|Culture trail: A local guide in Sapa describes cultural features of the local ethnic H'Mong people to French tourist Mael Sevestre. — Photo courtesy of BedyCasa
by Nguyen Khanh Chi
Feasting her eyes on the terraced rice fields in Viet Nam's popular tourist spot Sapa, Nathalie Cauvi couldn't stop shouting: "Wow, wow! It's such an amazing and beautiful landscape!"
The scenery, people, food and everything else they witnessed provided the French traveller and her three companions with a novel and enjoyable experience during their four-day trip to the north of Viet Nam.
"We really enjoy the views that you can't find anywhere in Europe. It feels completely different," said Cauvi, before going on to describe some of the contrasts.
"In Europe, chickens are raised on big farms, and sometimes in cages. Here, they run around freely," she said.
"With meals we share food here in the middle of table. It's not like everyone has their own plate.
"We are also told that most young people in Sapa get married at 18 or even before. This is really different from our culture." Despite these cultural differences, the only thing Cauvi, an art director, finds difficult is communicating.
"You try to speak in English or French but people don't understand. When we try to take a taxi or order in a restaurant, they say ‘Yes' but actually mean to say ‘No'."
As winners of the third season of World Trip at the Locals' organised by BedyCasa, a French company specialised in homestay accommodation, the four adventurers are crossing the globe over two months from England, through Canada, the US, Argentina, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Viet Nam (Ha Noi and Sapa), Sri Lanka and finally Togo. They travel to each country together but split into pairs so they don't do and share the same activities.
At times funny, at times touching, they set up camp in local people's houses. Each week, they have to share their adventures through videos, pictures and stories, and people can also challenge them to try different activities at their various destinations.
In Viet Nam, they had to walk in the fields and eat fried bugs.
"The cricket experience was really fun. At first sight, it's really, really disgusting. You really don't want to eat them. But because we had to, we tried," said Mael Sevestre.
"We were making so much noise laughing that every table around us were watching us," the French filmmaker went on. "And after trying it, well, it was very good. It tasted like small salted appetiser.
"We didn't finish the plate, but we really enjoyed it. We shared some of them with the table next to us. They enjoyed it too!"
Their challenges do not just come from the internet. The adventurers also have to visit many places in a short space of time, confronting jet lag, weather and anything else that is thrown at them.
"No time to sleep," Cauvi said. "We have to sleep on the plane or train. You are in the summer today but perhaps it's winter tomorrow and then back to summer."
"When you start to get a feel for a city or a place, you have to move on. Each week is a new place so we have to learn everything very fast while we're on the move," Sevestre chipped in.
Rafa Rodrigo of Spain finds it hard to leave people behind he's just got to know.
"You meet many nice people, and then after two or three days, you have to say goodbye. I really wanted to find out more about them and their culture but I didn't have time. This is so weird," the radio journalist said.
"[In Sapa] we went to the fields with local people. We saw them working hard, particularly the mothers who have to cook, do the laundry, work in the field and look after their children. But they don't look tired or complain.
"How lucky we are to live in European countries and have computers, mobile phones, etc. Many times, we complain. Here you see people are happy, so I have stopped complaining."
For Rodrigo, who is travelling outside his home country of Spain for the first time, it's an eye-opening experience.
"It's not like staying in hotel. You stay with the guide who takes care of you. This way, you learn about the people and the culture," said Rodrigo.
"It's life changing for me because there are many things I haven't seen before. For me, Italy and Spain are the same, but the smell of streets and everything else here is completely different from Europe."
Unlike Rodrigo, her travel partner Veronica Catania from Italy has been in Asia before so the culture shock did not hit her so hard. Instead, she found herself with a nice memory.
"The first day I went out for lunch around 2.30pm. Most of shops were closed. Then, there was a family eating a meal on the street and asked me to sit down with them," said the photojournalist.
"They gave me lunch even though they didn't know me. They didn't have much but they were ready to share.
"The more people I meet, the better I understand that for many people, they don't have much but they want to share what they have. They like to share and try to speak with you even though they don't speak your language."
The ultimate aim of the voyage, due to finish next Wednesday, is to establish the basis of a humanitarian ‘World Family Project' by creating bed and breakfasts in low-income families. — VNS