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CHINA | Saturday, 17 May 2008 | Views [2188] | Comments [1]

North Vietnam is nothing like I expected it to be. Perhaps it is only that Sapa (a small village known for its good trekking and mountain tribe women dressed in traditional clothing and selling hand made crafts) is the exception to the rule for this country, but after being in China for a few days I have trouble seeing how anyone can say that Vietnam is louder, more crass, or greedier than its larger neighbor to the north. Everyone here smiles constantly. Well, of course that is a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly I have been pleasantly surprised with the number of upturned corners of lips being displayed.

A few of the mountain tribe women have already remembered my name, and when I ran into one of them while exploring the road that leads into the village, she recognized me immediately and called out "Mathen! Mathen!" from across the road. We chatted for a second before I headed off as I was on my way back to the hotel to write and take a bit of a nap (even now as I write my eyes are heavy from lack of sleep last night, but all around me is the BANG BANG BANGing of the current construction project on the hotel, and on every building nearby so napping might be out of the question).

Last night I was again on an overnight sleeper bus heading from Kunming to Hekou, which is the town that borders Vietnam. The border is literally a river, and crossing from China over into Vietnam is done by walking across the bridge. Funny, that the guys in China peered over every detail of my passport, finding an apparent problem, telling me it was a problem, and then after I had squirmed just a bit, deciding that it was an acceptable problem and moving on before finally letting me pass through the gates. Vietnam, on the other hand, didn’t even seem to mind that I had accidentally written the wrong date on the card. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. I’m still on the China side of the river, after having been dropped off by the overnight bus that led me through rural China, which becomes more and more tropical the further south you go. The people also seem to wear less and less, so that by the time I neared the border town young children were standing on the side of the road naked from the waist down (something I have found to be quite common in Vietnam as well).

It is strange to look across the river and know that you are looking at a completely different culture, a different way of life with different food, different language, different sense of humor and sadness, all separated by one measly little river. As I mentioned a number of times already, I love China. I definitely plan to go back there at some point and I feel lucky to have been there during this period of change, but already I have the feeling I might like Vietnam even more.

I passed through the border gates and then I was standing in Vietnam, actually standing in this place that has been the catalyst for so many war movies of my childhood, in this place that shaped for a long time the image of what war is, and I was struck by the fact that a number of these old men might have been in hand to hand combat with someone that looked at the time quite a bit like I do now, and it sent a bit of a shiver down my spine. But the shiver didn’t last for long, because after getting in the minibus to Sapa valley we stopped to pick up some other people heading there as well.

The one man in the group jumped in the back and immediately threw his arm around me and before I knew it we were bouncing along the bumpy roads conversing as though we had planned to meet on this very minibus sometime long ago. His name is Tihga (kind of like Tiger) and he runs a car company in Ho Chi Minh. And his English was phenomenal, save the one or two times his pronunciation got in the way of my understanding him. Every time the conversation lets up for a bit I stare out the window at old men gambling in the street and women cooking Pho on the roadside, at children playing and dogs scrounging for scraps. And the whole time his arm is around me and he’s sitting closer than I’m used to, until towards the end he falls asleep and I look out the window until we reach the Town. Of course as he gets off he tells me I must fly directly to Ho Chi Minh to teach English there, because with my voice I would get a job very quickly, and I thank him but tell him I have plans back home.

And that brings me to the town of Sapa, where everyone seems to be happy and it seems that bartering is kind of a game. I found a hotel immediately and decided to splurge for the 8 dollar a night room (not realizing of course that there would be constant construction going on) and after dropping off my bags I went to the restaurant that the Lonely Planet picked as a favorite. For breakfast/lunch I had a delicious chicken and lemongrass plate with rice and tomatos and cucumbers and a beer which set me back about 3.50$ total, and then I went outside to explore.

What at first was endearing has become annoying as the Mountain Tribe women pester me to buy their wares. "Please buy for me," they beg, following you down the street. One woman followed me for about 7 minutes telling me in her pigeon English that she was hungry and she had no money so would I please buy something. The irony is that at that point I had not yet used the ATM and so I, too, was quite literally out of cash.

Eventually I made my way to the road that leads into the "forest area" which is a large expanse of mountains that have all been terraced for farming, and there are also a number of villages amongst all the mountains. I have signed up for a two day trek which leaves tomorrow morning and finishes Sunday evening, so we will see how much I enjoy it. I have trouble believing that it will compare with Tiger Leaping Gorge. Part of this is just because it is a guided tour rather than something done on my own, but for 25 dollars including food and lodging at a home in one of the Mountain tribes, I decided to go ahead and give it a try.

One more thing of interest today, while I was walking along the path, I passed three young boys. The first, about 8, was carrying a handful of dead land crabs that he had been collecting. The second, who was around 5, was carrying a dead chick, not so much cradling it as carrying it with a kind of gentle curiosity, and the last, who was about 4 or so, was carrying a large piece of bamboo which had been turned into a makeshift spear.

The next blog will be about my adventures on the trek (or misadventures), so be sure to check in in a couple of days.

A couple of other things have happened since I wrote this on my cpu in the hotel and I am posting it now.  First of all, all the power went off, as well as a number of other things, but I wrote a lot in my moleskine so I guess I will post that stuff later.  What an exciting night!  One day in Vietnam and already I love it!

Tags: sapa, vietnam



Hi there! I've really enjoyed reading your blogs and seeing your pictures. Unless I missed it, you haven't gotten around yet to writing about the earthquake, and the Leaping Tiger Gorge.

You must be back from your trek in Vietnam by now and on to the next place, Cambodia perhaps?

I'm glad you are having such a great and interesting trip - could hardly be otherwise, though sometimes it gets hard.

Nancy leaves tomorrow for New Mexico to spend the memorial Day weekend with her Venezuala girl friends the Spoons. I'll be here. next week Ben comes Weds and Alex's graduation is Friday, then I leave Saturday for a week of medictation retreat and ten-camping in North Carolina mountains. Much love and go well, Mathen!

  Andrew Rock May 23, 2008 5:30 AM

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