Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Vietnam Vignettes

We have been in Vietnam now for more than three weeks. Somehow there hasn't been any time to blog. My plan was to share the best of our experiences here. But there have been so many! I thought I would start at the end and work my way back to the beginning. Here is the first Vietnam Vignette.

I didn’t sleep a wink on the night train to Lai Cai, but incredible as it may seem, I was still very excited about the next three days we had planned. The train pulled into the station at 5:30 am as the town was just waking up to greet the daily crowd of sleep deprived tourists on their way to Sa Pa. We had been given a card with specific instructions to look for a person at the station with our name on their list, and not under any circumstances to go with anyone else. Doing as we were told, we fended off several taxi drivers promising to take us to our hotel and waited patiently for this mysterious person to arrive. Miraculously she soon did arrive and in a few short sentences between yawns she instructed us to wait in the station for the rest of the group to arrive. A short while later, we all piled into a minivan which took us to Sa Pa, a small town in Northern Vietnam where we would spend the next three days trekking through rice paddies to visit tribal villages, eat local food and view local handicrafts.

About an hour later we arrived at the Sa Pa Summit hotel, where a hot breakfast was waiting for us as well as facilities to have a quick shower. A young man at the tour desk gave us an outline of the three-day tour package, which began with a short trek to Cat Cat village right after breakfast.

Sitting outside the hotel were a group of young girls all dressed in traditional costume. They all had shiny long black hair done up in ponytails or wrapped in tight buns held there with combs of all kinds. As they chit chatted amongst themselves, giggling, I noticed that they were also embroidering. We soon found out that these girls would be our guides on our treks to their villages over the next three days.

This is Mang.

There were seven of us that set out with Mang, our tour guide. Very composed and speaking a very easy to understand English, we knew we were in good hands. I asked her if she had made her own clothes as well as the embroidery. Nodding her head enthusiastically, she quickly explained that they all had made their own clothes and that learning the traditional embroidery was something passed on from mother to daughter. I then asked if they all still wear the traditional costume, or if this was for the benefit of the tourists. She smiled and admitted that the young women in the village prefer to wear lighter clothes to work, as the traditional clothing is very heavy and hot. I liked her honesty and knew I would be learning a lot from her as we walked to the first village.

All of the tribal women walking with us through Sa Pa.

Some more of our helpers and guides.

As we walked through the town of Sa Pa on our way to Cat Cat, more and more beautiful young women dressed like Mang, began to join us. They would strike up a conversation with each of us, asking us the usual set of questions; Where are you from? Do you have children? How old are they? What is your name? They were all junior guides in training brushing up on their English and hoping of course that we would buy some small trinket from them at the end of our walk to their village. We started to feel a bit like Pied Pipers. As the tourists walked along, there was a larger and larger group of these girls following behind us.

Cat Cat Village

About three hours later, we arrived in Cat Cat Village. All along the way, were shops with their beautiful embroidery, with magnificent backdrops of terraced rice fields in all directions, as far as the eye can see. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking. And the lunch prepared by yet another group of traditionally dressed young women, was welcomed after several hours of walking. Our first day ended with a visit to a beautiful waterfall, a traditional dance performance and a pleasant walk back to our hotel. Marc, braver than I, took a scooter ride to a local waterfall in the afternoon. I went straight to our hotel room to catch up on missed sleep on the train.

Day two was a full day of trekking to two villages. This time we did not pass touristy shops filled with local embroidery and trinkets. Instead we walked through the rice fields, enjoying the scenery first hand. Mang greeted us after breakfast and let us know that another guide would be looking after us that day. We were truly saddened by the news, but she assured us that we would see her along the route and that Si, our new guide would take good care of us. And she was right.

Si also spoke English very well, and like Mang, was quite an independent young woman of 18. Still unmarried, she told me she was not ready to settle down. I asked her what age girls marry in her village and she said 18-20. But she was not ready to have babies yet. “Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked. She nodded yes. “Is he OK with waiting?” I pushed a bit further. “Yes” she said with confidence. “He is studying, and I am working”. We both smiled and I told her that was a great plan.

