Hot and humid days, pleasantly warm nights
Chaotic traffic governed only by "Chicken of the Road" rules
Persistent sales people and skillful bargainers
Mystical 14th century ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Scenic karst (limestone) formations
Humorous communication challenges
Inexpensive (e.g, $0.20 draft beers)
Verdant vertiginous mountains
Harvest time for rice
Trekking to minority villages and staying in their homes
Vocal nocturnal roosters
Colorfully dressed minorities
They eat dogs, don't they?
Restored faith in humanity
I stink like deodorant
Ayahuasca ceremony meets Burning Man death-defying bus ride
Vietnamese "Big Brother" tracks movements
Did I mention $.20 beers?
It's been a good trip in that I've done just about everything that I had hoped and I'm now ready to come home
All readers who are not my spouse are now excused.
9/24 Hanoi, Vietnam
With all of my belongings in my backpack, I walked out of the Hanoi airport to be engulfed by hot humid air and taxi drivers. One particularly enterprising driver directed me towards his minibus, which we assured me would be leaving in a few minutes (a universal claim among 3rd world bus drivers). I joined the handful of other passengers already waiting in the vehicle. Somewhat surprisingly, we were on the road a mere 40 minutes later. While the vehicles on the busy highway predominantly drove on the right-hand side, there appeared to be no formal road rulesonly an astonishing faith that accidents would miraculously be avoided if you simply headed in whatever direction you wanted at any time. While we weren't driving particularly fast, we dodged other vehiclesmostly motorscooters that "merged" into traffic or crossed the highway without any regard for oncoming vehicles. Adding to the chaos, all of the drivers liberally used horns instead of turn signals. At about this time I noticed a large public safety billboard with LED lights that were intended to keep score of traffic accidents; however, they were burned out, likely from excessive use.
XX accidents yesterday
XX fatalities yesterday
XX accidents year-to-date
XX accidents year-to-date last year
XX fatalities year-to-date
XX fatalities year-to-date last year
After picking up a plane ticket in downtown Hanoi for a flight to Cambodia, I wandered over to the Old Quarter, where each bustling street has its artisan specialty (e.g., door handles, shoes, spices, fabrics, buttons, motorbike mechanics, electronics, musical instruments, tourism, etc). Aside from the incessant beckonings of the motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers ("Hello, where are you going?"), I enjoyed the frenetic scenes. Street vendors wearing conical straw hats peddled fruit and baked goods in baskets suspended from bamboo poles balanced on their shoulders. Flowers and vegetables overflowed from baskets on antiquated slow-moving bicycles that narrowly missed colliding with pedestrians and motorbikes, some of which had up to four riders. Crossing the street in Hanoi is always an adventure. Crosswalks and stoplights are meaningless. If you waited to cross the street until traffic yielded, you would spend your entire vacation on the same block. Following the lead of Hanoians, it takes an act of faith or suicide to simply step into the traffic and start walking across slowly, hoping that drivers will swerve to avoid you. It was disturbingly similar to the video game, "Frogger." Still, by late in the afternoon, I had already witnessed two minor accidents happen right in front of me. I wondered if these would be added to the tally on the billboard when it resumed working.
A person could easily lose himself in this sensory rich environment of twisting streets, and I did so quite enjoyably.
9/25 Hanoi, Vietnam
After a morning stroll in Hanoi's Old Quarter, I found my way to the nearest hospital for an immunization shot. In my hasty departure for Vietnam from the States, I had missed the last two of the 3 shots required for immunization from Japanese enchepalitis. This pesky disease is transmitted by infected mosquitoes that thrive in the remote regions of Vietnam during the rainy season (now), particularly in rural rice fields in the North (my destination). While I didn't want to be a hypochondriac, I was somewhat concerned by the health effect of contracting the disease: death. I walked into the dingy hospital waiting room for an immunization shot, surveyed the state of cleanliness, weighed my options, and departed. By contrast, at least the people in the street practiced some measure of hygiene. Most of the women wore protective dust masks; apparently these are worn as much for protection against the sun (to keep a more desirable fair complexion) as for dust and germs.
A short flight to Siam Reap, Cambodia found me in an even hotter and stickier climate. I wouldn't have been too surprised to see a school of tropical fish fly past me. The overbearing motorbike driver from the airport spent the entire 20-minute trip attempting to sell me his services as a guide for the temples of Angkor Wat, the destination of my visit. At first, I had simply told him that I wasn't interested. Soon afterwards, I had to resort to pleading for him to shut-up, as he repeatedly supplicated, "This is my job. Why won't you let me do my job?" Naturally, he insisted on taking me to a hotel where he would earn a commission and I demanded that he keep driving, even though I had no knowledge of the size or layout of the city. Finally, he stopped at a traffic light and I jumped off. A few-minute conversation with a lone backpacker oriented me, so I started walking towards the tourist district. The persistent motorbike driver slowly followed me, demanding to know what I had discussed with the backpacker. In order to lose this gad fly, I made a few random turns in alleyways and then ducked into an ATM. I had finally succeeded in losing him&133; or not, he pulled up beside me, continuing his harangue. I found respite on "Pub Street," a lively street closed to motor vehicles that is filled with bars, restaurants, and outdoor cafes that cater to tourists. A decent dinner of chicken, rice, and vegetables as well as two beers and a soda offered an exceptional value for four dollars.
9/26 Siam Reap, Cambodia
I was awakened by the 3:30am prayer services broadcast over a loudspeaker; this devotional chanting continued for an hour, allowing me a good 30 minutes of sleep before awakening at 5:00. Initially following the Siam Reap River from my hotel, I navigated unlit roads by headlamp on my bike, stopping every couple of miles so to ask directions to Angkor Wat. Just prior to sunrise, I arrived at the main temple's entrance, to see its five towers silhouetted against fuchsia clouds that were also reflected in the glassy moat. The serenity of the postcard moment was shared by hundreds of camera-wielding Japanese tourists. Most importantly, my camera was pleased.
