The next morning, we woke up at 6:30 a.m. The always cheerful and sweet hostesses cooked us a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, crepes, bananas, persimmons, baguettes, Laughing Cow cheese, ramen noodles, and coffee at 7 o'clock. Shortly before 8 o'clock, Chuong arrived to take us on a hike. Our canine companion joined us once again as well.
We walked down the dirt road, through the paddies, saying hello to everyone we met. We soon came across a group of about a dozen men and women who were working mixing concrete and paving sections of the small village road. They carried buckets of sand and gravel on their heads and put them into a small concrete mixer. They loaded the concrete into wheelbarrows and used hoes to spread it along the surface of the road, with bamboo poles hammered into the ground acting as concrete forms. As we had seen previously, the dirt roads can get very silty, slippery, and difficult to pass when it is rainy and wet. This concrete probably alleviates this problem.
After watching them work for a while, we continued on our way. The weather was overcast and a bit foggy but it was quite humid. We passed farmers tending their green lush rice paddies.We arrived at an empty area containing stalls covered with a corrugated metal roof. This area must be used as a market on other days of the week. We walked past an elementary school. A group of children in school uniforms were collecting river water in a bucket near the school grounds. They smiled and said hello, and asked where we were from. They were very cute.
We passed more rice fields and gardens where residents were growing vegetables. The village was so idyllic! Everything was so lush. Cuong pointed out breadfruit growing on a tree. Two women sat outside of a house next to a bicycle on which was balanced a wooden tray of raw meat. It was a mobile butchery.
Several houses we passed had pool tables on the ground floor. People were either playing pool or using the table as an impromptu seat. We saw one man dressed in olive drab who was using a gas-powered plow to till his field. Another man in an olive pith helmet took a break from working in his fields to smoke a water pipe and have some tea. Chuong sat with him for a brief chat while we took a rest. We saw some men who were shaping tree trunks into squared off beams using a chainsaw. Craig is always in awe of the woodwork that goes into traditional construction here.
Around halfway through our walk, the dog discerned that we were going too far and that we would probably be picked up and driven back to the guest house. He decided to head back early. Chuong told us it's because the dog doesn't like riding in vehicles.
We came to an area which had obviously been cleared for massive road construction. We were told that a new freeway would be built that would extend from China southward. There was some heavy equipment here, and electrical poles had already been installed. This was road construction of a whole different league than when we had seen the local villagers mixing concrete earlier this morning. We couldn't help but wonder what this "progress" means for this little community. Will they be able to maintain their bucolic farming lifestyle, or will they become a rest stop on the freeway?
We passed another school, and every person we came across was friendly. People with babies would smile and pose for photos, and everyone said hello to us. We had Choung and Cuong with us for translation, but we couldn't help but wish that we knew a common language to communicate with the locals ourselves. There is a certain distance inherent in using a translator, and it would be nice not to have that barrier.
We didn't know where we were headed, but we were enjoying the beautiful hike. Cuong motioned us toward a small store which sold food items, and we went inside. We sat down with the proprietor for some tea. He was smoking tobacco through a wooden water pipe. He apparently lived upstairs from the shop, and a woman and baby were up in the apartment, peeking down at us through gaps in the floorboards. "Xin chao" we called, and they responded cheerfully.
We thanked the proprietor from his hospitality, and continued on our hike. We passed a house that was under construction. A man was working on the wooden framing, and many palm leaves were drying in bunches to be used later as thatched roofing. It was very interesting to see. As we walked, we ran into a woman in a conical hat walking an adult and a baby water buffalo down the dirt road. We encountered a small stream, and crossed it by hopping across rocks.
Unbeknowst to us, Cuong had called Mr. Giang on his cell phone and arranged a pcik-up. At around 10:45, Mr. Giang met us on the other side of the stream in the van and drove us back to the guest house. The French tourists had already checked out, and the hostesses had cleaned up the entire guest house with the exception of our "dictator's suite." After our sweaty hike, it was very nice to be able to enjoy nice hot showers and put on fresh clothes.
At noon, our hostesses served us lunch: duck with lemongrass chili, pork wrapped in crispy lime leaves, an onion omelette, broccoli stems (no florets), and rice. As usual, it was delicious! There was also a bowl of still-warm roasted peanuts. Cuong challenged me to pick up a peanut with my chopsticks, and I actually did it. He said that was my final exam on using chopsticks. We insisted that our hostesses eat with us. Mr. Giang poured a single round of farewell rice wine shots and a toast was raised.
