Day 208: Sapa Trek Fails to Defuse Funk
The dice spin me off on a trek of Sapa. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
SITTING under a simple sheet metal shelter gnawing on a segment of fresh sugar cane with a half dozen local guides and a several small groups of tourists, the iconic Sapa landscapes spreads out before me. At the base of the steep mountain slope, an aqua river runs fast between smooth, rounded stones and boulders. Rice paddies rise up on all sides of the river, stepping, stepping, stepping, higher and higher by steady increments. They're like the contour lines on a topographic map, each gently curving, narrow rice paddy builds on the one below it. The steps rise up to an alttitude that it's too difficult to irrigate them, where the crops switch to patches of corn before being given up to what's left of a rocky wilderness near the peaks.
“She say you have a corn you place on the ground,” says a handsome H'mong guide in fully traditional regalia.
“She says you have a corn,” the woman says with a curious smile, pointing to the necklace around my neck with the die. “She says there were three women.”
There were three women.
After two days of going on lock down in one cafe or another in Sapa, it was time to see what was beyond the dusty, construction choked tourist town. To see what makes it so popular.
In general, Sapa is a dirty, tourist town. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
There were two options: get on Donkey and explore on my own or find a guide to do a trek.
The die is cast. It dictates a guide. Packs of mostly H'mong woman prowl the streets of Sapa, hunting tourists down with friendly persistence. Carrying small purses, bags, other handmade textiles and metal bracelets, the brightly dressed woman, in their thick, traditional clothing, offer tour guide services, homestays and, of course, the goods they are carrying to anyone they can latch onto.
On the way back from eating my street-side breakfast sandwich, a Bahm Mi, on a low stool placed on the sidewalk, I'm stopped by two H'mong women: Song and Srisri.
“You buy from me?” Song asks.
“No, thank you, but I want to go trekking.”
From one of the bags draped around her neck she pulls out a small plastic bag with a tiny map folded up inside.
She can tell me anything about where we'll go and what we'll do, because, well, I don't know any better and the die said I was going, so what else can I do?
It costs 20 dollars. Sapa is like that, fifty percent of all the prices quoted from the price of a beer during happy hour to hotels and tours are quoted in US Dollars, rather than Vietnamese Dongs.
With curious, twinkling eyes, Song's young, but weathered face watches me produce the die. I explain the rules: if it's a 1, 2 or 3, I'll go with her on the trek; if it's a 4, 5 or 6, I won't.
“So 1, 2 or 3: yes; 4, 5 or 6: no,” I say, reiterating the rules.
I hand her the die.
“I don't know this,” she says, looking at the opaque cube.
She's unsure how to roll the die, worried that it will pick up momentum on the steep slope of the road we're on and trundle on eternally.
“It's okay, just like that,” I say encouragingly.
I pulling for Song, as I want her to be lucky and get the work.
“Can I try?” Srisri asks.
I'd thought about the roll as being for both of them, but given that they are separate actors it is only fair that she also gets a chance. I'm pulling for Srisri to roll a winner. I like both of them, and it feels cruel to be presenting the opportunity like this, but I remind myself that I'm free-rolling them.
Srisri holds the cube parallel to the ground and gently drops it straight down on the hard ground. Without a doubt it's an attempt of die control, which I would argue is impossible, especially under these conditions.
Dice control is most arguably applied on craps table. It's defined as “the concept of 'controlled shooting' [that] goes beyond simply 'setting the dice' prior to shooting. It purports to involve limiting the rotational characteristics of the dice. The theory is that if the dice are properly gripped and tossed at the correct angle they will land just before the back wall of the craps table, then gently touch the wall, greatly increasing the probability of their remaining on the same axis. If executed properly and consistently, this technique would be able to change the game's long-term odds from the house's favor to the player's favor.”
The die, however, bounces and spins and turns and settles with a five facing up.
Srisri is disappointed. I'm disappointed.
Enter women number three: Leena.
“Can I try?” asks the tiny, 31-year-old woman with the face of a woman in her late 40s.
