I welcomed the new year in front of the fireplace at my hostel in Sa Pa nursing a glasses of local red Da’lat wine with a Japanese guy, a Spaniard (they are EVERYWHERE!) guy and an Indonesian woman. All solo travellers. Awesome.
I have an interesting story to tell about the Japanese guy.
His name is Yoshiro, and he is 22. Unlike most Japanese guys I have met, he is not clean-shaven and very tall (about 1.9m!). He has a beard like this dude:
That’s right, y’all. Mr Ho himself.
So on new year’s eve, we felt like doing something special and having hot pot is one of the things you should do in Sa Pa. It was expensive, yes. But it was cold. So we wandered into a crowded hot pot restaurant and did the pointy-point thing at the menu to order the hot pot set. Over in the corner of the shop, a picture of Ho Chi Minh stood on an altar.
The hot pot cost 500,000 VND and the food was enough for 4 people. It was only Yoshi and I eating it.
Some time during the meal, the owner of the shop wandered over and noticed Yoshi’s beard. Yoshi stroked his beard and said “Ho Chi Minh.” The owner’s eyes lighted up and went away. He came back with some strong local rice wine and gave us all free shots. Then, through chicken scratching on some paper, he told us the following:
- He was a war veteran under the command of Ho Chi Minh
- He has 4 kids
- His youngest kid is 23 years old
- He opened this shop after the war
- He has tried to keep a beard like Ho Chi Minh but Yoshi’s looked much thicker than his
- He is very proud to have fought under Ho Chi Minh’s command
After relaying all that he could through puffs of cigarettes and scratchings, he went away to the next table and began the process with another customer.
I love encounters like this. Later, I would contrast his experience with the one of another war veteran I met in Ho Chi Minh City.
Yoshi is going to keep that piece of paper as a family heirloom or something.
On new year’s day, I visited Cat Cat Village. This village is easily accessible on foot – it is a mere 1.5km away from the town of Sa Pa.
The village was very beautiful. If I could ignore the tourists, I would have been very happy. Most of the local and foreign tourists seemed quite rude.
One Vietnamese man handed me his smart phone and gestured that he wanted a picture with a black H’mong woman in the background. I gestured to the black H’mong woman for her permission and she shook her head quickly – she did not want her picture taken. So I gave the phone back to the man and refused to take the picture for him. The man made a sound of displeasure.
The Vietnamese tourists would drop their litter everywhere on the grounds. While I recognise that it was unpleasant, but it was the Vietnamese way to litter everywhere.
However, because of this, I was yelled at by a woman from Europe:
I was feeling the zen and trying to figure out the village map while walking over a bridge when I heard someone yelling at me from a distance:
“Tell your people not to throw their rubbish everywhere. They are making the people here sick!!”
I could not place her accent, but she might be from the Netherlands or Germany. Next to her, I saw a man shaking his head and walking away quickly. My guess was that he was her travelling companion. She came up to me and repeated the same line.
I retorted: What did I do? I didn’t do anything!
She said: Your people are throwing their rubbish into the river. You should tell them to stop doing that.
I looked around and saw Vietnamese around me.
Her: You Chinese people are making everyone here sick!
Me: They are not my people. I am Singaporean! I demand an apology. Why don’t you mind your own business?
Her: I am sorry but you should tell them to stop littering!
Me: There is a difference between Chinese and Vietnamese! They are Vietnamese, not Chinese! Why don’t you tell them yourself?
Her: It’s the same: Chinese, Vietnamese.
I was just getting fired up after this racist comment was made (very different from my zen mood about 5 minutes ago) when a teenage Vietnamese girl stepped in to break up the argument. The Caucasian woman took the opportunity to melt away into the crowd.
This Vietnamese girl confessed that she had been the one littering into the river. She was very sorry for the distress she caused me and she will not litter again.
Whoever this Caucasian woman was, she spoiled the positive image (by a little) I had of European ladies from the Netherlands and Germany by a little. I have met many awesome Dutch and German ladies while travelling and this experience was just… so out of character for somebody from Europe.
The children in Cat Cat Village was also constantly hungry. I saw Vietnamese tourists giving them sweets – which I knew from my NGO work experience that it was the wrong thing to do. I bought only 7 eggs as my money was limited (one egg cost 10,000 VND!). I cursed myself silently for not bringing some food for the kids. When I started giving out eggs, it seemed more children and mothers would gather around me to ask for eggs.
Were the inhabitants of Cat Cat Village exploited by the local government and tourists? It seemed to me that it was the case.