From Siem Reap I flew to Hanoi. On the plane, I sat next to two Americans from… Florida, I think? (I remember the man’s name was Richard because it got said several times, but I can’t remember the girl’s name.) Yet again, I hadn’t organized transportation from the airport, and so as we got ready to land, I asked if they’d be interested in splitting a taxi. They said yes, and when we landed we ordered a Grab.
Grab is like Uber or Lyft in the states, but you pay cash. It’s supposed to be the ~better alternative to cabs, because the price is agreed upon in advance and you input your destination into the app, so you can tell if you’re going the wrong way.
Which is what makes what actually happened so funny: We got into our grab, and just as we got out of the airport, we saw a bunch of cars being stopped in the road ahead of us. An accident? Some kind of checkpoint? Construction? What was going on?
Our Grab pulled over, told us to get out (along with our bags) and get into a taxi. Uhh… what, why?
“We’re busy now.”
After confirming with the new taxi driver that the price would be the same, we got out of our comfortable Grab and squeezed our three American-sized bodies into a Vietnamese-sized back seat (our bags were all piled into the front passenger seat). Basically, I think the Grab drivers have a deal with the taxi drivers to pass customers off from the airport. Well. That’s one way to deal with a tech takeover.
It turned out to be just fine, but I was glad I wasn’t alone for that switcheroo, and I laughed quite a bit. (Things are a lot funnier when you’re with people when they might just be scary on your own.)
I got to my hostel and was unpacking as quietly as possible since there were curtains closed in the dorm (some beds have curtains, which I love, because it’s like having your own personal tent & it’s easier to get changed, etc, but then it’s hard to tell if someone is actually in the room or not), feeling bad about how much rustling my bag made before getting some street food at the hostel’s recommendation. (Recommendation = yelling in Vietnamese at the vendor to see if they were still serving and pointing me over.)
When I came back to get to bed, I was settling in, and another guest crawled into bed, loudly talking and giving a tour of the room via Facetime. Keep in mind it was like 11 p.m. So yeah, at least I didn’t have to worry about my bag-rustling being the jerkiest noise of the night.
The next day I caught a bus to Sapa. Compared to my first sleeper bus, this one was lush – WiFi, the bathrooms at the stops were super clean, some of the beds even had charging USB ports. (Mine didn’t have one and I heard they didn’t work well, but still!)
After the 6 hour ride, we got to Sapa and were in a literal cloud. My plan had been to walk to my hostel, which wasn’t far, but I’d failed to load the directions onto my phone, it didn’t seem like any nearby places were open, and it was so hard to see I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it well even with maps. So I had one of the taxi drivers that were standing around soliciting us give me a ride. (I also negotiated, mostly because I knew the ride was short and I was half thinking about walking.)
In the morning I ate a pancake. The check-in areas was also a dining area and hangout area, and there was a Polish guy sleeping on the couch. Come to find out he’d slept there all night because he’d gotten in at 3 a.m. and the hostel didn’t want to wake everyone else by having him check in, and also didn’t give him a blanket, so he was shivering on the couch all night. And it was truly cold the night before, somewhere around 40F. I’d used the electric blanket that the hostel provided because I’d had trouble warming up. It made for a very funny (if very grumpy) story in the morning, and he proceeded to complain about many things to me and another American, Noah from Oregon. Noah and I would try to point out the sunny side, the Polish guy would complain more, and the cycle would repeat.
Meanwhile, my tour hadn’t shown up, so I called my hostel back in Hanoi to see what was up. Also, I’d realized I’d left my passport there when I checked out, but didn’t worry too much about it since I knew I’d be going back in a couple of nights — very lucky it wasn’t the day of my departure. After some running around, a taxi driver showed up with a name that wasn’t my name on his list and I went with him.
One of Sapa’s main tourist attractions is trekking. People can choose to do a day trip, stay overnight in a homestay or local house, or stay for several nights.
During the high season (read: not the winter, like now) the rice paddies are really striking. During the low season (aka, now), the rice isn’t growing, so it’s mostly wet ponds and mud, which I knew, but soon came to know on a really personal level. But even if the views weren’t top notch, I thought it would be worth it because on the way you get to visit local villages whose customs are really unique to them and outside of the typical Vietnamese lifestyle.
