Vietnam Part 2: Trekking, Groupies, and Pickpockets

Alright, so you didn't read my first Vietnam travelogue, but here's a chance to redeem yourself. Actually, it's quite easy, as I've mercifully provided the following summary.

Wild marijuana
Fear of amorous water buffalo
Ubiquitous TV's
Excessive rice wine consumption
Less excessive grasshopper consumption (facilitated by above)
Bushwhacking while trekking through mountainous terrain
Late night village construction parties
Persistent minority vendors
My 7-year-old nemesis
I'm ugly
Psychedelically-dressed Flower H'mong
Prostitute pickpockets
I'm returning home to my loving wife!

10/13 Sapa, Vietnam
Typical Fall weather had arrived in the mountains. On a overcast rainy morning, my guide Thuy and I rode on the back of motorbikes in the rain to start the first day of our 4-day trek of Sapa's minority villages. We spent the first 3 hours hiking up hill in a light rain, passing terraced rice paddies that had already been harvested, leaving aesthetically-challenged rice-stalk-stubbled mud. While the scenery was not photogenic, most of the people we encountered on the dirt road were traditionally dressed Black H'mong, most of whom were reluctant to let me take their photo. When I asked Thuy about this, he stated that they were concerned that their photos might appear in the newspaper. Given the general adversity to photos that I had encountered everywhere in Vietnam, I excepted this bizarre explanation as plausible as any other.

For the better top of the 3-hour hike to the top of the mountain, I struggled to keep keep pace with Thuy's Olympic pace. As he trekked most every day for his livelihood, he didn't think too much about the Herculean effort. I was soaked with sweat and breathing heavily when we finally arrived at a plateau near the top, where the natural landscape had replaced the rice paddies at lower elevations. Thuy lit up a cigarette. I declined his offer for one, which surprised him; he had assumed that I was a smoker because he deemed me to be considerably out of shape. (An aside, Thuy's calves are bigger than my thighs.) Enjoying a tranquil view of the misty mountain tops and natural splendor, we rested for a simple picnic lunch of jelly and cheese sandwiches. Until then, I had not even been aware of the existence of jelly and cheese sandwiches… perhaps because I typically don't eat dairy products. We primarily ate in silence, absorbing the sounds of nature… and of Thuy's ringing cell phone.

(Aside: As I'm typing this on my laptop in a train station in Lao Cai, a woman sitting next to me with a child keeps repeatedly tapping me on the arm and asking me questions in Vietnamese, despite the fact that I obviously have no idea what's she's saying.)

Our strenuous hiking yielded more than interactions with the Black H'mong. Thuy pointed out a 10-foot high wild plant that is commonly used by the H'mong to weave blankets. The blossoming marijuana plant was bursting with fragrant sticky buds. Thuy did not realize that this plant was used for other purposes in my country. After this botanical discovery, I keenly looked for more, but my optimistic sightings were always dashed by the realization that I had found yet more bamboo. Bamboo bore its own fruit; a man with a machete cut large stalks to collect the grubs inside. He would later fry the wriggling larvae as a savory side dish to complement his dinner.

A fearless 6-year old boy rode confidently on the back of a water buffalo twenty times his size. He jumped off to greet us and then proceeded to command the water buffalo and another to move forward by sharply yelling at them and chasing them with a stick. The two terrified buffalo bolted to escape him and ran straight towards me. I was definitely not as brave as the boy half my size; I momentarily thought that I was going to be trampled by the giant beasts. Thankfully, the buffalo ran past me and sought safety a considerable distance from the road. As Thuy and I slowly passed them, the two buffalo intently stared at us, their heads tracing our movement. Actually, the buffalo were staring specifically at me. When I stopped walking, their heads also stopped. When I walked back a few steps, they watched every one without breaking eye contact. When I asked Thuy about their fascination with me he said that they were attracted to the smell of the dairy products (i.e., jelly and cheese sandwich) in my sweat (Thuy was not sweating). I cautiously but quickly moved along, hoping that the large bull wasn't aroused by my provocative odor.