Leena is not H'mong, more plainly dressed, she's wearing traditional, hand-dyed black pants, an intricately emroodiered square of fabric hanging half way down the backside of her thighs and the a bright red hat the clearly marks her as part of the Dao OJ ethnic group.
Leena is several months older than I am. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Nipple high in her pointy red hat with a white boarder, she looks like one of Santa's helpers.
Leena, having watched the others, understands the game. She carefully rolls, much like Srisri.
It's a two.
“Okay, I go with you,” I say.
“You promise to come shop from me later?” Song asks, holding out her pinky finger to secure a pinky-promise.
“No, no, I don't need anything.”
“If you buy, you buy from me, yes.”
“Okay,” I concede.
Rather than walking farther down the road toward where we have to pay a 70,000 Dong fee, Leena takes an up ramp and passes beneath an arch leading to a graveyard.. Past the concrete arch is a disheveled shrine. Through the brambles and thick, wiry weeds are dozens of graves. Many of the graves are small shrines made of tile or concrete or limestone blocks. Though the wilderness is eating up the Christian graveyard, it's still active. A group of five or six men not far from us have leveled out a section of the steep slop, the rough clay soil bare to the sky as they make measurements for where to dig a fresh grave.
They aren't the only group preparing graves.
It's a Saturday. It seems strange to see such much activity in a graveyard for a town as small as Sapa.
We cut across a graveyard to avoid paying an entrance fee. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Marching ahead of me, Leena looks smaller and smaller, more and more like an elf, her red hat contrasting with the mostly dead, thick brown ferns. After Leena gets lost once and ask directions from a group of grave diggers, we find a narrow dirt path out of the graveyard into a field of blue button blooms, like tiny blue star bursts. Skipping and skidding down the steep slope, I follow Leena as she bounces down like a billy goat.
Back on the road, we start marching, passing through a grove of bamboo with stalks thicker than my biceps.
“The big ones are used for buildings. Smaller ones you can eat,” Leena explains.
Leena answers her Nokia phone and starts yelling into it. Maybe she's not yelling, it's hard to tell when someone is speaking Vietnamese – if that is indeed what language she's speaking, rather than her ethnic language.
“That was my husband,” she explains.
She probably was yelling.
We fall back into silence. Leena has nearly exhausted her English-language abilities by covering our families, where we are from and our ages – she's several months older than I am, which is a big deal in Vietnam. (Here, the identical twin who is born first will always carry the respect of being the eldest of the two.)
I'm comfortable with the silence. If Leena spoke better English, perhaps I'd be asking more questions, but as it is, I'm fine being in my head.
Off the main road, onto a dirt track, Leena has us on double-time marching orders. Not being a huge fan of hiking in general, I like the pace, we're moving with purpose, though what that purpose is, I couldn't tell you.
“You're lucky you come now. Now you can see very far and the trail is not muddy and slippery,” Leena says.
At a different time of year, it would be possible to walk through the startling green rice paddies, swaying in the thick mist that descends deep into the valley or even the golden stalks whispering to each other before harvest, but now, shortly after the harvest, the steps are muddy puddles dotted by the remains of harvested rice or fresh sprouts of green. A flock of white ducks and a mallard play in one of the narrow pools of water, finding grub in the mud below the water's surface.
Step right up. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
There is the constant sound of water as irrigation systems keep the paddies ankle deep in water high up on the slopes. As we get lower there is also the sound of the river, but before river is audible, we take a break to eat sugar cane.
The H'mong guides tease Leena as she attempts to slice of the outer skin of a stalk of sugar cane with the outer edge of what appears to be a giant potato peeler.
Everyone loves sucking on some sugar cane. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Leena has apparently told them about the die.
“So this is how it works,” I explain to the H'mong woman after handing her the die so she can inspect it. “If it's a 1, 2 or 3, I'll buy a bottle of water; if it's a 4, 5 or 6, I won't.”
I cast the die in the dirt next to a table of snacks and drinks managed by a young girl with a sullen, pretty face, who is standing behind a cooler near a small shelter.
It's a two.
“So, I'll buy a water. Can I have a water please?” I ask the girl.