The Angkor Wat complex is a series of stone Buddhist and Hindu temples built between the 11th and 15th centuries by the region's rival rulers. The mystical ruins cover roughly 12 square miles of dense tropical rain forest, which has slowly reclaimed many of the structures. While most of the buildings remain largely intact, including some more than 100-meters high, several have collapsed ceilings and walls that have been pried apart by tenacious trees that envelop them. Many statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities have been beheaded or defaced, either by a newly conquering ruler of a different faith, or by looters in more recent years who sold the trophy heads on the black market. Still, ornate etchings adorn many of the limestone facades, including detailed depictions of well-endowed scantily clad women.
Despite the initial onslaught of tourists at the main entrance, I soon found myself navigating the maze of temples by myself. Incredibly, there are almost no access restrictions, as long as you can navigate steep narrow steps and piles of fallen stone building blocks. I followed one passageway faintly lit by filtered sunlight to a small room where a statue of the Buddha stood before freshly cut flowers, burning incense, and one devote worshiper silently praying on his knees.
Despite the flat terrain, I labored to peddle my bike on the paved and unpaved roads in the in the oppressive heat and humidity to reach each of the temples along the 17 km circuit. At the entrance to every temple, persistent souvenir vendors (usually children) earnestly tried to sell me their wares. They'd walk to the temple with me, trying to engage me in conversation. "Hello!" "Where are you from?" "What's your name?" "How old are you?" I soon learned that if I responded to them in any manner, even so much as simply making eye contact, it emboldened them to work the sale relentlessly. Consequently, I pretended not to understand English and I responded to them in either Spanish or fluent gibberish, which always succeeded in getting them to walk away confused.
At one temple, I encountered a lone policeman who cheerfully led me on a tour through the crumbling ruins. Although he never asked, I offered him a tip, which he naturally accepted. As daylight waned, I reached the final and most wondrous temple, Ta Prohm (used as the the setting for one of the Indiana Jones movies). Much of the temple's stone blocks lay scattered about and it was difficult to determine whether the standing structures were being held erect by the roots of trees, or slowly dismantled by them. As twilight approached, I realized that I must leave. With the help of a guide, we navigated the maze of buildings to eventually emerge from the dimly lit jungle at the exit&133; or rather, an exit. My bike wasn't there. I had exited on the opposite side of the jungle from where I had left my back. Walking through the jungle in the dark was not an option. Panic began to set in with the twilight and I had no choice but to jog on the roads 3 kilometers back to my bike. Luckily, I hitched a ride with a Cambodian family in a rickety wooden trailer pulled by an old farm tractor. We exchanged smiles rather than conversation.
Feverishly peddling my bike by twilight, I futilely attempted to make it back to Siam Reap before nightfall. I stopped several times for directions, but nobody seemed to be able to definitively point me towards Siam Reap. Well after dark, I found myself in a strange city&133; it may have been Siam Reap, but I couldn't tell. I repeatedly stopped people to ask them directions to the Siam Reap Riverthe only one in the entire regionby pointing to it on my map. Nobody had any clue how to get to it, or that a river even existed. I worried that I must have been dozens of miles away from my destination. Finally, I found an English-speaking hotel clerk who informed me that the river was merely four blocks straight down the main road. As I peddled back to my hotel, I questioned the conventional international wisdom that Americans are provincial world citizens.
Back on Pub Street that night, I enjoyed some good cheap Cambodian cuisine and draught beers. Strolling through the parade of tourists, I ignored numerous offers for drugs and sex from the locals, although I was amused by a prostitute wearing a hygienic dust mask who offered a blow job.
9/27 Siam Reap, Cambodia
After the morning's prayer services were broadcasted over the loudspeaker at 4:00am and 5:55am, I decided to sleep in. I hired a friendly tuk-tuk driver for an afternoon tour of Angkor Wat. After catching the sunset from atop Sunset Temple with hundreds of other tourists, I returned to the street to look for the tuk-tuk driver that I had hired for the day. Dozens of tuk-tuk drivers eagerly signaled for me to come to ride with them, but I could not tell which driver was mine. Sensing that I was lost, this further encouraged them to physically direct me to their vehicles. After some comical trial-and-errors, I found my driver who could not understand why I kept walking to other drivers.
9/28 Siam Reap, Cambodia
I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to Southeast Asia's largest lake, south of Siam Reap. When we arrived at the lake, I jumped out of the tuk-tuk to take pictures of a highly photogenic floating village. The remarkable scene appeared to be taken from an issue of National Geographic. I greedily snapped away as three small boys paddled a canoe towards me. My camera quit, producing nothing but a cryptic and ominous "Error 99" message. I frantically tried to appease the camera gods, turning the camera off and on, changing the battery, changing the lens, and resetting all of the settings to the factory default; nothing worked. As I sullenly boarded the boat for the tour of the lake, I decided to be philosophical about the situation and concluded that the remainder of my trip ceased to have meaning.
9/29 Hanoi, Vietnam
Back in Hanoi, I toured the camera store district, hoping to find one that could fix my camera and, consequently, salvage my trip. Although none could fix my camera, I rejoiced to find one that was willing to give me some money for my camera and sell me the same model new.
9/30 Hanoi, Vietnam
Our horn-happy tour bus to from Hanoi to Halong Bay stopped at a rest area, where there just happened to be a ceramics factory outlet that sold kitsch items to tourists, including bottled snake wine complete with the snake. Our group of about twenty tourists consisted of Mandarin-speakers, me, and two Aussies. The guide was supposed to speak both Mandarin and English but practically spoke neither. Prior to boarding our overnight boat, we were more than an hour behind our scheduled boat lunch and I was famished. I pondered buying some snack food on the dock. Through strained English and much gesturing to our flummoxed guide, I informed him that we were past the scheduled lunch time and inquired as to when we were going to eat. He responded, "Now."
