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Meanwhile, In Rural Vietnam
If you think you should go then maybe you should.
We’re in the back of a taxi.
Our angry driver speeds down a road in the hills of rural Vietnam, and as we pull around the corner, a Vietnamese boy, who’s maybe 14, flags us down.
“You are Alex, yes?” asks Chue, the son of Alice, our Airbnb host. He smiles, showing off a set of crooked teeth.
Ben and I get out of the cab.
Chue is excited to meet us. He seems gentle and kind. Maybe gay.
He’s wearing cargo shorts, a soccer jersey, and a pair of red and blue velcro sandals with the words “Go Fun Sky!” printed on the side.
Our white-tank-top tattooed driver yells at Chue in Vietnamese, which is a language that I very much do not speak, but I guess he’s yelling because Chue’s home, which is off a dirt road with no posted address or signs or cell service, was difficult to find. The driver is loud; the kind of loud you’d expect him to be if Chue had gotten him fired from a job or had been screwing his wife or maybe son, but 14-year-old Chue yells even louder, causing the driver to back down and me to think myself a weak man.
Chue leads Ben and me up a poorly paved cement road through overgrown bamboo trees.
Every few feet, a gap in the bamboo forest opens up, letting us glimpse the rice fields below. It’s stunning. Tiny lakes with green grass poking out the top, all shelved into a hillside, like steps climbing towards the top of a mountain.
Each rice field belongs to a family, so each field sits next to a small bamboo home. We pass a home on our right with the words “Homestay Friendly Times 1” carved into a sign on the door out front. Below it: “Welcome” “Salut” “ברוך הבא”
The sound of our suitcase wheels dragging along the cement path causes an obese woman in her 50s to step out of her doorway, breasts first. I mean, her breasts are covered, but her loose pink shirt and lack of bra trick the mind. She seems surprised to see us, but smiles and waves warmly in a way that I interpret to mean “Hello, Whites.” She then shouts to Chue, who shouts back without changing course, so I assume this woman is not the owner of the Airbnb.
“You stay with Alice?” she asks me as we walk by. “Where you from?”
“America,” I say. “And yes, we’re staying with Alice. Do you know her?”
“Oh yes okay. How long you stay?”
“Oh okay. I see you!” She says, watching us go.
Vietnamese people in the mountains are kind, I decide. So friendly and in love with life. It’s also so great that she knows Alice. Everyone here knows each other. The sense of community amongst these Hmong Villagers is stronger than that of my vapid life with the self-absorbed residents of Miami.
Twenty feet down the road, we approach a 10-foot cement wall that wraps around the perimeter of what looks like a compound. As we enter, three dogs who seem to live here run up, barking. I don’t think they like us. Chue yells at them and does some sort of masculine “tsk tsk” sound, and so they run away. Perhaps Chue is not gay.
“Are they friendly?” Ben asks him.
Chue seems confused.
“Three dogs,” Chue says.
“But what are their names?” Ben asks.
“We call them Dog.”
“But then how do they know who is who?” I ask.
“We say Dog. They look. They know.”
A woman walks out of the home. She looks to be in her late 50s. Long black hair with streaks of gray, all wrapped in a bun. She wears a pair of blue capris and a red t-shirt that says “Paris.”
“Ben! Alex!,” she says, excited. “ I Alice. So good seeing you!” She asks us about our trip and apologizes for her homestay being difficult to find.
We tell her not to worry and that we’re happy we’ve arrived.
Alice walks us over to a 7-foot wall map of the Sapa Valley and orients us on the valley and our stay. Over the next two days, Ben and I will be the only guests staying with her family. We’re actually the first guests she’s had in 18 months – COVID decimated the Sapa tourist economy. She couldn’t be more pleased to have us.
“Maybe now more people come,” she says, and it sounds like a prayer.
A few years ago, Sapa had become Insta-worthy. Overnight, the residents of the valley were lifted from absolute poverty to almost-low-income. She and her husband took what little money they had and built three tiny shacks to house more dormers. The month they finished, COVID hit, and they lost everything.
“For dinner,” she says, “you message you say you want vegetarian yes?”
“Yes,” Ben says. “If that’s alright.”
“Yes okay,” she says.
