Hmong, Tai and Red Zhao have lived in Vietnam's North West since the 1700's, when the nomads began arriving from China. Todays trekkers, marvelling at the lush Hoang Liem valley vistas, a tail end of the Himalayas, share in the diversity of village life and the customs when growing up and romancing here. Fog and rain smother treks for almost half the year, but the curtain of fog parted at the start of this June four day trek. Mr.Lan at the Sapa Heritage Centre directed me to a local Black Hmong guide. Twenty kilometers from Sapa Miss Chang and I were dropped off. Way across the range, triangular firs forest the granite pyramids that jaw the upper valley. Vase shaped terraces slice the hills, pinned with lime green rice stalks. Arched backs plant rice for the annual harvest or press bullocks to plough on. Rooves lapel the hills down to the river. But even forest habitats above 1,500 metres are being eroded and hunted in this nature reserve. Hopscotching stones on slithery clay we pass an American woman blanching: "Does it get any easier? " Naively nonchalant, soon it's my feet sinking in three feet high mud ridges. Miss Chang's helping hand and broad valley smile see me through. She's pursuing her guide career, though illiterate. Hmong treasure their oral stories and musical heritage, especially for spring romancing. Orange beak geese snap ochre butterflies whilst we picnic, steamed bamboo and rice, at the waterfall of Giang Ta Chai village.
Twenty three up and down kilometers later, fleeing a darkening sky, we reach our Tai guesthouse in Ban Den village. It straddles the Ta Van river, by a tower of greened limestone. As the dawn sun curves, the Dad plays with his doting daughter on his lap. 'Here I can do what I like, in the fields and store,' he smiles. His parents emigrated from Southern China thirty years ago to join the 1,200,000 Thais in
Vietnam, her largest ethnic group. Bright rice bundles are dropped by our stilt 'villa', built communally -and nailessly- in two days. But getting drinking water had taken twelve hours. Setting out, dehydration collapses me under the shady stilts of a bemused local's home. Fortunately, Yoga postures-the headstand and plough - cools and cures. We walk through scents of evaporating greenery to bird trills and paper trumpet melodies. After a few hours the path smooths, legs relax, and the sky blossoms blue and white. Miss Chang, sweating, insists she wear the full Black Hmong dress. Her hair is rolled in a headband above heavy silvered earrings. The split fronted, indigo dyed hemp blouse undergarments a long shiny waistcoat which becomes an apron below an embroidered belt. Flower Hmong rainbow embroider entire outfits. Red, Blue and White Hmong colour code accordingly. Crossing the sunset river leads up to Muong Bo village. Horses amble by as pillars of sunlight beam around the valley vista where shrikes, finch and barbet fly. Homes ring the rice fields. The guest house is again Tai. A family altar photo shows valley fruits: papaya, guava, banana and mango. Outside, nusing near night shadowed corn, girls run and scream past me! Perplexed, back on our rattan balcony, I ask Miss.Chang about Black Hmong courtship. Suddenly, thunder pounds the sky, ziggurat lightening flares through clouds as an electric monsoon sieves the sky. She says friendlily: 'If a boy sees a girl he likes, then he asks friends about her. At Tet, the lunar New Year festival, he may serenade her with bamboo pan pipes, musical leaves, the Jew's harp and song: 'I'm a songbird with no branches to perch on You exude perfume like wild flowers Come here if you've affection for me!' He's dancing in waves around her, coaxing her to join in: ' You have heard wrong about me, I'm as ugly as a flower the bees dare not visit If you are not teasing me then Meet me at the next market day! Village celebrations go on for months after a wedding.' Lightning necklaces the sky; as green fire flies drift by, her lilting voice confides: 'If you want to marry a Hmong girl, I will tell you how she is, and how to play the pan pipes ! ' But beware: sociologists claim forced kidnap marriages of the girl are still common practise, causing unhappiness. Guides talk of feigned kidnappings of lovers. By morning the rice trays brim over. All around the valley, bamboo age aquaducts chute water to u indented rice steppes and levers of rice husker arms. Water gurgles down into our bamboo kitchen' washing bowls and even the outdoor loo. Sunlight spreads out of the grey. The river below churns white water past masses of red and orange mossed boulders. Miss Chang considerately says the Red Zhao village is just a few kilometers up hill; it's ten. Nearing Sin Chai A, farming women chewing betel nut walk by. Ornate silver, French colonial coins, pom poms and tassels sway from their red cushion shaped turbans. The cooling air tastes of the valley. Tall,broad thatched homes space forty degree clay paths between fowl ponds and allotments in which medicinal ginger grows. Doors are open and a family lets me in. While the husband smokes from a broad bamboo tube, popular in Vietnam, his wife embroiders white geometric motifs of people, animals, trees and abstracts on black leggings. Their children look at me wistfully, shoulder length hair around oval faces, eyes warm and thoughtful like the villagers'. By the fifteenth year they'll have full names, until then a guardian genie name. Genies are common in Vietnam. When Ho Chi Minh died, it is said, he transformed into the Vietminh's Guru genie. After three days a name to tell ancestors is given. Ancestor veneration is akin to religion in Vietnam. The Taoist baptism -Cap sac- bestows the full name: family lineage sequences the particles. All approve as I try on a home spun long coat and baggy leggings,from their cupboard. It feels comfortable and roomy. Chinese script between paper patterns festoon the living room wall. Zhao Shamans still recite from Zhao pronounced Chinese texts. Their altar faces the entrance.That's in line with feng shui, harmonising living space with the elements. Its shelf under side is decorated with purple paper pitchers.A tassel of corn hangs on either side. On the kitchen hearth sits a four by four foot wok. Dying and corn barrels line the room. After photos, I walk up past the village square where Miss Chang is chatting in the café next to the school. TheGovernment encourages education and settled communities. Above, in the shade of a long house, fifteen year old girlfriends embroider. For the female cap sac, at age 13, mothers shave eyebrows and forehead before pouring hot wax on braided hair. It's then rolled into the dazzling turban. This epitomizes beauty for Zhao suitors. Beetles zingywhirr from the forested path side is dusk's alarm clock: time to go home. Field workers are returning, wooden ploughs and hoes over shoulders.
To the pulse of childhood, boys saunter on slopes that ring their rice basin, calling to friends and striding across ridges. Wrinkly eyed bulls and calves scrutinize me. It's day four and my lingering return to Sapa, via Supan. Exchanging " Go bo Chi" greetings, locals whoop and cheer us en route. We pass Danish trekkers, blue eyes bulging at panoramic views of the horse shoe valley vista we've been traversing. Next morning, the Sapa sun genie vanished in a surge of fog and drizzle. Miss Chang returned to her family of twelve siblings. Her neighbourliness had attuned our trek to Mr. Lan's remark: "The people love the land here so much." ---------------------------------------------- Do let me know about your Sapa and Asian travel interests. Travel Information Best time to visit: October to December when it's cool and least rainy. How to get there: The overnight train is clean and comfortable. Guides: Ask at the Heritage museum about where to find a local guide. Miss Chang can be contacted via the Cat Cat guest house. Do say 'Goyongshizhou'from Ian! Many tour agencies from Hanoi will organise your trip, such as Footprint, Handspan and Kim's Cafe. Tips: Local guides care about the valley and so may give you more 'space' to appreciate the trek. Check and write out the route before starting. You may want to minimise the steep up and down trails. Allow for rainy day activities in Sapa before the trek- such as visiting Dragon jaw park, the Art galleries, Cat Cat waterfall and chilling out. Books and C.D's aren't available in