The night train to Lao Cai was interesting to say the least…
As it transpired, my $120 3-night package did not give me the privilege of the luxury sleeper carriages marked ‘T’ for ‘Tourist’ . Also ‘T’ for Terrific perhaps? I walked passed enviously and climbed in to my own carriage with the local Vietnamese. ‘L’ for ‘Local’ and ‘L’ for ‘Limited’?
This meant my digs for nine long hours was a 6-person berth and my bunk for the night – yes, luck was not on my side – right at the top. The ceiling of the carriage was just a kiss away as I lay there tired but unable to sleep. My room mates were 5 local men and trusting no one after an unfriendly encounter in Hanoi, I hugged my possessions to my chest and locked myself in with the complimentary fleece blanket.
As soon as the engine started, I understood why they were so generous with the blankets. A gush of cold air escaped the air vents with a sudden hissssssssss that threatened to give my toes frostbite.
Somehow I managed to eventually drift off to sleep… One of my roomies was trying to wake me nine hours later. ‘Lao Cai… Lao Cai!’ a voice was calling from somewhere in my dreams. I opened one eye groggily. ‘Lao Cai!’ one of the Vietnamese men repeated, gesturing his hand towards the window where outside, dawn was breaking in to a new day.
Half asleep I found the representative of the Summit hotel and followed him drowsily on to a minibus where I would be driven to my home for the night. We were heading to Sapa – Vietnam’s ‘Queen of the Mountains’, located in the far reaches of the North West, near Mount Fansipan, Indochina‘s highest mountain peak at 3,143 metres.
The obvious draw to Sapa is the spectacular landscaping, but as the gateway to mysterious tribes, Sapa is also a ’culture-vulture’s’ must-see, ablaze with the billowing red headdresses of the Red Dzao and indigos of the H’Mong tribes.
The Summit hotel was teeming with newcomers when we finally reached. I was eager to commence my journey in to this mystical land but sensing our weariness, our host ordered us to shower, stow our luggage and fill up on an abundant buffet breakfast of carbs. We were going to need it… A three hour trek was on the agenda for us and tomorrow a 5 hour trek…There was no rest for the wicked here. A nap would have to wait.
Our guide for the 2 days introduced herself as Ving. She was adorned in the distinctive dress of the H’Mong tribe; an indigo dyed dress finalised with delicately hand embroidered bands to the arms and waist. On her legs despite the heat, were what resembled leg warmers, wrapped tightly around with an embroidered, matching ribbon. Her fingertips were stained ominously with indigo; effects of the purple dye from the indigo plant, used by the H’Mong people to dye their clothes in their respective tribal colours.
Around her neck, was a silver necklace in the shape of a crescent moon; an accessory she told me is only worn by married women. She couldn’t have been more than 18, yet there was an aura that she was wise beyond her years.
I walked next to Ving on our hike down from Sapa town to the Thac Tien Sa waterfall inundating her with questions. I liked her immediately and was in complete awe of her. Ambitious, strong and determined to provide her family well, she taught herself English at a young age to become a guide, and at 18 years of age, was already married with an 18 month old baby girl.
Eventually we arrived at the Cat Cat village where the main attraction is an impressive waterfall… There were no scooters in sight now. Only rows of huts where the H’Mong people were selling their colourful wares of satchels, pencil cases, stuffed animals, bracelets, and beautifully crafted textiles. The rice harvest occurs just once a year and out of harvesting season, women come out of their villages in to the tourist hotspots to further their income.
‘Buy from me! Buy from me’ a vendor heckled as we walked past each stall.
‘You remember me. Buy from me!’ another one joined in.
All of them were approaching us now. I felt like I was suddenly in a horror movie with zombies surrounding me! Arms came at me from all directions. They held up brightly coloured offerings of stitched thread bracelets. ‘Buy from meeee?’ ‘Please buy from meeee?’
I tell them ‘no’ politely but they will not take no for answer. They follow shouting out question after question. The same verse directed at each of us –
‘What your name?’, ‘Where you from?’, ‘How old you are?’, ‘How many brother sister you have?’, ‘Are you marry?’
One of the girls in our small group of 8 displays a hint of interest in an embroidered purse and I’m suddenly let off the hook.
The scenery was breathtaking as we ascended mountain after mountain. Cascading rice terraces spilled down the mountains like a mammoth green tiered wedding cake. She was abundant, curvaceous, epic. I paid one of the H’Mong women for a stuffed monkey and another for an embroidered belt. I wanted to enjoy my surroundings in peace and it seemed the only way to quieten them… Well, momentarily.
Further on we tested our balance and stepped one foot in front of the other along the formed mud ridges of the rice terraces. It was easy to lose your concentration; daring to tear your eyes away from your feet to take in the striking architecture of our surroundings. Each basin was perfectly formed in an arc and repeated hundredfold as it ascended up the mountain in to the heavens. The temptation to stop mid ridge was too overwhelming. Could this actually be heaven on earth? It could very well be… I felt like I was standing in the clouds overlooking the plunging valley… Miles of lush verdant rice fields fanned out below us as far as the eye could see. It was out of this world.
We trek towards Ving’s village now passing paddy fields, water buffalo and women with babies strapped to their backs. Others were weaving, spinning, or carrying baskets laden with goods. A school sat half empty. Instead scruffy children were left unattended in wheelbarrows outside while their parents worked the tourists. And where were the menfolk? If any existed in these valleys – which the babies suggested they did! – there were none to be seen.
Ving led us to a house, a single storey wooden hut with a corrugated roof to protect its inhabitants from the changeable weather conditions. The hut is Ving’s mother’s home but it is also a factory for traditional H’Mong clothing. The same clothes that Ving and her family were wearing adorned the walls; wooden contraptions dotted here and there.. There was no sign of sanitation… no sign of a washing machine or a TV or computer. Still, Ving pulled out her mobile phone and started chattering away in some funny dialect… Perhaps in another decade, the world of electronics will take over Sapa too.
I hope not though… As a new group of zombies approached us with dollar signs in their eyes, I felt the essence and charm of Sapa had been ebbed away over the years. As beautiful as Sapa is, I felt guilty for being here… That I was one of a big number of hungry tourists fuelling that wanderlust at the expense of others.
A little girl of about 2 years old smiled shyly at me from a doorway. ‘Hello, what your name?’ she squeaked at me. Her words sounded rehearsed, uninterested. I smiled back at her sadly wondering what the future had in store for her. As an ethnic minority would she ever make it out of these lands? To one day attend university and perhaps become the next president, a renowned writer, a musician? Or was her life destined to stalking the likes of you and me, singing at the top of her voice “Buy from me!”