Sunday, March 12, 2006

Away through the rice fields we go...

(a brief detour back to Vietnam for an entry that hadn't gotten posted before we left for China)

After the soggy success of our trip out to the bay, we decided to sign up for a slightly more ambitious trek with Ethinic Travel. Accordingly, we set out for a 3 day/2 night trek to the Black River/Mai Chau area with Manh and our faithful driver (details here)

The thing we appreciate about this company is the fact that they take you places that other people don't go. That might mean that you go to the less famous younger sibling of a sight (Bai Ta Long Bay instead of Ha Long Bay) and the scenary might be a fraction less spectacular (there is, after all, a reason these places are tourist magnets), but you more than make up for it in the experience you have.

In the three days walking around the Mai Chau and Black River area, we saw exactly ONE other tourist. And he was a way cool Canadian biking around Australia and SE Asia. When we stopped and talked to him he had just passed 7000 km on his trip. (So here's to smooth riding for the rest of your trip, Dave!). Otherwise it was just Manh, us, and the dozens of people we met in villages along the way.

Highlights from the three days:

The scenary
The Mai Chau area is known for its spectacular rice terraces. It's funny, maybe locals just see functional fields, food, or the families' income but to our eyes it's a beautiful piece of art made of fanciful geometric shapes and brilliant shades of green. Add the otherworldly rock formations frequently rising out of the fields and you have a landscape that just doesn't grow old. We took waaay too many pictures of the rice terraces, because each corner we turned there seemed to be an even better shot.

Learning how rice is grown
This may seem ultra basic, but I have grown up seeing pictures of rice paddies without ever actually understanding the mechanics of how rice is grown. Once Manh got past his amazement at my lack of knowledge, he was able to not only talk us through the process step-by-step, but also find examples of each of those stages for us to see, so that we could truly understand it. I feel much more well-rounded now. :-)

The walking
Because Ethnic Tours does such small-group trips (like the two of us), their guides are able to tailor the trips to the guests' interests and ability levels. (There are a number of different villages at varying distances from each other that they can use for the trip.) Because we had expressed interest in being really active, Manh had arranged things such that we had a 12 mile walk in and out of small villages and along rice paddies on the second day. It was a fantastic experience, with great sceanary and interactions with locals and views of daily life, but it would have been a little more enjoyable if we both hadn't been sick and achy and feverish.

Experiencing life in one-room stilt houses
The houses that we stayed in in both the White Thai and Hmong villages were similar. Both were stilt houses (that is, they are built up off the ground with empty space below them) made out of wood and bamboo. The floors are just thin strips of bamboo laid across a framework and at least at our first place, there were large gaps allowing you to see the ground 10 feet below. Both places had a separate (but attached by a doorway/walkway) kitchen and one or two bed nooks, but were otherwise one big rooms with minimal-to-no furniture, other than the ubiquitous tv and stereo. When you drink tea or eat or socialize, you simply sit on a mat (or occasionally even luxuriate with a small cushion) and when it's time to sleep you just lay out the beddng and wrap a mosquito net around it. The next morning you pick it back up and poof! you're back to a living room again. This arrangement makes it very clear who the early risers were, as our hosts got up around 5 and managed to stay in the kitchen or elsewhere until their guests (and city slicker vietnamese) woke up/got up between 6:30 and 7:15. Mostly I found the system to be a good one, except that I have not developed the muscles/flexibility necessary to sit without a back for super long periods of time. Whether cross-legged, kneeling, or with legs outstretched, eventually my back and hip flexors started killing me.

The food and my reaction to it
We were spoiled by the food on previous treks. In Laos, we ate a lot of things that looked scary, but were ultimately quite tasty. On the Bai Tu Long Bay trek, we were blown away by the delicate tastes of the fresh seafood. This cuisine on this trip was a lot more about getting back to the basics. At the White Thai village there were a number of dishes that featured various animal meats boiled to a grey stringyness and a lot of fish dishes with choke-inducing little bones. The diners (except for the last one with the tofu-wrapped pork) where we stopped along the way were also less than inspiring. Coupled with my general under the weatherness, it meant that I picked at my food a lot more than usual. On the other hand, the folks at the Hmong village did some great things with the young bamboo shoots, tomatos and beef that we brought them and we hungrily and happily ate those dishes for dinner and again for breakfast.

The whole eating-thing on trips like this is a mind-trip anyway. When you travel in third world countries (especially if you have a chronically misbehaving digestive system like mine) you have all kinds of rules that you keep in your head and try to follow. Don't drink the water, don't eat fruits/veggies that can't be peeled, or haven't been cleaned in pure water. Don't eat meat that's been sitting out a long time. Try to eat at places where they wash the dishes/cooking implements in clean water. Don't use cups/dishes etc. that have just been used by other people. Avoid putting personal chopsticks into the joint dishes to serve them Etc. Etc. Etc.