“You really buying a water? Do you not have any?” The woman asks.
“No, I finished mine at the hotel.”
“You're sick and don't have a water? And you wouldn't buy a water if it said no?”
“Exactly. I'm only in Vietnam because of the dice told me to go. Next, I go to Kenya, because the dice tell me to go there.”
The woman smiles with approval, though perhaps thinks that some dice are rattling around loose in my head.
One of the guides comes up to me and hands me a sculpture of a lama made out of a long piece of straw. Her client is carrying these ferns that have been molded into what looks like heart-shaped lillies.
There were moments of perfect, pastoral beauty. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The trail we were on has turned back into a road with several other groups of guides and tourists huffing along next to us. It's a solid trickle of foreigners accompanied by women in traditional clothing heading down into Lao Chai Village.
The rice paddies down in the valley are wider than those higher in the mountains. Miles and miles of walls constructed from round river rocks keep each layer separate.
We cross a narrow suspension bridge and are in the heart of the village. They call it a village, while I'd call it a small town. It's nothing like the rudimentary villages I drove through in Laos. Here, there are a number of restaurants lining the only road and the street is cluttered with locals selling souvenirs to tourists, as guides usher clients into one restaurant or another.
Though it feels like it's for show, many members of ethnic minorities continue to wear their traditional clothes. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Leena wants to know if we should eat here or keep walking.
I hate when guides ask questions like this. How am I supposed to know? Is here a better place to eat? Is the food better here? Are we talking about skipping food entirely if we don't eat here? A group of three young woman – perhaps French or Dutch – are having a similar conversation with their guide.
I take a table alone, by the window, though I think Leena was trying to get me to sit with the group of girls. Given that the meal is apparently not included in the trekking fee for the day, I would have rather sat at a restaurant along the river.
As it is, I've taken a seat where I can watch a duck enjoy the muddy fields. Farther away, there is a water buffalo. There is also a gauzy net stretched across one of the fields to catch migratory birds, though such nets are illegal.
A young girl, maybe eleven years old, approaches me. Here eyes avoid mine as she mumbles a plea for me to buy a cloth bracelet. The words come from her mouth as an incoherent chant, oblivious to me saying no. There is no charm to the sell, only a sad persistence. She continues droning on and on, until she is accompanied by a second girl and then a third girl who has a nostril caked with dried, yellow snot.
I have a general policy against buying items from children. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I shake my head, looking directly at them, saying no.
Leena arrives. I'm disappointed that she doesn't shoo the kids away, as I am not going to buy anything. I turn to my phone, ignoring them.
The die chooses fried rice with pork, which is nothing special. In general, the fried rice in Vietnam is disappointing at best. An older woman, a H'mong guide, approaches me. Leena has clearly told her about the die.
She wants to see it. By pointing she tries to establish something, probably that if it's some numbers I have to go with her. She rolls, giving me a big grin as a five shows up. She rolls a few more times. I'm not committing to any of her rolls, as I don't know what they are for.
Slowly, I sip my coffee, enjoying the view. I know Leena is ready get back to our march, but it's my tour and I'm happy right here for the moment.
Back on the cement path through town, Leena sees a younger guide taking her two tourists down a narrow cement path through a cluster of rice paddies and cement homes.
“Yeah, sure we can go that way too,” I tell Leena when she asks.
In a dry open clearing, which are few and far between in this area, I unpack the Phantom 4 for its first flight. A couple young boys, covered in a dust that nearly matches their bronze skin, squat down next to me as I prepare for take-off. However, there's too much radio interference. Not completely clear about what the issue is, but not about to take any risks, I put the drone away before flying her.
A group of men are building a thick frame of a wooden house that's balanced on cement blocks. It's an auspicious day for starting to build a home, Leena explains. Scanning the town, it's possible to spot two more houses under construction.
“What's this?” I ask, pointing toward rows and rows of tiny sticks that have been laid out to dry, their bottoms painted pink.
Leena doesn't know or doesn't know how to explain in English. She asks a local woman in charge of the tiny rods.
