22 April 2006

Language Lessons & A Field Trip

I have just completed my second week of Vietnamese lessons and love it! My teacher, an ex-high school literature and language teacher, comes to my house three times a week for an hour and a half. It seems all my active listening to the language has really helped. All of the words and tones are familiar, and I do fairly well at reproducing them. And even the impossible ng is now somewhat within my grasp.

We pronounce it all wrong. I had many Vietnamese students in the US with the last name Nguyen, which was always pronounced new-yen. Sorry, that is so far off the mark that I doubt any Vietnamese would recognize it. It sounds more like wing to my ears. The language books all say that the ng in Vietnamese is the same sound as the final ng in sing. Ha! It is not. And even if it were, it is not possible to do at the front of a word. But the good news is that I am actually making progress. Or at least when I speak very slowly.

Another problem is the accent. There are three different accents here; the one from Hanoi in the north, a central one, and the southern, HCMC accent. Seeing that I live here, it would make sense to learn that accent. However, it seems that the Hanoi accent is the ‘correct’ one and that is what my instructor is teaching me. This did concern me a bit until I thought about all those students that I have taught who have to learn my American accent on Monday, and an Australian accent on Wednesday, followed by an Irish one on Friday. I have no cause for complaint.

Many people have told me that it took them forever to hear the tones in the language. I, fortunately, have never had that problem. I could differentiate between them from day one in the country. That does not mean that I can remember which words go which way at all times if I am not reading it. I have found that it is like singing, and that I remember sentences as a melody in a song. Class is like singing a call-and-respond song. Tons of fun.

I am trying not to get too cocky about it all. After all, I can only say ‘my name is’, where do you work?’, ‘where do you live?’, and a few other basics. Nevertheless, I am finding that I can pick words out of conversations. Also, I have finally learned to count. I am very embarrassed that it has taken me eight months to get around to learning the numbers, yet I got them all after one lesson. I still think the reason that it was so easy is that every time I am in a taxi I listen to the dispatch chatter which is mostly street numbers.

My teacher is from a school that runs both small classes and privates. They teach a lot of the diplomatic corps and business people. Last Saturday, they arranged a field trip for all interested students. It meant getting out of the house at 7am, but I was up for another adventure.

Our group consisted of about fifteen students and four teachers, including mine.
We went to a place called Can Gio. You get there by driving for thirty minutes, then board a car ferry to take you across the river. On the trip, we were scheduled to visit shrimp farmers and a mangrove forest.

My teacher explained that the people who lived in Can Gio were the poorest in the HCMC region. You could only reach it by ferry, even though it wasn’t an island. I am not exactly sure of its geography, but know there are rivers running through it and one side there is the beach.

After we crossed the river and once more boarded the bus, we set out on a very long drive over poorly paved roads, through sparsely populated areas, and with rather bleak scenery for a good pat of the way. As we drove I asked about the shrimp business. It only started five years ago, and this year was not good because of ‘the weather’. It wasn’t until I later looked it up that I found out that the whole shrimp business was a gigantic failure.

Apparently, a few people found out that you could make big bucks with shrimp, and for a year or two were quite prosperous. Others came and began to rip out the mangrove forests, which are needed to sustain the region, to build shrimp ponds. The problem was that no one really had the know-how or equipment to ensure productivity. What I saw was a denuded forest with lots of shrimp ponds, many of them empty. It was very depressing, especially after almost two hours in a bus. We did get out and visit a pond, then back on the bus, headed for the beach, and another hour or so of driving.

The next stop was at a beach resort restaurant, for lunch. It was pleasant to sit at the outdoor, covered restaurant, where we all ate and talked. The weather had greatly improved from the blistering heat of the non-producing shrimp farms, principally because of the ocean breeze. We were allowed to rest after lunch, and then it was on to the mangrove forest/monkey biosphere reserve.

It was another hour on the bus, and even though there was A/C, it still was hot and sweaty and I was wondering about why I had come. We finally started to drive past the mangroves, and they didn’t appear old, not that I knew what they should look like. I asked my teacher about it. It turns out the entire area had been a victim of Agent Orange during the war. My heart sank. How could she even talk to me, knowing my country had destroyed this ancient wilderness area? It became very hard to look out the window and not see the ghosts of war. She went on to tell me that her husband had been one of the young volunteers who came there after the war to replant the mangroves. What we were seeing was only thirty years old.

The preserve itself was just a small road off the main one. We walked in, and immediately were surrounded by cute little monkeys looking for a handout. One of the teachers warned us to be careful with anything in our hands; water bottles, cameras, etc., as the monkeys would snatch them from you. Over the next hour I would hear countless screams as people lost water bottles or had monkeys come to close for their comfort. Every park official carried a sling shot and a pocketful of rocks in case the boys got too out of hand. All the critters looked a little forlorn and lost, but I could be wrong. I was feeling none to comfortable with the stalking creatures and had visions of the Winged Monkeys of Oz.

We then filed over to the boat ramp for the ‘high speed boat ride’ through the mangroves. I certainly did not want anything high speed, and was assured they cruised at a slow pace. In groups of six, we piled into the long, low boats and took off. In an out of narrow waterways under the canopy of the trees, we rode. When a monkey started to come towards us, the boat driver shot off a rock in his direction.

A ways into this lovely forest, we docked at another park feature, a rebuilt, war era, military jungle camp. Walkways built above the water connected small huts that had been used as sleeping quarters, dining area, and other such things. It was impressive and I have no idea how anyone could ever find there way in and out of there. Had I been told to take a boat and go back to point A, I would have been lost. After a brief visit, we boarded the boats and this time it was a high speed ride, but quite fun.

On the way back to the bus I briefly walked into the museum and didn’t stay long. It was filled with examples of flora and fauna that used to live there and, presumably, where napalmed off the face of the earth.

It was almost another two hours before I got home. I suppose I should say it was not the most enjoyable trip I had ever taken, but had I not gone, I would never have known. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt to gain more knowledge about the destruction of natural habitats, both past and present. At least I had a nice time taking to my teacher and some of my fellow travelers.


