Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Last Morning

I stood on the train platform in the cool dark of the early morning, dazed, wishing the train back from Sapa were longer so I could continue sleeping. I also longed for the past, when the course was in session and I had a nice comfortable hotel room at the Bao Khanh. Now I had no place to go. I was welcome at Dung’s house but I didn’t think it was appropriate to show up before 10am. It was only 4am now. So I had six hours to wander around Hanoi.

That wouldn’t have been so bad under normal circumstances, but I was seriously short of funds. Of the more than 15 million dong that I’d come to Vietnam with, I was down to just 308,000, around $18, plenty for a day in Vietnam. The problem was that I would have to take a taxi to the airport that evening, which would cost 180,000 dong. And I had stupidly extended my visa to July 30, a day shy of my actual departure. I anticipated trouble from corrupt cadres at the customs office, and considered it prudent to save another 100,000 for a fine, a bribe, or both.

So I stood in the dark with no real place to go and only 28,000 dong, or about $1.70. I decided to go to Hoan Kiem Lake, which I knew well and I could sit on the park bench and wait things out. I began to walk in the direction of Hoan Kiem, but the sun was only just coming through and it was still dark. All the shops were closed and the streets were completely empty. The only sign of life was the smell of early breakfast cooking fires, which wafted out of narrow alleyways. I quickly became lost and decided to go back to the train station and find a cheap cab.

I bargained hard and got a driver to take me to Hoan Kiem for 17,000 dong, a good rate that I could ill afford. Now I was down to 11,000 dong, less than a dollar. I was dropped off in the familiar district just as the red sun was coming through the trees. I found a bench on the lake near the Bao Khanh, and sat there for a long time.

All summer I’d heard that Hoan Kiem comes alive at dawn, when cool weather brings thousands to the lake for their morning exercises. It was something I’d always wanted to see but not enough to wake up four hours before class to observe. Now I had nothing better to do than watch the masses of Vietnamese beginning their day with a slow jog or synchronized exercises. Ho Chi Minh had been a fervent advocate of calisthenics and he had hundreds of diligent followers that morning. Lines of women followed numerical instructions from a scratchy radio, where a female voice chanted the first eight numbers with maddening repetition. “MOT…HAI…BA..BOOON…NAAM…SAUU……”. The women followed along, lifting their knees and flailing their arms in unison.

Elsewhere men did pushups and some just stood around and took in the sunrise. A few sat on the edge of the lake in the lotus position, meditating in front of the rising sun.

Thankfully, the irritating MOT HAI BA routine ended and the speaker transitioned into a peaceful Vietnamese string tune. The women slowed down and began to perform tai chi, which made them look like the Backstreet Boys dancing at a tenth of the speed.

It was all very nice except that I was hungry, thirsty and incredibly poor. I circled the lake, trying various ATMs in the hope that somehow my credit card would let me buy money. It didn’t. I wandered around gloomily, buying a donut from a lady for 3,000 dong.

By then it was past 7am and I was struck with an idea. I was going to visit Ho Chi Minh himself. I’d been to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum twice, but each time they weren’t allowing visitors in to see his frozen body. I’d since learned that you have to go early in the morning and there was no better time than now. So I walked over there and found it open. I stood in line with hundreds of people who could be loosely thrown into two groups. There were the Vietnamese, who waited somberly with their families, dressed in their Sunday best. And then there were the Western tourists, clad in dirty shorts, flip flops and Tiger Beer shirts, who had to be told by the stern guards to quiet down.

We were all channeled into the cool marble mausoleum—the best air conditioning in Vietnam—and fed through the central chamber around a big mahogany box with windows on three sides. Slowly, the familiar face of Ho Chi Minh came into view, excessively illuminated with a strong yellow light. His skin glowed luminously in the dim chamber and everyone filed through quietly mesmerized by the revolutionary leader, who lay there peacefully, with a half smile, covered in a blanket up to his chest. He looked, in a way, like Snow White waiting to be kissed by the prince.

I emerged back into the hot sun and started to walk back to Hoan Kiem. But something went wrong and I found myself on big commercial avenues, plodding along endlessly in the hot sun on streets I’d never seen before. People eyed me amusedly, joking to one another about how I was obviously lost. I asked a few people where Hoan Kiem was but they gave vague directions that were less than helpful and sometimes patently wrong. I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole, in a city that was suddenly so mercilessly foreign, where I was too poor even to buy a water. For a short time, I hated the city, hated the people who couldn’t tell me where the lake was, who couldn’t discount their water, who couldn’t move their stupid motorbikes out of the dirty sidewalk.

