Thoroughly impressed by Hoi An’s throwback to French colonialism and its equally intriguing culinary scene we were easily falling in love with Vietnam’s unique offerings, but nothing prepared us for what was to come. Hanoi’s hectic and chaotic pace is talked about by travelers across the globe, and after hearing the horror stories we braced ourselves as our flight came to a screeching halt. In stark contrast to what we expected, the calmness and lack of concern for time was reflected even in the transportation industry. As we walked from the airport to one of several waiting buses, we found nothing more than several Vietnamese men sleeping inside. They moaned and groaned as we climbed aboard, but instead of making an effort to care, they resumed lounging among the bus seats. After waiting longer than we imagined, we scrambled off the bus and sprinted to another nearby that looked as though it was readying to depart.
Once in Hanoi, we made pitstops at the sites you would expect – the “Hanoi Hilton” where only a small portion of the building remains intact as a museum and John McCain’s old flight suit hangs on the walls and the old French Quarter, which equates to a large swath of Hanoi’s downtown district. The city is beautiful; its old french architecture holds within the homes of millions of hard working Vietnamese. Its darkened side streets scare most tourists away, but Hanoi’s “dangerous” persona doesn’t have a place in reality. Even the dirty, jammed train tracks that run through the heart of the city are intriguing, and the locals, despite their disinterested appearance and lack of English, are always willing to help with a series of points and nods.
While our stay in Hanoi didn’t leave us extended time to explore – it didn’t matter. The best Vietnam has to offer lies just outside of the capital. So, we consolidated a couple days worth of clothes, stashed our big bags at the Hilton and hailed a cab to the nearby train station.
The cab zipped through the open streets of Hanoi as darkness fell across the city bringing certain areas to life. Behind the train station was the perfect example. Here lights from a sea of stalls twinkled as they hovered above bananas, bread, tubes of Pringles potato chips, cokes and other travel-friendly international snacks.
In stark contrast to the glow outside, a walk through the dimly lit, old train station revealed a swath of dark train tracks just beyond its doors. Without notice a small, squirrely little man snatched our tickets, pointed and headed off across the tracks. Gingerly stepping from tie to rail and back to tie, we made our way across the tracks and clamored into a car as the little man dashed quickly ahead. We found him again standing proudly outside our cabin pointing to the beds inside.
The second class sleeper train to Sapa, Vietnam was an expanse of individual cabins, each with four bunks, two on either side surrounding a small table with two small, dim lamps mounted to the wall. Now, the waiting game began as we sat patiently hoping no one else would be assigned our cabin. Just moments from departure a middle-aged man poked his head through the door. “I think we’re with you,” he said in a thick accent, the wrinkles on his dark, bald head scrunching with his smile. “We’re glad it’s you,” he said as he made himself comfortable in the lower bunk across from ours. “We wanted first class tickets, but they were sold out. We were worried about who we’d have to sleep with in here,” he chuckled.
The train groaned to a start as the Israeli man and his homely, grey-haired wife detailed their lives and doted on us for chasing our dreams. After years working for Motorola, the self described corporate monkey recently left his job to pursue his dream of teaching math. “Do something each day that you can do better the next,” he said. “And then..you will be successful.” It was strange. It seemingly only took him moments to sense my uneasiness about my future. “I don’t know much about you,” he said. “But, look at what you are doing now. You will find another job if you are confident. You must be confident in your abilities.” It was a strange conversation, especially to be having with a complete stranger, yet it was somehow comforting. With an oddly renewed sense of purpose, I clamored up to the top bunk to sleep.
We awoke to a small Vietnamese man yelling something indiscernible to us as he made his way down the row of cabins knocking on each door. I pulled back the thin, red curtain and peered out the window to find rolling green hills ripe with tropical growth and dotted with small, run-down homes. The train came to a screeching halt and madness ensued. Drivers frantically tried to persuade passengers to pay them for the hour-long drive through Vietnam’s winding mountain roads to the small town of Sapa.
