A Travellerspoint blog

Dong Ha Part Two

More exploration of the DMZ

semi-overcast 20 °C

We met Mr. Dong and Mr. Lai at 8am, ready to head for more exploration of the DMZ. Our destination today was to check out many of the sights along Highway 9, which held several important military sights during the war, including Khe Sanh, the famous airbase.

We left Dong Ha and quickly met up with Highway 9, and our first destination was the "Rockpile", which is a large karst-type rock formation set amongst rice paddies that was used as an observation post by the Marines. Mr. Dong explained that it originally held about 30 Marines and they would be responsible for detecting and tracking enemy movement while also aiding artilery strikes. Now it is just a big rockpile.

After checking out The Rockpile, we continued down Highway 9, and we really enjoyed the nice, long ride as we wound along a river and into the hills. We made a short stop on the river at Dakrong Bridge. There was a large sign celebrating the construction of the bridge, and we were met by a whole flock of local children who were playing around the river. They really distracted us from listening to Mr. Dong, and posed for us by climbing on top of the monument. These kids were poor, but seemed quite happy, and playfully chased Heidi's motorbike on our ride away, spanking at her butt along the way.

The second half of the trip was quite steep, and at time the going was a bit slow, but we finally made it to Khe Sanh, the site of the famous airbase. This was the site amidst the heavy hill fighting with the Viet Cong that began in 1967. In 1968, there was a major fight called the Battle of Khe Sanh, in which the airbase was held under siege by the North Vietnamese. This siege was done with the intention of distracting the US forces in their preparation for the Tet Offense, which was a massively organized attack that hit numerous targets on the same day throughout Vietnam, including Saigon. Mr. Dong did a really good job of explaining the fighting during this battle, and he interupted himself several times in his animated storytelling with phrases like "ooo...so terrible" and drawing little maps and diagrams which he was so fond of. After one heated desciption of battle, he even pretended to be in the battle, prancig around an artillery piece and pretending to shoot at invisible enemies with his invisible gun. The airbase is probably the best preserved piece of military history in the Dong Ha area, even the from section has now been turned into a small coffee plantation. There were several military pieces in the area surrounding the landing strip, including a Huey helicopter, a Chinook Helicopter, a tank, and a few artillery pieces and bored out bombs. There were also a few bunkers that were left relatively intact, and Mr. Dong insisted in crawling into every one of them. In the center of the base now houses a small museum with a couple of interesting and one large case of captured US military weapons and gear. One interesting display showed how the North Vietnamese were training Montgnard people (people from the hill tribes of Vietnam) to fight using poison arrows and other primitive weapons. Behind the musem was the landing strip, which to this day is still pretty clear of brush, as little grow in this area. The lack of growth was something that we had noticed not just at this airbase, but was a general observation of the hills and countryside along Highway 9. There was a lot of bombing and dumping of Agent Orange throughout this entire area, and what areas that can support growth are still quite young.

We grabbed a quick lunch at a small local restaurant in the nearby Khe Sanh Town, this time enjoying some frog meat with eggs and vegetables, which turned out to taste ok. During lunch, I shared some local whiskey with Mr. Lai, which tasted a lot like Chinese baijiu, but not quite as bad. We ate quickly, and then headed back down Highway 9 to visit Camp Caroll, which was an important artillery base in the war. There was not much left there anymore, other than one small bunker and a few concrete foundations of buildings that had been there. Another victim of scavengers.

That marked the end of our day's tour, and we made the long ride back to Dong Ha Town, where we would catch a minibus to the nearby city of Hue. The tour wasn't quite as interesting as the day before, but the ride was nice albeit long (our butts were pretty sore at the end of the day). Mr. Lai helped us find the minibus, which appears to be run by the local mafia. Nonetheless, we had no problems with finding the minibus, and we got a cheap ride to Hue. But the ride was cramped--they stuffed as many people into the van as possible (19 plus one baby!), and Heidi was stuck sitting on a steel seat support for half the ride. And yes, as it is a standard minibus, there are only seats to accomodate 11 passengers. Like other local rides in Vietnam, the journey was accompanied by some less-than-delightful Vietnamese pop music. But fortunately it was only an hour and a half ride, and we reached Hue by six o'clock.

