In the time since you last heard from me, I’ve been to Sapa and Dong Hoi, and am now using the computer of the Easy Tiger hostel in Son Trach village, in the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park (update: now an internet cafe in Hue [update of update: now an internet cafe in Hoi An. This is going slowly]). Our journey halfway along the country has allowed us to experience the full gamut of miscommunications and general confusion. Here’s an account of our epic journey along said gamut.
1. In which our heroines repeatedly encounter the hard sales techniques of the Hmong ladies of Sapa
We arrived in Sapa at 4am, dazed from our sleeper bus experience (see future post on transportation etc), and were greeted by a vast crowd of local women from the Black Hmong villages, all of whom were determined to sell us a tour or, failing that, enough bags, bracelets and scarves to fill not only our luggage allowance but the entire plane back. The pressure to buy was unremitting throughout our stay, with conversations universally beginning “Where you from?” and rapidly progressing to “You buy something from me?” and then “Already have? need another!” regardless of how hard we tried to indicate polite friendliness combined with a total disinterest in their merchandise.
We’d been given prior warning of this, and had decided not to make any tour-purchasing decisions before we’d been to the tourist office and sussed out our options, but our backpacks and dazed looks made us prime targets for the hard sell that is a permanent feature of Sapa life.
A teenage girl and an older woman followed us all the way from the bus stop to the main square, waiting outside the cafe we’d tried to disappear into over breakfast, and only leaving once we went into the tourist information enclosure. At this point we got chatting to an older Hmong lady, Susu, who seemed less pushy than the others, and left us alone once she’d made her offer of a tour for $25. We decided that the treks the tourist office suggested didn’t sound different or better than going with a local guide, and ended up booking with Susu, who made us pinky swear (literally) that we wouldn’t renege on the deal.
The following morning, we arrived at the meeting place to be greeted by the girl who had determinedly stalked us the previous day, and who looked deeply wounded that we hadn’t booked with her then. Fortunately, the hideous awkwardness of the situation dissipated once we got to know May Tung as far as her English and our two words of Vietnamese would permit.
2. Of our heroines’ sub-odyssey to the village of Hau Thao
The landscape of Sapa was my favourite so far; the terraced paddy fields are breathtaking, and the steep mountains and picturesque (but litter-strewn) villages are unlike anything I’ve seen before. Our homestay was right in the middle of the rice fields, with chickens, pigs and dogs milling about.
The trek was great too, despite the impossible speed with which our guide ascended and descended the steep slopes in her plastic sandals, as we staggered behind in walking boots and worried about our knees. The degree to which I am becoming my parents, both in hobbies and in joint pain, has not escaped my notice.
We also braved the xe om (motorbike taxi) on the way back, as it seems to be literally the only means of transport along the narrow asphalt roads that regularly become unsurfaced tracks. This involved the breaking of a major fear barrier for me, which I’m proud of, but while it was a relatively pleasant way to travel, I won’t be doing any 6-month biking tours of South East Asia just yet.
It was also in Sapa that we first became extremely aware of our own foreignness. In a restaurant, we were suddenly befriended by a man called Mr Tang who (probably) worked there, and whose many friends all helped him insist that we must take up their offer of a free moped ride to the bus stop which was “very far!!” away (read: about 500 yards), even though we emphatically did not want to go on a moped with our backpacks. We finally reclaimed our precious night-bus ticket (which had been passed round the group several times) and extricated ourselves, to cries of “NO! Leave tomorrow!” Even more oddly, as we sat by the lake waiting for the bus, several groups of strangers sidled over and asked to take selfies with us.
3. In which our intrepid heroines go to a ‘quiet seaside town’, and break everything
After the slightly draining experience of constantly having to decline goods, food and services, we decided we needed to recharge the batteries somewhere quiet. Based on the guidebook’s description as a peaceful but pleasant seaside town with few tourists, Dong Hoi seemed to fit the bill, so we booked a room for two nights. As it turned out, the entire enterprise was something of a mistake.
The Day When Everything Broke kicked off with Small Disaster no.1: the taxi ride to the hotel, which we thought would cost a pound or so and save us a sweaty walk. Unfortunately, our driver took us not to the requested Sunshine hotel but to the Sunrise hotel, which was very expensive and some 5km from the town centre. By the time the mistake became apparent (i.e. once we’d parked) it was too late to do anything but drive all the way back into town and cough up the unexpectedly elevated fare.