While we walked, Si explained that her family and all families in her village, were farmers. Rice and corn were the main crops. She further explained in answer to my endless questions, that each boy in the family would receive a parcel of land when he married. In her family there were four girls and two boys. Wow I thought. That is a big family. She explained that the girls were first to be born, and in all families, having a boy is really important. Among other things, one of the boys will be charged with looking after his parents when they are old. So after each girl was born, her mother kept trying until the first boy was born. “More than two boys and most families stop” she said. “My parents then began to worry that they would not have enough land to give to each son”, she clarified. Talking with her was fascinating. She was extremely open to my questions and I took the opportunity to learn about her culture.

Day two was more physically challenging, and the gaggle of elementary school aged, middle aged and elderly helpers travelling with us, proved invaluable in helping us over slippery and sometimes very steep downhill stretches of the trail. Clad in simple plastic slip on shoes, some with infants strapped to their backs, they managed to almost carry us down to the valley. We never saw any of them slip or fall. Not true for the rest of us! Clouds filled the sky and we were rained on for part of the day, turning the clay path to rivers of mud. Even stuck in a downpour, the scenery was so beautiful, that we were distracted from the difficulties of the journey.

We made it to the village where we would be spending the night in the late afternoon. Our home stay host greeted us with hot tea and Si showed us the two dormitory rooms we would be sharing for the night. Basic accommodations to be sure, but the experience of staying the night with a local family was a very special part of the trip. We were about 12 people plus our guides by the time everyone arrived, each person from a different part of the world. 

French Fries!

The woman of the family and our guides spent the rest of the afternoon chopping vegetables and preparing meats for our dinner which would be prepared over a bamboo burning stove. And what a feast it was! Our first course was a plate of steaming garlic French fries, which went well with the cold Tiger beer that was waiting in the icebox. Later the table was filled with plates of Vietnamese spring rolls, sautéed cabbage, stir-fried vegetables with chicken and Pork, stir-fried tofu and heaps of white rice. 

Good food, and cold beer are great ingredients for making a group of strangers into good friends in an instant. We had two Russians in the group, which always makes for a fun evening. Soon the bottle of rice wine hit the table and the party really got started.

The next morning our hosts served us hot crepes with bananas and honey, hot tea and coffee, before sending us on our way. The skies were really gray, so we all unpacked our rain gear and hoped for the best. Only six kilometers today to get to the last village on our itinerary, where we would have lunch and a bus ride back to the hotel in Sa Pa. It rained hard most of the way and the trail was mostly straight down or straight up. I was very happy I asked for a bamboo walking stick before leaving the home stay. Even with my pole, I still needed the help of two local girls to navigate much of the trail. Not everyone was well prepared for the turn in the weather. Even Marc and I with our good hiking boots and rain gear, were muddy and very wet by the time we hit the village. We were all carrying small packs with our gear and clothes for the home stay, so being wet, meant everything was wet!

We were served hot Pho (Vietnamese traditional noodle soup) for lunch, which was the perfect choice for our bedraggled wet and muddy group. Our helpers turned into trinket hawkers the minute we sat down for lunch, with their quiet voices repeating a simple mantra over and over again, “buy something small from me? You happy, I happy”. The buzz of this melody permeated through the fog over terraced rice fields and the steam rising from our bowls of hot noodle soup. I rolled up some Dong (Vietnamese currency) and placed it in the hands of each of the three helpers that brought Marc and I safely to the end of the trek that day. I told them politely to save the trinkets for someone else. No room in our packs. After a while they accepted and moved on to the next people they may have more luck with, selling their pencil cases and change purses and little bits of ribbon to tie around your wrist.

Our saviours!

Noodle soup

Soon our bus arrived. Tired and wet, we all boarded and sat quietly for the hour ride back to the Sa Pa Summit Hotel, where hot showers and dinner would be provided before our ride back to the train station for the overnight train back to Hanoi. The 4 night 3 day Sa Pa adventure had been, as we expected it would be, one of the highlights of our four weeks in Vietnam. Like our trek in Nepal, the scenery took your breath away. And also like our experience in Nepal, the challenge of the journey and the adrenalin rush of finishing in one piece was exhilarating. We slept rather soundly on the night train back to Hanoi, where another adventure awaited us.


  1. This sounds AMAZING. I would love to have done this trip, even in the rain.

    1. The rain was actually a great part of the trip. It made it even more exciting! Our helpers were so adorable and so capable.