13 April 2006

Journey Back To HCMC

While I was packing, I kept hearing lots of voices and noises outside my window. I finally looked out to see a throng of Hmong men standing amongst large bags of an unknown substance that was being off-loaded from a massive, flatbed truck. Finally, I thought. I would be able to get pictures of the men.

I checked a few camera angles and could see that I was too far away to get a decent shot, so proceeded throwing items into the extra bag I had to buy to accommodate all my purchases. As I hoisted said bags onto shoulders, I wondered how I was ever going to carry all of it. Being in the abandoned section of the hotel, it was not like there was anyone to help.

Stumbling down the stairs and trying to push open doors with no free hands, I eventually made it outside where I had a closer look at the goings on. This was obviously the distribution point for the bags, which were now stacked on both sides of the narrow road. I saw that a few men were tallying and allotting sacks, while others stood around getting ready to take their portions. A fair number of motorbikes had arrived, ready to transport the supplies down the hill.

Once inside the main hotel, I asked what was going on. The sacks were filled with grain to grow rice. Since I had still had time before the van picked me up, I asked if there would be any problem in taking pictures of the goings on. I was told that it would be fine.

I started down the stairs and out the front door, then had to go back in. The monster delivery semi was attempting to turn around on a narrow dirt road that had the hotel on one side and a sheer, 3000 foot drop on the other. I couldn’t watch. Either he was going to back off the cliff, or ram into the hotel. The driver, with the help of his partner, somehow managed to back up, drive forward, back up drive forward, over and over again, until they finally made it out intact.

I went out and sat unobtrusively, I hoped, on the edge of a planter box, watched the action, and started to shoot pictures. I listened to the conversations in Hmong all around me and tried to identify its sounds. Directly across from me, a few women stood, rolling hemp into twine, waiting to help with the motorbike loading.

One woman in particular, was the group clown. Obviously, I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but could tell that she was cracking everyone up. She had this essence of fun that translated across language lines. When it was time to load sacks on bikes, she’d tuck her hemp back into her waist band, lift her half of the sack onto the bike, all the while cutting up. I was trying not to laugh, imagining what she was saying. Everyone around her was laughing and smiling.

I watched as two sacks at a time were loaded onto a motorbike, sometimes with another person on back, for the perilous ride down the mountain. One industrious crew bound two sacks to the sides, secured them with rubber bindings, then loaded a third onto the back seat. I wondered how he would make it down without either dropping a sack, or having it burn up on the exhaust pipes. I figured they had probably been doing this for years, so I shouldn’t worry.

I would have preferred to get closer shots but, as I have said, felt that it would be too intrusive. At one point, an ancient man bent over to see the picture I had just taken of his grandson. He smiled when I showed it to him. I must have sat there, feeling invisible, for at least thirty minutes. It was one of the most interesting, enlightening, segments of time I had had on my trip. It ended when my van showed up.

My original trip back to Hanoi was supposed to have been on the day before, but I had extended a day. I had called the gal at Sinh Tours in Hanoi, who’d told me that she would send a new train ticket up for me. By the time my pick-up had arrived, the ticket was not there. I was assured that I would get it in Lao Cai, at the restaurant where I would wait for the 9:00 train. An hour down the mountain, and our group was deposited at a tiny restaurant that stood next to other restaurants, around the square in front of the train station. I sat at an outdoor table and looked at my watch. I had three hours to wait.

Lao Cai, at least from the few blocks around the train station, resembled any interior town in any country I have ever been. Kind of grimy and dilapidated. The restaurant staff and the people in the streets had the same type of appearance. All, that is, except for the owner, Ms Phuc.

Ms Phuc, model thin, looked like a high class madam. She wore a tiny, black, satiny top, with a matching, clingy, three-quarter length skirt, slit up the back. She wore black open-toed heels, and clutched a cell phone. Her long black hair was tied in a pony-tail, and she wore beautifully applied make-up. She did not look cheap; just totally out of place. When things got busy at the restaurant, she’d bark orders to get people moving. I’d asked about my ticket and she said it would be there by 8:00. The people at the table next to me were also waiting for tickets.

Somewhere, during the past few days, I had found out that Lao Cai was only 3k from the Chinese border. I had planned on grabbing a taxi to drive over there just to say that I had seen China, but no longer had the energy. I also realized that I should eat something, so ordered rice and tofu. As I sat, more and more travelers arrived and were dropped off at my restaurant or a neighboring one. A young Korean woman joined my table. We started to talk and I found out that she had also been in Sapa alone, at the same hotel, and that we’d both spent the previous night alone in our rooms. I wish someone at the hotel had thought to introduce us.

I talked with other people around me and found out that the train left at 8:30. I had thought it left at 9:15. Apparently, there were several different trains leaving at various times, both coming and going. So how was it I managed to get the latest one in both directions? I asked Ms Phuc and she said she would get me on the 8:30 departure.

It was now dark, and although not brutally hot, I was already sweaty and grimy and I had a whole night ahead of me to just get more gross feeling. At 8:00, people started to leave for the station a block away. I again asked Ms Phuc about my ticket that hadn’t shown up. A few minutes later, I heard her yelling into her cell phone, then rushing over to my table and the one next to me saying it was time to move. She took off at a fast clip. I went to retrieve my bags and realized I would never be able to carry it all and make it onto the train in time. I had lots of tipping cash, so looked around and asked one of the staff for a hand. Even with one of them hauling my heaviest bag, I was still weighted down, and trying to keep up.

We rushed to the station, falling in behind Ms Phuc and assorted travelers, pushing through crowds and finally to the ticket entrance, where we met up with the lady who had our tickets. I got mine, and followed my porter out on to the tracks, the straps of my bag digging into my shoulder.

Luckily, my car was very close. As the conductor took my ticket, he said something to my helper, and we set off in the other direction. It was the wrong train. We carried on until the end of that train, crossed the tracks, then walked to the end of the cars, finally arriving at the correct one. We were really rushing, seeing that the train was to leave in about ten minutes.