But I couldn’t stay mad at the city for long. After a full two hours I eventually made it back to the familiar Hoan Kiem district and rested in the Bao Khanh lobby. I called Mr. Thanh, the kindly assistant to American ambassadors in Hanoi and the logistical supervisor of our course, to return my cell phone to him. He showed up within minutes and brought a very welcome development.

Over our six week stay in the Bao Khanh, a number of things had gone missing from the hotel. Desaix and Mr. Thanh had confronted the ornery hotel owner who grudgingly agreed to refund half the value of a few lost items. In total, Mr. Thanh had received $250 in crisp American bills, which he now pressed into my hand so I could distribute it to the right people once I got back to school. It was a complete fairy tale. I had come into the hotel nearly penniless and left with hundreds of dollars, which I could borrow from to buy a water, food, and pay any customs bribe for my expired visa.

I skipped out into the city, suddenly enamored with the place, and cheerfully entered Dung’s house, where of course I wouldn’t need money after all. My impoverished morning of homelessness on the mean streets of Hanoi was over.

Tu and Dung at Dung's house

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sapa Day 3

Monday, July 30

I started off toward the northeast on foot to see the last major section of the Sapa area. I had to go down a paved road full of vans shuttling tourists to and from Lao Cai. It was not a pleasant walk. The homes along the road were gated and bitter dogs snarled at me as I passed. It started to rain. My feet were burning with blisters. Motorbike drivers stopped to pick me up and looked confused when I declined.

I approached a woman in her home ostensibly to buy a six cent bag of crackers, but actually to find out how close I was to the side road I was seeking. I was na├»ve to expect much. She, like every other person I’d met in the area, was completely helpless with a map. She did, however, speak Vietnamese and invited me to drink tea. I sat there in the dim living room and eeked out a polite conversation with the woman and her shy son. She stared at me intensely, a 34-year-old housewife starved of excitement, and asked me to take a picture of them. After I snapped a few, I handed her the camera and invited her to take one of her son and I. Her eyes widened as she gingerly grasped the camera, squeezed the button and let off a flash. 20 years were removed from her face and she squealed with delight, like a young girl finding a kitten in a Christmas present. It was probably the first picture she’d ever taken.

I got on my way and decided to take a motorbike six miles up to Xa Xeng, a Dao village on my map that was supposedly home to some caves. On the way the guy’s motor bike conked out. He told me to wait there, ran up the road and reappeared fifteen minutes later on another newer motorbike. Where he got it is anyone’s guess.

Xa Xeng was a big village, by Sapa standards, where the dusty quiet was occasionally interrupted by Jeeps bringing tourists in to see the caves. I approached a group of old Dao women who were sitting in a circle embroidering handbags and they directed me to a “restaurant”, a tiny convenience store where the owner heated up some spring roles and bowls of rice for me, the only customer, to enjoy for just a dollar.

I set out searching for the Taphin Cave and ended up on the wrong path, walking with a small army of Dao women who spoke very good English. One girl astutely asked me if I lived near Hollywood and if I knew any celebrities. She was disappointed when I said that I didn’t count any celebrities as friends.

With her help, I got on the right path to the Taphin Cave. There was no entrance fee per se, but the family who ran the attraction charged 90 cents to turn the lights on. The fee included a complementary guide, a nine year boy named Li Lao who shimmied around the cave like a monkey. “Careful with yo head,” he constantly warned, saving me from many collisions with low lying stalactites. Had I been three inches taller or twenty heavier, I don’t think I could have made it through the tiny passages and dripping chambers.

I came out, tipped Li Lao and began a trek back to the Sapa-Lao Cai highway via a road that would take me through the small Hmong village of Ma Tra. Or so my discredited map claimed.

The route was extraordinary, beginning in a flat valley buttressed by mountains. The clouds hung so low that I was compelled to sit on a fence and watch them drift among the hills, wrapping themselves around the deep green slopes like ghosts. It was truly haunting, sitting there watching the clouds amidst the distant creeking of bamboo water pumps and the faint din of farm animals.

