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 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