Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sapa's Hills Through the Eyes of Me

Another fabulous blog from globe-trotting number 1 child...light relief from
the cancer stuff from me!

As we fell asleep on the rocking train, Summer quickly moved to Winter, 
marching past Autumn in a huff. To fall asleep in a tangible, humming humidity 
and wake up in a blanket of heavy fog and swirling mists by the highest peak 
in Vietnam, was like setting ourselves as characters in a time-travelling 
fantastical adventure, and remaining perpetually dazed by the experiences 
before us.

The town, Sapa itself, is akin to a ski resort but without the snow. Hotels and 
Northface shops sit cosily on hills set in every direction, though one cannot see 
further than a few metres ahead to know that this is the case. Restaurants 
proclaim the promise of a woodburning fire, few actually delivering, and the 
Hmong tribespeople in their wellies shout 'Where you from' loudly as we pass 
by. Hot chocolate is the drink of choice, usually served with the sugary 
condensed tinned milk favoured by Vietnamese over that of the cow.

One afternoon, a Mancunian and a Scouser sat at a sofa, blowing hot air into 
their hands and shrugging off the fierce cold.

One imagines the sharing of backgrounds could mean a shaky start, for the 
famed rivalry between the two cities is second to none. Both would also insist 
that this history of animosity runs deeper than the Battle of the Reds. When 
away from home, however, whether in London, Sapa or Timbuktu, Northerners 
are a tight clan, who put local grievances aside and claim one other as brethren, 
bantering ruthlessly against the South. Such solidarity is only tossed off in a pub 
on Saturday afternoon.

Northerners being a rare breed amongst the Hmong tribe village of Sapa, we 
agreed to catch up that evening with Phil and Hoa, the Mancunian-Vietnamese 
couple who run Ethos Travel, somehow finding ourselves in an Egyptian Shisha 
Bar decorated as a Bedouin tent with a full-on decor of Valentine's Day. The 
world around us was pink and red, with rose petals scattered everywhere 
including in the toilet bowl.

The main attraction of Sapa is the trekking and for that reason, the very 
next day I found myself in a brand new hot pink Northface jacket and some 
snug fleece-lined black leggings ready to strut up a mountainside or two. On
 a serious note, this was one of the best experiences I have had and the 
highlight of our trip to Vietnam.

My (pronounced "Me") was our guide for the trek, a thirty year old woman with 
a gold front tooth dressed in the distinctive colours that the Black Hmong wear. 
Black baggy velvet shorts that reach to the knees, black linen cloths are wrapped 
around the calves with colourful ribbons strapping them on followed by sturdy 
walking boots. T-shirts and hoodies are covered by a dark blue overgarment with 
hand-stitched fluorescent strips of swirling shapes and flowers adorn the arms, 
shoulders and collar. A similarly decorated sash wraps the coat and a blue, green, 
pink and purple checked scarf is wrapped bandana style around the head. My has 
black hair reaching close to the floor which she has not cut for over 20 years. She 
wraps this round her head like a halo and affixes it with a comb at the front. The 
Hmong wear massive chains round their necks and two or three dangly earrings 
to a lobe, the more you wear - I'm told, the more beautiful you are supposed to be.

When I was seventeen, I cut a knee length checked skirt into a minuscule skirt 
and a boob tube. I also once tried to go clubbing with a pashmina wrapped around 
me instead of a dress. My sister would tell me now that with such similar fashion 
sense, I must have been a Hmong orphan cast away from the tribe.

A trip into the local market, where buffalo legs, chicken feet, pig oesophagus 
and dried squid are delicacies hotly contested over, found us laden with meat 
(normal), rice paper, coriander, carrots, spring onions, eggs and bananas. My 
holds my hand on a regular basis already and laughs loudly and jostles us 
along, much to the amusement of the numerous family members we pass.

An hour's climb up hill and we can still see no more than our breath 
evaporating in front of us and hemp and indigo growing beside our feet. 
The fog is never ending. We hear a bell and some kettle drums and a 
school comes into sight. Young children are dancing in rows, synchronised 
claps above and below whilst old women watch, wrapping hemp around 
their hands, fingers stained blue and green.

My's house is humble, walls of bamboo and a corrugated iron roof.  There 
is no electricity, nor light. The home is split into three rooms, and the eaves 
hold corn to feed the animals, rice to feed the family. Traditional marriages 
mean that the wife will live with the husband's family - so before long, mother
-in-law, sisters-in-law, cousins and children flock into the house to eat with 
us. For with the exception of when trekkers come to visit, they all eat plain 
boiled rice three times a day, every day. It is a celebration, a feast when we 
come and I am so glad that we provide the opportunity to feed so much of 
the family a hearty meal.