They dropped us off in the city center of Hue, and after we figured out where we were, we started walking in the direction fo Perfume River, which divides the city into two parts, with the new city on one side and the old citadel on the opposite side. After walking for less than two minutes, we were greeted by people thrusting hotel brochures in our faces. We turned down the first few, but eventually accepted a free ride to one under the condition that we at least "have a look". It turned to be an OK guesthouse, so we booked for the night and then had a really good dinner of Hue-style dishes at the Garden Paradise Restaurant. After filling ourselves on good food we took a short walk along the Perfume River. The riverside had a small park with some nice atsmopheric lighting which we strolled through for a bit before heading back to the hotel to get some sleep. It had been another long day.

Posted by heidigras 07:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Dong Ha

Remnants of the Past

overcast 18 °C

I went in to crash while Nate went out and met a couple of guys, one of which was a vet from the war who had assisted the South Vietnamese and Americans beginning at the young age of 18 in 1970. Mr Dong, the extremely enthusiastic and humurous veteran and native of Dong Ha, assured Nate that he could show us and explain all of the sites of the war in two day-long trips which he had roughly mapped out on a blank sheet of paper. Nate arranged to have two motorbikes to take us on a one day tour of the DMZ, and we would decide at the end of the day if it was worth continuing the tour.

Our motorbike guys picked us up at 9:30, it was drizzly and cold and we really bundled up! Mr Dong was a war veteran who had lived in Dong Ha his whole life and had worked with the Americans during the war from 1971-1972, and he was proud to say that his father and brother had also fought for the South. He was really excited to be taking Americans around, he seemed to share a special bond with us and would often talk in a whisper when talking about the war and the battles that he had seen. He knew a ton about all the battles and local history. Dong Ha is a city right on the border of the DMZ and saw many battles, it was also a port for supplies. Mr Dong shared his vast knowledge with us through good but heavily accented English.

Our first stop was to the ruins of Con Thien Firebase, which had been a station for the U.S. marines located just three kilometers from the North Vietnamese border. This had been the site of a lot of fierce fighting during the 1960s and 70s.

The base was located a short hike from the road. We walked down a small muddy path and Mr. Dong pointed out the many rubber trees that were neatly planted in rows along the way. Much of the area around the DMZ had been bought out by a rubber company, one way to make use of the land that had previously been cleared of all vegetation by a combination of bulldozers, Agent Orange, bombs, and napalm. Mr. Dong warned us to be very careful on our hike back to the base, as there was still threat from unexploded mines that had acted as a protective perimeter around the base during the war period, and he even instructed us to walk in his footsteps. We finally discovered what little there was left of the base, located in the midst of the rubber plantation. There was an old bunker there, still with the original sandbags, and Mr. Dong described what the camp looked like at the time and helped us imagine some of the battle scenes that took place there. He recounted one particular episode of an attack on the base by one squad (a military unit composed of eight to twelve members) of North Vietnamese soldiers. The soldiers would use ropes with stones wrapped on the end of them to trigger the mines that surrounded the base, then would cut through the barbwire and attack the base. They would strike suddenly and intermintantly, and then, just as unexpectedly as they approached, they would fade under the cover of darkness into the surrounding jungle. This one small squad of soldiers would continue to harass the base for more than two days, and they would attack and retreat nearly unimpeded. Soldiers at the base, frustrated by the constant and unpredictable attacks, didn't know how to repsond effectively, and the whole episode gives a good illustration of the classic line expressed by more than one American soldier in the war: "Charlie owns the night".

Next, we took a short motorbike trip down to an area that was made famous by Fidel Castro, who had visited the area to celebrate the opening of a bridge the became part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail after the Americans had withdrawn from the DMZ. However, there was not much left of the bridge, so there was little to see. We left after exploring the remains of the trail there, and then made a pitstop for lunch at a small local eatery, where we had what looked like some pretty sketchy wild boar meat, but turned out to taste really good.

