Vietnam has be the easiest country to travel through, half a big toe outside my bedroom door and offers of food, transport, tours and anything of need flood in. At first I found these continual proposals irritating but eventually I came around to the fact that they were entirely convenient. However it did bring with it the knowledge that I wasn’t exactly trail blazing my way around Asia. Millions of everyday people travelled like me and I couldn’t help but feel that all I was doing was contributing to the Vietnamese tourist revenue. There I was thinking I was making groundbreaking life decisions only to find myself in the wake of a trillion others on a well padded tourist trail. So after I had a suit made in Hoi An, saw religious sites in Da Nang, visited war memorials in Hue, watched water puppets in Hanoi and cruised Halong Bay I stepped off the beaten path in search of some adventure.
Landing in the less touristy town of Bac Ha, a dusty little place in northern Vietnam with a ghost town feel, I hired a young guide with bad English to take me on a 3 day hike up into the hills. My intention, which I relayed to him, was to go where no other tourist goes. The following morning we climbed the highest mountain in the district and by late afternoon we hit our first night’s lodgings. A rural village where the inhabitants were shy and the kids too scared to go near me. At dinner time the semi-circular brood of the entire village’s child population found my chopstick horseplay thigh slapping uproarious. It was endearing to see the little ones so amused by my hardships yet I couldn’t help but internally rectify my humiliation by picturing the shenanigans of them trying to handle a beef steak with a knife and fork. It was a pleasant village but something about it felt touristy. I questioned my guide about this the following day as we wandered through the lush community trails. He admitted that tourists go there for home stays but then swiftly proposed to take me to his friend’s village along with the promise that it was a place where no tourist had ever been.
His friend lived in a barn, a large, seemingly unstable wooden structure with a dirt floor consisting of lounge, bedroom and kitchen all in the one and only room and housing six dirty, snotty but happy and well behaved kids and three adults. Dinner was served and a feast, cooked in my honour, was placed before me, I sort information from my guide as to what exactly we were eating. All he could say was: “I don’t know in English.” I check to see if he knows the word for dog and received a very unconvincing yes. I decide to produce my photo of Buzz for confirmation. Laughing hysterically my guide snatches the photo and parades it around the room which instills further fits of laughter and intense conversation from everyone else. From what I could gather, to them I was carrying around a picture of a steak sandwich. My guide assures me this was not the animal we were eating. Failing having a photo of a cat I decided not to ask, I hadn’t seen any around but wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. Gingerly I crunched through my gristle while making failed attempts at saving my bowl from sustaining any further incoming sinew. I wash it all down with 50% proof corn wine that could knock the wind back into a dead animal and fascinated at the reliable bush telegraph that drew crowds to the house all through the night. Fatigued of being the centre of attention with little means of decent conversation I relayed my sleepiness and was directed to a wooden slab. I awoke to cooking fire smoke saturating my lungs and an aching body plus countless villagers sitting in a make shift lounge which had been set up next to my bed for better viewing pleasure of the sleeping foreigner. My stirring triggered an outbreak of activity and before long breakfast was put before me. I was embarrassed to decline the cold and gut wrenching leftovers from the previous night but our absolutely lovely hosts who were peeing their pants with excitement for the privilege of having a foreigner in their house did not seem to mind. As we set off, the entire village gathered, they supplied us with banana leaf parcels containing colourful three tone sticky rice and I was brought to tears shaking every farewell committee member’s hand. I was deeply touched by their amazing hospitality. I adored the experience and even though the rain poured in buckets and the tracks became an orange, sticky, muddy mess I skipped along happily and basked in adventure fulfilling glory.
Departing Bac Ha I made a simple mistake, bolting to catch the bus and forgetting my passport at the hotel. I’d arrived in Sapa, passport deficient and cradling debilitating stomach spasms that had begun an hour previously, no doubt originating from the unidentified creature in my dinner bowl the previous night. I had only planned to stay two days but ended up being there five, exorcising evil digested meat and waiting for my passport to turn up. After four days of putting up with my hotel’s ploy of prolonging my departure I donned my best worried look and threatened embassy action and within a few minutes my passport was located and delivered to my hot little hand a few hours later. Immediately I booked a train ticket back to Hanoi to then make my way over to Laos. The train trip was character building, the train station employee sneakily switched my ticket from the luxury, air-conditioned soft seat into a carriage with the poor of Vietnam. As soon as I boarded the train I knew I’d been duped. Scouring the carriage it became apparent my ticket’s seat number didn’t exist. I found a ticket inspector who placed me in a seat which I was thrown out of by a drunk Vietnamese man minutes later. Eventually I was pushed out onto the plastic kiddy seat in between two carriages. When the train got underway I managed to locate a spare seat next to a miniature, old lady with black teeth who, throughout the 9 hour journey, spat out the window spraying my face with red betel nut fluid and continually kicked me in my side while a metal bar and smelly feet worked on my back. The carriage was freezing cold, filled with smoke and the trip left me completely exhausted.
I couldn’t rightfully begrudge the trials I had experienced in the previous few days, I had specifically wished for discomfort and adventure after all. But this experience got me thinking, was discomfort the same as being out of your comfort zone? And had I really been wishing for the thing that was going to benefit me most?