Catch me if you can

Vietnam started off eventfully right from the very beginning. The journey from Luang Namtha in Laos to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam was a taxing 12h bus ride on narrow windy roads in the mountains. To add chill to already nauseating ride, most part of the road on the Vietnamese side was in construction, so apart from narrow and windy it was also bumpy, dusty and painfully slow. And both on Laotian and Vietnamese side the road was inches away from a steep slope going hundreds meters down into a valley or a river. To make the journey pass faster Ale fell asleep and told me to do the same. But how could I sleep when I felt all my muscles getting tense every time the bus was overtaking a truck on a turn and we were almost touching the edge of the road? I sat with my eyes wide open, not so much enjoying the scenery, but watching what the driver was doing. It was better not to watch, but I could help it. It was like a horror movie that scares you, but you keep watching it.

Still, we were lucky we got to Dien Bien Phu anyway. And it was not because of the bad road, but because the driver forgot about us altogether and left us on Vietnamese border. We were in a long que to passport check and even though we were not the last ones in the line, the officers left our passports for dessert. It took some 30-40mins until all the people from the bus got their border stamps and ours took especially long. The border officials always create that air of uncertainty and fear around them, it was especially evident on Vietnamese border. We sighed with relief when they finally handed our passports back to us. All smiles and giggles we went out of the building and were greeted by a young official who double-checked our passports and welcomed us to Vietnam. He was the only one there who spoke a tiny little bit of English.

It was cold outside so we marched quickly to the bus, but after a few steps we looked at each other perplexed. Where is the bus? We assumed it just parked somewhere on a side to wait for us. We went back to the young official to ask where our bus disappeared, but he was as confused as us. It turned out his English ended on “Can I see your passport” and “Welcome to Vietnam”. He did not understand what we were saying to him about the bus. As we were gesticulating excitedly we attracted a crowd of other officers who came in to watch. After a while somebody understood that we were talking about a bus and told us:
- Yes, you can take a local bus to go to Dien Bien Phu.
- Nooooo – we exclaimed in chorus – we don’t need a local bus, we were on a bus, they have our bags (here we pointed at our backs and imitated heavy load), a big bus, with other people…. Thai tourists and Lao people… we need to get back on that bus, where is it?
Somebody seemed to understand because they said something in Vietnamese between themselves and started to laugh. One of them made a phone call and after some debate they told us to get on a motorbike. Now we started to laugh. On a motorbike? What for? But we didn’t have time to ask too many questions. They delegated an elderly Vietnamese man who happened to be crossing the border to take us on his motorbike down the windy road. We had no idea whether they understood us at all and where the grandpa was taking us. Plus it was very cold, as we left our jackets on the bus (Ale was in shorts and flip flops). But when grandpa speeded down the mountain, it became clear to us that we were chasing the bus. Go grandpa go!

A few kilometers further the bus was waiting for us. Grandpa, proud of fulfilled mission, left us to the driver who patted our backs apologetically. On the bus people were laughing at us. We laughed with them, but at the same time we were asking ourselves how come they didn’t tell the driver to wait for us. We were all in the que together and we were the only non-Asian people on the bus. It’s hard to overlook us. But never mind. We were reunited with our luggage and that mattered most.

We stopped in Dien Bien Phu for the night and the next morning we had to take another 8h bus to Bac Ha on the north of Vietnam. Dien Bien Phu had nothing to offer, not even a good place to eat or sleep, so we were glad we didn’t have to stop there for longer than one night. In the evening of the following day after two days of nerve-wrecking bus travel, we finally got to our destination.

We were in a hurry to get to Bac Ha precisely on Saturday evening, because Sunday was a market day. Sunday markets were a kaleidoscope of colour as H’mong Flower ladies from mountain villages flocked to town to buy and sell their goods. They were a fantastic sight. Dressed from top to toe in richly embroidered clothes of all colours of the rainbow. Some came to stock up on food, some to sell home-brewed alcohol, forest roots, vegetables and hand-made textiles. It was a madness for the eyes. In live stock section people presented their buffaloes for sale, gutted chickens and traded dogs for meat. Nearby butchers were selling various bits and pieces of animal meat including already skinned dog paws. At that point I seriously considered turning to vegetarianism. Walking through there was like a nightmare coming true where people laughed loudly, exchanged money and bargained for best offers, while their animals were closed in cages with no room to sit straight, looking disoriented and helpless. One young girl dressed in her beautiful traditional clothing kept a puppy on a leash made of a telephone charger. With that mix of colour and cruelty the market was both fascinating and disturbing.

On Sunday Bac Ha was filled with people, both locals and tourists coming on organised tours from Sapa. The day after, though, Bac Ha was deserted. It was once again a quiet little town covered in mist. We stayed there one more day enjoying the fact of being almost the only foreigners within 100 km and used it for a trek into the countryside to visit villages of H’mong people and other ethnic minorities.

Bac Ha was surrounded by small villages and countryside of rice terraces. It’s hilly landscape was transformed into a mosaic of rice paddies on multiple levels. Even though it was winter, not the time of lush green rice fields you see on postcards, the views were very pretty. But the day with Amin, our guide, was not so much about enjoying the views. He wanted us to meet the locals. We were delighted about that, at least at the beginning. As we continued to visit one family after another, our perception of the world was becoming more and more hazy. Almost every family welcomed us with a bottle of rice wine or corn wine. Home-made of course. They called it wine, but it was a spirit with over 40% alcohol in it. One host was so hospitable he kept pouring corn wine over and over. It was impolite to refuse, but it would have been even more embarrassing to fall asleep on his couch, so I said categorically no after my second glass and Ale after his fifth. It was only 10am and we were already dizzy. Well, Ale was a step from being drunk. As long as hosts offered us tea, it was fine, but after a third offer of strong spirit we told Amin we did not want to drink any more. Apologetically he said that it was Vietnamese New Year a week before, as if to explain why we were continually poured strong spirits.

Vietnamese villages were different to what we saw in Laos and Cambodia. There were no charming bamboo hats with straw roofs, houses were still quite poor and basic, but they were built with brick and cement. Some still didn’t have running water and hygiene seemed to be overlooked. The cups they gave us for tea and corn wine were grimy and greasy, not washed for ages, passed from one person to another. We’ve spent a few months in South East Asia already so we just shrugged our shoulders. It was part of the experience.

As we were walking, Amin invited us to his house for dinner. Well, it was more a proposal than an invitation. We were meant to buy food and cook it at his place. We agreed. But there was a catch. What we didn’t know was that he had three children and the shopping we did was supposed to feed the whole family. At that point we insisted that he comes to the market with us, otherwise we would have been charged double or triple. We did the shopping and Amin with his wife prepared a feast for us all. We were meant to watch and learn, but there was so little room in the kitchen that we could only have a quick look from over their shoulders. At dinner we all sat on the floor eating rice, fried tofu, pork and veggies. Amin from time to time threw with his chopsticks more food into our little bowls (another new custom for us) saying “eat!”. With around $6 that we usually spent for a dinner for two in a restaurant we managed to feed 7 people plus a friend that popped in later. It was a nice, slightly weird at times, evening. We played with kids, then listened to Amin play his guitar (rather badly) and took some family shots that we still need to send them (upsss…). All in all the dinner was a good conclusion to our stay Bac Ha.























Leave a comment