Instead, as we pulled into Sapa, in the northern part of Vietnam, a group of Black Hmong women gathered on the side of the road as our shuttle pulled into the center of town. A welcoming committee, perhaps?
As the van came to a stop, my jaw dropped as the entire group charged at our vehicle screaming “You buy from me!”
This was not the authentic Vietnamese experience I had in mind.
Returning to Southeast Asia was a dream of mine since my last trip to Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia eight years ago. So when the time finally came for my boyfriend and I to head out for a three-week romp around Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia this past September, I went with a backpack full of expectations, hoping to get off the beaten path and discover the “authentic” cultures of Southeast Asia.
Expectations and reality are hardly ever one in the same, as I was soon reminded. As a tourist, I had as much to do with the cultural changes taking place in the places I visited as the people who live there. The fact is that with tourism spreading rapidly throughout Third World countries, “off the beaten path” is now the most-sought after destination.
East meets West
We began our trip with two days in Hanoi, a city well known for its organized chaos. Hanoi is a perfect blend of Eastern mystery and Western old world charm dating back to the early French colonialists.
The narrow streets were choked with a million scooters driving alongside street-hawkers selling their wares. All the while, the constant smell of delicious Vietnamese food wafted out from the thousands of restaurants and sidewalk food stands. Vietnamese women wearing traditional woven cone hats sold everything from T-shirts and balloons to exotic fruits and chickens (both living and dead) from their yoke-slung baskets. Spend a morning sipping Vietnamese coffee and eating tiramisu at a cafe on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake and watch the world go by and you could be in an Asian-style Paris.
To dive into Hanoi’s culture headfirst is to master the art of crossing the road and bartering. It’s also a commitment to eating anything and everything cooked on the street, in spite of any Western health warnings. So this is what we did.
In a city where traffic lights mean nothing and the only road rule seems to be to keep moving, we began our road-crossing lesson by subtly tagging along with locals as they crossed. The key is to cross slowly and steadily and trust that the one million scooters, cyclists, cars and other pedestrians that share the road will flow around you — a belief that contradicts all western road-crossing training.
The art of bartering was our next cultural lesson and my boyfriend approached it with game and gusto while I, recognizing his strength and my relative weakness, timidly left all negotiations to him. He proved his mastery after intense, extensive negotiations for a .25 cent Zippo lighter. Eventually, the sales person shoved the lighter in his hands, refused his money and said “go away.”
While haggling was his fortay, eating was my greatest strength. I attacked the street cuisine, inhaling delicious pho noodle soups, rich French pastries and baguettes, and any street-side delicacy set in front of me. I was never disappointed. Hanoi proved to be a foodies paradise, not just for the amazing flavors, but for the whole experience. Eating on the street is a must as, for one, it is usually the cheapest option and two, it will give you the most authentic Vietnamese food experience. Our last day in Hanoi, we were enticed away from shopping to a street cafe where we were the only non-Asian diners. We sat on plastic child-sized chairs and watched as eight small dishes of food, some recognizable, most not, were immediately placed in front of us in dim sum style. Delicious! Next to us a family of servers/cooks rushed around, dishing up trays of food for our fellow enthusiastic diners as they loudly slurped and chatted.
Ha Long Bay – Sapa – Hanoi
From Hanoi we headed east for a two night stay on a traditional junk boat in Ha Long Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage site on the Northeastern coast covers an area of 1,553 km (965 miles) and is made up of almost 2,000 stunning, mainly limestone islets rising from the Tonkin Gulf. Scattered throughout the islets are small floating fishing villages whose inhabitants farm oysters, mussels and fish for food and trade. It is possible at times to be distracted from the allure of the area by the amount and effects of tourism there. The 450 boats anchored in the crowded bay host thousands of tourists a day. The amount of trash floating in the otherwise emerald waters is a sad reminder of how the desire for tourist dollars can become more important than protecting tourist destinations. However as the sun sets on the limestone karst and the last of the water traders ply their goods to colorful tourist filled junk boats, of which you are a part of, it is impossible not to appreciate the obvious beauty and cultural significance of Ha Long Bay.
Next stop, Sapa, a small French colonial town in the misty northern mountains of the Lao Cai provence. Located near the Chinese boarder, it is home to several different ethnic minority groups whose villages are scattered among the rice terrace-covered mountains and valleys. We took a night train to get from Hanoi to Sapa, sleeping in quaint bunk beds that conjured up historic images of an Orient Express experience, to Lao Cai and from there, took a shuttle to Sapa.
Our initial surprise and fear of the welcoming committee was replaced with curiosity on our hikes to nearby Black Hmong villages with our guide, Quong. Traditionally dressed Black Hmong ladies casually followed along, asking a series of basic questions over and over again: “What’s your name?” “Where you from?” “How many children you have?” and inevitably “You my friend?… You buy from me?” as they dug into their woven baskets for both handmade, and Chinese-made goods. The question of why we were hiking to meet the Black H’mong when they had already made the hike to meet us was ever present. Ever the entertainer and salesman himself, my boyfriend asked them to buy his handmade fly fishing flies and individual pieces of chewing gum. He did eventually manage a trade, a piece of gum for a hand-made bracelet, much to the frustration of the Hmong lady who soon realized she didn’t like the taste of the gum.
Despite the never-ending sales pitch, it was impossible to ignore the magnificent scenery surrounding us: waterfalls, rivers and terraced rice paddies in mist-covered mountains.
Our home-stay was a fun-filled night of amazing food and home-brewed “happy water,” which broke down all cultural and social walls and had us convinced we were fluent in local dialects. Our morning headaches reminded us otherwise. Waking before the rest of our group, my boyfriend and I spent the morning with our host, who spoke no English, and her outgoing five-year-old grandson. We got a glimpse into their everyday life, as our host’s son and daughter-in-law puttered around doing morning chores.
We returned to Hanoi from Sapa the same way we arrived, by sleeper train, and spent one more night in the energetic city, surprised to see capitalism thriving so well in this still communist country. The next morning we headed off to our next stop, a whirlwind two days in Bangkok.