner and enjoyed  30 cent beer (Bia Hoi) and headed home.

I'm going to save my trip to Snake Village in Hanoi for my next entry. I said goodbye to Asia yesterday and I'm heading down to Hue on the overnight bus (which I've heard is completely miserable) tonight. I'm sure you can tell that I thoroughly enjoyed Sapa - although the experience was literally too incredible for words to describe.

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