My shoes are important for this one. If they had been hiking appropriate, or even in factory condition, this piece would be mostly travelogue. I’d write about some rice paddies, a dancing bird, maybe describe a cloud or two, and you’d spin through the article for the pictures then go back to your Buzzfeed tab. You’re spared: I kept cloud descriptions to a minimum; there is one poop metaphor (which I realize brings down my per-post average); I put in only a .gif of a dancing bird; and one paragraph is wholly earnest. Mostly, I care about the shoes.
The ones in question were a pair of Nikes, size eleven U.S. with green laces and white bottoms. How they didn’t fall apart over the seven years I had them is anyone’s guess. The wear on the sole was dire, the heel looked like a door wedge because I have a misaligned instep that ground the rubber down. The bottoms looked like a waffle iron, but instead of many small squares they each had six. A deep groove ran between squares. Maybe the grooves helped with traction, unsure, but they certainly made cleaning dog shit out of them near impossible.
These shoes were all I had for walking. They outlasted two others: hiking boots I tossed after the rocks on New Zealand’s Mt. Ngauruhoe perforated the toes and Sperry Top Siders with cracks in the soles that I got rid of only when they passed the point of social unacceptability (mold had leopard printed the leather). Opportunities to get replacement sneakers were ample, I just couldn’t be bothered. In Vietnam I assume you go to a store, put in a shoe order, and someone moseys down the road to the Nike factory, takes a pair from the conveyor belt, says, “Just gonna do a quick quality check on these size elevens,” and then comes back for the hand off. (NB: Obviously not how it’s done, it’s just that the knockoff’s workmanship is exceptional and often the Nike factory is literally down the road.)
My shoes were slovenly and grimy; they and those around me begged for me to get rid of them. Whenever I took my feet out the cushioned inserts came with, like they were begging for salvation. They never dried. Leonie stopped allowing them inside. She got frustrated that I wouldn’t replace them. At one point she dragged me to multiple shoe stores, thrust pairs in my face, and said, “These are nice, get these.” Each time we entered a town she looked forlornly down certain alleys and said, “Look at all the shoes stores.”
That I could not be bothered getting new shoes makes everything that follows my fault. As always.
Leonie and I stepped off the bus’s bottom step into Sapa town and thought our lungs had been granted a reprieve: the air was chilly and damp, cottony condensate made the street lamps fuzzy. Sleeping wouldn’t be a hell of wet crotch and suffocating linens. Hanoi, our origin point, had acted like it was allergic to us: the temperature was high fever grade, the air a mucosity. We melted in our plastic chairs at a Hanoi coffee shop and hogged three fans whose heads we aimed at ours. Previously we’d been told to bring heavy jackets to Sapa since the weather differed in kind and degree. We did not. We were at the point with the heat that we dreamt about its polar opposite: we did not need a San Diego, we needed an Antarctica. Also, if we did need jackets, Sapa town is a powder-barrel of an IP infringement case waiting to blow (if in the correct jurisdiction). North Face, Patagonia, and Gore-tex jackets—each with “Authentic” tags pierced on—are so abundant in the shops that sell them at fire sale prices that I think they double as insulation.
Mostly though the weather was always cool, and we had four days to enjoy it.
Being in Sapa town is what I imagine being in an eagle’s nest is like. The elevation is not cough-for-air high, but the way the town is built makes you very aware of vertical distance. Things down below look quite far down below, and buildings look like extensions to cliff faces. First things first though: Sapa is a district. Sapa is also a town in a valley in that district (a variation of its spelling is “Sa Pa”). A river is at the bottom of that valley. This river cannot do as the Colorado can, which is to look up to the valley sides whittled away and the mountain peaks very high up and say, “This was all my doing.” Each valley side is cut and layered with rice paddies: it looks like the edges of a thousand tide ebbs colored green have been stacked atop one another at slight offsets. The mountain peaks are higher than the town and were hidden in cloud most of the time we were there.
