Grandma Fang’s Vomit Cabin Experience for Authentic Travelers
“That’s too touristy,” shouted Jon, stabbing a spring roll with his chopstick and dunking it in fish sauce.
“It can’t be that bad,” I shrugged. The Sapa Valley I’d seen in brochures was a bucolic paradise. It promised verdant rice terraces, charming hill tribe villages, and old ladies adorned in traditional Hmong and Red Zao tribal costumes. I anticipated barefooted children skipping through grassy meadows. I anticipated women holding baskets and singing quaint harvest songs in the cornfields. My experience would lie somewhere between Pocahontas and Mulan.
“Don’t go, I’m warning you. It’s a circus. Go to Ha Giang instead, it’s more authentic.”
“Are there pretty rice terraces?”
“Are there old ladies running around in tribal costumes?”
“Then why are you sabotaging me?”
We were sitting in a sidewalk café in Hanoi’s chaotic Old Quarter, watching the passing tide of rice hats and bicycles. Jon shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
I took a sip of my coffee. “Too bad for me.”
Screaming and chaos clogged the air. The bus station was a warzone.
“Shopping! Shopping!” shrieked the mob of tribal women, their dirty hands banging against the bus windows. “You buy from me! You buy from me!” “You come village homestay! You come village homestay!”
A wail pierced the air as the bus driver shoved another tourist out the door, feeding the hungry mob. “Sapa!” he declared.
“AHH!” she screamed, swatting at groping hands with her guidebook before she was consumed.
She reappeared a minute later, scampering across the main road, pursued by two men on motorbikes shouting, “Taxi moto? Taxi moto?”
I stepped into the doorway next, my face stricken with panic and betrayal. The tribal mob stared back at me, waiting, waving trinkets, grinning like crocodiles. It was like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, except the birds were all selling the same bracelets and embroidered bags.
“Sapa!” the driver shouted, ejecting me from the bus.
Dozens of bracelets appeared in my face. I pushed and shoved through the gauntlet until I found a Spanish guy. We were surrounded by at least fifteen girls from the Black Hmong tribe.
“STOP!! STOP IT!” the Spanish guy screamed.
“Where you from? You so handsome! You buy from me! One dollar, please! You like my bracelet? One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar!”
Thinking fast, I grabbed the Spanish guy’s arm. “Hey man, that’s one of those bracelets you said you wanted–”
“NO!” he roared as the girls fell upon him like locusts. As he vanished behind the crush of colorful textiles and beads, I made a swift escape, stumbling down a back road, away from the tourist frenzy.
I came to Sapa to have an authentic experience and I knew where I needed to go to find it.
A Bia Hoi joint is like a ghetto, Vietnamese-style beer garden, except the ‘garden’ is a dirty sidewalk strewn with feces and litter, and also everything is in miniature. You sit on a tiny, plastic kiddie stool at a tiny, plastic table and purchase $0.25 pints of beer with colorful Vietnamese Monopoly-money. The experience feels perversely infantile. It’s like Fisher Price’s “Baby’s First Dive Bar;” the fact that the Vietnamese are always shitfaced only enhances the illusion of a kindergarten. After several minutes of aggressive staring, the locals will surround your table, ask you a million questions, teach you Vietnamese, vomit on the floor, and then invite you to stay in their homes.
Ten minutes after pulling up a stool, I had two drinking parties fighting for custody. I began airing questions with my phrasebook.
“What is your name?” they asked. “You have family?” “When you go home America?” “How you like Vietnam people?”
“Do you go to college for scientist?” asked one man
“Hey mate, may we join you?”
I turned to find a smiling Australian guy with his arm around a Hmong girl.
Glenn was a friendly expat in his thirties. He’d been living in Sapa for three years with his girlfriend Suu, who belonged to the Black Hmong tribe. Glenn poured me a beer from his pitcher as I explained why I’d come to Sapa.
“So you want an authentic experience, eh?” smiled Glenn. “You seem like an adventurous guy, you should come with us to Suu’s home village tomorrow.”
Suu nodded. “My grandmother is having a Naw Taw Ya.”
“Cool, definitely!” I cried. “What’s that?”
Suu cracked a soda can. “It’s a Hmong tradition to celebrate the rice harvest.” Her gaze fell and she grimaced with disdain. “Everyone drinks too much rice wine and falls asleep in the road. Sometimes the shaman comes and cuts a pig’s throat. They cook its blood on a fire and everyone eats it with spoons. And then they all–”
“It’s an experience!” Glenn smiled. “Trust me, you don’t want to miss it.”
