July in Vietnam: A Close Shave in Sapa

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My experience in Sapa was definitely head and shoulders above that in Ha Long Bay. Here I experienced something a tad more opportunistic. Although the personal danger was higher, somehow I felt far less upset about this experience, and filed it away under things to watch out for in future.

Here’s what happened. I’d booked my short tours in Sapa through a travel agent recommended by, of all people, my pastor. He’d been on a wonderful trip in a large group from church, enough for the travel agent to personally show them around Sapa. I hadn’t the same luck, which wasn’t a big deal. The tour guide who took me on a group tour to Cat Cat, seemed like a nice enough and friendly guy. Dzong was informative and also very fluent in English. After a very pleasant day trip to Cat Cat, he asked the group to join him for dinner. The rest seemed fairly interested but later backed out because they were all on pre-arranged package tours with dinner included.

Dzong invited me to his place for tea. Eager to make friends with a local, I readily agreed.  Turned out that he shared a room with his brother, one in a row of many little rooms in a building. We sat on little stools drinking green tea and eating lychees. Too bad he was really bad at choosing fruit. He obviously hadn’t spent a great deal of time living on his own. We chatted a while about all sorts of random things and I foolishly set the location a bit too far away when I fibbed to him that I had a boyfriend waiting for me in Ho Chi Minh City.

Later that evening we met for dinner and headed out to one of the local barbecue joints serving grilled black chicken and various glutinous rice specialties.  We sat down at the low wooden benches and enjoyed all the delicious local delicacies. Dzong got a half litre mineral water bottle recharged with the local firewater and I obstinately sipped at it while he exhorted me to scoff it down like the locals. No way for something at about 20% bv!

Soon dinner was over and it was time to retire for the night. I was a little buzzed as we walked back down the path leading to both our places. He asked me to wait outside while he picked up something at the pharmacy. Thank God for my curiosity as I wandered into the shop consisting of a single counter and looked around. Before long I realised to my horror that he was picking some prophylactics. That brought me straight out of my buzz and immediately put me on the alert. I kept my distance from him and true enough, he asked if I wanted to go to his place for a drink. It was my cue to profess exhaustion and head back.

Unfortunately, he insisted on being gentlemanly (whether faux or not I care not to explore) and escorted me back to the hotel. I kept insisting that he needn’t go to my floor or to my door but he did. I unlocked the door, said a quick goodbye and slipped inside, closing and locking the door firmly behind me. I was incredibly lucky that he didn’t try any harder because I later found that the door didn’t shut properly and really needed a chair pushed against it.

Boy did that teach me a lesson. I never told my parents about this, not even now, two years from when it happened. I wonder what Mum would say if she finds out, if she ever gets back to reading this blog again!

Having survived that, I thought I’d go on to more challenging things and hired a motorbike plus driver to take me through hill country the long way. Of course, not without thoroughly haranguing the travel agent who arranged Dzong as a tour guide to make sure that the motorbike driver was a decent chap who wouldn’t try a thing on me.

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April in The Philippines: Warm People and Strange Bands

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The Philippines is full of the loveliest people ever. They are so warm, friendly and plain trusting in their hospitality. There was the breakfast lady in Coron who gave me the best and cheapest morning meals ever who told me that it was dangerous to travel as a lone girl (not once in The Philippines did I feel at all unsafe) with that look of earnest concern on her face. There was the friendly shop assistant at the mami stand, where I stopped for a quick snack, who insisted that the water wasn’t safe for delicate stomachs like mine. There was the friendly security guard who gave me directions in the middle of nowhere (more on that in a bit).

Most crucially, there were Natalie and Derrick, a couple I met in transit at Manila airport. Our planes were delayed as usual and we somehow struck up a conversation. Natalie was Filipino and Derrick Australian, they returned to The Philippines often to see her extended family. After just about an hour of chat, they gave me their contact number and invited me to stay with them in their service apartment in Manila when we three got back into town.  Natalie even suggested making arrangements to let me in should I get back earlier than them!

