Sunday, August 29, 2010

are you in?

It’s 8 am and the air is already thick with humidity leaving my skin unpleasantly sticky. The tiny female farm workers with triangular rice hats are quickly pacing the streets with their long bows over their shoulders and scale-like presentation of fruit and vegetables for sale. The street corners are packed with people sitting on tiny plastic stools hovering over their hot noodle soup breakfast. A swarm of motorcycles whiz past practically every second nearly taking a limb or two of mine with them.

Good morning Vietnam!

I can’t quite describe the excitement I felt my first day in Vietnam; it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, yet I felt completely comfortable. I was in a new world and eager to take on the roller coaster journey that is backpacking. With Mandy by my side, we awaited the arrival of our third partner in crime, Jimmy.

Before I begin to describe what we have seen and done, I need to (at least vaguely) describe the absurdity and brilliance that is our group. We’re all from the Bay Area originally, but all received drinking degrees form Chico State. And if you think I’m a loud ridiculous hot mess, you should see these two. I ain’t got nothing on them. So imagine three outrageous Americans who never travel without snacks, ipods and speakers, or miss a happy hour and I’m sure you’ll think Vietnam might not be able to handle us. I’m not so sure either.

Our first few days in the capital of Hanoi were slow while we waited for Jim. The standard aimless wandering, sorting through endless piles of the same souvenir crap, and tasting the local street fare. If anything could describe Southeast Asia (or South America for that matter) it’s this phrase: same same, but different. It may sound weird at first but there is so much truth to it for anyone who’s traveled here.

Basically, it means no matter how often you change location, seek out something unique to buy, or figure out what you want to eat, it’s all really the same from whatever you’re trying to distinguish it from. Whenever a vender decides to sell something, for some reason they set up shop directly next door to their competition and offer the exact same goods for the exact same price. Whether it’s purses or shoes, a noodle stand or bakery; no one bothers to differentiate themselves from their competitor. And even though restaurants boast their delicious and unique fare all over chalkboards out front, it’s pretty much the standard menu you’ll find all over the country. Sometimes neighbors even have literally the same exact menu. Even when you cross country borders, you’ll find pretty much the same stuff to buy and the same things to eat, really only vaguely different. I’m not saying each country and city isn’t at all unique. It’s just a phrase that encompasses the overall feeling foreigners get when they spend months criss-crossing all over the place.

Same same, but different.

(They even have a t-shirt with ‘same same’ on it. I would get it but it’s kind of ugly and while I’m holding out for something better along they way, I know it’ll be same same.)

This phrase also applies to tour operators and even though I know this, I still always scour cities for the best price and most trustworthy person. But in the end, it never makes a difference because they all work together and hire the same locals to do the grunt work of showing the tourists around.

First, it needs to be said that I hate tours. Well, not entirely. They’re convenient and mindless but really only acceptable in small doses. It’s often inevitable for the things I want to do most, which is what most tourists want to do most. I had gotten used to them in South America but like it less and less the more I do them. At least I have the main questions nailed down.

What’s included? What are the sleeping arrangements? How many meals do I get and are drinks included? And I’m a vegetarian. Will this be a problem? (They always say ‘of course not’ to the last question but what they mean to say is ‘fuck off, you’re not going to eat much’.)

The first tour we took here was a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda: a Buddhist temple nestled deep into a cave at the top of a mountain. It’s located in the countryside outside of Hanoi which is great for escaping the hustle and bustle of that dirty city. We had to drive a few hours only to clamber into a small boat rowed by a tiny local woman for another hour. The scenery was majestic though.

The wide river curved and bent a steady stream and tall, green mountains popped out of the ground and created a horizon designed for National Geographic. All the rowers I saw were petite women who covered their entire bodies in fabric to avoid the sun and topped their head with the quintessential cone shaped rice farmer hat.

