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December 15th 2014
Published: December 15th 2014
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Oh, just typing the word make me happy. It was such a gem of my trip. The antithesis of my Halong Bay experience.

As an aside, I should probably stop hating on Halong Bay. So many people love it. Just a personal and uncommon opinion.

I get back to the hotel, and I meet a nice American architect from Minnesota. We get to chatting and decide to go around the corner to try to bia hoa, or fresh beer. By "bar" I mean a structure with a porch like thing and kid size tables and chairs which you scrunch into with the other locals. Goo thing the Vietnamese are small, because the furniture for dining is just comical. I don't know much about the beer except that it's brewed fresh that day and is cheap and low in alcohol. It comes out very fizzy and light, not amazing in taste, but cold and good for a hot day. We have a few of them. Perfect way to get a little sleepy for my night train.

I board the night train to Sapa with Michael, a German math teacher also staying at my hotel. The hotel staff drives us to the train station, helps with our luggage, and puts us right into our train cabin. So nice and stress free. There are four beds in the cabin, and cozy but not obnoxiously small. We are soon joined by a very giggly 24 year old Vietnamese girl and her "boss" going to Sapa for business. They come bearing beers at least, and offer Michael and I one. She talks to us for a while in very broken English, punctuated with peals of high pitched laughter from unclear comedy. She is clearly happy to find out Michael and I are not a couple, openly flirts with Michael, and invites him to visit her later. She then goes on to play cards with her boss on her bed, as they scream at each other and laugh. I really don't understand. They are sitting right next to each other, and just yelling what appears to be normal conversation. I feel like I'm in an Asian B movie which should maybe have some Kung Fu and soft porn involved. A few hours less sleep is worth my internal laughter and appreciation of the wholly odd situation. I'm pretty sure she would have left with Michael if he would have offered to make her his bride.

I sleep for most of the train ride once once the colleagues finally turn in. We are 3 hours delayed because the train workers actually had to get off the train to fix some of the tracks along the way. I find out later that the arriving train takes the bad tracks because no one ever has to get to Sapa on time, where the departing train has pristine tracks so people can catch their flight and bus connections in Hanoi. We arrive in Lao Cai, a small city near Sapa. There are men waiting for us with our names on a sign. Again, so nice and stress free. These are the perks of tours. Lao Cai isn't much to speak of, there's a city center with restaurants and hotels, but seems mainly like just a stop off for Sapa. We get in a van and have about an hour ride to Sapa. It was cool in Lao Cai and is actually quite chilly in Sapa. We are dropped off at our hotel where we meet our guide, Ang, and a French Canadian who will be joining in our trek for the day. We have breakfast at the hotel and they give us a room to shower and freshen up. I just bring a day pack, and we rent rain boots to trek in. Rain boots seem weird for hiking, but all the locals have them on so I go with it. We walk through the city of Sapa which is really just one city block with some bars, a market and a museum. Mulled wine is advertised everywhere interestingly enough. We then head out for a 10km trek to a hilltop village where we will be spending the night.

We are instantly followed closely by a group of Black Hmong women. I ask Ang what they are doing, and he says the women trek down to the city center every day and wait for a group of tourists, and then they follow them on the way back to their village. Once at the village, they try to sell you their wares. One of the women looks about 50 and asks me a lot of questions. She even grabs my arm a few times when I am slipping in the mud, and I can't believe how steady she is, just firm footed as a tree trunk. I know she's going to want me to buy something off her later, but I don't really care. The path is VERY muddy and slippery, and I would have landed on my ass without her help. We make some stops along the way for viewpoints and lunch, etc. We are in winter, so the fog is dense and we cannot make out the epic views of the rice terraces you see in the photos. But we can see the sights in our near vision, and the rice terraces are beautiful and impressive. The plots are sown anywhere from one to three times a year, and the rice is typically just used locally. We are surrounded by pigs and waterbufallo, ducks and chickens, little kids in the villages and different tribeswomen distinguishable by their clothing and hats. The women are known for their handmade, brightly dyed clothing. We first stop at the Black Hmong village and our harem of women leave us. As expected, they aggressively push their wares, so I buy a bracelet really only as a tip for her assistance, and at 1/4the the price she originally asked. Now I'm happy I have it though, nice to have a token of the experience.

We ultimately arrive at the Red Zhao village and spend some time looking around the elementary school. The local teachers even invite us to a game of badminton later. We head up to the Vi household where we will be staying for the night. The home is big and well kempt, with hot showers and a flush toilet. Nothing fancy, but very suitable. We will sleep in the loft where there are mattresses on the floors (that autocorrected to "mistresses" and I almost left it) and canopies. We are greeted with tea and then have our showers and a little nap. The shower feels so good, I can barely rip my way out of it. We are joined by Patty, a woman born in Ecuador, raised in Columbia, studied engineering, married to a Pakistani engineer, with four children across the globe, and of course a son in Palo Alto who works for Tesla. She is teeming with life experience and world travels and love for her children and I feel I will see her again in the future. Just a warm soul.

