Thursday, 30 August 2012

Coming Home with the Black H'Mong tribe - Trekking Sapa, Vietnam (1 of 2)

July 29, 2012

With the night upon Vietnam we walked across the tracks to board our northbound train.  As independent travellers we tend to avoid tour operators as much as possible knowing that a little effort and time (which we have a-plenty) will usually save us dollars (of which we have too few) but this time it was unavoidable.   There are dozens of tour agents and hotels now littering the storefronts in old quarter of Hanoi.  Having had no straight answers at the railway station, two days were spent asking for prices and advice and any question about travelling to Sapa on our own was met with discreet avoidance.  

After our two days of research we came to realize the indeed the tour was the best option, we bit the bullet and booked paying only about US$20 more between us than we would have independently.  This offered luxuries we never would have chosen on our own accord including first class berths on the overnight train, but negated the hassle of shuttles from our hotel to the train, from Lau Cai to Sapa and of course our usual search for accommodation once in Sapa. It also gave us the guarantee that we would see and experience a culture and a way of life already in decline, to a deeper level than we might have if we had struck out without a guide; allowing us to integrate if just for 36 hours and live as they have done for generations until the advent of motorbike and farm mechanization which is now coming even to these far flung reaches, along the Chinese border, with ever increasing rapidity. As we would see; mobile phones, North Face backpacks and even the technological wonder of wi-fi internet is already prevalent. As long as the flow of dollars continues then change and assimilation into the new world order are inevitable. With luck and a little consideration a balance might be struck by the H'Mong allowing the traditions and culture to live and breathe still amongst a healthier, more comfortable age but already the road high up on the valley wall is busy with the buzz of Honda and Yamaha and breeze blocks are replacing bamboo walls. Red tiled roofs stand stark against the green paddies and the superficial appearance has been marred by unsympathetic, multi-storey, square box architecture funded by generous donations of foreign money creating schools and health centres. Time will tell more than I can.

Once at the station we realized why the booth operators perviously insisted there were no available sleeper trains to Sapa that weekend.  Each coach is privately owned and the seats are disbursed amongst the  agents, booking guests on tours.  We shared our four berth cabin with two other Vietnamese men (civil engineers heading to Lau Cai on business); twin sets of bunk beds with fresh linen, silky blankets and complimentary water.  Comfortable enough and comforted by the rhythmic sound of the train against the tracks eventually sleep took me. 

Much too soon we were woken at 0530 by a pounding at the door.  Upon opening it a man asked "Mini bus to Sapa?".  We nodded groggily and Julian sprang into action packing up our stuff while I grumpily rubbed my eyes.  The man constantly insisting we hurry, further stressing us and we were urgently herded off the train, through the station to a waiting mini bus.  As we approached, Julian realized that no names had been asked for and no introduction given. Shaking off the last remnants of slumbers he took out printed instructions from our tour operator out and read the statement: 'OUR HOSTS NEVER ENTER THE STATION.  DO NOT GO WITH ANYONE WHO DOES NOT HAVE YOUR NAME ON A LIST!'  Surprised, we shook out head at the man who sighed in frustration at Julian's wagging finger, and we walked away to find our designated guide. 

Seated in the proper bus now I was quickly hit once again with motion sickness as the bus wound up a steep, twisting, turning, switchback road towards our destination 30km away.  Having not slept well or eaten I felt more ill than ever before and spent the entire journey with my head buried in my lap (I really have to figure out a cure for this motion sickness thing.  It's not something that has ever bothered me much before but here its so regular that I dread being in transit. Not good considering our overland intentions).

Finally we were dropped off at a hotel where we were to leave our bags for the next two days while we trek into the hills.  The breakfast buffet was all but emptied by the time we got to it. We ate buns with sweet jam and rubbery eggs before meeting our guide.  After the unsatisfying breakfast, a rushed tooth brushing and hectic bag re-packing hour I was left exhausted and grumpy wanting nothing more than to bury my head under a blanket for a couple hours.  My withdrawn demeanour quickly melted away however when I was greeted by a beautiful Vietnamese face in traditional dress.  Her round cheeks, almond eyes, long jet black hair, infectious smile and bubbly attitude quickly stole into my heart as I looked down at all 4"6' of her tiny frame.  She was adorable.  She gathered our group of six; two Dutch couples and ourselves, and lead us down the pavement to the market square in the centre of Sapa village. 