We pushed through the hoards of people to find a man holding a wrinkled piece of paper with our name on it and proceeded to his van. As the driver navigated the narrow switchbacks and the van climbed higher, my jaw dropped. The towering mountains carved with rice paddies were a vibrant green against the dark clouds settling into the valley. Alongside the road native women, their traditional dark blue clothing offset by the colorful patters sewn into the sleeves, sat perched behind baskets full of corn and roots for sale. “This can’t be real,” I remarked to Dan as the van continued upward.
I was wrong. Not only is this real – this seemingly untouched life is thriving in mountains of Vietnam. A later walk through the heart of the small town of Sapa revealed hundreds of Hmong peoples each dressed in their varying ethnic attire. The cool mountain air was a refreshing change from the oppressive heat of Vietnam’s flatlands, and the surreal mountainous backdrop left us feeling as if we’d discovered a town untouched by time. While that’s not quite the case, Sapa certainly is as unique a place as imaginable. Unfortunately, many tourists feel the same and Sapa’s once simplistic, agrarian way of life now revolves around tourism, and more importantly, tourist’s money. Cash, once of little consequence, is now something many ethic Hmong women strive to get their hands on.
The streets of Sapa are lined with trekking shops – their knock off North Face backpacks and jackets burst from inside the small shops and hang for display in Sapa’s streets. Small restaurants vying for tourist money tout their pizza and pasta selections, a far cry from traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Still, each day dozens of ethnic Hmong women fill these tourist-laden streets, but instead of trading for goods or purchasing basics at the market, they tout their handicrafts to travelers who pay a pretty penny for their handmade works of art. The Sapa market remains the center of activity as some women continue to gather to sell their goods and Vietnamese (many Hmong tell us they don’t consider themselves Vietnamese) sell fresh veggies, herbs, spices, raw chickens, water buffalo, fish and, yes, even grubs.
Feeling truly like a foreigner in a foreign land, we dodged into a French cafe for dinner and walked back up the mountain to our small hotel excited by the promise of tomorrow.
The rain clouds bubbled overhead as we waited patiently for our guide Little Zao. In near-perfect English, the petite, young girl greeted us warmly as she walked up the hotel steps, her long black hair, tied back with a hot pink tie, cascaded down her dark blue traditional clothing. We unfurled a makeshift map as Little Zao pointed to the villages we would see. “Hard or easy?” She asked innocently. “Less tourists,” we answered. “Hard,” she responded with a smile as she set off toward one of several trails leading from town.
As we walked past the market and into the rice fields, the vibrant green blades waving gently in breeze of the darkening sky, two more Black Hmong women joined us on our trek. We knew the drill, and honestly didn’t mind. The two women hardly spoke English, but they tried their best to exchange the basics before walking on in silence. Their plan was to follow us all the way to their villages where they would try to sell us some of their ethnic handicrafts. It’s something that at this point in our travels would most likely frustrate us, but their determination to make even a few bucks was unwavering, and we respected them for it. In the end, they hiked 12 kilometers with us to sell nothing more than a little purse and headband we bought out of pity.
We made our way down the steep slope of the mountain dipping into the dark valley. The rows of rice paddies cut deeply into the mountainside creating dreamlike scenery I only imagined I’d ever see in someone else’s travel photos. I couldn’t tell if I was more taken aback by the outstanding views or the three little ladies plodding through the mud in their rubber boots ahead of us.
We waltzed past an old rice cracking device – a simple wooden contraption that would fill with water from a nearby stream dropping a counterweight and releasing its water and weight as a heavy rock tied to one end pounded the rice beneath. The ingenuity and simplicity of the device amazed me. Never in a million years would something like this still be used in the United States, instead a stainless steel contraption would be sold as ‘the’ device to cut your workload in half.
