Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sapa: Flip-flops and Socks

I planned on writing about our trip to Vietnam in chronological order, but that’s not how it’s coming out. I wrote a crap bit about Saigon, our first stop, but like I said, it’s crap. I was writing a letter of thanks to Robert Reid of Reid on Travel when this bit started flowing. Not one to deny the flow, I kept going and stayed late at work. So, here are excerpts from our honeymoon in Vietnam.

The only part of our trip that we splurged on was Sapa. We booked our tour with one of the nicer tour agencies, Exotissimo. For train tickets on the sleeper train (1 night there, 1 night back), a night in a nicer hotel (don’t recall how many stars), a guided trek, two meals and a private car to and from the station, we paid $134 each. Yes, Vietnam is cheap.

I felt like a VIP. Someone met us at the station in Hanoi with our tickets (we were in Halong Bay the days before and couldn’t pick them up) and walked us to our berth. At the station near Sapa, we were greeted by our guide who took us by private car to our hotel. He said we’d be able to check into our room before our trek (we arrived at 6am and didn’t trek until 9am), but it wasn’t available. My husband got a little pissy since he wanted to take a nap. I just wanted to wash my face so I was ecstatic that he arranged for us to have access to a bathroom with hot showers.

Compared to Hanoi and Saigon, Sapa was freezing. I have no idea what the real temperature was, but I’d guess it was around 50-ish. Again, cold in California is 60, but it felt colder than that. I piled on the layers of Patagonia tops I’d brought, a hat, a scarf and anything else I could think of to keep warm. My tough German husband wore shorts, a t-shirt and a cotton sweater. I pushed my raincoat on him. I’ll be a hell of a mother.

Our car and guide picked us up and drove us to the trailhead. Even before we got out, people were swarming around the car. Our guide explained that the local people (ethnic minority Black Hmong and Red Zao) would try to befriend us so we would buy their stuff. They’d ask, “Where you from?” and use our naïve friendliness as an excuse to badger us for cash. We were to answer, “No, thank you” to everything. In LA, I feel poor because I can’t imagine spending $1000 on a sweater. Seeing as the average annual income in Vietnam is around $700 (how's that for perspective?), we were walking dollar signs.

As soon as my dollar-sign and I got out of the car, we were surrounded by sales people. Their native dress is gorgeous, and I found myself wanting to take pictures of them like they were specimens in a zoo. We were dollar signs; they were objects. Sure enough, we were met with a cacophony of “where you from?” and “what you want?” We answered as the guide told us to, “No, thank you,” and pushed through the crowd. It must be a little like celebrities feel pushing through fans.

Every trekking group ends up with some escorts. We had a pair of young women who first asked us the questions that we ignored. They just kept walking with us, defiant to our indifference. They waited while we took pictures. They waited while our guide explained things to us. They waited and waited and waited until we finally bought some things from them, and then finally, I could take their picture.

All of a sudden we were surrounded by kids with smaller kids strapped to their backs trying to sell us stuff. They were like locusts circling us. I don’t know if they were too young to travel on, but eventually, they left us, but we picked up two more women. If you are ever worried about hiking alone in the mountains of Vietnam, don’t be. There is always someone to hike with. You’ll have to buy some goods, but you’ll have a companion.

For lunch, we stopped at a home-stay house. I was a little concerned as to what we would be eating, but our guide took our lunch out of his backpack. It was a simple, American style lunch, but tasty. It was the plum and rice wine we drank with our hostess that should have concerned me. Towards the end of our lunch, she offered us some plum wine, which we couldn't refuse. We raised our glasses and shouted out the cheer we’d learned in Halong Bay. “One, two, three (in Vietnamese), YO (or ZO)!” We did this about, oh, twenty times with plum wine and then rice wine and then beer.

After about two hours (our hiking companions waited for us), we staggered off for the remainder of our hike. I don’t think the drinking is included in the tour, and many people would probably want to skip the heavy drinking lunch. In hindsight, I would, too, since I don’t remember the second half of the trek.

The bits I remember after lunch include this: much hollering in French (don’t ask me why this started. I don’t recall.), thanking South Africa for helping me walk (somewhere we met up with two sisters from South Africa who we started calling just “South Africa.” We were “Los Angeles” and our guide became “Vietnam.”), arriving at a shop/restaurant and getting on our private bus with “South Africa.” Luckily, there is photographic evidence of things that happened. Even with those, the afternoon is blurry. NOTE: I do not recommend getting shit-faced drunk in a foreign country (or anywhere) with all your money and two cameras on you. I consider us incredibly lucky that we ran into “South Africa” and didn’t get hustled by anyone.

Being led on the trek by "South Africa" and followed by our companions.

