After we said goodbye to Erik and Melana, we continued our trek through the mountains in northern Vietnam. Ben and Berry rode on the back of the bike of two guides, and I continued to drive my own bike. It was colder that day, 48°F (8°C), so I put my coat on instead of my wind jacket. It helped, but the wind still made its way through and made me feel a little cold.
Opi told me I was one of the few people who came prepared for cold temperatures. He said most people on his tour think it’s always hot in Vietnam, and they only have shorts and t-shirts. I explained that a friend who had been to Vietnam in February told me it was cold in the north (especially the mountains) and warm in the south. Since I knew I was going to be there in March, I prepared for both warm and cold weather. I was happy that I had my extra luggage that day.
The mountains seemed to go on forever. They were steep, sharp, and unlike any mountains I had seen before. They were lush and beautiful. Every time we passed people, they waved and smiled. Sometimes the kids would try to high-five us as we drove by.
We were headed to the border with China, and as we got closer, I saw a few disturbing sights. When we turned a corner, I saw a cat that had been tortured. His head was up against a rock with a stick sticking out of his head. Then, a motorbike going in the opposite direction of us had a crate attached to the back that was full of puppies. When we stopped at the border, I asked Opi, “Were the puppies in the back of that crate for people to sell and eat?” Opi looked sad and said, “Yes. Some small villages in China still eat dogs, and they trade with some villages in the north of Vietnam. It’s illegal in Vietnam, but because they’re close to the border, it still happens.”
Berry and I were on the verge of tears. She thought the cat was just laying on the rock until we explained that it had been tortured. We agreed that it was becoming a sad day in Vietnam.
We parked our motorbikes and walked towards the border. There was a fence and a large opening, but there wasn’t anybody guarding it. Warning signs of landmines were posted and Opi told us that some landmines are still buried from the wars with China.
He told us not to step even a foot across the border because the Chinese are known to hide out and if someone steps across, they’ll arrest them. At the time, China was holding several American and Candian tourists, accusing them of being spies because of the trade war.
We took pictures at the landmarker and I chose not to cross the border. Berry is originally from China and has dual citizenship. We saw merchants on the other side with items they were selling in a van. It was in the middle of nowhere, but I guess they were there to trade with Vietnam. Berry confidently walked across the border and over to the van. After talking to them for five minutes, she came back and said they were there selling items they had made.
We continued driving and Opi took us to a gazebo. First, we had to drive through a small village and then went on a very small concrete path that had very little guard rails. I definitely wouldn’t have known about this area on my own. When we arrived at the parking lot, several flights of stairs took us to the gazebo overlooking the valley below. We were the only people around.
Opi pointed out the mountain across from us and the river below that separated the two mountains. He said across the river was China. Just then, Berry’s phone welcomed her to China, thinking she was there because we were so close. Her phone changed to a Chinese network and she said, “Let’s test it.” She tried to pull up Facebook, Instagram, and Google, and all three were blocked.
I couldn’t believe it. I always heard things are restricted in China, but I’ve never actually experienced it. I asked why they are restricted, and Berry explained it’s because the government doesn’t want people influenced. They have similar websites, but the government regulates them. I felt very grateful to live in the U.S., where freedom of speech is expected (even though it’s often under attack).
We continued driving and passed kids walking with garden tools. They were guiding some cows and goats. The oldest kid, who appeared to be around nine years old, held a beer in his hand. Berry pointed it out, and it just added to our list of sad sights that day.
We took pictures and enjoyed the scenery. However, as we drove through the small town to get back to the main road, we saw stray dogs in poor health. We also saw a woman walking a pig on a leash. It was so different than the U.S., where dogs are on leashes and pigs are in pens.
For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant on the side of the mountain. Ben broke out his drone and we tried over and over to get a shot with all of us jumping at the same time. We failed because of the delay of the camera, but we had a fun time trying.
Our next stop was the King’s Palace. The palace is on display for tourists and there were tour busses in the parking lot. The palace was owned by a Hmong King who made 20 tons of opium each year. The palace was protected from bombs by the mountain. In 2004, they opened it to the public. Some of the extended family members still live nearby. It took seven years to build and it looked like places I’ve seen in movies. It was worn and empty but had several square courtyards inside without roofs.
The king had three wives, but the second wife was never pictured because she only birthed girls. We walked through all the rooms and saw guns on display that people could grab. Opi picked one up and showed us how they used the holes to fire from. The doorways were so short that I had to duck.
We continued our drive and stopped at a lookout point with an incredible view of the road that snakes its way through and around the mountain. We were on the main road where small tour busses go, so there was a parking lot there. Usually, we just pulled to the side of the road to take pictures because most of the time the roads weren’t that busy.
As we took pictures, a boy who appeared to be around eight years old grabbed a cigarette from Opi. Opi just stared at the kid in surprise and watched as the kid lit the cigarette and started smoking. The boy was wearing extremely worn-out, dirty clothes, and his body was covered in dirt. He casually sat on the half wall smoking and sharing the cigarette with some younger boys.