As we wandered on, we left the trail and instead walked on nothing more than the narrow mounds separating rice patties while a gentile rain began to fall. Soon mud caked our shoes rendering them useless in their efforts to grip the soft earth below. At each precarious point, two of the Hmong women would reach out to steady me, their dry hands discolored by the indigo used to make their traditional dress. As we marched on, Little Zao (pronounced Yao) detailed for us the months, even a full year, it can take to make each article of their clothing. First, the material, which is made from hemp grown in the fields, is dyed using the deep blue color produced by the indigo plant before the sleeves, collars and belts are hand stitched. It’s a tradition and a technique passed down through generations, but Little Zao says there seems to be a gap as only the elder women still retain the knowledge of how to create the most intricate traditional dress by hand.
As Zao folds the colorful stitching of her belt back around her waist, her eyes dart off to the mountainside above. Within moments she disappears into the thick, wild shrubbery and returns with several bunches of a bizarre wild bushes holding dozen of deep purple berries hanging from the stems. “My favorite,” she says with a grin. “I wait all year for them to be in season – try them!” She shoved the berries toward us as I hesitantly reached out and plucked one from within the green leaves. “What are they called,” I asked. “There isn’t a name for them in your language,” she said as searched for a way to describe them. “Mountain berries,” she finally said with a smile.
The grainy, sugar-like texture filled my mouth, but the berries seemed to lack the sweetness I was expecting. “Eat more,” she said as she plucked the berries from the stem and popped them into her mouth. I grabbed a couple more and munched away as we continued our walk, which was more like a balancing act along the rice paddy walls.
As we entered our first village, we seemingly reconnected with the “easy” tourist trail. Like ants marching down into the valley, tourists, clad in ponchos and mud-caked flip flops, made their way down the hill. To my dismay, the mud covering my feet and legs was nothing compared to the filth covering these tourists. The older adults had obviously fallen several times resulting in a dark brown mud caking their legs and butts. As we plodded onward, the constant trampling of tourists made the sticky situation even worse. Our feet sank deep into the mud, creating vacuum that pulled your feet into the wet soil. As we pulled our legs from the thick, soupy earth – it was as if we were lifting the weight of drying concrete.
We plodded on and into Little Zao’s hometown. Here dozens of Black Hmong and a few Red Zao women swarmed tourists, each one showing their hand-stitched hemp bags, headbands, blankets and pillow coverings. While it feels like an alternate universe, it’s a little disheartening to see. Little Zao explains that in their culture, the women earn the family money while the men stay home to tend to the house and often the crops. But to see the chaos tourism has created, even in these remote villages, is a little unnerving. Women literally throw their goods into your hands one after another hoping you’ll choose theirs. Unfortunately, there is no doubt many of the Black Hmong women go days without ever selling a single item.
We stop for lunch at a small concrete building that looks as though it was never fully finished. A wiry, eccentric French fellow, seemingly out of place in this time warp, served his plates of piping hot fried noodles and a couple of beers. The two ethnic women who trekked miles with promptly laid out their goods for us to sort through as we eat. We settled on something small from each of them not because we wanted a souvenir but as a token of respect and thanks for their dedication. Full and reenergized, we continued. Little Zao led us away from the lines of tourists walking from the village and along a meandering walkway through a sea of rice fields dotted with small homes made only from what nature was able to provide and a few modern amenities like tin roofing. The homes are modest to say the least, but fitting for this life that is lightyears away from the modern world the rest of us live in.
Little Zao, much more open now that our two followers are gone, detailed for us the Hmong lifestyle including the importance and roles of family. She’s only 18 yet all of her friends are married, many of them already mothers to several children. But, little Zao doesn’t want to marry, and I garner from her comments here and there that she has bigger plans – something I could image that makes her the target of jealousy and envy within the village. Still, my heart goes out to her. She is incredibly talented, smart and witty, yet she will never realize her full potential in life. Yes, she will achieve what she is meant to within her village and even more within her world, but she remains limited solely because of where she was born.