“Bamboo, second season harvest,” she says, or at least I think that's what she's saying.
Later, we pass another villager with the same sticks out drying in the sun. However, hundreds of these have had a brown muck caked onto the top three-quarters of them.
They're incense sticks. The villagers are hand producing thousands and thousands of fragrant incense sticks, mixing star anise with cinnamon and several other spices I'm not able to put my finger on.
Incenses sticks are handmade in the valley. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The honk from a silver taxi kills what was left of the hiking-through-a-local-village mood. Leena's been pushing for us to take a motorbike taxi back for an additional 40-50,000 Dong. Though I was against the idea originally, I'm ready to get back to the hotel. My sullen mood as been resurrected, perhaps it's to blame for my uncharacteristic silence.
Across a narrow suspension bridge on the far side of town, there is a long row of silver fans picking up an Asian tour group. There are no motorbike taxis.
We begin our hike up the steep slope of the main road out of the valley.
It's seven kilometers to town. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate hiking?
We pause at one of the spectacular viewing platforms, a cement slab with a railing. An old H'mong woman embroidering a bag tries to sell me a scarf.
The view is spectacular. The lines of the rice paddies, are both organic and unnatural: they sway and curve in a way that defies human organization, yet are contained by our walls. It's the organized chaos of irregular ripples in an endless stream climbing up the mountains on all sides of the valley.
About four kilometers out of town Leena waves down a man on a motorbike. He's willing to give us a ride for 30,000 Dong. A long line of cars are backed up at the police check point that Leena and I avoided on our way into the valley. We quickly climb off the motorbike, walk past the check point and get back on the motorbike once safely covered by a turn in the road.
Leena gives me a favorable conversation rate on the 20 dollars, charging me 400,000 Dong for the trek. She's been on her phone quiet a bit toward the end of the trip. She needs to go help a friend plant crops high up in the mountains. She'll be sleeping and eating up there for an entire week as she joins the planting effort.
A shower and a wank does nothing for my mood. I'm in a gorgeous place, albeit a place under constant construction, but still a wonderful place. I'm free. I have money. I have people who love me. I have a supposedly awesome project I'm working on. And I feel meh about life.
I want to sleep it off. Whatever it is, I want to sleep it off, but I know that sleep will make it worse. It will put me further behind.
I'm unreasonable unhappy and aware of it, I mope through town. There is the feeling of being unsatisfied. What I'm unsatisfied with I couldn't say exactly. I'm tired of the food. There are hot pots and BBQs, but those are social dinners, which require more than me and the die. I want Bun Cha, but I want the noodles separate from the soup, but I can't seem to order that properly – I've been trying for days. I don't know what I want. But I'm wanting, that I know.
I head to Hill View Restaurant for a cafe, in hopes that the woman I had a working date with yesterday – dictated by the die – will be able to catch up for a coffee before she catches a bus out of town. It feels strange to call it a date, because it wasn't romantic. It was simply two people of the opposite sex meeting up for a coffee and to get some work done. It was good fun.
Wrapped up in several layers of clothing and a hoodie, I sit at a corner table with a view of the darkness outside. I'm keenly aware of a pretty blond French woman who's taken a seat not far from me. She smiled and said hello with her eyes when she sat down with her friend. Instead of being bold and engaging the pair, I've turned to my phone: I have a new Tinder match.
With a strange loneliness creeping below my cold skin, I jump straight in: Hey! How are you? Have you eaten dinner yet?
She's having dinner with friends nearby and invites me to join. After ten minutes of wandering around not finding the 25-year-old woman named Donutt, I decided to give up and go back to the hotel.
She sends clear directions. They're now at the Cong Vien Sapa opposite the giant screen that helps light up the plaza for everyone. They're near the popcorn cart. Three of them. All Thai, which I figured out when I spotted a picture of a Thai passport on her Instagram account, which is linked to her Tinder profile.
“No, I'm Donutt's friend.”
Donutt doesn't surface, so I talk to Ploy and May, one 25 years old, the other 24 years old, both work in human resources for the same company. When we start to move, Donutt appears from behind one of them, she'd been sitting down, hiding.