And now the magic begins. The Vi household just embraces us as their own. First we meet Vi Hoa, who is the ringleader. She is 26 and it's her birthday. But it's actually her sister's home, who lives there with her inlaws and one child. Hoa also takes care of a young boy who I believe is her nephew from another sister, and supports him as a mother. Big takes for a young single woman. The husbands are gone at a wedding. Ang and Khuyen also join us, who are the guides. The little boys run around causing trouble and saying the three English sentences they know. The father in law wears his beret and checkered scarf and sits next to a dish of hot coals for heat. He is there all day and night until he sleeps, but accepts visits from anyone who would like to join him. See picture. He is my favorite person.

So we all get to making dinner together. We are cooking a duck from tip to tail. The women are constantly working in the kitchen. They do the butchering, cleaning, and all the food preparation. We help roll spring rolls of sautéed cabbage and carrots in rice paper and pan fry them. We cook on an electric skillet and directly over the fire. We sauté the duck breast with ginger and peppers, cook the duck neck meat with herbs and a big bowl of duck blood, and throw the rest of the bird in a pot to make a broth for a "hot pot". We have also sautéed some tofu with tomatoes, but I think any vegetarian would be crying at this point. I have to say I appreciate that they really utilize the animal, nothing goes to waste.

The finale is the unveiling of a large wooden cylinder which is full of steaming sticky rice. There is white rice and orange rice, the orange gets it's color from a fruit. The women pull out handfuls of this glorious rice and place on a large stone table. The orange rice is tossed with oil and vinegar, shallots and some spices, and the white with oil and some sugar. The mother-in-law then just goes to town on the rice. It was so funny, she ate sooooo much. And she kept making balls of it and handing it to us as well. I had to finally refuse so I could still have room for dinner. I guess it's a real delicacy. They wrap the leftovers (there is still a ton) in banana leaves which will keep for some time.

We finally assemble around the table with the hotpot on a hot plate right in the middle. It is the three travelers, Michael, Patty and I, Hoa, Hoa's sister, her best friend Khyuen and her husband, a cousin (can't remember her name), Phong, Ang and the other Khuyen. Notably absent are the two kids and the grandparents. The kids still run about, and unclear where the grandparents eat. They may have just turned in early. The final addition is two large bowls of "Happy water" or homemade rice wine. We then eat. And eat. It is a glorious loud family dinner of clanking plates and chopsticks and conversation. We have a small separate dish for bones, because none of the meat is deboned. We throw large stalks of Chinese greens into the hotpot which cooks them. We "invite" others to drink the shots of rice wine with us. You can invite the table or one person individually. We use a cheers "Mo Kai Bai yo" (1-2-3 drink) or "jum-fum-jum" (100%). After you cheers and drink, you stand up and shake the other's hand. Michael forgets Hoa's name, so he becomes he target of many drinks. We are served star fruit and pear for dessert. The women are very discerning, and if they feel someone is too sober, they definitely get an invitation for another one.

We keep drinking after dinner, and the poor young cousin really cleans up most everything. We are all a bit saucy at this point, so I leave with Hoa and Khuyen and we do massages and cupping in the back room. I avoid the cupping because with my fair skin I didn't want the large dark marks all over for weeks. But they are very serious about the art of the massage and cupping and the benefits to health. Hoa confides in me she is really happy we are there, because a lot of her friends bailed at the last minute saying the drive was too cold. It warms my heart - maybe we have given her something, too. The night finishes by playing games with the children by the fire and drinking tea, and we all slip into a boozy slumber, only awakened by fighting dogs and roosters who crow at any point of the night. Fortunately the rice wine kept away the cold.

We rise around 7:30, have breakfast and tea, and have a very sad goodbye. Everyone wakes up in the same clothes from yesterday, and that's the outfit of today. I think it's probably common. I have a bit of a heart to heart with Ang around the fire about his first love who is now married to someone else. He is 20. Ah, young love. Vietnamese marry early, however - women at 18 and men at 20 is typical, and large families are very common. We have another 6km trek to a waterfall and another village, have lunch, and head back to the hotel for warm showers. At this point we say goodbye to Ang with big hugs. We spend some time in Sapa at the market and in the museum (skip). The city is so foggy that we can barely see our hands in front of our faces. The women at the market are quite aggressive peddlers. They always ask, "what's your name? Where are you from?" And when Michael says "Germany", the women say, "Oh Germany. So you must have money, so buy from me." A bit annoying.

I grab a 30 minute $5 foot massage and then take the van back to the train station. The ride is so foggy on cliffs without guardrails and traffic and motorbikes, I just have to close my eyes and pray because there is no way the driver can see more than 2 feet ahead of him. But of course we arrive safely, and I get on the night train back to Hanoi. I sleep the whole way with dreams of family- hugs, laughter, and communion around a dinner table. My Vietnamese Thanksgiving.


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