tour operator showed us photos of two classes of
train, the first was a beautiful wood lined cabin with sultry low lighting, clean looking mattress, pillow, finished off with a vase of fresh flowers. The second option was a grey blue Formica interior with low lighting, clean looking mattress and pillow but was much cheaper, so we booked the Formica cabin as dwindling budgets dictate. The photos were of course staged, I should have known this as the Formica cabin had no flowers but it did have harsh strip lighting and looked more like an old prison cell. Two hours after we had paid for the affordable combination of train and 2 star
hotel accommodation and personal choice of easy, moderate or terribly hard trekking, we were then told they needed $24 extra as there was suddenly no room in the 2 star hotel as it was a public holiday and Sapa would be heaving with locals. We were to upgrade to a 3 star hotel, so we thought ummm 3 star, nice one. We were then promised that after our restful nights sleep on the sleeper train (which for the record didn't happen due to a small family of screaming kids and mini earth tremor snoring from both adults that shared with us) that we would be picked up and taken straight to our 3 star hotel to freshen up with a nice hot shower, then to indulge in a delicious breakfast, all this before we started our first day of trekking in the amazing and truly breath taking (moderate trek option) Tonkinese Alps. We were picked up from the train station in Lao Chai at 6 am, but then taken to the tour operators shop in Sapa. We were given some crumbling bread, ham and rocket fuelled coffee with condensed sweetened milk, which I quiet like now and waited 2 hours. There was no hotel as the 3 star hotel was not available until after mid day. Still wearing shitty clothes from the night before, I was slightly groggy with lack of sleep, menstrual cramps and now hunger as I don't eat ham any more. Stu was even more groggier even though he had some sleep, no menstrual cramps and no hunger as he ate all my ham too, I think he may be sickening for something. We started our trek in the blazing heat of the North Western mountains by the Chinese boarder.
The first thing that happens are the little voices that echo the same same words all around you "Where you from? Whats your name? How old are you? You have baby...no baby...why no baby?" Then once we have all got to know each other its...."You buy from me?" The black H'mong ladies NEVER give up. They follow you from tour guide shop to the hotel, then wait. They follow you down the first days trek to Cat Cat village " Buy from me lady bery cheap, I gib you cheap cheap"
N e v e r .....say to them 'maybe later' as this is their red rag.
These same ladies camp out side your hotel all night long, just to get one sale. The H'Mong tribes were the last to settle in the Hoang Lien Son mountain districts, they came from southern China in the 18th century where they split in to four tribes: white, flower, red and black and are all relentless in their selling "buy from me OK" drills right through ear matter and brain cells. I do loved their costumes though, especially the little kids stuff, they weave then dye their own
fabrics using the green leaf of the indigo plant, which when rubbed between fingers it turns dark blue. They hand make all their clothing with elaborate embroidery, they still find the time to look after their young, hustling tourists all day long, walk miles every day from Sapa town to their villages some three hours trek away, although I do think a lot of them hitch rides on motor bikes, there is no way they can fit all these activities into one working day.
After the first day was over I got a motor bike back up the hill as I was seriously flagging by 3 pm, cramps were kicking in and I burnt my leg on the exhaust, I dragged myself back to the hotel and was a bit surprised after finally checking in at the shabbiness of it, especially as we paid an extra $24 for this upgrade from 2 star to a 3 star. But here in Vietnam the star system is not same same, its very different. They base the 1 star rate on a hotel that has less than 10 rooms a 3 star would have more than 30 rooms, 5 star fifty rooms and so on, so it is not based on quality, but quantity of room available. A room that has AC, great bed and clean white sheets, coffee making stuff, cable TV, Wifi , PC in the room, fruit basket and a single live rose in a vase but only 8 rooms available will be listed as 1 star. A hotel that has 50 rooms, no Ac, no Cable TV, no fruit bowls, a dribbling cold shower and nothing much else will be listed as 5 star. So why did we pay more, this made no sense.
