The French colonial heritage of Vietnam has left a village high in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam that seems like it was plucked out of the French countryside and plopped in the mountain jungle.
The train from Hanoi arrives at the 19th century station in Lau Cai. From there, it is another couple of hours on a small bus that winds its way high up into the mountains to the little village of Sa Pa, near Vietnam’s highest peak, Phan Xi Păng (Fansipan).
Our train took 12 hours overnight to get to Lau Cai where we got a much needed coffee from one of the stalls before boarding a small bus. The drive was magnificent. A sometimes scary drive along steep mountain roads also included majestic views of the surrounding hills, terraced rice farms, buffalo and oxen and local people in traditional clothing. After the gritty grey industrial landscape of China and the smoggy, teeming traffic-jammed capital of Hanoi, the clean mountain air and rural surroundings were a welcome experience.
In Sa Pa we were immediately greeted by our guide, Manh who showed us a map of our route before we set off for a five-hour hike.
The entire way there, groups of local children and women followed us asking our name and where we were from. Once these polite initial formalities were out of the way, the echo of “you buy from me,” waving some trinket in your face, could be heard for nearly the entire hike. They were creatively persistent.
“You buy from me.”
“No, thank you.”
“Yes, thank you!”
Some were more aggressive than others. But we had planned for this, hauling out our stash of candy from Hong Kong and handing some out. After their initial shock, the children (and even some of the older women) calmed down with the trinket hawking and made the rest of the trip more enjoyable.
It’s very easy to either get annoyed with the people selling things (because they’re killing your little idyllic buzz) or to get lost in misplaced compassion and start buying items from the children in an effort to spread money around in a very poor place.
Our guide Manh provided a very good explanation. Never buy anything from children. If a child is good at earning money from foreign tourists, parents will keep them out from school. The economic distortions create havoc locally, too. To us, a couple of dollars is really nothing in the scheme of our expensive vacations. However, to local people $2.00 is 14,000 dong. Quite a bit of money. Kids bringing home this kind of money introduces sudden influxes of money into the local economy and can create inflation for staple goods like rice or water. We’d never thought about that. There are better ways to support the local economy. Like using the home stays we’re visiting that are supported with women’s economic development grants from the Norwegian government.
Mrs Zum’s den of iniquity
Around 3:00 pm we arrived at the home of Mrs. Zum, the owner of the farmhouse where we’d be staying overnight. Supported by a grant from Norway’s women’s economic development fund, Mrs. Zum’s is a traditional Dai (pronounced ‘Zai’) home that takes in foreigners and feeds them.
There are three parts to the traditional wooden house: A large square main building with sleeping corners for Mrs. Zum and a couple of family members, a television with a couple of couches in front of it, and a large round table with many chairs. Guests slept in the upper loft of the building by climbing up a ladder. Here there were mats lined up all around the loft balcony that overlooked the living area below. Off to one side of the main building is a kitchen that consists of a massive fire pit and food preparation area on the floor. The kitchen area was separated from the main building for a very good reason: smoke.
Our guide Manh was the only person who spoke Vietnamese, Dai and English. So when we arrived he introduced all of us and we asked to sit down at the big table. We had just sat down when two other tourists suddenly arrived, without a guide. They had walked on their own from Sapa – which is technically not allowed; all foreigners are required to have a guide in the area to control and protect the local culture (and to ensure a local economic benefit no doubt). As it turned out, Steph and Pete knew Mrs. Zum very well. They had been here four times before and were returning for a special visit with the family for Tet.
We liked Steph and Pete very much. They are a charming couple who have travelled extensively throughout the world and were currently living on the island of Ko Tao in Thailand teaching scuba diving to the swarms of young tourists who visited the beach resort.
After just a few minutes of getting to know each other, Steph apologized for what was about to happen. She had a reputation in the Zum household as quite a rice wine drinker. She told us – sheepishly – that Mrs. Zum would soon bring out the rice wine and start pouring for everyone. Liberally.