Me: "Right now, or in thirty minutes?"
Guide: "This is not the U.S."
Our wooden retro junk boat joined an armada of similar tourist junk boats powering across enormous Halong Bay. Because of the communication challenges with our guide, none of our boat's passengers knew our itinerary. After some while, we anchored for lunch in the middle of the bay. Sitting at a table with the Aussies, a bottle of wine was presented for our meal. They gestured their approval for their glasses to be filled and the cork was popped.
Me: "You're brave. Don't you want to know how much that costs?"
Aussie: "The lady who sold me the tour told me that it included a complimentary drink."
Me: "Ummm, was it written down?"
Over the next 40 minutes, a series of convoluted gestures and phone calls ensued to determine whether the Aussies needed to pay for the wine. I doubted that even the Australian embassy could have changed the predictable outcome.
The generous Aussies shared their bottle of wine with me on the deck. From our lounge chairs we looked upon the towering karst limestone pinnacles in the sunlit bay and watched the only other visible boat slowly approach from far away. A few glasses later, we curiously observed that the tour boat was still headed towards us, seemingly on a collision course. It collided with us in slow motion. A few words were exchanged between the crews, but with no obvious damage to either of the boats, they continued on their separate ways as if nothing had happened.
As we climbed the steps to enter the limestone cave, I counted no less than 40 tourist junk boats anchored nearby. The hordes of Japanese tourists easily fit into the massive cavern, which was more than 20 meters high and a couple of hundred meters long. When the clouds outside momentarily parted, the sun pierced an opening near the ceiling, and its shafts dramatically illuminated a corridor.
Leaving the cave, our guide labored to ask me questions. For several minutes, I tried my best to answer him, alternately responding, "United States", "42," "one month," but I really had no clue what he was asking. Finally, I realized that all along he had been telling me a rather lengthy history of the bay.
A typhoon in Central Vietnam had threatened to come north, but the weather held as we approached a picturesque fishing village. The tour brochure had prominently featured a trip to a fishing village and all of the boat's passengers stood on the deck, eagerly awaiting our visit. Our boat powered past the village from a considerable distance while the other tour boats skillfully navigated to it. I noticed that our captain was leaning back in his chair, smoking a cigarette, and lazily steering the boat with his feet. The perplexed passengers debated whether we had just toured the fishing village. Speaking both English and Mandarin, we attempted to ask our guide if we were going to actually visit a fishing village, but he had no idea what we were asking him as we pointed to the diminishing fishing village behind us.
That night, we anchored in the bay, admiring the lights of the other tour boats on a warm night with a gentle breeze. Sitting in the cabin with the Aussies after dinner, I spied a Caucasian woman prowling outside on the stern. She had boarded our boat from her chartered boat, because its passengers had finished all of its wine. With booty in hand, the friendly pirate brought us over to her boat to join her and her friends for conversation and copious quantities of wine.
10/1 Halong Bay, Vietnam
We awoke on the boat to a glorious morning and soon found ourselves paddling kayaks around a picturesque fishing village.
On a pleasantly warm evening, I sat outside in a cheap plastic chair people-watching and enjoying the spectacle of Hanoi's lively tourist district. At $.20 each, the cold draught beers went down easily. Exceeding the establishment's capacity, thirsty tourists overflowed from the sidewalk onto the street, which was technically illegal. A lookout from the store kept an eye out for the police; when they were spotted, we were quickly ushered from the street onto the crowded sidewalk. As soon as the police passed, we were directed to once again make ourselves comfortable in the street.
10/2 Hanoi, Vietnam
I had no guide book, but I had learned essential Viatnamese phrases: "Hello," "thank you," and "No!" Additionally, I wanted to use the one Viatnamese phrase that I had learned from watching the Vietnam war movie "Apocalyapse Now" many years ago. I wasn't exactly sure of the meaning of the phrae but I had deduced that it either means "Surrender" or "Put down your weapons." In either case, practical applications seemed limited, but I still thought that it could be fun to use. Before doing so, I decided to get its exact meaning from our tour guide for the day. He politely informed me that it roughly translates to, "F*ck you!"
Countless times, the tour bus to Tam Coc's limestone caves narrowly avoided motorbikes on the highway in a slow motion game of, "Chicken of the Road." Each time a motorbike crossed the highway or otherwise pulled into the flow of traffic at a fraction of the prevailing speed, I thought there would be a collision. At least I was grateful that we had the larger vehicle.
Motorbikes in Vietnam seem to be used as much for transporting goods as they are people. Motorbikes are often stacked with boxes, both behind and in front of the driver. While I had become accustomed to seeing motorbikes transporting cages full of live chickens, I was taken aback to see two live hogs tied to the back of one scooter. Call it anthropomorphism, but when one of them looked at me and blinked, I could see the terror in its eyes.
Several of us opted to bike the last 10 Km to Tam Coc through the countryside and small villages where children delighted in giving us high-fives. Our guide had requested that we stick together, but within 10 minutes, we had dispersed. A motorbike followed us to help round up stragglers, but nobody led us. Actually, because was at the front, the group defaulted to following me without my consent. After some unplanned additional exercise, we eventually ended up at the river in Tam Coc and boarded row boats in pairs. Our two oarswomen rhythmically paddled us upstream, following the chain of identical row boats that snaked along the lazy, meandering river on a hot and humid day. Over eons, the river had carved a valley in the limestone and now circumnavigated the remaining rock formations. Where the river had not circumnavigated obstacles, it had burrowed through the limestone and we ducked our heads to avoid bumping them on the caves' stalactites. We had to endure the obligatory sales pitch for kitsch souvenirs for most of the return boat trip; however, my fellow tourist from our boat tipped exceedingly generously, leaving me in a somewhat awkward situation. I tried to give my substantially smaller tip to the same woman, but she indicated that she had already received her tip and that I was to give it to the other oarswoman, whom looked rather disappointed.