She must have really not like the way I look.
“No speak English,” she says.
Ploy becomes, as Donutt says “Google Translate”, for the evening.
After some indecision, which should have ushered in the use of the die, we end up at a small bar on the main road. It's a narrow, empty bar.
We take up stools around a pile of tires with a board on top and a single lit candle. The die orders me an apple wine, the same thing May orders, while Ploy and Donutt both get beers. Ploy is momentarily distracted as a good-looking blond man with a a beard walks in. I can tell he's tempted to come join us, but I estimate to drag him over. He's joined by a few more guys five or so minutes later.
Donutt, frustrated with my lack of Thai, demands in the cutest possible way that we all “speak Thailand”.
Donutt has the face of a Thai model and a lovely body to match, which I had no idea when we matched on Tinder.
We try to play cards, but the game gets scraped. A drinking game on my phone holds our attention for a bit, but the girls are sticking to one drink, which kills the point.
Eventually, the girls are all lost in their phones.
“Me,” Donutt says, pointing at a picture of herself looking beautiful – I have a feeling she usually looks beautiful.
“Me. Snow White,” she says, pointing at another picture. “Super star Thailand.”
Ploy and I laugh.
“Serious,” Donutt she says with an adorably stern face.
Then it's time for them to go to bed, they're tired. An evening, which never really got going, doesn't go anywhere. The drinks were pleasant, the company amusing. Yet it all ends too soon to be categorized as fun. It was the first few pitches of the first inning of a pre-season baseball game.
We all part ways with waves, me making my way back up through Walking Street. On the far side of Cong Vien Sapa are rows of vendors, woman from ethnic minorities with head lamps selling stuffed animals, hats and bags all made out of the same sort of material with the same sort of pattern. Everything is being sold under the shadow of Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, which rises up into the sky. The outlines of the building and the cross over the door are limed with thick, devilishly red Christmas lights.
The night was cold, but there was still plenty of activity on the streets. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
On the sidewalk leading up to where I've made a habit of getting a less than satisfying late night meal – noodles in soup or rice porridge – there are more vendors. Enormous sacks of candied fruit, walnuts, shelled almonds and chestnuts sit on tables and the ground. Next to the these vendors are others with beautiful bladed tools and knives in wooden cases, all displayed on low tables.
Pausing in front of one of the tables of blades, I consider getting a knife for my collection back in the US. However, the thought of what I'd do with it during my next five or so months of travel keeps me moving.
After an anticipated less-than-interesting dinner, I walk back toward the hotel. It's nearly 11pm. The children who were selling goods alone or with their mothers or grandmothers in the cold along the Walking Street Market, are now packing everything up in wicker baskets. Those who started packing a little early have the heavy baskets strapped to their backs and are helping others pack.
On the way back to Green Valley Hotel, the clouds of my mood having not been blown away by the company of the three lovely Thai woman, I stop at my usual market to buy some snacks, figuring I'll bury myself with Oreos, cashews, bananas and an episode of Black Mirror.
A flock of kids, who were sitting on the streets packing up textiles, stuffed animals and trinkets to be sold to tourists, arrive at the store.
I roll the die in my necklace and look down at it. I'm pleased with its choose.
Holding crumpled 2,000 and 5,000 Dong banknotes in their fists the kids go to pay for their own snacks – nothing fancy. I take the snacks from one of the little girls and wave off the money she's holding out to an elderly cashier with a gray perm.
The cashier, who is probably the owner of the shop, understands. A couple more kids attempt to pay for their snacks, but she waves away the money. She mentally adds up the price for all the little fistfuls of snacks. One little girl considers a lollipop before sticking to the dried squid strips she already had in her hand. A little boy coming in late is encouraged by his mother to get a a couple packs of snacks – a bit more than he probably would have gotten normally. I don't mind. I figure as long as I'm in a bad mood I might as well do something nice.
The kids don't say thank you or even seem to recognize that I'm covering the costs of their snacks, not that the bill amounts to much – 85,000 Dong. This I don't mind either, it seems to fit my mood.