I got help getting to my berth, but thought it was odd that no one, other than two western women, was on the train. Not that I would argue about a cabin to myself on the ride back. Really drenched and miserable at this point, I dug into my bag to get some money for my bag-carrier. I was worried the train would take off with him onboard. Then I looked at my ticket and saw that I had a top bunk. There was no way I was going to do that again, so went to look for train personnel.

On my way down the deserted car, I stuck my head into the room with the women. I asked if they knew why the train was empty. Simple answer: it didn’t leave until 9:15. All that running and sweating for naught. I continued down to the end of the car and leaned out to where the conductor was having a smoke. I did my song and dance routine to try and explain that I could not be on a top bunk. I think he said that it wouldn’t be a problem. Back at my room, I liberated a bottom bunk, piled all my junk on it, and lay down to read. I was not moving off it until Hanoi.

Eventually, the car did fill up. My roommates were three young Vietnamese women who had no problem with sleeping on the top. The rest of the car was filled with Chinese men. I really hoped I would be able to sleep this time.

As I lay on my bunk, I started to think about some of the other things I had noticed on my trip and all the information I would need to understand it. Like the green pith helmets that I’d seen on lots of men both in Sapa and Lao Cai, but never in HCMC. And then there were the woman with the black teeth. I am not even sure which minority group they belonged to. I actually don’t think their teeth were black; it looked more like they had black mouth guards over their teeth. Also, the Red Zao women either had shaved hairlines or it was genetic. It was hard to tell because of their head scarves.

Between reflecting on my trip and reading a book, it was soon 11pm, and my roommates were sound asleep. It was time to turn off the light. Even though it was much more comfortable on the bottom, and I didn’t get a headache, I couldn’t sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time. Knowing that the train should arrive around 5:30am, I got up at five to go to the bathroom, wash m face and brush my teeth. Then I sat on a stool at the end of the car and tried to look out the grimy window.

This was the part of a trip that I hated. You feel so totally alone in the world. I was tired and filthy and probably hungry and thirsty, and it would be hours until I got home. I pulled out my cell phone and sent a text message to the one person in the US who not only knows how to message people, but answers me. So here I was, in the back waters of Vietnam, at five in the morning, feeling pretty down, sending a message to a friend in California. Within a minute I got a reply, and the gloom lifted.

Soon, all the Chinese men were coming out to use the toilet, and in no time there was a line. The conductor came by, saw the men waiting, and unlocked a small hatch at the bottom of the exit door, indicating that the man could pee out of it. I went back to my berth.

Twenty minutes later we arrived in Hanoi. I loaded up, and waited until the car was empty to make my exit. I had to walk through fresh pee on the stairs out. Still in pretty much of a daze, a man came up and asked if I needed a taxi. I hesitated only a few short seconds before saying yes. He grabbed my bags and flew off. I had to nearly run to keep up. He took me outside of the station and handed me off to a friend with a taxi. I had no change, so he got a serious tip. However, I think he may have said something to the taxi driver as the trip to the airport was over double what it was coming in.

I got there at 6:30, and had a plane reservation for 10:30. The first thing I did was to see if there was an earlier flight. There were three, but all with Vietnam Air, and I was on Pacific. I did manage to leave my bags at a check-in counter so I could go to the bathroom, change clothes and kind of clean up. That left another three hours to check in.

I didn’t have any luck finding food, so settled for coffee knowing there would be a meal on the flight. It took all my powers of concentration to stay awake until the 10:15 boarding. By that time I was really looking forward to getting some nutrition in my body, but I was tricked again when I found out that the menu only contained foods which I do not eat. I got two dinner rolls.

I eventually made it home, threw clothes in the laundry, took a shower, and ate. I also realized that although I had thought it was hot in Sapa, I had been mistaken. Compared to HCMC, it was only mild. Not that I minded at all. It is nice to get back to your own bed and shower, especially after such a whirlwind adventure.

I have already received emails from the girls, always with the same three sentences they know – “How are you? I hope you are fine. I miss you.” I continue to reply in similarly simple language and hope that maybe they will start to improve their reading skills.

I still have stuff to unpack and put away.

09 April 2006

Shopping Overload

Getting out of the shower, I looked in the mirror and saw that I had a hideous tank-top/bra strap tan. It was fortunate that I didn’t have any evening gown functions in the near future, where such tan lines might look a bit white trashy.

I trudged up the short hill to where the girls were supposed to be waiting. Only Bamboo and Ker were there. They said that Zen and Lam had already left, thinking that I wouldn’t show. I checked my watch and it was not yet 4:00, so I actually had made it in time. I had promised to purchase something from all of them and felt badly that I may not be able to do so. Bamboo assured me that they had recently left to go to the market and would return before setting off for their village.

My first purchase was to be a jacket that Bamboo’s mother had made and worn. She had several to sell, and my favorite was simply too small. The one I ended up with was also a little small, but I doubted I would be able to find a larger size from anywhere else. These people are small.

While I was comparing jackets, the other girls came back. It was then time to buy a blanket from Zen, a pillowcase from Lam, and a bracelet from Ker. What I really wanted was one of the woven backpack baskets that they all used. Ker said that her grandfather made them and that she would bring me one from the village the following day.

By this time I was being mobbed by lots of ladies who had seen that I was in buying mode. They had great stuff, and from a different ethnic group. I bought on embroidered sarong-type skirt, and would like to have gotten more, but I could no longer stand the crowd of women saying, “Buy from me, you bought from her, why don’t you buy from me?” I completely understand their need to sell, and I wish I could have bought something from all of them. However, it was all getting too overwhelming and I knew I could not possibly purchase one item from every woman on the streets of Sapa.

Telling the girls I would be back the next day for the basket, I headed off. The temperature at 5:00 was still lovely and I had no desire to go back to the hotel. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t eaten since 7am, save for a few handful of nuts, and eating might be a prudent move. I walked into a restaurant that was upstairs, overlooking one of the small streets.

Being so early in the evening, the large room with low, comfortable tables, was empty. At first I sat at a window seat until I realized the noise from below was not conducive to relaxation. I crossed to the far side of the room and sat at an open window overlooking backs of houses and the mountains.

