This is the question that appears in the Lonely Planet phrase book that caused everyone to blush and fall out laughing every time Graeme and I tried to say it back in Bac Ha a few years ago. I think it’s one of those mistranslated bombs that LP plants in its books. We thought it was our poor pronunciation that caused the hilarity, but when the Hmong men literally fell backwards of the drinking bench and started making universal hand gestures, we surmised that whatever we were saying, we were probably saying it correctly.
In this case, however, I mean it in the chaste and literal sense: what does one do in the evenings in Sapa, especially when one is here for an extended stay? The answer is, not much. Sapa has a late-night backpacker drinking and game-playing scene, but I have never been to those places, and don’t really want to. The dimming of the day is when loneliness comes on, and I do best when I hold to a routine. Teaching from 7:30-8:30 gives shape to the evening, and by the time of the students runs me to my hotel on his motorbike, it’s close to 9:00. Then two Bia Hanoi on the terrace, and I go in to compulsively arrange my mosquito netting and crawl in with my Kindle (I know, I know, I resisted the Kindle, but now I love it, especially because I can read in the dark). I often just snack on something for dinner or just skip it entirely; I don’t notice or suffer from my aloneness until I sit among all the families and couples. I recently discovered the communal table at the Hill Station Restaurant, but last night, I sat between a family of four and a family of five. Felt like the least popular kid in eighth grade. (But it was worth it for the food: smoked buffalo with pickled local greens and a glass of Norton Shiraz. Total cost –not that it matters: $7.50.)
The big danger for unstructured evenings is starting the happy hour beers too soon. None of the usual checks obtain here: there’s no car to drive and no big tab to pay, and usually I’m on the terrace a few steps from my bed. Though normally not that good with consequences, even I have learned that even one or two more than my usual two beers leads to sloth the next day, which leads inevitably to anxiety and homesickness. But, every once in a while I just to concede to fatigue and inertia. Saturday, after the long hot walk to Cat Cat and back, I drank two beers, showered when the power finally came back on, meant to go out, but just got in the bed at 7:30. The tipping point was the thought of coming back up the five flights of stairs to my room after dinner. My legs were seriously tired.
Then there’s always Vietnamese television. Most channels feature Asian boy-bands in videos or contests, both of which would be much more diverting if it weren’t for the execrable music. Often there’s some martial arts contest of some sort. In recent years I’ve been able to find Aussie football – which I love – but haven’t been seen it this year. Flipping through channels the other night, I saw found what I can only surmise is a patriotic flag waving contest (Russian?). Distinguished-looking men wearing outfits with brass buttons – one was wearing riding boots – stood on a podium and swirled and twirled large flags with great seriousness, while judges judged and audiences cheered solemnly. I have no idea. A click of the remote brings me to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” with Vietnamese subtitles, one more click and then the Hong Kong TV broadcast of Wimbledon, which exists in a timeless nether world, where matches featuring East and South Asian players are looped constantly. Update: Li Na is still losing in the third set to Radwanska.
And finally, one's evenings are constrained by what is in effect a curfew. The hotel locks the doors at 10:30 p.m. (11:00 on Saturdays!). You can knock, or ring the bell, and summon a sleepy worker from the darkness, but you feel ashamed and guilty.