Even though its 80 degrees in the shade its the beginning of May and I noticed hints of spring time everywhere, babe type hogletts fighting for a space at mums teats, puppies falling over them selves, buffalo calf's learning how to stand, kittens chasing flies, chicks following mummy ducks in single file to the waters edge, bare bottomed babies happily suckling on exposed breasts or hanging patiently by a single bit of string straddled on mums back, there could have been baby shreks running around as it was that kind of farfarawayland. Flowers of every kind were opening up, tiny finger nail sized violet butterflies fluttering in the breeze by a full flux of water fall, amazingly as I walked and walked I did not complain about anything on this trek. I loved this walk. We had the H'Mong tribes as company the whole way "You buy something from me....Ok?....You promise tomorrow, you say you buy from me (I said no such thing)...you buy from me...look good price" And on it went. One thing they all said which made a change especially when I ran up a cliff and was not out of breath was "you are so strong" instead of 'you are so big' and prodding every inch of my flesh in search of unborn child! I heard that all these village, tribe people tell each other exactly how much they all earn, they all know each others business, there are no secrets between them. We walked past two babies working, and I mean babies working. One little girl was a little more than three years old, her sister a little over two and a half both carrying a woven basket full of logs, heart breaking. Sweat broke as I raced up and down the mountains and passes but since Hanoi's Dr. Pins I had a
massed a new kind of energy. What helped was the fantastic tour guide we had his name is Binh and he always smiled, he cooked us our breakfasts, lunches and evening meals, he was a wealth of information, nothing was ever a problem and he was all of 24 years old.
After day two we settled in for the night in La Van which is the home stay village. We stayed at the Hoang families home which was nestled in the terraced mountainous ridges. This was the best part of the trip, the house was very open plan with comfy foam mattresses up stairs and internet down stairs, progress and demand. They provided us with soft flip flops and a big bucket of cool water to shower with. An little old lady tried to sell us MORE stuff, I took her picture but did not buy anything, to be honest id run out of smaller change and was all retailed out. She said she will come back tomorrow to sell me something as I had taken her picture twice, I thought to myself...'yer, yer were off early tomorrow' I didnt care at that point and took another shot of her anyway. Mindless I know. I watched Grandma Hoang cut vegetables, she made us tea, then the 20 chicks had escaped from the pond, so she ran after them with a big stick and her granddaughter strapped to her back and yaaaa hooed them back in to the pond enclosure.
Granddad tinkered with the wire fencing for a bit and the small shed area needed sorting, they both played with the four grand children. Just as the sun was setting Granddad took a stroll along the mud ridge with his 2 year old granddaughter. It made me think how valuable grand parents are to the day to day running of a big and busy family, they do all those little things that are equally important to be done, yet too time consuming for the busy parent. I thought of both sets of my grand parents, right then at that very moment I missed them all.
Binh noticed the seeping mass of rotting skin on my leg where I burnt my self on the bike the day before, the blister had burst, he cleaned it up for me then he dabbed toothpaste gel on it, apparently they all do it around here and I must say it soothed the burning. All the women wear black velvet leg wraps, this is to protect them from such burns but also to protect their calf muscles with all this hiking, they place a wooden baton inside the velvet as support. Dinner was made by Binh, it was a blinding meal, Vietnamese food is really delicious and so healthy. After dinner I was beat. After sleeping like a cocooned baby, the cockerel woke me up at the decent time of 7 am. The old lady seller was sitting on a plastic kiddie chair ready, waiting for me to buy her quilts and hand bags,
I felt very bad, I had behaved very bad, she must have got up at 5 am just in case we left at a god awful hour, I should have known better so I bought a hat, she was happy. I watched the ducks cleaning them selves, then played with the two dogs in between them also cleaning themselves and each other, I had a sweet little tabby cat sit on my lap cleaning him self to, the cat looked like my dear old cat Shaman who died 3 years ago, I miss him terribly, so moments like this was very special to me. Animals, children and the elderly.... a combination of true loving wholesomeness.
