Following one of the most extraordinary hikes of my life, I found myself being yanked back to reality and to the mundane: laundry. With only a few shirts, one skirt, shorts and pair of capris, I tend to run through my entire wardrobe rather quickly. Luckily for me, clothes cleaning services in Southeast Asia demand little of my ever dwindling pennies so it’s a luxury I indulge in on the regular.
Typically I have no issue at all sending out a bag of my meager possessions with the promise of their return nine hours later. At the time in question, however, I was staying at a homestay ten minutes outside of Ha Giang proper and required a turnaround of three hours. Even in the city, access to washing machines would be unlikely and use of a dryer would be next to impossible (most articles in Southeast Asia are air-dried.) Had I thought ahead, I could have laundered everything in Sapa (I think) or at the very least taken it somewhere in Ha Giang immediately upon my arrival.
Cursing my perpetual lack of forethought, I nonetheless bundled my soiled items and together with my hiking friend, Aileen, set out for Ha Giang. Little did I know at the time, but we were about to embark on a great adventure that spanned four hours and culminated in me backing out of a doorway and away from a knife-wielding assailant. Never a dull moment.
Unsure of where in the city to go, Aileen and I appealed to the homestay owner’s teenage son (if this is starting to sound like a bad idea to you, rest assured we were fully aware) who said he knew of a place and offered to accompany us in a cab to said undisclosed location. The sun was beginning to set and the clock was ticking. We nodded and jumped in the taxi.
Not ten minutes later we arrived with an abrupt stop. Where, I still couldn’t tell you. We followed our host across the cement floor of the dark ground level and up a set of industrial stairs. “Uh, do you know where we are?” asked a visibly nervous Aileen. “No clue,” I whispered nonchalantly as I continued to climb.
Upon reaching the second story, a friendly man approached us asking if we were in need of a washing machine. He made no mention of a dryer. Aileen and I exchanged matching looks of anxiety as our only chance for clean clothes tumbled away.
Seemingly undeterred, Aileen turned on her heel, descended the stairs and marched out of the building. I scrambled after her. We thanked our well-meaning host and ambled off in the direction of the nearest ATM. I needed cash anyway and a main street was as best a spot as any to find what we were searching for.
I have to admit, I left the homestay doubtful and at that moment was feeling pretty dejected. The following day marked the first of a five day motorbike trip through even more remote parts of Vietnam and it looked like I would be sporting the exact same outfit for the entire trip. Fun fact, I did this anyway despite a new rotation of ready apparel. Go figure.
Aileen, bless her, wouldn’t accept “no” for an answer. She was determined to make this seemingly impossible wish come true. And thanks to her doggedness, it did.
As I stepped out of the ATM booth, I saw her lunge at walk up to a couple of young women on motorbikes. “English?” she pleaded. “Yes— a little,” replied the tall one, glancing questioningly at her friend.
“Do you know where we could get our clothes washed and dried… tonight?” Aileen inquired carefully. The two girls confirmed we indeed meant that night before brainstorming potential places and settling on one.
“Machine dryer?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes!” they assured us, “We take you.”
We had found our saviors. Without a second’s hesitation, Aileen and I hopped on the back of each respective bike and off we went to our second undisclosed location of the night. It wouldn’t be our last.
A bridge and some distance later, our drivers pulled up to a tall, narrow building that presumably housed the technology that would launder our clothing. I remained cautiously optimistic as the young woman standing in the foyer participated in a heated conversation with the elderly woman seated at the desk before coming outside to greet us. Aileen and I repeated our predicament. She listened patiently and replied it would be no problem. She then took our bundles and instructed us to return in three hours, 9:00pm. The cost was 40,000 per kilo— a pretty incredible rate considering the rush order. At the back of my mind I considered the possibility we would return at nine to a blank expression or a dark building, but I pushed the thought aside and shifted my focus instead on food procurement.
Aileen and I hadn’t eaten since our mountain meal earlier that day and neither of us had exactly gorged ourselves. We asked the girls if they had any suggestions. They said they could drop us off somewhere, but first they had to drop by their bosses’ house for a visit. Did we want to join?
“We have three hours,” I nonverbally communicated to Aileen. She shrugged and again we went. This time to our third undisclosed location.
Their manager’s home turned out to be only around the corner. It was here that we learned our saviors worked at the bank we accosted met them in front of. Over tea, the group chatted excitedly amongst each other and drew me in for feedback on their country and to ask what cities I’ve visited and where I was going next. Upon hearing I would drive through Dong Van, one of the girls pulled out her phone and excitedly showed me several photos of her own trip that had taken place just the previous week. I felt immediately at home: relaxed, content and welcome; I even forgot about my debilitating hunger.
About fifteen minutes later it was time for our drivers to depart and time for Aileen and I to get dinner. We all bid our goodbyes and expressed well wishes for the future.
The next few hours passed with little intrigue. After eating, Aileen and I made our way back toward the building that possessed magical clothes cleaning machines and ensconced ourselves in a cafe just down the street. We waited out the remaining hour over strawberry tea and silence. It had been a long day and we were exhausted.
Ten minutes before the dictated retrieval time, Aileen and I decided to push our luck one last time and see if the clothes were by chance ready early. It doesn’t hurt to check, right? Wrong.
We walked up the hill toward our destination and stopped when we discovered the foyer was dark. This couldn’t be happening. No. She said 9 o’clock. Before full panic set in, the elderly woman we had seen earlier arguing with the laundry goddess passed the entryway. We opened the door and leaned inside to get her attention. Adjusting her body so we only saw her back, she ignored us. Aileen took one step inside, but before she could raise the other foot, the woman immediately descended on us with a mixed expression of revulsion and annoyance. We stumbled back. We weren’t sure how we had managed to anger this stranger to the degree that we had, but it seemed we needed to proceed with extreme caution.
We took turns throwing out key words we hoped would make some sense to the woman. “Clothing!” “Cleaning!” “Washing machine!” “9pm come back!” “Laundry!” She wasn’t having any of it. She shooed us away and went back inside.
Incredulous, Aileen and I waited a beat before peeling the door back again and trying a new tactic: google translator. We didn’t even get a chance to show her the phone screen before we were unceremoniously shoved back out the door from which we came. To prevent another storming, the woman grabbed a knife off the desk and gripped the door handle.
More than a little frightened and fed up with the dramatics of the situation, I flew down the street back to the cafe while Aileen attempted to explain our current predicament to a neighbor a few doors down. We clearly needed a Vietnamese translator.
As luck would have it, the third person I spoke with at the cafe not only knew the people I was talking about, they were his family! He sympathized with my interactions with his grandmother (“she’s crazy,) and walked with me back to the scene of the crime. As we approached, I stopped a couple yards back and Aileen joined me. Together, we watched the two family members engage in a verbal battle as the grandmother punctuated each statement with a death glare in our direction.
Reaching some sort of conclusion, the boy returned to us and explained it was his sister we had spoke with previously. He would phone her now if we could please wait outside. Delighted to be addressed by the family member not carrying a knife, we happily remained in the safety of his protection.
A few phone calls and ten minutes later, our laundry was delivered. It was 9pm. The mother (we had now met all three generations) felt so badly about the ordeal she called us a cab and ensured we would receive a decent rate back to our homestay.
If you are ever in need of clothes cleaning services in Ha Giang, I highly recommend the below address— just don’t drop by earlier than you’re expected or you too might get yourself a story, and it may not end as happily as mine.