Back at my favorite $.20 draught beer establishment in Hanoi, I succeeded in replenishing the extra calories that I had burned biking that day.
10/3 Hanoi, Vietnam
I hired a motorbike for the day to drive me to the countryside around Hanoi. While it was somewhat unsettling to be in Hanoi's hectic traffic in a 10-ton bus, it was considerably more alarming to be on the back of a 200-pound motorcycle. Most intersections were governed by the "Chicken of the Road" rules. Road markings seemingly existed not to designate driving laws, or even driving guidelines, but rather to offer mere driving suggestions or possibilities. The net result closely resembles Brownian Motion. Vehicles are supposed to drive on the right-hand side of the road (same as the U.S.), but they do so only at their convenience. More often than not, vehicles turning left at intersections will turn into oncoming traffic in the left-hand lane (squeezing between oncoming traffic and the curb if needed) and accelerate to the speed of the right-hand lane traffic before merging with it. Stoplights exist only at major intersections, but these too provide limited effectiveness. Each stoplight has a counter that displays the number of seconds until the light is going to change from red to green or vice versa (there is no yellow). As green stoplights countdown to zero and turn red, motorbikes continue unabated for several seconds. Not to be outdone, the cross-traffic motorbikes impatiently start across the intersections as the red lights count down to 3 seconds. As a consequence, the intersections tend to remain snarled until just about the time the cycle repeats itself.
Thus far in my trip, I've avoided traveler's sickness, perhaps due to my paranoia about eating uncooked vegetables. However, I'm not too concerned; my daily vitamin tablets help to ensure that I won't get scurvy.
10/4 Hanoi, Vietnam
At the Hanoi bus station, I was the first person to board a bus for the 3-hour trip to Mai Chau. I was somewhat nervous, as this was my first time to ride a non-tourist bus in Vietnam and nobody at the station spoke any English. I secured my camera gear in my fanny pack, snug around my waste. I also took great care to safeguard my daypack, which contained the rest of my belongings (excepting the clothes that I was wearing). I found a seat where I could safely keep my daypack at my feet, as I knew that the bus would be completely full before it departed and I might not be able to keep an eye on it. Some guy, apparently the bus' baggage attendant, insisted that my pack be moved to the back of the bus, under the bench seat. I moved to an adjacent seat where I could keep an eye on my bag, secure in the knowledge that somebody would have to walk the length of the bus with my bag to take it. As other passengers boarded at the station, their baggage was put in the back with my pack, which I repositioned to ensure that it was visible. Much to my annoyance, the baggage attendant allowed many passengers to keep their baggage next to them in the aisle. To my horror, I realized that the baggage under the back seat could be accessed from the outside the bus through an access door. I then noticed my bag moving towards the rear exit. I grabbed one end of my bag and a tug-of-war ensued with the baggage attendant, who yelled at me for preventing him from repositioning it-- apparently to make more room for other baggage. Before the bus departed, 7 people had squeezed in between me and my bag, which I could no longer see, no matter how much I craned my neck.
Just after the driver started the engine, there was some commotion outside the back of the bus and everyone on the bus (opposite me, close to my bag) watched with fascination. I couldn't see what was happening, perhaps a fight, but I had heard the back access door open and what sounded like someone running away. The fare collector got off of the bus, walked around to the back, and closed the rear access door. As the bus departed the station, I realized that the baggage attendant was not riding on the bus. It then dawned on me what had likely happened, but without the ability to speak Vietnamese I had no way of confirming my fear. I painfully recognized that this would be the longest 3-hour ride of my life. I kicked myself for being such a naïve pushover, allowing someone from a third-world country tell me where to put my valuables, particularly when the bus' other cargo consisted of such valuable items as stacks of old plastic buckets and bundles of used cardboard boxes..
I decided not to think about my backpack contents&133; just as soon as I finished making a list of them. Including my laptop, the cost approximately totaled $4,305 (excluding taxes). This amount was more than the average annual income of a typical Vietnamese. Other than the financial loss, I was primarily concerned about the potential health impacts. . The loss of the malaria pills ($8 each) presented an obvious problem. Less obvious was the probability of getting scurvy, due to the missing vitamins. My water-purifying UV light had thus far prevented me from contracting exotic water-borne diseases. It would surely perplex the pilfering baggage handler, who would probably mistake it for a rectal probe.
An agonizing 90-minutes later, the bus stopped at a rest area. I gestured the driver to open the back, and prepared to convey the need for a police report. It wasn't needed; my bag was still there, as I knew it would be.
With my backpack safely recovered, I began to notice the landscape through which the bus passed.
We were slowly climbing spectacularly steep and lush mountains, between which were nestled minority villages surrounded by terraced fields of rice, corn, and other crops. Fluffy clouds and blue skies completed the idyllic scene.
Despite my anxiety over the backpack, I had remained enthralled with two Flower Hmong women who sat just behind me on the bus. These were the very minority people that I had hoped to see (and of course photograph) in Vietnam. They were elaborately dressed in brightly colored, intricately embroidered clothes. They reminded me a bit of flower children from the Summer of Love (1967). And there they were, so close to me; one's hand practically rested on my shoulder. I debated turning around and pointing my large camera lens inches from their faces, but I knew better; the picture wouldn't be in focus, as the women were closer than the minimum focal length of my lens.
Loud, harsh voices and combative personalities belied the beautiful appearances of the two Flower Hmong women. They were involved in a boisterous argument with the bus' fare collector. I gathered that they did not have enough money to reach their destination. I offered to pay the $2 difference, but the fare collector declined to let me pay for them. Afterwards, the argument ceased and everyone sat quietly for the duration of the ride.