Descending into the Sapa Valley, I noticed that many houses had wire clothes lines supported by bamboo poles, but I never saw any clothes hanging from them. Thuy disabused me and informed me that these lines provided electricity. Nearly all of the houses in the minority villages around Sapa have them. Each house provides its own power by purchasing a $10 hydro-electric generator that is placed in the nearest stream; often times, bamboo is used as a conduit to redirect the water as needed. From each of these tiny generators, the electricity is carried to a house over the thin wires propped up by the bamboo poles.

Late in the afternoon, we had reached our destination for the night, a Black H'mong guesthouse in the Sapa Valley. As with my previous guesthouse experiences, the residents were more interested in their TV than in their guests. When it was turned on, the TV consumed most of the house's power and the house lights dimmed considerably. Along with a few village bystanders who watched from outside on the porch, the family was engrossed in a Chinese action movie that had voiceovers for all of the characters done by the same Vietnamese woman. I personally found it a bit strange to hear fierce bearded warriors speaking with a high-pitched woman's voice.

If it weren't for the copious quantities of rice wine served with dinner, I probably wouldn't have eaten the fried grass hoppers (caught by village children that day). By that point, I might have even eaten dog, as our host kept initiating, "just one more" round of shots that somehow always resulted in my glass being refilled when I wasn't looking. I can only count to 10 in Vietnamese; I lost count of the shots beyond this point.

10/14 Giang Ta Chai, Vietnam (near Sapa)
With no cock-a-doodling roosters, barking dogs, slamming doors, or honking cars the previous night, I had slept well, but I awoke to a major hangover. I nearly gagged at the sight and smell of the rice wine being served at breakfast. It was all that I could do to eat the rice served with bamboo shoots.

The parents of the woman in the guest house had gone to another village and taken their son with them to visit the family of a potential bride for him. At 27 years-of-age, he was considered too old to find a marriage partner locally, so the parents had resorted to shopping for a wife in another village. Thuy conjectured that the son was not in demand as a spouse because he was either: 1) lazy; or 2) ugly. Regardless of his assessment by the local women, the parents of the two potential lifelong partners had arranged for an introduction of the two during a day-long meeting of both families. By the end of the day, the parents of the daughter would decide whether she would marry the damaged goods offered by the other family. The woman may or may not have input into the decision-making process.

Thuy and I began the second day of trekking by crossing a small suspension bridge over a whitewater river. On the trail behind us, we looked back over the river towards our previous day's descent, where the sun illuminated a terraced valley dotted with houses of the Black H'mong. On the trail ahead of us, I spotted some ornery water buffalo and decided to take precautionary action by washing my sweaty t-shirt in a clear-flowing stream.

While I wasn't willing to pay people to take their photo, I did finally resort to buying souvenirs on the condition that the purchase included a photograph. The friendly Red Dao woman's husband had crafted the bracelet by hand. We soon passed the work house of another Red Dao woman, where recently harvested rice was drying in the sun on the porch. She showed us inside of the house, which was filled with manual rice harvesting tools, a handmade rifle for hunting small game, and dozens of bags of stored rice to last an entire year. Each of the bags appeared to weigh more than one l00 pounds. I noticed roughly the same quantity of rice storage in every house that we visited on our trek.

Further on, we encountered a Red Dao family harvesting their rice. A woman pumped a foot pedal that rotated a thresher to obtain the seeds from the bundles of rice stalks fed to it. This was a more technologically advanced approach than that used by most families. We typically witnessed families holding bundles of rice stalks with two hands and beating them over the edge of a wooden box to collect the seeds. However, many of the households we passed had automated the production of rice flour. In these ingenuous setups, stream water was diverted to fill a bucket affixed atop one end of a see-saw. Counter-balancing the bucket of water, a heavy wooden mallet was affixed to the bottom of the other side of the see-saw. The water in the bucket alternately filled and dumped as the relative see-saw weights changed, propelling the mallet to pulverize the rice seeds beneath it into flour every 10 seconds.

At another Red Dao house, a woman insisted that I give her money before taking any photos of her or her family. Thuy had brought some candy to give to the children, which had previously helped to get photos in similar situations. However, in this case, the woman accepted the candy for her children but still refused any photos. I was surprised by her recalcitrance. Another tourist with a camera exited her house and informed me that he had paid her to take photos. This led to a civil debate between me and the other tourist as to whether it was proper to give either money or candy in exchange for photos. I contemplated the issue for the rest of the day.

