A Lesson Worth More Than $20

Sapa, May 14th 2010

I've always thought that trekking sandals are for trekking. As I always wanted to travel as light as possible, from the moment I got on a taxi from in front of my house to the airport, to Kuala Lumpur, to Hanoi, to Sapa, except to the bathroom in the hotel, I wore on always the same trekking sandals.

The day before I went for trekking, my travel agent commented on my trekking sandals, "You should put on shoes tomorrow. You bring shoes, don't you?"

"No, I don't," I said. "What's wrong with these? These are sandals for trekking."

"When mud gets under your feet, it will become slippery."

I did not believe that. Trekking sandals are for trekking. No matter what, as long as it is trekking.

The morning we had breakfast before we started our trekking, our tour guide showed up in the dinner room. After introducing himself to me and to an Australian couple, he tried to make a conversation by asking how was the couple's trip from Hanoi by train. Apparently they had just arrived.

"It was fine," said the husband. "Could you sleep well?" asked the tour guide.

"Oh yes!" answered the husband and his wife nodded enthusiastically.

The tour guide turned to me and asked how long I had been in Vietnam. I boasted that it was my third time in Vietnam and that I've already bought the tickets for the fourth one. I took the chance to ask him about reaching Hekou from Lao Cai. He answered me with enthusiasm but made no sense. I got the feeling that his seemingly fluent English was only on the topics he is familiar with.

He turned back to the Australian tourist. "You will wear on shoes later, won't you?"

"Yes, we do bring shoes."

"Should you wear shoes?" I asked as I became a bit concern.

The tour guide looked down to my feet. "Don't you bring shoes?"

"No, I don't."

"You can rent them at our office. You better wear shoes."

"It might damage the sandals," said the Australian woman.

"But these are trekking sandals," I insisted and a bit offended. How can trekking sandals get damaged because of trekking?

"Excuse me?" said the woman.

"I mean, these are sandals for trekking." She looked down under the table. "Oh."

I didn't want to rent shoes because first, my budget was limited. I scarcely prepared for extra expenses. Secondly, just like I don't like the idea of putting on a hat that's not mine, I don't like it either to put on shoes that aren't mine.

Off I went on trekking with trekking sandals. I was totally fine up to lunch. The path we trekked on after lunch were narrow, rough, and steep ones. I, was always the last one. I'm not scared of heights. I can stand on a balcony of the 30th floor, look down, and enjoy the view without any fear. But, I'm very insecure when it comes to balance matter. Crossing rivers, however small, while stepping on slippery stones, that's scary. The more scary it becomes because I'm really concern about the camera hanging on my neck. I've already fallen into a pool more than a year ago and lost my Olympus -- meaning, unrepairable. I don't want to loose my Canon now, and then end up as a Nikon user.

Just like the trip before lunch, local tribes walked closed to us. There, on the heights of Sapa, I had to drop my pride. I had always thought that I was strong and tough. Now, helplessly, I let my hands be held by one local tribe on my left and another on my right. One of them looked young. Probably younger than me. But the other one? She was obviously older than me. Maybe she even has a grandchild already for the people here tend to marry at a very young age. A hand covered with wrinkles held mine and kept me (and my camera) safe until the end of the trekking tour.

As I crossed small creeks and muddy paths, the mud steadily crept under my feet. That made matters worse. The more I got difficulty to keep balanced.

Suddenly the younger local tribe said to me, "We are going home. Our house is over there. We've helped you. So you buy this from us."

And then they took out their handmade purses and bracelets. Actually I had already thought of tipping them for keeping safe along the narrow paths. But I couldn't make up my mind about how much I should give them. The problem was I only had couple of thousand dongs left. The  rest were US dollar bank notes. I had several 20 dollar bank notes and two of 1 dollar bank notes. If I give them each 1 dollar, it would be too less, because the purses they offered me cost at least twenty thousand dongs which is more than 1 dollar.

I really felt reluctant to tip them both for 20 dollars. But then I remembered my Olympus. As a matter of fact, along the trekking path, there was a time that if it weren't because my hand was being held, I would have fallen down and crushed my camera. If that happened, the cost would be many times 20 dollars. That is if it could be repaired. If that happens and someone says, "I can fix your camera only for 20 dollars." I would gladly pay that price.

So I told my two guardians that I don't have as much dong as they are asking for, but I have one 20 dollar bill which I would like them to split together.

They both gave a big smile from ear to ear together with a silver bracelet and a bracelet knitted from colorful threads. When they both when back to their friends, I could see that their friends looked jealous. Yeah, they were actually lucky to meet a tourist like me, a tourist who easily looses her balance, who loves her camera so much and believes in her trekking sandals that much also, but don't have small bank notes.

So... are trekking sandals actually for trekking?

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