At a rural crossroad, the bus stopped and the driver announced that I had reached my destination, Mai Chau. However, all that I could see was a thatched hut convenience store and a guy on a motorcycle. The motorcycle driver offered to drive me the remaining distance to Mai Chau proper and he additionally offered to take me to a guest house where I could sleep and eat meals. The guest house was built in the traditional Thai style. It stood on stilts with bamboo floors and bare wood plank walls that surrounded a single large room that functioned as the living and sleeping quarters. I claimed my floor space on a blanket in a corner of the room beneath a mosquito net. Much of the remaining floor space was claimed by 6 friendly French tourists who spoke English.
Two of the French tourists were following the same Northwest circuit of Vietnam as me, but doing so on a motorcycle. Given the weather and the condition of the roads, I was impressed. I was even more impressed by the efficiency of their packing. Each of them wore the one shirt they had brought. Each morning, they wore the shirts in the shower to clean them. I felt embarrassed by the 7 shirts that I had packed. When I revealed this, I don't think that they would have been more surprised than if I'd announced that I was traveling with a vacuum cleaner.
Late in the afternoon, I admired the pastoral landscape. Beyond fish ponds and golden rice fields, precipitous green mountains bowed to enormous billowing cumulous clouds contrasted against a blue sky. I followed a path through the rice fields and witnessed the harvest. Women wearing conical straw hats to shield them from the sweltering sun waded in mud in a stooped position while using a sickle to cut the rice stalks in tidy rows. Once they filled their free hand with a bundle of stalks, they carried it over to a dilapidated wooden cart parked between paddies on dry ground. Once the cart was full, two men pushed and pulled it to the street, where the contents were dumped onto tarps. There, different women picked up bundles of rice stalks and shook them in a bamboo sifter to extract the rice kernels. The remnant stalks were spread on the street to dry as livestock feed.
I continued walking down a dirt road to a Thai village, where little children shouted hello, dogs barked, pigs squealed, and chickens crossed the road. Outside most of the stilt houses, hand-made crafts were displayed for sale-- primarily fabrics and clothes spun on manual looms that were in visible use around the village.
The setting sun bathed the entire landscape in magical golden light, except for the magenta thunderheads that rose over the mountains to the east. Rain imminently threatened from heavy charcoal clouds above us. Reverberating thunder claimed its domain as it rolled across the valley. Hurrying to beat the storm, a small boy coaxed his water buffalo to follow him by tugging the rope attached to its nose ring. The rain started with a short-lived sprinkle that rapidly transformed into a torrential downpour. We enjoyed the show from the safety of the guest house porch, until the thatched room started leaking, forcing us to retreat inside just as an earth-trembling lightning jolt cut the power. It had been many years since I had experienced such a gratifying meteorological experience.
The six French tourists, two Vietnamese tourists and me sat on the floor of the guest house, around tables set for dinner. Shots of traditional homemade rice alcohol initiated the meal. Although it tasted and felt like grain alcohol, I took my shot like a man and was thankful to be done with it. As soon as I set down my empty glass, it was refilled by our cheerful host, who called for everyone to have a 2nd round. Thai hosts do not take "no" for an answer, at least when it comes to shots of rice alcohol offered to men. By my 8th shot, I questioned whether I would be able to find my way to my bed. I did manage to find my way outside to the outside table, where one of the French women busted out an expensive bottle of vodka that she had brought with her from Russia. Everyone was once again obligated to drink. I think that the vodka must have hit me as soon as I hit my bed, because the next thing I knew was that it was morning.
10/5 Mai Chau, Vietnam
That morning, I showered with my shirt on. After breakfast, three of us began our 3-day trek: me; an English-speaking French Woman; and a Vietnamese guide who could speak almost no English. After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch at the house of a Thai minority family. The simple stilt house had just two rooms and bamboo floors with no furnishings, except for a large wall cabinet that showcased a TV. The family sat obediently on the floor in front of this altar, transfixed by a Vietnamese game show. They barely acknowledged our presence as our guide prepared our lunch in the kitchen. After lunch, blankets and pillows were laid on the floor for us, but 1:00pm seemed a bit early for bedtime. I gathered that Thai's like to nap.
That afternoon, we continued trekking on a dirt road to another Thai village. The unnerving screams of slaughtered pigs greeted us when we arrived at our house accommodations for the night. Dinner was served with the obligatory rice alcohol; I was glad that we weren't eating pork. While we dined, a gecko joined us, eating bugs attracted to the ceiling light. As with the other Thai houses, we ate and slept on the bamboo floor. Apart from the challenge of sleeping on the floor with a blanket for a mattress, roosters walked beneath us, cock-a-doodling throughout the night.
10/6 Mai Chau, Vietnam
We started our day at 7:30am; despite a lack of sleep, I was energized to be trekking to a Flower H'mong village. Our guide laid out our banana rations for the day, separating the three bunches. She pointed to each of the bunches in turn: "Good morning," "Good afternoon," "Good evening." I thanked her, but informed her that I the only bananas I intended to eat were for breakfast. Besides, I didn't need the extra weight. With great effort (at least for me), we ascended a steep, rocky, slippery trail through tropical rain forest up an interminable mountain. Apparently, switchback trails have not yet been invented in Vietnam. I struggled with every step and cursed myself for lugging such a heavy backpack. I should have packed just a single shirt. Bamboo as thick and tall as pine trees grew nearly parallel to the slope of the mountain. Drenched with sweat and muscles aching, I was surprised that I noticed the slight stinging sensation from the leech on my ankle. Of course, I had done so only after we had reached the top of the mountain. Needing my water bottle, I opened my daypack in front of my guide and found a bunch of bananas that she had secretly placed there that morning. We both laughed.
We passed through a remote Thai village with no electricity or streets before we started descending steeply. Just as I was thinking that we must be in the middle of nowhere, we emerged from the jungle at the main highway. We hiked along the highway for a few miles before taking a trail to the Flower H'mong village, which resided on a paved road that was accessible from the highway. Excited children tagged eagerly shouted, "Hello!" They were predominately wearing T-shirts, as were the adults. In contrast to the Thai villages that we had visited, most of the buildings were cement and the houses had more than two rooms. In the house of our host family, the main room featured a cabinet with a TV. I didn't matter;
one of the two Flower H'mong women from the bus entered, wearing indigenous clothes. She shyly indulged me in a photo.