The restaurant was done in dark woods, with a high, wood ceiling. It had that primitive, jungle look. The tables on the sides were coffee table height, with rattan sofas and pillows instead of chairs. It was lovely and peaceful. I ordered, ate, and relaxed. It wasn’t that I wanted to go back to the hotel, but it was starting to get dark and I had run out of things to do.

Cutting through the food market, I again ran into Zen and Ker buying sweets to take to their families. More hugs, more good-byes, and I was soon on the road- with-no-noise that lead to my hotel. I passed the main hotel and walked on to mine. It was now almost twilight and not a single light was on. I walked in and called out. No answer. I searched around until I found light switches. It was sort of spooky. But when I got to my room and opened the balcony doors, all scary thoughts were vanquished. I could actually see the top of Fan Xi Pan Mountain, the tallest in Indochina! I knew I had been awarded a rare sight.

After I got to my room, I looked at what I had bought. Maybe it wasn’t the most beautiful work that I could have bought in Sapa, but knowing who had done the work, made it special. The blanket will always be from Zen’s mom, and the jacket from Bamboo’s mom, and the pillow from Lam’s mom. And tomorrow I would have a basket that Ker’s grandfather made. When I unpacked these back in HCMC, everything smelled strongly of the wood fires that the stall venders use to cook and heat. Another connecting memory.

The next day was my last and there were no marches scheduled. I was going to walk and buy. Although I live in Vietnam, and always think, oh, I can come back, the reality is that I probably will not, so I had to go out with the attitude that this would be my last chance to get ethnic art from the source.

Central Sapa is small, and I pretty much already knew my way around. I strolled a while, stopped for coffee and water buffalo viewing, then headed back towards the market. On my way, I bought pillow cases from more beautiful young women. The men were also beautiful, but I didn’t feel right snapping their pictures. With the women, I bought first then asked if I could take a photo.

Walking along, I was approached by an elderly woman; she looked ninety, but kept right up with me. I think she was asking for money. I kept walking and she kept saying something to me. Then she did a mime of smoking a cigarette. Could she want money for smokes? I’d yet to see a woman smoke here, so was confused. I kept her in my peripheral vision and nearly stumbled when she brought out a small, clear plastic bag, of something I assume someone could smoke. Granny drug dealer. She finally gave up.

I walked for about an hour before I went to the market where I had been briefly the in the days before. Most of the stall owners were not from the ethnic groups, and I really wanted to maintain my dedication to buying from the people. What I saw inside wasn’t what I wanted anyway, although I did up with two, very small, fishing baskets, and a necklace. As I wandered through, I saw many ethnic group ladies trying to sell their work to the shop owners. I calculated that they must sell them for almost nothing.

At some point, I decided I may not have enough money with me since I had opted to stay for another night. Or rather I had enough for the hotel, but maybe not enough to spend on another jacket or two. It took a lot of walking and misinformation until I was directed to a five-star hotel that was only too happy to give me a cash advance.

A loom was set up in the lobby and a woman from an ethnic group that was new to me, sat weaving blue and pink fabric. Since she spoke no English, I asked the guy who was helping me, which group she was from. (Stupidly, I but didn’t write it down and can’t seem to find the name in the info I have.) Beside her sat a basket of finished scarves of the same colors. I asked if I could buy one. I was told they weren’t finished because they had yet to be washed. I said I didn’t care, so a manager was called over to tell me the price. They again emphasized that I must wash it in order for the fabric to soften.

Since my first day in Sapa, I had seen the same woman, time and again, with a very unique headdress. It looked like black-coiled snakes with a silver top ornament. It didn’t aesthetically appeal to me, but thought it might belong with my growing collection of Vietnamese hats. I had seen her carrying them in a basket and went in search. She had always been at one entrance to the market, but I couldn’t find her. I walked around and up and down the neighboring streets until I finally spotted her. She, and at least ten other women, surrounded a tourist who was either browsing or buying. I hung around for a few minutes debating whether or not to approach her and finally realized I couldn’t deal with it. Time to go back to the hotel.

That’s when I noticed that there was a second floor to the market. I went up, turned left, and entered a large room filled with booths of ethnic clothing, each manned by representatives of at least four different peoples. It was what I had hoped to find, yet I knew it would take all my energy to deal with the onslaught of salespeople.

In particular, I wanted a Red Zao jacket. From what I had seen, their needlework was the smallest and most intricate. Some pieces I would not have believed were
done by hand had I not seen samples of it being made. I went through mental hell in there. Once I started looking at one seller’s, another would grab me and take me to hers, or shove clothing in my face. I stayed calm, and just nodded my head, or spoke softly. At one point, feeling I was going to explode, I walked out. I really would have liked to have been able to buy from everyone. And that was one of the reasons I felt so stressed. Who do I buy from? How can I spend all this time looking at this persons work, then buy from another?

In the end, I bought a jacket from the bossy lady. She explained the stitch work, pointing out the symbols for children and parents and health. When I asked to take she picture, she adjusted all her layers and struck a happy pose. I also got a baby hat from another woman, and a small, fabric neck piece from a third. At that point, I really did have to leave. At least now, if I ever go back, I will know exactly where to go to get what I want.

There were still several hours before my 4:30 bus departure. I went to my room to read, pack, and shower, which would be my last chance to wash for the next 24 hours.


08 April 2006

The Hot & Dusty Trail

I awoke to a cold, grey, rainy morning. I had forgotten what it was like to get stripped and into a shower in such weather. Maybe today wouldn’t be as warm as yesterday, and I only hoped the rain would stop. Climbing down sides of mountains, in the rain, on an all day trek was not a challenge I needed.

At 7am, the rain had stopped and I walked over to the hotel for breakfast. I had hoped to start the walk at 8:00, but Diem had informed me that the guide would meet me at 9:30 and I didn’t think to question the late start. Eating breakfast, I glanced over to see Diem walk in with a young woman in jeans. I was to find out at 9:00 that her name was Mang and that she would be my personal guide on the day’s excursion, although when she met me she had changed into traditional Black Hmong clothing.

Mang, just 16 years old, had a great command of English and, like the girls I had met the day before, had learned it from tourists. In fact, she told me, her English was better than her Vietnamese. I was curious as to how her family felt about her spending days away in Sapa, guiding tourists to local villages. She said her mother worried a bit, but was ok with the situation.