A recent landslide forced us to alter our course and Thuy used his machete to forge a trail through the mountainous jungle where none had previously existed. We jumped down muddy embankments, jumped over streams, and waded through briars. By the time we finally emerged at some rice paddies, I was covered with mud and bloody scratches. By contrast, Thuy looked he had just come fresh from church. Navigating rice paddies required good balancing skills as we walked along the 6-inch wide clay dams separating each of the muddy pits. Whereas Thuy briskly walked on the dams as if he were on a paved road, I plodded along as if I were on a tightrope. However, even Thuy's impressive ambulatory skills couldn't get him across the twisted wreckage of metal suspension bridge over a rain-swollen turgid river. We walked upstream to cross the river on a rickety old bamboo bridge that cracked in response to unwisely placed footsteps.

I had mixed feelings about emerging at a dirt road for the duration of our day's trek. It didn't feel quite as much like an exotic adventure-particularly when we walked past a motorbike dealership. .In surveying the landscape, it bore numerous unsightly red scars from roads under construction. These were being built in response to increased tourism (e.g., luxury hotels) and a massive hydro-electric dam that would displace several minority villages.

The guesthouse of our second day's trek resided in a minority village that seemed to me to be no different from any small town in any other third world country, particularly as the residents wore western clothes. With TV dominating the evening's interactions at the guesthouse, it didn't feel like much of a cultural experience. At dinner, I passed on the rice wine. A loudly ringing bell from somewhere in the village signified some type of village meeting, but the guesthouse residents stayed glued to the TV. We would later learn that the village meeting was called to announce that a "lucky time" had finally been chosen by a village elder for the entire community to begin the construction of a new house. (In Vietnam, momentous occasions such as weddings, construction of houses, and opening of businesses are performed on lucky dates and times that are chosen by soothsayers.) After dinner, we heard nearby drumming from somewhere in the village; it resumed at bedtime. Around midnight, a tirelessly barking dog began barking for a couple of hours before exchanging its nightshift with an egocentric rooster.

The "lucky" time chosen for the building of a house across the street was 3:30am. From the raucous cheering, it sounded as if the whole village, except us, were there. From the crescendos of cheers, I had thought that they were cheering for a cockfight. At 6:00 I reluctantly arose to witness whatever spectacle was happening. I was surprised to see close to 100 men constructing a house. The 3-story house frame was nearly complete, but for one half of the A-frame that was being pulled upright with ropes by men on the ground. These men on the ground were being directed by 4 men who balanced atop the A-frame, as it wildly pitched from side to side. Each time it appeared that it would topple over (seriously injuring or killing the four men), the audience let out a collective gasp and each time that it approached a vertical position they cheered. After several dramatic swings of the upside-down pendulum, the process was fine-tuned through trial-and-error and the A-frame was secured vertically.

10/15 Ban Ho, Vietnam
We started the day's trekking with some more bushwhacking and then alternately ascended and descended slippery wet clay trails that always followed the shortest vertical route, rather than zigzagging diagonally with switchbacks. (Once again, someone needs to introduce the concept of switchback trails to the Vietnamese.) After one particularly arduous ascent, we were rewarded with the aroma of wild guava, which tasted every bit as good as it smelled. Wild guava experiences notwithstanding, you may rationally conclude that I would have tired of all of this muddy, strenuous, and downright hazardous trekking. Instead, I was disheartened when we emerged at a paved road. Our original itinerary for the remainder of the day had called for us to follow the road to a village similar to the previous night. I protested and convinced Thuy to let me hire motorbikes to get us to a village that he knew of off the beaten path. This turned out to be a great move.

The 56-year-old matriarch of the Red Dao household warmly and sincerely welcomed us. With her unpretentious confidence and traditional attire (red headwrap, embroidered clothes, beads, necklaces, and other adornments) she emanated dignity. I was glad to see that the television was turned off. On the wall of the simple wood house were several pictures of her with notable figures, including the president of Vietnam. She had been recognized for her work educating Vietnam's minority groups on birth control and reproductive heath issues. Her volunteer work had also taken her to India, Thailand, and Laos in a country where the majority of citizens have never ventured beyond their own province. She was clearly a hard worker, within minutes of our arrival, she had finished a few tasks, including building a kitchen fire, feeding the pigs, and gathering vegetables from the garden.

