For anyone who’s ever taken a road trip in Vietnam, you know what a harrowing experience it can be. For those of you who haven’t you’ll just have to take my word for it. There are tons of traveler cafes and every backpacker you meet has an opinion about which ones are good, which ones aren’t and which ones they’ve heard horror stories about. I did quite a few of these tours while traveling around Vietnam and never had a problem.
One of the trips I took was from Hanoi to Sapa in the Northern Mountains of Vietnam. It’s a beautiful destination that’s well worth the trip. It does require being squished in a mini van for 10 hours or so, not the easiest way to travel but you bond with your fellow adventurers pretty quickly and that’s always fun.
Sarah, my beloved travel companion had a few too many Singha beers the night before the journey, a decision that she would most definitely regret. The tour left at 5:30 in the morning from Cau Go Street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It’s never really quiet in Hanoi, but there is a peaceful calm at that time of day just as the city is waking up. All of the sleepy travelers assembled in front of the Queen Café and listened to the friendly and very difficult to understand tour rep tell us all about the trip and what the day would entail.
As we piled into the van we chose our seats very carefully, this was definitely the important decision of the day. Sarah didn’t want to sit up front, that way she wasn’t obligated to make conversation with the driver for the next 10 hours. Of course sitting all the way in the back was never a good idea, so by default that left the middle. The driver shouted “We wait for three more people, few minutes”
Shortly after his announcement, we saw a family of three bumbling towards us. Without them having to utter a word, I’m fairly certain everyone knew they were going to be extremely annoying just by the way they were making their way down the street. The father was dressed in a matching head to toe safari colored outfit, the kind where the bottom of the pants zip off to turn them into shorts. He was also wearing a Vietnamese straw hat, which no one other than a Vietnamese person can pull off. He was totally sunburned and had big globs of white lotion on various parts of his face, yikes, not a good look. Next up, the mother. She was wearing a colorful scarf, lots of brightly colored beads and a skirt that looked like she stole it off a dead hippie; she was carrying enough food supplies to feed the entire population of Laos for a month, more than sufficient to sustain the Swiss Family Annoyingson throughout our impending journey. The only potential upside was hopefully she would be a sharer. Then there was the daughter who our story is named for. She was about 15 or 16 an irritating age to begin with and she was sporting it all, traveler sandals, Vietnam T-shirt, ethnic jewelry, a bandana, a journal with a furry pen sticking out of it and my personal favorite, her own regulation size pillow.
Sarah had this great noise that would accompany any whiny American when they spoke. I was never really aware of how unfortunate our voices could be until I started traveling with Sarah, a Brit. Her sound effect would attempt to replicate an irritating, droning American voice—which it did very well. Imagine someone saying knee in a very high pitched, slightly nasally voice for about ten seconds, kneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. I think you get the idea. As soon as the Family von Douche started chatting, I heard an extra long kneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee and got a punch in the leg, which happened a lot too. “What do you want from me, how come I got thumped” Because they’re your people and I’m going to be stuck in this bloody little van listening to them for the rest of the day. “How is that my fault?” “Oh shut up stupid boy, it just is” Sarah said with a laugh.
“Mona are you ready for another adventure” Father Yank (real name Bert) said in a semi-radio announcer voice. “You know I am” said Mother Yank in a Betty Crocker meets Jane Goodall kind of voice. “ Lori you remembered your pillow, that’s so good, we didn’t want to hear about that for another whole trip” Yankee daughters turn “ Oh mother, I forgot it one time, gimme a break, you forget things all the time, cause you’re old” The three of them laughed. Holy shit it was hell, I think the entire rest of the van was holding its collective breath hoping it was some sort of mass hallucination. The front door closed and we were off, no turning back now.
