Trekking the Rice Terraces in Northern Vietnam

March 12, 2007 22 Comments »

Trekking in Sapa, Northern Vietnam

Man in rice field

View Vietnam Photography

When I decided to go to Vietnam I realized that besides seeing a few Hollywood movies about the war, I knew very little about the country and the American history there. This was really the first country that I visited so far in my travels that was tightly intertwined with US History – all within my lifetime. I felt that I needed to educate myself if I was going to be traveling in such a hotbed of history. I read the book “The Girl in The Picture” which depicted Vietnamese life in the South during the war. It gave a different perspective than what I had seen in American movies, it focused on the Vietnamese villagers during the war. I also followed up the book by listening to a podcast on US History and the Vietnam War from the Berkley University. I not only learned about the war, but I learned about the history of Indochina in general. Vietnam has a tumultuous history that lead it to finally opening back up to western tourists as late as the mid 90’s. It is still a communist country, however the country operates more like a capitalistic free economy with a socialist dictator government. Somehow this works for them – I’m not really sure how, but it does. I’m finding Vietnam to be one of my favorite places I’ve traveled to so far. There’s something untouched about it. It is still an adolescent when it comes to tourism – there’s still a lot that this country has to learn about exploiting tourism! It isn’t like the rest of SE Asia where you get that trademark service for pennies. They haven’t quite figured that out yet – so get here while you can as it’s an experience like no other!

I’m traveling through Vietnam with a budget tour company, Intrepid, and I chose a 21 day tour which is basically one step up from backpacking by myself. It’s actually quite ingenious – the ‘tour’ simply sets an itinerary, books all lodging and transportation (the two most stressful and time wasting items of traveling) and provides an English speaking guide/facilitator. When you get to a new location, the guide provides some general information about the place, gives you some ideas on where to go and what to see, and then you have free time to do as you choose. The accommodations are typical budget hotels and home-stays, and a number of nights on overnight trains. It’s nothing fancy as we travel by local buses, ferries and trains in order to mix with the culture.

I arrived in Hanoi and met my small travel group. My new ‘roommate’, Sarah from Vancouver, as well as Yvonne from the UK, and Brad and Nicole from Melbourne. I also met our guide, Huong from Hanoi. He’s always smiling and eager to answer our questions. He had another reason to smile as he was expecting his first child this week! It was a bit of a shock to me that he would be traveling with us while his wife was in labor – but he assured us that relatives were taking care of her!

Agriculture and architecture

We all immediately took off for Ha Long which was about a 4 hour drive from Hanoi towards the Gulf of Tonkin (some say the Gulf was the ‘start’ of the Vietnam War). Driving into the country gave me the first look at the truly agricultural society that Vietnam depends upon. We were surrounded by rice fields as far as the eye could see. Each family is given a plot of land to farm, and the plot size depends on the size of your family. Most families use this land to simply grow rice for their family and they can sell any extra if they want. The other thing I noticed was the architecture of the buildings. It was strange – all of the cement buildings were about 6 stories high (even in the small towns and villages), they were very skinny (about 30 ft. wide), and deep. This really gave the buildings an odd look – long, skinny – like you were looking in one of those distorting mirrors at a carnival fun house. Huong told us that the reason these were built in this skinny, tall fashion is that the taxes/cost on the land was more expensive curbside and then got cheaper the further back from the road it went. Therefore – if you built a skinny, tall building, then it was cheaper that way and it had a door that was curbside…very economical! It all made sense – but it still looked funny when there were no other buildings around a tall, skinny six-story home.

The town of Ha Long left a bit to be desired – it wasn’t bustling like Hanoi – in fact it was a tourist ghost town. This town was expecting a tourism boom a few years ago because it’s the starting point for the majority of popular Ha Long Bay Cruises – but they over projected the volume and left the town with a glut of hotels that were virtually empty now. The weather was turning gray and damp which seemed fitting for the sleepy little town. The only night life they had was karaoke and I decided to pass on that – me singing is bad enough, but me singing in Vietnamese would be a nightmare! The one thing that stuck out in the town was a big new modern bridge. The bridge had just been completed in the last year and from a distance it made the place feel like a modern metropolis instead of the small town it was. It also put the ferries out of business – so they sat in the water docked and rusting….the ferry graveyard of sorts.

The next morning we woke up to our first real bad news…the weather sucked. It was bound to happen in 6 months of travel…so I guess I can’t complain too much! My last bit of crappy weather was in New Zealand, but it eventually turned itself around. The next few days in Vietnam were blanketed in gray, cold, wet, fog. Of course – the worst part is that I left all of my cold weather and rain clothes in Singapore – nicely tucked away. It’s a good thing that shopping in SE Asia is cheap as I had to buy yet another pair of gloves, long pants, scarf, rain poncho, and wool socks…it only cost about $10 for all of this stuff – but it still annoys me! I guess I’m keeping the local economies alive by my poor packing skills!