All of us sat in the kitchen preparing dinner around a wood fire, over which a black tea kettle began to boil. (All of the minority house kitchens use open wood fires, but none have chimneys.) I was put to work stripping corn seeds from the cobs as food for the animals. The stripped cobs were used as fuel for the fire. Without being instructed to do so, the four of her grandchildren that were in the house sat down to help me. The oldest, a 10-year-old girl, wore totally traditional attire. Her two younger sisters mixed traditional attire with western clothes. The youngest grandchild, a 7-year-old boy, wore strictly western clothes with a baseball cap. He soon lost interest in the work and sat idly.

In Vietnam, boys are favored over girls, which was certainly the case with this Red Dao family. After tiring of sitting idly, the boy did something to hurt his sister, which caused her to cry hysterically for the next 15 minutes. She was sent away to another room while the boy sat without remorse. Rather than reprimand him, his grandfather ignored his grandson's behavior and played with him.

Other than the only grandson, nobody in the household seemed to get a free lunch. The dog protected the house from intruders and scared away monkeys and other wild animals from eating the fruits and vegetables in the garden. The crying kitten needed to learn to catch her food (i.e., mice) to satisfy her hunger. Although they didn't have to work, the fates of the chickens, ducks, and pigs were much worse.

Over a tasty dinner that included grilled ginger chicken and garlic spinach, we (the adults) discussed many issues with Thuy serving as a translator. (The children sat at their own table in another room.) We discussed the impact of Vietnam's opening to foreigners, standards of living, homelessness, education, and the future of the Red Dao culture. It was my first truly cultural exchange with a Vietnamese minority. As I conveyed to the matriarch, I was honored to be their guest. The next morning, the family gave me a small sewn pouch as a gift.

10/16 Red Dao village near Sapa, Vietnam
Walking along a dirt road on the final day of our trek, I stopped for a quick dip in the cold clear water beneath a small waterfall. Although I wore shorts, Thuy demurely turned his back to me for the duration. By contrast, a local man walking by stopped to sit and stare. It was if he were a an anthropological biologist taking notes on the bizarre behavior of a strange hominoid species. From my perspective, I found it curious that both times I had stopped to swim while trekking, I had drawn a voyeuristic audience. On the previous occasion, a man sat with his son to silently watch the entertainment. All they were missing was popcorn.

Throughout Vietnam, I've repeatedly been left with the impression that vendors feel entitled to receive a portion of the vastly perceived riches of foreign tourists. The prevailing belief seems to be that tourists have both the ability and obligation to share their fortunes. Everywhere I go, someone is trying to sell me something and they usually won't take "no" for an answer, until it's been firmly repeated many times, which often elicits an unwarranted hostile response. Now, I can't blame people for trying to sell things as their livelihood, but in Sapa I grew particularly tired of the following interaction with most vendors who approached me without my invitation.
"Where are you from?"
"What's your name?"
"Do you have brothers and sisters?"
"You buy from me, OK?"
"You buy from me later, OK?"
Basically, these vendors were trying to claim me as their territory and extract a promise for a purchase. On my first day in Sapa, one particularly driven 7-year-old girl would not relent from her sales pitch in nearly perfect English, until I repeatedly told her that I didn't need to purchase anything.

After returning from the Red Dao homestay, I was strolling down Sapa's main tourist street and stopped to look at one of the uniquely handmade tapestries offered for sale by one of the roaming minority street vendors. This particular tapestry happened to be predominantly green. Within seconds, I was surrounded by dozens of Black H'mong women, all pushing similar green tapestries in my face. I was totally overwhelmed and felt like I was surrounded by flesh eating zombies. I pleaded for them to back off and I scurried down the street with the frenzied mob following me, all shouting decreasing prices for their green-hued tapestries. It was unilateral haggling. I was focused on whether I could safely make it to my hotel, but I dejectedly concluded that if I later left the safety of the hotel, the blood-thirsty mob would pursue me with pitchforks and torches. I turned to bravely face my pursuers and quickly selected one of nearly two identical tapestries. I briefly addressed the rest of my disappointed followers, explaining that I could not fit another tapestry into my backpack, even if it were given to me. Finally, they relented to my pleas and I breathed a sigh of relief just 100-feet short of the safety of my hotel. Alas, I wasn't to get off that easily. The 7-year-old girl that I had dismissed upon my arrival 5 days before, ran up and angrily accosted me about my purchase.

