Our tour group: a microcosm of Vietnamien, one gia dinh nonetheless

16 07 2011

It’s about 9:00pm local Vietnam time and I’m sitting on my bed on a train on the way to Sapa (rural mountain community of the H’mong people in North-West Vietnam). We’re only a few minutes out from the Ha Noi train station but part of the tour group is jammed into my cabin, including our tour guide. You see, I’ve managed to unwittingly make friends with the other families on this adventure through Northern Vietnam. Our group is a picture-perfect, tv-made, Benetton ad collection of people. We have the older couple from Southern Vietnam (mieng nam) who are free-spirited and always talking about parties and boozing. Then there’s the typical family of ten with mom and dad, grade school kids, the little toddler, grandma and grandpa, and the uncle and aunt with their kids (all of which are adorable by the way [see pics]. There’s the lone older gentleman traveling on his own. He mostly keeps to himself as he isn’t well acquainted with anyone, but once you strike up a conversation, you find him to be very cordial and generous. There’s the newly wedded couple on their honeymoon. The husband is from Kampuchea and the wife is Vietnamese. I’ve caught them staring into each other’s eyes at random points of the day and they still have that newly married ‘glow’ about their faces. I found a new drinking buddy: a man with his wife and son visiting from France. They’re Vietnamese but have been living in France almost all their lives. Of course, there’s my cousin and me, just two young ‘kids’ on an adventure through the very soul of Northern Vietnam (mieng bac, with me being a Viet Kieu [a Vietnamese person born in another country] from the States).

Last but not least: our character of a tour guide. For starters, when we first learned of his name (Ngoc Ha), we all were under the impression that we were going to have a female tour guide for the next 6 days. The men in our group were (oddly) more excited than the women, go figure. Well, apparently Ngoc Ha is also a male’s name in the north and so we all had a good laugh about that. Don’t let his seemingly homely persona fool you though: he is an encyclopedia of Northern Vietnam history and has a super dry sense of humor. And, his accent is so bac ky that it just adds to the whole experience. In short, he makes for a wonderful and wonderfully entertaining tour guide.

So, getting back to the second long overnight train of my stay in Vietnam, Ngoc Ha and several of the other members of our group including a bunch of the small children are currently jammed into my cabin, a cabin of two side-by-side bunk beds and room for nothing else. The kids are sitting on my bed to my left playing with each other while the adults are all gathered around Ngoc Ha on the opposite bed. Why, you ask? He’s just discovered Angry Birds on my iPad and he can’t put it down. If there’s one thing that I absolutely admire about Asian cultures (other than the veritable cuisine) it’s the concept of ‘family’. Although our tour group is a collection of many families coming together for six short days, we’ve become one, large, extended family, sharing food and laughs three times a day, and watching after each other as we embark on unfamiliar adventures. In fact, Ngoc Ha routinely refers to us as a gia dinh: a family.

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