I love it, love it, love it here; it’s not quite as glorious as the boutique hotel in Hanoi but considering we are in the outback of Vietnam it is modern and well appointed. The walk to breakfast was glorious as the clouds hung over the mountains and obscured the peaks in spots but the day was crisp and fresh and it just made us feel happy to have the fantastic fortune of being in Vietnam.
We had about an hour before we needed to be at reception so we caught up on e-mails and made a Skype call to some friends. It was a bonus for us to be able to activate the video so they could see and get a bit of a feel for this amazing lodge. This was followed by our quickly getting ready then taking the hike to reception to meet Hung for today’s trek. The Red Dao posse was there to greet us again and they still couldn’t believe we were not buying anything.
The valley in this region seems to go by a number of different names along its length: Llaoc Sai Tavan and Muong Sao are two I heard and the village where we started our trek was Ziang Ta Csai; all very confusing but all part of this amazing experience.
The door to the SUV had no sooner opened than we and every other tourist in sight were swarmed by about 80 laughing and smiling Black H’Mong women. Every one of them had a handicraft to sell and every one of them made perseverance a hated trait. They would not let up and saying no thank you in their language or ours just added fuel to their fire. Their tactics were now known to us thanks to the Red Dao at the lodge.
As we commenced our descent down a gravel road into the scenic valley toward the village of Lao Chai, dozens of the ladies followed us.
“Where you from?”
“What your name?”
“And what’s your name?”
“What your name?”
“And what’s your name?”
Then another immediately.
“What your name?”
“Murray, and your name’s Mai, right?”
She didn’t get it.
It became very annoying very quickly but what made it worse was they continued to follow us – all of them! We had our own enormous entourage as we continued down the gravel dirt road. There was a brief reprieve as Hung took us along a pathway to visit a school.
As we walked he explained how the school system worked in Vietnam. It is basically a grade level primary school similar to North America. The kids all seemed curious about us as we poked our heads into their classrooms. I must admit I distracted them as I was taking photos. They should have been watching the teacher at the board in front not looking and smiling at me. I was pretty impressed with the math the grade ones were learning; 30+50=80! Wow, I think I was in high school before I knew that one! Sadly, the teachers are not well paid at all; a starting salary is only $200 a month.
There was a donation box outside the classroom and I was only too happy to leave some small denomination bills to help the cause. Some help – I probably left a dime.
As we left the schoolyard our entourage was there waiting like flies on shit. Karen actually asked Hung if we paid them off would they leave us alone. She wanted them to go back to the parking area and find someone who would actually buy something from them. Hung explained that they were very proud people and would not accept money for nothing, therefore, a deal was arranged whereby Karen would pay 30,000 dong, about a buck and a half, for a small purse worth much less and the troupe would leave and seek their fortune elsewhere. We took the deal and hoped for the best.
As they dispersed we heard muttering about how we should have purchased something from the woman with the baby, her needs were more important. We left with Karen thinking, I’m sure, “Look lady, I’m Jewish, don’t try that guilt trip on me!”
The valley was breathtaking. We slowly got a feel for how the people lived. It was a farming community and everyone seemed to be working for the betterment of their family, no different than where we come from except there is no excess, no luxury, just hard work day after day.
The water buffalo on the road with the motorcycles was a bit of a different view for us but our reward for this glorious day was the beauty of the valley, with its wildflowers and perfect blue sky, as we walked drinking it all in. The terraced farmlands were becoming familiar to us now but it never got old. You couldn’t help but smile, especially on such a perfect day.
We made our way into a small farming complex, a tiny village almost in this vast expansive valley, surrounded by a banana grove and providing home for a variety of ducks, chickens and goats. Well, I guess it’s not quite as congratulatory as providing a home for them; we all know that sooner or later, make that sooner than later, someone’s going to eat every one of these animals.For lunch Hung took us to a homestay where we joined the owners at their table and shared everything they offered us. Most of what we ate we were now familiar with as luncheon fare but there were a couple of surprises, namely blue rice and about 5 shots of rice wine. The wine was dispensed out of a water bottle so the word “moonshine” was the only thing that came to my mind. For every drink a toast was offered and the shot was slammed back in one gulp. It was the same toast we learned, should I say were told, on the boat in Halong Bay. I never did learn it but after a few shots of the rice wine I couldn’t remember it anyway, and I didn’t care. As we left I had a photo taken with our hosts – Karen refers to it as our lunch with the Viet Cong.
As we left the village the trail became ridiculously convoluted and difficult. Basically a washed out cow path complete with the appropriate accessories it was challenging to navigate at best. We picked up a few more local travelling sales people and two of the ladies stuck with Karen and actually helped her a great deal along the trail. At the bottom of the most treacherous of hills I gave them each 20,000 dongs (a dollar) and Hung explained to them that it was for their help. Due to their pride, mentioned earlier, I think it was a bit difficult but Hung seemed to get them to understand and we left them smiling beside a huge pile of buffalo shit on the trail.
The trail continued to deteriorate and get more and more treacherous. As we entered a bamboo forest we were struggling with every step in wet mud up to our arseholes. One misstep, and there were many, resulted in a thick layer of mud on my boots and halfway up my shins. I don’t think I got to see a lot of bamboo but I did discover that they are very strong as I held onto more than one tree trying to maneuver through this quagmire. I did notice at several breaks in the forest that the view was nothing short of spectacular.
Somehow we made it through safely with no broken bones so I guess we should be thankful for that. All that remained was about a one kilometer uphill climb on a stone walkway. By now I was hot, muddy, wet and totally bagged so this last section was torturous. Arriving at the top we pretty much collapsed into Tu’s SUV. It had been a difficult but incredibly rewarding trek.
More by this author in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.