May 14, 2004 Friday - Holly Showalter
We’re settled in ‘til Sunday in this little mountain tourist town - on the fourth or fifth level of the CatCat Hotel at 1,700 meters. By the time we ascend the terracotta colored stairs the height translates into very heavy breathing and one beautiful view of the lush, fog-draped mountains. We’re sharing a two-bed room with another mattress pulled in on the floor. The hotel owner asked why we are so economical, which we learn is the polite way in Vietnam to comment on our being cheap.
We came in on a long overnight train and then by minibus around steep (but impressively smooth) mountain roads. Workers on the side of the road are engaged in a never-ending battle with the erosion of the clay soil. Fir trees and rock walls are their tools. We pass three men on a ladder handing rocks up the “chain” one-by-one.
Hạnh’s friend Lam from Saigon accompanied us at the last minute. She also speaks English well and it’s fun to see her and Hạnh giggle together. While we’re waiting here in hopes that the weather will clear, they’ve made us all bracelets from beads they bought in the market this morning. Hạnh declares confidently that we all look better with our new jewelry. We’ve reached a state of giddiness. We love picking on English word choice, especially from within our own group.
Hạnh and Dũng have been insistent about us only eating Vietnamese food. However, this morning we Americans made the mistake of giving in to our hunger for omelets, foregoing the more authentic noodle soup for a large plate of grease. But we have local specialties for lunch: freshly grilled sweet potatoes and corn. We squat on short plastic stools around the small charcoal fire. We made fun of Abe when he bought some shorts because the salesperson started to act mad. We’re trying not to encourage the use of cute children or other tricky tactics to manipulate us tourists. But we can’t help but pick this umbrella shaded “booth” because of the sweet 10-year-old girl who fans the fire and tends the hard-“grilled?” eggs. Her mother returns from some mysterious errand and takes over, looking more than pleased with our business.
“Trekking” to Villages
May 15, 2004 Saturday - Holly Showalter
We’re up early again, enjoying our daylight schedule and excited about today’s improved weather (it’s not raining and the fog hangs high enough so we can see a view. The fog takes on a variety of characteristics. It sits softly, almost patiently at the top of the mountains closest to us. Heavy and thick, it fills a distant valley, and it wafts in patches across the breathtaking scene. Denver and I agree that the topography is very Guatemala-like. Steep mountains sides are terraced all over. We’ll have our fill of their beauty today on our “trek.”
Everyone’s up before long, but we’re too late for noodles at the hotel restaurant – they’ve run out! We vow to get there by 6:30 tomorrow. Before ten we’re off on foot through the town and down the mountain. We’re on a guided tour to the ethnic minority villages of Lao Chai, Ta Van, and Giang Ta Chai. Home to the H’mong and Zao peoples.
We walk for an hour or so with tourists from Tanzania and . . . and our spirited tour guides who are so good at what they do. They speak English well and are filled with sweet flattery and funny one-liners and antics. Our guide Số is seventeen and speaks the H’mong dialect, English, Vietnamese, and French fluently. She also speaks a little Japanese, Chinese, and dialects from nearby villages – the “easy words.” On the outskirts of the tiny village, we actually visit Số’s little board house, tucked in the terraced rice paddies. Dirty puppies and kids skip in and out of the smoky two room building. The dirt floor is hardpacked from footsteps. I wonder how many tourists have tread here. I’m feeling guilty already for invading their home, but it’s worse when her mother brings out cloths – shirts and bags – for us to buy. We refuse with smiles, maintaining our “cheap” reputation, but no one seems to hold it against us.
My First, and Hopefully Last, Trip to a Vietnamese Hospital
May 16, 2004 Sunday – Abe Kaufman
Well, I’ve done smarter things in my lifetime. After having a wonderful day hiking around the local villages we found this cool little restaurant on the “main drag” in Sapa which Hanh described as “shady” because of its dilapidated outward appearance. We entered the restaurant to find it full people engaged in animated conversations and a steamy kitchen located in the very front of the room. Everything the chef needed to cook with was right at his fingertips, including some green looking ducks which I opted not to eat. We continued past the crowded dining room upstairs where the tables were set up like a traditional Japanese restaurant where you sit on the floor. We had a great meal and ended up splitting only three dishes between the six of us and but still managed to walk away from the table sufficiently stuffed.
After dinner we started our short walk back to our hotel. On our way we passed by a fountain which I decided to be a fit place to test my running / balancing abilities – this turned out to be a bad idea as the fountain was made out of marble which is very slippery when wet. Anyways, I lost my footing and caught my shin on a sharp corner on the edge of the fountain and gave myself a gouge down to the bone about two inches long. Hạnh’s friend quickly ran to a nearby store and grabbed a pack of dried tobacco leaves which she put on the cut to make it stop bleeding. It was quite amazing how quickly the stuff worked, and I think it may have even helped with the pain. After some discussion we decided it might be best if I got some stitches put in. I was a little concerned about going to a hospital in this tiny little village, but I didn’t know what else to do so I agreed with the decision.
