Hitchhiking Vietnam
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Trekking

photoABOUT TREKKING
Vietnam is not very trekking-friendly except for a few areas in the far north. You could also try the Central Highlands - though you run the risk of stepping on a leftover mine and/or encountering an extremely unfriendly policeman (rumor has it that the government still runs secret re-education camps in the area). If you do manage to get up into the mountains along the border to China you will see some of the most breathtaking scenery and friendly people in the world.

WHY
A large part of the Tonkinese Alps can only be reached on foot.

Trekking will quickly get you beyond the reach of the police and the Party Machine.

Trekking will also get you beyond the tourist crowd - no more kids asking for pens and candy.

There is nothing in the world more beautiful than a valley dotted with minority villages, terraced rice fields, and shiny water buffalo.

Trekking is a unique window into the lives of the minorities especially the children...

Live the National Geographic dream.

Come back with calves like cannonballs.

WHY NOT
Rain (drizzle, mist, fog, and - believe it or not - hail). It can go on for so long that your clothes will turn fuzzy and smell like something you scraped off the bottom of an old bucket.

 

Cold. It gets down to freezing during the winter in the Alps. No kidding.

Endless nights in smoky huts with neither ventilation nor chimneys will make your nose bleed and your eyeballs look like you haven't slept for days (which you haven't).

Rice and weeds for breakfast, weeds and rice for dinner. They don't eat lunch.

Going to the toilet under the unblinking gaze of 32 children, then watching them describe the event to their giggling elders.

Getting stared at 26 hours per day.

Having your tent continually poked, prodded, collapsed, and manhandled by curious minorities (who have probably never seen anything like it before).

Even if you speak Vietnamese, they probably won't.

SURVIVAL TIPS
Bring your own gear, down to the last tent stake. Camping is virtually unknown in Vietnam (probably in part due to an entire generation of Vietnamese spending 4+ years camping out on the Ho Chi Minh trail).

If you hike in the south, be aware that it is still riddled with unexploded bombs and mines. Stick to established footpaths.

In the north, bring warm gear if you are hiking during the winter months.

It is theoretically possible to hire a horse or two to trek with, I tried with mixed results...

Your path will probably take you through people's yards, gardens, around pigsties, and under hanging laundry. They don't really see it as trespassing. Be polite and don't forget to close the gates behind you.

Minority dogs rarely understand any language other than a fist-sized rock. Stooping down as though you were picking up a stone is enough to make them back up a few paces.

Although camping is an option, it makes more sense to sleep in huts along the way. Just ask for permission to spend the night and offer a few dollars. You will be given a place on a wooden bunk or by the fire.

A thermarest and inflatable pillow can do wonders for the early-morning grumblies.

Bring flip-flops to use around toilets and in rivers. Wear them in the evenings to give your feet a chance to recover from a day spent stuffed into your hiking boots.

A magazine with lots of photos in it will be a big winner wherever you spend the night.

Expect to eat what the villagers eat - rice and weeds in the winter (with perhaps an egg split between six or eight people) - a bit more vegetable variety in the summer. You may want to bring power bars, peanuts, or some other light-weight, high energy food with you to eat on the sly.

Although at times I have brought my own food (bread, cookies, etc.) it has never lasted more than a day - I am incapable of eating such luxuries in the presence of a dozen hungry children and not passing it around. If you can, bon appetit. I hope you get reincarnated as a mosquito.

I always keep an eye open shamanic rituals, and cultural events. You never know what you might stumble into...

Find a place to sleep relatively early in the afternoon. That will give you a chance to drop your pack, explore a bit, bathe, read, whatever.

Do not get stuck between villages at dusk. Hiking through rice paddies in the dark is a nasty proposition.

When crossing terraced paddy, look ahead to see that there's a dry path all the way to your destination. Otherwise you'll be backtracking endlessly.

The paddy is someone's livelihood. If your footsteps are collapsing a wall, fix it or walk somewhere else.

Ask about the location of bridges (this is easy in sign language) before trekking all the way down to the river.

photo The Four Minute Rule; no matter how far off the beaten path you are, no matter how well you hide behind rocks or inside bamboo thickets, the children will find you in four minutes or less. This means that when lunchtime rolls around you will have just enough time to either answer the call of nature (in relative privacy) or gobble down the bulk of your meal. Unless you can bring yourself to do both at once.

Theft: Always watch your gear. I had a close call on mountain-top in the middle of nowhere...

Children are everywhere. Always assume that you are being watched.

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