Taking things on the cautious side, I went to visit instead when I returned to Manila and we went out with Natalie’s niece, Anne-Marie and Pristine, her daughter. It must be pretty cool for Natalie to be such a young grandaunt. Pristine was such a sweet 8-year-old. She held my hand and called me Tita (aunt).

After dinner, I adjourned with Natalie and Derrick to a bar for some drinks. Here’s where we met the T-Rex. It was rather amusing as I had to peer past it to see the rather bad but amusing cover band. The girls wore midriffs, which was fine for the slim ones, but one of them had way too much baby fat still. The boys weren’t hot at all and the lead singer couldn’t help but hog the limelight even when he was doing backup for a girl song. So amusing.

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Natalie and Derrick later sent me back in a cab right to the doorstep of my guesthouse. They also insisted that I text them the moment I got safely inside. It was another moment where I felt guilty for not trusting enough.

August in China: Zhuang Country

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Going up the hillside to reach the village and its rice terraces was hard work. Most of us chose to burn our own calories going up, but others chose to burn cash instead. Enterprising locals would take tourists in a sedan chair for that moment of feeling like a king or at least minor nobility. It was unsurprising that most of those going up by chair were on the plump side. And I wonder how the fella in the picture managed to take a good video with all that bumping up the stairs.

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At the bus bay there were many Zhuang women making their handicrafts while waiting for tourists groups to buy their wares. Here you can see their long hair bundled up carefully. They never cut their hair as it’s a much prized symbol of beauty and probably fertility too. Here, all the craftswomen were married matrons. The unmarried girl keeps her hair firmly under wraps as it is only to be unveiled on her wedding night. Our Han Chinese tour guide warned the men to be careful not to accidentally uncover a girl’s hair or he’ll end up being married straightaway. He then said that he was a bachelor and would be happy to be the fall guy and marry a Zhuang girl on some hapless tourist’s behalf. I found that rather tasteless and offensive.

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No less, Zhuang hair was really a sight to behold. It was thick and black with not a strand of white or silver in it. I wonder if the older ladies simply wove their hair from younger days into their do, but I just can’t think how it could be done. There are apparently many herbal concoctions for making the hair black and glossy, but here they focussed on selling knick knacks and bags to the tourists.

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After being piled into a minivan and driven down and up more windy mountain roads, we ended up at another village where most of the domestic tourists elected to go for the optional cultural show. Most of the foreign tourists milled around outside, simply sitting around and soaking in the village atmosphere, watching corn dry.

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We heard sounds of the cultural show going on inside, complete with traditional songs and raucous mock wedding rituals.  Later, some of the tourists emerged with lipstick and such painted on their faces by enthusiastic villagers. It was amusing but slightly disturbing as I felt that the villagers had no choice but to do this just to earn a living.

Outside, we didn’t fare that much better as we bought imported iced drinks from the hawkers. Thankfully, the local vendors largely left me alone, preferring to target my Polish friend who looks a bit like an off-duty Santa Claus. I sensed that the children were probably more curious about these odd looking people than anything.

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Touristy as it was, I don’t regret going on this package tour. It cut a whole lot of hassle and was probably cheaper and easier than going it on my own. Travelling completely solo wasn’t easy, so I often joined tours to meet people. On this trip, I met some fellow tourists as eating partners that evening. It was fun taking A and T out to explore the Guilin food scene as they got to eat in some very local restaurants with no English menu and I got to sample lots of different dishes I couldn’t have done on my own.

I also observed a solo tourist who suddenly appeared in the village as we waited for the performance to end. He sat for a while on his own near two old village elders. After a while, a vendor came by offering little trinkets but he plumped for a cold beer instead. Soon he was taking a picture of the vendor and then of the village elders. It was amazing how he drew them in so unobtrusively and unexploitatively. If I had more time, I’d probably have done what he did: find his own way around the villages, sit around and interact with the locals in an authentic way, then hitch a ride back with a tour bus.

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