We ended our beautiful day in
Halong Bay with a ride back to
Hanoi, and caught a night train up into the extreme north of Vietnam, near the Chinese border. A dark and uneventful chug-a-lug led us through the growing mountains to Lo Cai, where we ascended straight up into the clouds, finally arriving in Sapa town. A three day trek through the fascinating ethnic hilltribe villages of the Hmong, Tay, and Red Dao (pronounced Zao) people lay ahead of us.
Our guide, Dung (pronounced Zoong) introduced himself, apprentice guide Diop, which he proudly informed us means butterfly, and our fellow trekkers, Luke and Casey from Australia. The six of us bundled up against the novel cold and headed off down the path into the white abyss.
The clouds hung such that when we looked out over the mountainsides, it seemed as if the air itself were alive and closing in, trying to swallow us whole. The landscape gave us all a slight sensation of vertigo, as if we were walking through a giant optical illusion.
Climbing down out of the clouds, expansive and breathtaking vistas of terraced hillsides, riverine gullies, and tribal villages opened up around us. We walked carefully along the edges of rice paddies, which seemed to trace the lines of a topographical map as they swirled endlessly below. The farther we descended, the more the cloud cover dissipated and our surroundings became crisper greens and blues of cultivated indigo, reds of the soil, and dots of chickens and pigs speckling the fields.
On our way down the slopes we were escorted by two Hmong girls, Ju and Met. The two 15 year olds bombarded us with a barrage of questions about our homes, families, and lives in general, as we headed to their village, Y Ninh Ho, where we stopped for lunch. This encounter was the first of many such fun and refreshing interactions, the likes of which we had not experienced since entering Vietnam.
Before lunch we briefly visited a traditional Hmong home, where Dung gave us some background information on the Hmong people and their customs. Across from us the lady of the house was cooking the evening meal, stitching intricate patterns onto handmade clothing, and doting on her two youngest children. She easily accomplished all of these tasks with a grace and calm that was beautiful to watch. During the growing season, she and her many children would accompany her husband to tend to the rice fields. In this culture, men and women see each other as equals and divide their work accordingly, with the men sharing many of the household duties. As we left the house, we were surrounded by the harried hens foraging and tending to their dozens of peeping chicks, contributing to the constant busy atmosphere of this mountain village.
We continued our descent, ever surrounded by the incredible terraces. Late in the afternoon, we arrived in the Tay and Hmong village of Ta Van, where we would spend the night with a Tay family. After having a few warming cups of tea with the family, we headed down to the river to stretch and relax after our long day of trekking. Down by the river we befriended a Hmong woman named Choa and her 10 year old daughter, Tu. Choa is 37 and has five children ranging in age from 10 to 22.
After a really nice couple of hours chatting with Choa about her life and ours, she walked us back to our homestay on her way up the mountain before dark. Back at the house we sat around the kitchen fire with our host, as he masterfully cooked our delicious meal. The house was built in the traditional Tay style with open rooms leading into one another. The kitchen is on the far right side of the house as you enter and is where all of the action happens, mostly because it is the warmest spot.
Dinner was a nice family meal with all four generations that share the house in attendance. The homemade rice wine quickly made its appearance and the head of the household made many toasts throughout the evening. We had a great and filling dinner, despite the surprising importance of the television behind us. It was truly saddening how central and consuming TV had already become in this otherwise charmingly humble village.
Seeking refuge from the deepening cold, we sat around the fire chatting with Dung, Diop, Casey, and Luke, and trying to communicate with our hosts late into the night. The family's two cats also joined us, sitting within an inch or two of the flames. Talk ranged from lighthearted banter to deep conversation on cultural differences and was aided by the multiple rice wine toasts shared earlier around the table. We were finally able to ask many of the questions that had been plaguing us during our stay in Vietnam.
It seems that the Vietnamese people, especially the younger generation, harbor absolutely no animosity towards Americans in particular, and have completely moved on after the American War era. Dung and Diop both agreed that they tend not even to think about the conflict as more than a brief event in their long, tumultuous history. The Vietnamese have similar feelings about the French, with whom they had an even longer conflict. This conversation confirmed much of what we had previously discussed with other travelers: the animosity we had all felt during our travels reflected a dislike of outsiders in general rather than a hostility towards any specific Western group.
Vietnamese history is filled with seemingly never-ending conflict, the most important of which has been with the Chinese. The more recent conflicts with the West are relatively insignificant compared with the millennia of friction with their greatest enemy, still viewed as such to this day. They are currently more likely to the see the West as an ally against China than as a threat to their country. Many Vietnamese will tell you in all seriousness that China will invade them again.
