The Hassan's

Uncle Ho and
Chairman Mao

World Tour '98

(Read Other First Person Travel Stories)

Emerging From the Dark Side of Asia

Currently we are in Chongquig, China and this has been our first chance to get messages out since leaving Hanoi.

We departed Hanoi on a night train to the very north of Vietnam. This was an area that has been closed for also forty years. First it was the Japanese War, then the French War, then the American War and then the Chinese invaded in the early 90's. Finally it has settled to the point where both the Vietnamese and the Chinese are willing to accept outsiders being in the region.

The train out of Hanoi departed from a train station that the cab driver had trouble finding. When he got us there about 9:30 in the evening he looked around and was afraid to leave us there. It was not much more than a dirty little room with about a hundred people jammed into it. We did see one other face that didn't fit in - a Japanese student who was backpacking through Vietnam. We told the driver that we'd be OK and he reluctantly left.

We stood out in the crowd of predominantly tribal people from the north to say the least. At my elbow, literally appeared a beautiful old Sani tribal woman. She was at least eighty years old and couldn't have stood more than 4' tall. She just stood there and gave me the biggest smile you could imagine. Wherever I went she followed me. I'll never know what she was thinking but she was beaming from ear to ear the whole time, so I suspect she enjoyed me being there.

When they opened the door for the train, hundreds more people arrived and of course surged into the small room. We've found that the best tactic is always to get out of the way - the train, plane or bus always waits for everyone.

We had the best accommodations available - a hard sleeper. This turned out to be a small compartment with three shelves on each side. These were nothing more than wooden boards. Each did have a small woven mat and a small very dirty pillow. The temperature was at least 95 degrees and the humidity was dripping off everything and everyone. The windows only partially opened and were covered with a thick metal screen to protect us from the thrown objects that many Vietnamese greet the train with. If we had ever wondered what it might be like to spend time in a Vietnamese prison we had that experience on the 13 hour trip to Lao Cai. The only difference with prison was that in prison they would have at least given us some water. The night was as grim as you would ever want to imagine. We ended up with the Japanese student so we didn't feel too isolated and a little more secure.

When we arrived the next morning we were terribly relieved to get out of the train. What that area was like though really made it worthwhile. We were going to Sa Pa, a tribal village that was located high in the mountains. The mountains in this part of Vietnam are around 9,000 feet high - and the highest one does get snow in the winter. The twisting ride to Sa Pa was incredibly beautiful trip but a little unsettling on the stomach.

What we were to find was a town that would have approximated was northern Thailand would have looked like thirty years ago. Tribal people in the traditional clothing and very little of what would constitute a "town" in the modern sense. We had contacted a French hotel that had been built in the last year. It was an incredibly beautiful and as modern as possible place. It just didn't fit and there were only six people there. The only way to get to Sa Pa was on the train and only the backpackers were willing to endure that experience (present company excluded).

We asked the French manager how they built this place. The story was surreal but indicative of what it is like to do business in Vietnam. The hotel sat on top of a small hill overlooking Sa Pa. There is a small road up to it, but the Vietnamese government would not build a road until the hotel was finished. There was a long flight of stone steps that led from the hotel to the town. This was the first thing built - every piece of the building came up those steps. From the first stone to the massive heating / ac units were moved by hands much as they built the pyramids. The French company is going to buy a railway car and try to get the Vietnamese Railway to use it for the trip from Hanoi. The tourists needed to keep that hotel opened are not going to come otherwise.

We spent a couple of days walking around the valley and seeing the way the tribal people live. It was an amazing glimpse into a life system that you cannot see in too many places in Asia any longer.

It was now time to push into China. The first hurdle was getting the Vietnamese to let us out. You must have a specific departure point in your visa or it is back to Hanoi. We had all the paperwork but still had to bribe our way out of Vietnam. Later we met a Norwegian backpacker who had managed to avoid the first series of bribes only to end up paying five times more to the last official you had to confront. We walked across a small bridge spanning the Red River and into China. They greeted us with more or less open arms and we felt very fortunate to be free of the Vietnamese border guards. We were now back on a train for a 21 hour trip to Kunming, China - Next report should come from Beijing in a couple of days.


Copyright 1999 Lois and John Hassan

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