Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vietnam Trip (Part III)

Bac Ha, Hiking Near Sapa, and Train Ride Back to Hanoi

The dusty street in front of the small hotels and sketchy restaurants looked like a Hmong feeding frenzy Saturday afternoon. Little old ladies (ca. 5 ft. tall) dressed in traditional blue-black garb were selling handicrafts to anyone who would stop. And as soon as anyone did stop, a mini-throng would gather. The stuff they had was neat. Bags with stitching and colorful patterns, embroidered belts, little hats, big loopy earrings, big necklace rings---all the stuff that they wear themselves. And cheap too!

Most of the gals were kinda old. They looked like munchkins. Many had fewer teeth than fingers. But all had big smiles for everyone.

Language was simple: "OK", "One dollah", "jolie", "OK, you buy". etc. Bartering was the rule. Go for half asking price. It was fun because the gals were sweet and pleasant and were very playful. Sign language and whatever else you could come up with worked great. Once I got my bearings, I noticed that they were not all Hmong. There were also Dao (Zao) with shaved foreheads and red turban-like scarves on their heads. They were equally pleasant though not as plentiful.

Actually, it's the Dao that do the "love market thing"--whatever that is.

It was a very cool scene, but it got a little intense at times. So much bartering and handing goods an money back an forth got me confused many times. I found I had to retreat to my hotel room (which opened right on the street) to get a breather. Still, every time we walked out we enjoyed re-starting the barter game. Happy, happy people!

We found friends from the Ha Long Bay trip and the suggestion was made that we should take the tour from the Rose Hotel to the village of Bac Ha for their Sunday market. It was $7 for the day and well worth it, although the bus ride was long and uncomfortable.

Bac Ha is on the other side of Lau Cai. Back down the hill, across the Red River Valley (not the one in the cowboy song), and up to another mountain village. This one was only recently connected via good road. Tourists there are totally ignored. There were many tribes who had walked out of the mountains, many with pack horses. (the pack horses matched the size of the natives--they were mini by large haole standards)

Walking the market square was unbelievable. Colorful dresses and costumes set off the tables covered with pig parts and other totally weird stuff (I call it "weird" and you know how bizarre I can be).

We saw pigs, dogs, chickens, and snakes for sale to be eaten. The coolest thing was what Mike called "Piglet-to-go". These are little porkers trussed in split bamboo with carrying handles. This was not PETA country. Even though we are members of the group called Persons for the Eating of Tasty Animals (also PETA) we were stretched to our limits.

Buying goods from the locals was a lot of fun. There was none of the "buy this..." pressure we have seen elsewhere. There primary objective was to carry out the commerce of their once a week market. Some people had to walk six to eigth hours each way and they were committed to getting the needs met, regardless of a couple of funny looking outsiders.

We saw booths where men were drinking rice whiskey to cement marriage contracts. Saw a horse market.

Everyone ignored us and was totally pleasant. It was more colorful, exciting and enjoyable than anything I have ever seen before. In Mexico, I always have concern about some borracho guy causing a ruckus--not here--no way, Jose.

Our tour guide was cool and quite talkative about how he had been screwed by the government because his great grandfather had been a French-educated doctor who had owned land. Even though the guide's father had died in the war of reunification (as it is known here), the guide had still suffered social consequences. He was well-educated and somewhat bitter. But, at the same time, he was working hard to create a good life for his family whatever the circumstances. I liked him.

At least 90% of the tourists left Sapa by Sunday evening. Monday was peaceful and delightful. We nearly had the town to ourselves. The munchkin ladies tried to sell us some pot but it was dry and looked really crappy. No way! No one offered us opium but it is available.

Mike and I took a hike Monday. We went south of town on a long dirt road which would be OK for jeeps, etc. Walking the road took us past little farm hamlets and such. Lots and lots of terrace farming using very intricate water control. Terraces were fed from small streams or through bamboo piping. The water then went down, down, down, level by level. Water buffalo were plentiful.