"When I saw you 5 days ago, you said that you didn't need anything. Do you remember? Why did you tell me that?" "Is it because you think that I'm selling is rubbish?" At first I, found this somewhat amusing and tried to good-naturedly explain to her that I hadn't planned to buy anything; I had made a spontaneous purchase. She didn't buy this argument, and stepped in front of me to block me from walking away. Two of her 7-year-old friends joined her to provide back-up. I tried to appease her by giving her the pouch that had been gifted to me, but as she was selling identical pouches, this only further enraged her. "I don't want it! Now I hate you even more!" Both of her friends stared at me angrily and one tried to snatch the pouch from my hand. I expected her diminutive thugs to start kicking me in the shins. I jokingly stated, "Why don't we sit down over coffee and talk about this civilly?"
"You're dreaming!"
"Does this mean that you're no longer my friend?"

I turned to her friend and told her that I was potentially interested in buying a pouch from her.
"Even my older brother isn't this mean to me!" I started walking into my hotel and she made a face at me, sticking out her tongue. As I entered the lobby I heard her shout that she'd be waiting for me when I left the hotel. An hour later, I left my hotel and, true to her word, she was waiting for me. She continued her harangue as I walked to dinner. Afterwards, she followed me again and I offered her 10,000 Vietnamese Dong ($.60) if she could be polite to me for 10 minutes. "I don't want your 10,000 Vietnamese Dong, I want you to tell me why…."

10/17 Sapa, Vietnam
I slowly opened the door of my hotel, cautiously poked my head outside, and furtively looked right and left. The coast was clear; there was no sign of my 7-year-old nemesis. I dashed up the street to the travel company for my day's adventure.

Having crested the mountain range, my guide and I coasted on our motorbikes for over 30 minutes to wind our way downhill from the 2,400-meter summit. As we neared the river at valley floor, I stopped to admire the precipitous green peaks that flanked us. They reminded me of dragon's teeth. At this lower elevation, the air was considerably warmer and I shed my jacket. We started our engines and continued onto flatter, open terrain to a Zuut minority village.

The small rural village consisted of single-story thatched-roof mud huts and simple elevated wood homes (the area below the house serves as a shaded workspace). We asked permission to enter one of the wood houses and were invited to have tea in front of the TV by the patriarch. An in-progress embroidered fabric sat on a wooden loom. When I photographed it, four women were greatly amused, but they were less eager to have their own photos taken. On the advice of my guide, I facilitated the process by giving a handsome sum of $2 to the patriarch. It was worth it. In addition to a gold-covered tooth or two, Zuuts are famed for their beautifying blackened teeth.

At another Zuut house, I gave $2 to an elderly lady. Assessing my wealthy status, one of her granddaughters jokingly asked if I would marry her. At a third house, we found two girls weaving and my guide jokingly asked them if they wanted to marry me. They responded, "No, he's ugly." Apparently, they weren't the only ones that felt this way. In a neighboring town, a frightened baby girl stared at me like I was a monster. I made a silly face at her and she shrieked in terror, seeking refuge in her father's arms. Each time she peeked around him to see if I was still there, she resumed crying.

As darkness approached, we ran out of time to find a Black Dao village. We passed two traditionally-dressed Black Dao women on the street, so I stopped and asked their permission for photographs. One of them held up 3 fingers to indicate her price of 3,000 Dong and I paid the requested fee. It was a practice I had reluctantly come to accept.

The return journey to Sapa on motorbikes was quite an adventure. Riding around the blind hairpin mountain turns, you never knew what might be headed your way. More than once, oncoming trucks forced me to ride off of the road. After two hours of surviving these hairpin turns and muddy, unpaved roads we returned safely… well, I wasn't totally safe. My 7-year-old stalker once again accosted me to continue her rant. I told her that she must really like me, because she kept following me around. This infuriating remark had the intended effect and she finally stomped off with a, "F*ck you!"

