the dangerous drinking games of the Black H’mong

Boozing at Hanoi BackpackersJames and I spent the weekend at the Hanoi backpackers, mainly drinking, well if they will offer free kegs of Bia Hoi on the roof. And besides those Sunday afternoon beers were purely to settle the hangover from the previous night. Apart from drinking we did manage to go and see the water puppet theatre by the river which I loved. The puppeteers are concealed behind bamboo screens and skillfully manipulate the wooden puppets by bamboo pools concealed in a deep pool of water on which the performances take place. There were farmers riding buffalos, dragon boat races, a mating dance of brightly coloured phoenix and two golden segmented dragons that shot fire from their mouths. Red Zao, SapaI think I was more captivated than half the children present! Finally on Sunday it was time for James and I to separate, partly as we wanted to go off to different places and to stop us potentially killing each other in the future, so now I have no chance to redeem myself at cribbage. I left him in the company of three lovely Irish girls and took the rather luxurious tourist carriage on the night train north to Sapa.

Afternoon mist in Sapa, Vietnam I arrived in Sapa at an ungodly hour of the morning with an American guy called Jordan and our new Welsh friend Marina. We spent about two hours eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant watching the changing white grey mist shroud the entire town and countryside…so much for the fantastic views! The rest of the day in the mist was amusing, it was impossible to see more than about 10 metres. Sapa is a tourist town with steep streets surrounded by villages of various ethic minorities of Vietnam, particularly the Black H’mong and the Red Dzao whose women frequent the town in large numbers smiling broadly in their traditional dress and try to persuade you to buy handcrafts from them. They are lovely though once you get chatting and I brought earrings from a woman called Mai, and her friend Mai (same word, different pronunciation that we all failed to get after 10 minutes) Mai and her baby boy, Sapaand we ended up swapping some of her embroidered wrist bands for my Indian bracelets which she loved! We had sizzling local meat dishes for dinner and played cards and drank mulled wine before Marina and I totally failed to get the fire going in the room, it is pretty chilly up here.

Rice terraces, SapaThe next day Jordan and I left on a two day trek into the valley with our guide, a 19 year old H’mong girl called Za. All the local guides are women, they all speak amazingly good English and they are highly amusing. The men have no contact with tourists and don’t speak English, where as the women pick up the language and sell handicrafts in the markets and basically end up supporting their families. In the villages of the H’mong, the women are most definitely in charge!

Za and G, Black H’mong guidesWe got dropped off 10km from Sapa and walked down through the rice terraces that literally cover the hillsides like huge green contour lines. In places we were side stepping along the edges of the terraces our hands being held by tiny local women to stop us falling in. We passed ducks bathing in the water, splashing buffalo, women working in the fields and the clouds swirled and drifted over the tops of the hillsides as we passed. The final part of the walk took us down a steep but scenic path into the pretty village of Ban Ho at the bottom of the valley in a crook of the river.

There were about 16 of us spending the night in the homestay in Ban Ho run by a Black H’mong woman called Lam, five months pregnant with two twinkling gold teeth and a wicked laugh. We had the most amazing dinner of beef, chicken, tofu, cabbage and spinach dishes with heaps of white rice. Me downing another shot of rice wineAfterwards we’d all had a few beers and the girls came out with three litre bottles of rice wine, “Happy Water,” announcing we were drinking all of it. And they helped. I don’t know what I expected of a homestay, but playing cards and drinking games and getting pissed with a group of women from a north Vietnamese ethnic minority was maybe not one of them. When any of the boys refused a shot B and Lam would accuse them of being lady boys and burst into hysterical laughter. I told B she had to keep eye contact when saying cheers otherwise she would have bad sex for seven years. She went bright red, the started laughing saying. “I don’t know these things, I’m not married yet!” She then told all the other women and ever time we said cheers they kept opening their eyes wide and laughing. It was a hugely entertaining evening.

Buffalo on the terraces, SapaThis morning we were all not too bad considering the amount everyone drank the night before. Jordan, myself, Za and another couple went for a long walk around the village past the thermal spring pools (we had an almost hot dip in them the previous night) and around to a tiny waterfall falling into a large green pool and falling over the rocks down to the village bridge. Vietnamese pot bellied pigThen we had a long walk uphill back to the main road. It had rained heavily overnight and as a result the path was a total mud bath. It was messy and slippery work getting back to the top but amazingly I managed not to fall over. After a noodle lunch we got taken back in a jeep to Sapa and to a warm shower and clean clothes!

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