Most of the travelers had the good sense to put on headphones, or insert ear plugs so they could sleep, but the trio in the front were talking non-stop and loudly. I watched Sarah and saw her patience rapidly diminishing, not that she had all that much of it to begin with, but compound that with a hangover, a hot van and an annoying teenager, it was all too much for her to bear. “Oiieeeeeee Loud Yankee Daughter” Lori turned around and looked at Sarah” “Yes, you the very chatty one up there in the front, we’re all bloody thrilled that you remembered your pillow so how about you shut your gob, lay your head down on it and take a nap so all the effort of bringing it wont go to waste”
You have to love Sarah for saying out loud what the rest of us were thinking. Now you can imagine the look Sarah got from Lori and her parents, but Sarah has this great smile which allows her to say stuff that would get most anyone else in some serious trouble, but she somehow gets people to laugh. Mona said, “Oh we’re so sorry everyone we are sort of morning people” we forget sometimes that we can be kind of loud. “Especially you Lori” everyone laughed at that one. Sarah recovered a bit by saying “ I think I had a bit too much beer last night and just need some rest, don’t talk yourself out there Lori we have a long trip ahead of us and we’ll all enjoy your witty chatter later on in the day a lot more than we are right now”. Shortly after that the van fell into silence.
The naps we were all enjoying came to a screeching halt, as did the van when we hit a pot hole the size of a Buick. It was so deep, when we collided with it everyone was launched out of their seat and the sound of heads hitting the ceiling rang throughout the van. Seat belts you ask? Yeah not so much. The driver gunned the accelerator, but nothing. So everyone piled out of the van and pushed, something that wasn’t uncommon on these road trips. Its funny how you start to grade on a curve, as long as you don’t crash or throw up everything else is just part of the adventure! Since we were in a small little town and it was now about 9:00 the driver said “We stop here for 15 minutes, go pee pee” That got a chuckle from everyone.
There were lots more stops on the way, but we finally arrived in Sapa around 4:30, a full eleven and a half hours after leaving Hanoi. Everyone sort of just looked numb and a little bit like antiques that hadn’t been attended to in a while, covered in a half inch of road dust. The tour guide smiling at everyone said “We make it and no one cry, that a good trip” Even as weary as we all were, it made everyone laugh. Travelers are pretty hearty and the difficult parts of the trip usually fade into the background fairly quickly especially when you start looking around once you’ve arrived at your destination
Sapa was magnificent! Nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains with beautiful H’mong villagers everywhere dressed in beautifully colored traditional attire. The first thing that always gets my attention is the natural and unassuming smiles in places like this. I put my backpack in my room. Sarah collapsed on the bed, but being the indestructible tourist that I am, I had to go for a walk and check things out.
I knew I was really going to enjoy the next three days here since it had all the things I love: it’s a remote destination, a unique and beautiful setting and lots and lots of pretty mountains for me to climb. After wandering around for a couple of hours, I decided to go back to the hotel, have a shower and join Sarah and some of the others for dinner. We met our new friends in the lobby at 7:00. Several of them were unrecognizable now that they had showered, washed their hair and changed out of their road robes. A bunch of us were about to walk off when we heard. “Wait for us” followed by “knnneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” from Sarah.
Loud Yankee Daughter, mother and father came bouncing up behind us. LYD was wearing some newly purchased comedy ethnic knits and Father Yank was wearing his pointy Vietnamese straw hat, he clearly didn’t notice the H’mong women giggling when he walked by—I felt obligated to point this out. “Dude, you gotta lose the hat, you know only Vietnamese women wear those right? It’s doing nothing for you’re your cool factor” “Really only Vietnamese women”? I shook my head yes. “Honey wait here one second I’m just going to put this in the room” Realizing what had happened Mona looked at me and mouthed “Thank you”. We settled on a tourist restaurant that had a big table by a huge bay window so we could see the entire valley below us. We all ordered fairly traditional Vietnamese fare, rice, vegetables, chicken it was all delicious and everyone was enjoying themselves. Believe it or not Sarah went off with a couple of Austrailan boys to have a few beers and watch “the footy” translation- Manchester United soccer game. That was my cue for bed. I wanted to get up really early, watch the sunrise and go for a walk so off I went. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
It was still dark when I woke the next morning. I looked at my watch, 5:30-perfect. I got up quietly I didn’t want to disturb Sarah; she’s not much of a morning person. I got my backpack, some water, camera, mosquito spray, hat, sunglasses and was good to go. I crept down the stairs and opened the front door to the hotel. The main street was pretty empty; I didn’t really see anyone except a small boy who was in the front hallway of the hotel as I was leaving. He smiled, I guess he was about seven or eight yeas old and since he was inside the hotel, I assumed he was the owner’s kid. It was a beautiful morning, cool and dry. I could tell it was going to be an incredible sunrise, too bad I wasn’t going to see it.