10/18 Sapa, Vietnam
The bus descended the mountains from Sapa en route to Lao Cai, a bustling river city that borders China. While the rice terraces in the mountains around Sapa had already been harvested, the rice terraces in the lower elevations near Lao Cai were still vibrant shades of yellow. Peering with delight out the window, I fingered my camera, and salivated at the glorious scenery. At the bus station, I hired a motorbike to drive me into the mountains to finally capture the postcard rice-terrace photos that I had hoped to get in Sapa.

From Lao Cai, I caught a "local" bus for the 3-hour journey from to Bac Ha, famed for its Sunday market filled with Flower H'mong people and tourists. The bus was filled beyond capacity. People stood in the aisles and sat on sacks of potatoes on the floor. I had two people leaning heavily against me and I was pressed against a pile of backpacks. My knees were bent high, as my feet were elevated by one of the potato sacks. One foot was asleep, as somebody was sitting on it. Due to numerous landslides, the trip took nearly twice as long as planned. I thankfully passed the time with my MP3 player, after fashioning a make-shift ear-phone cushion with toilet paper. The ear-phone cushions from my ersatz E-bay earphones had fallen off repeatedly and this time one of them had successfully hidden among the sacks of potatoes. I was grateful that the cheap earphones had lasted until this late into my Vietnam travels and I planned to buy a real pair once I returned to the States.

The overburdened bus continually struggled to ascend the mountains en route to Bac Ha. Given my cramped position, a few times I contemplated jumping out the window and walking along side the bus uphill. At last we arrived in the tiny town of Bac Ha. The streets were nearly empty on this Saturday evening, the day before the week's big event. I spotted a few Flower H'mong wearing fluorescent embroidered clothes and I quickly disembarked in pursuit of their photos. Unfortunately, they were reluctant to let me take their photos, as were some others. I hoped to have better success at the market the next day.

It always takes me a few seconds to convert Vietnamese prices to American dollars, given the number of zeroes in the currency and the unusually good deals. The 120,000 Vietnamese Dong for my hotel room with a private balcony overlooking the market equated to an unbelievable $7.

10/19 Bac Ha, Vietnam
I awoke to the stirrings of the Bac Ha market. In the hazy early morning light, I could see from my balcony that the market was already a riot of colors. Fortunately, the busloads of daytripping tourists from Sapa had not yet arrived. Walking around the market, I saw only two other tourists; the bulk of the other people were Flower H'mong dressed in their best Sunday clothes. Most wore multiple layers of intricately embroidered fluorescent clothes, including waste wraps over long skirts and leggings. Vests with beaded day-glow tassles, revealed only the sleeves of underlying velvet shirts. Neon head scarves covered long black pony tails. They seem to be trying to outdo one another for the most flamboyant clothes. More practically, many carried straw baskets on their backs for their purchases, while others carried fluorescent swathed babies in slings.

The Flower H'mong's extraordinary embroidered handicrafts include brimmed sun hats. As soon as I saw one, I immediately set out on an obsessive quest to find the perfect psychedelic hat for wearing to sunny California music festivals. Moving from vendor, to vendor, I scrutinized each individually hand-made, unique hat until I had found the perfect one-actually, the perfect two, as each of these gems was a conversation piece to die for. With the other souvenirs that I had purchased, I had no where to put the hats, so I wore them both on my head. Not that I hadn't already stood out as a tourist with $ signs stamped all over my forehead, but now every hat vendor approached me, trying to add to my pile.

The Sunday market primarily sells clothes and fabrics, but it also sells produce, herbs, tobacco, rice wine, and meat. In the middle of the butchering area, a distressed puppy cried for help. Its heartless seller tightened the string around its neck and smacked it in response to its whimpering, causing the helpless dog to snarl and snap in self defense. It was the puppy's last act of desperation. The woman confined it to a tiny bamboo cage that constricted its movement, except for its head, which protruded from an opening in the top. The terrified puppy looked around pleadingly for help that did not come.