The first part of our trip took us through town, then down into another area that had a guard gate at the top. This part of the walk was on a paved road. The weather was warming up, and so was I. As we walked I asked about life in among her people. Girls are married at between 14 and 16, although her mother did not want Mang to marry so young. Some marriages were arranged, others not. She mentioned a young woman from her village who was not married but had a baby. Again, sometimes this was a problem, sometimes not. Mang had been a tour guide for a year and loved her work. What she hated was going back to the village to work in the rice paddies which she did when there weren’t any tours to conduct.

We wound down the road looking out upon incredible vistas of mountains and farms. The paved road eventually turned into a dirt one, but the going was easy. Along the way we ran into a couple from Switzerland and their guide, a friend of Mang’s, who was 18 years old. The young ladies talked together and I talked to the Swiss woman, both of us starting to roast in the sun.

I asked Mang about her Hmong clothing and the fabric it was made of. Some of it was sewn from purchased cotton, but the main jacket was made from hand woven, hemp fabric. Whenever you see a Black Hmong woman, who is not otherwise engaged, she can be seen rolling and twisting long pieces of hemp, taken from a sort of skein that is wrapped around her waste. These threads are rolled until thin, then washed, and finally died with indigo. I found out that indigo is grown in these mountains and is very cheap. When I told Mang that indigo is one of the most expensive dies in the world, she was astounded.

Mang pointed out the indigo fields a little farther down the trail. We carried on, the trail now having been cut into the side of the mountain, with a ten foot bank on the right. I was walking close to the embankment, preferring not too get close to the other side with its sheer drop. All of a sudden I heard noise from above me. I stopped, looked up, and jumped about three feet back. The sound was that of a water buffalo munching on grass, directly over my head.

A short while later, we were passed by a Hmong gentlemen with a walking stick, moving much faster than us. He rounded another bend, then turned to his right and took off straight down the mountain, still at a fast clip. I kept checking on his progress, not believing he wouldn’t tumble and die. Mang said he would walk to the bottom and then head straight up the other side.

Along the route, we passed other small tour groups going down the hill. The guides all new each other. Some were Vietnamese; some were from the ethnic groups. All were pleasant and joyful. I kept thinking we would come across some sort of village or house or a rest stop. I had only brought one small bottle of water assuming, as with yesterdays hike, that there would be at least a few huts in which to purchase some more. I was getting a little concerned.

Lack of water was only a minor part compared to the trail which had now turned into a steep, ill-defined, treacherous path, with rocks and holes and nothing to grab onto should you stumble. I was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt and finally had had enough. I was either going to get down to the immodest tank-top and look like all the other tourists, or I was going to get heat stroke. About this time I asked Mang when we would get to that illusive village and water. Another hour and a half, she said. Crap. I never go without gallons of water and the one time I slip up, it is on a forced march from hell, and there is no turning back, no rescue team in sight. We were still with the Swiss group and they offered me water, should I feel the need.

Finally, we reached the bottom of the valley and there was a definite drop in temperature. I was also glad because I felt like my toes were about to drop off. Although wearing sturdy running shoes, the trail had been so steep that my toes had been jammed to the front of my shoes and it felt like my toenails had been driven backwards about two inches.

My elation soon ebbed as I looked upon the stretch ahead of us. We were to walk along the rock borders of a terraced field. I fell inline behind bunches of other groups. These were rather small rocks, of varying height, half-submerged in water and mud. One slip and you are in mud and rice paddy up to your ankles. I had never been so grateful for my evening walks at the manmade stream in my neighborhood. Along the route there, I cross over several stone bridges, made up of vastly different sized rocks, and requiring a fair amount of skill and balance to navigate. It did help, but not when you step in mud and slide into the water with your left foot, as I did. Luckily, my quick reactions kept me from going all the way in. But now my muddy, wet foot did not allow for any traction. This torment continued for a good thirty minutes before we were finally through and at a small pond.

My Swiss friend had also just about had it. I held up my shirt so that she could change out of her hot jeans into cooler pants. But the end was in sight. We had only a short, uphill walk to the lunch break area. First, we had to cross another of those suspended, rocking bridges. Just as I was about to go across, I looked down to my right and saw a huge, suspicious looking green plant. Hey, I whispered to the Swiss woman, What does that look like to you? She came over, and before she had a chance to answer, Mang piped in with, “Yes, it’s hemp”. I had briefly forgotten that hemp and marijuana are one in the same. Intrigued by our conversation, the Swiss gal’s husband sauntered over. I pointed out the weed, then continued to cross the bridge. When I looked back, he was still at the plant’s side.

The lunching area consisted of a concrete platform covered with a thatched roof. There were at least forty people seated in low chairs around tables. They were either eating or being served lunch. I thought this odd, as when I met Mang that morning, she’d asked if I had packed a lunch. I’d gone back to my room to grab a bag of nuts and raisins. And now she was asking if I wanted lunch. I was only thirsty, not hungry, so got a 7-Up and a bottle of water. The Swiss couple, (the husband of which had a handful of hemp leaves clutched in his hand), were served lunch by their guide. I wouldn’t have eaten the food there anyway. No refrigeration and no running water other than the stream, equals instant stomach ailments. It was obvious that I was the only person there to feel this way. I was also the only person who, after three hours of walking in the blazing sun, with barely any water, still needed to pee.

The ‘toilet’ stood across the dirt road; four wooden poles, with blue plastic tarps wrapped around it. I opened the door to see five, thick poles balanced across the stream. I looked down and wondered how I was to do this. There were spaces between the poles, but it would still result in pissing all over them and most assuredly my shoes and ankles. I ended up balancing between the poles and a rock, and I must say it was a pleasant experience; rather freeing with all that water rushing beneath you and the breeze blowing through. Thinking about taking a leak in the main water supply only served to strengthen my beliefs about eating any food prepared there.