As dinner cooked, the lead woman of the house sewed traditional garments, presumably to sell to tourists. Her daughter, about 14 years-old, tended to her own daughter, her nursed at her breast.
With no bathroom in the home (they used a pit toilet), I needed to shower at the outdoor village water source. The concrete cistern collected stream water, which it dispensed through a piece of hose draped over the side. While I was rinsing, the end of the hose rose above the water level, so the water ceased to flow. To siphon more water, I sucked on the end of the hose and got a mouthful. Thoughts of giardia and amoebic dysentery ran through my head the rest of the evening.
After a candlelit dinner (due to a power outage), it was time to sleep on a wooden bed, once again serenaded by dogs and roosters.
10/7 Mai Chau, Vietnam
I awoke free of giarida and amoebic dysentery. We walked to another Hmong village where all of the children tagged along, saying, "Hello," "Where are you from," and "What's your name." They giggled whenever we replied.
We walked back down to the highway, where we ate lunch at a dingy restaurant that more frequently functioned as a house. The family stared at the TV as the French woman and I both poked at the mystery meat on our plates. We could not ask our guide what it was, as she didn't really speak English. It tasted a bit like chicken, but none of the parts were recognizable as such. As we left, we noticed another puppy chained to the house.
Back on the highway, I flagged down a bus in less than two minutes. I clambered over the seats, squeezed between to other passengers, and held my backpack on my lap. Judging from the blaring music video, I knew that I was riding a luxury bus for the 3-hour journey to Son La.
From the map and brief description of Son La in my guide book, I had guessed it to be a small town with maybe a couple of thousand people. I knew that I could easily find a place to stay once I arrived. A Vietnamese woman on the bus started a conversation with me, telling me about a great hotel in Son La that I assumed she owned, or was otherwise owned by a friend or family member. Soon afterwards, the bus stopped in some big city and she asked me if I was going to get off. I realized that Son La was no small town and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with no idea where to go. The woman offered to walk me to the hotel; I reluctantly accepted and waited for an additional sales pitch. A man on a motorbike was waiting it the bus stop for her. The woman, Mien, introduced me to her husband, handed him her briefcase and informed him that she was going to walk me to a hotel. We exchanged simple and seemingly sincere conversation and arrived at the hotel 15 minutes later. Mien offered to wait while I checked into my room so that she could show me around Son La. Confused, I thought that this was either an elaborate scam by the world's best actor, or, more likely, I had just been fortunate to meet an incredibly generous person. I went with the odds and told her that I was interested in visiting minority villages. She offered to walk with me to one. With Mien wearing her nice work clothes and dress shoes, we walked 3 kilometers on an unpaved muddy road to a Thai Village. She asked me questions about my life and answered my questions about her. . She and her husband are both teachers. Although our communication prevented me from fully understanding her job, I believe she works with Thai and H'mong minorities over a large region, teaching them about health care. She referred to her clients as patients but clarified that she is not a doctor, but a teacher.
As we walked through the Thai village with its verdant rice fields, fish ponds, and stilt houses, Mien conversed with some of the people in Thai. Although she had never met any of these people, they all seemed like they were her friends. As we passed some villagers, Mien successfully talked some of them into letting me take their picturesno small feat with people noticeably camera shy. I took a picture of one house and Mien asked me if I wanted to go inside. Confused, I asked if she knew the owners and she replied that she didn't, but that it wouldn't be a problem. Amazed by her temerity, I follow Mien up the driveway, past a chained snarling dog. Mien knocked on the front door and a traditionally dressed woman answered. Mien introduced us to the woman and asked if we could come inside. Incredibly, the shy owner graciously let us into her home and invited us to sit on a couch. Mien served as a translator as we all sat politely in front of the ubiquitous TV cabinet. We conversed for a short while before I suggested that we should be on our way. With a little prodding, the woman let me take her photo.
I was nearly flabbergasted by this experience as we slogged onto the next village. I expressed my shock at inviting ourselves into a total stranger's living room to sit down and talk with them. Mien quizzically asked if this wasn't typical behavior in the USA. I explained to her that it wasn't and she responded by asking if I wanted to go into any other houses. Not wanting to push our luck, I declined the offer.
As night fell, Mien invited me to her house to have dinner with her family. I definitively concluded that either: 1) Mien was the most trusting person in the world; or 2) she was pulling one hell of a con job. Both conclusions seemed improbable, but once again I choose conclusion #1. Inside Mien's modest one-bedroom house, I met her 3-year-old daughter and 80-year-old mother-in-law. Her husband Suan and neighbor were also there. As Suan prepared dinner, I joined the 3-year-old who was watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on TV. Over dinner, I tried to explain that the actor on TV is the leader of my region and one of the most powerful men in the country. Dog notwithstanding, the meal resembled the others I'd had in Vietnam. Along with rice alcohol, it included rice, chicken, fish, tofu, spinach, and hot sauce. I passed on the chicken foot.
10/8 Son La, Vietnam
On the back of her motorbike, Mien took me to Son La's markets in the morning. I was awed by the number of Thais, and took many stealth photos. In addition to my interest in the Thais, I was fascinated by the goods for sale. At times, I couldn't tell whether I was in a supermarket or a pet store. There were fruits, vegetables, live chickens, live ducks, live pigs, live fish, live crabs, live shrimp, live rabbits, bags of live winged insects, wasp nests with live larva, and dogs (including a tethered puppy). . Any doubts about whether the dogs were being sold as pets or food were erased by the one that I saw butchered. The butcher tried to hide when I took her photo.