I continued on through the valley and the road took me up the western wall of the valley, affording me wonderful views of the whole area. It was a long, lonely walk up the side of the mountain, but I made it to the crest and began a descent into what I assumed would be Ma Tra. But there was no town in sight, just a scattering of farmhouses.

Confused, I began asking around. I asked a pair of teenage Hmong boys hauling huge loads of sticks up a hill where Ma Tra could be found. They looked puzzled and shrugged me off, peeking behind as after they passed me, trading a joke that I couldn’t understand. I approached a suspicious woman in front of her house, asked her about Ma Tra and got nothing but a blank stare. Exasperated, I sought out a group of children. Maybe they’ll know about a the flippin’ village that’s supposed to be right on their flippin’ road. I carefully pronounced Ma Tra but they just gaped at me, mouths open, unsure of what to do.

The area was beginning to creep me out. I was surrounded by sullen villagers, unfriendly by Vietnam standards, wandering somewhere quite different from where the map said I should be. I could not afford to be lost for hours. If I missed my bus, I’d miss my train. And if I missed my train, I’d miss my flight out of Vietnam.

I decided the best thing to do would be to find any village that was substantial enough to have motorbikes and people who had some geographical concept of where they lived. I spotted a hamlet, way in the distance, which had a brick building, something I hadn’t seen in hours. I headed toward it, hoping to be delivered from this very charming, but rather endless track of rustic wasteland.

I was in luck, because the supposed village I had sighted ended up being a way station on the Sapa road. I found a group of shifty idlers/motorbike drivers and bought a quick ride into Sapa, bringing to a close a three days of adventure in an extraordinary part of the world.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sapa Day 2

Sunday, July 29

In the morning, I was woken up when maids began knocking, asking to clean my room. I just told them that I didn’t need my room cleaned, and I went back to bed, not feeling a bit guilty about sleeping in. I slept for 14 hours, until 10am.

Finally I rose and prepared for another day of travel. This time, I decided to walk west, to the village of Cat Cat, which was advertised in the tour offices. It was a short downhill walk to Cat Cat, but my legs and feet were aching so I was not so spry. Regardless, the walk was nice, descending into a steep mountain valley blanketed in clouds. Cat Cat wasn’t anything special—just a handful of tin-roofed houses. The main attraction was the river, where a long staircase leads visitors down to a small suspension bridge.

I ran into a group of students from the Hanoi International Technical Institute (or something like that), and ended up talking to Him, and by that I don’t mean that I was praying to God. Him was a Korean student at the Institute whose father works as the Korean Military Attache at the Hanoi Embassy. He described rampant corruption in the Vietnamese military, which I could have guessed. Him is one of many Koreans who supports the War in Iraq, and having served two years in the Korean marines, he was lucky not to have been sent there. His brother ended up in Iraq, but served as a tuba player, which spared him from patrol duties.

When I told him (Him) that I was focusing on Near Eastern Studies, he began talking about the Korean hostage crisis in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, he was not very sympathetic. “Of course we feel bad for them,” he explained the view of many worldwide, “but those people were so stupid. Our government warned them not to go, but they still did and now look what happened. Why did they have to go there, anyway? Were they expecting to convert people? They’re so crazy that many people in Korea don’t want them back.”

I parted with Him and kept going down the narrow road, weaving along the lower valley past quiet rice terraces and austere Hmong villagers. After a few miles I came to Sin Chai, which looked like a substantial village on my map, a place where I could buy lunch. It was not. The village was just a dense cluster of wooden houses, without a single store or restaurant. Apart from the little black pigs that scurried around the road, there was little movement. It was very disappointing, and I considered retracing my steps back to Cat Cat or Sapa so that I could eat.

I explored the village a bit, watching a team of women stretch roles of fabric that they had just dyed in vats of indigo. They hung the new cloth out to dry in front of their homes, like a clothes line from a very different age.

Just as I was about to turn back, I spotted a woman in western dress snapping a picture of some Hmong women posed in front of their house. That was very unusual for this village and I stood there, taking my own pictures. The woman, named Tiu, addressed me in basic English and asked me if I’d like to come inside to eat lunch with her friends. Um...sure.

I ducked through the tiny door and my eyes adjusted to the dim, smoky light. In the center of the house lay a long table stocked full with bowls of lunch food. Twenty Hmong men and a few visitors sat around the table on crude benches and everyone cheered when Tiu led me in, as if I’d been lost for a few hours and just been found.

