May 1
Ban Ho Night Fever
icon4 May 1st, 2008 | icon2 Travel |

“This make you better”. Our guide, Phong, had returned to the table brandishing a plastic bottle filled with clear liquid. “Rice wine. Make you strong”, he said as he poured two full glasses, one each for Rachael and me.

We had just sat down to dinner as guests of a family in the village of Ban Ho, in northern Vietnam. We almost hadn’t made it here. The previous night, in our hotel in Sapa, I had fallen ill with a fever and chills. I was determined, however, that we continue with our pre-arranged home visit, so I had put on a brave face that morning as we met Phong.

The first leg of the journey, in an ancient Russian jeep, had been bearable, but as we started down the rugged valley on foot I quickly realised I probably should have stayed in the hotel. The scenery was amazing – endless rice paddies carved into the steep hillsides – but I was unable to appreciate it.

As the temperature rose my condition worsened, and I began to get scornful looks from Phong, who was frustrated by our slow pace. The rest of the journey was torture as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, my head pounding. At last we arrived at our guesthouse in Ban Ho, where we dumped our bags before heading off to recover in the cool, clear waters of a nearby mountain stream.

Snubian collapses on the way to Ban Ho

It was now early evening, and I still felt feverish and light-headed as our dinner was served. I knew the last thing I needed was rice wine, but I downed my glass in one hit. Phong immediately poured me another. I could sense he thought I was faking, or that I was just a typical tourist, grown fat and feeble from the excesses of the West.

The food was delicious but distressingly plentiful. The mother of the household, a lovely woman of the Tay hill tribe, had prepared a feast that would feed a small army. My queasy stomach protested with each bite I took, but Phong was insistent that we eat everything on the table.

During dinner I reluctantly drank four or five more glasses of rice wine, until I realised it was only making me feel worse. As Phong went to refill my glass I placed my hand over it. “No, thank you, no more for me”. He tutted and shook his head as he poured another glass for Rachael, who drank it quickly. Phong looked at me with a mixture of pity and contempt. “You are weaker than a woman”. I could think of no reply so I just nodded meekly, while Rachael suppressed a chuckle.

Also visiting Ban Ho this night was a large and friendly American-Vietnamese family, whom we had met earlier that afternoon. They had arranged for a demonstration of traditional dancing and singing, to which we were also invited. Local men and women had begun arriving during dinner, dressed in their customary dark tunics and brightly coloured headwear. We took seats at the rear of the small audience, hoping to enjoy some of the performance before slipping away to bed.

The local villagers were putting on a fine show of their traditional dance and music. The alcohol was flowing and soon visitors began joining in, with everyone dancing in a circle. I was dragged from my chair and placed in line, swaying unsteadily to the rhythm. A large urn, filled with some unknown liquid, was put in the centre of the ring, and long, thin straws placed into it. Each person was instructed to take a drink from the urn. I mustered the energy to suck some of the tasteless liquid through the narrow straw, before lurching back to my seat.

I was looking visibly worse for wear by now, and Phong came over to ask how I was. He had become alarmed upon feeling my burning forehead earlier, and was at last beginning to appreciate that I was not well. He said he knew someone who could help me, and disappeared.

Meanwhile, the Americans had brought out their stash of duty-free brandy and whisky. I was now too weak to refuse their offers of liquor, and after several large shots I was reeling. Visitors were being encouraged to sing their national song, so Rachael stood and performed a stirring, if somewhat drunken, rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”.

The villagers’ performance was now complete, with only serious drinking left on the agenda, so Rachael grabbed me and we headed for our room. As we staggered along, Phong approached with a clearly inebriated local. “I Doctor Dan”, he said. “I fix you”. I had seen Doctor Dan earlier during the show. He had delighted in grabbing the microphone, telling jokes in Vietnamese and cackling wildly.

Doctor Dan’s specialty was curing people using pressure points in the face. He seized my head roughly with both hands, his fingertips pressing around my mouth and eyes, and under my ears. His fingernails were like talons, long and sharp, and as he sunk them deeper into my flesh I began to squirm and moan. He tightened his deathly grip. “I kick boxer!”, he said menacingly.

Eventually Doctor Dan released me from his clutches and pronounced me healed. I stumbled towards the house, with Rachael propping me up. As we crept inside Phong met us carrying a glass of murky brown liquid. “Is ginger. Good for you”. It was bitter and scalding hot, but I drank it without complaint before thanking him and saying goodnight.

With the last of my strength I struggled up the ladder to our loft bedroom and collapsed onto the welcoming mattress.

“How do you feel?”, Rachael asked, stroking my forehead.

“Ravaged”, was all I could say before sleep claimed me.

Drinking from the mystery urn (with Doctor Dan in white shirt)

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