As we said our goodbyes to the hostesses, we reflected on the fact that we were so happy that we had come back here for one final night of camaraderie in the small village rather than staying in a dusty town on the main road. The hostesses had taken excellent care of us and were always smiling and friendly. This is one of the aspects that we like about taking private trips: that there is flexibility. Cuong had suggested changing up the itinerary based on our preferences, and the three of us (along with Mr. Giang) were able to make that decision together. It's not like we had to put it to a larger group for consensus. We felt comfortable and welcome in the village, and we feel lucky to have been able to see it before the new highway from China potentially irrevocably changes its idyllic charm.
We said our goodbyes and thanks to our hostesses, and we hit the road at 12:45. As we drove out of town we saw people drying piles of straw on the side of the road for making brooms. We drove through some stunning landscapes as we wove through the mountains. The many levels of rice terracing looked amazing. We were so glad that we had Mr. Giang as a driver so that we could focus on the beauty of our surroundings while we drove.
We wound up the mountains and over a pass. As we descended the other side, we came across three Yao men sitting in a clearing under an arbor of bamboo, off to one side of the road. Cuong directed Mr. Giang to pull over, and we all got out of the van.
Cuong greeted the men and asked them some questions. Cuong then explained to us that they were performing a ceremony for their brother who had died. As this was obviously a very somber occasion, we wanted to be very respectful, and were prepared to watch without taking any photos or videos. But they told Cuong that we should feel free photograph and/or record them, which was quite generous of them.
We quietly watched as one man was reading from right to left in a book which contained gorgeous calligraphy, chanting. When he was done, another read from a scroll, and then lit the scroll on fire while the third man banged on a drum and a gong. Cuong explained that of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, only 8 have a written language. The Yao are one of them.
The three men were surrounded by sacrificial offerings, including a dead pig laying in a large metal bowl, as well as tea and flat bread. Sticks of incense smoldered. A small altar had been constructed of bamboo poles and palm leaves. A gong and a drum hung from the arbor. The jungle was dense and dark beyond the clearing. It was ethereal, and we were transfixed.
Though you couldn't see it from here, the men told us that the family home was right around the corner, and they invited us to visit. We walked a very short distance and came across a house that straddled two eras: half of it was an old traditional wooden Yao house with a tiled roof and bamboo rain gutters, while the other half was modern and made of concrete, with a small satellite dish attached to one of the poles on the front porch. We met their brother, and Cuong realized that he had misunderstood them. Their brother wasn't dead, it was his birthday and they were doing a ceremony to promote health and long life. The Yao don't believe in western medicine, so traditional practices are very important to maintain.
Their brother ushered us warmly into the new half of the house, offering us a seat next to their large armoire. The armoire contained a TV, some stereo components, and speakers. A wallet-sized pin-up girlie photo was taped to the armoire.
The brothers gave us each a cup of tea, which was very nice. Once again, we wished that we had the words to engage in direct conversations with these hospitable folks, rather than relying on an intermediary. But we enjoyed their company, and after a short while, we thanked them for their hospitality, and told them that we were glad that their brother was alive and healthy. They got a lot of laughs out of our initial misunderstanding. As we took our leave, we noticed a small ancestor altar near the front door. On it stood a corked green glass bottle which we assumed contained rice wine, half a dozen small cups, and some incense. The devotion of Vietnamese people aof all ethnicities to their ancestors is very admirable.
We walked to the car and saw something hot pink in the brush. Was it a vibrant flower? Then it started moving. Upon further inspection, it turned out to be a white chicken which had been dyed pink. This was something that we would be more apt to expect in India. We hadn't been aware that animals are also dyed in Vietnam.
We continued driving, passing more lush scenery. Cuong told us that we would soon be able to soak in hot springs. That sounded good to us! At around 3:30, Mr. Giang pulled over into a dirt lot next to a suspension bridge. He and Cuong motioned for us to cross the rustic bridge. Would this be taking us to the hot springs? When we had crossed the swaying bridge, we saw a sign that said "Reception". Oh, this was the hotel! We followed the path to a small thatch-roofed building which housed the reception office of the Panhou Village Hotel. It turned out that the "hot springs" Cuong had mentioned were actually herbal bath treatments offered in the highly-recommended hotel spa. Cuong encouraged us to book massages and hot baths before dinner, as the spa was the impetus behind staying at this particular hotel. So we scheduled our spa treatments before going to our room.