I shook everyone’s hand one by one and then sat at the head of the table. Tiu had three friends who understood some English. They were Hanoi bankers but every now and then they came up to Sapa and spent an afternoon with this Hmong family. A few of the Hmong knew Vietnamese, so the two sides could communicate, enough to enjoy a lunch together.

And it was no ordinary lunch. I was passed bowls of pork, rice and a soft green vegetable that resembled honeydew. I also dipped my handmade chopsticks into a dish of something that looked like big calamari soaked in tomato sauce. It was bamboo—delicious rings of boiled wood soaked in squash sauce.

The food was only a sideshow, though. Throughout the meal, the family passed around a water bottle full of clear home made rice wine and my saucer constantly got refilled before I could lodge an objection. Everyone was guzzling the noxious spirit like water and they all wanted to make a toast with their unlikely visitor. Within a half hour, they’d snuck eight huge shots down my throat. Before long, I was pretty faded, still alert physically, but slow to grasp the developments going on around me.

Long, a Vietnamese guy whose name means ‘dragon’, helped me get directions for my next destination—Mt. Phang Xi Pang, the tallest mountain in Vietnam. According to my map, there was a nice paved road that could lead me there in about seven miles. Could one of the villagers walk me up there? Impossible, they responded. Too far. Bewildered, I asked if they could take me by motorbike. No. It would take two days. Negotiations went back and forth, drawing in the twenty men at the table and the thirty women and children huddled against the back wall. I was frustrated, but eventually accepted what I’d suspected for two days—my map was largely bogus.

Resigned to geographical cluelessness, I simply asked them where they could take me that day. After some back and forth haggling, I was led outside and saddled onto a motorbike between a teenage Hmong guide named Chi and a driver, who, I was careful to note, had not been at the alcoholic lunch.

The destination was thac Bac, or the “Silver Waterfall”, which was half way up the mountain. It sounded like a good compromise, and I was excited be on a motorbike again, buzz up the mountain. The cool mountain air began to sober me up. We drove slowly uphill along a wide road for at least ten miles, passing sections where we had to wait as workers stood on the mountainside, drilling by hand into the mountain to widen the road. During one stop I tried the local cuisine, which included spiced pork medallions on a skewer and white rice mashed into bamboo tubes. It was a very decent snack.

Finally we arrived at a half built park complex where a ranger met us at a desk and went through an elaborate procedure just to sell us an entrance ticket. He was not in the habit of getting visitors. Chi, my hardy guide started leading me down a path to visit the waterfall. At first the path was nice—a discernible artery through mountain meadows covered in trash from picnics. Then we submerged into the forest and the trail narrowed into a treacherous footpath. At one point I took a step and found my left leg calf-deep in mud, which sucked my sneaker clear off. I had to dig around with my arm to scoop it out.

Worse was yet to come. We reached the river and its tributary streams and I had to peel off my shoes and socks to ford the turbulent water. After the third fording, I opted to leave my footwear on a rock in the middle of the river, on Chi’s suggestion. We pressed on up the river, cutting along the bumpy bank when possible, or slowly fording up the current when fallen trees blocked the shore. It was not an ideal place to be hiking barefoot and I longed for water shoes.

Despite the precarious positions that Chi led me through, it was a thrilling hike, taking us through a bit of raw, unspoiled terrain in alpine Vietnam. There was not a single sign of humanity—not a piece of garbage, a sawed tree limb, or even a real trail. There wasn’t even any wildlife. It was just us, the river, and the hum of the water which grew louder as we approached the waterfall.

After a difficult section where we had to cross a fallen tree, the waterfall came into sight. It was a modest falls, no bigger than the others I’d seen in the distance for the past few days. But it was unquestionably majestic as I stood beneath it, catching its clean spray. This was a completely pristine natural shrine, unencumbered by viewing platforms and undisturbed by busloads of tourists. It was completely worth the unorthodox trip to get there.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sapa Day 1

Saturday, July 28

The Hanoi train station is a jungle of taxis and unhelpful officials. There are no English signs. I pressed my way through mobs of European tourist and onto the grim train platforms, uncertain which aging train was the 8:40 to Lao Cai. Before I could say a word, a Vietnamese guy snatched my ticket and started speed walking down on of the platforms. He was a tiny little guy—no more than 5 feet—but he managed a blistering walking speed, so fast that I had to break into a trot. Abruptly, he turned into a car and showed me to my cabin. The cost of his unsolicited guidance--$2, a princely fee bargained down to $1.

