4 December 2001
Just back from Sapa, a former French hill station, in the mountains north of Hanoi. Hill stations were where colonial types used to go to escape the summer heat at lower altitudes. I went with a (supposedly) environmentally-sound small group tour: five (Western) tourists and a guide, L.
The itinerary included visiting “hill tribes”, namely the Black H’Mong. It was interesting enough, seeing the conditions people live in – literally scraping a living off the soil, and barefoot children carrying baskets of sticks and other stuff that were almost as big as they were. The baskets were like tall, narrow buckets that go on the back, like a rucksack. I’m not sure if they have a waist strap, but the way of keeping the top close to the bearer’s body is a strap that goes across the bearer’s forehead; I guess if you’ve done that all your life it doesn’t seem weird. Even though I think/hope the tour company pays the people for letting us visit their homes, I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit uncomfortable, as though we were intruding in some way. It was like having a tour group come to my home in the UK to take pictures of “the local indigenous people in their village”. We stopped for tea at one house and when I used the ‘toilet’ it was basically three walls of woven grass over a drain leading to a padi field. That wouldn’t happen at home, of course, and it has rather put me off rice…
On the way back we passed a cemetery and L told me that in Vietnam, the custom is to bury dead relatives in a place where their flesh is likely to rot quickly, then, after three or so years, dig up the remains, wash the bones clean and then rebury them, so the departed can then rest in peace. That’s familial devotion for you! And, thinking about it, one way of reducing pressure on our rapidly-filling cemeteries, although I’m not sure how popular it would prove in the UK.
The countryside around Sapa is really beautiful but the town itself is less attractive, and it’s full of tribespeople trying to sell tourists stuff. They’re mainly very old-looking women who cling to your arm so you end up towing them down the street or young girls squealing: “You buy from MEEEEE!” Yeah, I know tourists are a good source of income for some really poor people, but there’s a limit to how much you can buy. Where the male tribespeople are is anyone’s guess, but according to what the guide said, I suspect there’s a fair chance they’re out of the way, pissed up on rice wine. I managed to escape the vendors and found the proper market. Then wished I hadn’t, as I blundered into what I assume was the ‘meat’ section and came face-to-face with a dog head. Still, it was baked and intact, so probably not as upsetting as it could have been.
I like to think we got a bit of revenge on the dog’s behalf when we went for bia hoy (beer) and karaoke in a dingy bar. We were put in a room on our own and we were very soon making such a racket the owner slammed the door shut so hard the walls moved. At my request, we ended the session with a communal, and extremely raucous, rendition of Jingle Bells. Only in Vietnamese, with choruses that went: “Bong bing bong, bong bing bong…” and “Dem No-well, Dem No-well…” We must have been pretty good, though, as the karaoke machine gave us the rather impressive score of 94.
The trip back was a laugh. Sapa is an overnight train journey and an hour-and-a-half minibus ride away from Hanoi. The minibus trip down the mountain was marginally more alarming than the journey up, but it passed without incident. When we got on the train, though, there was chaos. As I understand it, tour operators or hotels can commission whole trains or parts of trains. According to one of the guides, the hotel that had commissioned this train had messed up, and quite a lot of people – many of them tourists, including another group with the same company as us – couldn’t get in the seats booked for them. As it was an overnight train they would have nowhere to sleep; the other group’s guide, H, unsurprisingly, was not pleased. He got into a screaming row with a train attendant – so heated the attendant was threatening to throw him off the train (as in ‘throw’, not just bring the train to a halt and ask H to leave); passengers, cuddling their bulky luggage and looking forlorn, were shuffling through the carriages looking for anywhere to rest; it was dark, hot, late and the train was swaying from side-to-side. And in the midst of all this mayhem little boys were going from compartment to compartment asking hopefully: “Shoeshine? Shoeshine?”.