Mai Chau: The Night of the Moon
Mai Chau is a town in northern Vietnam, which is in the hills approximately 100 miles from Hanoi. Our trek is a three-day, low effort walkabout. We left Hanoi at seven in the morning and arrive at Mai Chau at two o'clock that afternoon. It's taken us seven hours to travel a hundred miles! Our bus stops, and Mr. Tam, our tour guide hops out. We are at the government permit office, where a sign in English and Vietnamese prominently states that this is, "The Place for Tourists to Pay A Money." It doesn't say, "Tourist Office," or anything like that. This is also where our local government guide and cook will join our crew. Our guide from Hanoi, Tam, cannot speak the language of the local people so we need an interpreter. There are over fifty hill-tribe languages and different dialects spoken in the minority villages, each with their own tongue. Our starting point is a half-hour's drive away. It happens to be literally the end of the road. The bus cannot go any further. The road becomes a narrow path. We disembark, taking our rucksacks. There has been steady rain all day. Our bus has two inches of mud on it. Our energy has diminished since we left Hanoi, as the rain has not let up. The group is still hanging onto the bus as it leaves, almost begging the driver to take them with him.
We don our rain jackets. The group wear their flash Gortex coats, I have my three-dollar, purple plastic cape that I bought in the market in Hanoi, five minutes before we left. We set off on foot. Mr. Duc, our translator and local guide is in front, Tam and I are at the end of this human train, making sure we don't lose anyone. Our walk starts and we have to cross a bridge immediately. We come to a junction on our path and we walk left. There is a hut on our right, almost like a bus stop. Locals stop here, to get out of the sun, or, in our case, the rain. It also acts as a moto stop. If a moto, or small motorcycle, the only type of vehicle that can negotiate these paths, passes here and sees someone waiting, he will stop and offer a ride. We continue walking and come upon an irrigation aqueduct that looks prehistoric. On our left, we stop ten feet away from two water buffaloes, completely submerged in a luxuriant mud bath. They are content. All that is visible are their snouts and horns. We pass a schoolhouse, which is a simple, small structure. The kids range in age. The teacher uses the chalkboard as his only aid. Children here go to school during one of two sessions. Morning session is from seven a.m., for the younger children. The older children come to school at twelve thirty. This allows the children of all ages to help in the fields, or care for their younger siblings, while their parents tend their field.
We look in the window of the school, causing instant disruption. I look to the teacher for approval. He smiles and motions for us to come into the classroom out of the rain and I introduce my group and myself. There is a wonderful rumble of laughter from the children that is so infectious, it causes us all to laugh. The teacher asks some questions about where we are from.
"I am from Canada." I begin. "Umm. In Canada, some people speak English, some people speak French," one of the children informs us. I have always found it amazing that these young children, around ten years of age, know not only so much about their own country, but also about the rest of the world. There is a literacy rate of over 90% in Vietnam, which is obvious everywhere. People here are knowledgeable, which they are happy to demonstrate. Not only in the cities, but in the rural areas as well. We say goodbye to our new friends and continue our walk. This afternoon is a short hike, only two hours. We are walking to our home for the night, a house on stilts, beside a river, in Xo village. We arrive there and the children are waiting. They are always smiling! Their life is very simple but they lead very full days. They always have time to play, to ask questions and to laugh. They escort us to our home for the night.
This house belongs to a family: mother, father, son, two teen-age daughters, a grandfather and a grandmother. This house is typical of the region'a wooden structure, on stilts with two rooms, a kitchen and a living area. The two rooms are attached by a common walkway. Chickens, pigs and ducks live under the house. We walk up the wooden stairs and remove our shoes and hats before entering their home. Not to do so is rude. The room we enter is a large one, with bamboo on the floor, supported by wooden slats. There are open windows around the room. We all put our bags down in the area where we will sleep. Maybe. We pass out the mattresses, blankets, mosquito nets and pillows, ensuring that everyone is comfortable.
