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Friday, March 9, 2012

Worlds Collide

When we were in New Zealand, I immersed myself in local culture by purchasing the 2-CD set, Best of Crowded House.  They're a Kiwi band that had some hits in the late 80s and early 90s.  Lame, I know, but it was either that or get one of those massive Maori tattoos on my face.  The novelty of that would have worn off by the time we got to Wellington and would most likely have hindered my assimilation back into society when we returned home.  I can just imagine the strange looks I would have gotten at the checkout counter at the Kroger in Madeira.  Of course, I would have fit right in at Trader Joe's and possibly been offered an assistant manager's position on the spot.  My point of all this is that there is a song on the Crowded House disc that has stuck with us throughout the entire trip. It's called Weather With You, and talks about everywhere you go, you take the weather with you, which has been an important factor for us, and has influenced our time at various stops along the way.

The weather we took with us to the mountain village of Sa Pa, Vietnam was flawless.  We got to Sa Pa by taking an overnight train from Hanoi after spending two nights in that busy, frenetic city.  Grey skies and light rain dominated our first two days in Hanoi, but on our third day there, the sun began to shine.  The streets that were covered with mud started to dry out, making moving around the city much more pleasant. 

We took advantage of the improving conditions to take a stroll on the streets with which we were becoming more familiar.  A walk of about five blocks brought us to Hoan Kiem Lake, where a bridge, painted bright red, carried travelers across to an island which was home to an ancient temple.  The day we were there, it was being used by a bride as a backdrop for some photos.

Once inside the temple, we soaked in the somber yet hopeful atmosphere amid a few worshipers, including one group that was led by a young boy, probably around 8 years old, who sang a beautiful hymn. He appeared to have a severe affliction affecting his feet which were discolored in mottled purple tones.  His family was all there to support him. It was a very touching moment and we felt a bit uncomfortable with how to wander through but tried to send up our own prayers on his behalf.

After lunch at a café five stories above the frenzied street scene below, we got back to our hotel in time to catch the bus that would take us to the overnight train to Sa Pa.  The four of us knew we loved overnight train travel when in the fall of 2010 we took an overnight train from Paris to Venice and we hoped for a similar experience in Vietnam. 

The train station experience was a bit chaotic, as we tried to follow the transition from the tour bus to the train itself.  Once we had our tickets and started to head for the train, we followed a tall woman who held a paper aloft for all of us to see.  I was drafting her in my best Dale Earnhardt Junior move when suddenly Annie and the kids took off to the left, following a man in a white hat. He had snatched the train tickets out of her hands along with two of the rolling suitcases and strode across a couple of rail lines toward the coach that would carry us to Sa Pa.

I thought that perhaps he was part of the tour who was helping passengers get from the train station to the train itself.  He hustled our baggage into our compartment, tossing the suitcases under the bottom bunks, and the backpacks up in a storage area above the hallway we had just come in from.  It was when that process was finished that we realized this individual was an "entrepreneur".  I tried to give him 100,000 Vietnamese Dong, or the equivalent of $5 US, but he pointed to all four bunks and held out five fingers in a demonstrative and almost threatening manner.  Not wanting to have some sort of international incident erupt over a relatively small sum of money, I pulled out another 100,000 VND and he went on his way.  I mean, what was I going to do?  They won the war and all, and that carries some bargaining rights with it. 

The train compartment defined cozy, with bunks on both sides.  We settled in with some snacks and drinks, eventually turning the lights out, hoping to be rocked to sleep by the movement of the train as it headed toward the mountains to the north and west. 
The train pulled into the station at Lao Cai right around 6am, with the skies just starting to brighten.  Each of us held tight to our luggage and found the person from our hotel who had our names on a list and four spaces for us on a van.  Forty bumpy and winding minutes later, we arrived at the Sa Pa Summit Hotel, perched on a hill overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful village below.

We booked the tour to Sa Pa through our hotel in Hanoi, and while we were a bit skeptical about how things would go at first, that skepticism faded quickly when the desk clerk handed us keys to two rooms.  The rooms were at the end of the hall, each with two beds and both with great views from the balcony.  It would be the first time since we left Australia more than a week earlier that we wouldn't all be sleeping in the same room.  That would be a welcome change.

