NON FICTION: Supping In Sapa

Stu in a bath bucket

Yours truly in a Red Dao herbal bath. Photo: Affandi Hamid

I’d sent this piece in for a writing competition, but I didn’t make the shortlist, so here it is for you guys.


I had begun my trip to the highlands of Vietnam expecting to learn more about the cultures of the Red Dao minority. What I hadn’t planned for was having the trip turn into a culinary experience, which in turn had me reminiscing my own identity and childhood.

It was a three hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi, followed by a nine-hour train journey to Lao Cai. Then came the hour’s drive up the winding hills to Sapa, punctuated by the 13km hike to a Red Dao village, where I was to spend two nights.

I was eager to explore the new surroundings and take in the culture, but that quickly turned into a food tour when my guide, May, pointed to a yellow fruit along the trail and said: “This, cook, for tooth pain, good. No cook, bad. Poison! But no problem. If anything, drink happy water!”

Happy water?

The Red Dao, an ethnic minority in the highlands of Sapa, are known for their herbal prowess, so I took this lingo in stride. Perhaps it was a special concoction. That’s what they’re great at. What they’re less known for, however, are their origins, which, other than having come from China, remain hazy until today.

After finally reaching May’s home, I was quickly ushered into the kitchen, where I was supposed to help out. My tired feet would’ve preferred to laze instead, but we were apparently behind schedule, and there was a dinner to prepare before sundown.

Using sign language, a little boy — who I assumed to be May’s son — gestured for me to pick up a slice of rice paper. He then scooped a dollop of vegetable mix onto my unwashed hands. I got the hint after a while; we were about to make spring rolls.

Of course, that was a fitting task for me, because I had no experience in the kitchen. Ask me to slice a fish and I’d probably give you something closer to minced meat. I mean, the spring rolls themselves were a testament to my proficiency. The ones I hadn’t torn with my clumsy fiddling ended up resembling albino shrimps rather than the perfect rolls this kid was churning out. I wasn’t sure if it was disdain or smugness on his face. The language barrier didn’t help clear the air either.

May’s daughter walked in and started the fire. She had brought in plates of meat, and the duo, having seen my culinary skills, wisely chose to omit me from further kitchen duty. May’s daughter heated the pan (cooked over wood fire) which would be used for the meat, spring rolls, and water spinach.

There was an air of calm beneath the dwindling sunlight and swaying flames. The growing scent of burnt wood lingered in the air. It was like going back in time, back before technology took over our lives and occupied our every waking moment.

This thought about technology made me realise how I haven’t checked my phone in a day, and how little I’d missed it. These children had little use for technology, and they seemed to have a presence of mind that so many of us lacked in this age. For a moment, I was reminded of the way things were when I was their age — having the luxury of concentrating on tasks at hand.

My host family led a minimalist life, with electricity only used to power a couple of light bulbs and a refrigerator (to keep the beers cool for visitors like myself), so everything had to be done at the right time. Trying to cook in dim conditions would be a huge challenge, as my faltering sight in the darkening twilight would attest.

Right then, two Frenchmen walked into the kitchen, having completed the hike from town themselves. I was to share lodgings with these new friends, and they promptly got to helping with dinner, which, to my relief, wasn’t much better than what I had to offer.

We sat around the sizzling pan like how a group of campers would around a campfire. We shared joy in our ineptitude, we shared stories, and we shared happy water, which I would learn to be rice wine. The family always had pitchers of happy water at the ready, rendering the beers in their fridge obsolete.

All loosened up from the alcohol, I volunteered to set the table for eight — something I hadn’t done in a long while. When was the last time I had set a table, let alone enjoy an uninterrupted dinner with my own family?

When dinner was finally done, it was a feast to behold. Water spinach cooked in chilli, fried pork, Vietnamese black chicken, sauteed long beans, grilled fish, fried spring rolls, and of course, happy water, all stacked plate-to-plate, threatening to fall off the table with one wrong nudge.

I had been stricken with nostalgia all night long, and it was becoming apparent why. These dishes were not too far off the Chinese cuisine I was familiar to. Being half Chinese, this food was what I had looked forward to every Chinese New Year, and it’s been almost a decade now that I haven’t tasted or smelled proper home-cooked food. Not since my grandmother and mom had passed on.

And there I was, sharing a table with four Red Dao, two Frenchmen, and another Malaysian (my photographer). We dug into the food, and when it came to the spring rolls, I made sure to choose the deformed ones, because that seemed like the most appropriate thing to do.

I taught the Frenchmen how to use chopsticks, they taught me the fine art of appreciating wine, the Red Dao family showed us a glimpse into their life, and for a brief moment, I realised, despite having come from such varying backgrounds, we weren’t that different after all.

There were so many other things that would add to my adventures in Sapa — such as sitting in a bath bucket filled with traditional herbs — but this little dinner would ground me, bringing me back to my childhood and my Chinese roots. All it took was almost one day of commute, and breaking bread with a house full of strangers.

And of course, the few extra servings of happy water didn’t hurt.

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