Day one of
Sapa. After breakfast, we make our way downstairs to the lobby, ready to leave. Outside, the ladies of the Black H'Mong are already waiting for us. We were warned about this, so it's not too much of a shock. The women will follow us throughout our trek, offering assistance, making conversation, and then when we reach the end, several hours later, they will try to sell us everything they've got. Still, I wonder how exactly they know that we're scheduled for a trek. I guess somebody involved in our home stay gives them the inside track.
I look around at all the others, kitted out in their gear. I feel a little unprepared. I have a waterproof jacket, sure, but one of the most important details is missing. Looking down at my white Lonsdale running shoes (17.99 from Debenhams), I wonder if it might have been wise to invest in proper walking boots. Fuck it. At worst my feet will get wet, and I will get a dangerous fungal disease. I will receive good medical treatment well
H'Mong, H'Mong before it has the time to spread upwards, to regions of more importance.
We set off. A swarm of minority women descend, dressed in their tribal black and green. They latch onto us in two's and three's. I'm careful not to get too close. Sure, I'll talk with them a little; make a few jokes, have a little banter - but I know not to form that tight a bond. The majority seem like warm, friendly people, but at the end of the day they are here to make money. If I spend the whole time getting to know them, accepting their every offer of help, and then, as I intend, buy nothing from them once the trek is over, they will be pissed off. It's always good fun to mess with the natives a little, but when faced with such overwhelming numbers, not a risk worth taking today.
We turn left out of our hotel and head down the road. After maybe half a mile, we leave the tarmac behind, and the trek proper starts. Conditions are treacherous.
Sapa has obviously enjoyed a fair amount of rain prior to our arrival. The ground underfoot is wet and sloppy, Annabel Chong after another bad day at the office. Soon, it doesn't matter whether I'm wearing shitty trainers, or expense boots. It's all the same once the mud attaches itself to the souls of your feet - everybody is slipping and sliding, bobbing and weaving, hanging on for dear life. Every step in a fight for survival - one wrong move, game over sucker, you out.
In contrast, the H'Mong are having no such problems. They do this shit everyday, and to them it's no big deal. One young girl in particular bounds and bounces like a mountain goat. With her pole in hand, she skips down slopes in seconds, whilst the rest of us crawl flat footed, gimp-like. I feel kinda stupid, a dumb phalang fool, out of his depth, always one step away from falling flat on his face in the sludge.
Trek, trek, trek. I love to trek. The landscape of Sapa snakes and curls, like lips on a helter-skelter. Rice fields lie in neat layers, stacked up tall, and the fog ebbs and flows, sweeping in and out of valleys, hugging the shoulders of the mountains like silk shawls.
I love to drink and I love to smoke, but there's no drug safer or better for the soul than the natural beauty of the countryside. Crack it open, tip it back and drink it in. Sapa is a dope fiend's paradise. Just drop purple hill after purple hill; instant come ups, limitless refills, no cold turkey or dirty sweats. I could stay forever.
The only thing that gets in the way of the view is the mud. Walking has become an extreme sport, and I have to give the ground at my feet more attention than I'd like. Eyes scan the earth, looking for that sure footing. Focus in macro on rocks, check for that whoops-there-it-is sensation as your feet fly from under you. I'm not going down today, not all the way. I'll put a hand down here and there, like it's all part of the plan, but the rest of my body will not make contact with the turf. Walking on the balls of my feet is the best tactic, - quick, short steps - the less time you spend in touch with the ground, the less time the mud has to drag you down to its level.
Some of us are not so lucky. Zoe takes a tumble onto her backside. The mud clings to her and smiles- another one bites the dust. Even one of the H'Mong falls victim to the soil. At the steepest point of the trek, we come across a sheer, muddy bank that leads us down to the river bed. As two H'Mung women try to offer me hands, one loses her footing, and hits the deck. I try not to laugh, but it's not so easy. Later, we are walking down by the river. Trung, who was proud to tell me earlier that he has never fallen, decides to climb onto the rocks sticking up out of the water. He looks back at me, and encourages me to follow. I shake my head, beginning to make my excuses, when his feet loose touch with the rest of him, and he goes down. Desperation flashes across his face, and then he is submerged to the waist. He climbs out, dripping in silence. A few of us offer some words of consolation, but there is nothing you can say to a man who's just watched his pride strip
off and leave itself exposed and naked. I just turn away, and pretend I didn't see a thing.
Shortly after Trung's baptism, we cross a bridge and make pause for lunch at a rest stop. Here, the selling frenzy begins. "You buy for me?" No, don't think I will. Bags, bracelets, purses, flutes and cushion covers - I have no need for such things. Show me something I need, something that I want, and I will be your best customer. Other's in the group take time to chat and banter with H'Mong - I can't really be bothered. I don't want to make them think I'm interested in buying what they've got, so I just smile politely and walk on whenever one approaches me, holding up her wares.