I am a tour guide and this is my third trip in this schedule, so I have been working six weeks straight, without any time off. I am tired, a bit run down. I have a cold and should have stayed back at the hotel, but it is my job. I am thankful that Mr. Tam is here. Or should I say, Dr. Tam? He is a general practitioner, graduated last year from the University. And he is twenty-three years of age! He is a husband and a father! When Dr. Tam joins our group, he brings with him a stock of medicines: antibiotics, first aid kits, bandages and vitamins for the locals to have. He also speaks with the medicine people of the villages he visits, where he is often asked many questions. He has become a kind of advisor to the area.
I take my group to the river, about two hundred yards away to bathe, as there are no modern bathing facilities in the hills. I hope the locals aren't bathing and am pleased to see that they have just finished. Along the way to the river people of all ages come to greet us. Women, men, children. Always children carrying their younger siblings on their hips. There is a suspension bridge. The adventurous few nervously attempt a crossing. We all find an area to bathe. I have already asked the group not to bathe nude, as the Vietnamese are very modest people. We swim and ride the stream. The stream rushes gently down, toward the bridge. For those who want to ride the small rapids, I recommend wearing one's shoes in case they hit their feet on the rocks.
We swim for half an hour and I am coughing and sneezing the whole time as my cold has taken hold of me, despite my taking fifteen thousand milligrams of Vitamin C. I decide to leave the river and head back to the house for some hot tea. I pour myself some green tea and offer some to Tam who has been helping prepare our dinner while I have been swimming. Tam's specialty is French fries and spring rolls.
I unwind a little before dinner. It is this time that I enjoy the most. I enter the kitchen where I can be with the people of the house. Despite the language difference, a kind of kinship is obvious. I notice that the basket in the corner is moving. I hesitantly point to it and they all laugh. They take the lid off, laughing all the while. I expect the worst. The basket held a small kitten. I am afraid, but question Tam anyhow, who informs me that the kitten is a house pet, and they keep him in the basket so he doesn't accidentally jump into the fire. I am relieved.
The fire in the middle of the room is a modest one. The local people have a respect for nature and are not prone to excess. If they can cook the meal with less wood, they will. This fire has three logs. One for the spring rolls, two for the rest of the meal. I enjoy the tea.
"How are you feeling, Mark?" Tam shows his concern. "I'll be all right." I sneeze and we all laugh. This is my fifth time visiting this family. I enjoy their company, their energy and their laughter. "The father will be here tonight, Mark. It's a big celebration. Maybe he'll play for us." Tam is hopeful. The man of the house, Mr. Hui, is a concert clarinet player. He plays for the province's symphony and is usually in the capital town, Hoa Binh. On my previous visits to the house, the mother and her family are always here. I have yet to meet the father, so I am excited at the prospect. His wife and family are warm and inviting. I wish I were feeling better. I go out of the kitchen area, walk a bamboo path to the main room and hit my head on the doorway. I always hit my head on the doorway. "Duh!" I say in my best Homer Simpson imitation.
I find my group lying down, relaxing and enjoying the tea. We speak of the day's events and they seem happy. I lie on my mattress and read my book. No sooner do I get comfortable than Tam comes to the room and announces that dinner will be served in ten minutes. Apparently starving from the road, my group applauds. They give him a standing ovation.
Tam arrives promptly ten minutes later, carrying a huge silver platter of food. The twelve-year old son also arrives with a huge platter. We circle the tray, sit down on the floor and eat. I am feeling a bit sick, so I nibble on some rice and veggies. The rest of dinner consists of spring rolls, French fries, beef and veggies, chicken and rice, fish. Enough food for twenty. Any food that is left over is fed to the animals.
Dinner finished, we all drink Vietnamese tea and eat fruit. Fruit is the customary desert throughout the country. In the hills, we eat bananas. The son, Tam and I remove the dinner plates, and the group scatters around the room.
As the guests have completed their dinner, the host family is free to enjoy theirs. They sit around their platter; food is passed around. As the father has arrived and is seated, the family instructs Tam and I to join them. In all the time that I have been coming here, they have never invited me to sit with them while they eat. Perhaps this is because the father wasn't here the other times.
