Where To? Vietnam
How long? 3 Weeks
Thoughts: Have you ever taken a shower with a pig grunting right outside your shower door? Neither had I.
Glancing up from my second noodle meal of the day, it was difficult not to feel as if I had been taken back a number of centuries as women clad with their native, time-honoured garments sat together conversing. Beyond them lay the unspoilt mountain terrains rich in vegetation and of course, animals.
Back on route to Mama May’s village, I must have seemed like I’d been locked in a cage all of my life as I marvelled at the ducklings nestling around their mother in one corner, a goat bleating intermittently in another and a pig stalking us. Really, I have seen all of those things many times before but usually in a farm or a zoo, not just sort of on the same road cars (or more likely motorbikes) would drive on.
But what really had me oohing and ahhing was coming across a family of buffalo just having a pee break across our path. I felt sort of rude interrupting so apologised in a most British way as I squeezed past, but they seemed unfazed by my presence and carried on doing their business.
There were also horses, chickens and other wild and domestic animals, but what scared me most were the dogs.
It seemed as if we had walked in on a serious Jeremy Kyle moment where one dog had definitely been cheating on her partner with his brother and things kicked off big time! First was the severe baring of teeth and then the growling as two of the dogs circled each other and the [basic] bitch watched on. Then was the barking and the slo-mo leap towards one another as I visualised my doctor warning me not to be bitten by any animals because I hadn’t had my rabies jab. The knockout moment was when one of the dogs got a sizeable bite on the other’s neck and the last I remembered before hastily edging past was the bloodstained teeth of the champion.
My Humble Abode
A grand total of 6 hours later, just a few hours after I’d given up on breathing like a normal human being (I have asthma – don’t judge), we arrived at her actual house. I mean, I genuinely don’t know what I was expecting… like a mountain lodge with a hot tub or something?! No, this was the real deal and it was her home.
I met her children first, only two of them were able to communicate in minimal English whilst the others shyly smiled at me. Then I met her mother in law, a beautiful old lady with a bright smile and warm personality who you can’t help but love despite the language barrier. She would still try to speak to me in her own language making big gestures so that I would understand. And her husband who I’d met earlier was also home now (with my bag) and also did not speak any English.
Her home was a humble room which had been divided into sections. A small section was the “kitchen”, this was a drain in the ground in one corner and a small fire pit in the other corner with stools surrounding it. This was the area the whole family communed around as they cooked. An area was boarded off for Mama May and her husband, another section for her mother in law and the kids would climb up a ladder to an “attic” area above the kitchen to sleep. My bed was by the window hidden by a mosquito net.
Her husband had built their home, Mama May proudly told me, from scratch by himself! She also told me that she was the sole bread-winner of the family since nobody else is able to work due to a lack of local jobs other than farming. Because she had learned to speak English, she was able to capitalise on tourism and invite people to her humble home. This made me feel proud to be able to be a part of helping her make a living, but also proud of her as an example of a “strong independent woman who don’t need no man”!
And she carried on proving herself strong as she set about making us all dinner despite having walked however many million miles whilst I died in the corner swearing never to walk again.
When Pigs Fly
Mama May’s place may have been small, but that didn’t stop her from keeping animals. She had chickens which fought each other for the last grains of corn. One cheeky little hen, who would puff up her chest and try to be ‘ard, tried to bully another scared chicken and baby chick by running up to the cage and poking her head through pretending she was going to peck them. Then there were the cats, that would stretch out on the veranda and chill because, well what else do cats do?
But more importantly, were the pigs. Two large and over-confident pigs.
Have you ever taken a shower with a pig grunting right outside your shower door? Neither had I. But when you’ve just been hiking for 6 hours and you smell as if you belong with them, showering with pigs seems less unconventional. When it came to it, I was more worried about the giant mosquitoes than stepping out of the shower and into a pig’s sty. Seemingly, not only did the vegetation grow bigger and more bountiful but so did the insects.
It was to my great surprise that Mama May had hot running water for her shower and even a sit-down toilet which is rare in your regular populated cities of Vietnam, let alone in the mountains of Sa Pa! The warm water was welcome seeing as the temperatures in the mountains were akin to the temperatures of England in the autumn and the unceasing rain more so. This was my chance to thaw and ease my aching muscles whilst ignoring the pig nose pressed up against the frosted glass door. *Grunt, Grunt*
Needless to say, the whole shower experience was surreal. I can’t say I’ve ever showered with a pig outside my door. Well, I suppose now I can!
The Mystery of the Scream in the Night
Settling in to bed after a huge home-made dinner of spring rolls, rice and soup, washed down with “happy water” (a.k.a the Vietnamese equivalent of home brewed Sake), I couldn’t get myself comfortable.
Shining my torch on the mattress carefully, my biggest concern was whether or not there could be bed bugs but I couldn’t tell and I had to take that risk. I pulled out the supposedly 100% silk sleeping bag that I bought cheap from a Ho Chi Minh market and prayed it would protect me from all bugs. Spotting a number of holes in the mosquito net, I knew better than to hope in the net to protect me from the blood thirsty insects so covered myself entirely within the sleeping bag liner.
“You are getting the real Sa Pa experience” I reminded myself whilst trying to get comfortable on the rock-solid mattress. As the temperature dropped, sleep evaded me more and I drifted in and out of consciousness frequently jumping awake fearing some insect had made its way through the net.
I’d finally battled myself into a light sleep when I shot up hearing a loud high pitched and long enduring scream. I couldn’t tell where the bloodcurdling wail was coming from but it sounded as if it was in the house. When it would not stop I heard stirs and movement and I don’t know what they did, but the noise stopped as abruptly as it started. I was scared shitless, but my bladder was giving me all the signals that a toilet break would certainly be necessary soon.
I put it off as long as I could manage, but the fort wouldn’t hold for much longer; I had to be brave! I untangled myself from the safety bundle I had created with the sleeping bag liner and slid out from under the mosquito net grateful to feel my flip flops under my feet. Then, using only the torch of my phone as a light, I found the back door which would lead me to the pig sty and ultimately, the toilet!
Again, not sure what I was expecting would happen when I braced myself and opened the door, but it certainly wasn’t the giant moth that flew in my face! Stifling a scream, I jumped back nearly wetting myself there and then. When I had pulled myself together, I forced myself outside to the pitch black. The bathroom was only about five steps away, but it felt like another 6 hour hike as I darted my eyes about jumping at every rustle of leaves or snap of a twig. What felt like years later, I made it to the bathroom. Thankfully, it was on the way out of the bathroom that I spotted the giant cricket/spider/stick insect/moth mutation killer bug literally the size of a nokia 3310 and I never looked back making a swift retreat back into the house and the shelter of my sleeping bag liner.
I never did find out what that scream was…
Find out what I do when I see a woman bleeding by the cliff side in my upcoming third and final Sa Pa post!