“Tomorrow, Nice Hotel!”—Off-The-Map Adventures In Southeast Asia
For my husband David and me, one of the most gratifying aspects of living in Southeast Asia has been the chances we’ve had to do local things. To get to know our local neighbors and to be treated as though we’re one of them, a real part of the community.
Our friend Tuan owns a minivan and makes his living as a private tour guide. He is Vietnamese, and most of his customers are also Vietnamese. This year, a group of ladies from Saigon hired him to show them Vietnam’s remote Northwest Loop. There were two extra seats available in the van, and he asked David and me if we’d like to ride along on the five-day trip.
We were excited by the opportunity. It would have been difficult to undertake this journey on our own. Many places along this 700-mile trip are so remote that planning the logistics ourselves would have been almost impossible. Navigating tiny, winding, barely maintained roads through high mountains and soaring passes presents plenty of challenges.
We asked Tuan if we would be staying in hotels, and he assured us that we would be very comfortable. Great.
We enthusiastically accepted Tuan’s offer, and certainly we’re glad we made the trip, but we realized quickly after setting out that this would not be like any adventure we’d had in Vietnam before.
We were not traveling as Western tourists but as part of a Vietnamese group. Fortunately most of our traveling companions spoke English, making it easy enough for us to communicate. By the end of the trip, we had all become good friends.
But I’m getting ahead of my story.
We left Hanoi early one morning. Our van slowly wound its way through one small town after another. Late that afternoon, we arrived in the village of Mai Chau. It was there, surrounded by picturesque mountains and rice paddies, that we learned the first rule of traveling with Vietnamese tourists: A thousand photos must be taken at every stop. We knew about the stereotype of Japanese tourists taking innumerable photographs. We now suspect that they learned this from the Vietnamese.
Mai Chau is populated by people of the White Thai ethnic group. Our accommodation the night we spent there was in a large communal room in a traditional wooden house perched on stilts. Tuan reassured us that “tomorrow” we would stay in a hotel.
The next day, we stopped at a Hmong village not on any tourist map. We arrived to find that a village elder had recently died. Our inclination was to leave the village in peace so that the people could mourn, but, instead, we were invited to participate. We lit incense in honor of the dead and listened to the eerie music emanating from traditional reed instruments as the women wailed in ritualized mourning.
As we continued making our way west, the land became more rugged and less populated. By late afternoon, we were in the town of Son La. Son La is known for the big prison built there during the French occupation, a brutal place and the final destination of many Vietnamese political prisoners. We wandered around the prison ruins as the tour guide spoke to our group in Vietnamese.
By late afternoon, we were on our way toward the westernmost city in Vietnam, the remote and historically important outpost of Dien Bien Phu. Tuan pulled over at a scruffy truck stop that qualified truly as a middle-of-nowhere outpost. We ate a simple, hearty dinner and then were told that this was where we would spend the night. We looked around trying to find the hotel. Apparently, we were in it.
As the only foreigners, we got lucky. The owner insisted that we sleep in his bedroom for the night. We’re not sure where he slept. The other members of our group were given bamboo mats and slept on the floor of the dining room. The bathroom was in another building. Tuan gave me a sympathetic look. “Tomorrow,” a nice hotel, he assured me.
The next day, we arrived in Dien Bien Phu, the site of the final battle between the French and the Vietnamese. It was here, in 1954, that the French were ultimately defeated, ending nearly 100 years of occupation in Indochina. We visited the battlefields and bunkers, imagining how the Vietnamese, although greatly outnumbered, had managed such a decisive victory.
Car troubles that afternoon provided us with one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. We broke down on the top of a mountain pass. Tuan coasted down the pass looking for a mechanic. After waiting about an hour for his return, the eight of us flagged down a bus and rode downhill until we found our van. The Black Thai family helping Tuan repair the van had never seen a Caucasian before. We spent the next hour answering their shy questions about our culture and country of origin.
That night, we stayed at a boarding house. I’ll describe it kindly as not being quite up to international standards. “Tomorrow…” Tuan promised.
The next morning, after more photos, we headed through the mountains to Sapa. The scenery in the Vietnamese Alps, as this region is known, is stunning. Terraced rice paddies climb to the top of the mountains. A variety of ethnic minorities, dressed in the traditional clothing that has identified their tribes for generations, live in the hills accessible only via footpaths.
Sapa is a hill station built by the French, who were attracted to the area for its cool climate. At 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), Sapa is Vietnam’s highest town. It is a market town, where minorities come to sell their wares, and popular among foreign tourists. It was the only time on the trip that we saw other Westerners.
Years ago, we visited Sapa and remember offering to pay a persistent Hmong lady if she promised to leave us alone. This time, traveling with our Vietnamese group, no one approached us. It was a completely different experience, one that we never would have had as part of a standard Westernized tour. After spending a few hours taking another thousand photos, we lingered over a long and festive dinner. We retired to a real hotel and slept on a real bed. It felt like a well-earned indulgence.
Not an easy trip and certainly not luxurious, but one of the most memorable we’ve ever taken. We’re looking forward to the next time Tuan tells us he has another couple of empty seats in his van…
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