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2023 The Hill Tribes of Vietnam (an OAT pre-trip extension)

Written by Jeff Drake
4 · 18 · 23

Wow! And just like that we’re back from Vietnam!  Did I imply we just got “back”? Hell, we’ve already been on another 3-week trip, this time to California, Nevada and Chicago!  I, for one, am happy to be home and cooling our travel jets for a while.

Photo by Jeff Drake

Our 28-day trip to Vietnam was so full of activities! To say we were exhausted is to put it mildly. And the jetlag was bad! Sadly, it doesn’t seem to get any better with age.

As you may or may not remember, the following is a brief recap of our trip to Vietnam in 2023.

We signed up for two tours with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT):

  • An 8-day pre-trip extension titled, “Hill Tribes of Vietnam.”
  • A 20-day main trip titled, “Inside Vietnam 2023.”

This blog post is all about the pre-trip extension and our experiences visiting the hill tribes of Vietnam who live just north of Hanoi, in the mountains.

So, where the heck did we travel to?

Our pre-trip took us from Portland, Oregon to Hanoi, Vietnam. We flew there via Korea. Not exactly ideal, but we booked the trip late, so we had to take what was available. This resulted in a (ugh) 5-hour layover in South Korea on the way home.

In Hanoi we met our guide, Dai, (pronounced “Dye”) and the rest of our fellow pre-trip travelers. We were lucky, as there were only 8 of us, a great group size! Both the pre-trip and our main trip included excursions and walking around Hanoi. We feel we spent a lot of time in Hanoi, which was nice as it is a very interesting city that we’ve never visited before. Still, it is a big city and we were eventually glad to move on.

Today, Hanoi is a city of over 5 million people. In 1979, when I was in the war, Hanoi only had 617,000 people. Yikes, that is some significant growth! And let me tell you, this town is jumpin’! Everywhere you turn or look, someone is making, cooking, or selling something.

The city looks modern for the most part, with vestiges of its ancient French colonial history found here and there nestled among the modern office buildings. There are streets and sidewalks, of course, but as we quickly learned, the sidewalks are not for walking! No, the sidewalks are apparently for parking motor-scooters and erecting pop-up restaurants, or for existing restaurants to use when they need to set up a few extra tables and chairs. This means you have to walk in the streets frequently, which can be harrowing.

One thing we all noticed is that the street restaurants all use tiny plastic chairs and tables that look like toddler furniture. You’ll see what I mean in some of the photos. Our guide, Dai, explained that it is illegal to use the sidewalk for parking or for seated eating, so they all use these little plastic furnitures which can be quickly placed and removed. Thus, when they get word the police are coming they can pick it all up and move them quickly inside before they get in trouble. LOL!

While in Hanoi we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.” This is the notorious prison where captured American airmen were kept and in some cases tortured. The most famous prisoner held there was the late senator John McCain. The Hanoi Hilton was first built in 1896 when it was used to imprison and torture anyone who had the balls to defy the French government. So, its history as a rather dark place goes way back.

Dai also introduced us to an ancient and unusual form of Vietnamese puppetry, known as “water puppets.” This old cultural tradition of a puppet show is now on its way out. Young people just aren’t into it. There are several large water puppet shows designed and produced for tourists, but the more ancient, “miniature” water puppet shows are only being performed by one family in Hanoi, and that’s who we got to watch. I’m not a big fan of puppet shows in general, but this water puppet show was rather interesting. I kept wondering “Why water?”, then it made sense when the show started. The water puppet show is indeed performed in water! The puppet master is behind the curtain, but the rods used to twist and turn his puppets are all underwater, so they cannot be seen! The result is the puppets appear to be operating on their own, which is kind of cool (or perhaps, creepy).

These days the puppet master wears hip waders, but in the old days he told us he used to stand in the unheated water, sometimes for hours, in just his underwear, presumably. He said it was very cold and I believe him! Something George Constanza from the TV series, Friends, might have referred to as “major shrinkage!” LOL!

These first few days in Hanoi is where Dai taught us how to cross the street. He showed us the “flappy bird” method. LOL! This is where you raise both arms to the side, about shoulder-height, and flap them slowly up and down, while you step off the curb into oncoming traffic, all the while you are trying to make eye contact with people zooming towards you on scooters or in cars. This is not for the feint of heart! It’s unnerving is what it is, but then you realize that Dai knows what he is talking about, because it works. By the end of the trip I was amazed how well our entire group did crossing busy streets. We were pros! Ha! Traffic, who cares? Uh, BTW, don’t try this at home!

You will see traffic lights in Hanoi, but no one pays them much attention. Dai had a great t-shirt titled “Vietnamese Traffic Signals.” Beneath it showed a traffic stop light with the following words:

When light is green, I go.