The first time I saw rice fields I was in the air over Sacramento, California. Despite how profligate Californians are about irrigating their lawns and golf courses, something about drowning plants struck younger me as indulgent. Growing up—both in California and as the son of a conservationist father vis-à-vis water and electricity usage—I viewed rice fields as demonstrating the sort of special extravagance that a gourmand approaches, say, beluga caviar or foie gras. Just looking at them requires hushed appreciation, and the ones in Sapa struck me as remote from reality, fantastic. Perhaps it was because there was so much green and in so many different shades, or it was the quiet calculation about how long it took to make the view, or how the interlocking of the individual parts made the aggregate and it all happened as if by accident. There was an incredible Fibonacci type of beauty to the view, an equation worked out of its theory into the land instead of onto paper.
The Sapa experience is to go amongst those rice paddies: walk in them and sleep near them. This how the Sapa homestay has elbowed itself into touristic prominence and how I got a free mud bath.
On our second day, Leonie and I went to the outskirts of Sapa town and hung a thumb in the wind. A taxi was the first car that came by, and Leonie led the way using an awful map she’d downloaded to her phone and that she read from like an inept Magellan. We headed down the valley. The road was more a miscellany of concrete patches, dirt, and rock than it was paved. A school age child slapped aside an obstinacy of buffalo to let us pass. When the cabbie pulled over he pointed to a hill and said, “Yes.” There was not much on it: a footpath zig-zagging to a crest we couldn’t see, chickens pecking about, a creek trickling between rocks. Fare paid, we went up and figured we were in the right spot when we saw a sign that said “Homestay” with a guiding arrow.
The idea behind a homestay is that a family opens up their home and you stay there. You sleep in a spare bedroom or living room or barn or just about any structure that may or may nor have walls. As roommates you could count no one, or other backpackers, the family’s children, the family, chickens, or maybe pigs. The truth is that fidelity to the homestay idea is corrupted by commercialization. Many homestays are, in fact, hostels or ramshackle hotels. Certain homestays have about a bazillion TripAdvisor reviews, a dedicated and professional looking website, and staff. So, for many homestays they’re clearly more than a Mom’s make-up pyramid scheme isn’t working out, we should let some white people pay to sleep in our living room. My thinking on the topic is this: if you loathe monetization detracting from an “authentic” homestay experience, then do not vacation in a country where the GDP per capita is under $3,000 US.
Ours struck a balance. The main structure resembled a barn. A hut nearby sheltered a sow that lay in a lush’s recline with eight piglets having at her nipples for milk. A few Germans talked outside as we arrived. We exchanged our hellos, and they said to snag a bed first thing and grab a family member later for check in. No one was in a rush for anything. Two people played cards at a table in front of two sliding entrance doors.
Inside was a barn like layout: the first floor was concrete and open to the ceiling. The second story was a platform accessible by ladder and didn’t cover the first floor at all, so perhaps calling it a balcony is more appropriate. It had a wood railing that protected anyone from falling down, and walking along its edges required you to tilt your body a bit to accommodate for the pitch of the roof. A few small foam mattresses were already laid out on the wood flooring; backpacks and piles of dirty clothing on top of some of them staked other peoples’ claims. I chose a mattress in a dormer by a WiFi box. I pushed open the slatted window shutters (there was no glass) and peered over the rippled metal roof to the valley. When rain came later that day, this roof clanged like quarters were being dumped on it.
At its most crowded, the upstairs fit twelve backpackers. Underneath us were private quarters. A Dutch family stayed in one: husband and wife, three boys lustful in their destruction of everything, and an infant, its age countable in months, who woke up the building, the chickens, the piglets, every living thing, each morning at 4am. The room between the lodging room and the wet rooms was damp and dark. I don’t recall a light ever being on in it. To see it with any clarity required a torch light. Yet each day couples and small groups went in it and turned their cell phone lights in the direction of a mewing from the room’s corner. At the right angle a dog lay in a crescent. She was so exhausted that her tail stayed still as people bent before her. Tugging at her balding stomach were pups so new to the world that they were still blind and could not yet be touched. Each morning one more pup did not last the night. This fact came across as wholly unremarkable to the owners who shared it as casually as one might a morning weather forecast.