We make our way to our cottage. On our left, we pass a stunning view of more fields and valleys. On our right, a 14-year-old girl holds a baby. Maybe it’s Alice’s other child.
“Hi, I’m Eve.”
“I am wife of Chue (not gay) and this is our baby, Kim.”
“So cute,” Ben says.
We ask Eve about hiking in Sapa.
She tells us that she and Alice both offer trekking options for hire and that we shouldn’t go on our own because we will probably get lost. I ask her how much it costs, and she says that “it’s $30 per person for a 6-hour trekking,” and though I realize that this is twice as much as our nightly room rate, she continues, saying that “much people get hurt a lot trekking because there are no signs and Google Maps cannot work and there is no phone service and you can be lost maybe one or two days.”
We agree to pay the bounty.
Ben and I settle into our room and take in the scene: the valley is gorgeous. Each rice field is perfectly manicured. Scattered buffalo plow the mud. Chickens and dogs play outside. It’s paradise.
“I can’t believe that’s Eve’s baby,” I say.
“I know, right? Maybe she’s older and just looks young,” Ben says.
“Must be this simple, relaxing life.”
It’s dinnertime, and we sit with the whole family.
There’s Alice’s husband, a couple of children between 12-20 years old, and two new unattributed babies. The family doesn’t talk much to one another, but they don’t seem bothered by it, unlike my loud Jewish family, where we all act as each other’s punching bags for problems we’ll never resolve.
The food is rice, eggs, a tomato dish, green beans, and veggie spring rolls. It tastes fresh.
“Are you guys usually vegetarian?” Ben asks Alice.
“Oh no, we no vegetarian, but you say vegetarian.”
“Oh,” Ben begins, “I’m sorry I didn’t realize you all would have to eat vege—”
“—No no,” Alice interrupts, “vegetarian better for us. Less money. Meat expensive,” she says, scooping some rice onto the plate that belongs to the baby on her left. “Homestay guests we usually make meat. Make them happy. But vegetables less money. Better for me.”
“So interesting,” I begin. “In America, it’s actually just as expensive to eat vegetables. Vegetarian diets sometimes even cost more.” A spring roll crunches in my mouth. “Meat is actually cheaper,” I say definitively as if I’ve ever read past any headline.
“Wow. America great for me,” Alice says. “I love meat.”
“So interesting,” I repeat again.
One of the teenage-looking dinner guests gets up from their seat and moves to the floor on the other side of the room to watch Vietnamese TikTok.
We all eat in silence for a bit, and then the front door opens, welcoming in the breast-first woman who still wears her pink shirt. She sits next to Alice but doesn’t touch the food, and then, studying Ben and me with her eyes, she whispers to Alice in Vietnamese, and though I have no idea what she’s saying, I think she’s wondering if Ben and I are gay together because, in my view of the world, which revolves around me, my sexuality and I are all anyone ever talks about.
“A lot of people traveling again?” Breasts asks.
We tell her that we don’t know because after leaving the U.S., we’ve only been to Hanoi, but it seems like she wants us to say something closer to, “Lots of tourists are coming to Sapa soon. You’ll be back in business in no time.”
“When was the last time you were in Hanoi?” I ask, looking to Alice while taking another bite.
“I no go Hanoi. I no leave Sapa,” she says.
“Never?” I say. “I mean, it’s pretty close,” I continue, tone-deaf to poverty while failing to realize that a six-hour shuttle, each way, isn’t “close.”
“I go two times my whole life,” Alice says.
There’s a heavy silence.
It’s a moment that Ben or I should say, “Ohhhhh, totally. I get it. And we hate Hanoi. Hanoi sucks.” But instead, we don’t say anything and so we all just sit in a silence that’s made louder by the fact that there are still eight other people around the dinner table who are all eating to themselves, and Ben and I aren’t sure if they understand the dialogue and are disgusted by our economic insensitivity, or if they’re actually not disgusted by us, but rather are ashamed of themselves because of something we’ve said. Or actually maybe they’re not thinking about any of it at all.
Two more children finish eating and walk to the far corner to charge their phones and Tok.
Ben and I rest our forks on our plates.
