For three weeks last fall, my wife and I joined with a Dutch trekking group hiking in the mountains of North Vietnam, overnighting with the ethnic minorities and hill people living in bamboo homes near the border of China and, day by day, encountering rigorous physical challenges, wondrous panoramas and pleasures beyond all expectation.
After the trek, we stayed on for a fourth week, on our own, in the motorbike mayhem and sidewalk market clatter and frenzy that is the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
We'd planned this venture for about year. We chose a Dutch travel organization because the Dutch know how to do these things. They are world-class trekkers. My wife, Liesbeth, is Dutch, and 10 years ago, when we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, we also arranged it with a Dutch group.
Machu Picchu was a walk in the park compared to this.
Included in the Vietnam package was round-trip air travel from Amsterdam to Hanoi via Hong Kong; all accommodations - be they remote home stays, alongside or on the finely slatted floor above water buffalo, ducks, chickens and pigs in the verdant mountains, or in very pleasant hotels in market towns such as Coc Pai, Bac Ha and Sapa as well as in Hanoi; all meals, except a few lunches and dinners, and all bus and train transportation.
The greatest luxury of all, three days and two starry nights afloat among hundreds of limestone mountains and islands on incomparable Halong Bay, was included at the end of the adventure.
There were 16 hikers in the group as well as the leader, who was Dutch, and an English-speaking Vietnamese guide named Trung. Of the 16, seven, including us, were in their 60s. The eldest was 67; the youngest, 29.
We were in the dry season, when rice, grown in gorgeous cascading terraces and across resplendently green valleys, was being harvested in the north. At the outset of our trekking, we had a few days of beastly sun and humidity which made the steep ascents more arduous. Otherwise, except for one day of serious rain and several days of heavy mist, the weather was favorable.
In Sapa, a northern tourist town resembling an Alpine ski village, the clear evenings dipped into late autumn chill. But what was most arresting about Sapa was the crush of women of all ages in intricately brocaded skirts and tops of brilliant reds, oranges, greens and blues, or dressed in luminous black, who journey to town to peddle their wares at market and socialize. In Hanoi, several days' journey to the south, the weather was mostly in the high 70s or low 80s, and sunny.
We each carried a backpack or day pack, with bottles of water, a bit of clothing and fruit and snacks. Our heavier packs, with sleeping bags and more clothing, were transported by porters on motor bikes. Whether in the mountains or towns, if there was a road, usually clay and often rendered into muck by water buffalo traffic, there were motorbikes. The country was abuzz with them. (Hanoi was a veritable tsunami of motorbikes.) Cars, especially gargantuan SUVs, are muscling into the cities, but in the hills, aside from a bus or the occasional Jeep, the mode of transport, for people, animals, lumber and heavy sacks of rice, is the motorbike. And, of course, feet, agile and shod in mere plastic sandals.
On average, we walked six hours a day, though there were a couple days of eight hours on our feet. Ascents and descents were sharp, and frequently on what barely resembled paths. We walked on dried stream beds, across rushing rivers (also prime for bathing), on precarious dirt dikes around muddy rice paddies, on harsh grass and on muck. We ambled through bamboo forests.
We had blisters, bruises, a few scratches and a couple of us fell here and there. But, overall, we persevered, intact and healthy. At the various home stays, with people known as Hmong, Giay, Dao and Man, we left our muddied boots outside and walked, slept and ate on the same expansive bamboo floor. The thatched-roof homes, invariably, were built on stilts. There were Buddhist altars, perfumed by incense, in the central room.
Our meals were lavish, prepared over open fires and easily digested. We ate beef, chicken, duck and pork, and fish, stewed or salted; fried spring rolls, fried tofu, steamed water spinach with garlic, pumpkin soup, Chinese cabbage, cilantro, scallions and cassava; noodles and rice. We ate oranges, pears, apples and melon, and a sweet fruit of white flesh with tiny black seeds called dragon fruit, actually a kind of cactus.
We drank beer when available, tea and coffee, and, if we dared risk the morning-after consequences on our hiking, rice wine, uniformly hailed as "happy water," and served, shot glass after shot glass, with a religious fervor.
In Hanoi, the most abundant street dishes were pho - a steaming bowl of broth laced with glass noodles, vegetables and either chicken or beef - and bun bo, a bowl of noodles, meat and spices. Invariably, we ate on toddler-size blue plastic stools or seated at long and crowded tables.
The best coffee, rich and black and sweetened with hot condensed milk, was at a café called Nang on Hang Bac Street. We learned, during an evening out with Don Peppard - a professor of economics at Connecticut College who has an ongoing research project in Hanoi involving the men who pedal the bicycle taxis - that the sign "Thit Cho" on carts or outdoor menus meant dog meat.
We declined, but later, south of Hanoi, we did eat goat. We ate everywhere with chopsticks and the etiquette was to layer all food, as it was served, into smallish, white bowls.
China, which loomed just beyond the mountains, was often part of the conversation, and in one border city, Lao Chi, we finally got a glimpse. Across a river, and over a bridge, there it was. We stood on the Vietnam side and peered across at Hekou, in Yunnan Province in southwest China. Just beyond the arched entrance to Hekou was a banner. The image on the banner was a depressingly familiar one: The Colonel, the rotund face of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Vietnam, of course, has its own ubiquitous icon: Ho Chi Minh. On billboards, posters and currency, his benevolent gaze watches over the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as it industriously invests in a free enterprise, market-driven economy.
Ho, who died in 1969, is in eternal and waxy repose in a massive mausoleum in Hanoi, where his embalmed remains are on display and accorded the red carpet (plastic) pomp and white-uniformed vigilance of a most holy relic. Not far from the Ho memorial and museum stands one of the few remaining statues of Lenin, in a park all to himself.
Hanoi, despite its frenzy and exhaust, is a city of parks and lakes. It is also a city of vendor-specific streets, tracing to 36 guilds established in the 13th century. Hence, there is bamboo street, copper street, button street, sugar cane street, funeral home street and electric appliance street. And did we mention the chic shop window and overnight tailoring epicenter known as Hang Gai, the silk street?
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