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Notes du Viet Nam (I)

Featured image: A view of Sapa. Pix by Juana Jaafar.


Sapa, Northeast

Note to self: Next time when travelling during winter, don’t leave your winter jacket hanging behind your bedroom door when you leave home. Then again, had it not been for that careless mistake I wouldn’t have ended up in the bizarre but interesting situation of having dinner at a Thai restaurant in Hanoi with two young Javanese men who worked at a tin factory about two hours out of town. Good thing our conversation didn’t cause me to miss the train to Sapa that night.

My visit to Sapa can only be described as spiritual. I surrendered to my soul’s need for another rail pilgrimage and to be in the mountains. It was 10°C. Good idea, picking up a jacket before going up the mountains.

Too early in the morning to check into my room the manager of the bed-&-breakfast ushered me straight to the fireplace and made me fresh omelette, on the house. We became good friends over the next few days. He shared much about his life with me, some of it I cannot imagine myself going through. But despite the challenges he’s faced he is still full of hope, full of strength and full of spirit. He is a very special person and I’m grateful fate brought me to him.

If life was yearning for lessons on how to build from scratch then life found a good teacher in this man.

Sapa was also made special by a young girl who was my trekking guide. She came prepared to host a tourist who wanted to see all the beautiful sights in Sapa, as documented online. She became a little lost for plans when I told her there was nothing in particular I wanted to see. I just wanted to go on a long walk along a reasonably safe path. When she realised I really didn’t have any expectations she began to loosen up and we walked and talked as friends. That turned out to be the best six hours I’d spent with a complete stranger.

She’s a 22 year old Black Hmong who left school after three years to help her parents collect wood and grow paddy. This is not an unusual life story for a local tribeswoman. She told me she learnt to speak English (very fluently) by speaking to tourists. It only took her a year to master the language. Regarding Sapa as an increasingly popular and accessible tourist destination she said it’s been good for the locals, including many of the tribes living in villages around the mountain. Like in other parts of Vietnam the US Dollar stretches a fair bit for the people in Sapa. But there was something in her voice that didn’t convince me.

“You know hemp? Marijuana?” she asked me. “Is this a trick question?” I thought to myself. “What about it?” I replied. She showed me a part of her dress and pointed to some weaving which was made of, well, hemp.

I thought it was very interesting especially when a yarn of it was whipped out as proof. At this point we were perched on a slope overlooking what was supposed to be a grand view of the Sapa hillside. I saw nothing of the hillside but it was a grand moment for me as a huge cloud had moved in and embraced us. She was visibly disappointed and extremely apologetic about me not being able to see the view. But no view could have charmed me more at the time. I was in a thick huge cloud and completely surrounded by the great cold White. It was a stunning experience.

There is a song by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss that has become a bit of an anthem for me. And in that moment, the most ridiculous part of the song—the chorus—became quite real. Somebody said they saw me swinging the world by the tail, bouncing over a white cloud, killing the blues …

Perhaps sensing that I’m not quite right in the head (therefore totally capable of a serious conversation), my companion decided to lay bare life’s truths: She told me she would rather be somewhere else, away from a community, system and tourist trade that forces her to be in her traditional dress day in and day out, even in the heat of summer. She wants to go back to school but that means she would have to enroll in a private institution, something she cannot afford. She said she would love to become a teacher.

“I hope one day your dreams will come true, whatever they may be then,” I told her.

I’m not sure if she realises how much power she has. Sapa is all about tourism and the tourist guides there are predominantly women because it’s them who speak English; a language that holds high currency throughout Vietnam. Big money tourists (Read: Westerners) are more likely to gravitate to places where they know they can get by, where people understand them. This is why Sapa has become popular.

Because they speak English, the women are also the ones who gather in Sapa town to sell handicraft to tourists. But of course, the crafts are made by women too. Whether as guides or craft sellers, they deal in cash and hold cash in hand. The tribesmen are generally not proficient in English and remain in the village doing farm work. Cash rich and English speaking, I reckon the women of Sapa possess some serious bargaining chips vis-à-vis their men.

… And then we walked and talked our way through the hills and I was introduced to indigo. The tribes use indigo for their textiles. I’d never seen an indigo plant before and I saw plenty that day. I got my hands all greenish-blue and that made me very happy.

After six hours of chat-trekking, and a wonderful lunch by the river, we decided to take a detour to pick her son up from the neighborhood nanny. He was a bright round fellow full of cheer. He looked very much like his mother and has her fighting spirit. The three of us sealed our day with a big group hug.

I woke up the next day unable to put on my shoes. My toes were bruised from all that walking and I had good reasons to believe some internal bleeding had occurred. So into the winter I went in my flip-flops and scoured for lunch. I parked myself at a table outside a cafe and had a scrumptious serving of local salmon while I scribbled in my journal. It wasn’t long before a group of Black Hmong children came along to sell me wristbands. They each had their own wristbands to sell and I couldn’t possibly buy a piece from just one of them. So I invited them all to join me for lunch instead. They obliged, but were very nervous. When I asked why, they said, “This shop is Vietnamese. We are scared”.

Soon enough I understood the social hierarchy of Sapa. The children had every reason to feel afraid. A waiter came outside to “help” me get rid of them. When I told him they wanted to order their meals, he raised his eyebrows.

“We’re together. Please take their order,” I said. Fifteen minutes later the children each got their plate of fried rice and pork. And not long after that a group of elder tribeswomen came by to join us. They didn’t want to eat though. They just wanted to chat with the “idiot” who was paying the bill. “You know you can buy four plates of fried rice in the market for the price of one you’re paying here?” they asked. I looked into the cafe and saw other tourists stare at us through their wine glasses.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “But this is worth it”. And it was. We had an excellent afternoon. We were a big loud mess, chatting and laughing about life, love and other nonsensical things. After lunch we walked to a shop nearby and got some soda drinks and then waved each other goodbye. Looking at the children I was reminded of my guide: So this was how she learnt English. By coming up into town at a young age trying to sell handicraft to tourists like me. And the cycle continues.

