Buses and mud: getting stuck and finding kindness

I wrote this post in two stages….

August 6

I just arrived in Muang Khua, a village on the Nam Ou river in northeast Laos. It’s the next-to-last stop on a four-day journey from Sapa, Vietnam, to Luang Prabang, a tourist town in the center of northern Laos. My four travel companions and I arrived on foot, sweaty and muddy, in the late morning. Of roughly the 350 kilometers from Sapa, I’ve gone about 309 km on one of four different buses (17 hours), 40 or so kilometers (one hour) in a pickup truck, one kilometer (30 minutes) on foot, and about 100 meters (2 minutes) on a longtail boat across the river.

I arrived in Sapa on the night train from Hanoi on the last day of July. Sapa is a town birthed of tourism – before the boom it was a simple outpost where the French officials built summer cottages to escape the summer heat of Hanoi. Now it’s a town built for tourists: every building is a guesthouse or restaurant or hastily built housing for the Vietnamese who moved there to serve tourists pizza and fake North Face jackets. The town is crawling with Black Hmong and Red Dao ethnic minorities, who trek there every day to harangue the tourists into buying their embroidered bags or silver bracelets. Before I arrived my vision of Sapa was of a peaceful town nestled in the mountains, with breathtaking views and easy access to nearby hilltribe villages. I was right about everything except the peaceful part: if you’re not surrounded by indigo-clad Hmong shoving change purses in your face, you’re jumping at the blaring horns of the stream of buses and motorbikes passing through town. But if you hire a motorbike or just walk out of town, you’re rewarded with lovely views and friendly, marginally less pushy hill-tribe women.

And it is all women. As far as anyone can discern, the local men spend their time drinking rice wine, working as motorbike taxi drivers, or both. Some are opium addicts as well. The women are the ones who learn English, hand-sew the trinkets for the tourists, carry firewood for cooking, work in the rice and cornfields, and take care the of children.

In Sapa I met Su May, a 30-year-old Red Dao woman who guided me to Taufin, a nearby town where her mother-in-law, Ly May, has a homestay/guest house. We made the trek with three other travelers and their guide Cici, a 22-year old Black Hmong woman who speaks great English and is loads of fun. Taufin is out of the ordinary in that Red Dao and Black Hmong both live in the village, albeit in separate districts. It is a rather large town surrounded by hills whose forests have been burned down to make way for rice paddies and corn fields. This is a common story among the hill tribe people of SE Asia, whose only means of survival in the modern world is swidden farming. One thing I have yet to learn is: when and how did their livelihoods turn from dependence on the forest to dependence on agriculture?

In the evening Su May, her mother-in-law, and various sisters and friends and I sat down for a simple dinner and shot after shot of rice wine. Ly May would exclaim, “One hundred percent!” with each shot, meaning that we weren’t to leave any wine left our glass with each round. Their men had been invited to dinner, but they were elsewhere drinking and smoking on their own. So we spent dinner talking about how men are useless and lazy. It was Grrlz Night, Vietnam style.

Two days later I took the bus from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, site of the decisive battle in the war against the French colonialists. We foreigners – Wes, from Austin, TX, and Michael, from Poland – were hustled into the back of the minivan and promptly blocked in with luggage and bags of rice. We spent the next 10 hours bouncing along a muddy, heavily rutted road winding through what seemed like an endless construction site. Every few kilometers we’d have to stop and wait for the Kamaz earth-movers to finish their work and get out of our way. As it turns out, the Vietnam government will shortly dam the nearby Ron River, flooding a number of villages. They are now hard at work on a new road and new villages for the displaced. The area has an American frontier feel to it: dust, horses and new towns springing up from nothing. None of the places we passed through seemed at all inviting.

August 11

This time I’m writing, at long last, from Luang Prabang, the epicenter of tourism in Laos. I’ve spent the past 5 days mostly recovering from the arduous trip here, and fighting the insidious beginnings of the flu.

