Wednesday, 5 January 2011

You weren't there man

The Internet in Vietnam is shit. And I mean really, truly bad. I've been trying to write a new blogpost for the last two weeks and whenever I actually managed to find a fully functioning Internet-connected device thingy, it refuses to let me look at anything. Apparently the government here aren't huge fans of free speech and the like, and have therefore banned websites such as Facebook and blogger, making it nigh on impossible for a geek such as myself to talk to anyone.

I was planning to regale you with tales of lunatic bus drivers, moonlit beaches and New Year's Eve in Halong Bay, but I've just got back from Sapa and my little brain is filled with what I saw there. Let me just say that all bus drivers should be banned from playing Grand Theft Auto, oh and if they must smuggle drugs on their vehicles, they should at least try to be subtle about it. Asking your passengers to stand up, before lifting up their seat to reveal a suspicious looking package which you then pass over to a burly man in exchange for a large roll of banknotes, is hardly clandestine my friends. When not up to such nefarious shenanigans, these chaps enjoy playing a spot of chicken with the motorcycles, many of which are carrying small babies and which are never going to come out of the exchange very well. One of our drivers actually got out of the bus on the main highway from Hanoi to Hai Phong,walked across three lanes of moving traffic -shouting incomprehensibly the whole way- before being hit by a car. It was only a glancing blow and he got straight back behind the wheel, but boy would that have been a big bruise in the morning.

Were the bus to be involved in an accident, however, at least you'd be happy in the knowledge that there are lots and lots of other bodies to cushion you. The number of seats is only very loosely related to the number of people actually on board, since once the traditional places have been filled, there's a handy store of small plastic stools that can be placed all the way up the aisle. Get some of your passengers to sit on each others laps and you can shove an extra 20 odd people inside. Yes, they may grumble a bit, but what do you care, you're nearly at that bit where you get to kill a prostitute before being chased across Vice City by police in helicopters...

All in all, I have found that the only way to survive such journeys is to plug in the old ipod and never, ever look out of the window. Thankfully I had some fantastic companions with whom to share the horror of these journeys, and with whom I could also enjoy a fortifying drink or two (ahem!) afterward. I managed to spend not only Christmas but New Year too with the uber excellent Michaela, Peter, Chris and Caroline, all lovely Aussies who didn't mind putting up with me over the festive season. Though by contrast to the death bus, the night train to Sa Pa was an absolute joy, it was sadly lacking in good old Australian companionship, my new chums having left me to go back to the sun.

Pete, Caroline and Chris on our boat in Halong Bay, New Year's Eve

Sa Pa is cold. This is what everyone in Hanoi tells you, though they fail to explain just how cold. Besides, I'm an idiot and scorned all warnings. Aren't I an English girl after all, used to everything our famously foul weather can throw? Hmmm, yes, as I said, I'm a moron. I began to realise the extent of my stupidity when the train arrived in Sa Pa at 5am on Friday morning and it came as quite a shock. Sa Pa is a mountain town in the very North of Vietnam, supposedly surrounded by stunning scenery-sadly when I arrived this was entirely obscured by the incredible and all pervading mist that lurked everywhere.

When I'd originally organised this tour, I'd imagined that there might be others joining me. However when the time came for me to set off with my H'mong guide, Su, I was entirely on my own. Su is one of the smallest adults that I have ever met and her tiny feet in her child-sized wellies managed to gain purchase on the most minute of footholds, that my galumphing size 8's entirely failed to locate. If it hadn't been for my incredible army boots, I doubt that I would have made it up or down the slick clay mountain tracks, which at many points were almost vertical. Even with my superior footwear, there were occasions when the two other tiny H'mong ladies; who had mysteriously appeared beside us, had to hold my hands to prevent me from slipping. One of them carried a baby asleep in a sling across her back, yet she tripped up and down the treacherous slopes like a mountain goat. I was like a lumbering Gulliver stuck amid the Lilliputians and boy did I feel like an idiot. The only jacket that I have in my meagre wardrobe is a beautifully tailored piece that I had made back in Hoi An as a little Christmas present to myself- it looked extraordinarily out of place in this demanding landscape. My two little helpers left us when we stopped at a little hut for lunch. How could I refuse their pleas for me to buy something from them as they held out small embroidered trinkets for me to see? All the H'mong women make their own clothes, dying the hempen fabric with the indigo flowers that grow all over the hillside. They also sew bags and belts and create 'silver' bangles to sellto the tourists, it's the only source of income for the non English speakers in the winter time, since their are no crops to tend and they can't act as guides. I bought a brightly coloured headscarf, just like the ones that all of the ladies wear on their own heads, in the hope that it would protect me even slightly from the worst of the icy mist. This absurd addition to my already confused ensemble only served to make me look even more ridiculous, but by this time I was beyond caring.