It feels as if I did little at the actual homestay. It wasn’t a place to hang out though it did have a hammock and two wood benches. Other than the Dutch family, people went off and stayed off. We (the non-Vietnamese white people) shared morning and evening meals together, and on one afternoon I lingered at the eating table with the daughter of the owner. The Vietnamese family and the employees they hired segregated themselves into their workstations. It was this daughter that acted as the family’s face. School kids came through at mid-morning as the residence doubled as a pre-school. I heard of some person who was a freelance writer or who knew a freelancer or who had heard it from someone else who knew a freelance writer that a local teacher supported Donald Trump and taught classes in a Trump mask, or perhaps hated the Donald and wore the mask as a form of negative effigy. In other words I did or witnessed things that you do or witness when you are in one place for a long time; I got a sense of the place’s rhythms and the news that comes in and out of it.
After our first night, a number of Americans and one Canadian checked-in. We all decided it’d be an adventure to hire a guide and take a 4-6 hour trek through woodland and rice paddy trails. It had rained the entire night before, and this kept up as we waited for the guide. Before the guide arrived everyone engaged in the podiatry equivalent of boxing prep: cushioned insoles slipped into shoes, soft poly-cotton blend wick-away liners fitted into socks. The treads on some of these peoples’ boots were deep, Daedalian masterpieces.
Our guide was a very young girl, and in addition to being a guide she was a mother, daughter, and field laborer. She spoke English well, but the farthest she’d been outside of Sapa was Hanoi, which is six hours away.
I heard a variation of this sort of travel story again and again, so I think it introduces an important theme: the isolation of identity in Vietnam. Most Vietnamese people I spoke to expressed pride about being from a certain village or city or district. Each ascribed to Vietnam’s identity, certainly: Vietnam is a proud country, and its iconography and the cult of personality surrounding its nearly deified Father are what you’d expect from any Communist government. But the fact is many Vietnamese have not seen much of the country that lies beyond their own provincial lines. What actual effect this has I can’t say, but it certainly doesn’t make anyone I met myopic. I say that with Mark Twain’s now Instagram-famous quote in mind: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” The Vietnamese people I met are not immune from a desire to travel. Their limit is pecuniary, nothing more. Yet they are tourists too, in a way, it’s just that their prism to understanding a country is much different than for those of us who spend $800RT on airfare, keep a Lonely Planet guide in a fanny pack, and dedicate an eighth of our trip looking up TripAdvisor restaurant reviews, all in an attempt to understand a foreign place. That prism is me. It’s us. They know California, New York, Australia, Europe, etc. because they consume those places in a sort of reverse tourism that depends on what is perhaps a more beautiful sentiment than actual tourism, and that is by talking to us to learn about what we do and what we love about our homes. The tour guides and strangers I met were perhaps more inquisitive about my narrative of home life than I was about theirs. I was a tourist experience all my own.
Excluding my footwear, I felt prepared as we set out. I wore an H&M bathing suit, my one clean pair of socks, and a bright rain-zip up whose colors were positively cornea searing. Covering me was a sheet of plastic I’d bought two days before during a Genesis type deluge. (I learned that short of grandparents and children, Vietnamese shop owners will part with anything for the right price. I offered a dollar for this tarp that protected a pile of backpacks from getting soaked.) We descended our side of the valley, crossed a river, and began an ascent of the other side.
Our group must have been the tourist equivalent of a lamp to moths, because as soon as we crossed the river, a band of five girls joined us. They (as did our guide) wore a traditional garb and toted woven canister baskets filled to the brim and covered by a cloth.¹ Three wore flip-flops—your garden variety K-Mart spin-rack type flip-flop—and the other two wore rain-boots.
For the most part the trail was not paved. Mud and silt had shifted ages ago underneath where there had been pavement, so birthday-boy-sized slices of asphalt were missing. The isolated stones mortared in place were obstacles rather than assistive. The non-paved part of the path was coppery clay macerated by human footprints and water buffalo tracks. As rain continued to fall, the path got to be as slippery as porridge. Rills ran down the center and sides, and when these overflowed the path hemorrhaged with the excess. I walked with the uncertainty of verticality that one has when walking on ice. I spent inordinate amounts of time considering where my next step should be and I grew jealous of the people who wore hiking boots.