As I wrote above, I took a 10-hour bus ride from Sapa to DBP in what in hindsight seems luxurious comfort: decent leg room, and springy seats that mitigated the effects of the potholed road. After a dinner of fried rice and beer with Wes, I collapsed into bed. I awoke at 4:45 to a misty morning that smelled vaguely like damp dog. I packed quickly and raced across the street to catch the 5:30 bus across the Vietnam/Laos border, to the town for Muang Khua. That was the theory, anyway.

As it turns out, the 5:30 bus left around 5:25 (I was there in plenty of time) carrying me, about a half-dozen giant bags of rice, and 4 men. For the next 30 minutes or so we drove around town, picking up a French couple and local women and more giant bags of something-or-other. At 6:15, about 5 kilometers from our starting point, we stopped for breakfast. Agh. I would have happily slept for another hour and taken a taxi to the bus. Eh.

The bus itself was like an old school bus, but with a giant platform up front near the driver where hill-tribe women lounged and slept on mats. The aisle was lined with the aforementioned giant bags, which we stepped on to get in and out of the bus. My feet stayed firmly off the ground, as my knees had to be jammed into the seat in front of me so that I’d fit in the narrow space between rows. This wasn’t such a bad thing, though, as it kept my feet off the 10kg sack of onions and two 20-liter jugs of rice wine on the floor beneath me. In short, I wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it wasn’t the most hellish bus journey of my life. After all, it was only meant to last around 7 hours.

We followed a winding, muddy road into the hills that form the border between the two countries. We crossed the recently-opened border without incident and began the slow, terrifying descent into Laos. It had been raining steadily all day, and the steep narrow roads were slippery mud puddles. The bus skidded around corners, no more than a few feet from a thousand-foot drop into the valley.

At around 11:30 we arrived in the small town of Muang May, where I saw a large group of westerners frantically trying to wave down our bus. The bus did stop, but not for them. The river that ran through town, and which we’d have to cross without the help of an actual bridge, was too swollen from the recent rain. We were stuck until the river receded, which the locals optimistically predicted would happen around 4 pm. They were wrong. We were stuck for the night.

A few of the other westerners, who had been stuck there since the day before, managed to convince the owner of a minivan conveniently located on the other side of the river to bring them the 40-odd kilometers to Muang Khua for an outrageous $15/person, but two couples and I decided to spend the night and hope try the bus again the following morning.

Like many towns in this part of the world, Muang May is surrounded by hill-tribe villages. Due to its remote location, however, there is little tourist infrastructure (a couple of guest houses). All this is set to change, though, due to the recent opening of the nearby border to foreigners and the new road being built to link the tourist destinations of Sapa and Luang Prabang.

It wasn’t long before we met the only English-speakers in town: the delightfully giggly Mrs. Manychan and her youngest son. She already runs a guesthouse in Luang Nam Tha, Laos, and plans to expand her business to Muang May once the road opens. Manychan overwhelmed us with her kindness, helping us to find a guest house, communicating with the bus driver about when we’d leave in the morning, and – most amazingly – cooking us a Loatian feast for which she refused any sort of payment.

Over dinner she told us about her life and family, bursting into a fit of giggles between each story – even when she showed us the scars from the American unexploded ordinance, leftover from the “Secret War,” that left shrapnel in her hip and killed her husband. She’s a shrewd business woman who bought or leased the best-located land in town, and who believes in a sort of capitalist karma: “I am so lucky!” she’d repeat over and over again. “I am nice to other people, and they are nice to me. If someone wants something that my business can’t give, I tell them how to get it anyway. I always get it back!”

We spent the night in a still-nameless, under construction, but very friendly guest house on a hill above the town. Early the next morning we reported to the bus, where we didn’t find the driver but did find that the level of the river had ebbed considerably. We watched as a few pickup trucks picked their way across the river, but by 9 or so there was still no sign of our bus setting off. Instead, we flagged down the truck of a civil engineer who was monitoring work on the road, and who the others had met a few days earlier during their own trek from the border. He offered us a free ride to Muang Khua, which we eagerly accepted. He crossed the river, we threw our bags and the boys in the back and rode in relative comfort for the bumpy 40-kilometer ride. He only took us to his job site on the outskirts of Muang Khua, but it wasn’t a problem to walk the kilometer or so to the *next* river crossing – this one with handy longtail boats to shuttle us across to the town.