The taxi driver dropped me off at another hotel, where I rented rainboots, and then we started walking. My hostel in Hanoi had said there would be a van for us to drop our packs off in, but as we walked I noticed that nobody was carrying their backpacks. In fact, I had the biggest pack of anyone, because it contained literally all of my stuff.
There was a group of seven Italians, a man my age from Malaysia, and me in the group. Our leader was Khu, and there were about 10 village women who were also following us for reasons that became clearer later. Giovanni, one of the Italians, started chatting with me early on. “Are they bringing all of your stuff to the homestay?” I asked him. No, he said. They only brought what they would need for the night — the rest of their stuff was in the luggage room at the hotel.
Well. I had 25 lbs of clothing, electronics, and souvenirs on my back. Different strokes, I suppose.
After we descended from the main Sapa town, we started down a mud path and things got real pretty quick. The trails descend through the rice paddies and forest, and the steps, when there were steps, were steep. When there weren’s steps, it was a bit like boot-skiing.
OK, well, I am not much of a boot skier, especially with my laptop and camera in my backpack, so I just embraced the mess. I started squatting down, getting my hands covered in mud, sliding on my butt. The local women kept offering their hands to me to help, but I continued to get dirty anyway.
Eventually, I had a woman on either side of me guiding me down the steep trails, literally saving my butt several times. The rubber rain boots were absolutely necessary but were also making my pinky toes feel like they were going to fall off.
After a few hours, we got off the mud and onto cement, and I changed back into my sneakers. Around this time, the ladies who had been walking us brought out a bunch of different items they were selling — purses and bracelets and earrings, wall hangings and scarves. I’m not a big souvenir person but I bought a wall hanging from one of the women who helped me, and gave the other some money as well. Then they both gave me bracelets — I’m not totally sure if the bracelets are purely gifts, or also a sign to other sellers that the tourists are willing to spend money.
We got lunch, which was OK, but to be honest I miss American food. Cheese. Bread. I am going to demolish a pizza when I get home. Also, I found a chicken claw in my food, which didn’t help. Experimenting with new dishes is fun when it feels like experimenting, and a little disorienting when it’s your only option — and it’s hard for me to eat when I’m not excited about the food, even though I’d just hiked 5 miles. So I mostly ate rice.
Afterward, Khu showed us around some of the shops. She described how the Black Hmong — the name of the local villagers — make their own clothing. Harvesting hemp, pulling it into strips, spinning it, weaving it. They make their own indigo dye, then dye the fabric, and then use beeswax dyed with indigo to make it shiny. The beeswax trik only works once, so most everyone works on their new clothes for Chinese New Year, and it’s a major faux pas to not have shiny new clothes then.
There’s also a buffalo horn, which is used, she says, to relieve headaches — a piece of coal is put in the horn, which seems to create a vacuum inside and leaves a big, round bruise (possibly a burn?) on their foreheads, but relieves pain.
She also brought us by her in-law’s home. Khu is 23, and she’s married with two boys. She’d lived with her in-laws up until six months ago, she explained, when she and husband moved to their own place — a pretty typical series of events.
How do people get married here? I asked.
Khu explained: Often at Chinese New Year, or other big events, a boy and girl will chat for a little bit. If the boy decides he likes her, he kidnaps her.
“Wait, what?” We said.
“You know, kidnap?” Khu said. “He takes her back to his family’s house for four days and three nights.”
Does she know she’s going to be kidnapped? I ask. (Maybe this is a translation issue, I hope.)
No, Khu says. Sometimes she cries the whole time. After the four days, she’s brought back to her family’s house and she decides whether she’s going to marry him. Most of the time — 80 or 90 percent of the time — she says yes. She only might say no if the boy is lazy or she doesn’t get along with his family.
And for girls, there’s money involved — the boy’s family pays about $2,000 USD to the girl’s family. Which is why the son’s parents often are involved in the decision, because they want to make sure they get a good girl who works hard. It’s also why Khu won’t try to have more children, even though she’d like a girl — she’s anticipating having to pay for her son’s wives. (This is why it is good to have girls, because you can recoup on the money you spend for your sons.)
A few other things she shares — school is free from kindergarten to 15. After that, parents have to pay for high school, which is why mostly only boys get to go — often the oldest — and the girls don’t go and instead start getting married. About 90 percent of the kids go to free school, and half of the village goes to high school, she says. Less than that to college.
(Keep in mind, this isn’t a census survey — it’s a local’s perspective shared on a tour group.)