Once we’d finally settled into our hotel, we decided we’d use their free (and accordingly rubbish) bikes to nip over to the beach and catch the evening sun. Small Disaster no.2 happened when we stopped for a late lunch at a street cafe – one of the chairs broke, but luckily nobody seemed to notice. Small Disaster no.3 was at the beach, where we sat on some deck chairs, and one broke, but luckily nobody seemed to mind. Small Disaster no.4 was more problematic; on the way back, in the dark, the back tyre of the worse bike decided that now was the time to give up the ghost. Unluckily, we found that we had additionally turned off half a mile too early, and ridden miles in entirely the wrong direction. When we arrived back at the hotel, I rounded off the (now undesirably prolonged) evening with Small Disaster no. 5, the forceful collision of my head with a low beam, and decided I didn’t like Dong Hoi very much.
4. In which our brave protagonists become inexplicably famous among the townsfolk of Dong Hoi
My mild self-inflicted concussion acted as a convenient excuse (and genuine reason) to stay in bed for most of the day; my one excursion into the morning heat convinced me that a pounding head and nausea would not mix well with sun and sand. This was handy, as we’d noticed the day before that whenever we went outside, we were immediately surrounded by a crowd of giggling locals. We were seemingly the only westerners around; every single head on the street turned as we passed. The tireder we got, the more the cries of “hello!!” and accompanying uncontrollable laughter moved from funny to paranoia-making.
The unwanted attention reached its peak when we were sat peacefully eating our dinner, and some teenage girls pulled up chairs opposite to watch and laugh. Our discomfort must have beenapparent, because an older woman came over and told them to move, for which we were thankful, until she sat down in their place and began laughing in her turn. We did eventually get talking to them to relieve the feeling of being a zoo exhibit, an acquaintanceship which led to even more selfies.
Rather than being due to our size, paleness and inelegant use of chopsticks, we decided to interpret the stares as a natural response to our overwhelming beauty, an experience I’m sure my excessively stunning readership (that’s you!) will be able to relate to.
5. In which the prodigal daughters return to the tourist trail, and are embarassingly relieved to do so
Unsurprisingly, we were less than broken-hearted to depart on a local bus, heading for the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park. We found a hostel in Son Trach village and went straight off on a river trip to the Phong Nha cave, sharing the boat with a bunch of friendly Brits and Americans, which alleviated the general feeling of conspicuousness. The cave was beautiful, although full of tourists, but this now seemed a fair price to pay for the ease of being able to communicate with everyone. We spent the evening in the pool and bar of the neighbouring hostel, where we chatted some more to our new friends and got very drunk on 3 beers. We even stayed up until 10pm – all in all, a wild night.
The following morning, we got up at 6am to go to Paradise Cave, a much bigger and absolutely stunning underground universe in which you can walk for 1km without a guide, and much further with one. The incredible formations are like something from outer space, and spoilt only by tour groups whose guides have decided, mistakenly, that a full-volume megaphone is required in order to be heard by their flock. The crackly Vietnamese commentary echoed off the walls in a most distressing way, especially given my slight hangover, but we were early enough to mostly beat the impenetrable droves of guided tours who arrived a little later. We then slunk away in our private car (cheaper than a bus trip and a lot more pleasant), and spent the rest of the day by the pool.
6. Of the linguistic and culinary misfortunes that have befallen the adventurers to date
It was once we left the main backpacking trail that we realised the extent to which we’re reliant on people’s English skills, or at least their willingness to understand our gesticulations and wildly mispronounced jabberings. Generally speaking, it’s been easy to find an English menu or sign, or at least someone who is willing and able to interpret for us, meaning that although a great deal of patience and creativity is required to understand what people are saying, it’s usually possible to communicate efficiently.
Only in Dong Hoi did we realised how much difference it makes when people are expecting foreigners, as opposed to Vietnamese tourists. We had a ridiculous numebr of failed attempts to find food and avoid shellfish (of which I’m deeply suspicious), eventually giving up and eating clams of some sort. We also had a surprising amount of difficulty simply buying things; at one point, we tried to buy four bottles of water, and it took 10 minutes, five people and some elaborate mime to convey that we weren’t in fact insistently trying to overpay for a single bottle by 30.000 Dong. It makes me realise just how lucky we are to have English as our native language – I can’t imagine how difficult it must be when you’re trying to have a conversation in a language that belongs to neither party.
That’s all for this week; expect tales of many modes of transport and the ridiculous amount of stuff we’ve bought in Hoi An soon.