Our next stop was to Truong Son Cemetary, home of the North Vietnamese patriots who had fought in the war. The cemetary was divided into sections, each representing fallen soldiers from their respective birth provinces. There was also a special section devoted to some high-ranking military members, and another to unknown victims of the war. There are no people buried there who had any affiliation with the Americans or the South Vietnamese Army. Each gravestone is marked with the Vietnamese words "Liet Si", which means "martyr". The cemetary was very large, and we were struck by how many gravestones were there. Mr. Dong took some time to point out a few interesting things, such as to note some of the gravestones that were engraved with female names, many of whom served as nurses, soldiers, and members of the supply chain during the war. Mr. Dong found the gravestone of one woman who had died at the age of 18 after only one month in service as a nurse. The hospital she was working in had been hit by a bomb in a large carpet-bombing mission led by the Americans. What struck us the most was the ages engraved on many of the gravestones. Mr. Dong, both to our interest and amusement, spent some time doing some pen and paper arithmetic to show us the ages of some of the fallen soldiers. We were shocked to see how many of the soldiers had joined at ages as young as 16 years old. There were few who survived more than a year or two after joining the war effort.

Next, we made a brief stop at Doc Mieu, which was once part of "McNamara's Wall", an electronic monitoring network named after the famous general that was used to detect infiltrations across the DMZ. There wasn't really anything there, other than a whole landscape of bomb craters. The lack of any real tangible evidence of military presence was true of many of the sites we visited, as locals had pillages many of the military sites for concrete and metal scrap after the war.

We worked our way up Highway 1A, and alongside the road we spotted the gutted out shell of a tank that had been rendered inoperative after it ran over a landmine. We finally reached our next stop, the Ben Hai River, and the famous Ben Hai Bridge, which had been reconstructed. The bridge was destroyed during the war, and the river it spanned marked the real division line of the North and the South during the war. Many families were separated from each other during the war period, and there was a small museum depicting some of the history of the river and also displayed some pictures of people who had joyfully reunited after the war was over. It was here that Mr. Dong childishly grabbed and proceeded to play with a U.S. M16 rifle that was on display, until chastized by his associate, who we will refer to as "the other motorbike guy" as we have forgotten his name. Mr. Dong was a really funny guy, and was often making jokes in between long-winded monologues related to significant events and figures.

Our final stop was at the Vinh Moc Tunnels, which were an impressive network of tunnels located on the North side of the DMZ which served as a kind of underground village during the war. Inside were 2.8 kilometers of tunnels that contained different sized rooms that served as homes, hospitals, kitchens, meeting rooms, and they even housed three wells. There were also several ventilation shafts and a few escape routes, some of which led to the ocean, and a few that led into the surrounding forest. It took three years to finish the construction of the tunnels, and people lived there for six years, until the end of the war. Three hundred and fifty people lived in these tunnels and 16 people were born under these cramped conditions, and the tunnels remained relatively unscathed during the war. It was an impressive and extremely well-preserved display of the Vietnamese adaptation to war conditions.

After the tunnels, we made our way down the narrow road that followed the coast of the ocean until we stopped at Cua Tung Beach. There wasn't much to see there other than bomb craters, as the area had been converted into a kind of beach resort (mainly used by Chinese and Thai tourists), but we made a stop to check out the beach anyway. We then continued to follow the coastal road, later crossing the Ben Hai River again, and made a detour down to Cua Viet Beach where we made another stop. There was nothing there other than a ton of jellyfish left stranded on the beach, and the rusted remains of a hull of a navy ship that had been destroyed during the war and later was dragged or drifted to the beach where it was cut apart by locals for scrap. This marked the end of the full day tour, which at this point had lasted eight and a half hours! Although we have to admit there wasn't a ton of extremely interesting sights to see, as most of the military remains have been hauled off for scrap over the years, the tour was really interesting due to the excellent narraration and explanations given by Mr. Dong, so we decided to do the second tour down Highway 9 the next day.

Posted by heidigras 06:19 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Back to Hanoi

overcast 23 °C

The train to Hanoi was miserable for me, it was ridiculously hot in our cabin and I was still feverish. I woke Nate up in the middle of the night to get me water, which he did nicely although was not too happy when he discovered (too late) that we already had water!

Note by Nate: Heidi woke me up in the middle of the night, but she failed to describe the dramatic way she roused me from my peaceful slumber. I was sleeping soundly on the train when I was suddenly awoken by a purse bouncing off of my face, and found that Heidi was dangling it from the bunk above me, dunking it up and down to get my attention. She got it. I looked up at her groggily, and she said in a pleading voice: "Nate, I need water. Get me some water", and added in a whining voice: "I'm dying!" I digress.