Three men were settled into my cabin playing cards. I greeted the men in my cabin, squeezing in with my backpack and a satchel which I’d created with my Tower sweatshirt and a thin belt. I must have looked pretty funny coming in. I offered to take one of the two top bunks and started making small talk in my very limited Vietnamese. I sat there gesticulating, stammering barely comprehensible Vietnamese and they just looked at each other and smiled. It took me ten minutes to realize that they were from China. I should have known. The train was headed to Lao Cai, on the Sino-Vietnamese border and would go on to various destinations in Southern China. These guys were from Kunming.

I'd gotten off to a shaky start, but we became friends in a short time. Collectively, they only spoke a few words of English, but they invited me to play cards. At first the game seemed like the universal game where players go around in a circle putting down combinations of cards in an ascending order. But this version had twists within twists. I focused hard, taking their advice and studying their plays carefully, but I was completely mystified by this local variant. Li, a shirtless man who looked like Mao Zedong, and Chiang, his younger companion, yelled things in Chinese, trying to explain obvious elements of the game. But it was hopeless. I wished I knew Chinese or one of them knew English so that I could get to the bottom of their game. At one point, a tall wiry man named Deng entered the scene. He wore glasses and had the gentle serenity of a Chinese intellectual. I was sure that he would know English, would rescue me. No luck.

Even though I was a worthless card player, I got along fine with the group. They were full of questions, which they found a way to express. How old are you? What’s your profession? Are you really from America? Are you married? Are you going to Kunming? Would you like to go to Kunming? Are you traveling alone? They were very surprised when I answered that I didn’t have friends with me. They thought I was crazy.

At one point, Deng opened up his billfold and showed off some Thai bills. He even had one from Laos, which he proudly displayed. I suspected that they guys worked in Thailand and were coming home to visit their families. I discreetly dug into my money belt and dug up a Turkish bill. They all squinted at the engraving of Ataturk. “Ah, Tur Quia!”, Li yelled, giving a thumbs-up. I had defeated Deng in the exotic-bill competition.

I tried to sleep, squirming around on the plastic cushion and filthy pillow covered with black hairs. A dead insect, the size of a humming bird, languished in the cage of a rotating ceiling fan, which provided some relief to the tropical weather, but not enough to sleep.

Right as I was about to nod off, the train clanked to a stop. Li pulled up the window and course female hands popped into the cabin, offering eggs and snatching bills. The Chinese bought two dozen eggs and offered me one, which I warily accepted. It was scalding hot, just taken out of the boiling pot a moment before. I peeled it and it made a surprisingly tasty midnight snack. I wondered how many guidebooks would recommend eating eggs in Nowhere, Vietnam.

I managed to get about two hours of uneasy sleep, waking up at 4:30 when the train rolled in to Lao Cai. I was still dark as I found my van to Sapa. The bus ride was miserable. Light slowly came over the mountainous landscape, but the sky was overcast. A cold rain chilled the mood of the travelers, who sat in silence recovering from the red eye train. I looked out the window, watching the uninviting landscape abruptly twist by. I didn’t see any walking trails or resources for tourists. Were the Chinese right? Was I crazy to come here alone, without a tour group? A man vomited in the passenger seat, crowning the mood.

I was in Sapa before 7 and decided to start “trekking” (as they call hiking in Vietnam). I bought a map of the Sapa area, two big waters, and a sweet dumpling stuffed with squash paste for breakfast. A sharp drizzle was coming down so I put on my blue parka I started down the main paved road that connected Sapa with the villages to the east. Few cars passed by—only motorbikes. Motorbikers slowed down to offer me a ride, maybe for free, maybe for a small fee. I politely refused them all, wary of motorbikes and determined to see Sapa on foot. But I was glad that they stopped because it reassured me that I could speed things up in a pinch.

The main thoroughfare of Sapa

The road cut across steep mountains, covered in wet groves of bamboo. Children drove teams of water buffalo up the twisted road. I didn’t see a single tourist or tour bus—it was still too early.

