Thursday, 30 August 2012

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

 July 30th, 2012 - Aug 1st, 2012

Everyone woke the following morning with no trace of a hangover and we devoured a huge plater of pancakes with honey between us.  My 6 year old friend had decided to join us, Julians porter strapped his backpack atop her bamboo basket, May and our group ready to go.  The 15kg (about 30lbs) backpack on top of her bamboo basket must have been awful.  It was top heavy and her shoulder straps offered no padding at all, the woven string digging into her gorgeous outfit.  Slightly concerned for her well being I asked her if she was okay.  Not once did she frown;  "No problem!  Not heavy!"

May lead us through the village and guided us down paths which looked like private property although as we are learning, neither 'private' nor 'property' are defined as in the West. Doorways are open and any path immediately outside the house (or otherwise) is considered a right of way. Social etiquette determines personal space and the lines of privacy must be subtle inside where families of three or even four generations often sleep together in a single room. 

Looking back across the hillside as we progressed revealed a scene much like the previous day. Groups of both tourists and local tribeswomen joined us for this second day of trekking and parties were spread across many pathways scratched from the hillside and between the paddies to cultivatable level.  A path just a muddy as yesterday led us amongst the rice and through a small bamboo forest.  My young friend stuck by my side the entire way, offering me her hand when the going got steep.  Despite being confident in my trekking abilities I took her hand anyway and allowed her to guid me along these trails.  If anything, her hand made my steps slightly off balance and if I was going down, she was surely going down with me.  Regardless of this, bless her little heart, she took my hand every time.  I definitely was not getting out of this one; somewhere along the line I knew something in that bamboo basket of hers was going to find its way into my backpack and some of our hard earned was going the opposite way. 

Around midday we paused high up on the wall of the valley. A beautiful waterfall cascaded down the sandstone cliff into the valley below and May warned us to be careful. They lost a young trekker a while back when he explored too far to the edge which curved gradually and deceptively before becoming almost vertical  We stopped here for a good half hour, washing boots, drinking in the stunning surroundings and the sunshine and indulging in final conversations before the end of the days hike in the village below us and across the valley floor.  I was sure to tell all our local friends how fortunate they were to live in such a beautiful place.  During my travels over the last seven years I have seen many places in many countries, across four continents and this valley is definitely within my top five. There is something about the lush green terraces, the natural lines being worked with rather than bulldozed through, the brown bamboo huts nestled into the landscape as if they belong and above it all the peaks of the hills that are part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, the eastern-most extremity of the Himalayas, reaching 3000 metres heavenward. It feels like a home.

As the afternoon came to an end May linked arms with me and told me she wanted to touch snow with her hands.  I whole heartedly offered my home to her.  Over the last two days she has managed to create and personalize relationships with each couple in our group, managing somehow to make us all feel like she was 'our' guide.  If I could, and if she were willing and wanting, I would show this girl the world.  If I had the money I would fund her trip to Canada so she could touch the snow with her hands and maybe throw a couple skis on her feet.  So she could feel the icy cold of the winters I love and see her breath with every exhale.  I know though, that in reality she probably is not even able to obtain a passport; her people, moved on over the hills through the centuries from Myanmar or China through borders they had no concept of and they truly are not recognized as Vietnamese people.  They are the Black H'Mong and she will continue to live vicariously through her tourists and maybe one day she will have enough money to continue her education at senior school. She speaks three languages fluently and is learning Dutch and Spanish now with a little German thrown in for good measure and though her happiness and her love of her home is obvious, I cannot help but wonder what would have become of such and open, peaceful and brilliant mind had she had the opportunities I have had.

At the end of the trail we were once again accosted by women trying to sell us their handcraft.  I only had one girl in my eyes though as I beckoned towards my young helper.  She offered me small wallets and handbags and I picked her largest; an embroidered blue bag she made with her own hands.  Then the bargaining began at 200,000 VND (about $10), a price higher than I expected her to start off.  I hate this part!  I bargained from 40,000 dong and eventually we met in the middle at 100,000 VND, a good days earnings for a six year old!  

Julian pulled a $20 note from his wallet to give to his eager sherpa.  As he handed it to her, she went on to ask for an additional 100,000 VND on top of that telling him "the bag was heavy!" to which he replied "I know!" and shaking his head with a smile he refused.  The bargain had been made and she could probably take the rest of the week off with her handsome sum.  

After a hug from May we boarded a minibus back to Sapa where were to spend the night at a hotel as well as being reunited with the remainder of our luggage.  We wandered the weekend market of Sapa, where all the local hill tribes come to sell off their handicrafts and produce, dressed in their gorgeous handmade attire; the red headscarves of the Yao women and the intricate needlework geometrics of the Black H'Mong being the most prevalent.  We were, however, financially wiped out from the previous two days and were unable to even think about any further purchases regardless of how beautiful these things were which made saying 'no' to every single merchant, every few metres, who called for our attention much easier, apart from a pair of earings Julian managed to bargain for me. They were similar in style to those worn by the Black H'Mong women and will always remind me of that glorious valley and the smiles and welcome from our wonderful hosts. 

Dinner at the hotel that evening, which was included in our ticket, was one of the worst meals we have ever been served.  I didn't know it was possible to destroy tofu as badly as this 'chef' managed and be forewarned; do not ever drink Vietnamese wine. Never before have I not finished a glass of wine but this glass proved the rule "there's a first time for everything" (even when wine is involved). 

The following morning we woke early to a lousy Sunday breakfast of eggs that had been cooked on Friday (in March) and a cup of mud masquerading as coffee before boarding a mini bus for the 3.5 hour ride to the  market of Bac Ha, famed as the largest and most colourful of market in the north.  The hill tribe women around these parts dressed differently than Sapa. Here the Flower H'Mong are those most numerous. Their headgear, tops and dresses, bags and skirts, decorated with brightly coloured horizontal and angled stripes and are flared almost to ankle level though through the stiffness of the material or with help from hoops I cannot say. 

 The handicraft was just as beautiful but this market is really about the spaces away from the tourist purchases and where one comes to buy a new ox, buffalo, horse or cow.  Along with the usual raucous 'wet' market selling meat and fish (live until purchase to ensure freshness) the vegetable and spice stalls, the bright displays of chilli peppers, the squawking of chickens, the birdsong of the caged (not for eating), the heat from the braziers cooking bananas, nuts, meats on sticks, and dough, deep fried in the ubiquitous woks, the aromas of cooking in the food hall style dining and the constant hum of the meeting of friends, the telling of news and of bargains being struck on everything from table runners to ice-creams; there is a muddy field full of tethered livestock for sale.  

Other than our home stay and trekking with May; the tour reminded me exactly of why I dislike tours.  After our allotted hours to stroll at leisure around the market, and dutifully reporting for lunch at the given time, we were ushered from place to place following our guide like a flock of sheep with no freedom to roam.  Provided meals were dire and additional stops like a tour of a traditional village much resembling homes we have just seen where I stepped off the muddy trail into shin deep buffalo shit and lost my shoe.  For some reason Julian refused to fish it out for me and I spent the rest of the afternoon shoeless. A final stop to see the boarder of China from across the river simply prolonged the day. As interesting as this market was we both agree that it was possibly not worth the six hour round trip journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment