Traveling in a small tour group provides more opportunities to touch lives than traveling in large groups. A trip to Vietnam with two plus and a guide showed us that. We went from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, then Hanoi to Sapa, on to Hue and Hoi An.
We had the chance to get to know a French couple in the sleeper compartment on the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa. They spoke English well enough to make themselves understood in a charades kind of way. We did not know French. Despite the political current between our two countries, we fumbled ahead and went our separate ways when we arrived in Sapa.
We met again at the Goldsea Hotel in Sapa. One morning Monsieur asked, "How do you say water buffalo poo? A woman said to watch out for the water buffalo poo. What is the word poo?
This question launched a five way extended conversation among the French couple, a Vietnamese man who had overheard from the bank of computers where he was working, and us.
We offered dung as a response. They nodded their heads but their expressions were blank. The young man turned back to the computer and started a search. Monsieur leaned over his shoulder, then loudly exclaimed, "Ah, kaka"! Laughing together always breaks barriers.
Our guide on that segment of the trip, Dong, had accompanied us north out of Hanoi to Sapa. He provided the assistance we needed and made himself scarce when we wanted to explore on our own. We visited the shops and extensive open markets. The Hmong embroidery and textiles are well known. They, along with all other Vietnamese people, have learned the tourist trade and marketing techniques. The Hmong use direct eye contact, soulful eyes, smiles and questions. We found this science no better used than in the Red Zao village outside of Sapa, and up into the mountain range near the Chinese border.
The instant we stepped from the car, three to four women, one carrying a child on her back, began hovering. "Hello, Madame. You come to see our cloth. It is beautiful cloth." They stayed by our side and we began the walk up into their village beyond the building where many of them collected and displayed samples of their work. Our guide allowed the commerce to blossom and trailed behind.
"Do you have a sister, Madame? What is her name? Do you have children? How many? How old? You come to visit my home?" We did.
Her home was quite large, of sound structure and simply furnished. There was no electricity and no running water (from faucets). Everyone was clean. Fields were futile with an irrigation system beautiful in its simplicity and effect. Everyone was busy, focused on their work.
We walked and visited with the women until we decided to turn back to the car. The heat and intensity of their sales efforts brought the temperature up by about ten degrees to sizzling. I felt the pressure as they moved in. By the time we made it back to the first building, they had pulled up chairs and wares. I had not come with the intention of buying, but soon realized that buying one item would not be acceptable. The display of sad, soulful eyes were almost more than I could bear.
The next day at the open market in town, my friend overheard a Hmong vendor curse at a tourist who did not buy. My friend asked her, "Where did you learn those words?" She responded, "From tourists."
The same day I had turned my back on a vendor. A baby was on her back. I started walking towards the hotel. My friend said, "She's coming after you." I turned to see her following me at a fast pace. I began walking faster. I got inside the glass doors just in time. I turned to look behind me and she was peering back through the glass at me.
Down the street from the hotel, we walked past an elderly local tribes-woman sitting on store steps. Her fingers were stained green from dye. She held up a plastic bottle containing what might have been orange soda. She wanted help in opening the bottle. I thought it was odd since it appeared that it had already been opened. I took off the cap and handed it back to her. She took my hand and quickly tied a woven bracelet around my wrist. I felt humbled that she would thank me for helping her with such a loving gesture. Then she held up two fingers. "Two dollars."
My friend and I laughed. The old woman laughed. I gave her $2.00 and the bracelet and took her photo.
We met an Australian couple on the streets, in their 50's or 60's. They looked a bit worse for wear. A conversation in passing revealed they had been backpacking through Vietnam for five months. They were instantly my heroes. I watched with respect and admiration as they trekked on down the street.
On the overnight train from Sapa back to Hanoi, we shared a sleeping compartment with a young German couple. He squeezed his 250 plus pound frame into the four-person sleeper compartment. In the middle of the night, he squeezed it out again, thundering back and forth in the narrow hallway. He kept repeating something about the air conditioning not working. He never returned to the compartment and his wife slept peacefully.
We again enjoyed our tour group of two plus a guide when we spent two nights aboard a 50-foot boat in Ha Long Bay. There were four members to the crew, our guide and us. We kayaked, swam in the saltiest water we had ever experienced, and ate meals from fine china with linen tablecloths and napkins. We continually asked the crew to reduce portions and shared our food with them when they did not. We had a private room with a small bathroom and shower. Actually, the shower was the bathroom. With a minor adjustment, I could turn while standing between the toilet and sink and take a shower. Efficient.
Hoi An was between tour guides so our time was free. It is a culturally rich and historical city, easily seen on foot and is the fabric capital of Vietnam. For a minimal price you can have any article of clothing tailor made. Stores line the streets and are scattered throughout town. Each contains many bolts of fabric to choose from.
A friend had referred us to a particular store. The owner was a young, Westernized woman who spoke English. Her husband was English. We were soon invited for a home cooked meal and to join her in marketing. Zipping along the streets on the back of her scooter and buying fresh food from the open markets was memorable enough. Sitting in the kitchen with the family including a puppy and kitten was the showstopper. Eating the meal, though, was the frosting on the cake.
Vietnam is magical – its people, culture, history. So much to see and experience.