Eventually, I reached the point in the road where the Lao Chai village was supposed to be. I stopped at a cluster of houses where a group of costumed villagers was gathered. I greeted them and inquired about Lao Chai. A cluster of short teenage girls surrounded me and talked to me in surprisingly advanced English. Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? You buy from me? Throughout the weekend, I would be constantly barraged by these questions, always in that order, priming me to buy some variation of tribal embroidery. Even local women who don’t work in the tourism industry full time carry around satchels of embroidery in case they run across tourists on the road.

Despite the constant harassment from women selling things I didn't want, Sapa had a very authentic feel. Before I went to Australia, I thought that kangaroos would be a rare curiosity only seen in zoos. But it turned out that kangaroos were found everywhere--on the roads, chewing up golf courses--everywhere. It was a similar situation in Sapa. When I first saw the women in their strange tribal dress, I figured that they only wore those outfits to help them sell handbags to tourists in search of the exotic. But as I ventured farther and farther out of Sapa, I noticed that everyone wore tribal dress, even in places that rarely saw tourists. And even if it seemed like every last person was born to sell things to tourists, it could not hide the fact that tourism was a minor sideshow to the main industry in the Sapa area--rice farming, using techniques that hadn't changed in eons.

I issued a hundred refusals to buy embroidery, but I distributed fake Oreos, which delighted the children. I agreed to let a couple women walk me down to Lao Chai and purchased a bamboo pole, sharpened with a machete, as a walking stick. The pole would stay with me through three days of trekking. I named it Joel. Joel the Pole.

I was instantly glad that I had bought Joel. The path down to the village was covered in a slick layer of red mud, deep enough to loose a shoe in. Without grabbing a villager in one hand and digging the bamboo into the mud with the other, I would have slipped into the muck several times. I edged my way down slowly, negotiating each difficult step. Little girls in rubber sandals sped down the hill without giving it a thought, making me feel geriatric.

I expended my small bills and told my entourage that I’d like them to come with me but that I couldn’t pay them anymore. They took off, leaving me alone with Joel to stumble down the slimy road into the river valley, full of farm houses and terraced rice fields. On the way down, I lost the main road and ended up on the other side of a farm. I spotted the road on the other side of the farm and followed what I thought was a narrow access road over there. But before I knew it, it led me onto the mud embankment that separated one rice terrace from the field below. The embankment was just eight inches wide and just as slippery as the other muddy roads. It was like walking across a balancing beam lathered in KY Jelly. I struggled with each step. Several times I lost my balance and were it not for last minute rescues by Joel, I would have gone splashing into the rice paddies three feet below.

Somehow I was delivered to the main path and made my way into Lao Chai, which, like most villages in this area, was a mere decentralized hamlet of tin roofed huts and an occasional bridge. I met a Hmong girl on the footbridge and we had a conversation, free of charge. She was amazed at how small my family was. “Just one sister! I have three sisters and two brothers.” The girl let me examine her dress, which on close examination was a deep blue, not black. She showed me the indigo plant, which the Hmong use to color their distinctive dress. All around Sapa, Hmong women have bright blue hands, which comes from dipping fabric into vats of indigo dye.

I continued through the valley, through miserable muddy roads into the villages of Ta Van and Giang Ta Van. I didn’t cross paths with a single vehicle, only the occasional water buffalo or Hmong woman. Tourists supposedly come down to these villages with tour guides, but it was still too early. I had caught the valley at its quiet morning routine.

I walked back up to the main paved road and continued east. The road narrowed to one lane and cut through the north side of the valley, affording magnificent views of the valley floor and the western mountains, Vietnam’s highest. Waterfalls cascaded down the distant slopes.

It was now past nine and the tourists had emerged along the main road, although as I advanced east, they diminished and finally disappeared altogether. I walked another ten kilometers, a pleasant stroll because the road was flat and the weather was cool and overcast. I arrived in Ban Den, a dusty one-road town that reminded me of a Western mining town. Local men played pool on primitive billiards tables. I stopped for a wonderful $1 dish of fried noodles and beef, my first stop of the day. I was 15 kilometers east of Sapa and it was still only noon.

I was struck with a bold plan. I would walk fifteen more kilometers east, nearly to the end of the district, as far as the paved road goes. Sapa tourists often arranged homestays with the tribal people and I would find cheap lodging with a village family. It would be a real adventure—a vast trek to the edge of civilization and an authentic cultural experience.

