Monday, 21 January 2008

When we got back to the hotel in Hanoi in the afternoon, we got a DVD going for the kids and Clay and I headed to the gym for a quick run on the treadmills. We’d hoped to make it out for a run early one morning around the nearby lake, where people do Tai Chi, but so far the weather and timing just hasn’t worked out. The treadmill would do. We warned the kids that they could get us in an emergency, defining emergency as something with blood or diarrhea. Trouble with the DVD did not qualify as emergency. We sweated to our heart’s content, then returned to the hotel room to rinse out our stinky clothes and try to get them to dry. We used the hair dryer to speed up the process. At one point, Clay was wearing his wet clothes, standing in the bathroom, watching a soccer match on the TV, and pointing the hair dryer at his crotch, when a housekeeper walked by the bathroom door. Unknown to Clay, Nate had let her in. Clay quickly changed his aim to his chest and tried to act normal.

We went to the train station at 8:30pm and got ourselves all settled in to our sleeping cabins for the overnight train to Sapa. Each cabin had four beds, so while I slept with the three kids, Clay shared a cabin next door with our guide, Lan, and a man named Barney and his mother. It was at this point of the trip that my worst, recurring nightmare, came true.

I had to go to the bathroom, but we couldn’t use them until the train was in motion. As soon as it pulled out of the station, I made a beeline to the bathroom, where I sat on the toilet. As I turned to reach for the toilet paper, I looked directly out the window at cars that were waiting at a train crossing. I could see the drivers’ faces. Motorcycles, people selling street food, people eating street food, could look straight through the darkness into my well-lit bathroom, me perched on the potty. There was no curtain, no frosted glass, no escape, and the train was moving very slowly through Hanoi. I just about died. Then I wondered if the reason the train had to be in motion before using the bathroom is because what went into the toilet landed on the tracks. The train rumbled on into the night, possibly leaving my trail of pee behind for motorcycles to zoom through when the train barriers went up.

I went back to the cabin and recalled the whole story to the kids, who were delighted and got a good laugh. Clay kissed us all goodnight and turned in next door. We burrowed into our sleep sacks, turned out the lights, and promptly fell asleep, the sound of drinking Frenchmen down the hall.


Tuesday, 22 January 2008

I woke up at 1am needing to pee, but didn’t want to open the door and wake up the kids. I drifted in and out of sleep for four hours, before finally deciding I couldn’t wait any longer. I slipped into the hall, used the bathroom after checking that we were in a rural area with no visible signs of humanity, and got back to the cabin. It was 4:45, so I lay in the dark and waited for 5, when Lan said we would arrive in Sapa. At 5 the train lurched to a stop, I woke up the kids, we rolled up our sleep sacks, and all headed down the hall to brush our teeth. On the way back, I saw a tiny creature scurrying down the thin hallway, right at us. A mouse! I turned and ran back to the bathroom, letting the kids block the way between the mouse and me. This was in no way a cowardly action on my part. After all, they probably thought it looked cute and cuddly.

In the hustle and bustle of running away, the mouse disappeared. The kids said they saw it run into another cabin, so we hurried down the hall to our own room. When we got there we realized that somehow the door had closed and locked us out. At least that meant the mouse was unable to enter. But now, we were stuck in the hall, and the mouse might reappear at any moment. I finally located a conductor who had a master key and let us into the safety of our own room again.

A few minutes later, we were all up and packed and exiting the train in Lao Cai. Lan located our driver, who drove us around the town square to a restaurant where we had some breakfast. After waiting for it to lighten up a bit, we headed out to a market in Coc Ly where people of the Flower H’Mong hill tribe meet every Tuesday to barter and trade and see and be seen. Many different hill tribes live in this part of Vietnam and lead the same way of life they have for centuries. The drive was two and half hours, through mountains and valleys and lush vegetation. Mist clouded the tops of the mountains, the sun still didn’t shine. We passed a front porch where mounds of ears of corn lay drying in golden heaps. Satellite dishes peeped from rooflines of impossibly poor, run-down homes. Tiny kids, maybe four-years-old, walked to school together in small groups. Laughing and chatting and having a high time while our van barreled past. Goats perched on the side of a steep dirt slope, we got some great pictures.

As we got closer to the market, we noticed women in brightly colored clothes. These were from the Flower H’Mong tribe. They looked like they were going to a birthday party, their clothes woven in every color you could imagine. Some perched on the back of motorcycles, others walked. They wore skirts, leg coverings, scarves, hats, bracelets, earrings. Their whole bodies swathed in color. Many had babies strapped to their backs with more colorful cloth. I felt underdressed.

The road began to deteriorate as we drove along, and so did the scenery. The government is building a dam that will get electricity to many of the hill tribes, in the process many of the hillsides are scabby dirt slopes, and the road is thick, soft sand. Our driver worried that his van would get stuck, so eventually we all just got out and walked the rest of the way to the market. We walked alongside small groups of people, all headed to the market, and moved over for motorbikes as they scooted past, kicking up sand. I felt bad for all the sand our van had kicked up on our way, covering laundry lines and people alike. I guess if you live here, the dirt and sand are just part of life. It hadn’t rained here in a while, dust covered all the vegetation. We saw no sun, but at least it wasn’t raining. If it was, our path would have been a real mess.