After lunch, we begin the final part of our trek, up through the H'Mong village. We pass a few roadside stalls and shops, and in one, I spot a bright blue hat sitting on a shelf. I like this hat, so I decide to buy it. The starting price is 80,000 dong, so as usual I offer half. The lady isn't going for it, so between us Gregg and I get her down to 60,000. Sold. I love my new hat. It's handmade, and Tick, who's been to Sapa four or five times, tells me he's never seen one like it. I'm sure there must be a few others knocking about Sapa, but I doubt there's anywhere else in the world you'd find one. In English money, it cost less than two pound.
As the light starts to fade, we reach our homestay. Boots and clothes are shed, and we sit outside on the doorstep, drying out like alcoholics. The ladies in black haven't given up yet. Their numbers had appeared to thin, but now they are back, in full force, selling like motherfuckers. The main focus of their attention is Marianne, who instigates a bidding war as she buys bracelet after bracelet. It's like watching sharks at feeding time, as the waters muddy with red.
As the evening wears on, the H'Mong slowly melt away. Only one, the Funny Lady, is left. She has struck up a rapport with Craig. She doesn't seem to care if whether we buy for her or not - she just enjoys the back and forth of conversation.
Is that a Bong Between Your Legs ,or are you just Pleased to See Me?
Fair play to you, Funny Lady. We like you. We like you a lot. Eventually, she follows her kin into nightfall, and we are in a shop-free zone. We enter the house, a large, two-floored wooden construction. Girls are situated on mattresses on the bottom floor, and the guys have the top.
We eat dinner, and drink the rice wine offered by our hosts. Most of the family keep to themselves, and we quickly begin to feel as though this is our home. We sit around a fire with Trung and our local guide, a giant of a man - easily the biggest Vietnamese I have seen so far. The giant and Trung are arm wrestling. Trung is badly beaten - the giant has huge fucking hands. I'm called upon to take him on, and step up reluctantly, ready to be crushed. We link arms, and brace. We begin, and as predicted I start to go down quickly. However, to my surprise, it doesn't end. The giant has me on the ropes, but he can't finish me off, and I manage to struggle back to a position of parity. We strain for a bit more, then, realising neither is going to budge, we call it a draw. We swap hands and try the left side. History repeats itself, only in reverse. Either I'm stronger on the left, or more likely, the giant is weaker. I get the upper hand, but can't pin him. Another draw. I get up and leave the table, feeling like a man.
We drink a couple of beers, and smoke a joint outside, and then make our final trek of the day, up the stairs and into bed.
Captain's log, star-date 20/02/08. I awake, bleary-eyed after another late night, and descend the stairs onto the bridge. There, at the window, I am faced by a strange creature, clawing at the latch. She appears humanoid in form, but I have never seen such strange and colourful garments. Not since the Christmas party, when Spock and Bones came as tarts and vicars. I set my phaser to stun, and take a closer look. As I approach, she becomes excited. She raises her hands, and shakes something bag-like in my direction. He mouth starts to open, and words form on her lips. I crane my neck to hear as the life form
finally utters a sound: "You buy for me?"
Fuck, they start early here. When I venture outside to take my morning piss, there is only one solitary H'Mong lady. I can't imagine why she thinks we'd be keen to do a spot of shopping at this time, especially after we had ample opportunity last night to buy anything we needed. Soon, others appear. It's an eerie, disconcerting scene, like something out of the Birds, or a zombie movie. We're alone, trapped inside a log cabin out in the wilderness, whilst outside, money-munching zombies claw at the walls, moaning, eager to chew on our wallets. "Fluuuuuttes." "Baaaag." "Yoou buy foooor meeeeeeee!" I'm looking around for a shotgun, or maybe a groovy chainsaw. I get the team around in a huddle, and remind them to go for the brain. It's the only way.
We make pancakes for breakfast, and by the time we have all our kit on, the whole gang is back outside. We set off as before, like a motorcade, our uniformed escorts taking point and drawing the sniper fire. Today, the mud is just as thick, and the route potentially harder. It's still impossible at times to maintain my balance, but I've become accustomed to the terrain, and feel more comfortable. I find that at times the lack of grip can be an advantage - if you time it right, you can slide down slopes instead of walk, pulling off 360's like a snowboarder. I go into one slide that goes on and on, maybe for 15 or even 20 metres.
