The quintessentially stunning, terraced rice fields of South East Asia are gripping in their utter beauty. Sometimes, one forgets that a place so naturally magnificent is also necessary for the livelihood of the people living in its embrace. Sapa wasn’t my intention, as trekking isn’t really ever my intention, but the two day one night adventure has been the highlight of this country.
Naturally, we chose to hit the region during a national holiday, so not only was the little town going to be packed, but the availability of transport was shockingly low. Train travel is always my preference, but it was a touch too expensive for my taste at the moment. We inevitably took the notoriously terrible Sao Viet bus from Hanoi to Lo Cai with another bus connection to Sapa. Six to seven hours of travel on some of the coolest looking sleeper buses I’ve ever witnessed. Putting aside the absolute mess it was to find the bus company office, having them call on my Vietnamese sim card & directing us thirty minutes out of our way on foot, calling the trekking company to let them know how late we’d be — we still managed to have several good laughs on that gd bus. The four of us were situated on a sort of risen, seat-bed for five that allowed us to fully lay our bodies out — we were packed like sardines.
Lily, our guide from the highly recommended Sapa Sisters, was so accommodating we just wanted to pack her up and take her with us on all our travels. We paid in cash first at their office, surrounded by the smiling Black Hmong women, whom were talking animatedly in English about the day’s conditions. Posed with the question of trekking immediately or getting a ride to the edge — we went with the latter because two of us, non-trekkies, wanted to delay the whole situation. It gave us a chance to really take a look at Sapa without getting nervy about the terrain, which would keep our eyes glued to the ground for survival purposes. Like the majority of the world today, Sapa is beginning to show signs of increased tourism. Construction is copious and what that will mean for the ethnic minorities peppered across the valley is uncertain, but our hope is for more employment opportunities for them and the ability to tell people about their histories; which are long and tumultuous.
We began. Three of us in trekking sandals (Teva & Xero) and one in fresh Nike’s — immediate regret. For the next three or so hours, we’d take cursory glances up from the ground to see the breathtaking expanse that was pure Mother Nature. Little Vietnamese cone hats bobbing in the distance, harvesting from their family plots. A waterfall and the malaise of fog to really set the tableau. We’d attracted two other tribal women, outfitted in their own embroidered, indigo-dyed clothing, all areas of their body covered except knees, hands and faces. They wore the Vietnamese tire sandal, which is really a slip on, and that put things in perspective pretty quickly. All us foreigners are trippin about which shoes to pack, what bug spray, what this and that and these people have been using .50c sandals for generations. We all better calm down!
We took a break, drank Cokes, and told a story or two to catch our breath. We realized if we didn’t start moving, it would be dark and full of terrors – so we set off for another two hours to Lily’s house. We were doing a homestay because, well, it’s just the sensible thing to do in Sapa. We walked through an upscale homestay and my heart dropped a little when I saw we were to keep on, up the slippery, rocky incline only to be inundated by a line of squawking children. We arrived to a house of three smiling boys, two cooking parents, an oscillating fan and the best view of the valley we’d had yet. They didn’t have much, but they had more than enough. We helped make spring rolls (really, I just photographed) with rice paper and watched as the whole family went 100% out of their way to appease us with about eight dishes, Happy Water, and I even got a toke from the traditional bamboo pipe with a dash of tobacco from the man of the house. We were acclimating nicely.
Lily forced us to shower and within minutes we were all suddenly on the upstairs mattresses, ensconced in mosquito nets, waiting for sleep to take us hostage. When that beauty came, we were out until well beyond our starting time the next day. Lily didn’t try to wake us, bless her, she let us sleep to our hearts content. That trek had us sore the next day! But it was worth it; to take in the land of a people that live the way they have since their nomadic history came to a halt due to agriculture. Hundreds of years ago. Centuries. As a history buff, I needed very little more than what was being provided. A cup of coffee on a bare porch overlooking the valley in an actual monsoon, is living. We skipped the trek that second day, obviously, and settled for motorcycles back into Sapa. Somehow, we didn’t all fall the hell off into our deaths by putting all our trust in these moto drivers – letting our bodies meld with theirs, anticipating the curves the turns the traffic just as well as they did. And like that, it was over. We were on a sleeper bus (of death) back toward Hanoi – surrounded by people randomly vomiting and others sleeping in the actual aisles, head on the risen step to the on-board toilet (yikes). Those two days forced me to rest for the next three – but nothing else in my time in this country has been more worth it (except Cu Chi, if we’re being fully honest).