After we toured Son La's former French colonial prison, Mien and I hiked to cave, based upon a recommendation in my guide book. The book never mentioned that getting to the cave was a challenge. Mien gingerly held her purse as we hiked through bur weeds up a muddy hill on which we both slipped and fell. While I greatly appreciated Mien's hospitality, it was simply too much for me. I thanked her for her generosity and went go back to my hotel room. I declined her invitation to join her family for dinner that night. Regardless, because she was so kind to a stranger and trusting of others, she bolstered my faith in humanity.
Note: I caught one glimpse of some other Caucasian tourists in Son La.
10/9 Son La, Vietnam
A deaf mute pestered me at the bus stop, poking me, laughing at me, and holding his nose while making a repugnant gesture-- apparently in response to my body odor, even though I had showered and used deodorant just 15 minutes earlier. I couldn't decide whether the experience was annoying or entertaining, but it was definitely confusing.
The bus driver for the trip to Dien Bien Phu appeared to be thirteen. As always, I was the only foreigner. I climbed over bags in the aisle and took my seat in the back seat next to the crates of peeping chicks and the two H'mong girls puking into clear sandwich bags. The leather-skinned barefoot elderly lady next to me appeared to have not showered in some while, yet she covered her mouth and nose with her scarf when I sat down. I surmised from her reaction and that of the deaf mute that Vietnamese are not overly found of "Nivea for Men" deodorant.
I paid the fare collector the standard marked up fee for foreigners. The bus descended into a valley on a windy, bumpy dirt road, and passed an overturned truck on the side. Dust from the road filled the bus and I could hardly see the driver. The two colorfully dressed H'mong girls held their heads between their legs as they spit on the floor between puking sessions. I noticed that there was glitter on my seat. I felt as if I were in a hybrid mix of Burning Man and an ayahuasca ceremeny.
The road was scenic (e.g., rice fields), slow-going (due to recent landslides), and a bit harrowing. In between the landslide sections of the road, the 13-year-old road-warrior driver attempted to make up for lost time. This caused him to slam on the brakes. On one of these occasions, he narrowly avoided a collision with a truck on a blind curve; on another, he almost drove over a washed out bridge. On one sharp corner, the side of the bus hit the side of the mountain. We had thus far survived the journey to almost reach our destination when it started raining. Water pooled on the road, which began to turn to mud. If we had slid more than a few feet, we would have tumbled over the side of the mountain. But, as you're reading this passage, you already know the outcome.
As I put more distance between myself and Hanoi, I saw fewer foreign tourists (i.e, Caucasians). In Dien Bien Phu (famed for the final battle lost by the French to the Viet Minh), I encountered no foreigners. This would have been a good thing, but the downside of being off of the tourist trail was that the Vietnamese didn't speak English. My communication consisted primarily of gestures, rather than words. I wasn't really certain what I had ordered in the restaurant, but I was taken aback by the fish head that revealed itself by blocking the passage of my spoon into my bowl of soup. Technically, it was the left-half of a fish head. None of the four Vietnamese phrases that I had learned included, "Umm, excuse me. There appears to be a fish head in my soup&133; or rather the left half of a fish head."
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. At the hotel, the clerk kept my passport to "take to the police, because you are a foreigner." This has been the policy of every hotel in Vietnam. At 9:00pm each night, the hotels take foreign passports to the local police station, where they enter your information into a computer, presumably tracking your whereabouts.
10/10 Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
Knowing how found the Vietnamese are of "Nivea for Men" deodorant, I applied it liberally before boarding the bus to Lai Chau, hoping that I might get a seat to myself for the 5-hour journey. My strategy worked for most of the ride; almost all of the pairs of seats were filled but mine. Once again, I paid the arbitrarily higher rate for foreigners, but I didn't mind, given that I had two seats to myself.
The same cheesy song had played over the bus' speakers 6 or 7 consecutive times. I swore that if I heard it one more time, I would jump out of the window when we slowed to a reasonable speed. Luckily the CD started skipping, so the driver switched to playing a DVD of a Playboyesque beauty pageant. All of the bikini-clad models were white and I noticed that some of the bus passengers were looking at me, the only white passenger, apparently to see if I was enjoying it. I wasn't paying much attention, as I was busy trying to figure out how the miniscule man sitting directly behind me could generate such an impossibly large quantity of phlegm and snot. Perhaps more impressive than the quantity of his respiratory fluids was the volume at which he discharged them.
We passed a number of rural villages, where most of the people lived in wooden shacks. Incongruously, each of these dilapidated hovels had a satellite TV dish.
With the communication challenges growing with each mile from Hanoi, I relied increasingly on my guide book. Unfortunately, it had been grossly inaccurate on several occasions. Today's inaccuracy had the largest consequence. The book featured a simplified map of the city of Lai Chau, including a recommendation for a hotel in which I decided to stay. As I disembarked from the tour bus in Lai Chau (a 7-hour ride vs. the guide book's claim of 4 hours), I was swarmed by a mob of motorbike drivers, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English. I had considered walking to the hotel, but I hadn't spotted it as we drove through the city. I asked one of the drivers if he knew how to get to the hotel and I pointed at it's location on the map of Lai Chau in my book. He responded that he knew how to get there and he responded that he did. I stated that I would pay him "10," a common abbreviation for 10,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $.60) for the short ride. The problem is that the map was incorrectly labeled Lai Chau, when in reality it was a map of a small town about 40 kilometers away. I had expected the ride to take no more then 3 minutes, but after 10 minutes we had passed the outskirts of town with no further buildings in sight. I had read in my book that unlicensed taxis had on occasion kidnapped tourists, so I began to get a little nervous. I tapped the driver on the shoulder and told him to stop. Through convoluted gestures and broken English, he informed me that we were headed to the hotel, which he seemed to be claiming was 40 Km away. I thought that this was some type of scam, or at best miscommunication, so I directed him to turn back towards Lai Chau. He took me to a hotel in town and asked for his payment. I gave him the agreed-upon fare of 10,000 Dong, but he demanded $10. When I refused he became agitated and verbally abusive (I'm assuming, since he was speaking Vietnamese). He followed me to the hotel lobby and threw the 10,000 Dong note on the floor. After checking out an available room, I returned to the lobby to find him waiting to once again yell at me and follow me around. For a few seconds, I thought that a fist fight might ensue, but I thought better of it when I realized that I finally had an opportunity to use the phrase I had learned from, "Apocalypse Now," and I retired to my room.