The fire sits in one of the rooms, smoke blowing everywhere and low 
wobbly stools sit close to the floor. The food is prepared on the mud 
floor or in metal bowls. Nothing is spared and the fat of the meat is melted 
down to use as oil. Everybody sits close by as the fire is the only source 
of heating and it is effing cold. We are served stir-fried chicken with carrot 
and onions, pork and greens with rice. Rice wine is poured out into shot 
glasses out of a plastic water bottle. This was to be consumed in large 
quantities over the next three days. No English is spoken, but the 
constant chatter of the females around us is captivating.

Another five kilometres we walked that afternoon which was all downhill. 
The mud was wet and there were few footholds to stop the ungraceful 
slithering and sliding act which was our only way to climb down the hill. A 
child ran down the hill past us in a pair of sandals, putting us to extreme 
shame. Terror creeps up on you slightly when you peer over the edge 
and see how far you could fall if the mud sent you flying in that direction. 
Mist everywhere meant that one would suddenly find themselves staring 
into the black beady eyes of a buffalo with no prior warning.


A night at My's sister's house led to much merriment and a few sore 
heads the next morning after several litres of rice wine was consumed. 
Much the same as lunch, we ended up eating with around 10 relative
-in-laws and children and watching some bizarre Korean vampire show 
on television under the single lightbulb that was in the house. We slept 
in the open, on a low bed under a mosquito net, with a thick blanket.

Twelve kilometres the next day, mainly by road, took us down the 
valley and as we climbed the mist slowly rose giving us the famed 
view of rice paddies that Sapa is known for.

My has never been to the city. Nor has she seen the sea. This is the case 
for the majority of people that surround us in the hill tribes. It's curious. 
How can one imagine a world, a life, having not seen a sprawling 
metropolis in glinting sunlight, the ferocious blaring of horns in deadlock 
traffic, the concerted faces as swarms of people walk to their offices, the 
gym, meetings, restaurants, cafes, shops? The observation of urban 
culture as it passes you by? Or the expanse of an ocean, where your eyes 
search the horizon for where the sky meets the sea? The vivid colours of 
the sunset - gold vermillion, shades of fuchsia, violet and periwinkle 
dancing with the clouds? The salt spray, the roar and ebb of a tide, grains 
of sand between your toes as you sink beneath the surface? The joy to see 
fish and coral beneath pellucid waters.

But My has seen the changing seasons over the hills of Sapa. The ornate 
finery in the rice paddies as they dip down the valley. They look like steps 
for God to ascend down from heaven. My has seen children chasing their 
father's bike with glee across a corrugated iron bridge, with no hesitation 
at the cracks that reveal the gushing river below. The breaking backs of 
men building the foundations of a house, together and with no payment 
except a hearty meal. A family of twenty sitting together round a fire with a 
simple spread. Buffalo, pigs, chickens, goats, dogs and cats roaming 
together and doing their bit.

Whilst we sit humbly, at times abhorrent at the poverty that many of them live 
with, respectful of the endless toil we see around us, sorrowful that most children 
may never see the sea, develop a love/hate relationship for the city and all of its 
meddlesome quirks, may never go to university and see a full education, will 
marry and stay in the village they grew up in, next door to the house they were 
born in. They will face most, if not all, of the hardships of the earlier generation 
for whilst the tourist trade in Sapa has reaped benefits, it is part of their culture to 
live exactly the way they are and always have been. It takes reminding that the 
lessons in life taught here are no better nor worse than the ones taught of the 
children who see the city and the sea. Like us. My does not miss what she has 
never known and we are not right to perceive the quality or the richness of life as 
poorer than what we have. She certainly doesn't think that way. And I have learnt 
to believe her.

My's biggest challenge at the moment is saving money for a chimney. Her 
children suffer from the cold, smoke inhalation. She worries for a bad harvest 
which will mean that there is not enough rice for the family. Sapa's rice paddies 
have been exhausted and there are few minerals left in the soil, which means 
that they can only harvest once a year. Her husband works in the summer in the 
fields, for no pay, simply for the food that they can bring to the family table. Any 
excess is traded in the village for other basic necessities. My does not have a 
bank account where she stashes her earnings from the treks. She has never 
learnt the concept of saving nor is quite bought into the long-term benefits of an 
expensive chimney. One day she came across a glimmering rainbow trout in the 
market, and in her delight - having never seen or eaten one before, spent a lot 
of her cash to be able to carry the rainbow trout proudly 5km uphill to her family 
to feed them for one night. That is My. She has the biggest heart.

Heavy breathing, slipping and sliding up and down muddy tracks, stopping 
to enjoy the views, staying in local villages with families suckling their babies, 
fetching water from bamboo poles that run down the mountain, poking the 
fire, preparing simple yet delicious food for the people who come to stay and 
themselves. Learning from the generosity of My and others who, in English 
oftentimes broken, share pictures of their rituals, routines and culture. All in 
a glorious landscape surrounding us, unbroken beauty and the never-ending 
horizons of green hills.

1 comment:

  1. We are the We chanced upon your blog and enjoyed the read. links you directly to 30,000+ travel specialists worldwide who will compete to plan your trip, therefore giving you the best tours with the most competitive prices. So do share with us your next vacation plans and create your ideal trip.