Lam, myself and Mee, sporting our very fetching headscarves

After six hours of trekking up and down the mountain side; which here is cut into plateaus like shelves where rice paddies are formed, we came to a narrow clay path and Su's own house. She wanted me to meet her family. Call me naive, but I didn't know that there were people who still lived like this, or at least not in places where the temperature gets this low.

Pathway to Su's house

Su's house is essentially a wooden shack made up of a single room, with a small corner partitioned off, which is where her four children sleep. The main part of the room contained a small, very low table which had been tipped on its side, so as to conserve space and a group of very low wooden stools; no more than 15cm tall, pushed against the wall. Above the children's sleeping quarters there was a mezzanine floor with a rough bamboo ladder leading up to it. Here the previous summer's harvest of maize and rice is stored. The only other feature of this bare little house was a bed, pushed into a corner and covered in an assortment of large blankets and odd bits of clothing. There were no windows, no chimney, the only tap was outside, set into a low concrete wall and the fire; on which all the cooking was done, was outside, under the small overhang of the bamboo roof. The only electricity in evidence here, was a solitary, bare light bulb that hung above the opening that led to the fire and a single plug socket from which Su's mobile phone charger dangled, an object shockingly out of place in this little house.

The table is set for dinner at Su's

There were people everywhere. Small, grubby, giggling children dashed about, many of them barefoot despite the cold. One beautiful little girl with huge black eyes, was completely naked from the waist down, though none of the other, permanently shouting adults seemed to be concerned about this.
Fancy doing the washing up? The house's only source of running water

Su explained to me that they were all here to help build an extension on the house. She wanted somewhere to have her kitchen, so that she would be able to cook indoors. Whilst the men gathered around with their machetes, stripping the bark from lengths of wood and cutting huge bamboo poles to the correct size, I picked up one of the shovel-like implements and helped the other women to level out the clay swamp in front of the house where the structure was to be erected. Su's youngest child, 4 year old Mi, joined in enthusiastically with a shovel of his own, hacking at the earth with such energy that I was fearful, not only for his bare little toes, but for my own booted ones. Mi had taken quite a shine to me and came to sit on my lap after dinner, chattering away to me in Vietnamese, whilst I jiggled him up and down.

At least the people here have no shortage of food and this is in part due to their using up of every part of the animals that they consume. We crouched around the low table that evening with our rice bowls, Su and the other women continually placing morsels in my bowl for me, making it very difficult to abstain from the dish of chopped up chicken intestines that I'd been trying to avoid. The rest of the chicken had been dismembered using the ever useful machete and cooked up bones, skin and all. The meat and skin was gnawed off with varying amounts of delicacy and when there was nothing edible left, the remnants would be thrown onto the concrete floor for the dogs to pick over. There wasn't enough room at the table for the children, so they took their rice bowls and placed them on the floor, squatting around them and picking up bits with their chopsticks.

Mi and his brothers eating their dinner

It was dark dark by the time Su and I left for the home stay where we were to spend the night. I was fairly concerned, since we'd both consumed rather a lot of the home brewed rice wine and the path had been difficult enough to traverse in the daylight. Luckily though, we managed the 15 minute journey without incident, although it had felt that it lasted considerably longer.