Sapa made me think long and hard about what it means to have a dream, what it means to work hard and what it means to make sacrifices. And somehow in all that, it made me think of the people I love with all my heart.

Too broke for dinner, I clocked in early. I was looking forward to the long train ride ahead.

Hanoi, Red River Delta

NET Pix edit.001‘When the meeting is over, female workers please come to the meeting for the best worker contest’ by Nguyễn Đỗ Cung at the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts.


I arrived back in Hanoi before dawn and got conned by a scheming cab driver. He thought I’d just arrived in the city and didn’t know my whereabouts, or the cost of getting around. He also didn’t know I’m Malaysian and all too familiar with bullsh*t cab meter machines. I didn’t pay him the amount he wanted but I did end up paying him above rate. No amount of swearing in Malay was going to resolve the issue and I realised my motel was located in a dark alley, and it was closed.

I gathered my things from the cab and parked myself in front of the motel entrance. Just my luck, one motel staff woke up from sleep and found me there. He let me in and noted I was ahead of my booking. He got me a pillow and tucked me in a booth in the coffee house. The clunking of breakfast woke me at 7am. It was time to get up and out. It was Army Day in Vietnam and I’d planned to immerse myself in Vietnamese military history starting with a visit to see Uncle Ho Chi Minh.

A few things came to my attention: Hanoians love their sunflower seeds (remains of shells were scattered everywhere on the sidewalk) and it was the 40th year since the US Christmas Bombing, an order by US President Richard Nixon to carpet bomb North Vietnam between 18 to 29 December 1972. Thousands of Vietnamese people died from the massive air raid.

Despite the great loss of lives the Vietnamese people take pride in downing a series of US B-52s, so much so most of the commemoration billboards and posters had drawings of B-52s burning and crashing down from the sky. My visit was timely.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Military History Museum hosted large groups of American War (or more commonly known as the ‘Vietnam War’ outside of Vietnam) veterans clad in their military uniforms. Some didn’t have their full uniform on but did make a point to wear their medals.

The Military History Museum is a little run down but the exhibit outside was a sight to see. A carcass of a US aircraft was reassembled, kind of, piece by piece. In front of it, a black-&-white photo of a Vietnamese woman pulling a broken aircraft wing by a rope. It was a powerful picture. The homage to women in the war became more evident as I visited the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts. Vietnamese women are so well documented. I was quite jealous.

But the highlight of Hanoi for me was the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. It isn’t very big but it’s well curated with quality exhibits, and packed with really inspiring content. I walked out of the museum feeling extremely proud just to be neighbours with the women of Vietnam.

I also thought, “Hammmagaaad, we have to build something like this in Malaysia!”.

By the next day I’d developed a fever. But that could also be attributed to my annual fever cycle. End of December seems to be a time when my body gives way to germs. But it was the eve of Christmas, so after sleeping in most of the day I decided to treat myself to some jazz.

The Binh Minh Jazz Club is my second favorite spot in Hanoi. I got myself an iced soda for my sore throat and at 9pm sharp the band started their session. Their opening jam: Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’. I laughed a little and cried a little. God has a peculiar sense of humour, yessum. This was my jam. Somewhere out there in the past I may have even danced to it, Donald Duck-style. With an equally guilty partner.

After the club I joined the rest of Hanoi at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral to observe Christmas Mass. The church was flooded all the way to the streets. People just seemed to want to hangout in and around the church on Christmas eve. It was quite a scene. Of course, many were snacking on sunflower seeds. I found a comfortable spot in the crowd and watched people go about celebrating, although many were not quite paying attention to the service being broadcasted live on big screen in the church yard.

As my fever got worse I decided to head back and rest. I walked through the night and as I turned into the alley to my motel everything became dark and quiet. But there was a small light ahead of me. As I passed by I saw a young family sitting under a bare bulb by the roadside. They smiled at me. They were huddled around a hot pot of—something. A late meal. It was a cold night in Hanoi and I could see the steam rise from their bowls.

“This, is Christmas,” I thought.

NET Viet Nam I (Hanoi)Christmas eve on the streets of Hanoi. Pix by Juana Jaafar.


Notes from Halong Bay and Vinh are in Notes du Viet Nam (II), while notes from Dong Hoi and Hue are in Notes du Viet Nam (III).

Comments 4

  1. What a lovely documented experience ,I felt like I was there experiencing everything ,another great piece Juana .Thank You

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    Hi Bee Lin! Thanx for reading this post :] How do you plan to go to Sapa? I’m a huge fan of trains and I planned my routes mostly based on the railway line. To Sapa (and back) I took the Hanoi-Lao Cai-Hanoi Hara Express which was 8+ hours long each way. It was an overnight sleeper and I shared a cabin with 3 others. Very decent ride, you might want to try that. From Lao Cai, you can hop onto a bus to go further up the mountains to Sapa. If you expect to see the paddy hills in bloom, I was told the best time to go is around October. And yes, I find the women of Vietnam quite inspiring.

  3. Thanks for sharing the thought on your trip. I would love to visit Sapa soon. I find Vietnamese women very hardworking to make a living be it in a paddy field or in small business. I had one of the most amazing experience during my visit to Da Nang and looking forward to the warmth Vietnamese hospitality. A simple thing would make their day, even just to braid a child’s hair or taking picture.

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