As we continue through the fields and the remaining villages on our trek, Little Zao yaps about harvest time revealing her love for the back-breaking work of pulling rice from the thick mud. “I laugh with my friends,” she said as bent over and pulled a blade of the rice plant from the soft earth. “Here, it’s sweet,” she said as she opened the blade to reveal undeveloped rice. We popped the small buds into our mouth. Surprised by the sweet, watery flavor from such a small portion of the plant, we grabbed another bud before tossing the blade back to the ground in which we plucked it from.
Nearly twelve kilometers later we stopped at a small bridge outside of yet another tiny village. Here, Little Zao’s father and cousin were waiting patiently with their motorbikes to shuttle us back to the start. I latched my helmet and climbed aboard, clinging tightly to Little Zao’s dad as he navigated the narrow, washed-out roadway. I couldn’t help but smile. Never in my life would I have imagined a scene like this. We rose from the valley floor past groups of Hmong women selling freshly picked veggies on the road and zig zagged through herds of goats wandering aimlessly along. All the while I held tightly to a stranger, whose life varied so vastly from my own, yet our simple exchanges were global. A nod here, a smile or a chuckle there and we were able to communicate about commonalities. As he dropped us in front of our hotel and I reached to return my helmet to his seat, I couldn’t help myself… “You have a wonderful daughter,” I said. “She’s very smart.” A smile crept over the little man’s face letting me know he understood. “Thank you,” he said kindly. He knew I was right, and he, like any father, was proud.
The next day Dan and I rented a scooter of our own to explore the villages on the outer fringes of the Sapa region. Each seemingly similar to the last; tiny, clapboard buildings used as homes and groups of ethnic minorities clustered alongside the roadway selling food to each other or handicrafts to tourists. The only difference were the people. One village was predominantly home to members of the Red Zao tribe, discernible by their red headdress and slight variations in their hemp clothing, another village was home to varying groups of Hmong.
Our scooter wound up the narrow, snaking highway through the fog and rain past beautiful cascading waterfalls and fields of planted vegetables. Women with babies strapped securely to their backs marched through the vibrant green hills, and young children drove small herds of water buffalo along the dirt roads. I never imagined, tucked high in the mountains of Vietnam, I would find such a surreal lifestyle both strengthened and weakened by tourists passing through.
Another 9-hour, overnight train ride launched us not only hundreds of miles away, but lightyears ahead as we found ourselves back in the chaotic city of Hanoi with its modern restaurants and shops. Again, we wouldn’t stay long..only hours in fact, and instead we stashed our oversized bags at the Hilton Garden Inn and jumped into a tour bus for the two hour drive to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
As the oversized van jumped and jerked its way through Hanoi’s endless traffic, our guide began to detail for us life in Vietnam. After nearly two weeks in the country, it was the first time someone openly addressed the constraints of living in Vietnam’s communist society. SuSu, a wonderful and energetic man, touted Vietnam as communist only by definition of its single-party political system, but he held high regard for what he called its open and capitalist economy. Still, he shook his head at the country’s own child policies that limit the number of children commoners may have, and expressed disgust for high-ranking officials who buy their jobs with blackmail or bribes. He only touched slightly on the Vietnam War, and surprisingly not in a negative manner. Instead, he expanded upon President Bill Clinton’s efforts to reenergize relations with Vietnam essentially leading to the country’s now open tourism and economic policies. Since Clinton’s peace offering as President, hundreds of thousands of travelers have flooded into the country to revel in Vietnam’s cultural and natural wonders. And, we were bound for just that – one of Vietnam’s natural wonders.
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of thousands of limestone karsts that shoot into the sky from the deep green waters below. The best way to explore the foreign land masses is with a peaceful cruise through the calm waters on a traditional Vietnamese junk boat. When Dan first popped the question, “You want to spend the night on a junk boat?”, I was leery. I imagined us floating aimlessly in the ocean in a poorly pieced together boat with a gruff Vietnamese captain at the helm. “The problem is some of the cheap ones can be dangerous,” he added. “Why not,” I answered nonchalantly. At this point in our travels, I’ve seemingly thrown caution to the wind and realized a true gem of travel planning: when “traditional travelers” steer you away from something, doing it generally results in one of the best, most memorable adventures.