That night, being a Californian, I thought I could wear jeans, a fleece and flip-flops to dinner (unfortunately, “South Africa” took the train back to Hanoi so couldn’t join us). It was freaking cold, so I bought some socks for about a $1.50 and let my Asian genes flow by putting them on with my flip-flops. My husband was on a quest to eat as many strange things as he could, so requested the guide take us to a restaurant that served snake. He did one better: he took us to his friend’s birthday party at an apartment 2km from Sapa. I know this because we had to walk back to town. In flip-flops and socks.

We hopped on his motorbike with him and buzzed off into the night (yes, there were three of us on one bike). Then stopped. I thought our American asses weighed too much for his little scooter, but it ran out of petrol. (that’s gas, if you only speak American English like my husband.) He hailed his friend over, and the friend drove us up to the party. We were sitting on the back of a scooter with a man we didn’t know cruising up a mountain in a country where we didn’t speak the language. The road turned to dirt. The houses thinned until there was only one every 100 yards or so. I started wondering what a Vietnamese “Deliverance” theme would sound like.

Finally, he turned left into a driveway. It was foggy, and I couldn’t make out much except for a large concrete slab, a larger house and the smaller building where we entered. We walked into what I presumed was a kitchen. A group of people zipped into coats sat around a feast of bowls and plates piled with food. At either end of the circle, there were two bowls filled with rice wine that they dipped shot glasses into. I felt like shit from all of the drinking we did earlier in the day so I declined. My large, still drunk husband dove in with gusto. They loved it.

Guess which one's with me.

There was no snake, but there were small birds (they said doves) cooked (broiled? Bbq’ed?) with their heads still intake. To me, they looked like unlucky fowl found after the Malibu fires. Apparently, they tasted great. My husband popped one into his mouth and went to town. Head and all. I wanted to throw up.

On the other side of me sat our guide with a boiled chicken head. He explained to me that in Vietnam, the head is a delicacy and proceeded to pluck the eyeball out and knaw on the skull. I was hung over with a queasy stomach and almost wretched. Every two minutes or so, someone would want to do a toast, so cheering would ensue and more rice wine was consumed. My husband, game as he is to try foods and drink wine, became the center of attention. People wanted their photos taken with him and everyone wanted to do a toast with him.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of sitting on a cold floor (the mat wasn’t big enough for all of us), we moved to someone’s bedroom. It was sparse with just a bed, desk and a small rack for clothes. It put life into perspective. Our apartment in Los Angeles is a palace in comparison. We sat around on the bed and a few chairs drinking tea before I finally said we needed to head back to our hotel (it was the nicest hotel we stayed in the whole trip).

But before we could start our walk back to town (there was no way I was getting on a scooter with anyone there), they wanted to show us where they worked. By this point, I was cold, tired, hung-over and slightly annoyed with my drunken husband, but of course we went. It was the polite thing to do.

We walk out to the large building. Someone opened the door with a key. It was dark inside before they turned on the lights. No one was around but us, and it felt eerie. We stampeded up to the second floor where they opened the door to a lab with another key. All the while, I am chanting to myself, “We are safe. We are safe. We are safe.” They work in bio-technology and do research on potatoes. The room smelt loamy. Inside, were racks and racks of beakers filled with potato sprouts. I felt like a fool.

We finally made if back to the hotel around midnight. Despite my paranoia, I made it back without stepping in any puddles.

The next day, completely unjust, I still felt like shit and my husband felt fine. After choking down some breakfast (fried rice works well in place of greasy eggs and toast), we wandered around town and stumbled upon the market. I love food. I love cooking and I love farmers markets. One of my favorite things to do in other countries is to check out their markets. Sometimes just for the shock value. Sapa did not disappoint.

The vegetables shimmered in the drizzle of the morning, looking fresh and scrumptious. The meats… the meats reminded me that we aren’t that far from life when we eat meat. Gone were the sterile Styrofoam containers. Instead, pig heads sat next to cuts of pork. Intestines piled in baskets next to the tables. Chicken and duck feet stuck up in the air, with their heads lolled to the side, beaks intact. There were live chickens and ducks in basket cages waiting their fates, but worst of all, was the dog. We knew it was dog, which is an expensive and well-liked meat in Vietnam, because the skinned paws and head were sitting next to the meat.

A few hours later, after finding the one pub in town with heat, we drank tea with other foreigners waiting for the train to Hanoi when the power went out. Without a hiccup, the bartender grabbed a battery powered light and stuck it on the bar. Someone else lit candles in the stairway and bathrooms. Power. Just one more thing we take for granted.

Sapa wasn’t my favorite place in Vietnam. It was beautiful, and I’d imagine even more so if we could have seen the views of the distant mountains, but I definitely have the most distinct memories from there. If we’d had more time, and it was warmer, it would have been interesting to go further into the mountains, off the beaten path, but at least our dinner provided an experience not included in the guidebooks.


Anonymous said...

Nobody asks you go to Sapa.
I'm Vietnamese and I don't need your money as my country is not in the war anymore.

Thanks God it's over.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking about the Tsunami in 2005.
Would you go to Thailand again?

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