We didn't really have a plan when we started and Mike and I would both rather be in the water than trekking the boonies. Still, it was terrific and we Vann's did a rather presentable job of covering a lot of territory. About 15 km out of town, there was a trail down to the valley and across a crude suspension bridge. On the other side was the village of Lau Chai. It wasn't much, I assure you. We passed through farms populated with friendly faces. We were continually greeted with "hello" and "bye-bye". That worked fine, but the total information exchange was definitely limited. The people live in mud thatched houses with grass roofs. It can get pretty cold in the mountains, so there must be fires in each house. The animals lived in attached stables. Sanitation? What's that?

Idyllic country life the way it has been for thousands and thousands of years.

One of my favorite sights was what I call a "knock-knock". These are water powered grinding mills that work on a see-saw principle. Water flows into a bucket on the end of a beam. When filled, the beam tips and empties. When empty, the beam tips back and on the end there is a block of wood which bangs down and crushes grain. Everything is made from wood and lashing. I didn't see any metal parts and probably not even nails were used in the apparatus.

A small troop of young girls came out of the mountains, each carrying large baskets of firewood. Obviously, that was there duty for the day. I doubt most of us could have carried out the task. They scurried up the trail and across the suspension bridge and we later passed them. I don't know how far they had to travel, but I suspect it was a good distance because the valley itself has been denuded of firewood and is totally dedicated to terraces for rice and other crops.

We saw almost no wildlife or birds. The only wild animal I saw all day was one medium sized snake which slithered into the brush. I think that anything that moves has been caught and eaten. I can't blame them since I read that their agriculture can only support their needs for about 8 to 10 months out of year. They have to supplement their crops with income from other sources, which seems hard to imagine.

After another quiet night in Sapa and a morning bike ride to a ridge about 15 km to the west, we set out for Lao Cai to catch the train back to Hanoi. We had to scrub plans for extended touring on the moto because she just wasn't powerful enough. The *next time* I will have my own bike and it will be wonderful. From Sapa we could have gone on to Dien Bien Phu and then back to Hanoi via some excellent roads and scenery.

Instead, we had to go back via train. Actually, the saga wasn't over because we still had more adventures befall us. About 15 minutes out of Sapa and well into the long grade downhill, the brake handle for the front brake broke. No shit! For much less than a New York second we considered going on with just the rear brake---yeah, fat chance of living through that one!

Instead, Mike left me by the side of the road, and high-tailed back to town. Total round trip to fix the handle only took 40 minutes.

Then we carried on. A good thing, too, because we were running short of time to catch the train.

One more thing happened, however, so the story is still not yet over. As we came around a bend in the middle of the long grade, we were stopped by a local policeman and told to pull over and shut down the moto. We promptly complied with great trepidation. He noticed that the taillight was missing (it had been stolen at the hotel in Sapa while under lock and key--you figure--it happens a lot). He asked to see the bike papers and when he saw that the registered owner was some Vietnamese woman who lives in Ho Chi Min City, he looked at Mike kinda funny. But-----he let us go! And we were gone, gone, gone.

No more problems, got the moto on the train. Got hard sleeper berths this time. By the way, hard sleeper berths are just what they sound like. Hard. All you get is one of those little beach mats between you and the formica berth. But at least you can stretch out and it is way better than riding hard seats.

Arrived Hanoi yesterday at 0430. Went and had some pho and then headed to Mike's hotel for a nap. Later we moved his gear back to the room at the Phu Gia (rhymes with Rock Za, remember?).

Talk about language---It's fuckin' impossible! here are some examples:

pho = soup (yeah, we know that already), but it also can mean street.

bo = father or bo = beef

ga = chicken or ga = train station

Ready for a quiz?

Would you rather have pho bo or pho ga ?

Not only that, but sua chua = yogurt or sua chua = mechanic.

The Vietnamese use little marks to indicate the tonal quality that helps distinguish the meaning of their words, but that refinement is totally lost on this dumb haole. I was told that there are four tonal qualities in Chinese and six in Vietnamese. I don't mean to be rude, I'm just pointing out a personal limitation.

Xin Chao (I *hope* that means goodbye, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!)

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