Our second day in the mountains around Sapa included more trekking that led us back up into the higher altitudes through bamboo groves, past beautiful waterfalls, and over treacherous rattan bridges. The slightly more inclement weather made for slippery ascents and descents along muddy paths, and most of the day was spent trying to remain upright. Our bamboo walking sticks became trusted friends, and we were sad to leave them behind at the end of the day.
A stopover in Giang Ta Chai, a Red Dao village, included a visit inside one of the homes and another cultural lesson from Dung, with Dao life continuing undisturbed around us. Both the Hmong and Dao people are quite poor and rely mostly on subsistence agriculture and selling their handicrafts to Sapa merchants and tourists. Historically, their main source of income was the, then legal, opium trade, as they proved to be expert growers in the favorable mountain climate.
Neither tribe places heavy emphasis on the importance of education over skill learning and selling, and the Hmong have never had a written form of their language. The Dao written language is also dying out with the older generation, as outside influences have begun to take root, and the younger members of the tribe tend to learn Vietnamese and reject their traditional writing as outmoded. Many of the children refuse to attend school, even if they are given the opportunity, because, as they told us, "school isn't fun and the teachers are mean." Able to make quick money, using their more advanced Vietnamese and English, the kids sell their wares to tourists, and they have little incentive to go to classes, especially when their parents often encourage them to make the quick money for the family.
The vending of exquisitely embroidered fabrics made into blankets, pillow cases, skirts, shirts, and many other traditional and nontraditional items pervaded our entire Sapa experience. A tourist here will gather an entourage of friendly yet persistent Hmong and Dao women trying unflappably to sell some of the goods out of their basket backpacks, while continuing to embroider more at the same time. The shouts of "You buy now?!?", "Buy one!", "Buy [from] meeee!" become a constant din upon entering a village, but it does not seem to be desperate or attacking, except perhaps on the streets of Sapa itself. In our experience most were actually more interested in talking and asking questions, once it was clear we weren't going to buy anything.
At the end of the first two days, we returned to the town of Sapa in an old Russian army 4x4, feeling our way around hairpin turns through an entirely opaque cloud. Horns became a necessity rather than an annoyance, and everyone except the driver seemed to be bracing for the impending impact that was sure to come. It never did, and we made it back safely to a warm shower and luxurious, if unheated, room at our hotel (see pictures in the review section).
Our last day started off at a slower pace, and we spent some time walking around town with two Hmong girls we had bonded with the day before. As Zen and Ya (14 and 10 years old, respectively) led us around the central lake (that we couldn't see across because of the clouds) we had a nice visit, discussing their lives in Sapa away from their home in Ta Van village working as peddlers. We also discussed very important matters, such as the unfaithful old man looking for a new girlfriend and why Vietnamese women wear the foolish "high shoes" (high heels), which are so impractical on the cobbled streets and steep hillsides of Sapa.
After our stroll Zen asked us to help her with her emailing, which caught us totally off guard. Didn't the Hmong not know how to read and write, never mind use a computer to email across the globe? We followed her to an internet cafe, patronized entirely by young Hmong girls surfing the web and waiting for help with their email. It is true they cannot read or write, yet they have learned to recognize many of the words and symbols on the keyboard and screen. They have extraordinary memories, a legacy of their oral tradition, and need only to be read a lengthy email once to retain all of its information. They then have traveler helpers type replies and, thus, keep in touch with tourist friends to whom they have often become very attached. We now consider ourselves lucky to be among Zen's short (only three at the moment) but growing list of correspondents.
In the afternoon, we headed out under our own steam for Cat Cat, another Hmong village near Sapa. We stopped at a beautiful waterfall on the way and met some stilt walking young boys headed along the path. We also passed by a number of fields with the remains of the past season's hemp crop. Dung had told us that the Hmong and Red Dao never use these plants as a drug, but instead cultivate them for their durable fibers to make most of their clothing and other textile products.
Our time in Sapa ended late in the evening as we careened down the hillside in a packed minibus, with a race car driver at the wheel. It had been difficult to say goodbye to our new friends, with hugs all around and some unexpected tears from the youngest. We realized how hard it must be for these young girls living away from home to make friends for such a brief time and then watch them leave, wondering if they will ever see them again. We promised that if we or our friends and family return to Sapa we will find them, and we will stay in touch via email.
Our train pulled into Hanoi station before dawn. At five o'clock in the morning Hanoi was like a den of hibernating bears in the springtime. By the time we had walked from the train station to where we had left our bags, the streets were already filling up with vendors ready to feed the slowly emerging, hungry hordes.
We wasted the day repacking, strolling about, and updating the blog, while we waited for our departure on the dreaded 20-25 hour bus to Vientiane, Laos that lay ahead...