Not only is Vietnam unfortunately hot and humid, but during monsoon season it’s particularly bad. And I swear this day was supremely worse than any other. All you had to do was sit in a boat and still you would sweat through everything you had on. My ankles even had beads of sweat sprouting out, something I didn’t know I could do.

After lunch we took the cheater’s way up to the top of the mountain with a cable car ride, mostly because of how ridiculously hot it was. Once up there, we walked around this marvelous site adjusting camera settings for the dark cave but inevitably having to settle for the mental picture. Without much time to waste, we were ushered down the mountain, this time Mandy and I deciding to walk (not bad at all really). The best part was running into a group of female monks all with their heads shaved and singing songs. Another mental picture.

The following day was the grand entrance of Jimmy: a loud-mouthed, over-the-top, extremely flamboyant gay guy who is far more effeminate than me. He has even been asked numerous times by locals here if he is a woman. (“Are you a madam?” or “”Are you a ladyboy?”) And there has even been a couple of times locals offered money to see his penis as evidence. You would think the chest hair is a dead giveaway but I guess they figured he was transitioning. Either that or they are used to some pretty hairy women. Eeek.

We saved our first couple of days together for catching up and abusing the cheap local beer. We signed up for our numerous tours and buses and even got hot stone massages. A very painful yet relaxing hour massage, the best part being we were all in the same room and Mandy couldn’t stop giggling. Seven dollars well spent.

Soon enough it was time to catch our night bus to Sapa where we were due for an overnight trekking trip to visit various hillside tribes. We were supposed to arrive at 5 am, but actually rolled into town at 10. We also had no idea what we had signed up for.

Sure there was some walking involved, but we took our entire backpacks thinking transportation would take us from point A to point B. When we got to our meeting spot, because of our lateness, we were hurried to gobble down our breakfast and brush our teeth. Jimmy and I couldn’t even manage to change out of our bus clothes. Ready to begin the day, we were informed to leave our packs as we were hiking 13 km (a little over 8 miles) and not returning for our things until the next day. Still in shock, I grabbed my toothbrush and a pair of underwear because that was all I could fit in my tiny purse. Had I known beforehand I would have rearranged my large pack to have my small backpack, with everything I needed, with me. All I could do though was laugh because no matter how much you read over the itinerary, you always seem to miss the key points.

As we set out for our adventure we were accompanied by a large entourage of hill tribe women and children. We were coached beforehand not to buy things from the children as it encourages them to ditch school and sell to tourists. Also, if at any point we decided to buy something from someone else not following us, the tag-alongs would proceed to dramatically cry and inflict supreme guilt. The moment we stepped out of the hotel, the flock of tiny women were upon us: “What is your name”, “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?”, “Will you buy from me?”. I assumed after a short walk they would dissipate. Boy was I wrong.

Soon enough we were outside of town and walking through the gorgeous countryside endlessly lined with rice farms. While the questions and short conversations did die down, they did not abandon us. Neigh, we were actually walking to their villages which means they were just going to walk home and guilt us into buying their useless crap. It was amusing at first, then annoying, but in the end utterly necessary.

Halfway through our first day it started to rain. Before the rain even started though, Mandy already managed the fall flat on her ass while standing still. She was in for a muddy and painful couple of days. The rain wasn’t bad at first, kind of annoying, but nothing unbearable. Eventually we ended the day at a home stay aka the upstairs open air loft jam packed with mattresses of a makeshift hostel. We had two couples on our journey with us and ended up staying with five other guests as well. As evening rolled into the night, and beers were accompanied by the free local firewater, we got to know each other pretty well. Even our guides, both local girls from the tribes, got involved. Eventually we passed out in our comfortable beds, but still in our hiking slash bus clothes. I was starting to get pretty damn dirty, even by my standards.

The next day we awoke to the sound of rain pouring down. Uh-oh. Rain or shine, this trek was to continue. My clothes really weren’t meant for hiking, let alone in straight downpour. Nonetheless, we set out with positive spirits and our helpful entourage. (While they eventually vacated the afternoon prior, they all magically reappeared in the morning. I wasn’t surprised at all really.)