Back at the lunch room, I noticed that people were calling across tables to say hello to other people they had met in town at a restaurant, or the hotel. I looked over and saw the four Israeli, 23 year old, just-out-of-the army boys I’d met on the train. I said hello and then noticed their feet. They were shod in thread bare, broken down, Teva’s, Birkenstocks, and flip-flops. How did you manage that hike in those shoes? I asked. They all answered that it was an easy walk and their shoes were the best for trekking. I guess there is something to be said about being young and just out of the army. At that point, all I wanted to do was grab a taxi and get the hell back to the hotel.

Still sitting around and chatting with various people, Mang came over and said it was time to go, that the final point of our trip was only forty-five minutes away. The whole time we were there, we had been surrounded by women trying to sell us things. Most of us looked the other way. But when I got up, I saw that Lili, who had sold be a blanket the day before, was one of the ladies. She and Mang knew each other, of course, and the three of us set out.

Soon, the Israelis were walking with us, and this is where Mang turned into a sixteen year old, and the guys turned into adolescents. I was happy to just watch all the playful flirtations and concentrate on visualizing the end of the trail. We actually did pass through the village center, with its run down school buildings and a few simple, but lovely thatched roofed homes. It is just that I didn’t have any more concentration abilities left. The paddy-ridge walking had taken the last bit of higher cognitive function I had been allotted for the day.

At 2:00, we reached the end of the road, and our motorbike was waiting. There were supposed to be two of them, but somehow we only had one. Mang determined that I was to ride in the middle for balance purposes. I didn’t even think twice about the option of walking up the mountain. We climbed on, and drove off.

On the way up we were confronted by monster trucks barreling down the road, herded water buffalo, insane motorbike drivers, and road crews. Our driver never even slowed down even when we came within a foot of machine, man, or animal.
Finally at the hotel, it took me a second to get off the damn thing, what with the downhill walking muscles protesting, and the rest of my legs in grip-the-bike position for the past twenty minutes.

Mang and I went into the hotel where I bought cold drinks and relaxed. I looked at my watch. I needed to get a shower and back into town if I were to meet the girls before 4:00, as I had promised.

To be continued.

07 April 2006

Trekking & Buying

I am still not clear about the connection between the Hmong of Vietnam and the Hmong that now live in California, who I believe were from Laos. I can say that the reverse appliqué textile work that I have always associated with the groups in California, was not to be seen on my trip. What I did know was that there are several different Hmong groups; Black Hmong and Red Hmong among them.

Diem, the guy who had shown me my room, was also a tour guide. He had told me to meet him back at the main hotel entrance at 2pm for our short walk down to Cat Cat village, home of the Black Hmong. When I had asked about the tour group members, I got the usual, “I am not sure”. I soon found out it was the Vietnamese equivalent of an Elderhostel trip. I joined a group of twelve men and women, all of whom were in their 70’s and spoke no English.

The entrance to Cat Cat was only a two minute walk down the road from the hotel. Before entering, you must pay a fee. Then you start to walk down into the valley on a winding road. Diem would stop to explain things to the group, and then translate for me. The walk was easy enough for someone fairly fit but not something one would recommend for senior citizens. Or at least not the majority of seniors in the US. However, this group of Vietnamese folks walked with as much ease and energy as I did.

I wasn’t at all sure what we would encounter. Would there be a village at the bottom? Could one buy things on the trail? I had planned to buy up as much ethnic arts and crafts as I could carry and wanted to make sure that I was able to buy directly from the people and not from a middle man at a shop.

We meandered down through terraced farm plots that grow rice once a year, then are used for corn and other vegetables. I couldn’t imagine working that land for even one hour, let alone a life time. Not far down the road, we were surrounded by tiny children selling fabric, woven bracelets. At the time, I still wasn’t sure what the protocol was for buying. It was time to invest in the community, so I bought a few. Later I was told that it wasn’t a good idea to buy from the little ones as it encouraged them to skip school in order to make money.

We passed several small structures where handicrafts were being sold. Nothing was of real interest until I saw a beautiful jacket with extensive embroidery. I stopped, as the rest of the group continued. Bao, a teenage girl, came out to me. With limited English, I ascertained that the jacket had been made by her mother. I asked the price, and it seemed more than reasonable. I ended up with it and a pair of earrings.


I should mention that we had been walking for over an hour and it was now quite hot and I was boiling in my two layers of shirts. Unfortunately, taking off the outer layer to reveal a tiny tank-top would not have been appropriate, especially since I was walking with a group of older Vietnamese who were totally covered against the sun. I carried on to the bottom of the hill, where we crossed a small river by way of a hanging bridge. Water buffalos, who knew what to do in the hot sun, were taking a mud bath and looking up at us with big, round, water buffalo eyes, aware of our every move.

From there, it was a short walk uphill to where the motorbikes awaited us. As everyone knows, I do not do two-wheeled, motor vehicles. The tour brochure had promised transport by either jeep or motorbike. There was no jeep in sight. My options: walk straight up the 4K route back, or take a motorbike. Everyone also knows that I do not do uphill walks. With promises that my driver would go slowly and carefully, I got on. I would have preferred not to look but figured I needed to be aware of oncoming trucks or pits in the roads. I made it to the top without any trouble and only a modicum of anxiety.

Once off the motorbike, I was approached by a Hmong woman selling various items. From what I had observed, the women usually walk in groups and congregate around the tourists. When my bus first arrived in Sapa, we were beset upon by droves of young girls and women, all waving blankets and scarves and calling out for us to buy. I had already noticed that if you even took a slight interest, you were immediately surrounded by as many as ten other sellers. This woman was alone, which would allow me to really get a good look at her blankets.

I think blanket might not be the correct term. Maybe a bedspread, or a quilt top. Each piece is made of several pieces of cloth sewn together in strips with an outside border. All are different, with varying amounts of needlework, and a variety of colors. There is also some amount of machine appliqué. The woman pulled out several that she had made. All were beautiful. As I decided on which one I should get, we spoke a little. Her name was Lili, she was 30 years old and had five children. She was from the village that I would be visiting the next day. I finally decided on one with a predominately green color scheme. We thanked each other and I went to my room to take a shower before setting off to see the town.


