Part 5: Drinking with locals in Vietnam (Sapa to Bac Ha)

Our time in the sleepy, touristy town of Sapa was a great rest but it had come to a close. We spent 4 days total trekking to nearby Lao Chai, attempting to climb mount Fansipan (the tallest peak in Vietnam), and trying to not to buy North Face gear that had “fallen off the back of a truck.” We were recharged with gear repaired, bikes serviced, and eager spirits for a good ride.

A horse wandering by the roadside poses for a picture

 

Taller mountains gave way to rural towns, and guardrails became makeshift stacks of rocks.  Improvised, but full of character

One of the many views, over rock walls, through farming villages nestled in valleys, and past seemingly endless mountains

 

Another expansive view from above of Vietnamese farming villages

 

As we hopped on our bikes and cruised off, the air was mountain style cool, and the skies were clear. It was an excellent day to ride through the mountains. Our ride was short, a mere 102 kilometers and just under 3 hours. Oddly enough, it was a very peaceful ride. The road was a four lane highway that was perfectly paved and occasionally we left the highway to cruise through small, countryside towns set up very similarly to the main street farm towns I was used to passing through in Texas: a main street flanked on both sides by the country’s flag.

Main street is the same everywhere.  Even in Vietnam

After 3 hours of flatland views we arrived in Bac Ha: small, unremarkable, rural, and agriculturally centric. Nothing about this place stood out. We checked into the Bac Ha Hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet but the hotel was as unremarkable as the city itself. Mark and I were starved so we decided to wander the town in search of food. After several wrong turns we finally landed at the city center, and the central point for the daily market. Though the city was notorious for its weekend market, the weekday market was also unremarkable…except for one thing. Kabobs.

A street meat connoisseur works magic on grilled duck and duck kabobs

Street meat in Asia is something amazing. When a person can make their entire living by selling only one thing, seasoned one way, cooked one way, over and over, day after, you know they have something awesome. In this case, the street meat ninja specialized in duck, cooked two ways. The first consisted of a whole duck, head and all, skewered, seasoned, and spinning over hot coals until golden brown. It is DELICIOUS. The second preparation method was kabob’ed hunks of duck, doused in fish sauce and coated in Rosemary, then spun over hot coals until it smelled amazing and tasted even better. This was even MORE DELICIOUS. This was exactly what we needed to set off such an unremarkable day. And set it off we did.

Like most street food, duck kabobs coated in fish sauce and rosemary served in a plastic bag with a toothpick as the eating utensil of choice.  Total cost… $.50 USD.

After my third kabob, eaten out of a plastic bag with an oversized toothpick, Mark and I wandered over to the town lake. Now that our butts weren’t hurting from sitting on the bikes and our pessimism subsided into realism, the view looked quite nice. The view had a very Alpine feel. A small city nestled next to a lake at the foothills of a mountain chain. That’s what caught my eye. The thing that caught Mark’s eye was the “bar” that was behind us as we stared at the lake. By bar, I mean a shop, with little plastic tables, and little plastic chairs, with large plastic pitchers of low alcohol, Vietnamese beer.

Views of Bac Ha, just another farming town nestled between the mountains of Vietnam

It seemed like a sign from God, so we sat down, moved a table and a chair outside, ordered a pitcher, and relaxed. Mark stacked up three chairs to reinforce them as he was worried about having a repeat incident breaking the tiny chairs — one of the tiny chairs designed for petite Asians shatter under Mark’s not so petite ass. The bar and ambiance was nice. Very casual. Inside, several groups of men that had just gotten off from work chattered over beer. Across from us, outside, two small plastic tables were connected while 6 men and a boy, about 8 years old, sat around snacking while the men kept the pitchers of beer flowing. It didn’t take much time for them to invite us to their table for a drink.