We got into Hanoi around 4:30 am and walked to the hotel we had stayed at before, it was all locked up and we had to wake up the people sleeping in the reception area, only to find out that they were full. We walked around a bit more and were lucky enough to find a place that was just opening up for the day. They wanted $16 for a room, I told then bluntly that we wouldn't pay more than $12, they agreed but gave us a room on the 4th floor (no elevator). We were both wiped out and since it was REALLY early and raining, we decided to sleep for awhile. When I woke up I was feeling even more sick, I finally went on WebMD and determinded I had a Kidney Infection, we went to the pharmacy to by some antibiotics (which you don't need a prescription for here), stocked up on water and I went back to the room to sleep the day away.

Nate decided to go to the Army Museum, which he thought was really interesting. There were many captured war relics, especially American ones.

Nate writes:
The museum was quite interesting. The front section of the museum was devoted to the Vietnamese war of liberation from the French, which despite efforts by the Americans to aid the French, was ultimately successful on the part of the Vietnamese. The decisive win at the battle of Dien Bien Fu was monumental, as the Vietnamese overran the French stronghold on the region and captured around 16,000 soldiers, including some high-ranking officers. It signaled the end of the French occupation of Indochina, and demonstrated the unbending will of the Vietnamese people.

The second section of the museum was devoted to the American War in Vietnam, and the outside yard housed a number of captured military vehicles, including a Huey helicopter, a couple of small propeller-driven bombers, a personnel carrier, a tank, and most impressive, an aesthetic anti-war monument that was constructed from pieces of wreckage from planes that were downed in the war. There was also a display of a whole range of bomb casings of various sizes and explosive power, with some interesting facts noted on a display. Some of the most interesting of those are as follows. From 1962 to 1972, 5,382,000 tons of bombs were dropped in Vietnam. That amounts to six tons per square kilometer, which is nearly 45.5 kilograms of bombs for every North Vietnamese person alive during that period. That is a lot of bombs, and I can't even imagine the kind of destruction it caused. The inside of the museum also had some interesting displays, including some of the primitive weapons that were used by the North Vietnamese during the war. These included using bicycles to transport supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, handmade guns, and various spears and crossbows that were used by the Montgnards (the minority populations of tribes that lived in the hills in Northern Vietnam and the Central Highlands), who were conscripted by the Viet Cong to join the fight against the South. There were also a whole range of booby traps that were designed to trip up enemy infantry soldiers in combat, like bamboo spikes buried in hidden traps and heavy spiked mace-like devices that would swing across a path when a soldier stepped across a trip wire. I also was keen to note some of the propoganda wording in the displays, as the South Vietnamese government and soldiers were consistently labeled as a "puppet regime" and "puppet soldiers" throughout the displays. I suppose what made the greatest impression on me as I reflected on some of the displays, especially after seeing the contrast of the modern and highly effective military technology and methods of the American forces compared to the simple, and often very primitive weapons of the North Vietnamese soldiers, can be formed into this simple question: how could the Americans have lost this war? This, of course, is said without regard to questioning why we were there in the first place, a question which I will perhaps comment on later.

For dinner we ordered in some paninis and I went back to sleep, Nate did some researching for our upcoming trip and also bought Open Tour bus tickets. They are a pretty sweet deal, $55 for tickets all the way to Saigon, you can get on and off the bus as you please. We went for the more expensive tickets so we could have a "sleeper bus" since some of the trips will be more than 12 hours at a time. The buses here go SUPER slow, we figure that the speed averages 40km/hour which is about 25 miles/hour!

The next day in Hanoi was our last, I was still feeling really sick and stayed in bed for most of the day. A taxi came to pick us up for our bus ride to Dong Ha around 6pm. The sleeper bus was pretty nice, three rows of beds stacked 2 high and 2 big bunks on the back. Unfortunately, we got the 5 person bunk in the back and since we were getting off early, they made us take out bags with us. It wasn't too bad of a ride at first, there were only 4 of us on a bed with room for 5, but a couple hours into the trip they added a 5th person and things got crowded. Nate of course slept fine, but I was feverish again and slept lightly. I was really happy when we finally arrived in Dong Ha at 6:30 am and was even happier to discover that they dropped us off 100 yards from our hotel.