Heading to Ha Long Bay

We boarded our big boat and took off for the bay! Ha Long Bay is a beautiful bay of large limestone rock formations jutting up from the bay – reminiscent of Thailand and New Zealand coasts. We slowly went around the bay, saw the fishermen and all of the floating fishing villages. We stopped off at a large rock formation that housed a huge cave that felt as if you had entered a movie set – it was unreal. They had it all lighted in funky colors which gave it more of a surreal effect! We had an amazing seafood lunch on the boat and then we had decided to go kayaking in the gray damp weather for the afternoon. However – just as we were pulling up to our kayaking spot, it started to pour rain – kayaking didn’t seem nearly as appealing! We went straight to Cat Ba island instead. This town, like Ha Long town was also deserted. Once you added in the rainy weather there was not much to do! Normally it is a beach town – but with the temps in the mid 50’s and rain – I wasn’t quite ready to don the bikini! Instead we walked through the rain to the local market. I purchased some snacks (of course I had no idea what I was buying – but it was fun to try), and watched the locals intermix. That night we went out for a seafood feast and then off to a local bar to play cards. The town (as most towns in Vietnam) shut down early – around 11PM they kicked us out and back to our hotel we went!

The next morning our hiking plans were nixed due to the weather so we left Cat Ba on a local ferry and headed back to Hanoi for a short time. We were exposed to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi again which I gladly welcomed after the lack of activity in the Ha Long Bay area! Our next destination was Sapa – which is in mountainess, northern Vietnam. We took the overnight sleeper train to Lao Cai which is literally on the Chinese border. As we got off the train we were still in a fog – weather that is. Granted – since I just woke up I was also in a fog…as most of you know – I’m not a morning person!

Trekking in Sapa, northern Vietnam

We took off in a bus up the mountains to Sapa – a hilltop town that has become a bustling little tourist stop and the beginning off many hill tribe treks around the area. Unfortunately we weren’t even able to see our surroundings due to the heavy fog – but we still walked around and explored the market in the very cold temps! We were able to find a place with a fireplace to warm up every once in a while. To add to the less than perfect conditions, our hotel didn’t have any heat – so it wasn’t too pleasant to sit around at the hotel either! We did walk to a nearby hill tribe that day, but mostly we walked around and got used to the hill tribe women asking us a million personal questions. They were trying to hawk their goods constantly – but they did so by trying to develop a personal relationship with you. However – the hundreds of hill tribe women really only knew the same 8 questions…it went something like this:

1. What is your name? Sherry
2. Where you from? America
3. Hold old are you? 37
4. You have babies? No
5. You have husband? No
6. You have boyfriend? No
7. You have girlfriend? (great – even the hill tribe women think I’m a lesbian!) No
8. You very beautiful. You buy from me?

This line of questioning certainly didn’t get me in any mood to buy…in fact, it sort of depressed me! Typically after question 3 they would say “ohhhhh, you so young” which immediately made me burst out in laughter! Most of these questions would be asked in a monotone voice – which kind of made it creepy in a way! I would start to ask the same questions back to them, just for the fun of it and it seemed to be the only English that they understood. I found that most of them were about 24 years old, had 3 babies and a husband…crazy. You would come across the occasional hill tribe woman that would have a slightly different script – and those were the ones that I normally bought from…they were funny. One little 11 year old girl, Ha, actually called me a ‘loser’ after I answered ‘no’ to question 7. I think she was my favorite – I talked to her for quite a while and she ended up giving me some bracelets. She was so cute that she could have been a model – yet she lived in a village in northern Vietnam…probability is low that Tyra Banks will be discovering her anytime soon!

The hill tribe women were impressive though – they were hearty – they carried everything and anything on their backs…veggies, lumber, babies – you name it and they could handle it – up and down hills, no problem. If you look at their dress you will notice that they all have their calves covered by things that look like leg warmers. No, this isn’t a Flashdance fashion statement…this is actually strips of fabric that they wrap around their calves every day to keep them small. They do so much hill walking that they have the potential to have very large, strong calves. I can only assume that big calves are not seen as pretty or sexy…so they wrap them to keep them small. I can only imagine what they thought of my mammoth runner calves!!

