The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 22nd – Sapa & Ta Va

Back at the host family’s house we sit around the table outside, together with the other foreigners, and exchange travel stories. The British couple are on their honeymoon and they’ve only been married for five days. Guess there’s no better way to test a new marriage than to slide down some muddy hills together in an exotic country.

The experience of staying with the Red Dzao is quite different from what we have expected. We assumed we’d be cooking the dinner together with the family, learning some local words and traditions. Instead, the younglings of the family hide out inside the house watching TV while their parents are cooking dinner. We are left to our own devices.

When the dinner is served later we are again not sharing it with the family, but with our foreign flock. Only for a short while do our guides and the man of the house come by our table, bearing rice vodka. It’s called Vodka Hanoi and it tastes suspiciously of corn. We all share a shot of this concoction and our host stumbles back inside the house.

One of the guides stays with us for a few more gulps of the vodka. He keeps referring to it as “happy water” and indeed gets increasingly “happy” with every sip. His speech becomes a mix of slurps and incomprehensible shrieks as he attempts to engage one of the Belgians in conversation. The Belgian patiently tries to follow what is essentially an assembly of disconnected syllables and bird mating calls. Finally, the guide leaves, either having given up on trying to make sense, or content with a successfully delivered speech. We’ll never know.

“If you blaumen te nee by the waywe THEN! Right?!”

There are notes from previous tourists everywhere on the walls. Some of them are quite old and suggest that the homestay here used to be a more “genuine” experience back in the day. They are thanking the hosts for teaching them different recipes and stating how great it was to learn about the Dzao way of life first hand. Perhaps the daily flow of tourists from the organised tours has taken some soul out of the experience for the host family. So now they’ve boiled the homestay down to a hostel-like sleepover.

Dinner itself is varied and delicious: there are different types of spring rolls, rice, vegetables, fish, chicken bits and so on. As we eat the Brits entertain us with some stories from back home. Sophie, who works as a paediatrician, reveals that the NHS is actually quite far from being the perfect example of free and effective healthcare that Michael Moore has made it out to be in his Sicko documentary. There are funding problems and many inefficiencies in the way the system functions.

Steven (the husband) works for the British military and collaborates closely with the UK Border Agency. He’s got some amusing stories to tell. Apparently many refugees who seek political asylum in the UK are trained in telling the exact same tale when they arrive. Sometimes Steven has to interrupt them mid-story and “predict” what they will tell him next, because he has heard this dozens of times before.

“And then your mothership crashed right here, correct?”

Three of the Belgians are teachers, each of them in different subjects and teaching different age groups. Only one of them is truly talkative. She tells us that on the way here she’s been asked by the Hmong whether there are any rice fields in Belgium. When she had replied with a “No” the shocked Hmong women asked her how she gets her rice. She shocked them further by describing how rice appears on supermarket shelves in small plastic packages. I guess it’s hard to understand having to buy packaged rice when you are surrounded by endless rice fields on a daily basis.

Later in the evening a distant thunderstorm starts brewing in the mountains and we can see flashes of lightning. One of the guides tells us the storm will most likely reach us by morning. Excellent, this means I can continue being stupidly stubborn and refuse to wear rain gear tomorrow as well.

After dinner we all head upstairs to prepare our beds. While we’re setting up the mosquito nets Katka tells me that they’re apparently called “musketeers” in Czech. Well, the actual spelling is “moskytiera”, but when spoken it sounds exactly like “musketeers”. I have the sense of humour of a five-year-old, so this is incredibly funny to me. I ask Katka whether we can count on d’Artagnan to protect us from the pesky insects during the night. I know, I’m freaking hilarious!

“En garde, le little fly, you shall not pass!”

Downstairs the family’s dog is feeding her three puppies. A grown up dog tries to sneak his way to the milk and gets a serious ass-whooping from the mother. Nice try, buddy, but I think she can tell her puppies apart from you, pervert.

We’re in bed early, but the TV downstairs keeps most of us up for a while. This would never happen in a Hmong house, seeing how they don’t have TVs. However, we’d probably also be sleeping on a wooden floor next to the buffalo, so we can hardly complain.

The journey continues right here.

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Finally, don’t forget to check out Katka’s photos from the trip!

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