Having absorbed as much stimulation as I could handle, as well as my fill of photographs, I caught an early afternoon bus from Bac Ha back to Lao Cai, where I would catch an overnight train to Hanoi. Where there had recently been a landslide on the muddy road, our bus experienced a long delay, due to a truck stuck in the mud. After an hour, the "highway" construction workers returned from lunch and used a bulldozer to push the truck out of the mud. With our path cleared, we finally moved forward, only to get stuck ourselves. Despite our setbacks, we managed to get to the Lao Cai train station just in time to catch the overnight train to Hanoi.

Confusion reigned in the Lao Cai train station. The individual train cars of each train were run by different companies, some operated by the government, others privately. For the government-owned cars, tickets cold only be purchased the same day. Tickets to the private cars had to be purchased at least one day in advance. Wanting to leave Lao Cai as soon as possible, I bought the government's premier option, a "soft seat." Joining the herd of cattle, I navigated my way to the non-smoking "soft seat" car and through the haze of cigarette smoke found my "soft seat." Perhaps excepting interrogation chairs, I don't believe that a less comfortable seat could have been engineered. The wooden beads constituting the seat's back jabbed at my spine, as the fidgety passenger behind me kept pushing on them with his knees and feet. The "soft" area of the seat back failed to extend to the edges, such that a rectangular steel tube served as the headrest. Between the seat back and the vinyl seat cushion was a 4-inch gap that was perfectly positioned for swallowing a portion of your butt. I could only imagine how the cheaper "hard seats" were engineered; perhaps they added protruding nails to the "soft seats." Anyway, I threw my backpack and cherished hats onto the luggage rack and got the passenger near me to extinguish his cigarette (for which he was ridiculed by his friends for caving into the demands of an American). I took a sleeping pill in the hopes of catching a few winks before our 4:30am arrival in Hanoi.

The sleeping pill was largely effective; at least it was still potent when the train arrived at the Hanoi station in predawn darkness. In the chaotic departure, I groggily grabbed my backpack and wandered off of the train without my hats to be accosted by a motorbike driver. In my foggy haze, I had forgotten the street name for my hotel, but I had recalled the name of a street just two blocks away. The driver dropped me off at the requested street, but given my condition, my two-week absence, and the fact that the streets were dark, I was disoriented. There was nobody else in sight except a motorbike that mysteriously appeared with three women. They insisted in taking me somewhere, but I wasn't sure what they were talking about. I kept telling them that I didn't need their services, as I was just trying to find a hotel two blocks away. In broken English, they kept saying, "yes, hotel" and I angrily responded, no the "Prince Hotel." If you can take me there, then I will ride. "Yes, yes, yes." The driver was less than convincing; one of her accomplices was positioning me on the back of the bike and trying to get me to give my backpack to the driver. At this point, I started to come to my senses that these three women were more than interested in simply serving as overcharging drivers or hotel touts. I got off the back of the bike, whereupon all three women grabbed at me, insisting that I go with them. Increasingly sternly, I told them "No!" that I knew where I was going. They then insisted that they could perform other services, and were grabbing onto me as I continued walking, literally dragging them along. I recognized that they were trying to pickpocket me and I physically restrained two of them and debated freeing one of them to punch the third. (It's helpful to be a relatively large American male in these situations.) After it was clear that one of them was going to get decked, they backed off and I hastily departed down the dark street towards to my hotel, which I could now find in my awakened state. When I arrived, I realized that every one of my zipper pockets on my pants, my backpack, and fannypack had been opened. Apparently, they had tried to get my MP3 player, but had only succeeded in getting the crappy ear phones that I had intended to replace anyway.

10/20 Hanoi, Vietnam
Excluding tourists, I saw my first fat person in Vietnam today. Considering that I've seen tens of thousands of people, it doesn't seem that Vietnam suffers the same obesity crisis as the U.S. I also saw my first beggar today. Perhaps the Vietnamese are doing all right.

10/21 Hanoi, Vietnam
Today, I'm excited to fly back to the States… hopefully. I was supposed to depart tomorrow, but I couldn't wait to see my wife and my hotel was apparently able to change my flight. I'll know for sure in a few hours

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