Then we saw young girls who also appeared to be around eight years old, but they were dressed in beautiful, clean clothes. They were wearing way too much makeup and held flowers that they were trying to sell. The girls were beautiful.
Opi told us not to give the kids any money because they stop going to school and do this instead. Tourists will stop and take pictures of them and in return, they’ll give them money or candy. They think they’re helping, but it is why the parents have their kids do this instead of going to school. They can make more money for the family from tourists. Opi told us that in the peak season, they can make $45 USD a day. The average salary in Vietnam is $200-$250 USD per month.
The boy smoking pulled out a KitKat and ate it as he watched for tour buses. We asked Opi if we could take pictures, and he said we could. We just shouldn’t give them anything. All of a sudden, a tour bus was coming up the windy road. The kids all got so excited, but the bus kept driving by, and the kids got bummed out.
It was heartbreaking. These kids didn’t know any better, and their parents were incentivized to have their kids do this. In Thailand, their theory was not to give money to the homeless because it teaches bad behaviors. They don’t have many homeless people, so maybe their theory works. It saddened me to think that westerners were creating these behaviors, thinking they were helping.
We drove down the windy road, and it almost made me dizzy from going left to right repeatedly. It started to get foggy and colder. We stopped briefly for pictures, and Opi and Eddie looked freezing and uncomfortable.
We made a stop in a small town for some coffee and yogurt with fruit. It was always nice to take a quick break.
By the time we arrived at our homestay, it was 6:30 pm, and it was almost dark. This time, other travelers were staying there too. Ben and Berry had a room to themselves, and I was assigned a mat in the large room that was shared. They had a curtain separating the large room into smaller rooms and had doors to the balcony that were separated, so it felt like my own room. That is until I could hear others next to me talking. They were speaking Dutch, so I couldn’t understand them. My little room had three mattresses and mosquito nets. The mattress and the bathrooms were pretty nice.
For dinner, we met in a downstairs room that was indoors. There wasn’t any heat, though, so it felt freezing in there. I kept my coat on until enough happy water (rice wine) warmed me up. The family who owned the house was a young couple with a little girl around four years old. There were also some older women and their husbands who helped cook and clean. We all ate as one big family.
Across from the dinner table were three travelers with another group of guides. They were from Holland and were on day one of the four-day tours. Our guides all knew each other, so they chatted. The Holland travelers (husband, wife, and friend) were in their early to mid-20s, and all had blonde hair. All three of them((Jelle, Malou, and Hanna) were in medical school and had some time off. They were spending five weeks in Vietnam on holiday. Jelle was driving his own bike, but Malou and Hanna were riding on the back of bikes.
We all agreed that the roads were crazy and bumpy. Ben, Berry, and I told them what to expect since they were only on day one. They were going the opposite direction that we were going. We all had such a fun time talking, eating, and drinking happy water. The happy water was always in a reused water bottle, and it flowed freely into our little shot glasses. Ben, Berry, and I warned the Holland travelers about the happy water and how much they’d end up drinking. We started enjoying the happy water so much that we’d call regular water “sad water.”
After dinner, the generous hosts surprised Malou with a birthday cake. I was thrilled! Berry turned to me and laughed, “You finally get your cake!” After enjoying the delicious cake, the guides busted out their karaoke microphone. There was an app on their phones that connected the wireless microphone and amplified the sound.
We all had a blast singing songs and being silly. We realized we needed to have Zing involved in karaoke because he promised us we’d do it, and he’d sing “My Heart Will Go On,” but the night before, he was too tired. Melana, Erik, and Zing had made it back to Ha Giang, and Zing was waiting with them to make sure they made it safely on the night bus. We Facetimed them through a Facebook messenger video call and sang the song for them. They sang along while people stared at them on the sidewalk. It was so fun and the perfect way to say goodbye before they boarded their bus.
Berry and I stood up and sung “I Just Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Huston. We laughed, danced, and had such a fun time. Berry was so fun and sweet that I was really enjoying our friendship. We goofed around and took shots together, celebrating our last night together in the North.
The party started to move outside, and we asked Opi what he was doing on his phone. He showed us Tik Tok, and Ben, Berry, and I all made a funny video with Opi for the social media platform. We weren’t familiar with Tik Tok, so afterward, we asked him about it. It turned out he had a crazy high amount of followers. We said, “Wait, so you’re famous?” He humbly laughed it off, but we weren’t surprised because Opi is a funny, creative guy.
It was cold outside and getting late. I took a shower and went to bed before I ended up with a hangover. I went to bed with a smile on my face. I loved that people from so many different cultures could be comfortable around each other and have so much fun together. It’s moments like this that make me realize why I love traveling.
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Wow beautiful country. So sad for the kids.