Their presence was surprisingly necessary as the path had become incredibly muddy from the all-night rain. What was normally a slightly challenging walk became a treacherous hike of doom. I had abandoned my pathetic, broken umbrella for the use of all four limbs to maintain some stability and so I wouldn’t completely eat shit. Even if I did though, I wouldn’t have been half as bad as Mandy. While she had a few slips the day before, she was downright sliding down the mountain the second day. (Don’t ever wear Converse on a hike.)

These local hill tribe women, tiny, fragile, and a few with small babies on their backs, clambered to help us silly foreigners down the mountain. Personally, I had a woman with a 2 month old on her back, and umbrella in her hand, and cheap broken plastic sandals on her feet and she was far more stable than I was solo with my $100 Chacos and both hands free. I’d slide and her foot would be there to stop me from tumbling any further. She was a mountain of strength for which my clumsiness couldn’t stand a chance to overcome.

This is also how I discovered mudboarding: the next big thing in extreme sports. If you slide with intention implementing the same technique of snowboarding, it could be fun and challenging. Just prepare to get muddy.

While difficult and dirty, this was one of the best hikes I’ve done. By the time we made it to the huge waterfall, the crème-de-la-resistance, it had stopped raining and our hard work was rewarded with a well-earned view. By then, each helper woman from our entourage went to their clumsy foreigner to pester them to buy something. I had bought a bracelet the day before but needed to buy another, as there was nothing else I wanted and had to give something to this incredible woman, six years my junior.

After lunch we were given the luxury of a van ride back into town and finally were allotted time for the much needed shower. (It had been a solid 60 hours in the same clothes, sleeping and trekking included. Eww.) Before doing so we tipped our guide as she was better than we could have hoped for and felt she had much deserved it. It seems we were the only ones who did and what must have been a huge sum to her as she insisted on taking us to the market to give us a personal tour, even though her duty was over. She even bought us gifts, which was super endearing.

I’ll give a short background on our guide, Dao, mostly because I think she needs to be interviewed about her life and turn it into a book. (It’s very Amy Tan slash Oprah Book Club.) She claimed to be from one of the hill tribes, calling them her family, but also spoke of a husband she had run away from less than a year ago. Apparently she hated the family she had been forced to marry into and hated her life in China. “Everyday I dreamed of coming home to my family,” she said wistfully. One day, they had left her all alone and that’s when she escaped. Literally. She has been in hiding ever since and hopes they don’t find her. She is terribly afraid of what they might do to her, and her baby. That’s right, she has an 8 month old child we had the liberty of meeting for only a few moments. I didn’t ask too many involved questions as it wasn’t my place and it was obviously a time of her life that was painful. She speaks highly of the Vietnamese and Korean friends that helped her get across the border and start a new life. I assume the family she is with now is not of her blood, as it seems the first obvious place to look. I can only assume she was sold by her biological family. Was she beaten? Tortured? Forced into slave labor lifestyle? I don’t know; I only know her story would make a great plot for a book if she ever wanted to sell the rights. And she speaks wonderful English so I reckon she just might. (By the way, she is only 20 years old.)

By the evening we were back on another night bus returning us to Hanoi, this one far more miserable than the last. We arrived at 5 am, and had one day until our next tour. Ha Long Bay was our destination and the number one thing I wanted to see in all of Vietnam. Of course, tours are never what they seem but that story will have to wait. This is plenty of sweatiness and pestering old ladies for one blog.

“Why you no buy from me?!?!?”


  1. I want to know if you found random undies at the place they had you sleep at while hiking?? Haha. Sounds like a great experience so far, minus no showering for 2 days. Ugh. How did Jimmy do on the trek? I can't wait for the next update. And what an amazing storing about your guide.

  2. I loved this entry, not that I didn't enjoy the rest as I did but this one I really felt like I was in Vietnam. Your experiences are priceless. Can't wait for the next one.