I started wandering down the street and was surveying the situation. Something felt a little odd to me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but my spidey senses were tingling. I walked about forty or fifty feet from the hotel and that’s when I noticed the first hell hound. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a big black dog lying in front of a house up on my right, it saw me about the same time I saw it. Neither of us looked terribly happy to see the other. I stopped for a minute to see what his reaction would be. I was hoping for détente, if you ignored me I would ignore you, however no such luck. He jumped up and started growling and not nice growling or you’re coming a little to close to where I live growling, this was I wanna chase you and rip some flesh off you growling. My heart started beating quickly. I was still hoping that he would chill out if I just stood there. Then I noticed there were reinforcements. His growling alerted some of his feral friends. I saw two more dogs up to the left, two more near the house in front of him and three or four more in the middle of the street now heading my way. Holy shit, not good! All of a sudden they were a pack and headed my way with enthusiasm. There was only once clear choice of action—RUN!
I took off down the street and not a kind of oh I better trot off kind of run, but a full out sprint for my life run. These were not nice dogs and they meant business. They weren’t protecting the family home, they were a real pack of wild dogs and they wanted to take me out. My heart was pounding, from what I could see there were now eight or nine of them running full steam ahead behind me. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to beat them back to the hotel and slip in the door just as they were snapping at my heels. I closed the door as they slammed into it on the other side. I fell down backwards on the floor of the hotel lobby and lay there panting and a little bit terrified. I got up to see what was going on, they were dispersing. To them it was over and nothing personal, to me it was not a terribly fun way to start the day and I certainly wasn’t going outside to see the sunrise now.
I leapt in the air when I heard growling behind me. It didn’t register right away that it didn’t sound that scary compared to what I just heard. I turned around and it was the little boy smiling from ear to ear and making dog growling sounds. “You think that’s funny huh” I smiled at him. He replied “Yes funny” we both laughed. He spoke a little English “Whose dogs are those” “They no ones dogs, they bad dogs bite people” “Is that why no one is out on the street yet”? “No, no one out cause it too early” “Bad dogs come you throw rock at them, they stop trying to bite you” That was the morning I learned how to protect myself from future dog attacks, throw rocks at them, so whenever I went for a walk and no one else was around from that day forward I had a rock in my pocket or my hand depending on how heightened my dog radar was. I learned that most of the time all you had to do was bend down and pretend you were picking up a rock and they would run away. They may be mean but apparently they weren’t completely stupid and knew they could bite you, but a rock to the head would hurt.
A few hours later the group was having breakfast before we set off for our first tour of the day and I shared my story with them—gales of laughter, especially when I told the part about the little boy growling at me when I came flying into the hotel. It was even better when he came into the dining room and we started growling at each other and then chasing one other around the table. We all left the hotel. The sun was up, the streets were bustling now and the demon dogs had faded into the periphery for the day waiting for the night to come so they could rule the streets again, next time I would be better prepared for them, not that I was doing that early morning walk alone tomorrow but I knew the rock trick now and that gave me some comfort for impending future dog attacks.
We had a great day in Sapa on Saturday. It was now Sunday morning and it time for one of the highlights of the trip. Everyone was looking forward to the Sunday Market in Bacha, an even more remote part of the mountains a few hours further North of Sapa where the various ethnic groups of the region got together every Sunday for a huge market. We all piled in the van and were off. After spending the past couple of days together, Loud Yankee Family had grown on us. Open teasing was now OK and Sarah referred to Lori as Loud Yankee Daughter for the rest of the trip, no one minded especially her since she thought Sarah was very funny and liked the attention.
The market at Bacha was amazing! It was huge and there was a section for everything, a huge area that sold just fruit and vegetables, a huge section that sold electronic stuff and everything you could imagine, fans, car parts, washing machines, there was an enormous part for jewelry and clothing, most of the tourists headed here.