We were led through the impressively manicured grounds to our comfy little bungalow, room 703. The room was large, airy, and bright, with an overhead fan and large windows overlooking the beautiful gardens. The bathroom incorporated river rocks into its modern design. It was very calming and definitely inspired by the nature that surrounds it.
At 4 o'clock, after settling into the room, we went right next door to the spa building. We changed into towels and then got massages side by side, laying on pads and pillows on the rustic bamboo flooring. The masseuses were petite, but they were quite strong. They pushed and pulled, getting pops out of the deepest recesses of our joints. They rubbed various massage oils into our skin. It was thoroughly enjoyable and extremely relaxing.
As the 45-minute massage was winding down, we could hear a third woman boiling water and soaking bundles of herbs to prepare for our herbal baths. We were then led over to our own personal cedar hot tubs for one. It was like the bottom half of a wide cedar barrel. As we stepped into our baths, Craig couldn't help but think of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes episode where he is prepared as hasenpfeffer in a pot.
The tubs were deep enough that we could fully submerge so that only our heads were exposed. It was so relaxing! The masseuses brought us each a cup of tea which we balanced on the edge of our tubs. As we sipped our tea, we enjoyed the view through the large picture windows. The late afternoon sun lowered in the sky, casting beautiful light on the hotel grounds.
Craig was a bit too relaxed, and kept his entire torso submerged, which overheated him. As he got out of the tub after our 45-minute herbal soak, he got a head rush. He tends to overheat easily and quite frankly I was surprised that he had managed to stay completely immersed in such hot water for so long.
We took a cool shower to wash off the massage oils and then we got dressed. Craig had to sit down for a moment before leaving, as he was feeling a bit dizzy and got a headrush.
I thought that he would feel better once we got to our room, so I encouraged him to take the short walk next door so that he could relax in the room. As we walked, Craig got dizzy again and started to wobble. He held onto a weak bamboo fence that obviously wouldn't hold his weight, and then fell down. I dropped my camera on the ground and scrambled to try to catch him.
The three masseuses came running out of the spa and helped to pick him up off the ground. They walked us the remaining few steps to our room. While I unlocked the door, Craig passed out for a few seconds and crumpled to the doorstep. The ladies sprung into action. One placed smelling salts under his nose, which revived him instantly. The other two women picked him up off of the ground and led him into the room, depositing him on the bed. They massaged his arms and legs and made him comfortable before heading back to the spa.
We decided to rest in the room until dinner. We feared that Craig might be dhydrated after such a prolonged hot soak, so he drank plenty of water just in case. A few minutes later one of the spa ladies came to the door just to make sure everything was alright. They were very sweet. Phenomenal service from them! I wrote in my journal while Craig tried to take a short nap. I woke him up in advance of dinner, and after replenishing his body's water supply and taking a little nap, he felt rejuvenated and back to himself again.
At quarter past seven, we headed down the path toward the building that served as a dining hall. When we arrived there, Cuong and Mr. Giang were waiting for us. There was apparently one dinner seating (at 7:30) as it seemed all of the other guests were also gathering to eat at this time. As usual, we ate with Cuong and Mr. Giang. The other tour groups were eating separately from their guides and drivers, interacting with them only when they required assistance. We love the companionship of our guides, and really appreciate the time we spend together.
Craig enjoyed a Tiger beer and I had a screwdriver. Mr. Giang surprised us with some rice wine from the guest house, and we proposed several toasts. Each table got its own family-style servings of the the night's menu: two different styles of pork, cabbage, and rice. We had flan for dessert.
Cuong told us that we would be leaving bright and early in the morning for Sa Pa, so we said our goodnights and walked back to our room. As we walked through the hotel grounds down a lit garden path, we could hear frogs croaking in the quiet stillness of the night. We felt so attuned to nature here. It was a very calming atmosphere. We were pretty much able to go right to sleep around 9:45, as I had written up most of the day's events in the journal prior to dinner.
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Chuong preparing to hike
Tea time with a shopkeeper
Lunch at the guest house
Saying goodbye to the guest house hostesses
Yao man praysing for his brother
Burning an offering for a brother
Hot herbal bath at Panhou Spa
Dinner at Panhou Village
Rice wine toast