“Okay,” Alice says, standing to clear the table. “I make cleaning and going to bed. I waking up tomorrow early for picking rice. After finish picking rice, we go trekking, okay?”
“You’re picking rice before our six hours of trekking?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “Everyone Sapa picking rice all the time. Homestay business no good so everyone picking rice. All kids leaving school to help family picking rice.”
I look over to the children in the corner and think about what growing up like that must be like.
“Is the field far?” I ask. “Can I watch and maybe…help?” I say, hoping to voyeur and perhaps collect some content.
“No far. You help picking? Four hours, okay?”
“Oh. Um,” I say, breaking eye contact. “Let’s see in the morning. I’m very tired from the six-hour shuttle.”
“Oh yes, okay,” Alice says, scraping leftovers into bowls for the dogs.
The morning comes and goes, and I don’t pick rice.
Ben does, but he’s a better person than I am. He’s also younger. Time hardens the soul, and after a while, the joy derived from novel experiences gets squashed by imagining yourself having to feel even the slightest bit of discomfort. Give him time.
He returns, exhausted, with stories of hardship, and I feign interest while scanning my packing list:
Sunscreen, bug spray, wide-brimmed hats, first aid kit, long socks, a Camelback, and waterproof hiking boots
We meet Alice in the living room and see that she has:
1 tiny teal purse that might fit 1.5 wallets
“That’s all you’re bringing?!” I ask. “What about water? Isn’t it six hours?”
“I have,” she says, reaching into her purse to pull out a water pouch the size of a Capri Sun.
“Oh, yes. Okay,” I say.
The hike is beautiful.
Every fifteen minutes or so, Ben and I ask Alice if we can pause for a picture. Grassy meadows canvassing hills. Bamboo forests spreading along mountainsides. Naked children laughing as they climb up waterfalls.
“Don’t they get hurt?” I ask Alice while I imagine my penis chafing the side of a boulder.
“Yes, I think they get hurt,” she says.
“Hello!” one of the kids yells to Ben and me.
“Supercool,” another one says, showing off his English. They giggle.
2 pm arrives, and a light fog rolls in. An American hiker comes across our path, and we ask him to take a picture of us with Alice. He tells her that the landscape is amazing. That it’s beautiful.
“Oh, okay,” she says, but she doesn’t agree.
And at this moment, I feel like it’s my job, as the white savior of perspective, to help her see with eyes of clear. “Alice, you don’t see how incredible this is?” I say, staring out at clusters of mountains brushed with mist. “This is one of the prettiest things I’ve seen in my entire life.”
“I here all my life. I no think pretty.”
“But you have to realize how nice this is. It’s so beautiful.”
“Hm,” she says. “Okay. You say beautiful, I say beautiful.”
On the way back to her home, Alice tells us she wants to stop at her daughter’s house, a couple of miles out. Alice sees her every week or so. We walk in, and they say hi, but they don’t hug.
On my right, a beautiful German-Shephard-like dog sits on the porch, far from the family. I’m hopeful he’s friendly and wants me to pet him. I make eye contact, and he looks away, almost scared.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“We say dog,” Alice’s daughter answers.
Oh, she’s in on this bit, too.
A girl stumbles out of the house. She has special needs and a deformity on her leg. Misshapen bone with discolored skin. She limps. It looks painful, but she doesn’t seem to mind. There’s another girl without any leg deformities, but she’s mute.
Ben is a doctor, so I whisper, asking him what malady they have and how they got it. I always ask. He says he doesn’t know what they have but that it’s probably due to malnutrition and a lack of medicine. I find this answer to be uninteresting.
We pass a small shack where a young boy hits a stick against the wall. Alice knows him and talks to him, but he doesn’t reply.
She tells us that this boy is also mute and lives with his 12-year-old sister. They’re mostly alone because their dad is gone, and their mother is very busy.
“Where’s their dad?” I ask.
“He leave,” she says.
“He no want marry. So he leave. Go someplace else.”
“That’s sad,” I say.
“Mhm,” she says.
“How did you and your husband meet?” I ask.
“My sister marry my husband brother. And then my husband kidnap me.”
“Kidnap?” I ask, thinking she used the wrong word.