So maybe it’s that this reality has already shaken me a bit. It’s hard to hear these things and not think about your own life — what it might be like to know that your education would stop at 15, that your best prospect would be to hope a decent man kidnapped you and to start having children.
Then she showed us around her family’s home. Here’s an embarrassing truth: I harbor a lot of fantasies about a more rustic time in history. I think sometimes about whether it might be better in the U.S. if we still cooked over open fires and lived in small spaces and spent our days farming and chopping wood.
But walking through the family house after hearing about the educational opportunities for girls shook me from that. At one point — if I counted right — 11 people were living in a house with four rooms, total. There was a wood pit for cooking with a pot and kettle as you first walk in, a large open space with a small altar, and a raised loft with bags of rice. It doesn’t resemble anything I would recognize as a home — there weren’t carpets or couches or windows. I thought of how important it had been to Mark and me, when we were moving, to have big windows to let in as much natural light as possible in gloomy Washington weather. Here in the village, it was midday and the house was dark.
One of the Italian women seems to get upset, too. Khu is explaining that the boys go to high school and college to learn English, but then don’t do jobs where English is required — it’s the women who interact with the tourists the most, while men stay home. (There seems to be an undercurrent here that women do work while men stay home, something I’ve heard expressed from several women since I’ve been here.)
“Then why do the boys go to school instead of the girls? That makes no sense.” The Italian woman says.
“To learn English,” Khu says.
“But they don’t use it,” the Italian woman says.
Khu is smiling but doesn’t seem to know what to say. “It doesn’t make sense to me either,” she says. “But…” But that’s the way it is.
The Italian woman keeps pressing, and I’m getting more and more uncomfortable. “She doesn’t make the rules, she’s just explaining them,” I say, and the conversation winds down and we leave.
Still feeling unsettled, I walked and chatted with Khu and asked her questions. We bond a little because I got married at 17 — around the same age she did. “See, we’re the only two who know what it’s like to be married,” she says, smiling at the group. Khu, for the record, speaks excellent English — she understands really complex ideas in English and is able to respond to them, too, something that hasn’t been the case even with other Vietnamese guides who are in university for tourism. She’s funny, making jokes and laughing with us. She learned all of her English from tourists, selling to them like the women who were following us down the mud mountain.
Sixty percent or so of the houses here have TV, she tells me. Mostly they watch it for the weather, to know when to harvest. But sometimes they just watch TV, too. But not her kids — she doesn’t think it’s good for little kids to have too much TV time. And she feels like more and more young people are moving away from the village, or at least would like to.
Even as I am admiring the incredible handicraft of the locals — reveling in the idea that there is a place in the world where people, quite literally, make their clothing from scratch — when she says that young people are interested in leaving, I am a little relieved. I don’t know what to say here, really. Here is this incredible culture that seems to still be relatively intact considering the number of tourists who come through, but also… what makes a culture? And if that culture survives because it’s limiting what the young people might dream for their futures, particularly the girls…
Or is this just the American dream — the one I think is often more fantasy than reality — tickling at my brain? An ethnocentric way of viewing the world? And do culture and lack of opportunity have to be bedfellows, or is there a third path?
I’m not an expert. I have no idea. Mostly I felt intimidated by an alternate reality that I might have been born into, and an intense relief that I didn’t — that somehow I ended up in a place where not only was I able to go to college, but I was able to study something that feels relatively frivolous (writing.) And dumb for expressing the same sentiment I have heard so many times over and over again about privilege and education, and for having to be there myself to understand.
A couple of miles later we reached our homestay for the night. The hosts greeted us with a hot apple juice drink. After getting settled and taking showers, we ate a really tasty (no chicken feet included) dinner, finished with deep fried banana rolls. We drank what was essentially hot apple cider and talked about Malaysian vs. Italian vs. American lives. It’s cold, and there’s no heating, so we’re all bundled up under blankets while we eat and drink, until we’re ready to sleep.
The next day we decide to take the long, muddier route, but the mud isn’t nearly as bad as the day before. My pinky toes are crying for mercy, but it only takes us about two hours to do the whole hike, a woman named Gha (not sure on spelling) aiding me along the way. I buy a metal bracelet from her, and later a scarf from another woman, and then we hike up a steep, concrete path to our van. I have lunch with Lim (man from Malaysia) and the Italians before catching a sleeper bus back to Hanoi.