Friday, January 2, 2015

Hiking the Rice Paddies of Vietnam

Vietnam is a marvelous country.
After living in Japan for six months, I thought that I would be in some way prepared for a weeklong vacation in and around the capital of one of the last officially communist nations in the world. How wrong I was.
My wife and I started our trip to Vietnam by almost missing our plane. We made it through security to be greeted by a smiling flight attendant.
“Hanoi at 10 am?” she asked.
We nodded, relieved we’d made it.
“Gate 18. Run.”
After landing in Vietnam we discovered we hadn’t packed photographs for our visa, a necessary inconvenience for any American wishing to visit the country. Desperate, Raquel ripped the photo off of her international driver’s license and dug up a ridiculous photo of me from her wallet. The attendant nodded at the pictures, not caring in the least that they were the wrong size and color, and happily took our cash, even if it was the currently deflated Japanese yen.
Rules for crossing the Streets:
1. Don't Run 2. Don't Stop 3. Don't Worry

We made it to Hanoi and roamed the streets for a few hours before we had to catch a train to Sapa. The streets of Hanoi overflow with energy. People everywhere are eating on the sidewalks at tiny red tables and even tinier blue stools. Drivers weave in and out of each other without stopping for traffic lights, merchants balancing baskets of bananas or wide eyed tourists. The only rules on the streets of Hanoi are: Don’t run, don’t stop, and don’t worry. I think the last one’s an impossibility, yet the locals didn’t seem to notice the traffic. Some restaurants even had their kitchens (oil drums or coffee cans filled with charcoals) across from the dining areas (more tiny tables and tinier stools). Servers ran back and forth between motor bikes laden with families, ladders and live pigs to bring diners another tiger beer or tiger shrimp.
Tru guided us through the villages and farms near Sapa
We took the train that night and in the morning hired a guide named Tru of the H’mong tribe to take us through the mountainous rice paddies and villages around Sapa. It was a gorgeous couple of days. We saw women dying handmade clothes for the New Year, toothless children chewing on sugarcane, and a ninety year old man buried next to his wide on an unmarked grave on a mountainside. All the while Tru told us stories and asked us questions of the outside world. We told her about farms in Texas and about Japanese food and she told of us her people’s history, of the time her ancestors were so hungry they traded a wife for a loaf of bread, of the woman who fell in love with the tiger who stole her away from her husband.
We stopped to sleep at matronly grandmother’s house. She was of the Red Zhao tribe and was a big round woman with big round cheeks, no eyebrows, and her hair hidden inside a red cap fringed with white, an odd reminder of Christmas coming in a few days. She and her daughter-in-law cooked for us while her three-year-old grandson terrorized every living thing in his vicinity. He was an unstoppable ball of energy, always hungry and always moving, and his grandmother spoiled him rotten. At one point his father began chopping wood and the little monster wasn’t mollified until he was given a splintery log and an appropriately sized knife.  
The Master of the house, seen here without his machete
Dinner consisted of bamboo shoots, tofu and tomatoes, pork, deep fried spring rolls, French fries with pickled garlic, and greens that Tru assured me were tender and fresh—the older plants were for the pigs. To drink we had homemade rice wine, or “happy water” as the Grandfather of the house called it. This was no delicate Japanese sake. This was something closer to moonshine. I’d expect it to be served from a mason jar but they poured it from a plastic jug normally used to transport gasoline into an empty sprite bottle and then into my glass. I drank until I couldn’t, then they directed us towards the herbal bath.
I was the only person who didn’t know the enormous vat of brambles and branches simmering over an open fire for the last two hours was us to bathe in, for when they told me it was bath time and gestured to the pot that I had assumed was being used to soften more pig food, I nearly spit out my happy water. Bewildered and… happy, I tried my best to figure out if they expected me to strip down in their living room right then or wait for them to leave. Fortunately it was neither: while the patron of the house had been plying me with happy water, his son had been in another room, filling two enormous wooden barrels with what looked like very strong tea.
We slipped into this ramshackle bathhouse with rough concrete floors, a tarp for a door and corrugated plastic to keep out the elements, and stripped down. Raquel sunk into her bath gracefully as a swan, I splashed in like a fattened pig. I am not unusually tall by American standards, 6’1”, but in Asia, I am a towering behemoth. The bath was so small I had to stick my toes out of the top of the barrel while I soaked my torso, for at least then I felt more like a tea bag than a sardine waiting to be canned. After thirty minutes we stepped from the bath into the chilly mountain air, dressed and headed for bed with a nod of thanks to our hosts. Raquel loved the bath but I prefer Japanese bathhouses fueled by hot springs—even with stench of sulfur and strutting naked men—to the feeling of waking up smelling like brambles and dead leaves.
The next day we hiked out of the countryside and back into Sapa. We hung around the city, ignoring the cries of the steer vendors, be it “Go shopping with me?” or “you have beard like monkey, you buy?” and loaded onto a bus that raced down the mountainside and dumped us at the train station moments before our train debarked. Hungry and jealous of the Vietnamese couple across from us, snuggling as they savored their bahn my, we slept.
The next morning we woke in the train station in Hanoi at 4am. We declined the offered rides on the backs of motorbikes. We were in no hurry.
We found out hotel dark and locked. Having not seen a coffee shop or restaurant open so early, we resigned to wait. Nothing but motorbikes laden with meat and vegetables moved in the empty city, and I found myself contemplating the mad rush down the mountain to make our train, only to have to wait for the sleepy capital to come to life. A woman strolled by and offered us cigarettes or marijuana. She was confused why we were on the streets if not looking for drugs so we explained that our hotel was locked. She laughed uproariously and banged on the door until a hidden bellboy sleeping under a blanket in the lobby jerked to life, shuffled to the door, and unlocked the bicycle lock barring our entrance. He roused his companion, who told us simply to come back later, then escorted us out.
Thus our adventure in Hanoi began, but that’s a story for next time Dear Reader, and I look forward to telling it.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama, Japan, but recently spent a week in Viet nam, and would love to tell you all about it!
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