With our first trekking tour scheduled for a 9am meet up in the hotel lobby, we had about two hours to settle in, maybe grab some sleep and breakfast.  Arriving in the lobby at the appointed hour, we saw the space filled with about two dozen travelers and about a half-dozen young women dressed in the garb of the local Hmong tribe.   Vu, our guide, led us out of the hotel and down the hill toward the village of Cat Cat, a trek of only about three kilometers.  Cat Cat sits at the base of the tallest mountain in Indochina, Mount Fan Si Pan, which rises more than 3,100 meters or more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

The trek, while short in distance, took us back centuries in time.  Most of the homes we passed were huts made of bamboo, some with corrugated metal for roofs.  Few, if any, had running water, evidenced by the scene of people huddled over a bucket, brushing their teeth outside in the early morning sun.  Children, most just wearing shirts,  amused themselves with whatever they could find to play with, be it a pile of pebbles, or a small basket of flower petals.
We and the other trekkers were shadowed by two to three Hmong women at a time, asking us to buy some sort of trinket or purse from them.  The trek also took us by several huts where women, sitting in the shade, would say "come inside, looking around--you by something from me??".  Almost every single one we passed implored us to spend some of what was to them our foreign fortune on something they had to sell, using the exact same words each and every time.

The trek took us all the way down through the village to a waterfall, where we took a 15-minute break before starting the trek back up the hill.  Annie and Marley took the offer from one of the first motorbike drivers to come along, while Ben and I made it a little bit further before deciding to get a ride back to the hotel.  That would prove to be a good decision, as we rested up that afternoon for a bigger adventure the following day.
Dawn broke early the following morning, with the sun rising over the mountains to the southeast, providing a dramatic start to what would be one of our most memorable days of the entire trip.  We filled up on some breakfast at the hotel before meeting Vu again around 9am in the lobby.  Ahead of us was a 12-kilometer trek down the mountain, into her village, where we would have lunch prepared by the villagers.

The weather we had with us for our nearly seven and a half mile trek was once again perfect:  clear blue skies and temperatures in the upper 70s with little humidity.  While once again we had Vu all to ourselves, we had plenty of company of other trekkers who had stayed at the Sa Pa Summit.  They were in groups of six or more, as we all lumbered through the streets of Sa Pa with our guides and the Hmong women lurking nearby. 

That's our guide Vu on the left, with two Hmong women trailing along with us, hoping that at some point we would buy something from them.  Vu works as a guide for the tour operator that runs out of the Sa Pa Summit Hotel.  She has only spoken English for a little over a year, and has been working as a guide for about seven months or so.  She told me that she had learned her English strictly from tourists. 

The Vietnamese government opened up the region to tourism about eight or nine years ago, and Sa Pa has become a popular spot.  The area features dramatic terrain, with terraced rice paddies that cling to the mountainsides.

The first one-third or so of the trek was pretty tame by trekking standards.  We walked along a paved road, and stopped briefly at a shack where drinks could be purchased.  Vu and some of the other women also peeled some raw sugar cane and gave chunks of it to us to munch on.

The sugar that our teeth squeezed out of the fibrous canes was not only delicious, it gave us some extra energy for the trek.  Who needs a Snickers bar when you've got raw sugar?

Besides the herd of trekkers making the descent down the mountain, we ran into a more native type of herd.  Going up the road in the opposite direction were some water buffalo, completely uninterested in the humans passing them by. 

With their prominent and threatening horns, we gave them a wide berth.

Following that Close Encounter of the Horned Kind, our trek continued, with another stop about a half an hour later.  This was were the intensity of the trekking increased dramatically.  The guides took us off the paved road onto a dirt path that hugged the side of the mountain.

When I read the description of the 12-kilometer trek before we embarked from the hotel, I figured it was no big deal.  It would probably be like hiking Red Bird Hollow in Indian Hill a few times.  We had conquered that as a family with ease and I was confident that this trek, while a bit more challenging, was certainly within our hiking skill-set. 