Posted by heidigras 04:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Sapa: Motorbike Adventures Part 2

A drive out to Ban Ho Village

sunny 20 °C

The day before had been an amazing ride on motorbike back to our hotel. The sun had begun to set, and the rays of light reflected off of the water in the rice terraces which was a really beautiful and picturesque view of the countryside. Unfortunately, we were on the back of motorbikes with a couple of villagers who couldn't speak any English, so we were forced to just enjoy the view without stops on the way back. Thus, today we were determined to retrace our steps from the day before and try to get some good photos.

We woke up on time, and ate a light breakfast. Unfortunately, Heidi was sick again and couldn't keep the food down. We had already checked out of our hotel room, but the staff there were nice enough to let Heidi sleep in an unoccupied room on the second floor, which we really appreciated. Heidi again encouraged me to go out by myself and explore a bit, so I let her rest and take a nap for a few hours.

I decided to take a look at the Sapa Radio Tower, which is perched atop the highest peak in Sapa Town. There is a park at the top of the mountain and a well-maintained system of trails, so I thought it would be a good way to burn a couple of hours. The climb was decent, and when I got to the top, I found that it had a really nice view of the town, the valley below, and Fansipan Mountain (the tallest mountain in Vietnam). I wandered around on the top of the mountain and eventually stumbled upon some smaller footpaths that led off of the main trails down around the ridge of the mountain. I went down to take a look, and found that there was a whole system of footpaths that went down to various residences of H'mong people who lived on this mountain. I walked for an hour or so, greeting a few local people along the way, but because I didn't want to waste a whole day up there, I headed back to the main trails after an hour or so. I explored the paths on the mountain, and found that it was quite developed. There was an ostrich farm, a flower garden, and a couple of other gardens, one of which contained a whole variety of different cacti plants, which I thought was pretty interesting.

After a few hours on the mountain, I decided to head down and check on Heidi. She had rested and was feeling much better, so we went out to rent a motorbike. We headed out for Ban Ho; and, as the day before, enjoyed the views and made the return drive just in time to catch that picture-perfect lighting for some good pictures of the countryside. There isn't much else to say about the ride, other than that it was pretty cool. We rode around for a few hours and made it back into town with time to spare to catch the bus down to Lao Cai, where we would take the night train back to Hanoi.

The bus was on time, and after circling around town a bit and picking up a few stray passengers, we were on our way to Lao Cai. After an hour descent down the mountain, we were there at the train station. We decided to first track down our train tickets, as we were only holding reservations, not the official tickets we would need to board the train. We first checked with the train station, but they redirected us to a small travel agency's office just around the corner from the station. To our dismay, on arrival at the office, we found that it was empty and appeared to be closed. Nonetheless, we squeezed through the closed front door and sat inside and waited. And waited. And waited some more. There was never a sign of a person, so we left and got a bite to eat next door while keeping an eye on the travel agency.

The time came when passengers could begin boarding the train bound for Hanoi, and there was still no one in sight in the travel agency. How were we to get our train tickets? We decided to just risk it and go to the train station and try to get on the train without official tickets. We made it through the initial check, but when we reached the door to board the train, we were stopped and asked for tickets. The reservations we showed didn't satisfy the train attendants, and after trying to explain our situation and show them that the reservations had the correct date, time, and seat numbers, we realized it was to no avail, as the attendants didn't seem to be able to speak any English other than "no, you go over there, get a ticket". We didn't know what we could do at this point, other than to head back to the main hall in the station and find someone we could explain the situation to. Along the way, a man sitting alongside the train popped out and asked us if we had reservations. We then found out that he was with the travel agency, and he had the tickets. He led us to the right place on the train, and although we were relieved, we were both a bit frustrated about the situation and vowed to never book train tickets through an agency like that again. First, we couldn't understand why they couldn't have issued the actual train tickets outright, as they do in pretty much every other country. Second, we reasoned, if they did have to give us reservations and then trade for tickets later, why couldn't they be where they were supposed to be, and on time? Oh well, water under the bridge...

We got settled on the train, and realized we were bunking with some Zhongguorens (Chinese people). I was happy to have another chance to practice my Chinese, and I found that they were from Yunnan province and were going to Hanoi to do business. We chatted for awhile, but still managed to go to sleep before 10 o'clock. Lame.

