Friday, May 26, 2006

Vietnam/Thailand Part II: "Wading Through Rice Paddies and Buffalo Sh%#"

May 26th
5:30 a.m.
North Vietnam Two Day Mountain Trek

Apparently, trekking during the beginning of the monsoons through rice paddies in North Nam is a slippery deal...

The adventure aency guy was certain I'd fall at least "five times!"when we arrived on Tuesday morning wearing our teva sandals instead of proper hiking boots. "This is mountains! You will fall many times...must have better shoes!" He tried offering me some cheap sneakers to wear which were missing the toe section on the right foot and I declined his offer.

"Don't worry," I told him with unflappable confidence, "I'm a guide in the U.S. I'll be fine."

He didn't look convinced.

"Oh well," he laughed. "Trekking more fun when you fall! Then it's really an adventure.

"How bad can it be?" Mom and I laughed as we set off down the road with our guide, Binh.

Apparently worse than we thought. It never stopped raining from the moment we began. We covered ourselves and our backpacks with giant, shapeless ponchos, rolled our pant legs up to our knees, and carried umbrellas. Any time we wanted to take a photo, I'd pull my Canon out from the humid depths of my poncho, tucked the handle of my umbrella under my chin, put the lens cap between my teeth, and took a photo as fast as possible with the least amount of rain damage possible.

Surprisingly, the rain added a certain mystical quality to all of the photos and scenery. The mist moved across the mountains like wispy plumes of smoke, rising and falling, and twisting into new shapes and and beings. The drizzle gave a softness to the landscape of terraced rice fields and farming villages...great stands of wet bamboo thrust up through the ground, their slender leaves as green as scallion stalks. We weaved between rice paddy fields where the Black H'mong (named for how they use indigo plants to dye their clothes a deep blue black) were busy tending to their rice crops...the women wearing traditional dress and conical woven hats, pulling bunches of rice plants from the water...the men hand-packing the edges of each rice paddy along steep terraces and pulling simple wooden "rakes" to till new terraces and break up the soil.

The terraces cascaded down the hillside for an infinity and disappeared into the great vast whiteness...where we could hear the roaring of a river coming down from the top of the mountains. The heavy rainfall has created numerous waterfalls along the mountain sides which tumble along textured granite and limestone faces.

Young H'mong children sold bamboo walking sticks to trekkers passing through at the price of 50 cents each. I fell in love with a little black puppy at the first rest stop in a little farming house, jokingly calling the puppy, "Soup." I later asked Binh how the Vietnamese decided which dogs to keep as pets and which ones would be stir-fried.

"In the countryside, we do not have pets." he told me with characteristic Vietnamese nonchalance.

It turns out, the puppy would be someone's soup one day. I couldn't shake the thought that every adorable puppy that wagged its tail when we approached and played with a long cord I'd brought along was blissfully ignorant of its true destiny: the main centerpiece for dinner. The second day, we passed a guy carrying an upside down skinned carcas that looked peculiarly familiar. Binh confirmed by suspicions..."Yes, that is dog," he said, knowing fully that westerners have never warmed to the idea of "Stir Fry Benji."

By lunch I had given up trying to avoid the mud and simply walked squished right through it....trying hard not to imagine millions of microscopic parasites wriggling their way into my skin between my toes. (It turns out that there's a whole section in the Lonely Planet guidebook to Vietnam about the numerous types of hookworm and parasites ever-present in farming communities and how trekkers should ALWAYS wear covered shoes....).

For our "homestay" that night, we stayed with a Zay (pronounced "Zai") family after after spending thirty minutes of dumping water over our legs to wash off the mud and buffalo manure caked on our legs. From our porch that night, we watched a few trekkers wading through the mud past our house...amused ourselves watching a five-year old boy riding on the back of a water buffalo while he held a little blue umbrella. Men and women continued to work in the fields even through the rain...a few stray chickens harassed a water buffalo across the "road"...our family's small pack of puppies and dogs tumbled with one another playfully on the porch...and we spoke with two young Black H'mong girls who wandered on to the porch to practice their English with us.

After about eight young boys, H'mong woman, and two young girls invaded the house to watch a horrible Chinese movie about a couple of fourteenth century guys with shellacked hair fighting over a Ziyi Zhang look-alike on one of the town's few t.v. sets...we sat down to a huge spread of food that Binh had made for us from a tiny kerosene-burning stove. Bowls of rice, seafood spring rolls, stir-fried tofu, ginger beef (he swore it wasn't dog), sprouts with tomatoes, and a traditional plate of fruit to finish the meal magically appeared from the humble kitchen.

At dinner there were five of us, Binh (our guide), mom, me, Leung (a young Math teacher who lived there), and Lekh (a cousin or some relation to him who also lived there). We never did figure out their relation. After we stuffed ourselves, Leung said something to Binh in Vietnamese. Binh turned towards me and said, "He would like to invite you to have some rice wine with him."

I gave him the thumbs up and shook my head eagerly. I have read about the peer pressure surrounding who can hold copious amounts of rice wine the best and I was certain it wouldn't be any problem to tell him that I'd only drink one shot, maybe two.

I mean, how hard can it be to say 'no' to a Vietnamese math teacher with a teapot full of rice wine?

After we all did a shot (I had already had two upon arrival in the afternoon and had convinced Mom that she do one, too), he poured another shot.