I happened to be walking with Sarah, Lori, Mona, Burt and another English couple and we stumbled into the pet section of the market. It was so beautiful, exotic birds, cute little kittens and lots of adorable puppies, nothing like the Hell Hounds of Sapa. “Mom, we’re gonna be in Vietnam for another month, what if we got a puppy to play with” Lori, that’s a ridiculous idea what are we going to do with it when we go home” “We’ll bring it with us” “I think its a really difficult process to bring a dog into the United States from a foreign country” She was right of course. “Oh mom c’mon it would be so fun to play with a dog on the beach”. Bert chimed in, “why not?” Mona was not amused by this “Why not, because its going to be a pain in the neck to drag a dog everywhere for the next month” “Well after this weekend for the rest of the trip we’re going to have a car and a driver so it will be kind of easy and when we’re ready to leave, I’m sure there will be some cute little kid who would love to have a puppy” Bert said. “Please mom pleeeeaaasssseeeeee” Mona looked at Sarah and I and threw her hands up in the air realizing she had lost the battle. “OK but it’s your responsibility Lori”. LYD started jumping up and down in the air and clapping her hands.
She ran over to a Vietnamese woman who had a pretty large selection of puppies and started looking around at them. Lori picked out a very cute little puppy that was probably six months old judging by the size of it. The woman spoke very little English, she wrote on a piece of paper $10, which of course is ridiculously inexpensive for a dog, but when you’re traveling around you never go with the first price, so after a little haggling, it was decided that Lori’s new pooch would cost $8 and be named Hoa, which means flower in Vietnamese.
Since we were going to be walking around for another few hours, everyone decided it was better for Hoa to stay at the pet store until we were ready to leave, not to mention we had to find our tour guide and make sure he was OK with us bringing the dog back to Hanoi in the van. We assured Lori it would be OK and that we’d all tell him we were fine with hit. Bert gave the woman the money (he didn’t think any of us noticed that he handed her $10 and told her to keep it, she gave him a big smile). Hoa was tied up outside the cage with a little rope and we pointed to our watches and held up three fingers meaning we would be back to pick up Hoa later, she seemed to understand.
We found our tour guide and after a little bit of persuading he agreed to let Hoa come home to Hanoi in the van with us. The rest of the market was fascinating. We took tons of pictures and saw such a huge variety of tribes. Lori being a typical teenager was already bugging everyone to go and pick up the dog. After about two hours, we relented and started wandering over to that section of the market—it took us a good half hour to find it, the place was huge. Lori smiled as she saw the woman where she purchased the dog and ran ahead of us to go and retrieve her new pet.
Lori expected to find little Hoa on a leash jumping up and down; unfortunately, Hoa was handed to her wrapped in a brown piece of paper and wasn’t jumping, moving or breathing for that matter. Evidently, this was not the pet section of the market it was now all too obvious that it was the meat and poultry section of the local supermarket! Oops. Lori of course freaked out and started screaming when she realized what happened. I have to say everyone was a little shocked as well. Clearly we were not paying attention earlier in the day to what was going on. It was very apparent what was going on here now as we saw skinned cats and dogs hanging on bamboo poles! The woman didn’t realize at first what happened but then I think it dawned on her and she felt terrible, well sort of as she started explaining it to some of the other women selling their dogs and cats they started laughing and so did Sarah and I, then so did Bert and Mona, Lori was not laughing at all, so we had to try and suppress it, you know how well that works!
Poor Lori was completely traumatized, but we all knew she would recover from it and that it would be a funny story later on in her life, much, much later on in her life. There might even be some therapy involved but eventually she would get over it. For the rest us this anecdote would be the crown jewel in our repertoire of travel tales for months, possibly years to come!
So the mean dogs got to live to terrorize future tourists, the cute dog was turned into someone’s dinner and Loud Yankee Daughter was not quite so loud on the ride home. The moral of the story is, if you buy a pet when you’re traveling in Vietnam; make sure you take it with you at the time of purchase!