(Incidentally, six hours later, as my companions and I sat sipping cool-ish Beerlao at a restaurant overlooking the river, we spotted our bus, finally arrived on the other side of the river.)

The next day we took a bus to Oudomxay, an uninteresting provincial crossroads full of Chinese truck drivers on long hauls from the nearby Chinese border and Thailand. There I left my companions behind, as they headed further west and I went south to Luang Prabang. I arrived in the later afternoon and quickly ran into my obvious choice for accommodation: Manychan Guest House (no relation).

Four relatively uneventful days later, I just bought my ticket north to continue my travels. The general plan is focused on trekking for the next two weeks or so: Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing in Laos, then to cross into Thailand for a quick visit to Chang Rai, then back into Laos for the less-visited southern half of the country. Sometime in mid-September I’ll head back to Bangkok for the flight home.

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Brrrrr

I’m actually cold – cold! – for the first time in about a year. And I love it. I’m in Dalat, the honeymoon and kitsch capital of Vietnam. I decided to skip the well-traveled coastal road and go north via the Central Highlands. Which explains the cool weather: we’re about 1500 meters above sea level.

Most people travel the highlands by hiring an Easy Rider – a loose collection of Vietnamese tour guides who sling you onto the back of their motorbikes and drive you wherever you want to go. Many people do 4-6 day trips with these guys. I opted for just a one-day tour around Dalat, for two reasons. First, I don’t have the time – I want to save enough time to explore Sapa, northwest of Hanoi. Second, the going rate is around $50-100 per day – pretty reasonable, if you consider that you get a personal tour guide, transport, meals, accommodation, etc. But I wanna save that money for Sapa.

The first thing I noticed about Dalat is that people smile a lot more here than they do in Saigon. I suppose that’s a big city/town thing, but I suspect it’s also the weather. I did the Dalat tour with Mr. Hung (I kid you not), a charming 50-something Dalat native who’s been an Easy Rider for about 5 years. It’s hard to see much of interest around Dalat in just one day, but just the ride along winding roads through the pine-forested hills made the $25 for the day worth it. A perfect, sunny day.

So, Vietnam. I have to be honest – I thought I’d hate it here. I heard people are rude and money-grubbing in the same way that I experienced the Chinese in China, but for the most part it’s been surprisingly pleasant. Traces of the Vietnam war are everywhere, from the museums, to the trinkets sold by hawkers, to conversations, to the still-denuded countryside. There are Vietnamese flags everywhere, as well as banners with a gold-on-red hammer and sickle. And of course, the likeness of Ho Chi Minh is omnipresent, on patriotic banners and as statues in town squares.

It’s hard to get past all that, to the new Vietnam. I guess it’s all about making money…this is what I read in the guidebooks and online. And just like in China, I’m having a hard time finding any funk or soul. The hastily built homes are utilitarian and boring, except for the grand mansions of government officials and police, which are faux-opulent and tacky. The shop signs and billboards use more text than pictures, and so far I haven’t seen many ads with sexy young chicks holding up product. Maybe sex doesn’t sell here? Even the motorbikes and helmets – everyone’s got one – aren’t tricked out, like you’d expect. There’s just no personality.

The south Vietnamese – the only ones I’ve met so far – talk openly about how they hate the corrupt government. As a corollary, they mistrust the north Vietnamese, who were resettled here after the war, purportedly as an attempt at reunification but really to lock in control of the whole country. It’s the same tactic the Chinese government is using with Han Chinese and ethnic minority areas, and similar, I suppose, to carpetbaggers heading south after the US Civil War. I’ve also been told again and again how poor most Vietnamese are, but so far I haven’t seen poverty in as stark a form as I’ve seen elsewhere in SE Asia. I suppose it’s early yet, and I haven’t seen much.