Stalls tended by women in traditional dress lined the streets with their goods. Fruits, vegetables and handicrafts; jewellery, clothing, handbags and machetes.  As we passed them a dozen or so tagged on to our group and joined with us on their walk home.  All the women are taught at a young age how to make their clothing, each tribe with a unique, identifiable style and our accomplices were all dressed in gorgeous blouses and skirts with intricate embroidered bands, geometrically patterned at cuffs, upper arms and hemlines. Each carried a bamboo basket on their back and yellow plastic sandals or bright blue wellies adorned their feet.  Many groups like ours set off on this trek out of Sapa; at least four entire trains worth of people split into parties similar to ours but mingling with each other as paces, spacings, differing routes and conversations stabilized on our initial descent out of the town. With the tribal women and tourists walking together at around a 1:1 ratio, so far this guided trek hardly felt like a guided trek.  We were just walking home with them. 

The usual introductory "What is your name?", "Where are you from?", "How old are you?", "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" conversations went on;  the majority of the women spoke enough english to carry on these topics before dropping back for the same conversation with the next person in line or chatting in small groups in their own tongue. We were never left alone for more than a few minutes, there was always somebody there to talk with or laugh with despite language barriers.  Our assigned guide, May, on the other hand spoke impeccable english and with a quick and infectious smile, was as eager to share her life with us as she was in asking us about our homelands.  This bubbly 17 year old personality lives with her parents and two older brothers at her home in a village of about 250 families. She started trekking with tourists a year ago and loves the interaction with us. Multi lingual and with her vicarious worldly knowledge she could well have travelled around the globe four times over when in fact has only ever left her village once; an outing to Hanoi that an Australian couple, her clients, treated her to.  The couple had offered to pay for her to travel with them south to Saigon but she was so uncomfortable with the heat, noise and pollution of Hanoi she opted to return home after just two days. 

With Sapa behind us we followed, initially along a metalled road then dropping sharply down the side of the first valley, up and over a shoulder until we rounded a corner and beheld the home of the Black H'Mong tribe. A long and luscious, high green valley surrounded by steep terraced rice paddies and to a skyline of rolling mountain tops beyond.  Clouds nestle amongst the hills and the cool air is invigorating; it doesn't take long to realize this is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.  I praise my fabulous Ecco boots for their grip and complete waterproofness as the mud rises towards my ankles whilst other tourists slip impossibly along the slanted trails in tennis shoes and the local women in their plastic sandals (who were more sure footed than any of us) offer a helping hand (sometimes two) to those in need. For some reason they left Julian completely to fend for himself (A blessing indeed. My own boots and balance were quite up to the task….Ed.) 

We hiked along the narrow edges of the rice terraces, crossing small streams and circumventing muddy dwellings and back gardens with pigs tethered and chickens scuttling out of our path. Workers visible across the paddies at times, a group of children playing amongst their daily charges of water buffalo as they graze until eventually we came down to the valley floor to a long concrete bridge and a road leading into a village. A girl no older than six pointed to a yellow building, her school, on a hill top overlooking the homes spread throughout the valley.  Crossing one more bridge they lead us out to our lunch stop after some five hours of trekking. May told us to "meet her inside when we were finished" and it was there that our companions began pulling their handicrafts from the baskets on their backs.  "Buy from me, buy from me, very cheap!"  I felt obligated and guilt ridden as I shook my head 'no' at the ladies who had offered me their hand along the trail.  I just can't do it.  As much as I want to help these people and buy all their handmade goods to support their families, in our current situation I am simply unable afford such generosity or carry it all in my pack!  

My heart wrenches as I pass through swarms of women, some as young as four or five years old as they press their handbags, wristbands and wallets in my path.  They follow us to the open sided dining room calling to us "please, have a look" from behind as Julian congratulates my efforts.  We are greeted with menus and cold drinks and some of the local women stand on the stairs looking at us expectantly.  Once we are seated however drinks are presented any attempt by the tribeswomen to walk down the stairs to press us further is mercifully discouraged by the proprietor. I breath a sigh of relief as we are separated by culture and race from those more economically challenged and we are left to eat in peace. 

After a set lunch of fried rice, pork and egg May greeted us again and we continued our walk through the village towards our night accommodation.  The muddy path lead us past humble bamboo huts, livestock and children walking home from school (which is free for the village children up until senior school). Young boys ride on the backs of water buffalo as they herded their charges along the path amongst a few motorbikes and far more pedestrians, a lot in traditional dress but an even greater number in western style T-shirts and shorts, no doubt the final destination of some of the clothing banks we see in the cities judging by the predominance of familiar products advertised on the fronts of children and adults alike.  These people are used to tourists coming into their village and we barely raised an upward glance; May told us she remembers white skins coming here since she was born.  