10/11 Lai Chau, Vietnam
Armed with a piece of paper that spelled out contract terms in both English and Vietnamese, I hired a motorbike driver to drive me around the countryside. The scenery was simply exquisite. As elsewhere, there were irregularly shaped vertiginous mountains, but misting clouds danced around the elusive peaks. The valleys were terraced with bright yellow-green rice fields that were being harvested by traditionally dressed minorities in small groups, typically 2-6 teenagers. I initially tried to approach two different groups, but both times they fled as I got near&133; perhaps it was because of the camera dangling from my neck. A much more effective strategy was to ignore them while I shot photos of the landscape opposite them. This usually succeeded in drawing their attention to what I was doing, whereupon I would smile and say hello and they would typically respond with shy laughter and giggles. I would laugh with them and pull out my camera at which point they would usually duck for cover, but a couple of times I gained their timid consent.
Having bagged several keeper photos, I asked my driver to take me to the bus station in Lai Chau. En route, I noticed the apoplectic driver from the previous day, who shouted insults as we sped past him. Yes, it was time to leave Lai Chau.
As always, I was the only tourist and non-Vietnamese speaker aboard the non-tourist bus departing Lai Chau for Sapa. I was continually amazed at how my glaring inability to speak Vietnamese failed to deter people from talking at me. I usually smiled in response to their expositions and exhortations. But many times we communicated non-verbally, even sharing a few laughs, particularly on this bus trip, as I kept opening my window to take photos and the woman behind me would respond by barking at me to close it, at which point I would and we'd both laugh before repeating the play again.
Outdoor trash cans are rare in Vietnam. People just discard items whenever and wherever they are done using them, as long as it is outside. This seems particularly true on the buses, where people toss their trash out the window. On my tours of the countryside I came across several informal trash sites, where families had apparently been dumping their household waste for many years. By contrast, I'm usually walking around outdoors with my pockets full of trash, because I can't bear to litter. Mien, my friendly guide in Son La, found it strange that I carried an empty soda can around with me as we walked around. I told her that I was waiting to dispose of it properly, and she responded that she would take care of the situation. She took the can and gently stood it on the sidewalk.
The bus climbed the highest peaks in Vietnam; most of these giants were shrouded in mist. At this elevation, the air was considerably cooler. Aside from the road on which we traveled, the natural landscape showed little signs of human activity. I was surprised when we suddenly came upon the famed tourist town of Sapa. It actually felt good to be surrounded by tourists and English speakers, including the minority street vendors pushing their sewn handicrafts. These traditionally dressed Thai, Hmong, Zay, and Dao minorities seemed to outnumber tourists. Perhaps they had not adopted western fashions because they were modeling many of the items they had for sale. I marveled at colorful head wraps, hats, skirts, leggings, and jackets. Photo possibilities abounded, but I exercised discretion and restrained myself, primarily to avoid a sales pitch. I stealthily shot a few photos from my waist, but a young girl was onto me and demanded that I buy a bracelet from her in exchange for haven taken her photo.
Blessed with a plethora of restaurant and hotel choices, I splurged $25 for a well-appointed corner room with a balcony and a view of the mountains and valley from its two windowed walls. Walking the streets that evening, I was surprised when a H'mong woman asked me, "Smoke?" "Hash hish?"
10/12 Sapa, Vietnam
A traditionally dressed Black Hmong women offered to walk me for two hours to go to her village. Naturally, we negotiated a fee. As we began walking from Sapa, her friend joined us and the two of them chit-chatted in their native tongue for most of the hike. My conversations with the woman were limited, as almost every question I asked yielded one of the same four responses.
Me: "How far to your village?"
H'mong woman: "My village, H'mong village."
Me: "What is the name of your village?"
H'mong woman: "My village, H'mong people. This village Zay people."
Her weaving skills were more impressive than her English. While we walked down the rocky path to the valley, she wove strands of plant fibers into one long continuous thread. I had seen most of the Black H'mong in Sapa doing the same thing. Their hands were tinted dark blue (nearly black) from the plant-based dyes they used to color their clothes black, the origin of the name of their ethnicity.
During our walk, we came upon four Zay women from a neighboring village. They tried to sell me some of their woven crafts; when I declined the offer, one of them got resentful that I was employing the services of the H'mong. "These people H'mong, not Zay! You buy from Zay people."
As we got further from Sapa on our walk, I noticed that the dress of the minorities we encountered changed from traditional garments to modern Western apparel, such as t-shirts. Apparently, the traditional garments were for the benefits of the tourists, to whom the minorities were trying to sell their crafts, including traditional clothes.
The two H'mong women had been hiking with me for over 3 hours in hilly terrain. Overall, the scenery was not particularly good, partly due to the overcast skies, but mostly because the brightly colored rice paddies had recently been harvested, leaving stumpy stalks protruding from brown mud. Exhausted and drenched with sweat, the three of us finally reached our destination, where I would catch a motorbike back to Sapa. With theatrics approaching those of the dishonest motorbike driver in Lai Chau, they requested additional money due to the length of the hike and they additionally demanded that the entire amount be paid to each of the two of them. I declined. Thankfully, I have a signed a contract for a 4-day trek that starts tomorrow morning.
Power outages occur daily in Vietnam. Here in Sapa, the power has gone out no less than 6 times already today. I'm glad that my laptop can run on batteries.> Vietnam Part 2: Trekking, Groupies, and Pickpockets (2008-10-13)