Hanh then flagged down an ambulance to take me to the hospital which in this case turned out to the closest motorbike taxi. We both jumped on the back of the motorbike and she instructed him to take us to the hospital, which actually was less than a mile away. It was kind of a balancing act for the driver to maneuver up the hills to the hospital with the both of us on the back of his 100 cc motorbike, and me holding my leg straight out with a napkin held to my leg. Hanh said he took advantage of our hurried situation and overcharged us so we ended up paying him 10,000 d, or about 60 cents for the ride (15,000 d = 1 USD).
When we got to the hospital I thought for sure that it was closed because I couldn’t see any lights on, and the place appeared to be completely deserted. The hospital was designed around a large courtyard in the center and looked much different than any hospital I had seen in the states. After some searching we finally found a doctor who walked us right into a room where they instructed me to lay down on the table. It was much different than any trip to the ER I had in the states, no waiting rooms, long forms to fill out or other types of delays. They ushered Hanh out of the room and I found myself surrounded by three Vietnamese nurses who didn’t speak a word of English – or at least a word that I could understand. I was fairly concerned after observing the nurses troubled facial expressions as they looked the cut over. Later, I learned it was because they were unhappy about our use of tobacco leaves to stop the bleeding as it makes the wound much harder to clean, who would have guessed! One nurse asked me a question in Vietnamese and all I could do was return a puzzled look to, but when she held a needle up I understood what she was asking. I gave them a nod, braced myself and they got started.
The whole “operation” took less than 20 minutes I would say, and other than the shot they gave me when they started it was relatively pain free. The hospital was very clean too, and they used all new instruments. Later, I learned that Hanh, after speaking with a neighboring patient, was informed that a small bribe would ensure expedient care. She decided to give the nurses 50,000 d to make sure they took care of me properly, which later I was very thankful for. The stitches themselves only cost 70,000 d, so the whole excursion was less than 9 dollars, including the “ambulance” ride. Again, quite different from health care costs in the states! All in all, it was quite an experience… and I really can’t complain, I’m just thankful I didn’t hurt myself worse! I guess I’ll be more careful from now on ;)
The People of Sapa
Saturday, May 16, 2004 - Holly Showalter
A visit to Sapa means brushing shoulders with the H’mong and Zao peoples at every turn. They’re harvesting, hauling, and hawking their items for sale in the markets, on the streets, and in their home villages. They seem to be expert producers and desperate salespeople of everything from food to flowers, jewelry,and shirts, to plastic combs and beads. One night as we wait for our food in a restaurant just off the main street, poor Denver is accosted by little old H’mong ladies, hopeful for a last sale before nightfall. Their rear attack leaves Denver decorated with colorful hats, headstraps, and bracelets before Dũng’s warning reaches him, “ Denver watch out!” We never found a successful way to fend off these astonishing demonstrations of entrepreneurial zeal. (Our one refusal word – “khong” – never seemed to do the trick.)
I can’t avoid forming associations with my memories of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. The same mountainous terrain has made virtual isolation of their societies here, as in Guatemala and other portions of Mexico and Central America, possible. Their languages as well as traditional ways of farming, living, and dress persist, though it’s hard to know what will happen now that pavement and electric wires (not to mention lines of tourists) snake through the steep landscape. The young girls who lead tours for our hotel hang around the internet café, playing Pacman-type games on the computers and chatting in English with friendly tourists. Their ease with our culture makes us uneasy.
There is, of course, a desire in me, for these people. This town has not become so tourist-ridden for no reason. The children and the old people are cute. The apparent simplicity, desirable. The brilliant colors, intricate designs, and perplexing utility of the clothes, fascinating. But I’m turned off by their dirtiness and even more reviled by the discovery of these feelings in myself. For the most part, they smell dirty to me, like a combination of mud, wood smoke, and raw chicken that has set out too long. I don’t like their unsolicited grasping, dirty fingers on my arm, beaded bracelets shoved into view. I’m glad when we discover a path that leads us around the market rather than through it. But I’m not proud of my gut reactions, of the feelings of disgust that I have to push down in order not to jerk away.
I’m grateful for yesterday’s afternoon thundershower that trapped us halfway up a set of stone stairs on our way to hike. We were all caught together under the suspended blue tarps - Americans, Hanoians, locals. The men beside me carried plants, roots still clumped in dirt, suspended upside down on each end of a pole across their shoulders. It was the feet I noticed as we stood side by side, watching the muddy water wash down the old white stone stairs. I thought of my Nebaj host sister’s uncle who we visited living twenty miles from anywhere and picking coffee beans by hand in the mountains of Guatemala. Like his, these toes beside me had grown wide and fat. They were caked with dirt inside their ill-fitting, cheap plastic sandals, the toenails barely distinguishable. That’s where I, when I looked down at my own yellow toenails, at the unevenly cracked, wrinkly, tanned, and dirty skin of my feet. I with the best skin care products available to me. For me at least, there was a redeeming beauty and grace to the whole scene. I mourned because I didn’t know even the basics of a common language. All I could do was smile and shift so they could have a dryer place to stand.