Alas it was not to be. I left Ban Den on what seemed to be the main road. It took me up into the hills, past teams of rockbreakers swinging picks axes. The road turned north into a narrow river valley. Road traffic became as sparse as the farmhouses. After a few kilometers, the road switched around to the south and I kept going, hoping to end up on the main road near Muong Bo, the next major settlement to the east. Along the way, I stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. The family was Dao (pronounced “Zow”), another tribal minority distinguished by their prominent foreheads and large red head scarves. They stared at me warily, unable to grasp why a strange traveler was pointing to a chart full of colored lines and place names. They, like almost every villager I met in the Sapa area, had little concept of a map. I snatched a glance into their wooden house, peering through the haze of a cooking fire into the dirt floor room. With the exception of the old lady’s iron-rimmed spectacles, there was nothing about these people’s lives that would have seemed foreign to their distant ancestors, as far as I could tell.

Several more miles passed and the road began yet another switchback into another huge side valley. It was only 2pm and I had plenty of energy left, but this time I wanted to know for sure that this road would lead somewhere. I interrupted a pair of Dao women who were watching over a gang of water buffaloes bathing in a muddy hole. Again, I pointed to my map and muttered questions in what must have been a bewildering concoction of Vietnamese and cave man grunts. They took a hard look at the map and then looked at me sheepishly, like a puppies who had just peed on the rug. I smiled and thank them, but I raged inside, exasperated with the simple villagers I’d encountered that day. What’s the matter with you people? Why do you never know where you live? Why don’t you know how to read a map? Why don’t you understand my Vietnamese?

As it became clear that I was lost, I was faced with a lonely six mile walk back to Ban Den. It was too much to bear. All day, motorbikes had passed me offering lifts, and finally I accepted. Just twenty bumpy minutes later, I was back in Ban Den, feeling self conscious in front of the villagers, who had watched me charge out confidently two hours earlier.

According to my map, I could walk down into the river valley and arrive at more villages to the east in just a few hours of walking. But I had already walked 30 kilometers that day and I was losing my appetite for questionable adventures. It was time to head back to Sapa. 15 kilometers of paved road lay between the dusty mainstreet of Ban Den and my air conditioned room at the Summit Hotel. I could take a motorbike. But I could also walk. That would be a 45 kilometer day—30 whole miles to brag about to friends and grandchildren. It was settled. It had to be done.

I set out retracing my steps. Groups of children greeted me yelling “Hello” and “Goodbye” as I passed. I started taking pictures of one group but the elder leader, a five year old girl, came forward and demanded “Picture money!” She’d been well trained by her parents and her unseemly demands netted each of her companions a six cent bill. Other groups of tag-alongs were less welcome. The countryside was teeming with mangy dogs which made me nervous. Rabies is a big problem in Vietnam and I knew that one bite from a local dog would force me to rush back to Hanoi or Bangkok for life-saving rabies shots. I eyed the dogs warily, gripping Joel tightly, ready to swing at any dog that attacked. Fortunately, none did.

The sun had at last parted the clouds and before I could slap on sunscreen, I got badly sunburned on my neck and arms. The walk was becoming less enjoyable. My hips were sore and my calves started to spasm and give way. Hot spots bloomed into full-blown blisters on the soles of my feet. It was miserable. But the 30 mile goal had been dangled in my imagination and there was no turning back.

Step by step, the kilometer markings slowly passed by. But it was painful. For the first time that day, I was forced to take breaks, collapsing in makeshift cafes to sip water. At the last stop I had just five more kilometers to go. That’s only like three miles, I reasoned. I peeled myself off the bench with a groan and got back on the road. I began to feel dizzy before long, considering yet another rest stop. I whipped my brow and froze. There was no sweat. I remembered from first aid classes that one of the first signs of heat exhaustion is the loss of sweat. I stopped to consider what I should do. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe I’d stopped sweating because the weather was cooling and I had just taken a rest stop. I decided to be prudent, to end this masochistic bravado and scrap my quest for 30 miles. 40 kilometers would have to do.

A man pulled up beside me on a motorbike, probably the hundredth who had solicited a motorbike fare from me that day. I looked over and gasped, “Yes!”, resigning myself to defeat and a hotel bathtub.

(Left to right) Joel, my left foot, my right foot by late afternoon