Volunteering at the Bamboo Bar

Luckydaisy’s Bamboo Bar and Buffalo House are located in the small, popular H’Mong village of Ta Van. The close proximity of this farming community to the tourism hub of Sapa gives it a unique atmosphere – and that atmosphere has been created to cater to trekking tourists. Of course, it’s a very different story in the surrounding provinces; we drove through several H’Mong villages on our 5-day journey from Hanoi to Sapa, and the colourfully-clad locals along the way reacted to our presence with friendly waves and smiles. Sometimes, if we stopped to admire a fantastic view, the locals would be admiring it too and we’d enjoy the moment together. This dynamic changed when we reached Ta Van. We got a little lost and stopped to check our map – and here we witnessed the glaring difference: immediately we were swarmed by H’Mong women using hard sell tactics in order to offload (admittedly very beautiful) handicrafts: bags, clothes, bracelets, and Jew’s harps in cylindrical woven containers. Their sales pitches were finely honed from years of repetition.  Make no mistake… if Ta Van was ever off the beaten track, it certainly isn’t anymore.

But we weren’t here specifically to trek or buy handicrafts; we were here to work for one week at Luckydaisy’s in exchange for food and accommodation. We greeted and checked in customers, helped prepare meals, worked the bar, and clambered around the village connecting the shared water pipes to our building whenever the showers went dead.

The Buffalo House, where we stayed in various beds depending on the bookings of the guests, was a beautifully decorated communal structure with a separate family room attached to the main living area. This main area had two floors with three private rooms downstairs and three double beds upstairs in a unique dorm arrangement. At capacity, the house held ten people, and there was a shared bathroom and common area. The nature of the village meant that the water pipes (which lead up into the mountains) were shared by various houses in the area. One of my tasks was to make sure that the Buffalo House’s water tank was kept full, and this involved pulling out and plugging in various hoses to redirect the flow. A few of the guests were irked by the occasional lack of water. We explained the concept of ‘first world problems’ to one of the Vietnamese staff and she loved it. We then told her never to say it to a guest. Such was life in the village.

The Bamboo Bar was where we spent most of our time. We would wake up and head to the bar at 8.30 a.m. to help with the guests’ breakfast. Afterwards, the guests would usually go off trekking in the absolutely stunning surrounding mountains and we’d make something for ourselves to eat. The mornings would generally be quiet, and this state would remain up until around 5.30 p.m. Sometimes the bar would get busy and sometimes it would remain relatively quiet. We’d make cocktails, mulled wine and hot chocolates, waffles and pancakes. We’d frantically wash dishes to keep up with the mojito orders. Closing time was 10 p.m., and we would usually be crawling into bed at around 11. The work was enjoyable, but we didn’t get much of a chance to explore the village with the long hours.

The owners of both establishments were a Vietnamese woman named Hien and her husband, a Dutch man named Eddie. Eddie – whom we only had brief chats with – had moved to the village four years earlier and opened the bar. Back then, he said, there were no power lines or WiFi. In the last two years, homestays and guesthouses had begun to pop up everywhere as tourists started to flood in. Eddie would usually pop in once or twice in the evenings to talk at guests and bring supplies to the bar if it ran out. Hien would generally help out in the busy times taking orders and making people feel welcome. Preceding our stay were two volunteers named Zach and Karine who had been working at the bar for one month and had it running well. Sadly, we only worked with them for a couple of days.

The heroes of the bar, in our opinion, were Indie and Huyen. They were up in the morning before anybody else and they were the last people awake in the evening after closing time. They slept upstairs in the bar, which meant that apart from brief breaks to go to the market or to have the odd morning off, they were in that bar 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Indie acted as the manager of both establishments and did a fine job of multi-tasking under occasionally pressing conditions. Huyen’s effort in the bar was even more astonishing given that she, like us, was an unpaid volunteer and had spent almost a month in the bar working longer hours than we did. I am fairly certain I couldn’t do what she did without quickly burning out.

