Disclaimer: this article was originally written in Romanian almost one year ago and it depicts our first days in Ha Giang, Vietnam and our initial feelings about this place. Many things changed in the meanwhile, so stay tuned to read about the rest of our adventures as soon as we translate them. Use the subscribe form to the right.
Good morning, Vietnam!
We slept for 12 long hours. We couldn’t be bothered by the bugs, by the heat, not even by the hellish subtropical humidity. We woke up fresh and the first muscles that moved turned into a big smile.
From the terrace, just outside our room, the view is amazing: green mountainous walls surrounding the city like a natural defense system. Anthills, and you will read this word many times from now on, because this is how mountains look like. Limestone anthills on which a thick jungle flourishes.
We sat down for coffee and we decided that we are fools.
Or, maybe not fools, but we just realized what fatigue can do to you. How it can divert one from his track. We are not experienced travelers, not yet, we have 35 kilos of backpacks with us and a very limited level of energy.
More than that, no matter how much we might have read before departing for Asia, we couldn’t have imagined how the 90% humidity index will feel on our skin. Because we have never experienced that feeling before. And no matter how many public toilets we might have been into back in rural Romania, our noses were still shocked by the “fragrance” of Vietnamese diners on the side of the highway.
And the traffic, oh, the traffic…we lived for many years in Bucharest, the nightmare of civilized world drivers. Can you imagine how much worse is it here if it shocked us so badly? As for the people in My Dinh bus station, well, that was just our deeply-rooted East European paranoia.
No more pride and prejudice
Ok, we have a confession to make. We haven’t read many thing about this country before flying here. Just the basics. But not because we were ignorant, we just didn’t want to. There is no fun in knowing everything in advance. That’s maybe why our first thoughts were not all that good.
We want to let things take us by surprise as much as possible, for a more genuine experience. And boy, they did! But that’s the whole purpose of our adventure. Stop, look around, ask, live and understand.
While we strive to throw away the pride and prejudice mentality, the superiority complexes and the entire typical European way of getting through life. It takes time, we know. We are all in this together :).
Vietnam wake-up call
The first four days here, in Ha Giang, were merely a struggle with the jet lag and the heat&humidity. We went to bed at 2 PM (that is 10 PM back in Romania) scared that we will not be able to fall asleep and that we`ll greet 5 o’clock with our eyes wide open. And then we will hear again how breakfast is being prepared at the canine restaurant just across the street.
The pain, hauling, screaming of the poor puppies being electrocuted, skinned alive and ultimately butchered. Oh, the horror. Anyway, finally we got to come to peace with our initial shocks, except for this last one, the dog killings.
But we realized that we don’t want nor we need to leave here or go back home. All in all, we can have a more than a decent life here. It`s not ugly, bad or scary anymore. It`s just different. Yes, some aspects make us feel we time-traveled, others are just cultural differences that we are just grasping.
Trying to comprehend without being judgmental. For example, we ask ourselves if keeping the beer in the fridge, but the meat and eggs out in the hot, is it a cultural thing or just a mark on the development scale…we are still considering that.
About Ha Giang
Ha Giang is far from being the poor and grungy city we imagined it to be in the midst of the night we arrived. It looks more like a daintily mountain resort, as daintily as a communist city could be. There are numerous small family shops, almost every ground floor hosts a business. Stores, bike services, hotels, restaurants, hair salons, pubs and cafes, little capitalist oases.
The rich can even afford new cars, much more expensive than in Romania, due to the high taxes. And one could seldom see a rattletrap on the streets of Ha Giang. Lexus or Mercedes owners keep them in the first room of the house, that one could think it’s the living room. But apparently it’s a versatile chamber, hallway by day, garage by night. And they don’t do it because of the thieves, but because there are no proper parking spaces.
Cars though are pretty rare; you cannot expect a traffic jam not even during rush hour. Because most of the population owns a scooter. 10 to 14 years old kids ride electric bikes in the same traffic. Which follows only one rule: “the thicker steel” rule. Scooters give way to cars, cars give way to buses, buses to trucks.
And in this perfect chaos everybody gets by.
A scooter costs between 200 and 1000 US dollars. The minimum income is around 150$/month. The rich usually work in the public service, for the government, or in the army. The privileged casts. But we can’t say that we saw any of the abject poverty we imagined we were going to find here. Vietnam is not Haiti, Sri Lanka, India or Cambodia. The rift is not that deep, maybe because here communism takes care of all its people. They seem happy with the little they possess.
Speaking with my mother on Skype one day, I told her that we went for a bicycle ride and she very candidly asked if there are any special bicycle lanes for that. I rolled out a thunderous laughter: “they don’t have any sidewalks, let alone bicycle lanes”.
From the height of the saddle you can see clearly through the big glass doors right inside people’s houses. Most of them have a flat widescreen or even smart TVs. Contrasts. Contrasts everywhere.
Keeping the streets clean is not their strongest point. You won`t see any garbage bins, big or small, so the household waste is left on the sidewalk. From time to time, garbage ladies come to pick it up in their huge handcarts. Our washing machines drain goes from the terrace straight into the nearby stream. It can hardly be called a stream, it is more of a muddy water, covered in a grey glass-like slime. The strange thing is that it doesn’t smell at all. Or we just got used to it. We haven’t asked about the sewage system, but to be honest, we don’t even want to know the answer.
The mid-autumn festival
As we were about to find out the second night in Ha Giang, the locals are extremely warm hearted, kind and welcoming. We went out to the main square for the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. In our case, it was on the 15th of September.
In the main square, a large open-space soviet type square, a huge Ho Chi Minh statue scrutinized the sunset. Thousands of children, their parents and tens of allegorical chariots were filling the huge gap. As we went through the crowd we felt like Brangelina on tour. Hellos, handshakes, high fives, people took our camera to take photos of us with their wives and children.
If you are an European here, you are treated like a star, and even though they don`t speak much English, they will surely strive to make you feel as good as possible.
Another cool fact is that the criminality level is very close to zero in Ha Giang. During a trip to the local police station, for the registration process, the three on-duty policemen were lying in their beds, undressed of their uniform, watching a Korean TV show. Tan, one of the Vietnamese teachers from the English Center, told me that besides the daily few traffic accidents, they don`t really have anything else to do.
No crimes, no rapes, no thievery. After nightfall, the situation is the same. You can walk the streets with no fear. You could only hear a “hello” shouted from the other side of the street or receive a beer invitation out of the blue. But it is honest and friendly, and they only want to sit next to you and to stare into you foreigner eyes.
Since we arrived we never locked our bicycles. Locals live whatever they have on the settle of the scooters and walk away knowing they will find their items where they left them. Houses and shops have their doors wide open in the middle of the day with no one inside. Why is there no one inside, you ask? Because Ha Giang, as the rest of Vietnam as we will soon find out, has a very Italian feel to it, a rigorous siesta is kept every afternoon. It’s too hot, so they sleep.
Instead of a conclusion
Two weeks have passed since the first day we truly opened our eyes and all the other senses in Vietnam. And it is so beautiful. We left aside all our initial fears, we have our daily routine now, we go to the market and we negotiate our own groceries (it is so cheap, indeed), so the six weeks ahead of us should be more than great.
Next week we are going to do The Ha Giang Loop – a road trip through the most spectacular scenery in Vietnam, they say – and after that, in November, we will go south. And, if possible, spend like another six months in this amazing country. Because it has much more things to offer than we could have ever imagined.