The home stay was basically a slightly larger version of Su's home. The fire was indoors, but since there was no chimney, the poorly fitted door could not be closed whilst the fire was lit, or else the whole place would have filled with smoke and so the building was no warmer than the air outside. I was too tires by this time to care too much, however and so fell into my bed, pulling the two heavy blankets over me in an effort to get warm. I didn't even get undressed, it was too cold to even consider removing any garment bar my slightly damp socks, which I hurriedly replaced with two dry pairs.

I wonder what the people in the Domestos ads would make of this kitchen?

The next morning I was woken very early, by an assortment of sounds- running children, shouting adults and the inevitable crowing cockerel. Reluctantly I left my nest of blankets and went off to find the family by the fire. That day's walking followed a very similar pattern to the previous one, though the ground was, if anything, even slicker than before and the weather even colder. Yet again we were joined by two quiet little women, one with a bright gold tooth in the top left of her smiling mouth. Every so often I caught glimpses of the hills in the brief holes in the mist- a cruel hint at the stunning but invisible landscape around me. It was a gruelling 6 hour slog to the village of Ban Ho, where we spent the night. As we came down the hillside overlooking the village, the mist finally cleared and we were able to see the river mapped out beneath us.

This home stay was slightly bigger than the last and it even had a chimney, though since it entirely lacked a fourth wall, leaving a whole side of the building open to the elements, this didn't aid things much. We arrived earlier than Su had predicted (apparently I'm a fast walker, though this was presumably because I was trying to keep warm!) and I quickly leaned that this home stay had a hot shower. Joy of joys! Admittedly it was outside and the time it takes to go from being under the hot spray to being fully died and clothed is far, far too long, but it was still one of the best showers that I have ever had!

The room in which Su and I slept was a sort of loft area, built above the main room. The roof didn't quite fit properly and there was no glass in the windows and so I spent another restless night desperately trying to keep warm.

At breakfast the next day (plain rice, boiled courgette and unidentified meat, stir fried with ginger, garlic and cabbage, mmmm) we were joined by a laughing girl of around 19, wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt beneath her brightly coloured anorak. Although she spoke no English, I could tell by the was she talked with Su and the daughter of the women who ran the home stay, that she was a favourite amongst them. Later, Su told me that she likes talking with the other girls like this because they make her laugh and "I am too old to laugh now, sister"- Su is 28 years old.

We explored the village that morning- it was clearly a much larger and more wealthy area than the one in which Su lives. She kept looking wistfully at the houses we walked past, some has carved wooden doors and bamboo fences and she commented occasionally with a sigh, that one or other of them was particularly beautiful.

We ate lunch in a house-cum-cafe back at the main road (which was really a mud track, but not too steep for vehicles to travel along it). Whilst we ate our noodle soup, the old lady and her daughter-in-law were washing a tiny boy in a large tub by the fire in the centre of the room. Great clouds of steam eclipsed the laughing child as his mother tenderly soaped his hair, and his grandmother held out a towel near to the flames, in order to warm it.

The motorbike driver who took us back to Sa Pa, seemed to have been to the same driving school as the mental bus drivers. I was squashed behind the driver, with Su clutching desperately to my waist, her face buried in my shoulder. It was freezing. The mist had turned into a miserable, drizzling rain making the pitted mud road even slicker than before. It wound sharply around the side of the mountain with a sheer drop to our left the entire way. Regardless of these conditions, the driver kept reaching into his pocket to tap away at his mobile phone, whilst lorries and other bikes cane careering around toward us on the wrong side of the road. It was all that I could do to keep from screaming at the man. Instead, I balled my fists into the sleeves of my jumper and relied on the technique I'd adopted for surviving bus journeys- i.e. screwing my eyes tight shut so that I wouldn't have to look at what was happening.

Su and I safely back at the hotel- yes I know I look demented, I just wanted to show you the height difference (I'm only 5'6)

A couple of hours later I was sitting in a warm cafe, freshly showered and drinking a hot chocolate. My trip to Sa Pa was the last of my adventures in Asia and what a way to end my trip. Never have I been so happy to be back in the warm, but I was also acutely aware that whilst I sat there, Su had set off back out into the cold.

No comments: