Way back in February of 2013 when Jeff and I decided to move to the Philippines, I began assembling a list of dream vacations on which we would embark. Top of my list was Thailand – scratched that one off last Christmas. Second on the list was Vietnam. There is something about this country that has always enticed me. I knew very little about it, and all my ideas were closely tied to the Vietnam War. But even in my ignorance, I felt a strong desire to see the country. Fortunately, we were able to cross #2 off our list this October when we spent seven days in Northern Vietnam with the Keshkas.
Because I knew nearly nothing about Vietnam, I went into the trip with pretty low expectations, mostly just excited to expand my view of the world. I find that my travel experiences are always better when I don’t build them up in my mind. In the one year that we’ve been in the Philippines, I’ve learned that no adventure goes exactly according to plan, and you are much better equipped to deal with those situations if you anticipate that SOMETHING will go wrong.
The first leg of our trip landed us in Sapa for a trekking excursion with Ethos trekking company. Sapa is a region of Northern Vietnam scattered with small, primitive villages made up of farmers and craftspeople. Our ideal trek involved beautiful scenery, a challenging hike, and an authentic experience. Many of the villages on the main hiking trails are set up or staged for tourists. It’s not that they are “fake,” but they are over-exposed to outsiders, so the lifestyle in those villages is not typical. We were hoping to avoid that, to see the REAL way of life for villagers in Northern Vietnam.
Our overnight train pulled into Lao Cai early in the morning, and we boarded a van for the drive to Sapa’s main city, the hub for most trekkers. We were dropped off at the Ethos headquarters where Hoa, one of the owners of the company, greeted us warmly. Hoa served us coffee and a delicious breakfast while she explained our trek. We had the option of staying in the home of a village family (no running water, no Western “beds”) or staying at a homestay – basically a dorm for hikers. We were adamant that we wanted to stay in a village home, but Hoa stressed that after a day of hiking we might change our minds, so either option would be open to us.
Bellies full, we loaded up one backpack for our overnight trip and headed out to meet our guide, Peng. Peng was energetic and full of good humor. We got along with her right away. Our first stop was at the local market where Peng bought supplies for our lunch and dinner; then we were off to find a taxi to drop us off at the trail.
The trail started out simple – a wide, poorly paved “road,” but it quickly switched to rocks and gradually moved uphill. We traveled this way to our lunch destination – Ka’s house. Ka is one of the guides that works for Ethos, but she had the day off. We played with the puppies outside her house and helped prepare the lunch vegetables. I watched, impressed, as Ka cooked our entire meal in a pot over an open fire. The pot balanced on a piece of rebar that had been bent in a long V-shape and laid on two blocks of wood over the shallow pit. Ka kept the temperature even by adding and removing small pieces of wood. I can barely function with a gas stove and oven, and this woman was effortlessly making three meals a day over a fire. The food was delicious! We sat (squatted) on the 6-inch stools that we would eventually grow accustomed to, eating voraciously. My experiences with chopsticks had been limited until recently, but I was quickly becoming a pro.
After our meal, I politely asked the way to the bathroom and was answered with a shrug of Ka’s shoulder. “Anywhere,” she replied. I took it in stride, and went to find my “bathroom.” At this point, I decided it was safe to say we were getting the authentic village trekking experience we had asked for.
We thanked Ka profusely for the meal and headed off for the second leg of our trek. The rocky path turned back into road for awhile, and we came upon a gorgeous rock formation. Jeff and Brandon shed their backpacks instantly and started scrambling up the boulders like boys on a playground. This more than terrified Danette who “demanded” that Brandon get back on firm ground while we all laughed.
Soon, we diverged from the road and set out on a dirt path into the forest where the hiking intensified. We were climbing up and down, jumping across small streams, and, well, HIKING. The going was definitely tough. Just as it was starting to get dark, we started our descent into the village.
Peng took us to her sister’s house for the night. Even though I was exhausted, I felt rude sitting idly by while Zee (Peng’s sister) and her daughter, Voo, prepared our dinner. I asked if I could help, and Peng tossed some jobs my way. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty inept when it comes to the kitchen, and this was painfully obvious as I prepped food. Voo, Zee, and Peng chatted amicably, and I focused on the “difficult” task at hand. More than once, I glanced up to find one of the ladies watching me and suppressing a giggle. I couldn’t blame them; here I was struggling with the kinds of things they did every day, could do with their eyes closed. It was a humbling experience, to say the least.
Zee cooked for us, and as the pot of veggies and chicken simmered, people began trickling in. Within 20-30 minutes, the small room was practically full of women. I anticipated that dinner would be pretty awkward. We spoke no Vietnamese, and Peng and Zee were the only people who knew any English. We sat at our corner of the table, eating and quietly commenting to one another while Zee’s family and their guests ate and talked at their end of the table. I was disappointed that neither we nor they were making more of an effort to mingle, but my disappoint was soon put to rest when Zee whipped out the rice wine!
Peng had been talking about rice wine during our hike, warning us that it would be offered. We were given thimble-sized shot glasses and the bottle was passed around. For the first time, our table acted as one group as we raised our tiny drinks and drank them down. The four of us coughed as the liquid burned down our throats and lit our bellies on fire, and the women around the table watched us and laughed. After taking our first “shot,” I noticed that the village women still had over half of theirs left. Unlike us, they sipped the rice wine. The stuff was so potent, there was no way I could politely sip it; it was all at once or not at all.
I am not much of a drinker, but I planned to take a couple of drinks to be polite and to experience the culture. The rice wine (kept in a recycled one-liter water bottle) came around again. I took the drink again. Round 3… round 4… the bottle kept coming. It became clear that we were not having a polite after-dinner drink; the plan was to finish this bottle of rice wine. Then beers appeared. Then another bottle of rice wine. As we drank together, we spoke through Peng to the women around the table and learned that there were no men around because they had left that day for the fields and would be gone for a week or longer.
Peng and I ended up in a rather deep conversation about marriage in Sapa’s villages. I have to say that I was disheartened to learn that abuse is not an uncommon part of many marriages for villagers.
I asked Peng about the festivities occurring. Was this a normal nightly activity? Did these families and friends always eat dinner together? Peng explained to me that our visit was the reason for the large gathering and the rice wine drinking. The villagers in this area weren’t accustomed to outside visitors; trekkers weren’t often brought to their village because it was off the beaten path. The villagers were just excited about meeting us as we were about meeting them.
After dinner and drinks (and more drinks), we headed to bed. The Keshka’s “room” was a curtained off corner just off the main living space, and our “room” was the floor of the lofted space above the living room, complete with blankets and mosquito netting. Exhausted after the day of hiking, relaxed from the night’s festivities, we passed out almost instantly. After about four hours of deep sleep, I was awakened by the sounds of the family’s pig rooting and snorting in her pen just outside the house. A rooster began crowing. Dogs barked. Birds and other creatures rustled trees and grass. Ah, the peace and quiet of a remote village! It couldn’t have been more than four in the morning, and I was wide awake.
As soon as I heard movements from the bedroom where Zee, her family, and Peng were sleeping, I crawled down from the loft and went outside to stretch my aching muscles and use the bathrooom (outhouse); then I helped prepare breakfast (more polite giggling at my ineptitude).
Zee began the day’s chores before the sun was up by making a hot meal of grains and seeds for the pig, preparing breakfast, and getting her son ready for school. Her daughter, Voo, did not attend school most days because she was suffering from an unidentified stomach ailment. The government provides medical care for the villagers, but the family did not believe in the use of Western medicine, choosing to treat Voo’s illness with methods they were more familiar with. Unfortunately, they had been unable to relieve her symptoms, and Voo was losing weight. We all suspected it was a parasite, but we’re not exactly doctors ourselves.
As the morning dawned, the family roused from sleep, the Keshkas got up, and eventually Jeff came down. We ate our breakfast alone – Zee prepared a meal of noodles and eggs for us, but the family typically eats a small bowl of rice for breakfast. It was very polite of her to serve us a more substantial meal, and we thanked her diligently.
We said our good-byes to the family and set off for our hike back to Sapa. The second day was an easier hike. While I welcomed a day “off” from hiking, I was pretty bummed to miss out on the bamboo forest.
We hiked to a nearby town for lunch and had the taxi pick us up for the trip back to the city. Our drive took us back through the mountains and rice terraces where we had hiked for the past two days, and Peng pointed out the route we could have taken, had we opted for the longer hike. Seeing the forested hills, river, bridges, and villages, I was immediately regretting the decision to do the easier hike. Yes, it would’ve been a day of hellish work, but it would have been worth it. I made a mental note to never take the easy way out, even on vacation.
We arrived back in the city around 1 or 2 in the afternoon and had a few hours to kill before our van to Lao Cai for the overnight train back to Hanoi. Splitting from the guys, Danette and I headed to the market to shop for souvenirs, then settled at a coffee shop to discuss the first leg of our Vietnam vacation. We agreed that an extra day in Sapa would’ve been great. The “city” was very small and full of cute shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. It would’ve been the perfect place to rent a little room and rest our muscles after the trekking trip. It’s always a good sign when you wished you’d had more time in a place.
Soon after we took our seats at the cafe, Jeff and Brandon made their way up the hill. We finished our drinks and walked back up to the trekking office to catch our van to the train station. We said our good-byes and set off for the most relaxing leg of our Northern Vietnam trip: a cruise in Halong Bay.