To my ears, all this talk of corruption, suppression of civil liberties, poverty and ethnic division sounds like counter-propaganda. I suspect the south Vietnamese are telling western tourists what they think we want to hear. [As an aside, this is an affliction throughout SE Asia: if you don’t know the answer, or even if you do, tell the tourist what you think she wants to hear. It’s some weird attempt to make us happy, but ends up frustrating us.]

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I didn’t post this yesterday, as I didn’t have the chance. Today spent 11 hours on a bus to Kon Tum, a little-touristed town between Dalat and my next destination, Hoi An. I’m hoping to do a two-day trek/motorbike trip around the hill-tribe villages in the area. Stay tuned!

The bottom line is, so far I don’t hate Vietnam. But I don’t love it, either.

Nothing to see here. Move on.

Today I booked a tour to the Chu Chi tunnels, part of the vast network of tunnels built and used by the Viet Cong during The War. I arranged the tour through Sang, the owner-operator of Hanh Cafe tour office, situated in an alley off Bui Vien St. I give the details (email hongsnag40@yahoo.com; phone 08-392-06211) in case anyone is in the area and wants to book tickets, a tour, or whatever…because Sang is the coolest tour operator I’ve met since Anton, my buddy in Irkutsk.

Most standard tours to Chu Chi include a stop at a pagoda as well. When I asked Sang if the temple was worth it, he smiled and said, “Well, if you’ve seen a few temples around Asia, it’s not really any different.” In other words, he gave me his honest opinion instead of trying to squeeze a few more bucks from me. As a result, I’m now going to buy a 2-day trip to the Mekong Delta, plus a hop on/off bus service (very popular and cheap way to travel in Vietnam – sort of like the Eurail) from him.

Plus, he’s hilarious and will sit and tell you stories in an Aussie-tinged Vietnamese accent all afternoon if you let him. He’s the eldest son of a man who has fathered 22 (!) children with about 10 women in such far-flung places as Australia, Japan, the US and Korea. His father served as a fighter pilot for South Vietnam in the war, flying sorties over northern Vietnam. Referring to his father’s vigorous and far-flung seed, Sang says, “My father is a bomber!”

He also told stories of a Vietnamese guy he knows who is *the* marijuana kingpin in Canada, which those who smoke say produces some of the best weed in the world. Sang’s friend is now a multi-millionaire. Once, when the drug king came back to Vietnam for a visit, Sang went out with him for the night. “The man throws money around like it’s nothing. Two girls, bottles of champagne. We went to a bar and there were girls. Tall ones, young, old, whatever you want. ‘You like this one, take her!’ said his friend to Sang. ‘I don’t have the money to pay,’ he answered. ‘No problem! Take one! You want two? Take what you want, it’s no problem.'” Sang continues: “The guy spends $10,000 in one night, no problem. It’s nothing to him.”

He carried on talking, about the slang used on the phone to make drug deals. Which got him talking about gambling: “We bet on every single football match. There is a guy who owns a gold and jewelry shop around the corner. He had been losing heavily on bets during the World Cup. Then he put all his money on Brazil to beat Holland. When Holland won, he lost everything. $1.2 million. He killed himself.”

Sang could go on for hours. He talks about politics, the difference between South and North Vietnamese (who, he claims, don’t like and still suspect each other), the real name of his city (he agrees with me), corruption, visits by his father’s many children, and on and on. I’d break my hand trying to write everything down.

Instead, as I said, tomorrow I’m going to the Chu Chi tunnels. The next day I’ll do a 2-day trip to the Mekong Delta, including a homestay. Then, depending on how I feel, I’ll start making my way north. Sang, despite his clear prejudice towards south Vietnam, says there’s more to see in the north than the south. He points to an area just north of Danang, where the hop on/off buses don’t stop. “There’s nothing to see! Just rice fields. You see the same thing everywhere. Go to Hanoi. Go to Sapa. Go to Halong Bay. There, there are things to see!”