When light is yellow, I go.

When light is red, I still can go!

And that is just the way it is all over Vietnam. Traffic signals, lane markings, stop signs, don’t mean much of anything, mere suggestions it seems. When they exist, they are ignored. And many cities have no signals at all. Da Lat, a city of 300,000+ people just had its first traffic signal installed a short time before we arrived in country. And yeah, it’s ignored, too. Yet, in our entire 28-day trip, I only saw two accidents, one of which was self-inflicted by a woman who was too drunk to ride her scooter and fell over. So, somehow, the locals have made peace with this arrangement and manage to get from point-A to point-B unscathed. It’s amazing, really!

Photo by Jeff Drake

One thing we love about tours with OAT is that they focus on local culture and always include lots of encounters with locals. This latest trip did not disappoint in this regard! Dai did a wonderful job ensuring that we had lots of interactions with locals. We visited various villages and hill tribes all over Vietnam and had plenty of time to schmooze with locals and do our normal looky-loo activities as we peered into daily life in Vietnam.

One of the first villages we visited during our pre-trip was the village of Tho Ha. This village was a 90-minute bus ride from Hanoi into the country side. This visit is part of the “day-in-the-life” type of experiences that OAT is known for. Of course, where possible, we stopped by the local markets to see what they were hawking. This almost always includes a guided walk through the local village. This also happens to be an event I missed due to stomach problems.

I and another member of our pre-trip group got hit the hardest with diarrhea, although everyone was muttering about similar issues. I have to admit, I have never had so many conversations about poop with strangers. LOL! For me, the ailment was worse, as I was going from both ends. I got so wiped out, I couldn’t get out of bed. Fortunately, it only lasted 24 hours and  I recovered quickly, only missing 2 days. The Imodium did wonders for me, although others came prepared with Cipro, and I was able to pick up the tour where I left off. Lisa told me they had a great time in the kitchen, preparing some dishes with a local family.

Photo by Jeff Drake

We visited the beautiful village of Pom Coong, in Mai Chau valley, where we did a “homestay.” We’d been told that we would all be sharing a large open room with 8 futon mats, but when we got there they broke us the large room into smaller rooms, so we got our own space, separated from the others with curtains. The bed was comfortable, the room and entire place was clean. It was a nice experience!

We met several different hill tribes, the names of which I am already forgetting. Each tribe had something unique about the way they dress, which was cool. They each have their own customs, language and mannerisms. Meeting these beautiful people was a highlight of the trip, I think. We always try to do both the OAT pre-trip and post-trip extensions when we can and in this case we’re really glad we did!

We spent two nights in the town of Sapa. Sapa, as well as the other villages we visited are all around 5,000 feet elevation, sometimes a bit more, enough to make me very aware of my COPD.  We visited a cinnamon farm, which was cool, and also visited the village of Ta Phin.

Ta Phin is the home to the Red Dao people and Hmong. It is surrounded by mountains and rice terraces. The rice terraces are a well-known photographic wet dream for photographers, but as we learned, the terraces look their best when they are filled with water, which gives a wonderful contrast to the rice. In our case, it was the dry season, so the terraces had no water. Still, they were a beautiful sight you don’t get to see just anywhere, so we enjoyed them (the “royal we,” as the photo shoot of the terraces was missed by me). BTW, in Vietnamese “Red Dao” is pronounced, “Red Zao”, the “d” is a “z”. They were really a chill, friendly, tribe and I loved meeting them, although there are some cultural differences that caused us some concern.

For example, the girls can be forced to marry at age 14. Dai introduced us to a girl walking down the street with two kids. She was 16 and the kids were hers! Babies having babies, it’s sad. Our local guide told us the story of her life, when she ran away from home at age 16 because her parents wanted her to enter a forced marriage. She returned two years later and her parents told her she could marry who she wanted, which she did.

Another story our local guide told us was really interesting (her name was Mai, if I remember right). She was walking around a nearby village one day when a local merchant pointed out that her face was printed on the cover labels of several products they were selling. Amazed, she discovered that they were correct. Apparently someone had taken a photo of her (she is very pretty) and then, without her knowledge or permission, of course, decided she would grace the labels of their products! And no, she never got any compensation for this and there is no recourse for her, so she just laughs and it is now part of her tour information. LOL.

We also visited two mountains: Hamrong Mountain and Fanzipan Mountain.

Although we spent time in Hanoi during the pre-trip, we also spent time there as part of the main trip, so I am going to cover Hanoi in a main trip blog post.

All of our pre-trip Vietnam photos can be found on my website (www.jeff-drake.com). From the top menu, just select “Photography,” “SE Asia,” “2023 Vietnam.”

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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