That confidence waned when I saw trekkers in front of us gingerly step off the path onto a trail that I couldn't see due to the steep incline.  Marley was very reluctant at first, but as I looked down the path, I judged that staying to the left, as close to the hill as possible would be the best route.  One of the Hmong women took Marley's hand and helped guide her down the hill, while I glanced furtively to the right, looking for a soft landing should the ground give way.
It was the most challenging downhill trek I had ever made, as we carefully placed our feet in whatever indentation in the path we could find.  The descent grew a little easier as we got used to the process, and we made it to the bottom without incident or serious injury.  Looking back up from the bottom gave us all a sense of accomplishment and relief, and serious gratitude for the van that was going to drive us back up the hill to our hotel later that afternoon.
Once we got to the bottom of the steep grade, we made our way through a series of rice paddies instead of going across a bridge that had no railings and that our guide Vu say the local government felt was unsafe.
That crossing was our last major trekking challenge before we stopped for lunch in a village that was accessed by another, more traditional bridge.
Once safely to the other side, we grabbed a chair and sat down at tables with the other trekkers and waited for lunch to be served.
The Hmong women hustled among the tables, serving up some chicken, cabbage and rice.  I had asked Vu the day before about what would be served for lunch, and with that knowledge and knowing the limited palate of my daughter, we had bought some bread in one of the early portions of the trek that morning.  That kept Marley's hunger down, but we got a nice surprise when Vu emerged with a plate of french fries that gave Marley her first opportunity to use chopsticks for a food she liked.
Refueled by a locally prepared and served lunch, we got back out on the trail, following our guide and the Hmong women trying to get us, mainly Annie, to buy a bracelet or some other object from her.  Annie rewarded the woman's patience by purchasing a small purse that Marley wore, as well as some bracelets. 
I had my own shadow in the form of a tribal woman who I had made eye contact with earlier on in the trek.  I had made up some sort of excuse trying to brush her off, saying I had to eat lunch, maybe I would see her later blah, blah, blah, and I thought, honestly that she had gotten lost in the shuffle of all the trekkers, but after lunch, there she was, with her toothy grin, happy to see me again.  

As we continued on our trek, she asked me about my children and shared that she had five of her own, all of which still lived at home, including her married son and his wife and her parents.  I wasn't sure if this was true, or if she was trying to paint a portrait of how poor she was to this "rich" American in hopes that he would at least make a pity purchase.  She was actually pleasant company as we strolled along among the ramshackle buildings and pigs and ducks.  I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a bracelet from her that we would bring home to someone.  
The rest of the trek was a nice easy flat stroll through the village as we headed toward the pick up point.  We did acquire an important culinary piece of information along the way, noting a sign that let us know that we did not want to, anywhere in our travels in Vietnam, order the Thit Cho. 
Another bridge crossing brought us to a gathering area where the van would retrieve us and take us back to the friendly confines of our hotel.  That meant it was time to say so long to our guide Vu who made our two days of trekking a truly wonderful experience.
It's difficult to describe the impact that spending a day and a half among tribal women in the mountains of Northern Vietnam has on a family from the suburbs of Cincinnati.  We are from two completely different worlds, with diametrically different life experiences.  Here we were, more than 8000 miles from home, spending time with a woman who in her 20 or so years in this world that we were trying to circumnavigate had never been outside of her village and it's surroundings.  Initially, you would think we had nothing in common.  Yet after our time together we parted with the commonality of decency, friendship and respect.  I never ever felt as though she envied anything we had, even as we took out camera and iPhone to snap pictures of a world we would never know and send them back to a world she would never know. 
In our nearly three months on the road, Vietnam is the first place I've felt that is totally different from anything I've ever seen or experienced before.  The language, smells, food and people define "foreign".  But this place, this crazy, challenging, frustrating yet magical land has given Annie and Marley and Ben and me exactly what we wanted when we started planning this trip 14 months ago:  The chance to see another part of the world that could somehow give us an invaluable insight into lives that we would have only read about.  Our time with Vu and the women of the villages we got to walk through will hopefully give us a lot to ponder for a long long time.  I don't have the answers yet to the questions that this part of the visit are raising.  But I'm looking forward to searching for those answers not only during the remaining days we have here in Vietnam, but also as we continue to challenge ourselves and our comfort zones moving into more strange and wonderful places.


  1. Just curious, how many mornings have you woken up and done your bets Robin Williams "Good Morning Vietnam" wake up call? :)

  2. Chris, it's been tempting, believe me. We still have about a week to go in Vietnam and we are heading south tonight, which will bring us more into the area where the was was being fought. Maybe I'll do it then.