“I told you they drink too much!” scowled Suu.
“Suu doesn’t like alcohol. She never drinks.” He sipped his beer.
“Wow…” I said. “That sounds totally awesome.”
“Tell you what,” smiled Glenn. “I work at Sapa Valley Hostel. Come by tomorrow at 11AM and you’ll get an authentic experience you’ll never forget.”
The tribeswomen were waiting when I drunkenly stumbled back into town.
“You come my village homestay!”
“Okey dokey,” I wiped my chin.
“I am Jeaou,” one women said, grabbing my hand. “I am from Hmong people. We walk to my village now?”
“You betcha,” I slurred.
“Okay, beautiful walking!” announced the woman. She then proceeded to lead me on a sweaty, grueling, four-hour trek over the hot, humid mountains to her dilapidated cabin, where she ripped off her tribal costume for a dirty tee shirt, pointed at me, pointed to a wooden board, and exclaimed, “You bed. Sleeping.”
I shook my head. “No. It’s only 5PM.”
“Okay, okay,” she agreed, before pulling out a box and trying to sell me bracelets.
Dinner was served— rice, plain noodles, and lettuce. While Jeaou and her husband chatted in Hmong, I observed on a stool in awkward silence.
There were no quaint harvest songs. There were no smiling old ladies. The only barefooted children were Jeaou’s six boys, who repeated the same three English phrases to me over and over again: “No buy,” “Tomorrow,” and “No, no, no, no, no.”
I gazed out the window at the moonlit mountains, tracing my finger along the silver rice terraces. “Very beautiful,” I told the children.
“No, no, no, no, no,” they chorused.
“Tomorrow?” I asked.
“No, no, no, no, no.”
The next morning, Jeaou shook me awake at 7AM for our horrible trek back to town. I pleaded for more sleep, but was denied. She had bracelets to sell.
Suu “felt ill” and didn’t want to accompany Glenn and I to her family’s gathering. So to make our attendance even more intrusive and awkward, Glenn brought along two more foreign strangers from his hostel—Henrik and Hannes from Germany.
“Are you sure her grandmother is going to be okay with this?”
“Of course!” Glenn screamed as our motorbike descended into the valley, passing smoky villages and women in tribal headdresses hauling massive baskets of produce and rice. “The Hmong are always friendly. At least I think. To be honest I’ve only met her family a couple of times… Whatever!” he shrugged. “Are the Germans still with us?”
I glanced back and saw two guys in button-down shirts puttering after us, their faces bent in massive grins. “Yeah.”
We reached a dirt trail on the side of the highway, where Glenn pointed up the mountainside. “Her grandmother lives up there.”
We stopped for a break halfway up the mountain, when we heard the slapping of footsteps approaching. A woman in Black Hmong costume appeared, scurrying down the slope.
“Good morning, Lee!” smiled Glenn.
“You’re too late!” she panted, running past us.
“What?” Glenn blinked.
“You’re too laaate!” she cried, disappearing through the trees.
We continued another few meters before Henrik stopped. “Is that what I think it is?” he pointed off the trail to what appeared to be a field of marijuana plants.
Glenn nodded casually and continued walking. “Yeah, that’s theirs.”
A charming cabin appeared before us like a Grant Wood painting. A rickety bamboo fence enclosed a small yard, in which chickens, pigs, and dogs pottered about, chased by barefooted children in various stages of nudity. Over the fence, a soaring vista looked down upon the valley, studded with rice terraces and cornfields.
An old woman in costume appeared in the doorway.
“Nyaw zhong!” she beamed, waving to us.
I waved back and smiled; my brochure-fantasy was coming true.
“She doesn’t speak English,” Glenn muttered. “Hello, Grandma Fang! These are my friends! We brought gifts!”
She waved again, before gesturing us inside.
Grandma Fang’s cabin was a traditional Black Hmong dwelling with sooty timber walls and a mud-clay floor; both of which were already flecked with vomit.
The entire tribe was completely shitfaced.
Two tables stretched out before us, buried under plastic bottles, puddles of rice liquor, and bowls of terrifying tribal food. The women sat at one table, shrieking with laughter, passing around a chicken’s skull, and ripping shots. The men sat calmly at the other, chugging liquor and drooling on themselves, too hammered to navigate any conversation.
Glenn surveyed the scene. “Cool, we haven’t missed anything yet.”
“Are you serious?”
“Hello you boys!” cried a women with gold teeth. “You sit here with us!”