I join them; they pass me a bowl and chopsticks. Even though I have already eaten, they still want me to join them. We start to eat and the son pours some Chinese beer and passes glasses around. One stops in front of me, and I cough, showing them that I have a cold, and will not be drinking with them tonight. The father puts my glass in my hand, takes his glass in his hand, tips his glass to mine and drinks. I sip mine, as refusing is just not acceptable. The father points at the halfway mark on my glass, instructing me to drink with him. I cough again. He isn't sympathetic.
We continue our dinner and the son pours another liquid, this time from a water bottle, into a tiny teacup. He passes these small cups around, filled with clear rice wine. Rice wine is the liquor of choice in Vietnam. The men drink it at almost any time of day'with dinner, at lunch, even before breakfast. I ask Tam to explain that I have been nursing this cold and that I won't be drinking. Tam laughs. He knows better than I do that I have no choice. I will be having a big night with the father, whether I like it or not. Within minutes, I am doing shooters with the entire family, except the mother. The daughters and twelve-year-old brother are doing shots with me and keeping up. One for one!
I stand up to go check on my passengers. I barely find my feet as I am feeling the effects of the rice wine. My passengers are lying on their mats, not even speaking with one another. This is an unusually quiet group. I decide now is the time to speak with them, to explain what they are in for tomorrow. "...And, tonight, we have a special surprise. This is the first time I have met the father as he is a clarinet player and is usually in Hoa Binh, the capital city of the province, playing with the symphony. He has agreed to play for us tonight."
Mr. Hui, already finished with his dinner, stands up and brings the bottle with him. He finds my glass that I thought was carefully hidden. He fills it, passes it to me and I empty it. I am too sick to argue. Besides, the alcohol seems to have eased my cold a little. For the moment.
He gently takes out his clarinet and stands in front of our group. Mr. Hui is about fifty years old and he retains a very youthful energy. He giggles and begins his musical presentation with a traditional Vietnamese song. He is full of emotion and talent. He then plays another one, this time a love song. For a finale, he plays, "The Girl from Ipanema." A round of applause causes Mr. Hui to blush and bow. He passes around the rice wine, starting with my glass. My group, much more awake and alert, asks Mr. Hui a series of questions, all the while drinking the rice wine. We learn that Mr. Hui was born in this village and Mrs. Hui is from another village in the area. He hadn't met his wife until the day they wed. They seem very happy and share a smile with each other. It is her father and mother that live with the family. The grandfather is seventy. His wife is presumably the same age although her betel nut damaged teeth make her look much older. We finish the rice wine and I suddenly feel its effects. I am wearing my sarong and a T-shirt and leave the house. I need to walk a while, on my own. I am not feeling well and the liquor hasn't helped.
"Why don't we go for a swim?" I hear someone suggest. Within minutes, I see my entire group, along with Tam and the whole family, our local government guide and cook, leave the house and go in the direction of the stream. Tam, our trusted doctor and guide, my passengers and I run upstream, put on our suits and run into the river. We ride the rapids. During the entire time the whole village came out to the bridge. I turn around and see perhaps forty local people, standing on the suspension bridge, torches in hand, watching the crazy foreigners ride the rapids. We ride it as far as the river takes us, get out of the water and start again. I can only imagine the sight of us under the full moon.
I wake up in the night, to the sight of one of my passengers stepping over me, and it is only then that I realize I have fallen asleep on the landing, on top of the stairs. As a matter of fact, I have fallen asleep on all of the shoes! One by one, my passengers, all relatively new to the tour, ask of my well-being. I am touched by their concern. Tam, seeing that I am in fact awake and not dead, comes over and says, "Excuse me for saying this, Mark, but I think, next time, we should be a little more considerate of the locals. I don't think that last night was very appropriate behavior, considering the whole issue of low impact tourism."
Personally, I blame our crazy behavior on the full moon'it's a night we all might never forget!
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If you are in Hanoi and would like to see a real hill tribe village, Mai Chau is one of your closest choices. South of Highway 6, between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu
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Published on 9/1/98