Posted by heidigras 09:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Sapa Village Life

Trekking Adventures

sunny 25 °C

Heidi was feeling a bit better, so she was determined to get outside and enjoy the day. The first thing we noticed as soon as we stepped out of the hotel room in the morning was that the sun was shining, the temperature was really nice, and there was not a cloud in sight. Compared with the two previous days, it was as if we had been transported into a different world. The weather really was amazing, and for the first time we were able to see the surrounding city and countryside from our balcony. With the improvements of Heidi's health and the weather, we decided to make a day of trekking through the surrounding countryside, which we heard was a highlight of any tour of Sapa. We were not to be disappointed.

We started the day by heading out to get some breakfast and to buy a small backpack suitable for day hikes. We visited the Sapa market, which seemed to be pretty typical for an Asian market, as it contained all the usual types of vegetables, meats, and spices. The only thing in particular that drew our attention was a a wooden block in the meat section of the market that was holding some dog meat and a fully intact dog head. Although dog meat is widely eaten in Vietnam, we hadn't seen it before, and it was hard to tell if the meat here was for selling, or just as a tourist attraction. Either way, it piqued our interest and we snapped a shot. For those of you interested, I'll show it to you later (I'll spare the rest of you the grisly sight this time). Unrelated to the display of butchered dog meat, Heidi began to feel a bit nauseous again, and we exited the market quickly. This time we decided to actually get some medicine for Heidi to try. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for Heidi), our Slovenian friends had left that morning, so there was no magical home remedy for Heidi to choke down as she had the previous day. Thus, our first stop was at a local pharmacy. The young girl there didn't seem to know anything about the products she was selling, so we walked across the street to another shop, where we were pleased to find a couple who were quite knowledgeable and quickly helped us find some medicine. Heidi simply explained her symptoms, and they gave her some rehydration powder and some anti-nausea pills, while giving detailed instructions about how to take the medicine. Heidi then decided to return to the hotel room for a little while to lie down and rest while I went out to buy a backpack and get some breakfast.

I went back down to the local market and passed through the rows of produce to the back, where there were several small tables with benches serving various kinds of simple Vietnamese food. I went for the pho chicken noodle soup--a Vietnamese staple breakfast dish--which I just can't get enough of. While slurping down my noodles, I chatted a bit with a local vendor who could speak a bit of English, and after learning that I had spent some time living in China, she was really curious to hear about what it is like there, which sparked a flurry questions about how much things cost, and what the names of various food products were in Chinese. She helped translate things I was saying to some of the other locals who were having breakfast there, and I found everyone was really friendly. A guy sitting next to me even gave me a glass of tea. After breakfast, I walked around a bit before finding a shop that sold backpacks. I ended up buying a pack, and although it was certainly as imitation knock-off likely originating in China, the quality seemed pretty good, so I was satisfied.

I finally made it back to the hotel and found that Heidi was feeling better, so we decided to try again. We started walking out of the south end of town, and were destined for a small village named Ta Van. We walked down the narrow road leading out of the city and soon bumped into a local girl who began asking us a few questions and then invited us to hike with her to her village. She could speak pretty good English, and after chatting for a few minutes and measuring her character, we agreed (Ku made me pinkie swear to follow her to her to her village), as we felt that a local guide could really add to the experience and give us some inside information about the local customs and culture, not to mention it would be a bit more adventurous than doing a group package tourist trekking excursion organized by a travel agency, who tend to stick to the developed and tourist-friendly (read: tourist trap) villages near Sapa town. The 24 year-old member of the Black H'mong minority group introduced herself to us as "Ku" and explained that she was a native of Giang Ta Chai village, a small village home to mostly Black H'mong people that is built along the river that flows through the terraced rice fields south of Sapa. The tiny and extremely cheerful young lady, whose skin and hands were worn beyond her age by having already spent years working in the rice fields, was, like many of the village people who inhabit the mountains surrounding Sapa, wearing the traditional dress of the Black H'mong people, which consists of simple sandals, black leg wrappings, and an ornately stitched smock tied at the waist with an equally ornate sash. The Black H'mong people, a subgroup of the H'mong ethnic minority, get their name from this traditional style of dress, all of which is died a deep shade of indigo blue. We briefly mapped out a trekking course that would lead us through the villages of Ta Chai, Ta Van, and Giang Ta Chai. It would take us most of the day to reach there by foot.

