Fleas and Dogs on the road. Vietnam.
The bus rolled to a stop at 5 a.m. It took a few minutes of the bus driver’s shouts of ‘Sa Pa!’ before the all the sleeping travelers roused themselves and started to slowly exit. I heard a sound like the distant call of seagulls. Wiping away the condensation on the windows I saw them. Around 20 tribal women, chattering excitedly and waiting to swoop on vulnerable travelers. I had read about this and was prepared.
I managed to fob most of them off by claiming I was already booked on a tour. The other backpackers who hadn’t booked anything huddled together in a daze before heading to a hostel. I had an address for a place to book tours and headed off in a random direction to find it. A couple of women followed me and one of them offered to show me the correct place.
It took about 5 minutes of walking together before we decided I should go stay with her instead. So began the best 5 days of my journey.
My host Miss Tom was from the Black Hmong tribe which live in the hills around Sa Pa in north Vietnam. Getting to Miss Tom’s village took a 4 hour hike through the hills. In our group was Van a girl much younger but partnered with Miss Tom, and two German sisters who would be staying for one night. I had decided to stay for 4 nights. A 4 hour hike after a night bus and waking up at 5 a.m, with my 10 kilo backpack was challenging to say the least, but the quiet of the mist shroud which the mountain covered us in made it all worth while. The madness of Hanoi was far behind.
Over the next 5 days I grew to know Miss Tom, her family and her friends. And I fell in love with all of them.
Su is a tiny, grubby faced, snotty-nosed force of nature. She’s two years old, the youngest and the only girl, and rules the little household by sheer lung power. Miss Tom still breastfeeds her, not having the heart to rub a little chilli on her nipples and wean the kid as the other women usually do at the age of 1. Su likes to eat everything she can get her hands on, try out the mini machete her mother uses in the kitchen and tap other women on the breast to see if she can get a feed.
#2 The Boys
There were three little boys in the house while I was there. Bare footed, bright eyed, grubby and feral; they range in age from 7 till 11. There were another two brothers whom I never saw as they were helping their father gather and dry black cardamom in the forest. The men stay in the forest until the work is done.
The little boys in the meanwhile would be left to run wild and sometimes run the household. When Miss Tom was out, they would light the wood fire, slip a stick through the handle of the large kettle and carry it between themselves to put over the fire. Heated water poured in bowls of leftover rice and vegetables was their breakfast and lunch. When Su screamed enough they would serve her a bowl as well. Sometimes they would get themselves ready, pack a lunch box and head off to school. It all seemed to depend on the mood.
Now I don’t really like kids. My ovaries fail to sing love songs to every passing child and their immense cuteness is generally lost on me. I often try but fail to see what the big deal is. However, this little pack of wild brothers and their despotic baby sister effortlessly carved themselves a little corner in my heart, which is hard to explain.
The first night I was there, I noticed the family dog had a long brown booger hanging from his left nostril. This booger would occasionally wave about, and sometimes retract right inside. I asked, so I was told. The dogs often pick up leeches when they drink from mountain streams. The leeches live in their noses for a few weeks before dropping off. Somehow the fates had conspired to combine the creature I love and the creature I abhor in one neat package. Leechy meanwhile was a bit confused by the quiet panic his friendly, best-nose-forward approach was creating in me and the German sisters.
The introduction to Leechy had four main effects on my behaviour:
1) I began surreptitiously checking my nose and ears for uninvited guests.
2) I absolutely forbade my mind to think about any other orifices at all.
3) I was cured of the desire to touch or handle the ridiculous abundance of cute baby creatures we came across. I’m talking chicks, ducklings, new born piglets, buffalo calves, kittens and puppies. Yup, they could all take that cuteness and f**k right off!
4) I started praying every night: ‘Dear God, thank you so much for all the wonderful experiences I’ve had so far. Please, please keep me and my v****a safe from leeches. Thank you.’
On the second day I trained myself to not look at Leechy. By the third day, we reached an understanding. He would wag his tail at me invitingly. I would tell him to piss off and take his leechy nose with him. He would continue to wag his tail invitingly.
On the fourth day the leech disappeared. Where!????? Where did he finally decide to drop off!!!!! What place did this leech find better to hang out in than the lovely moist nose of a dog?