There were two lovely H’Mong women who worked in the mornings and evenings helping to prepare the meals. They also did all the housekeeping for the Buffalo House and kept the facilities clean. Their names were Teng and Hoa and they cooked amazing meals – especially dinner. Each night the guests of the day would eat together with the staff in the bar, and the spread was fantastic. It typically involved various dishes; grilled meats, spring rolls, tofu, mango or papaya salads, soups, and greens served on rice. Oh yes, we ate extremely well for seven days.

Luckydaisy's bamboo bar, sapa, Vietnam

Indie (pink) Huyen (stripes). The grainy photo is my bad.

Luckydaisy's bamboo bar, sapa, Vietnam

A trip to the mountains on our morning off. The weather in the valley was temperamental, being early spring. Half the time we couldn’t see the surrounding mountains for mist, but in this photo we had a lovely day for a quick trek.

Luckydaisy's bamboo bar, sapa, Vietnam

A table set for one of many fine dinners.

Interestingly enough, the bar was not a place we would normally visit. It had a lovely atmosphere with a roaring fire in the evening and plenty of Western comforts – but it is those very comforts that we tend to shy away from in our normal travels. The reason for this could be that the towns we like to spend time in generally don’t have places that sell Baileys hot chocolates or passionfruit mojitos. It could be that I’m too busy exploring during the days and writing this blog in the evenings to go out and socialise. Or it could simply be that our money is finite and we want to stretch it out; we were gobsmacked watching people spend our equivalent of two days’ food and accommodation in one sitting at the Bamboo Bar.

A big part of our job was to build a rapport with the guests. I tend to be a quiet person and feel awkward trying to force a social situation, but nearly everybody that came through the guesthouse were wonderful, kind-hearted, humorous people, and falling into conversation was easy. It was great to share stories with these guests and connect through tales of travel, and by the end it almost felt like a little family that kept changing members. There were many goodbye hugs during our short week and suddenly we were offered places to stay in Hungary, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

It was very interesting to hear different people’s stories and takes on traveling. Some of them wanted to do the same as us but lacked the funds. Some of them visited the same towns every couple of years and were amazed at how quickly the country was changing. A few were missing home and were looking forward to returning. We met a doctor fresh out of medical school who, for one of his projects, had set up one of Germany’s first free clinics. He and his partner were taking a quick three-week break before returning home to start brand new jobs. We met an American man who designed theme parks for Disney and had just come from working at the almost-opened Disneyland in Shanghai. He and his partner were heading to Japan next to go snowboarding in the north. A British couple were on their way to Australia on a 1-year visa to find work. One girl was returning back to Hungary to continue her studies in Italian literature and to ride her 700cc motorbike. We met Jim, who had cystic fibrosis and had undergone successful lung transplant surgery. He was just happy to be alive.

Of course, there were some trying times during bar hours. Once, a group of young, very drunk British and Australian people stumbled in at closing time and sat by the fire. We let them stay for a while, but eventually had to tell them to leave so we could go to bed.

“What kind of fucking bar closes at ten?” slurred one of them as he left. Two more attempted to pay their bill while at the same time arguing over “The fucking Ashes… uuuhhrrr”, and then continued their debate on the path outside. Here. In this small, H’Mong ethnic minority village in northern Vietnam. It begged the question: what in the great name of holy hell were they even doing here? Would they take selfies in the morning in front of the staggered rice fields and tell people back home about how “eye opening” and “soul searching” their drunken romp through a tourist bubble on the other side of the world was? I mean, partying is all good. But why here?

On a much nicer note, we met and had a couple of chats with Spencer, a Californian who was volunteering 50 metres up the road at another homestay and was also riding a Honda Win (or perhaps, like ours, a Chinese knock-off) around Vietnam. His trip was also open-ended and his travel seemed to vaguely reflect ours in terms of having minimal plans and lengthy stays. He has just started up a blog, and his interestingly lyrical prose is accompanied by different music for each post. I like it. And here it is.

Lastly, I briefly met a girl – I can’t remember where she was from but she wasn’t a guest – who said to me, “How can you still be traveling in South East Asia after a year and a half? I’ve been going for three months and I feel like I’ve seen it all. Now I’m going back to places I’ve already visited. Aren’t you bored?”

But I didn’t give her the answer she wanted.


Just an ordinary train