I walked up the hill towards the center of town where things flatten out for a few blocks. Stopping at the top end of an open square, I gazed out over the town to the spectacular Hoang Lien Mountain range, and Fan Si Pan Mountain, the tallest in Indochina at over 3000 meters. The top was covered in mist and I had been warned that it may remain that way my entire time in Sapa. I was told that just a few days before I arrived, the entire mountain range could not been seen because of the fog. I felt very lucky to be seeing it now with the sun slowly sinking creating a dark, jagged outline against the sky.

My ambling took me past another open square with stalls of venders. From a distance I could see that they were run by indigenous people and so decided to see what was on offer. I stopped at the first stall and was immediately surrounded by four beautiful girls. The first one said, “Where are you from, California?” I assumed that they, like others I have run into on this journey, had memorized a few needed sentences. But then I started talking and they answered and I realized these little ladies really did speak English.

I was quickly introduced to Ker, Zen, Lam, and Bamboo, (the translation of her name), who ranged from 12 years old to 16. They, like the other Black Hmong people I had seen, were beautiful. And Zen, at 16, was stunningly beautiful with golden brown eyes. The stall belonged to Bamboo’s mother but all the girls had things to sell. They told me they slept there at night and would return to their village every few days. I was worried that it might not be safe, but they assured me it was. Their stall was only separated by a blanket from the next one, and all the others, where adults were present, so they weren’t really alone.

Amazed at their proficiency in English, I asked them how they had learned it. From tourists, was the answer, not in school. I had already learned that all the children from the ethnic minority groups have free schooling from Vietnamese teachers. Most don’t have a written language, but they are taught Vietnamese. I never did get clear conformation as to whether or not they were taught all subjects in Vietnamese, but I believe that is the case. The girls assured me that they were still in school. It was getting dark and I wanted to take a look at the other stalls, so said I would come back a little later.

Bamboo, Lam, Ker, Zen

The girls followed me to a stall near the end where I spent a lot of time deciding on another blanket. We all walked back to their place and they asked when I would buy something from them. I said I would come back the next day when the light was better. Then Bamboo asked if I would email her. You have an email address? I asked, more than a little surprised. They all did, and went to the internet café just down the street to read their mail. Or rather to look at it. It turned out they couldn’t really read English, and when they wrote out their emails for me, in very juvenile writing, I understood why. Although they said they could read Vietnamese, I rather doubt they can do it well. Then they asked if I would go to the internet café and read their emails to them. So off we went.

None of them had any trouble navigating to either Yahoo or Hotmail. I circulated among the four, reading emails from other enamored tourists who had written how much they missed the girls and had sent pictures. They then dictated replies for me to write. When all emails had been read an answered, I paid for their time and we parted for the night, with hugs and promises to meet the next day at 4, when I should be back from the day trek.

I walked down the hill to the hotel through the clear mountain air that was a little cool, but not at all cold. Back in my room at the hotel I noticed that there were no other people there. It seemed I had Goldsea number 2, to myself. I opened the balcony and looked up at the stars and listened to the quiet. When I climbed into bed, huddled under a thick comforter, I was happy and content. The chill in the room actually felt good. Tomorrow would be a full day of trekking, although this time I would either be by myself with a guide, or with other English speakers.

My picture of the girls doesn’t do them justice, but you get the idea.

06 April 2006

Night Train

My journey to Sapa began at 2pm on Sunday when I got in the taxi headed for the airport to catch my 4:30, two-hour flight to Hanoi. From Hanoi, I was to go to the Sinh Café travel office, arriving by 8pm in order to catch the 12-hour night train to Lao Cai. From there it is an hour bus trip up the mountain.

I had decided to fly with Pacific Air rather than Vietnam Air because it was $30 cheaper and I figured nothing could be much worse than Vietnam Air. I had wanted to get the earlier flight at 11:30am just to make sure I had enough time in case there were any delays, but that flight was sold out. When they announced that there would be a slight delay for the 4:30 flight, I started to get nervous.

At 4:45, every seat of the beat-up, old airplane was filled. This aircraft had been a former member of a Spanish speaking country, with bilingual cabin signs like occupied/occupado. The interior boasted its original everything, and I only hoped that they had spent any revenues on engine maintenance, since it obviously hadn’t been used on anything that I could see. Glancing at my watch, I willed them to shut the doors and take off. And just at that moment, I heard a thunder clap and the rain started to pour. Now I hoped that the pilot would do the smart thing and delay take-off. He didn’t, and we were soon in the air, cramped and uncomfortable. For the first time in my air flight life, I realized why those seats feel much worse than they probably are: it’s the seat in front of you. It invades your personal space and one is constantly trying to mentally push back from it.

Flight over, and at the baggage carousel, I met a woman from Zimbabwe who worked in Hanoi. We shared a taxi into town, which is an hour drive. She had recently been to Sapa so gave me a few tips. It was almost 8pm when I finally got to the tiny Sinh office. I had made it in time!

Shouldn’t we leave for the train station? I asked. “No”, the young office agent said, “there is plenty of time”. While I sat there I asked about who I would be sharing a room with, each berth having four beds. “We don’t know”. I asked about how many people would be on the trekking tours. “We don’t know, but not more than five”. At 8:15, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and asked, aren’t we going to miss the train? “No,” she said, “the train doesn’t leave until 10pm”. Well at least I was glad I hadn’t taken the 11:30 flight. But something didn’t make sense. If we left at 10, and it was a 12-hour trip, how was I to make the 8am breakfast and 9pm short trek? I asked. “The train arrives at 6am”, I was told. Things were looking a little better; it was only an eight hour trip.

At 8:30 the agent called a taxi over and we were off. A short drive later we picked up three other tour people, a Vietnamese woman in her 30’s and her parents. Arriving at the station I was once again glad I was not doing this alone. The streets were dark and teeming with people and taxis and motorbikes all making their way to the entrance. I secured my belongings with an iron grip and trailed closely behind the travel agent.

After passing through the ticket gate, we walked over to a poorly lit platform, squeezing through the crowds of loud people. One train had just arrived, the passengers moving towards us, making maneuvering even more difficult. We rounded the end of one train, then crossed over several tracks to another platform and waiting train, then down to the very last car.