By then, Binh had declared he wouldn't be drinking ANYMORE rice wine that night. Leung began to focus all his imbibing efforts on me...which I think was the original plan anyway.

Not to offend, I did another shot swearing that it would be my last.

Leung poured another one. After my second or third, the room still wasn't spinning but I did feel a pleasant warmth spreading from my throat down into my chest. Maybe I COULD take these skinny Vietnamese guys down. Maybe all these years of tequila adoration would be paying off for me out here in the mountains of North Nam.

"Rice wine isn't really that strong, you know?" I said to Mom, feeling pretty damn good and proud of myself.

"Yes!" Binh interrupted immediately, his head buried in the rice but paying attention to every one of our drinks, "Yes, IT IS."

I waved off the third drink and we went back to our conversation about the local school where all the Zay and H'mong children attended. All the time, however, Leung kept an eye on the shot glasses which he had already armed again, ready for his next attack.

Now, it was just him and I. When there was a lull in the conversation, Leung again said something to Binh in Vietnamese.

Binh turned to me, "He would like to invite you to have some more rice wine with him."

I looked over at my non-drinking Mamacita who was beginning to get that disturbed look that says, "What the hell kind of evil things are going to happen to my daughter if I leave her down her with three Vietnamese guys and a pot full of rice wine?"

I patted my stomach and tried to explain that I couldn't drink anymore.

Leung nodded with the immediate understanding that I obviously needed to have more "padding" in my stomach for the coming shots and started piling eggs and rice into my bowl, urging me to eat, if merely to ward off the effects of the liquor.

"Do women in Viet Nam drink a lot?" I asked Binh, watching Leung's anxious advancements.

All three of the guys immediately said, "No!" and started laughing. It was amusing to them to see how well, if at all, a gal could hold her liquor.

Leung continued to pour drinks and I continued to first plead 'no,' and then to drink them. He'd fill my glass, I'd pour it back into his and then we'd compromise on sharing whatever amount he'd pour. At some point, Binh drank one of my shots in a heroic and gentlemanly gesture.

After six or so shots, I got Leung to back down and we got caught up in a battle over the correct pronunciation of the Vietnamese word, "Ngon" which to us sounded like a completely meaningful conversation but, to mother, sounded as sophomoric as:

"Ngon." I said.

"NO!" they all laughed. "N-G-O-N!"


"Ngon!" back and forth until we sounded like dying sparrows clucking away. I was convinced that MY pronunciation was just like theirs but they kept laughing until I conceded defeat and mom and I retreated to our lofts where we heard strange skittering about like the little feet of rodents or a stray chicken who had figured out a way through the roof.

That night Mom and I slept in the loft beneath mosquito netting to the soft sound of rain hitting the roof. Late in the night, I awoke to her disturbed cries for help. She was convinced that there was a giant snake slithering beneath her mattress. I wasn't sure if it was a nightmare (it was) or it there was something beneath her so I crammed my earplugs in even deeper, pulled the sheet over my head and went back to sleep again, trying hard to ignore the sour smell of the damp polyester sheets I was sleeping on.

The next morning it was raining even harder. We armed ourselves with wet ponchos, muddy sandals, and we sludged our way up and down miniature mudslides trying to brace ourselves against our bamboo poles as we slid down steep inclines. I've never been on a more slippery f&*^ing trail in my was like hiking on slopes of butter covered in buffalo sh%t. We saw trekkers covered in mud who had taken face plants in buffalo pies or who had merely opted to slide down on their butts instead of brave the steep, muddy trails anymore. I slipped into a rice paddy, covered up to my right knee in muck for a moment before Binh pulled me up again onto the six-inch narrow mud ridge separating the terraces.

The last part of the trail was gloriously beautiful, straight out of a movie...through giant stands of glistening bamboo...thousands of giant pale orange butterflies flittered between us and the bamboo like bits of confetti raining down on us. The air smelled sweet like a mixture of crushed mint leaves, wet earth, and eucalyptus. Two H'mong girls carrying umbrellas walked with us patiently helping us down the slopes.

When we made it into town later that afternoon, we ran into an Australian guy covered head to toe in caked, dried mud, his hair still wet from the rain. I teased him about having "rolled" through the stuff and he looked at me somberly in response.

"No, I just tore my anterior cruciate ligament," he said before he limped out of the hotel with his friend and his guide towards a jeep ready to take him to the hospital.

Looks like we were lucky. Just a few parasites and a bit of mud. That shower and a fresh change of clothes was the best thing I've experienced all week. A little soap and a dry change of clothes goes a long, long way. I think I'd go nuts if I lived in a place where it rained every single dang day.

We're back in Hanoi...just off the night train and waiting for our room to take showers, do laundry, eat breakfast, and head out to explore our last days in Viet Nam before heading to Thailand.

As much as I consider myself an aspiring Buddhist, I have to say I'm a really sucky one this week. Mom and I are taking such joy out of having daily showers, clean clothes, and spending our days shopping in the markets and eating yummy spring rolls at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant down the street.

Vietnam has been incredible but has also made us appreciate the good fortune of all that the comforts we have in our lives...

Hope you all are well and parasite-free...heading for North Thailand in twenty-four hours...

Rachel and her beloved Mamacita