“Yes. Now men kidnap no more but long time ago when husband want to marry wife he kidnap her for two maybe three days until she say yes. I 16 and I no want marry him but my family tell me I marry him because if I say no maybe he get angry and he no want marry me anymore and people think something wrong with me and then no one in Sapa want marry me.”
“Oh,” Ben says.
We walk another mile, and I’m thirsty, so I drink the rest of my once-full Camelback. Alice has yet to touch her Capri-Sun-sized pouch.
The trail makes a sharp curve to the right. As we come around, we spook a group of butterflies, maybe 40 or so, that all fly up from the ground.
“Wow, it’s amazing,” I say, lifting my arms to the sky, just like Drew Barrymore would.
“They eat shit,” Alice says, and as she says this, the butterflies settle and return to the pile of buffalo poop on the ground.
It starts to rain.
Ben and I tread carefully as the trail is slick.
Our Gore-Tex hiking boots are ready for this type of natural disaster, but I worry about Alice, a woman of perhaps 60 years old, who, not knowing it was going to rain, chose to wear open-toed children’s shoes. Maybe the same pair worn by Chue.
“Are you gonna be okay in those?” I ask.
“Oh yes. I okay,” she says, with shoes still clean. Wet, but not dirty.
Two minutes later, Ben slips, soaking the entire right side of his body as Alice’s sandals remain spotless.
The rain stops, and we come upon a rice field where a grandmotherly woman hunches over, picking.
The woman talks to Alice. Behind them, a frail 14-year-old girl pulls a buffalo. By “pulls a buffalo,” I mean that the girl is pulling a rope that has been snaked up the buffalo’s right nostril and out its left. The rope is tied to itself, forming a slipknot whereby the buffalo’s nasal cavity acts as an anchor.
The girl yanks hard on the rope, and the buffalo makes a face that I don’t want to see, and so I look away.
We arrive back at Alice’s home, and she asks Ben and me to help her with her TripAdvisor account. She’s having trouble receiving payouts, and it’s hard for her to figure out the problem because all the customer support help-text is in English.
The three of us sit in the living room, surrounded by dogs and babies, as Alice walks us through the platform. She has 4.9 stars across a couple hundred reviews. Verifying her account, I ask for her birthday, and she gives it. It’s January first.
“You were born on New Year’s?” I say. “That’s so cool.”
“No no,” she replies. “I no know birthday. People in Sapa Town tell me use that.”
“Oh, sure. Of course. That’s fine,” I say, and though I try to hide that I feel sad for her, she catches me.
“I happy you help me,” she says, “I very dumb.”
“You’re not dumb,” Ben says.
“I no know math or English. I also no read.”
“Even so, you have so many reviews on Trip Advisor and Airbnb,” I say. “That’s amazing. You should be very proud of yourself. That’s really hard to do. Especially since you can’t read or write English,” I preach, but I don’t know if she hears me or if she understands what I’m trying to say, or if she only understands the last part about how she can’t read or write.
“Okay I go kitchen for making dinner. You tell me you need something for TripAdvisor okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
“You know Alice is only four years older than me, right?” I say to Ben.
“Whoa,” he says. “I thought she was 50. Maybe 60 even.”
We eat another vegetarian dinner. There are many children there and I’m not sure if they are the same children from the day before. The next morning comes, and we pack our bags to leave.
We give Alice and her family a hug, and she tells us to leave her a review for her on TripAdvisor and Airbnb. Eve asks us to leave a review for her separately, on a different account, because she and Chue are moving out in a few months and are going to need to start a Homestay + Trekking business of their own.
In the distance, we hear a car honking. Chue tells us to go.
Ben and I start walking towards the road, and on our left, we see two men taking a blowtorch to a shaved, dead dog.
Maybe easier not to give names.
Ten feet away, another dog sits on the ground, licking his paw. He looks sad, or at least I think he’s sad that his friend is dead. But maybe I’m wrong, and he’s not.
The scratching wheels of our suitcases summon Breasts, who walks out in her pink shirt to smile and wave us goodbye.
“You have good time with Alice, yes?”
“Yes. Very good time.”
“You tell America people come to Sapa okay. Tell them very pretty, okay?” she says, smiling warmly.
“Yes yes,” I say. “Okay.”
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