Still, safety is key and keeping in mind the cheaper junk boats don’t have the best reputations, we found a junk cruise seemingly caught between the abundant luxury liners and backpacker party ships.
We boarded the boat, settling in to our surprisingly spacious and modern room, and set sail. The boat cut through the still waters as it gracefully glided past the limestone towers shrouded in thick green shrubbery. After a quick lunch, and only an hour on the boat, we climbed into a kayak and headed toward a small, generations-old fishing village floating in the heart of Ha Long Bay.
As Dan and I pushed our paddles through the water, we glided in front of homes perched atop air-filled containers and styrofoam balancing them precariously above the water and past dozens of fishing traps lying just beneath the small, worn homes.
We paddled our way through a small, cave-like opening in a nearby karst and floated into a lagoon. The contrast of the light and dark streaks in the limestone, the dark green waters and the grey, cloudy sky created a scene like none other. For nearly an hour, we floated through the karsts and the small village witnessing, yet again, a life so different from our own.
Back on the main boat, we pulled up a lounge chair to relax before dinner. “Swim?” the captain said as I walked by. The tall, lanky Vietnamese man spoke little English, but went to extraordinary lengths to converse with guests. “Yes,” I said, nodding as I walked to my room to change. “Jump!” he cried as he pointed to the front of the boat. I laughed, figuring as I was fully clothed, my response was lost in translation. I changed into my bathing suit and headed back to the main deck. As I passed the captain a second time he repeated his earlier statement. “Jump!” he said again as he pointed to the front of the boat, this time walking out and tapping the railing. “No,” I said laughing. Moments later, our fearless leader and guide SuSu appeared on deck. “Time to swim,” he said. He led us to the front deck, and as the captain had..gently tapped the railing hanging 15 feet above the water below. We were indeed expected to leap in.
After watching an audacious young boy leap from the railing into the murky waters below, I carefully made my way over the side of the boat, plugged my nose as if I were a child leaping into their mother’s arms from the side of the pool and jumped. Floating just off the side of the old junk boat surrounding by the rock islands, each unique in its formation, was simply astounding. As I bobbed there in the chilly waters watching the sun sink to the horizon, I reveled in another “I simply can’t believe this” moment.
The next morning we gathered into a small dingy and headed ashore – this time to explore one of the largest caves in Ha Long Bay. Outside women gathered in their boats below the boardwalk leading to the mouth of the cave to sell fresh fish or snacks. As I peered into their fish-filled baskets from high above, I realized how disconnected with our food we’ve become. There hanging from the side of a boat by nothing more than a thin fishing wire was a stingray, barbed by a fishing hook and now up for sale, flapping helplessly in the water. Nearby a basket of starfish sat on the boats hull and baskets of crabs, still in the water, were pulled behind the boats. All across Southeast Asia, meat and fish are sold fresh, and freshly killed, most often times whole. Fruits and veggies are sold from the same baskets used to gather them, and very little comes from a bottle or can, pre-packaged or preserved with chemicals. The slaughterers and gatherers are not afraid of hard work and they understand what it takes to work for the food they eat. It’s a world away from the plush ride in our air-conditioned cars to the nearest Whole Foods or Wal-mart to get a package of perfectly trimmed and preserved chicken breast or a box of frozen fish sticks.
The diversity of life in Vietnam has reenergized my love for the basics in life so many of us tend to take for granted. While daily life for Sapa’s ethnic minorities seems elemental compared to our own tech-driven chaos, their ways lead to more meaningful relationships with each other, the land and their food. The same can be said about life in the small fishing villages hidden deep in the limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay. Never would I have imagined the diversity, both cultural and natural, within the relatively small country of Vietnam or could have predicted its impact on the way I think about my own daily life.