Day three we trekked up mountains, my lungs were fine, breathing regular and clear, my ankles didn't swell, my cheeks rosy, I was heomodynamically stable, my mood better than average in fact borderline ecstatic, things we moving along very nicely. It was so very peaceful even though at some points Binh had soft music playing on his mobile phone which was actually really nice, we reached a ridge, then a song came on that made me cry inside and out. Terry Jacks ' Seasons in the Sun' sadly it was West Life's version but non the less the song reached out to me, this is the one song my Nanna Edna used to sing to me when I was 9 or 10 years old, I always remember that time and her teaching me the lyrics, it was summer time and herds of cows passed our back garden (there were fields there so it all normal) I had fallen over and really banged my leg, I was a very clumsy child and she was a very spot on Nanna to have in such times of personal crisis.
My Nanna used to work for British Airways, so did my Uncle Jonathan and I always remember her telling me about the crazy places she had been too, especially when she went to Abu Dhabi! Was she really 'avin a laugh with me? As I had no clue what on earth she was talking about, I never took any notice in my geography classes, so It was her real life stories of travel that so inspired my restless soul especially when I was growing up within a very troubled family.
Binh turned the song up, we all looked out over the mountains, shared water, watching clouds disperse and the sun come up, hearing the silent yet busy rice fields at work which had men directing water buffalo's up and down the tiny isles. In Hoi An Stu and I found out that he is the Chinese sign of the Buffalo and I must say there is a similarity. The animal is so loyal to its owners and family, they let children jump all over them and are protective if any unwelcome strange person comes in to their territory as I got shoo'd off by a Buff's horns, as I was in his way. They are hard workers but they know how to rest properly and how to play games. I knew my nanna was with me at that moment, a glide came into my stride as I sprinted onwards up through the bamboo forests to the water fall.
The H'Mong have a mating ritual. The first part takes place in the Sapa town square on a Saturday night, where the young girls dress in traditional costume accompanied by an opened umbrella to tell male others they are single. A keen young male wears traditional costume also, the girl and boy look around, they spot someone they fancy, the male approaches, walks the girl away from the public square, gives her a souvenir, she goes home. he goes home. They meet again in the square the following Saturday, he gives her another souvenir, they flirt and talk about family. They go home alone. Third date the best freind of the boy finds a secret place for them to share their first kiss, then they arrange to meet the girls parents, which is usually miles away in villages hidden in the mountains. The parents decide if they like the boy, then its hugs and kisses all round. Or he goes home and he is out again the following Saturday night.
If all is good, she then moves into the boys family home for three days the number three is a very lucky auspicious number to the H'mong people, but she is not allowed to talk to any male members, only female members can talk to her and feed her. While the girl is in the boys family home she must make him a home made t-shirt to show her devotion to him, he must wear it all the time and he must tell her it looks so beautiful. The girl is allowed to do a bit of snooping, if the boys house is made from wood has nice things in it and has some head of an animal displayed somewhere within or she cooks a head of an animal to eat (that bit I am not too sure which!) This too is all very auspicious and good and means that the boy will have a good strong and healthy future with her. But, after the three days is up, the girl must decide to be his wife, if she agrees the wedding is held within a three month period, if the girl says no, she agrees to 'just' be his friend and she is left feeling relived and happy, the boy is left feeling rejected and sad and has to start the whole damn process all over again.
These people are visibly poor, a photo i have listed shows a family searching through bins for food, although it is said that they are starting to make some money from crops and from tourism. But when I read recently that researchers have been able to double the jumping height of the Caelifera Acrididae grasshopper by injecting a precise mixture of sulfates under the exoskeleton and this study has cost the American tax payer $1.2 million D O L L A R S, it makes me so mad!