A view of the local men just before they invited us to join them for a “few” drinks

 

Vietnamese bar food: squid jerky, boiled peanuts, fried tofu, and lots of laughs

As we sat down they immediately poured beers into our glass. We motioned that we had some beer but the men used Google translate to say “we invited you, we buy your drinks.” Over the next hour we laughed and exchanged expressions while we attempted to use Google Translate to communicate. It was a great afternoon. The men introduced to their version of bar snacks, which included a tasty squid jerky, some vegetables, and deep fried bits of tofu. I connected well with the fella that was sitting to my left and Mark connected with a fella that was sitting across the table from him…and by “connected well with” I mean those individuals took as their personal responsibility to get us drunk. They would poor us a full glass of beer, motion that it was time to cheers, and then encourage us to down the beer as they down theirs, then shake hands with all who downed their drinks.

The north Vietnamese post-toast custom: A firm handshake and respectful eye contact

Of all of the things that took place this day, learning about the handshake was by far my favorite. In the US, and in other cultures, we clink glasses, proceed to down our drink, and then look away or continue whatever was happening before. The way that these men took the moment after the shared drink to lock hands and look at each other as a sign of respect and appreciation for the company they were lucky enough to share was great. Not only did it make the moment feel a bit deeper but it reminded me how much of a privilege it is to be in the company of those you respect and enjoy.
The drinks continued to flow…and flow…and flow. At some point, the head drinker at the table started bringing his A-game. A Vietnamese style pony keg showed up and he poured drinks all around, starting with me and Mark. Mark looked at me with the “how long do you think we can keep this up” look and I looked back with the “not much longer, I’m getting drunk, we need to escape” look. At that same moment, the fella to my left passes me his phone with Google Translate up and the translation “don’t drink too much, you guys are too big for us carry home.” We were all definitely on the same page. Mark and I started planning our getaway. I pretended like I was heading to the restroom then found our waiter and passed him the 20,000 Dong (about $1 USD) for our pitcher. He immediately refused. Come to find out, the head drinker had already taken care of our tab. Damn.

The good stuff: A Vietnamese pony keg bearing the best beer the region has to offer

So the next phase of the escape plan was to…just leave. We stood up to shake hands and leave as the fella to my left handed me his phone with the translation “we’re going to a friend’s place, for more drinks. Do you want to go?” We tried our best to talk our way out of it….but 5 minutes later, there we were. Slightly drunk and climbing on the back of motorbikes driven by Vietnamese guys that had just as much as us to drink. You know what? I didn’t even realize that we were being driven by drunk guys on motorbikes on winding roads without helmets until I wrote this paragraph. Damn. Bad decisions all around. But as my buddy Dennis says, “Bad decisions keep life interesting…”

Fast forward 10 minutes and we’re at a Homestay about ½ mile out of town. There wasn’t a soul in the bar and restaurant but we assumed the place was turning into a bar soon so Mark and I ordered a couple beers. Come to find out, there was no one else coming. We were invited to a family style dinner with, what we think, were a few colleagues from work. As we sat down at two tables placed together with 10 seats surrounding it, a server brought out homemade rice wine that was stored in normal water bottles. The server distributed small shot glasses that I’ve normally seen used for Saki at sushi restaurants and pointed out our faux pas of having ordered beers when rice wine was on the menu. The punishment? Down ‘em! I didn’t want to, neither did Mark, but with pressure from the group…we downed the beers had just ordered. And the calamity began.