The path winds and narrows, and we proceed upwards through trees. I'm in the front group with the giant. We can hear the rush of running water ahead of us. We step out into the open and onto boulders, and see that we're at the top of a steep waterfall. We stop here, and sit and take in the view. We wait a while for the others, but they have taken a different route, and never come, so we head down to meet them in the village.
It's hard to describe the feeling as you sit there, on top of the world, wind blowing the cool spray into your face. You don't come upon places like this often in a lifetime, and I'm sure I'll never make it back. Whenever I get close to the edge of something, I can feel it pulling me over. There's a strange urge to just let go, and tumble, over and over, until you crash to the bottom. Adrenaline makes me restless and I can't sit still for long before it floods though my veins, and I need to move again. I'm cold, and I'm restless, but I could still sit here all day as the water jumps off the mountain and just listen to all the bullshit I like to tell to myself, for as long as it takes.
The end of the day. We trek through minority villages back to our own. Dinner is served, and so is the rice wine. Some of the girls don't want theirs, and so pass them to me. Within half an hour, I've downed seven shots. Slowly, most people slink away to bed. Gregg, Craig, Marianne, Trung and the giant remain. Tonight, we don't do outside to smoke our weed. We just sit around the fire and get stoned. We don't have many skins left, and soon they are all gone. Luckily, we do have a Thuoc Lao. The giant has been smoking tobacco
out of it, but we soon change that. We add a little weed, to see how he likes that. He may be a big man, but he gets fucked up just the same as the rest of us. By 10pm, he announces his retirement to bed.
Everyone is doing hits from the bong, mixing the weed in with the tobacco. When we came away trekking, we had a big bag of the stuff, but a few hours on the Thuoc Lao see us dry. All we have left are two small parcels of horrible, sticky brown shit that we picked up for free. We don't have a lot of choice, so we pack it into the Thuoc Lao. A quick hit reveals our suspicions to be well founded - this is not some bullshit hash like Tricky Dicky of the desert thought. It's opium. Still, we've started now, so no going back. At first, I'm a little cautious. Then, after I few hits, as I feel the mellow smoke travelling through my blood stream, slowing it all down, making the moments last just a little longer, I just get on with it.
I have no idea what time it is when we finish off everything. I climb up and settle into my bed, lying back The air is choked with the thick, sweet smell of opium. I open my eyes, and the night has turned golden brown. I can feel it dripping off the ceiling, and washing over my skin. God only knows what we have done to the rest of the household. They were already sleeping soundly. Now, we've probably dropped them off into new levels of slumber; deep, deep into coma's, fresh with vivid, acid-laced dreams of mountain goblins and vampire salesmen, thrusting silver flutes into their faces, demanding they buy their handmade bags, gnashing with long, black teeth - "buy for me, motherfucker?"
I'm sure I can hear them all tossing and turning now, clawing at the air, moaning, "make it stop". Tomorrow, we'll get up, and find everyone lying on the floor, curled in shaking balls, yellowed skins drenched in stinking sweat as they go through opiate withdrawals. Shit, they are children in this house. We've marched in, stamped mud into the floor boards and got fucked-up on hard narcotics, right in the middle of their front room. Imagine your French foreign exchange student settling down in front of Eastenders after tea, pulling out his crack pipe and silver-surfing right there and then. I confess, I feel a little guilty, but too late to turn back time now. What's done is done, and anyway, we're grunts away on tour in Vietnam. What else are we supposed to do?
Another morning breaks. We rise, all in one piece. We have a short trek out of the village to our bus, and then we're back in the town of Sapa. We're out of weed, but it doesn't take long for one of the dealers to find us. Eventually, after a bit of haggling, we buy a big bag for 90,000d (3 quid). I head out with Gregg and Craig to a pool bar downtown. We drink some beers, and play a bit. We discover they have i-tunes, and take over, as is our style. Gregg puts on "Hurricane" by Bob Dylan, and I play every Roots tune they have. We stay for a few hours, and the place fills up, the people no doubt drawn in by our presence. I look around the room at some of the arseholes that have rolled in off the street. Another Israeli, prancing about like a peacock, pony tail hanging off him like a greased turd. Some guy named Nicholas, who sits down at our table whilst the other two are fiddling with the music, and asks if I mind him taking a seat. I don't give a shit, bro, just don't fucking touch me.
Eventually, good things come to an end, and we decide to leave. The pool bar treated us well - the beer was good, the music excellent, but the clientèle turned nasty, and it was only a matter of time before they tore us to pieces. Outside, we bump into two Australians, a girl and a guy, heading inwards to join their countrymen. The girl asks were we are going, and instead of telling her to mind her own business, we tell her we're off to see Chet at Pink Floyd, and to smoke some weed by his fire. The girl starts to freak out a little. She tells us smoking weed is a dangerous occupation in Vietnam - apparently, we could end up in jail. We've smoked in broad daylight, and watched our coordinator, Trung, hold up a bag of weed in the middle of the day in Sapa town centre, and ask me if it's any good. We know the stuff is illegal, and we don't want to get caught, but we can't really take her words of warning too seriously.
