Face, Meet Vietnamese Mud

This is the journal entry where my parents start to worry about me in earnest. They shouldn’t though – I didn’t break any bones and other than a minor bruise or two, some muddy clothes were the major results of my first (and hopefully last) motorbike accident. My driver wasn’t hurt either. And the bike wasn’t damaged as far as I know, so really, it was the mud that won the contest between riders and road.

By the end of my second day in Sapa, I had tired of the relentless barrage of hard sell tactics by the local women, particularly those of the Black Hmong tribe. Following you everywhere with endless supplies of useless souvenir garbage no one would want to buy if their arms weren’t twisted to the breaking point by these women. I acknowledge that some of the embroidery is fine work and the effort involved in creating it is phenomenal, but it has little practical value and ornamentally, it would be out of place in most wardrobes or interior design schemes.

The penetration of the tourist trail into the area has fostered this ubiquitous entrepreneurship. At the same time, it’s tourists who started paying people for each photo they took and thus another cottage industry was born. The result is that few people in the area are willing to have their photo taken without some exchange taking place first. Usually, they are interested in selling you one of their many handicrafts and afterwards, they will let you snap a shot of them. But other than that, finding a willing subject is ridiculously difficult. With my supply of purchased bracelets growing while my wallet shrank, I decided to try to get off the tourist trail a little bit and see if I might have better luck with a tribe who hadn’t had so much contact with the Western world and its rampant capitalism.

The plan was to hop on the back of a rented motorbike with my guide and spend about an hour meandering down the mountains into the valley where a lovely village full of warm and gracious people would greet us.

Plans started going awry when the clouds covering Sapa extended much further into the valley than we had expected. The mists had moistened the road and my guide was letting out frightened sounds that indicated clearly she wasn’t an experienced driver. You know that stereotype about bad female Asian drivers? Well, she was giving it credence as we weaved along the slippery street.

I optimistically continued on with the ride, but continued my firm grip on the back of the bike despite my freezing fingers. The cold of Sapa’s heights was also migrating downhill and with it, my spirits. I kept having visions of the bike slipping out from under us and my leg being trapped, crushed beneath.

Mercifully, we stopped briefly at a boarding school where kids from the local tribes come to learn Vietnamese. I played with the kids for a while who were more than happy to see their own images on the display of my camera. Yes, some of the young kids were the exception to the rule of prohibited photography.

Strength briefly renewed, We left the misty, run-down school and continued the downward road. But the fear returned when the paved road ended and we hit the mud that would lead us the rest of the way down. Deep, slippery ruts proved to be far too much for my guide to negotiate and so I often found myself hopping off the bike when the way became too difficult. The bike then got pushed down through the mud and we re-boarded the bike when the way seemed safe enough.

This made for some slow going. And the whole ride was terrifying. When we hit the dirt road, there was not a single moment where I was not on my guard, ready to have my body thrown down the steep cliff beside us (as ready as one can be for that prospect at least).

A kilometre or two of this sluggish, frightening journey, we nearly fell off the bike and only our panicked legs planted into the mud saved us from toppling into the brown, pasty road. I had been imploring my guide to put an end to the madness and have us walk the rest of the way and this scare finally seemed to get through to her – she was in over her head.

We parked the bike at a roadside stand and left it with an old tribal woman then started trudging through the slippery mud. Walking wasn’t much quicker. Each step sent us sprawling sideways on the verge of splaying and falling headfirst into a slide down the hill. Only having slid about 50 metres of the way from the bike, my guide had convinced herself she could manage the rest of the ride. I have no idea what gave her that impression, but somehow, she managed to convince me to give it another go.

Everything told me not to do it: Her nervous yelps every time the bike threatened to escape her clutches. The low visibility. The incredulous looks of passers by who seemed confused that we had defied gravity up to this point. But still, I hopped on and said I was ready to go.

We probably made it about 100 metres. We were slowly negotiating a turn and the ruts were not so deep that we had to walk. But before I could determine what the horrified yelping from the front of the bike meant, I was sprawled face first on to of the bike and my guide was beside it with one leg underneath. Shocked, I had no idea what I was doing there. In the middle of my internal assessment of whether or not I had been hurt, she starts barking at me to move from my position. I had no idea what was going on, I rolled to the side and she freed herself from her spot.

I stood, covered in mud and continued my self-diagnosis. I was standing, so that was a good sign. My arms and fingers seemed to work though my wrists hurt a little. A couple other small but insignificant pains. Nope. I was all right. My guide was standing and seemed okay. I asked and she was fine.

The fall wasn’t really that hard, so I didn’t suspect anything would be wrong with the bike, but I was finished with the thing. I was ready to turn around and start walking the 18 or so kilometres back to Sapa while trying to hitch a ride that would get me there in time to catch the bus to Lao Cai so I could make my overnight train.

I turned to look uphill and a convoy of Vietnam War-era military jeeps was heading down the mountain. This could only mean one thing. Tourists! I had never been so happy to see a tour group in my life. They stopped when they saw our overturned bike and before they had finished offering a ride, I was on board. My guide wanted to walk the rest of the way down after she had parked the bike at the side of the road, but I didn’t really care about anything but being on four wheels instead of two at that point.

