Travels in Vietnam, Part II

By Stina Sieg | Nov 10, 2011
Photo by: Stina Sieg Sapa, in far northern Vietnam, is famous for its mountains, step agriculture, tiny villages and perhaps the most persistent sales people in the world. This lady was one of the nicest street vendors I came across.

Every trip I’ve ever taken has had the kind of complications that are so improbable that, when later recalling to friends, they sound like unfunny jokes. In Vietnam, the biggest unwelcome surprise came in the form of a tiny, dirty Pekinese with a Napoleon complex. I had stopped into a small store in beachy Nha Trang to ask directions, and after a few minutes of the clerk (who had the little dog at his feet) and I struggling with the language barrier, I turned to leave. Within a few beats, I felt teeth sinking into my ankle. As images of rabies injections shot through my head, the clerk laughed. I would learn later that is simply a patterned response to embarrassment and awkwardness, but at the time it just made my bite hurt more.

In the next few hours, I would get both a rabies shot and spectacularly bad medical advice from an English-speaking Vietnamese doctor, who saddled me with all the needles and serum for two more injections. He said he wasn’t sure that the upcoming towns on my itinerary would have the vaccine, and what did I know? So, for the next week, rabies medication lived in the mini bar at my budget hotels and in a small cooler during any long bus journeys to new destinations.  This reminded me of being in middle school health class and being tasked with caring for a boiled egg as if it were my baby. Like the egg, the shots seemed important but not fully real.

I even took them on a plane to Hanoi, where doctors at the pricey Western clinic balked at the whole arrangement and directed me to get immunoglobulin shots, which unbeknownst to me I really should have had the first day I was bitten. They’re not as painful as you’ve heard and they don’t need to be in your stomach anymore, but they still weren’t any fun. I remember tensely lying on my back and trying to chat with the Vietnamese-born nurse about his time studying in Denver as an orderly pushed that aggressive, stinging liquid into one thigh, then another. Each time took 45 seconds or more and produced welts the size of a sand dollar. The cost ended up being more than a cheap used car, but I remember feeling strangely OK with it all. Even as I napped on that hospital bed, waiting to make sure the shots’ potency wasn’t going to make me pass out, I felt lucky to be on my trip. I’m on an adventure now, I thought. I would keep on hearing that phrase in my mind until I finally boarded the plane home.

Due north

I can’t explain why, but I have a strong allegiance to the cardinal direction of north. It always piques my interest and makes me want to see what’s around the bend. With this in my heart, I moved quickly up Vietnam’s coast and became dedicated to seeing what lies beyond big and bustling Hanoi, the capital city located near the top of the country. I had read about the remote mountain town of Sapa, and it echoed in my head like a drum beat. There was also Halong Bay, a body of water in which tourists lounge around Chinese junks and sip expensive drinks as they pass gorgeous rock formations. One of these spots sounded earthy and rejuvenating, while the other looked to be flashy and commercialized — and by American standards, both were dirt cheap. Feeling like a greedy kid, I wanted both. And, like so often on this trip, each was exactly what I needed.

I don’t think I fully understood how much Vietnam’s moist heat was affecting me until I reached Sapa and, finally, had to put on a jacket. That felt so good. It had taken a loud, eight-hour night train and a two-hour bus ride to get there, but the air was clean and crisp, and it immediately proved worth it. The place looked like an alpine village from some forgotten European country, and that was kind of nice, but I didn’t stick around along. After just a short while, I and a bunch of other tourists were rounded up by our hotel and told it was time to “trek” through the mist-licked mountains, covered with the kind of terraced crops I’d only seen in movies.

Heading down a steep trail, the rush of adventure hit me again. It was dashed about a mile later when we all reached a small village belonging to one of the country’s many minority groups. There, I encountered one of the basic problems about traveling in Vietnam: not knowing what’s real. In a country that has been neatly repackaged for Western tourists, it’s hard not to feel funny and kind of responsible.

What had surely once been just a small town was now a tourist hub, with paved pathways leading to a beautiful waterfall and an unremarkable gift shop, which was blasting traditional music from unseen speakers. Snooki-sized women dressed in colorfully embroidered traditional costumes were roving around with their babies and trying to persuade me to buy their handmade purses and earrings. I was so disheartened. The trudge back up to the hotel was the toughest walk of the trip.

The next day, however, the world opened up again on a new trek through the green hills and valleys. This time it was spitting rain, and we were facing a six-mile hike to another village where we’d spend the night in a home stay. I should have been gloomy about this, but I couldn’t hide a spark of excitement. From the beginning, I was awake and happy, even though I had to be suited up in rain boots and a poncho. I quickly befriended Steph and Tyson, Australian journalists on holiday, and we talked about everything in our heads for hours. When we reached a treacherously steep stretch of muddy trail, we had each other to laugh with and at as little women from the village clutched our hands and guided us down the mountainside. Of course, at the bottom, these sure-footed ladies demanded that we buy their handicrafts, but it seemed a fair exchange as we all three agreed that the women had pretty much saved our lives.

I’ve never been to summer camp, but I can’t image it would have been any better than my time spent out in that wet countryside. In addition to my new Aussie friends, my group included a few young American guys and a French man who was upbeat even though his shoes were caked with mud and had no traction to speak of. By the time we made it to the guesthouse, we had all bonded in that quick way you do when you feel you’re all in it together. That night, as we ate and drank and played cards, I was entranced by a new addition to the fold, an older couple from London. He was English, and she was originally from what was once Czechoslovakia, and they were both contagiously happy and vital. She especially impressed me with her hearty laughs and descriptions of how much traveling they had done and how great retirement was. As I went to bed that night, admittedly affected by too much rice wine, I felt inspired by all the different people around me. It’s amazing, I remember thinking, how many ways there are to live.

A little more than a day later, I was in the complete opposite of a rustic, mountainous village. A train ride and a few bus trips away, Halong Bay was all about kicking back. I ended up on an almost swanky junk, so geared toward Westerners that there weren’t even any chopsticks on board. It was all dark wood and big windows, and my room was ornate with golden pillows and a big bathroom but also had the constant buzz of the engine and no air conditioning. Again, I made buddies, which this time included a college professor named Jason and his enthusiastic, wide-eyed 12-year-old, Evan. Once more, I was at camp, and it was sweet to be part of a small group of folks who dined and drank and swapped stories together. I really cannot downplay how good it felt to be included, even though I knew we’d probably never see one another again. While I had gone to Vietnam alone, dead set on finding some solitude, I still found my best memories were with people I met along the way. Even in the midst of my trip, I thought that was funny and kind of telling.

I only spent one night in the lap of near luxury, but it was enough. The highlight of the evening was jumping off the ship into the tepid, dark brine. My group was all around me, talking and splashing, but the moment felt deeply personal. I remember lying on my back and looking up at the cloudy, starless sky and feeling completely at ease. I knew that within a week I’d again be in Western North Carolina, back to my old life, but I didn’t want to think about that yet. All I wanted to do was float there, wrapped in sea water, and think about nothing. For a few minutes, my mind was totally quiet.

I miss that.