Honestly from here on out I just remember mud except for two exceptions: the first was that we walked during a small harvest. Stalks in paddies that had been harvested were thinned out and rain drops dimpled the water between them, paddies awaiting harvest were as thick as old lawn. Entire familial clans hunched in paddies and pulled at rice stalks with the deftness of Vegas card dealers. Sons and daughters with backs laden by filled carrying baskets trotted in groups like part of some formal processional. The second was when we entered a bamboo forest. The canopy riddled the light, and stationary butterflies ornamented the arm-round bamboo stems. It was, like the rice paddies, remote from reality.
What was very much grounded in reality was the frequency and violence with which I began to fall. I was not the first to go down, but by the end of the hike I went down the most. At first my mishaps were a foot sliding out too far, but then I got more acrobatic: splits, Rockette style leg fly ups, soccer-trying-to-draw-a-foul dives, feet running in place, slow-motion-cartoon-banana-on-the-floor falls. I needed a helmet. The threat of concussion was real. Everyone gasped after one tumble because I came close to going right over the edge of a steep incline. I wouldn’t have died, but at the bottom I’d be covered in a heap of slop like Newman’s Barbersol in Jurassic Park. With the tarp over me I looked like a guy stuck in a construction site port-a-john that tumbled down a hill. With the tarp off I looked like I had been made to step into the business part of that very same port-a-john but pre-tumble.
The most frustrating aspect turned out not to be the burlesque ways in which I fell, but rather that the local girls offered assistance. Besides the emasculation inherent in this, it defied physics that they walked around so easy peasy. Their shoes could have been frictionless and they still would not have displayed concern over any footstep. Again and again they extended a hand as I began to descend a hill. The size ratio between me and one of them equated with Tinker Bell and Peter Pan’s. I had these visions of holding onto them while I ass-slid down a hill with all the control of the Cool Runnings team as the girls screamed alongside me. And the dry cleaning costs for those nice traditional clothes…I just couldn’t fathom. I’m sweating even now.
When the slip-and-slide part was over, these ladies put down their baskets and pulled out trinkets to sell me. I don’t know what they thought I’d be able to take home since I could hardly carry my dignity at that point.
Being stupid around smart people—outside of the White House at least—is isolating. Having another one or two members to the muddy-butt fraternity would have been nice, but I alone carried the shameful identifiers: medallions of mud stuck to my shorts and fell off like rabbit turds as they dried; I could have made a mould of my legs if I removed the mud right; at a restaurant I discovered I’d left clots of mud all over the bench and floor and felt obligated to wash the spots down; and it was just assumed among the group members that I would have first shower. When someone said, “I cannot wait to stand under water,” people looked at me like I’d been diagnosed with a highly contagious skin disease. Later in the wet room, I exceeded my allotment for time and the entire building’s allotment of hot water. By the end, as I scrubbed my knee caps for the fourth time with a diminishing bar of soup, I figured I’d have to burn off the top layer of skin to be clean again.
I didn’t even bother with pretending my shoes were salvable. I tossed them immediately.
“What will you wear now?” Leonie asked.
“I pulled a pair of chocolate brown Clark desert boots from my bag. “These bad boys.” Their soles looked like stucco. “I think hiking is a thing of the past for me.”
¹ The garb they wear is made from hemp, which answers the question, “Why are there so many five-leaf plants in these villages?” It was a dense indigo laced with a medley of sorbet colored threads that were so bright they qualify as neon. The threads traced so many boxes and trapezoids and other common and rare geometric shapes that the patterns looked like the end result of a game snake that got out of hand. The guides’ outfits were not dresses: they had pants and a coverall shirt that had flaps over the bum and groin and sleeves that went to the wrists.
While in Hoi An, I visited this photography studio run by Réhahn, a big shot who is confident enough to have a one word name. A side project of his is preserving the sartorial art of Vietnam’s numerous ethnic minorities (our guide identified with the Black Hmong ethnic group). These groups—who have such long histories that Vietnam as a geopolitical entity might be but a passing blip in their development as people—relied on bespoke couture as a way of passing down identity. Outfits—of the everyday to the special occasion—were hand stitched with symbols of generational meaning and are basically the fashion versions of really, really good and really, really old Instagram accounts. A wedding dress, for example, might be passed down for over a century. But the pool of special labor needed to make these clothes empties: factories have replaced artisans, Laos and Cambodia have replaced the hut in the village as the heart of creation. In many cases ethnic groups gifted to this photographer the only nuptial dress of its kind in existence.