This group of German tourists seemed pretty confused to have me in their midst, but I happily rode the rest of the way down with them hardly saying a word and inspecting my mud-covered clothes. Even these extra durable jeeps were having a tough time navigating the slippery roads, but I seemed to fatalistically accept each slide we took. If I was going to die today, the best I could hope for was not to suffer much. I exaggerate, of course, but any ride would have seemed peaceful after that bike.

We reached the town in the valley and the German tour guide started speaking to his charge while I stood there wondering what the rest of the day had in store for me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to spend the night in this village and try to find a way back the next day, catching another train, or if I was somehow going to find my way back to Sapa for dinnertime.

I just decided to pull out my camera and try to have some fun for an hour. Just on hour. I’ll explore the town a little and see what I can see. Just on hour, then I’ll figure out what to do with myself.

No sooner had I made this decision than my guide wandered down the path. Incomprehensibly fleet of foot was this little Vietnamese girl. She soon led me off to her cousin’s home where we ate lunch. She then sent me off for a while alone in the village where I soon discovered that the people here weren’t exceptionally more friendly than anywhere else in the valley. In fact, higher up, the people will be more friendly to you in the hopes of selling you something.

In Ban Ho, I was just invisible. Invisible of course until I asked to take a photo. At that point, I was waved off by every single person I encountered except for one happy farmer who was happily sawing some bamboo. It was again only the kids that wanted to have anything to do with me. Them and the dogs roaming the town. Kids and dogs – the only folks out there who seemed to understand that I’m actually a pretty good guy.

My favourite kids were the ones who invited me into their modest wood house for a game of pool. More to the point, we were just smacking a few billiard balls around. These youngsters (maybe around six to nine years old) had enough trouble seeing over the crooked, worn table let alone accurately aiming a pool cue. But they didn’t care. They were elated whenever I managed to hit a shot (pure luck on this ridiculously off-kilter table). We laughed and giggled with each other then they happily shook my hand when we parted. Their only English was ‘Hello’ and ‘Bye bye,’ but we got along famously.

Unfortunately, one of the nearby residents had to try to spoil the encounter by trying to get me to give him money for playing pool with the kids. I thought maybe it should have been the other way around – after all, I was playing babysitter for a good while there. I shook my head and wondered to where the spirit of sharing disappeared.

I know these people are impoverished, but I have been in far poorer places and there, generosity reigned. So many people in Ghana, for example, were ready to part with everything they had, even though they had next to nothing.

Until a dozen years ago, I’m not sure that the people in this valley were unhappy in their ways. They had not changed their lifestyle for hundreds of years, so perhaps they were content. But I think perhaps the outside world changed that. I’m not going to try to formulate a theory about what happened here to cultivate the area’s changed demands – I really don’t know the history well enough – but I’m almost certain that ten years ago, my experience here would have been entirely different. Perhaps it would have been less comfortable, but I’m almost certain it would have been more rewarding.

After meeting up with my guide again, she told me we would be able to get a ride back with the German tourists at 3:30. That left plenty of time to get the bike and head back to Sapa. But at 3:00, I was just about to make my first friends in the area (I had been playing with some kids and the adults seemed to be warming up to me) my guide came around the corner and suggested we start climbing the mountain. The German group had not yet returned and she was sure there wouldn’t be enough time to get back unless we started off now.

The next hour or so was a power trek up steep and slippery slopes. Lacking traction on my worn-out shoes and lacking breath in my unacclimatized lungs, I sweat my way up the mountain. My guide bounded up the hill with unexpected energy and repeatedly committed one of the cardinal sins of leading a trek – she let the last person get out of sight. Good thing I never twisted that bad ankle of mine or anything. Of course, along the way, with my camera packed up, I passed a plethora of gorgeous, photogenic people. But that’s just me deluding myself into thinking that they would have allowed me to photograph them.

Covered in sweat we reached the bike and renewed the hop on hop off dance that described the last few kilometers of our ride. We finally reached the paved road and since the mists had abated, the rest of the ride wasn’t quite as treacherous.

Back at the hotel, I did my best to stay warm until the bus was set to take a group of us to Lao Cai.

After all that, I would still happily return to the area. It’s a gorgeous place to be. If I’m lucky enough to return, I will most definitely come during the summer to avoid the cold and bad weather. I would also like to be able to stay for a longer period and not do it as part of a tour. If I stayed for a couple weeks and was able to meet more of the people, there would be much more of a tendency for them to know that I wasn’t there to buy their goods. So, the vendors would be more likely to leave me alone and those interested in having a making a connection would be the ones that approached.

I know this because of a French couple I met on my second day. They were a week into their 12-day stay and were just talking with everyone. They had quickly insinuated themselves into the community. And I managed to make a few friends too in my short time there. There was a group of four girls who were cute as could be and spoke good English. They were happy to talk for a couple hours and only once in a while reverted to their habit of asking, ‘You buy?’

So, Sapa, until next time. I hope maybe you can find a bit more of what you probably used to be in that time (unless you prefer it this way).

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