They produced chairs and the Germans joined them.
I followed Glenn to the men’s table.
“Hello,” greeted Glenn. “Nyaw zhong. This is my fr–”
“Grenn! Champa cham!” the men screamed, thrusting full glasses of rice liquor into our hands. “Champa cham!”
I eyed the glass. “What are they saying?”
“They want us to chug with them.”
Halfway down the glass, I started gagging. It was worse than moonshine; it tasted like gasoline infused with acetone and butt-holes. The men cheered.
“Champa cham!” they cried, handing us new glasses.
“No,” I coughed. “We brought you beer. No more champa cham.”
“No. Beer. Gift. No champa cham.”
“No champa cham. Do any of you speak English?”
“Not one,” said Glenn. “Only the girls do because they work in tourism.”
I looked to the other table where the women chatted with the Germans. The women picked up the chicken scull and Hannes and Henrik roared with laughter.
“I’m going over there. The women are teaching them authentic, cultural stuff.”
I strode over to the women’s table, where I was received with great fanfare. “Hello!” “How are you?” “Where are you from?”
The woman across from me smiled, “I’m Suu’s sister, Tso.”
“I’m Mim,” waved a mother holding a young boy.
“I’m Bleh,” grinned the woman with gold teeth. Bleh flung the chicken scull across the table before handing me a full glass of rice liquor. “You need to drink all of this,” she informed me.
“They’re teaching us their drinking games!” smiled Henrik. “This one’s called ‘Chicken Scull!’”
“Champa cham!” roared the girls.
“But…” I frowned. This was nothing like in the brochures.
My tongue went numb after the third glass, which was great because it lessened the trauma of the following four glasses.
I slammed down my cup.
“EHHHH-OOO!” cheered a wobbling man behind me. He slapped my back, shook my hand, and staggered into the kitchen, where he promptly fell over.
‘Chicken Scull’ was like Spin-the-Bottle, except it involved Vietnamese moonshine and a filthy chicken scull. The goal was to drop the chicken scull on the table so that it landed upright: whomever the beak was pointing to had to ‘champa cham.’ You got three tries; if you failed, then you had to ‘champa cham.’
“Steeb!” shouted Tso.
“Stevvvve!” I grinned.
“STEEEE-BUUUH!” she shouted. The girls crumpled over laughing. Tso placed the chicken scull in my hand, “Your turn now.”
On my second attempt, the scull pointed to Mim.
“Champa cham!” we cheered.
“No, it point to him!” Mim frowned, pointing to the infant boy on her lap. She then poured a cup of rice liquor and handed it to the child. “Champ cham!” she cried.
“Don’t–” I started, before the little boy slammed back the cup and casually set it back down.
My jaw fell off. I didn’t know whether to laugh or take the child away. I looked to the other table for support. One of the men vomited on the floor, before wiping his chin and pouring himself another glass.
Glenn drifted over to our table. “Grandma Fang is almost done with the meal. Are you guys adventurous eaters?” He looked at our game. “Oh, you guys are playing some Chicken Scull, eh? Love it.”
Mim handed the scull to the infant, who hurled it at the table. It fell on its side. The scull was returned to the boy, who attempted a second time and failed. Then a third.
“Champa cham!” the table cried as the infant was handed another glass.
“Wait,” I shot Glenn a look. “Should we say something?”
Glenn nodded and cleared his throat. “Aw, poor little guy,” he said. “Here, I’ll do it with him!”
I stared in horror as a cup was handed to Glenn and he proceeded to chug rice liquor with the baby.
And by ‘stare in horror,’ I mean I documented it with my camera.
“Naw Taw Ya is feast!” exclaimed Bleh. “Are you hungry? You must eat!”
A strange stench filled the air as Grandma Fang appeared carrying a tray of bowls.
Grandma Fang placed four large dishes on the table, before doling us rice bowls.
As the Germans stared apprehensively, Glenn and I dove straight in.
“So what am I eating?” I asked, taking a bite of what appeared to be ground beef.
I chomped down and my eyes shot open—it was not ground beef. It felt like I was chewing on bone shards.
“Those are pork bone shards,” said Tso. “Very delicious.”
“Mmmm,” I smiled, forcing the it down whole.
“That is sour bamboo,” Tso continued, pointing to a bowl of mushy, pale greens. “And that bowl there is pork fat with skin.”
I shoveled them into my bowl.
“What’s in the fourth bowl?” ask Hannes.
“You don’t want the fourth bowl,” Glenn shook his head.