When you make the decision to go visit a family, you in many ways make the decision to just throw all of those rules out the window. You watch them prepare the food, and sometimes decide that you would be better off not knowing what is going into it or being used to stir it, etc. You drink tea or do toasts of rice wine with glasses that were just used by other people to do the same thing. You make an effort to at least try almost everything that they have cooked or hand you to taste. And a lot of the time, you just cross your fingers and hope that your good intentions kill whatever bugs you might be running into. It's a hard thing to do sometimes, and I am often fighting with the voices (which frequently involve my Mom) in my head as we eat. But you know what? We have had some unexpectedly great food (and sometimes some dreadfully awful food), we have had marvellous moments of communion with our hosts, and (knock on every piece of available wood), we have yet to suffer any ill effects.

The rice wine phenomenon (aka moonshine chugging)
After the hill tribes of Laos we had thought we were pretty familiar with rice wine. However, as it has been said: I know rice wine and you, sir, are no rice wine. What we were being offered here in recycled 1 liter plastic bottles was a cloudy liquid with pieces of roots, honeycomb, and other unidentifiable bits floating in it. And the taste? A nice bouquet of paint thinner with a touch of sterno. Definitely a good vintage.

On top of that, and the fact that most of the toasts were for bottoms up ('tram phan tram' or 100%, though I could usually weasel a 50% slug), was a new cultural rule to deal with. Evidently as long as the toasts are going on and you are doing shots of the rice wine (which can last most of the dinner if you let it), you are not allowed to eat any rice. So just when you would want to be pounding the stuff to soak up the alcohol (or to soak up some of the good sauce on the food, or cover up the bad taste of the food), you were denied. That was rough.

The card playing
On our Bai Tu Long Bay trip Manh had taught us a Vietnamese card game, Ta La. We had noticed it being played on the streets with great enthusiasm and lots of slamming cards down on the table. We thought it might be a nice way to break the ice with the men in the villages we visited. Indeed, at the White Thai village our host Que and his neighbors eagerly jumped at the chance to fleece some new comers. Like taking candy from a baby doesn't even come close to it.. They were nice enough to waive the usual stakes (Ta La is often/usually played for money) but informed us that instead of financial penalties, there were other punishments. Accordingly we both ended up spending most of the game playing from our knees, to the increasing amusement of the locals. They did cheer for us though when we finally won the hands required to sit regularly again.

The rock-star treatment from the kids
We were used to kids pointing at us or running up to us and yelling "Hello! Hello!", especially in villages. But the volume got turned up to 11 on this trip. We felt like the pied piper with children following us through the streets and entire schools emptying out to run over and jump up and down and wave and say hello as we walked past. It was funny and ridiculous and cute and overwhelming and touching all at the same time.

The camaraderie with the families
One of the things that made this village trek better than any of the other similar trips that we had gone on was our interaction and camaraderie with the families we stayed with. Unlike other instances where either the language barrier or shyness/reserve kept us from getting to know that much at all, the combination of Manh's translation skills, their welcoming friendliness, and our willingness to eat/drink anything and help out really broke the ice.

In the White Thai village, Becca cut vegetables, tried various foods and hung out in the kitchen with the girls, while Brian drunk tea and chatted with the Dad (with an assist from Manh). At dinner, we chugged rice wine (more like moonshine whiskey) with the best of them, with Brian keeping up glass for glass with his host. There were lots of hugs all around, and Becca was especially feeling the loving from the teenage girls, who kept enveloping her in group hugs and saying "I love you".

(As an aside here, we have been a little overwhelmed here by the physical closeness we have experienced. As those who know me would agree, I have always been a big hugger and cuddler and don't have a whole lot of issues about personal space. However even I am scrambling to escape as Vietnamese women (hotel clerks, sales ladies, teen-agers we meet, vendors, etc) are continually throwing their arms around me in a death grip or patting my behind or other somewhat disconcerting moves)

In the Hmong village we stayed with a grandfather (his shy, so mostly invisible wife and mother) and a grandaughter. While we weren't able to have as many conversations with him, the smiling and nodding went on nonstop and we spent a lot of time playing with Thao, the irrepressible granddaughter.

In both cases we came away so impressed by the generosity, openness, friendliness and general good-heartedness of these people. It was a great impression with which to leave Vietnam.

All in all we can't say enough good things about Ethnic Travel and our experiences with them. We highly recommend anyone in Hanoi looking to get away from the hustle and bustles and experience some of the 'real' Vietnam to give them a call. (And tell them that Becca and Brian sent you.)


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