High mountains and big rivers

Greetings to one and all,

Here we are in the mountains to the west and northwest of Hanoi. We arrived here 3 days ago and our first adventure was our first home stay. Mai Chau is the city that we are near, it is a small town really, not much of a city at all. A town without internet, by the way.

We drove past Mai Chau, carefully following along on our map. Mr. Cuong let us out of the vehicle and Khanh and Toby and I hiked into the hills. We took a well worn path past 7 different villages, all of which were White Thai. We felt like creatures in a zoo frankly. Clearly we were the only westerner most of these people had ever seen and none of them had seen any outside of town. But it was a lot of fun and we greeted them in Vietnamese and many kids hello, hello to us. Eventually we arrived at our home stay. The White Thai (so named because of a headress they wear) live in stilt houses made from wood. They live on the raised floor and our home actually had an enclosed first floor with a nice tile floor. I have no idea what they use that first floor for, as it was completely empty. I am guessing in the hot season it is cooler than the second floor. We were greeted and ushered upstairs. Grandma, who chews betel nut, was spitting out the window. It was rather disturbing. We were more than a little surprised as the home was not at all as Khanh described it.

We have learned more about Khanh. The critical thing we have learned is that though he speaks English, he does not understand it that well. So when we ask a question, he says yes. Always. So if we ask the wrong question, we get an answer that we like but that isn’t true.

Khanh had told us that we would have a separate room or at least space. I was very clear when I questioned him. This was simply not true. The second floor of this house consisted of a large room with one piece of furniture. It was a storage cabinet with the television on it. Other than that and the stacked up bedding against the wall, the room was completely empty.

Since Khanh had not told them we were coming (there is no phone, of course), we were somewhat of a shock. But warmly welcomed. We went for a walk around the village and through the paddies. Eventually dinner time came and the women came back from the fields to find us. Surprise! We all had fun and supper was prepared. Since the power was out to the village, we ate by candlelight. Grandma was sent to another son’s house. All of a sudden, the electricity was turned on and voilla! the entire family glommed onto TV. Very bizarre.

Here in Vietnam, there are 3 channels. All government run. One has news. Another has soap operas or movies. Action packed American or Russian or Chinese thrillers with dubbed in Vietnamese voices. The third channel is about how hard the government is working for you and has interviews with various people in the country and public service announcements. The first day we arrived, our $15.00 hotel television had CNN but after that, their satellite went out.

Our host was very well informed on politics and education and the world in general. This after Khanh had informed us that the White Thai were not as clever as Vietnamese. The ethnic minorities are considered inferior by the Vietnamese but I didn’t expect that attitude from Khanh. Anyway, our host was better informed than Khanh and asked us all about what we thought would happen to Vietnam as they entered a market economy.

Sidenote: in 1995, Vietnam decided to leave socialism behind (not Communism, socialism) and move towards a market economy. They are in stage one of that process, and now have a ‘market oriented’ economy. In 5 years, they expect to have a fully developed ‘market economy’. Looks like capitalism to me. Just like in China. That looked a lot like capitalism to me too.

He talked intelligently about free trade, health care, education, etc. It was very interesting. Dinner was fine, but eventually, I could not avoid finding out about their sanitation facilities. Now, mind you, I am pretty accommodating. I can use an outhouse, a pit latrine, or a squat toilet with or without running water. But this method was a horse of a different color. There was a rudimentary wooden plank structure made from the outer planks of trees with bark on them. The framework was encased in grain bags. Inside were two more planks, bark side up and between them was where you ‘sat’. Since this was not down on the ground, sitting was the only option, except I am tall enough to avoid contact. The two boards, spaced a foot apart or so, looked like they would fall to the ground at any moment. And they were wet. Under them was ash. Now, to their credit, ash is a far better approach than lime. Ash absorbs all odor. We had already run into squat toilets with ash as the primary disposal method and it works pretty well. But this was beyond the pale. Men went outside on a second pile of ash.

Since this was the first of 9 homestays and all but one was more primitive than this one, according to Khanh, I vetoed future, more primitive homestays. And I questioned him about the next night, which was also a homestay but very ‘upscale’.

The next day, we hiked through the very beautiful mountains to Muong village, where we had lunch. The family was great fun and first I napped while they prepared lunch. It was decided they would serve chicken. The man got a very long gun out and off he went. He shot a chicken in the yard!!! I had just whispered to Toby “do you think he is going to shoot the chicken?” Toby said, “no, people don’t shoot chickens!” Moments later, kaboom! the chicken was injured and carried off. Discussions later told us that they don’t cut their heads off because then they run around and get away. Well, that chicken didn’t get away but he wasn’t dead either. Flopping around a bit. A tough old geezer, too. Not my first choice of food, but the tofu was great, as were the greens, which is pretty much what I eat all the time now. Toby eats whatever gristly meat is put before him, and fish bones too. I nibble.

That family was great fun and we talked and talked and took photos of everyone in the village. They all came and posed and a wonderful time was had by all.

That night, our second homestay, was supposed to be upscale. And it was. We had a separate room. Same stilt house, more White Thai, but with a little tile building nearby that had two rooms. One was a shower of sorts and the other had a flush toilet. You brushed your teeth outside, where there were spigots and drains that ran into the rice paddy irrigation system. It worked well and the shower had a water heater. You filled a basin with hot water, washed, and used a sauce pan to rinse. Then you dumped the basin into the hole in the floor (also into the rice paddy irrigation system) and filled it with clean, rinse water. I felt great, especially by comparison to the first home stay.

Since I had revolted on future, more primitive homestays, we stayed there 2 nights and did more hiking. Yesterday we ate with a Tho family, way, way up in the mountain tops. It was a hiking and trekking day, according to Khanh. He was right, it certainly was. There are no roads even for motorbikes where we were, only foot paths. And the Tho have horses, the first we have seen. Again, we were a spectacle but it was lots of fun. We always bring books and pens and pencils for the family and the school. We got to meet a teacher and many children. By the time we arrive at a village, we feel like the Pied Piper, we have a string of children walking with us talking to us. We say numbers, good morning, good afternoon, how old are you, what is your name. That is just about their entire repetoire of English but they are so delighted you understand them when they run off every English phrase they know. It is lots of fun.

Every Monday, the kids in the hills carry a plastic chair with them to school, where it stays for the week. On Friday, they bring it home. Khanh did not have any chairs when he went to school. Bringing chairs is a real innovation, he feels.

Tonite we are in Phu Yen. In a Vietnamese style hotel. Comfortable with a water heater, so we will get to bathe. At the homestay last night, they even fixed my skirt, which got torn and sewed a button on for Toby and hemmed a pair of his pants. Our clothing is taking a beating here. They had a washing machine and did our laundry too!

There are no westerners in Phu Yen, in fact, in most places we go. I will wrap it up, as it is getting dark. In another email, I will write about walking in the dark. Another adventure for another time.

Love to you all,