When I got to my berth, I realized that the three people we had picked up were to be my cabin mates. Somehow, three of us walked into our tiny room at the same time and I had a near claustrophobic attack. Since two of our party were rather old, I said I would take a top bunk, dropped my bag, and went out of the train to clam down. I didn’t know how I was going to survive all night in such a tomb-like enclosure. I stayed out until it was time to take off.

Passing the other berths on the way to mine, I saw they were filled mostly with groups of foreign tourists, who seemed to be having a good-old time. Once inside mine, I climbed up to my perch, which didn’t even have enough space to sit up in. Surprisingly, once I lay down, the claustrophobia somewhat disappeared, even after the door was slid shut. I pulled out my book and proceeded to read. The cabin had a small table and lamp between the bottom bunks, and a small light over the door.

Around eleven, I looked down to see that my roommates were asleep, but had left the light on for me. I gingerly climbed down managing not to step on anyone, and made my way towards the bathroom at the end of the car. As much as I enjoyed the rocking of the train, I knew that taking a pee would be a challenge. The toilet was a squatter with hand rails on two sides, and as much as I did not want to grab on, there really was no choice. Squatting there, I thought of my friend who had done the trip while she was six months pregnant, getting up every two hours to use the facilities. I don’t know how she managed.

Back in the berth, I turned off the table lamp and tried to get comfortable. The bed was narrow, and I sort of wondered how many people had been railroad-rocked off the top. I moved closer to the wall. I tried everything I could do, but just couldn’t sleep, mainly because that damn night light over the door shone directly into my eyes. I fell asleep for thirty minutes and woke up with a headache, swallowed a pill and tried again. This basically went on all night, but I have to say it still beat the crap out of the same amount of time squeezed into an airplane seat. It didn’t seem to affect my roommates who were out cold all night. Finally, at 5:30 in the morning, with daylight breaking, I got up and went out to stand at the end of the car and look at the scenery through the cloudy glass and bars. I noticed that every exit from the car was either paddle locked or barred and tried not to think of cabin fires.

I figured we only had a short while to go when I met another passenger in the hall who said that the train was supposed to have arrived at 5:30am, but that the conductor kept adding hours. It was now due at 8:30. I was feeling rather rotten, so didn’t care that I might miss early morning activities in Sapa. Getting closer to our final destination, I put my hand to the glass window expecting it to be ice cold, but it wasn’t. I noticed the people we passed were not bundled up against the chill. I began to think about the clothing I had packed, and when I finally stepped off the train I said, Damn! Foiled again! It was pleasant and warm and I had all the wrong clothes.

Everyone I had spoken to who had taken the same trip had warned me that the bus up the hill from Lao Cai to Sapa was horrible simply because it was after such an exhausting train trip. I didn’t see it that way, even though I was sardined into a tiny fold down seat in a mini-van packed with twenty people. It was such different, beautiful scenery. I started to see people dressed in ethnic clothes which seemed odd and I couldn’t exactly explain to myself why I had this reaction. Maybe it was the sight of such completely different dress alongside western wear. Or possibly that they wore clothing one sees in postcards and books, but not walking around unless they are at some sort of multi-cultural festival.

We passed groups of water buffalo being herded up the main road along with people in various local dress with baskets on their backs; some filled with wood, others with vegetables, and some of them on motorbikes. As we climbed higher, I looked down the mountain to see hundreds of terraced farms, seemingly encompassing the entire valley.

Sapa is a small town, originally built as a “hill-station”, not that I am exactly sure what that is, other than a retreat for the Europeans wanting to escape the heat. Even with all the building that has gone on in recent years, it still feels quaint and peaceful. It was certainly evident that a booming tourist industry has taken hold. There are lots and lots of small hotels and café’s and gift shops. There are hundreds of tourists walking around and equally as many of the indigenous peoples either going about their daily business or trying to sell their wares.

I was the last person to be dropped off at my hotel, the Golden Sea. (I have no idea about the name.) It stood at the end of a road, with nothing around it but mountains. A young man from the office came out to tell me that I wouldn’t be in the main building, but next door in the Golden Sea 2, because they had a group of fifty arrive the day before. I followed him over to the other building and up to my room on the second floor. I walked in and noted that it was clean and new and completely adequate. The hotel guy opened up the balcony doors, and started to tell me about the plans for the day.

At this point I was feeling like total crap. Too many hours traveling, not eating, and then there was that altitude thing. I started to say something then stopped mid-sentence because I had just bothered to take a look out of the balcony and onto an unobstructed view of the mountains. It was absolutely breathtaking, and I was later to learn that I probably had the best view of any hotel room in town. Not only was there nothing to see but nature in every direction, there was no noise, only the sounds of people walking up and down the trail that lead to one of the villages.

I showered, unpacked, went to the main hotel to eat some very unimaginative food, then back to lie down. I really hoped I would feel up to the 2pm mini-trek.
And I was, but that will be told in the next chapter.


01 April 2006


I saw the sunrise from my apartment today for the first time. My place faces due west and the sun’s journey across the heavens is just out of my buildings peripheral range. I had been hoping for this since the day I moved in, exactly six months ago. It would seem that this is to be an auspicious day to travel.

There is still another six hours before I have to get a taxi for the airport and I am in my usual, pre-travel, stress-state. I have organized all my clothing into days and just hope the layers of tropical togs will suffice for the chill mountain air. I really do need gloves but think I should be able to pick up a pair when I arrive. After I had laid out the outfits I realized that I’d only packed for the walking part of the trip and had nothing to wear in the evening should I need to look cute. It had happened to me in Cambodia; in the cool evenings and mornings I looked like a street person with layers of mismatched, ill-fitting items, thrown on in an attempt to keep warm, with no thought towards fashion. Remembering that, I threw in a few garments that may or may not make me look respectable. That aging hippie look is not an attractive one.

Although I am not looking forward to freezing, clean air will be a welcome change. The sighting of the morning sun only slightly made up for the thick smoke that is now permeating HCMC. Someone, somewhere, is burning the jungle.

I need to make one more trip to the supermarket, cram all my things in my bag, and I will be ready to go.