We were told that it’s common for Vietnamese to show their hospitality by getting you drunk. They are also very proud of homemade rice wine. Without fail, Mrs. Zum entered the room carrying a beat up 1.5 L Aquafina bottle. It contained a clear liquid in which was steeping various barks, twigs and leaves. It had a disconcerting gray tinge to it. And the bottle was filthy. She produced five 5 little shot glasses and passed them around, each brimming over with the deadly-smelling liquor. Then, she said chuksequay! and downed the shot, immediately refilling her glass and holding the bottle threateningly over Scott’s glass until he had downed his and been refilled.
“You need to down it all in one shot,” said Pete. “Just make sure you don’t let it touch your lips!”
Karen sucked in her breath, and tipped the shot down her gullet. It had a very distinct taste. Gasoline. Yes, gasoline. Steph noted the stuff Mrs. Zum was serving this time was very different from the rice wine she had drunk before. Mrs. Zum was clearly very proud of her brew. The bottle had a special place in a cupboard and had clearly been ‘brewing’ with the sticks and other vegetation for some time. Despite the peculiar taste, Steph downed three more rounds along with the rest of us.
Karen shook her head and, motioning with her hands because she had partially lost the use of her mouth, indicated she needed to eat something before she had anymore. She sat out the next round. Before 5pm everyone was pretty drunk. But a reprieve came when Mrs. Zum got up and went in to the kitchen. We went outside to get some fresh air and take in the surrounding countryside. We wandered the tiny village for a while, and chatted – sort of chatted – with a few of the local women.
One old lady seemed fascinated with Scott and was laughing with very bright but mischevious eyes. A younger woman asked Scott how old he was. When he told them he was 37, they all burst out laughing. Scott sat there looking puzzled and smiled awkwardly. He then asked the girl what was so funny? She said, “You are the same age!” She pointed to the old lady. It was remarkable, but this woman looked 70 years old, she was bowed over with arthritis, and missing teeth. We felt embarrassed as we realized the difference in Scott’s appearance at the same age was due to the very fortunate life he had blessed with, free of the hard physical wear and tear that characterizes people who have to work deadly hard to survive.
We sat there talking to the women and answering awkward questions like how much it cost to fly from Canada and how come we didn’t have to work. But they were genuinely curious and there was no negativity in their questions. Still we found ourselves being evasive and trying instead to focus the conversation on them.
We took some photos of the village as the sun was setting. The golden hour light was incredible. Then we talked with Steph and Pete. After a little while, when the sun had set and it started to get a little cool, Manh and Mrs. Zum called us in for dinner. We sat again around the round table, and again the shot glasses were handed out. Karen did her best to put up a defense, telling Manh that we didn’t drink, and that Scott suffers from migraines… he shook his head very understandingly and said, “yes, yes, just a few drinks then.”
We have no idea – none – how much of this terrible booze we drank. We also have no idea how many Vietnamese cigarettes we smoked. We did have a good time, but it was one hell of a night. Scott crawled into bed on the mat next to Karen a couple of hours after she had abandoned ship. Neither of us can figure out how he managed to crawl up the ladder. After collapsing into bed fully clothed, he whispered into Karen’s ear. “Honey, I gave Manh my wedding ring for some reason… Sorry.”
Karen was a very good political organizer for a reason: She’s very organized. She had packed numerous ziplock bags for the trip, thinking they may come in handy. Like duct tape. The ziplock was just the thing she needed when she started puking at midnight after crawling up the ladder to the loft. The sealed ziplock was near bursting but it held together, waiting for the morning when Scott was given the task of disposing of it. Nearly everbody was a puker that night. Even Mrs. Zum who passed out in her bed after throwing up.
We discovered something disturbing a little while later, long after we had left Vietnam. The special potent varieties of moonshine in this area are steeped with the barks and sticks of local plants to endow it with something that could not be related to taste. It was truly awful. Bitter beyond belief and strong enough to be similar to Everclear. But we found out that it’s also very common for the rice wine to be accelerated in strength using chemical fertilizer. Oh well, perhaps we won’t need those last few years of life we would have had otherwise.
