The background things
After a few nice days in Hanoi and my beautiful cruise in Halong Bay, I took at overnight bus to Sapa. Sapa is a mountain town about 6 hours north west of Hanoi. It’s known for its vast, mountainous rice fields.
Treks through the fields are offered by local Hmong village women, who have self-organized to financially support their families and subsequently also Sapa’s tourist economy. The women find people to take trekking by meeting overnight buses as they arrive in the mornings and by striking up conversations with disembarking tourists. In those conversations they offer one, two, or three-day treks through the mountains and invite groups of tourists to stay in their homes overnight. Treks usually include your guide, accommodation, lunch, dinner, and breakfast the following morning … and a ride back to town, which is key. A very local, pretty ingenious way of earning extra income!
The language barrier strikes again
Up until this point, I’d done a lot of adventuring alone, so I wanted to find a guide who had a group of people trekking together. I chose a guide named Say, who implied through broken English that she had another Canadian girl trekking with her. However, as we started our walk I quickly began to realize that there was only me and four Hmong women heading out on this adventure. Zero Canadians in sight. (I would piece together later that Say had trekked with a Canadian girl the previous week, but that her English was not strong enough to communicate the past tense of that trek). So, I accepted that this would just be another solo-female traveler adventure, and followed my group of little mountain ninjas up a steep mountain trail.
The trek is bright and full of nature
The first part of the trek was challenging and muddy. The weather was wet, and the coniferous air reminded me of the west coast rainforest, with a little jungle on top. The Hmong women bounced around the mud and rocks with ease, looking elegant in traditional outfits that included colourful head scarves to protect from the sun, and silver hair combs to hold never-cut hair in place.
My hair was frizzing out of my top bun and my body was filled with the rigid-fear of falling down a steep, muddy crevasse.
After a time, we joined other trekker-guide groups who had stopped to have a snack consisting of locally grown cucumbers. The guides would peel the cukes with their working knives while they chatted to each other in-language, and then they would pass us our pieces.
As we ate, we were passed by a group of two, 7 year old boys who were herding a group of eight water buffalo down the mountain. The juxtaposition was impressive: small, skinny boys with walking sticks firmly but innocently directing massive and angry-looking buffalo down muddy trails. Alone. All I could think of as I watched them was that if those seven year old boys could be put in charge of giant water buffalo every day, then my future children could certainly be asked to empty the dishwasher at the age of seven. Amirite?
The red plastic chair
Once we got to Say’s house, she found me a red, plastic chair to sit on, and then, without instruction, she promptly left.
There I was. Alone, tired, dirty, and confused. It was 3pm and dinner wasn’t until what I could only assume would be 6pm – what was I supposed to do now?
I sat there thinking that I wish I had trekked in Myanmar. Any Burmese person would never have left me there, alone, in a red chair. They would’ve been too curious about me. They would’ve pushed me into their home and likely had me dressed up in traditional dress, cutting bamboo, and meeting the rest of the village. Instead, I was sitting alone on a red, plastic chair reading short stories inspired by the book “Eat, Pray, Love” and taking in my surroundings. I felt weird – like a fly on the wall. We all know that I paid to be there, but for some reason I didn’t feel all that welcome.
Pigs, ducks, cats, chickens, and other ducks that looked like chicken-duck hybrids, were all running around freely and passing me by on my red, plastic chair. When I first saw three little puppies, I was really excited to play with them (finally something to DO) but then they started growling at me. These weren’t your standard North American pets. Animals don’t get undivided love and attention in SE Asia like they do in North America. They are fed once daily, at best, and are often hit or kicked out of the way by their owners. This family treated them about as well as I’ve seen anyone in Asia treat their pets, but the pups were still aggressive and wildly misbehaved.
Eventually, Say returned with a group of little humans who I would silently figure out were her children. They were all naked from the belly-button down and were extremely scared of me.
While Say breastfed the baby (so happy to see this!), the rest of the kids stayed a distance from me and ate mangos and snacks with their dirt-crusted little hands. Then they wiped all the extra juices on their legs. Sticky and smelly, the older kids then proceeded fight and hit the younger kids so they could steal the little kid’s snacks. All the parents did was laugh at the fighting, and I learned quickly that fighting isn’t punished here. In fact, it’s encouraged! Occasionally when things got too aggressive, an adult would step in and separate the two, but for the most part the younger kids were taught to hit back harder if they were hurt.
Oh, by the way, I’ll tell you what else the kids were taught to do…
Those kids peed whenever they wanted to, wherever they wanted to. It’s probably why they didn’t wear pants – to make at-will urination easier!
I was made very aware of this urination-theme during my time in the red chair, when I caught the eldest little boy eyeing up my hiking shoes. He looked at my shoes, then at me; then, he took a step and started to aim. I hurdled toward him, yelling, and he quickly redirected his stream to the side of my shoes. The little jerk even smiled at me before running away.
Note: we were inside the house.
The nice and interesting things.
As I backed away from the little boy who was attempting to pee on my shoes, I noticed a big red dot on his brow. At first it looked like a birth mark, but then I noticed it on all the children and even some adults. I assumed for a while that it was a cultural identifying feature to differentiate families, but Say’s sister-in-law (who spoke excellent English) corrected me and told me it was a powerful remedy for headaches. A painful remedy, if you ask me: they heat the butt-end of a water buffalo horn to ember-temperatures and then sear it onto the forehead. The headache (not shockingly) disappears. The mark, however, remains for days.
I sat back down in the red, plastic chair and pondered my life for what seemed like forever before Say returned with several vegetables and bowls. I stood and offered to help her but she quickly grabbed me by the shoulders and plopped me back in good ol’ red.
So for the next two hours I watched her prepare dinner while attempting very unsuccessful conversation. We sat in silence, for the most part, but every once in a while she would stop to breastfeed, or she would pass me a fresh slice of bamboo meat (actually quite good!).
Just before dinner, after all the food was prepped, the children were given baths. Not surprisingly, bath time was held in the same place that Say had just prepared our dinner, but I tried to ignore that. Clean water is clean water, and when you only have one source of it, you use it in any way you can.
Say’s cousin and mother-in-law came for dinner and everyone dug into the meal with furious hunger. The food was flavourful and intoxicatingly delicious. I ate at least 12 spring rolls and had I not felt like I was going to fall off the red, plastic chair due to a full-stomach, I would’ve continued to eat more.
Best meal I had in Vietnam, hands down. I’ll dream about this meal for years to come.
That night I slept very poorly on a urine-smelling mattress, in a pitch-black house. There was no electricity after dark, so once I was in that bed I was never coming out of it. I couldn’t sleep because I kept feeling little bugs crawling around the mattress, but I also couldn’t see them. No bed bugs, mind you, but just wild, unfiltered nature.
The next morning we had the most delicious breakfast and coffee, after which Say’s husband drove me back down a 15km road to Sapa town. I was heading back to civilization on a motorcycle and was extremely glad for it.
As we wound down the mountain, a cool, light rain refreshingly splattered on my face. It was a respite from the humid heat, and made me feel just a little bit cleaner. I did my best to be as present as possible during that exhilarating ride.
The verdict on Sapa
I would go back to support the Hmong women.
Why? Well, if you’re a female in Sapa you may or may not wander around pantsless and peeing whenever you want as a child, but then eventually you grow-up to pee in squatty-toilet outhouses. You also grow to help in the kitchen, with the livestock, and in the rice fields. Then you cook (unbelievably delicious) meals, clean, breastfeed, lead treks, and work to develop community in the village.
Don’t you think the Hmong women are badass? I’d go back just for them – but I’ll be bringing some of my friends next time.