Monday, March 5, 2012

A Muddy, Misty Adventure in Northern Vietnam

Monica and I finally got our chance to visit a couple hilltribes in northern Vietnam. We wanted to do a similar trip while we were in Thailand or Laos, but we didn't have enough time. The tour that we booked included two overnight trains (one up to Lao Cai and one back to Hanoi), two hour-long shuttle bus rides, an overnight homestay with a family, all meals and the tour guide.

After disembarking the train at 5 a.m. at Lao Cai.

The shuttle bus to the hotel where we would eat breakfast.
Everyone's excited!
The view from the bus was gorgeous. We passed through layers of fog and every so often we'd spot something:


The dense, cold fog made everything quite mystical and atmospheric.

We later saw this structure without the lens of fog and it was pretty boring and ugly.

We're in Sapa!

Our tour guide spoke excellent English.

We trekked about eight hours on the first day, with a stop for lunch in the middle.

Many local women from the surrounding tribes joined us. They talked to us and really acted like they were interested in the conversations we were having. I knew somehow money was going to play a role in this exchange, but I just hadn't figured out how.

I asked why only the women went out trekking and one lady told me that the men stay at home to clean house and cook for the children when they get back from school. Interesting role reversal. Because of this, the women learn English, while the men don't.

The ground was wet and muddy, and we were ascending and descending big hills. The tribe ladies offered a helping hand, keeping us from sliding down the mountain. Our feet got pretty muddy.

The ladies carried handicrafts in their basket backpacks, but we didn't know that yet.

Very out of place.
She likes green.
The cutest little animal I've ever seen.
This photo shows how short these tribe ladies are. Monica is about 5'5" for scale. I have a theory that their growth might be stunted due to the way they package their babies up into a tight, nearly vacuum-sealed bundle when carrying them on their backs. The lady third from the right was my helper.

We walked by a school, and stopped in briefly for a glimpse of hilltribe schooling. The children were running around screaming and playing, not a teacher in sight. Supposedly it was the middle of a 20-minute break, but I doubt it.

Not one, but two Ho Chi Minh busts in the classroom.

One way to get kids' attention.

Things were a little grim around the corner. Many of the children had no pants or underwear on. Mind you, it was freezing outside.

We passed by a few local handicraft shops. Let me just admit that handicrafts are my weakness. All throughout this trip, I've been picking up the local crafts, calling it my new artifact collection. Most of the items are old and were made outside of the cities, in small villages disconnected from the 20th and 21st centuries. Textiles are my favorite. I love the intricate patterns created through embroidery, knitting and weaving. I've been thinking about turning my next room into a museum or something ... or at least devote one wall to some of the items I've collected. I find it amazing that I'm able to purchase the exact items from handicraft relic stores and tribe women that I see in museums, like the Vietnam Ethnology Museum. These handmade items are so special to me.

Our guide with her baby, and my helper lady.
Fire inside bamboo house with no chimney? No problem.
They LOVED Daniel. I guess he looked like moneybags to them.

We learned that at the end of the day, all the tribes women wanted was for you to buy their hidden crafts and crap. They swarm around you and make it very uncomfortable for you. Also, their prices are outrageous. They guilt you into buying something even if you don't like it because they helped you through the mud all day and they feel like they deserve something from you in return. The first day I bought a pair of earrings and a little zipper pouch. Everyone who you don't buy from has something to say:

"Why you buy from her and not me?"
"You make her happy. Me unhappy. You buy something from me because you buy from her."
"Buy something small. Buy something!"
"I 'member you. You 'member me. You say later. Later you buy something. 'Member?"
"You buy something again."

 I could go on and on ... it's really sad and difficult to turn them down, but there are hundreds of them and there's no possible way you could make them all happy. The second day I just decided to tip my helper lady instead of buying something from her, and I think she was kind of disappointed, but in the end glad she got something.

Where we slept, doubled-up on mattresses and blankets.
Over our heads.
The driveway (walkway).
Pigs' accommodation.

They fish out of this pond in front of their house.
The fishing net.
It was quite cold.

Pig that's been smoking for three months over the fire. The tail is still attached.
Day two of trekking was a little less foggy in areas, but even wetter and muddier than the day before.

This was the most tragic part of the trip for me. These three little girls saw us walk by and started pointing at their mouths, with their mouths wide open. I don't think they were starving, but they probably only get to eat rice and cabbage normally, and they know that tourists sometimes bring snacks with them. Fortunately, Monica had some biscuits to give them: two each.

We trekked through a bamboo forest, which was fun and convenient, because you could grab onto the bamboo to help you get through the mud without falling.

Then we had to cross a river. It was easier than it looks.

Bridge under repair.
Of course the tribe women were there to lend a helping hand.

Back in town...

Cool cat on motorbike.
I was freezing to the bone so I decided to get a steam bath--best idea ever!

Smoking tobacco out of a water pipe.
The bath was HOT and had a very nice aroma. Whatever they put in the water (I tried to ask what it was, but they didn't understand me) turned the water red. I sat in that tiny tub with my knees curled up against me for 30 wonderful minutes.

A hotel in Sapa.
We returned to Lao Cai to take the train back, and immediately had people begging to clean our shoes. I paid a guy around $1.50 to take the mud off mine, and Daniel paid about $1.00. There were so many people begging to clean our shoes. Once they took his shoes from him, they gave him slippers to wear in the meantime. Then another guy came up and offered to clean the slippers! You can't make this stuff up.