The next morning we took off for our hill tribe trek and home stay. We had a new local guide to help us with our trek, Hau – a young 25 year old that knew a little bit of English. As we walked through the steep hillsides and muddy rice fields the weather slowly started to clear up a bit and we could actually see our surroundings. The curtain of fog lifted to reveal the hillsides carved in rice terraces as far as the eye could see – it was stunning. The local tribe women would normally follow a group of tourists along to assist and then start their normal line of questioning in hopes that you will buy something. It wasn’t as peaceful as you might want – but if you just loosened up and had fun talking to them – it was a rather good time. One of them would help me through the muddy parts by giving me a hand…unfortunately she also had a hacking cough…so I’ll probably be coming down with bird flu or something…lovely.

Vietnam home stay experience

We arrived at our home stay in the village of Ta Van and met our family. The home stay was the typical wooden house and our sleeping bags were upstairs – it kind of resembled a barn and we were in the hay loft. As soon as we arrived Huang started yelling at us that he was a new father! His wife had just delivered a baby girl! It was so fun to be around him as he was bursting with happiness – we all had a drink and a toast to his new daughter! I still felt that it was strange that he had to be so far away from his family for the birth of his first baby – but I got the impression that it wasn’t that unusual in Vietnam. We helped him make plans to go see his daughter when we got back to Hanoi for a couple of days. All of this talk about babies and the constant questioning of tribe women made me feel rather old that day – hopefully it was a passing feeling – or at least nothing that a little rice wine couldn’t resolve. That night the young Hau cooked us a feast in a room that they called the kitchen. It never ceases to amaze me what meals can be cooked over an open flame in a dirt room with a wok and a few utensils. As I sat around the ‘stove’ and watched them control the flame by adding and moving around the bamboo poles I thought about the thousands of dollars that people in the US spend on kitchens and stainless steel appliances, but it certainly doesn’t help them become a better cook! All you need is a wok, some bamboo, and a flame…simple. Granted – I’m not saying that I will be giving up my kitchen appliances any time soon…it was just an observation! We ate this feast with the family that night – it was really a great experience to be a part of! They brought out a bottle of water…or what looked to be water…it was actually moonshine. Brad and I tried the ‘homemade’ rice wine and realized that it had quite a kick to it! Needless to say – I slept well that night on a barn floor surrounded by a mosquito net!

The next day we said our goodbyes to our home stay family and took off for more trekking through the mountains. The day was clear…finally. We balanced on rice terraces as if we were gymnasts! The hill tribe women were right there by our side the whole time though. I thought that it was funny that I was worried about my camera while teetering on the rice terrace, when the hill tribe woman next to me was running along side me with a baby strapped to her back…that will give you some perspective! When we arrived back in Sapa in the afternoon it was as if we arrived in a whole new town. With the fog lifted, we could finally see it – the amazing views, the bustling town center – it was full of tourists and tribes people.

That day I decided to do some exploring with my camera by myself. I wandered around to the town center and sat down to soak up the warm sun and take in my surroundings. Pretty soon I had a tribe woman come sit next to me and start the 8 questions. However – when she found out that I didn’t have a husband (question 5) she commended me – said that I was doing the right thing…now I was intrigued!! We sat there and talked for a while and pretty soon I looked up and noticed that a twenty something Vietnamese tourist boy was taking a picture of me with his cell phone. I looked up and smiled (the least I can do considering I snap photos of people all day), and soon I had a whole group of boys surrounding me and the hill tribe woman. They all wanted to shake my hand and say hello. I got the impression that it wasn’t the hill tribe woman that they wanted to photograph…they wanted me! I can only assume that they hadn’t been exposed to many westerners in their lifetime – so I was a novelty. I was surrounded by about 8 boys and older men – all asking me where I was from and who wanted to take their picture with me. I honestly have never received this much attention in my life! The funniest thing about the whole situation is that they couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak Vietnamese – therefore the little tribe woman was the translator for us…the whole situation was surreal to me! I felt like Angelina Jolie…surrounded by paparazzi! Soon more tribe women joined in the group and everyone was having a fun time. The older men wanted to read my palm…of course I had no idea what he saw as we couldn’t communicate…so I will assume it was good fortune in my future! They would soon start posing me – wanting me to stand in front of the church with them, wanting to take a picture of me with one of the boys kissing my cheek…it was hilarious. I was laughing all afternoon about it! They even took my camera and took some photos of the whole ordeal – so happily I have some proof of this odd afternoon! To top it off – a little later when I was walking by myself, a tribe-woman came up and tried to sell me opium…I decided to stick to the rice wine.

That night we went to a local bar to play cards and watch the local tribe girls hustle the foreigners in pool. The next morning we had to say goodbye to the cute little hill town of Sapa. Strange to think that people all over the northern Vietnam now know my personal information (8 questions) and have pictures of me in front of a church! Northern Thailand was full of culture, funny times, new friends, and many many questions!

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