The head drinker (we’ll call him Vietnamese Bob at this point), poured shots for everyone and made the sign for “bottoms up!” As I looked down I realized that Mark’s cup, as well as mine, was filled to the brim with rice wine. Everyone else at the table had a half serving. I could see where this going, but, it felt great so I decided to go ahead and ride this train of Vietnamese culture and alcoholism. Mark and I clinked the tiny, white, ceramic shot glasses with everyone at the group, went bottoms up, and then made firm hands and solid eye contact with everyone at the table that just took a shot followed by saying “com-oon” which means “thank you” in Vietnamese. The rice wine was delicious. Clearly unfiltered and under fermented as there was a lingering flavor from the yeast…or something like that…I was a little tipsy at the point, so I may have just been imagining that.
Mark and I were enjoying ourselves and this deep cultural experience but the entire time we were confused. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly was happening and who these people were that were so hospitable. Throughout all of this, Google Translate wasn’t a damn bit of help. When I used Google Translate to ask what the gentleman to my left (we’ll call him Vietnamese Carl) did for a living, he used Google Translate to reply “it is the name day of the girl of the man to my left at work.” Vietnamese Carl quickly followed up with another translation stating, “Linguistic differences should be two lovers.” I just smiled and nodded as I accepted, I wouldn’t understand anything that happened tonight. I would just have to absorb it as another fun memory. And so I did.

We bantered back and forth with the group, through mistranslated questions and butchered answers that communicated nothing. The experienced reiterated my idea that when traveling, a genuine smile is your best form of communication. It says everything. Thank you. Your company was a pleasure. Thank you for this experience. Your culture amazes me. Google Translate butchered those. A genuine smile always communicates them perfectly.

Shortly after the first few rounds of homemade rice wine a server came out and delivered the food. This was the first time in Asia that I had experienced a local dinner that wasn’t booked or reserved as a tourist, and it was as great and authentic as I would have hoped. The most memorable dish of the evening was a bowl of small fish. Each fish was a few inches long, deep fried whole and lightly salted. The plan was to just pop them into our mouths, heads and all. It may have been the liquid courage in my system, but I actually liked it a lot.

A very traditional meal at a Vietnamese home.  With the help of the rice wine, everything was delicious and added up to a wonderful experience

We ate communal style, each having our own small dish to place bits from the larger dishes that we shared on the table: a delicious broth, bits of seasoned and fried pork covered in extra spices and garlic, local vegetable from the garden out back, and several dishes of spicy, savory, and sweet homemade sauces. I love food, and there is very little I won’t eat. Every country I go to, I make it a point to eat as much street food as possible and eat the most exotic things possible. This dinner was simple, explained to me through hand gestures and broken English – but without a doubt it was one of my favorites because of the company and authenticity. For all of the chaos Vietnam had thrown our way during this adventure, she did us right tonight.
As I began to have my fill of fried fish, fried pork, rice, rice wine, and other delicious bits I realized it was getting late and we had the longest ride of our journey so far coming up the next day. The company, the food, and the experience was great but we had to get on our way. I looked over to Mark and started to say “We’ve got to…” and he said “Yeah, I know buddy.” With that, we typed several phrases into Google Translate excusing ourselves. “Thank you. The food was great.” “I’m sorry, we have a long journey tomorrow.” “You have been too kind.” “Vietnam has been my favorite country in Asia.” I absolutely meant that last statement. With its people, natural beauty, culture, and surprises, Vietnam has astounded me, defying all of my expectations. I have been to a few countries…somewhere upwards of 30 (and counting) and Vietnam is among the top few. If anyone is considering an escape from the world to an exotic place, screw Thailand, come to Vietnam.

Mark and I took one last shot of rice wine with the group, shook hands one last time, smiled, and left. I think that was the most I’d seen Mark smile for the entire trip. Actually, that experience was probably the most I had smiled during this trip. I reflected back on the evening and realized as I remarked, “Dude, I don’t even know what they did for a living.” Mark replied, “They were teachers.” Teachers. These were just average Vietnamese locals proud of their farm town and just showing us a good time. Not businessmen trying to impress us. Not tourist company employees trying to get anything from us or sell anything. Not anyone aiming to convince us of anything. Just your average Vietnamese fellas trying to show some wandering locals a good time and a bit of hospitality. Priceless. Another good day in the books. You stay classy…Vietnam.

 

Curious what happens next?  Check out the latest in the Motorcycle Diaries at

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Pics from the Day

 

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