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March 5th 2016
Published: March 13th 2016
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Guide's Family's homestay. Much more elaborate than the one we stayed in.
Breakfast was Vietnamese style, a thin broth with vegetables, fried rice and a meat dish. We were then hustled down the slippery, mist-sprayed dirt path to the end of the road where our guide and driver awaited. He seemed to know where we were going. He mentioned a few place names I had written down as possibly interesting. We had a 7.5 hour drive ahead of us to get near the Chinese border. He would have to take our passports to register with the authorities.

Sa Pa was larger than I thought. It took us about 15 minutes to get through the centre of town. It was then miles and miles of barely two lane roads, working our way up the valley we had descended the day before. The driver skilfully worked around slow moving vehicles and pulled back into our lane before being smashed by on-coming traffic.

We passed through many minority villages, each with its own colourful dress and house style. The lunch stop was at the driver’s in-laws where we were also introduced to his wife and baby daughter. They seem to be well off by this country’s standards. They run a homestay and cinnamon plantation. The dried bark and powder that I use will never be the same after tasting the fresh leaf stems of this tree.

Another typical meal. Seated on an ornately carved bench, we were served green tea. Not the Lipton variety for sure. Leaves are put into the pot and boiled water added. The small cups were rinsed twice and the tea was served. It is quite strong and bitter. The leaves fill the teapot. No sugar in sight.

Lunch was served on mats on the floor. We sat cross-legged on the floor and as yesterday served ourselves from the many dishes. There was rice and soup. There were two pork dishes. One was chopped pieces with gristle and skin still attached. Nothing was left on people's plate. The other dish was smoked pork. Basically, barely cooked bacon with rind still on. And there was blood pudding,which I usually don't like, but in small pieces it was not bad. Also, the usual greens with fibrous stalks. Papa had broken out his rice wine, the strongest I had tasted yet.

After yesterday’s trek, my legs wouldn’t bend far enough to allow me to sit cross-legged. I had to sit
Guide's FamilyGuide's FamilyGuide's Family

Wife, daughter and in-laws
with my legs out straight which made it difficult for me to reach the dishes on the other side of the serving platter. I practically had to lie down to reach them. The driver took it upon himself to feed me. He used his chopsticks to continually drop morsels into my rice bowl. I did my best to hide the skin and gristle. Watermelon for dessert.

This hospitality warranted a bottle of maple syrup. I did my best to explain. I cracked open the bottle and put a little into a spoon to Mama to taste. Out of politeness she tried it. In hind-sight, I think it would have been better to leave it unopened and it would have found an honoured place in the curio cabinet.

With the limpest of handshakes we were on the road again. The road was under construction so the uneven surface helped digestion. As we went along there were fewer and fewer signs of foreign tourism. Gone were the English signs and tourist hotels. People stared at us more. The villages hanging on the steep hillsides were poorer and poorer. I can’t imagine climbing these steep karst hillsides to get to school, market or their meagre plots of fertile land of soil brought in from elsewhere.

In a large town we stopped at a pharmacy to get some antibiotics for my cough. The druggist put together a selection of five medications. I decided to take only the antibiotic and a codeine pill. I checked later on the internet but could not find the drugs listed. Not in English anyways. They seemed to work as my coughing stopped but made my heart beat faster and stronger.

Down the other side of the mountain, the driver’s GPS began to beep. The government dictates that truckers, bus and taxi drivers must take a one hour break after 4.5 hours of driving. Quite understandable, considering the treacherous driving conditions and the flimsy guard rails. We pulled into our destination with a few minutes to spare, before he would be fined.

Our hotel, the Thau Nguyen Hotel, in Yen Minh, though listed as a three star establishment, barely warrants two. I cannot find it listed on the internet. Cars are parked in the lobby! The bed has no mattress to speak of, barely better than a plank. The pillows are really small and only a thin comforter to cover us in the small bed. The walls need washing and there are mild stains. Claudette is not a happy camper and complains to the guide. What can he say. This is luxury for him, coming from a small hamlet in the middle of the jungle.

We meet for supper and are taken to a nearby local restaurant where we are served a set menu, basically the same thing we have eaten for days. This is nothing what I was expecting and is a far cry from the dishes I have seen in cookbooks and have even tried myself. Back to our hotel and to bed. We had a really hard time getting back into our room. The key would not turn until I pulled on the door at the same time. It is probably a good thing that this place is unlisted. I don’t have much good to say about it.

Some of the places we visited on this whirl-wind tour were Thai Nguyen, Cal Bang, Lang Son and Meo Vac.

Additional photos below
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One of Hundreds. Cudos to the driver.

Can be found in a basket at the end of a table in most local restaurants. One purchases a pinch of tobacco, fires it up and inhales quickly. Exhale a cloud of smoke and that hold off the nicotine urge for an hour or so. Cigarettes can also be bought individually, which seems to be the norm.

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