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.