May coming down a footpath from her home
Needing to collect her overnight bag from home, she asked us to wait momentarily for her whilst she did so. One of the Dutch women asked if we might accompany her.  She responded enthusiastically and we followed her down the path towards her home; a two room bamboo hut with dirt floor and a mezzanine level at either end.  The upper left level was where they were drying corn, upper right her parents sleeping area.  Downstairs to the left of the entrance an enclosed area where she and her brothers slept.  The entrance way and main central space was empty of any furniture and to the right a small living space and kitchen similar to that of the home we visited in the Karen village, north Thailand, with an open fire pit containing a charcoal brazier and running water from a stand pipe on one wall.  Her parents (who spoke no english) smiled in welcome to our intrusion, obviously well used to their daughters strange acquaintances, while a couple of dogs and cats ran around. Outside there is a muddy, enclosed court yard shared with their neighbouring relatives with a few chickens scratching and pecking at unseen morsels amongst more dogs whilst at the back of the house, trellised cucumber and pumpkin vines grow vivaciously over the wood pile providing the family with a much needed source of vitamins and iron. On the side of the dwelling a valuable plough blade and various other metal and wooden tools hang from the outer walls, sheltered from the weather by the eaves and the bamboo leaf thatch that reaches down to head height and we stand aside as her brother and two of his friends ease their moto's down the narrow alley between house and the (family owned) paddy fields adjacent and away along the path we had just walked.  

Leaving her house a couple of kilometres behind us, May lead us up a hill to our home-stay where we picked up a new tag along;  a 6 year old girl who decided to befriend me. She lived with her family in the next village over but hiking the rest of the way up the hill to our home-stay she decided to spend a couple hours hanging around there with us.  Inside the large hut which would be our home that night 25 beds lined the walls divided and sheltered by a mosquito netting.  Picking our space we eagerly showered and joined everyone else at the table; a group of about 12 tourists resting after a days trek.  After my new 6 year old friend had repeatedly asked me to 'buy from her' she eventually gave up by saying 'maybe tomorrow' and left me finally in peace.  My will was apparently much stronger than Julians that evening.  An local women of around 40 presented him with a handsome handmade, embroidered shirt which she wanted 400,000 dong ($20CND) for. After the usual (by now) 20 minutes of showing of wares and monotonic English phrases, learned parrot fashion by all the street traders the conversation went to:  
"I'll tell you what,"  he says, laughingly "you carry my bag for the entire day tomorrow and I will buy that shirt from you at 400 000 dong, no bargaining!"
She took half a second to think about the offer before declaring that she would join us on our hike tomorrow.  Unsure, I said "Wait a minute! You don't know how heavy that bag is." and went to fetch it for her.  Containing all that we 'absolutely cannot live without' (sic) including our wash kit, clothing changes for us both, a 3 litre water bladder and Julian's enormous camera (plus the second lens) the pack weighs in at around 15 kgs but she took it from me effortlessly and with a huge smile declaring it was 'not heavy'.  Amused, I took it back from her and the deal was sealed between them with a 'pinkie swear' before she departed for the evening having secured a days work for the morrow. Feeling a little (but not very) guilty at the idea of this diminutive woman taking his load the following day, Julian voiced some concerns but was quickly put at ease by the other women present telling him she was quite capable of hauling 40 kgs all day long should the need arise.

With all the merchants leaving us for the evening meal we could finally relax.  Our hosts cooked us a fabulous meal which we enjoyed over light conversation.  That evening May and her friend, who was guiding another party at our residence (and who's name I am so disheartened I forgot; she was a fabulous woman!) sat with us for a drinking game as they worked on more embroidery.  They taught us "Snap" and brought out a bottle of 'rice wine' which in fact was more like a rice spirit with an alcohol percentage of what I think must be around 30%.  The game turned quite enthusiastic and conversation flowed as freely as the rice spirit.  We went through 4 bottles; they had 20 litters of the stuff out back which only takes 1 day to ferment. One of the guys we were with turned beat-red as the spirit caused him to open up and admit he was gay, finishing the sentence by saying "okay, thats awkward." 
I smiled warmly at him and shook my head, telling him its not at all awkward and his friends pretty much told him they assumed so anyway, which made him relax.  May, sitting next to me with her arm hooked around mine, clenched my skin and looked at me with disbelief.  Having never met a gay person before she openly displayed her feelings of confusion and discomfort at this new theory.  I told her this is very common where I come from but she couldn't begin to comprehend the idea.  Nobody in her village has ever admitted to being gay and such things are not discussed amongst her people.  While the conversation continued she whispered to me that she was nervous and uncomfortable around him now.  I think I managed to ease her feelings after a while and told her she was very lucky to be exposed to so many different cultures and ways of living.  She agreed with me, visibly happier about the situation.  The evening proceed with some songs, more rice wine until eventually we all drifted off to bed and a sound sleep at the end of a long and enriching day, somewhat conscious of a reasonably early start the following morning.

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