After setting our course, we eagerly set out, first walking down the narrow road leading away from Sapa, along the way passing through patches of bamboo and taking in the stunning scenery of the valley of terraced rice fields below. Ku chatted away for most of the walk, telling us about her family and about the village life of the Sapa hill people, while teaching a few simple phrases in the local H'mong language. After walking some time, she led us to a steep, narrow foot path that led through rice fields down into the valley. We hiked down the winding path, through the rice terraces, where we had stunning views of the valley and the river below. Along the way, Ku pointed out some local vegetation and animals, noting some poisonous plants and talking about how vital the buffalo still are to rice farming in the region. We passed down the path above Ta Chai village and after a couple more hours of walking, we reached the tourist village of Ta Van. The village was in a beautiful setting, located on the banks of the river, and although it was a tourist gateway, home to an endless supply of tourists getting a taste of the local village life, it was still a real, working village that was surrounded by rice fields. We had the fortunate privilege, due to the presence of our local guide Ku, of avoiding all of the local H'mong and Dzao villagers hawking their wares, as Ku let all of them know that we were traveling with her and this quickly deterred what would have been persistent peddling. It was at this point, however, that Heidi overheated a bit, so we stopped for a brief rest, taking a bit of time to trickle the cool river water over her head and neck.

Heidi cooled off after a brief rest, and we continued the trek, passing through the village of Ta Van and over a narrow bridge that crossed the river. After walking along the narrow roads that followed the river for a couple of hours, we finally arrived at our destination: Giang Ta Chai. There, we first made a pit stop at a small shop that sold food and produce, where Ku bought some eggs and noodles for us to eat. We followed a very small trail up the hill to her home, passing through the home of her mother (whom she happily introduced us to) and then arrived at her residence next door. She led us inside her home, and after apologizing a bit for its primitive condition, gave us a short tour. It was a simple house, built with wood and consisted of small room in the entrance that had a fire pit for cooking, behind which was a main hall and storage room, and a simple hand-made ladder that led up to the loft where the children slept. The home was decorated only with a few farming implements, and a small framed set of pictures of her family and her husband (who was currently in the hillside working the rice fields with the buffalo). Just outside the house was a vat of the indigo dye that the Black H'mong people use to color their traditional clothing. Ku spent the next half an hour taking care of the children and nursing her youngest one. The children spent their time playing quietly and working on their homework, and after a short while the curious neighbor friend of Ku's sister came in to help with the children. She was very curious to see us there, but was very quiet and shy, and after eyeing us for a time, she spent her time working on stitching a sash. After feeding the youngest one, Ku built a fire and cooked us a meal consisting of fried eggs, instant noodles, and a healthy helping of yellow sticky rice that was mixed together with a local medicinal herb. At the time we didn't think much of the simple meal, but in reality this kind of meal was a luxury to the people of this village, whose typical diet of the sticky rice composed most of their meals, rarely broken by a meal with pork or chicken eaten only during traditional holidays.

We ate until we were full, and then obliged Ku by taking a look at her wares, which consisted of some traditional H'mong clothing, pillow cases, and some hand-crafted silver jewelry. Out of gratitude for her hospitality and tour of the region, we selected a few articles of clothing, but after she quoted a price of 900,000 dong (around $55 USD), we put back a few items, settling on just one hand-embroidered sash that is a part of the traditional H'mong dress. Although Ku encouraged us to haggle about the price, we settled on buying the sash at the first price she quoted, as we were in the awkward position of feeling indebted to her hospitality. She seemed satisfied at the small purchase (which cost us about $11 USD) as an exchange for her services, and even presented Heidi with a small silver bangle as a gift. We were equally satisfied, as we had received a full day of guided trekking and meal.

Ku then led us back down to the village center, where she helped negotiate to have a couple of guys with motorbikes drive us back to Sapa, as we felt a bit tired to make the six-hour trek back to our hotel. The 40 minute drive back to the city was equally beautiful, as the sun had begun to set, and light was reflecting and shimmering off of water of the many rice terraces in the valley. We finally reached our hotel, and we decided to spoil ourselves with some wood-fired pizza at a small restaurant, which made for a perfect end to a good day.

Posted by heidigras 05:38 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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