Nov 20 2010

Our North Vietnam Adventure

Here’s a sign that Peter’s and my maturity levels do not correspond to our ages: our reaction to the customer satisfaction survey for the Red Dragon cruise we took through Halong Bay on a beautiful wooden boat. Some sample questions:

-What did you like about our junk?

-How did you learn about our junk?

-Please list any suggestions for how we might improve our junk.

-Would you recommend our junk to your friends?

7th grade humor aside, though, the experience was great – two and a half days of floating and kayaking amidst hundreds of surreal karst formations jutting out from the water.  Even better, this particular company had the exclusive rights to an area of the bay, so that for much of the trip the only other boats we saw were those of local fishermen.

We then took a local ferry to Cat Ba island, where we spent a day rock climbing on a deserted beach with a local guide who climbed in his flip flops. And then it was a night train to Sapa and Bac Ha, two towns in northern Vietnam known for their terraced rice fields, fantastic markets and colorfully dressed minority tribes, with evocative names like the Flower H’Mong and the Red Dzao. (If you think our reaction to the junk questionnaire was bad, you should have heard us in Sapa. “Oh my god! That buffalo is H’mongous!” “Why can’t they just get H’mong?” “H’mong Catherine, let’s go.” Ad nauseum.)

Climbing on Cat Ba

Said minority tribes are also known for being some of the most persistent and annoying saleswomen ever, tempting you to spend your weekend holed up in your hotel room just so they cannot find you and try to sell you aprons. For a while it’s fine, since some of the stuff is pretty — and besides, it’s hard business supporting your family on your handicrafts. But after having several women press their faces up to the glass in the cafe window where we were sitting (seriously – they’ll just stand there, trying to get you to make eye contact), I composed the following open letter.

Dear Ladies of the Flower (and Black) H’Mong:

Contrary to what you believe, I do not want to buy any of your embroidered bags, pounded silver earrings, or postcard sets that you produce from a mysterious pocket in your apron every time I walk past you. When you approach me with your distinctive cry – “Hello lady! You buy something for me!” – and I say “No, thank you,” I am not asking if you might like to walk with me for the next half hour, pushing hand-stitched tote bags into my hands. If you then stand next to the table at the restaurant where I am eating lunch, waiting for me to finish, and/or send your small child onto the restaurant’s balcony to proposition me with small, stuffed felt squares, I will be even less inclined to make a purchase. And if you then appear out of nowhere later in the day while I am shopping for replacement sneakers and again show me your wares – this time offering to sell yourself as a souvenir as well – as another woman joins you and attempts to sell me the exact same products that you are, as if I might just not like your particular striped bags and would prefer her identical selection, please forgive me if I cover my head with my hands and attempt to run away.

In the end, as you know all too well, I may break down and buy something, not because I want a purple headband, but because I want to be left alone. But that’s your game, ladies of the Flower H’mong. You’ll keep trying and trying, thrusting your bags onto people’s arms and demanding that they name a price for something they don’t want, until eventually you wear them down.

Oh, how you fatigue me.

Flower H'Mong selling to other Flower H'Mong