When we arrived we passed a few stalls hawking souvenirs, but the majority of the market was all about business for the people who lived there. You could buy a pig, a buffalo, or toothpaste. You could get your haircut from a folding chair, a mirror hung crookedly on a fence post. I tried to convince Clay, but he assured me he didn’t need one just yet. We passed a man cutting his toenails with a big, dirty knife. We passed a man making knives. He took burning red metal from a fire, then pounded it swiftly and heavily with his hammer, sparks flying. Women bartered loudly, everywhere there was color. Lots of color, as the Flower H’Mong went about their business. From one table you could buy a pig’s foot, hair included. On another, a pig’s head, ears and eyeballs included. In one section of the market, you could buy wine, made from rice or corn. Clay said it was really moonshine, and we declined to try it. It was served from plastic gas cans, and usually poured into caps of water bottles. Powerful looking stuff.

After the market, we boarded a boat to cruise along the Chay River. It was beautiful, and cold. It is much colder here in the North, at the higher elevations. We huddled to each other and admired caves carved into the rocks, lush overhangs of trees and bushes and vines, bright green moss covering the shoreline. After a while we stopped to visit a small village, Tiung Do, along the river. I was a little nervous, our encounters with small villages back in Africa, the Samburu and Maasai villages, were aggressive places where we left feeling uncomfortable and harassed. This place couldn’t have been more different.

It was like walking down a dirt road in the country, quiet and peaceful and still. We passed some houses, some kids, a man working on a door, a woman splitting bamboo with a machete to make a house. They smiled and said “hello”, then continued with their tasks. The patience of these people, to put up with tourists walking through their space all the time, is humbling. Green fields and fish farm ponds lay on either side of the dirt path. A few women sold bananas and bags of peanuts and sunflower seeds, sitting at makeshift tables outside their homes. One woman sold a ball of sticky rice, covered in what looked like dirt. The woman picked one up and offered it to me, the black stuff that looked like dirt was under the woman’s fingernails and stuck to her hands. Lan said it was sesame seeds, but I just wasn’t brave enough to risk the potential sick stomach later. I bet it tasted good.

We passed baby pigs, puppies, buffalo and chickens. Along the path a thin canal of fresh water ran downhill. In it the women washed their clothes. It made a lovely babbling brook sound. Lan explained the concrete canal was built by the government, fresh water is important to keep the people healthy. Their drinking water came from a nearby well.

It was such a nice spot, quiet and peaceful, I was glad we had come. We got back on the boat, froze a little longer, then hopped off for some lunch. We had some of the best food we’ve had in Vietnam, and we’ve already had some great food. One of Clay’s favorites is green papaya salad, he’s had it at least five times since we’ve been here. No papaya today, this time it was fried corn kernels, sticky rice, marinated shredded lettuce, pork bar-b-cued on a stick, meat sautéed with onions and tomatoes, fried sweet potatoes, and tiny fried spring rolls. We were each given a small bowl, and we could choose how we mixed and matched the different foods. We had some hot Vietnamese tea to warm us up, and tossed the three begging dogs and needy cat that lingered around our feet some meaty tidbits we didn’t want.

We got back in the car and began the drive to Sapa, another two and a half hours away. We drove up and up, the hills were lush and green. Across the way, green steps made for giants marched up the hills. These terraced gardens made cool designs on the hillsides. We passed several people carrying large branches of peach trees, sometimes balanced on the backs of motorcycles, sometimes carried in awkward bundles by walkers along the road. Peach blossoms are to Tet like Christmas ornaments are to Christmas. Imagine the scenes in December, of people transporting large bits of vegetation to their homes, and you’ve got a good picture of the season here in Vietnam. Along with the peach blossoms, people will decorate with kumquat trees, their homes a fragrant blend of blossoms and fruit.

As we drove, I noticed something about the clothes of those we passed. They looked pretty normal. Not the bright colors of the Flower H’mong tribe, and not the graceful clothes we’d seen women wearing in Central Vietnam either. In Hoi An and Hue, many women wore a traditional dress of long shirts that stretched to their knees , slit up the sides to their waists. They wore silk pants underneath, their slender, tiny figures emphasized by these pretty, feminine clothes. The older students in this area of the country wore the same outfit but all in white, as a uniform. Their outfits are often pictured in travel literature for Vietnam. Here, the clothes were more ordinary, in contrast to the stunning scenery.

We continued climbing in altitude, Benji crept to the front seat with an unsettled tummy from all the winding roads. He laid his head in my lap and fell asleep, drool pooling on the sleeve of my rain jacket. We encountered thick fog, and I prayed that we would not die from an oncoming vehicle or from plummeting over the edge of the narrow road. My mind has lots of time to wander with all the driving we were doing. We arrived at the hotel without dying, praise God, and settled into our family room. Cozy with a double bed and three twin beds, and lots of floor space for the legos, we were happy and content. We aren’t sure what the view is like, it’s all white after about six feet, but we’re in the treetops and the heaters work. There are no windows in the bathroom facing the general public, and no mice, so far. We’re here only one night, tomorrow we’ll hike around in the morning, then take the train back to Hanoi tomorrow night. I plan on using the bathroom before we board, and keeping an eye on the floor for scurrying rodents.


Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The morning dawned, you guessed it, foggy and gray. We had the day free until noon, and lounged and played and ate breakfast, keeping an eye on the window. It wouldn’t be much of a hike in the misty gray weather. Lan showed up at noon, and we decided to give it a try, choosing a hike with stone steps so we could avoid muddy, slippery slopes. As we got on our way, we grabbed some oranges, crackers, and cheese to eat later for a snack.

On the path, we were joined by an old woman dressed in mostly black clothes, a member of the Black H’mong tribe, with a colorful cloth wrapped around her head and her purse jingling with what we assumed were things she was trying to sell. She asked where we were from, how old the kids were, as we walked along. I kept waiting for the sales pitch, but she just kept walking. She told me that Benji was beautiful. When I offered her a cracker, she said it was “beautiful” as well. Later, when we showed her a picture we had taken of her, she smiled at her image and said, “beautiful”. I guess if you only learn a few words from a different language, beautiful is a good one. Up ‘til now our list included “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you”, and “please”. We’ll have to add beautiful to the list. When the woman ran out of English words, she just walked alongside us, silent but friendly.

Lan sheepishly pointed out where we could see a school and terraced fields if they weren’t hidden in the mist. There just wasn’t much he could show us as we continued down the slippery stone stairs, I think usually this hike is punctuated with lots of breaks to take pictures of breathtaking scenery. We just kept marching. We did stop at a house where embroidered pillow covers hung from the walls and jewelry lay on a table. Lan told us we could see what a typical H’mong home looked like and stepped right inside, without even knocking. We followed, figuring he knew what he was doing.

Inside were a woman and some small children squatted around a fire on the floor, eating roasted potatoes and ears of corn, and slurping soup. Further in we found three more very small children, none wearing pants, tumbling around on the concrete floor. The youngest was dragging himself around, his naked bottom raking across the rough floor. Some men were sprawled on a bed, playing cards. Lan said they were playing for “wine”, probably the moonshine we had encountered at the market the day before. They were all having a high old time, laughing and joking with each other, it was as if there was nothing strange about strangers walking into someone’s home. Lan led us out a side door to see two large tubs full of blue-ish water and flowers floating on the top. The flowers were indigo, and the local people use it to dye their clothes, especially the Black H’Mong tribe whose clothes are all a blue shade of black.

We walked back through the house, nodding to the women at the fire, and bought a couple pillowcases on our way out. One of the littlest kids followed us, curious about what was in our snack bag. Alayna offered him a cracker and he nibbled on it solemnly, staring at us with big eyes. Outside was our good friend, the Black H’Mong woman with the jingly purse, she continued to follow us the down the path. Her fingernails were ringed in blue-black, she must spend a good portion of her life working with the indigo flowers, dying cloth. Clay and Alayna had a theory, she must have a shop further down and wanted us to buy from her when we got there.

We reached a bridge that swayed as we crossed a fast-running river below. We were rewarded with a pretty waterfall for our hour-long hike. We took a seat on some benches and broke open the crackers and cheese, then moved to a food stall to try something much better--grilled sticky rice cooked in bamboo, roasted eggs, and sweet potatoes. Three dogs waited patiently for tidbits as we ate. We met a couple from Australia and enjoyed sharing travel stories while we sat around the smoking fire and snacked. When done, we took a picture by the waterfall, including the Black H’Mong woman who was still lingering nearby. What in the world did this woman want? Lan had no idea, he just shrugged his shoulders and grinned when we asked.

We started back up the hill, Lan told us a van would meet us halfway so we wouldn’t have to hike all the way back to the top. When the woman heard this, she turned to me and asked, “You buy something beautiful from me?” Sure we would, she’d been with us for two hours now, faithfully following along. She pulled out some bracelets and earrings from her purse. We were down to our last 32,000 dong so we could only buy one bracelet, paying around two dollars. The woman was pleased as punch, giving all three kids a free little embroidered bracelet before we parted ways. I guess she knew if she asked right away we would say no, but after walking with her for two hours, she figured we’d soften, she was right.

The van dropped us off a short distance from the hotel, we hiked back through the market, the streets muddy and the air just as gray and dreary as it had been all day. Alayna said walking through the mist was like walking through the misters at Sea World. We had a few hours to kill before we got in the car and headed to the town two hours away to catch the train, so we went back to the hotel. Clay and Nate played pool, Alayna read, Benji lounged around on the couch and I wrote some on the journal. A fire crackled close by, other tourists huddled on couches, it was a cozy place to spend the afternoon.

We boarded the night train back to Hanoi that evening. No mice this time, and the window in the bathroom was fully fogged so I no longer revealed myself to the world. We slept amazing well, all bedded down in our little bunks. Every once in a while the train would lurch to a stop, then start back up again with a great amount of squealing and squeaking. I would drift back to sleep, pulling the sleep sack up under my chin.