Morning came quickly. And it ranks up there among the most miserable we have experienced. A sudden, terrible screaming broke the silence of our stupor. It came from directly below us. We bolted awake and stood up, almost falling over again with a pounding headache and dizziness. Men had returned from hunting and were slaughtering a pig on the living room floor. We lay down and waited for the killing to stop. When it got quiet, we crawled carefully down the ladder.
Scott went immediately to the toilet to dispose of Karen’s vomit-filled ziplock. A small punishment for the crime of giving away his wedding ring. We moved slowly outside and sat down at a table. The pig was going to be lunch. We were given a plate of the pig’s fresh liver and heart thinly sliced. Scott feeling guilty put a tiny piece of pig organ in his mouth and took about ten minutes to swallow it. Karen simply refused. We were vegetarians suffering with the self-inflicted pain of a night of drinking gasoline and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Luckily, Mrs. Zum also made pancakes and rice. And more rice wine. Holy shit.
We were actually past the point of worrying about being rude. We just said no to the little glass full of hate. Something we should have done the night before. Now we had a four-hour hike ahead of us. Scott had a respectable migraine and no medication. What a perfect day! We said goodbye to Steph and Pete, leaving them to another four days of wine-fueled Tet festivities. We made plans to meet them in a couple of months in Thailand. Then we set off on our way back to Sapa, broken and miserable.
Our last night in Sapa was spent in a hotel. We hadn’t showered in three days, so the clean room and shower was welcome. At the front desk, the staff apologized to us for the disturbances they said we would experience tonight. They told us a funeral was being held next door. And they were profoundly sorry for the noise. A noisy funeral? We didn’t know what they were talking about. But we accepted the free room upgrade and transferred to a quieter part of the hotel.
Then Manh came by the hotel after a couple of hours to take us to his home for dinner. He wanted us to meet his wife, son, mother, and a couple of friends for another home cooked Vietnamese meal. Also, there would be rice wine. Holy shit not again. No Manh, please no.
Dinner was awkward, to be honest. He was proud of his homemade rice wine. It too came from a bottle stuffed with sticks and other things. And it was gray and clear. Karen flat out refused. Scott agreed to one shot. He downed it, then started feel to genuinely ill. He shuddered. This made Manh laugh because he thought it was a sign that the brew was very strong. But really, Scott was just holding in a lot of vomit that wanted to come out. We ate and chatted with Manh. His wife didn’t seem thrilled to have us there. And we were still feeling quite crippled from the night before. Mercifully, about 9pm, Manh put us on a pair of motorbikes and we drove back to our hotel where we crawled into bed to sleep.
It was then that we understood the hotel apology. Next door to the hotel, a large ceremony was being held that involved an old loudspeaker (like the ones on M.A.S.H. used to announce incoming wounded). A man stood on a stage and wailed at the top of his lungs while someone else shouted some kind of long eulogy into the same loudspeaker. It was a traditional Vietnamese funeral being held for an elderly man who had died recently. The wailing was actually a performance by a paid crier, literally a professional paid to cry for the deceased. And it went on for many hours into the night.
Despite our exhaustion and the lingering pain of our hangovers, the ceremony was quite beautiful when you let go of your immediate irritation with the cacophony. The crying was truly heartfelt and it was designed to sincerely tell the departed person they were loved and missed by their family. It was done to honour them. And we quite enjoyed the experience, even finding our way to sleep amid the noise.
Next morning, still sleepy, we had breakfast with Manh and then he put us on a small minibus with a dozen other local people to take us back to Lau Cai and the train to Hanoi. Along the way down the mountain, we stopped every few kilometers to pick up another passenger, and sometimes a chicken and one or two cherry blossom trees would be thrown on the roof. By the time we arrived back in Lau Cai, Scott was pinned up against the window with a local Dai girl sitting on his lap. We had fit another five or six passengers into the bus during the journey despite it’s being quite full at the start. Vehicles crammed to overflowing would come to be quite familiar in the weeks ahead.
Our train back from Lau Cai went through the night and we arrived back in Hanoi just before dawn. We walked through the dark streets of the city from the train station, somehow finding our way in the winding ancient streets of the Old Quarter back to our guesthouse.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve – Tet. We’re going to try to take a nap so we can go out and enjoy the festivities.