“That is a bowl of blood!” smiled Mim. “It’s hot pig’s blood!”
I peered in the bowl. She was right.
“Verrry tasty,” chimed Bleh. “Foreigners don’t like it though.”
Glenn shuddered, “Disgusting.”
I picked up a spoon and reached in. The tribeswomen watched as I examined it for a minute, before taking a bite.
The blood had been cooked to the consistency of flan and was seasoned with mint and basil.
I gave a nod. “Not bad.”
The woman fell over laughing. Grandma Fang applauded.
“You like! You like!” shouted Bleh. “You are Hmong people!”
“Oh yeah?” I laughed.
Glenn sat up straight. He fished out a chunk of blood with his spoon. “You swear it’s not that bad?”
I shrugged. “Tastes like salty herbs.”
Hannes frowned, “I’ll stick to the bamboo.”
Glenn stared at his spoon with dread and then took a bite.
Immediately his face shriveled like a prune. “Noo,” he whispered. He chewed for a minute before his body lurched in a spasm. “Noo,” he quivered. Suddenly he clutched his mouth and ran outside, where he painted Grandma Fang’s picturesque yard with half-digested pancakes, sour bamboo, and pig’s blood.
The Germans chased after him.
Glenn quietly returned a minute later and perched on his stool. “Hannes and Henrik just left. They had to catch a bus.”
The girls grumbled.
“Nooooo!” screamed Tso, who was starting to go cross-eyed.
Bleh reached under the table and produced a gargantuan jug of rice liquor. “You not leave until we finish this!” she growled.
“You stay the night! You stay the night!” the girls rabbled.
“Okay!” I said.
Glenn looked down. “I need to ask Suu first,” he mumbled.
“Just tell her you’re drunk and that you can’t drive,” I said.
Glenn knocked back a cup of rice liquor and winced. “That would be a good plan if I didn’t want sex for a month. I told her I wouldn’t get drunk.” Glenn pulled out his phone and dialed. “Fuck…” He stepped away from the table. “Hello? Hi honey, how are you?”
Bleh threw up her arms. “You stay the night!” she cried. “We party all night! We party all night!”
Glenn cupped his hand over the receiver. “No baby, that’s nothing. Not much is happening, everyone’s just finished eating now.”
Tso jumped up screaming. “You call my sister?! I want to talk my sister! Let me talk my sister!”
He angrily waved his hand. “Yes honey, that’s Tso… No, no one’s drunk.”
Tso clawed at the phone. “Let me talk my sister! Let me talk my sister! Let me talk my sister! I tell her you stay tonight! We party!”
Bleh jumped up, swaying. “We party all night! We party all night!”
“No! No honey!” Glenn stumbled backwards towards the door, swatting to keep Tso at bay.
“Let me talk my sister!”
“We party all night!”
“No! No, honey!”
“Abort! Abort!” I cried. “Hang up the phone!”
Mim vomited on the floor.
“No honey, she’s no– Honey– No! Okay! Okay!”
He threw the phone to Tso, who happily launched into Hmong. Suddenly she sneered, growled something into the receiver, and handed the phone back to Glenn.
Glenn’s face turned white. “Honey?”
Glenn cringed as the phone let out a high-pitched shrieking noise. “Baby, I’m– Honey– Honey– Honey– I’m not drunk! I swear! I’m no– Okay! Okay! Honey– Honey–” Glenn ran out the door.
Tso smiled. “How you like our Nyaw Taw Ya?”
“I love it,” I said. “It’s very interesting.”
Glenn returned a minute later looking pale and shaken. “We need to leave…”
“What?” I frowned. “When?”
He shifted his weight. “Right now.”
Tso clenched her fists and screamed, “Nooooooooooo!”
After much unintelligible protest from Grandma Fang and the girls, we began the process of goodbyes.
“We love you!”
“Champa cham, one more please?”
“Nice to meet you, Steeb!” beamed Mim.
“You please come back for Naw Taw Ya next year!” stammered Bleh.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” I grinned.
As Grandma Fang pulled me in for a strong, silent hug, I noticed a few tiny, black piglets appear in the doorway and totter inside. I then watched in horror as they began eating Mim’s vomit off the floor.
And by ‘stare in horror,’ I mean I took more pictures.
For another booze-soaked hospitality tale, play some goatball with Afghan refugees in “Goatball Superstar, Afghan Hero.”
If you think ‘authentic travel’ sounds pretentious, you’re right! But you should read this anyway: “The Backpacker’s Manifesto”