We give her even less credence when she tells us her brother was arrested for smoking dope, and then shipped over to a prison in Japan, before their parents had to pay $25,000 for his release. "Is that Australian dollars?" Gregg asks. "Oh well, that's not that much, then." And shipped to fucking Japan? Why, exactly? Are the prisons in Vietnam not built to hold a hardened criminal like her poor, lost, pot-smoking bro? Did they view his crime to be so heinous that they had to pack him away to foreign shores for processing, lest their primitive legal system be brought to its knees? More likely, (if there is any truth to this story at all), that they took great pleasure in beating and raping his skinny white ass, and felt selfish having all the fun to themselves, so they then sent him across the water, and let another police force have a go. Of all the shit I've heard - tricks of the desert, and now this bullshit.
We laugh at these two, and then go to find Chet to cook us up some raw meat. Chet has checked out early, though - there are no lights on in PF, and the place is clearly shut for the night. Disappointed, we wander back onto the high street. We walk in the direction of our hotel, stopping off along the way at any establishment that shows some sign of life. All are closing, and they will not let us in. Then, we bump into a couple of drunk Vietnamese guys, whom we played pool with earlier. We ask if there is anywhere we can get some food, and hear the magic word "Barbecue". One guy leaves, and the other, a huskily voiced dude, shows us the way. We head back up the hill away from our hotel, and away from the tourist centre of Sapa. We arrive at a market, and a stall cooking all manner of meat on a BBQ. Happy days for three drunk fucks like us.
Gregg and Craig sit down, and I pick out a selection of meats for us. We have pork, beef and chicken on skewers. We sit at a table with our new friend, and next to two other locals, who are both art students. We share some of their rice wine, and buy a bottle of our own. The food goes pretty quick, so I order more. Gregg is feeling adventurous, and eats one of the small, sparrow-sized birds they have cooking, head and all. Our husky friend tells us that the British are always "fucking", meaning we swear a lot. I can't disagree. We are a nation of foul-mouthed yobs, and the whole world knows it.
We eat and drink a lot, and then say farewell. Craig is chatting with the chef, a middle-aged woman with a young daughter. He's after her daughter, but I think he has a better chance with the mum. We are all a mess by this point, though I'd say the other two have the slight edge. As we come down the hill toward home, we see a small group of local teenagers by the side of the road. We are feeling sociable, as always, so rush over to greet them, shouting "Chuk Mung Nam Moi!" (New year is well and truly over, and this no longer has the magic affect of old). The response is unexpected. One of the group, a guy around 15, clearly almost as drunk as us, is keen for a fight. His eyes are narrow and unfocused, and he is obviously a troubled soul. We just laugh at him, but this makes him madder. His girlfriend steps in earnestly, telling us "You must go, he is angry, he will fight you." She pushes us away, and we just laugh harder. Thanks for saving our skins, miss. Thanks for diverting us out of the path of this angry adolescent.
Onwards, onwards, rocking and rolling. Craig falls out with gravity and takes a tumble, a little too close to the edge of the steep roadside for comfort. Soon, though, we are back at our hotel. This time, they have left the door open, hoping not to be woken. Some hope. We crash up the stairs, sssshhh each other loudly. Then, we break into song. "Stand By Me" reverberates around the stairwell as we ascend. We pile into the room I share with Gregg. I roll some joints, but pretty soon the other two are out of it, passed out next to each other on Gregg's bed. It's a touching scene. I capture it on camera.
Lie back, exhale. Another good day draws to a close.
Our final morning in Sapa. We all agree, it's been the best week so far. On the way out of town on the bus, I start to feel a little strange. My head spins, and my hands go numb. Never mind. If I die, I will die happy. I make it back to Lao Cai still breathing, and wonder around for a bit before going for the train. We're in a sleeper
carriage, a significant step up from the ones in India. We actually have a door that shuts, and there is no sign of any insect life. Ironically, I slept a lot better in India. Ly keeps me up, talking in soft whispers on her phone, annoying the hell out of me. I wanna get up and beat her with it, but I'm too polite. It's been a long time since I had a good nights sleep. Tonight will not be the night to break that pattern. Good thing we've got a quiet weekend ahead of us. Good thing we didn't decide to bypass Yen Bai, and go back to Hanoi. Good thing we all have more sense than that.
Hanoi. Shit. I'm still only in Hanoi..