Time for trekking! After a good breakfast of mules and scrambled eggs, we checked out and got in a pre-organised taxi for ride back up to Sapa, the terrible road a bit less daunting now that the mist had cleared. We dropped our bags at the Sapa Sisters office and met our guide ‘Big Song’ (her name is Song, but because there are 2 Songs working for Sapa Sisters and she is pretty tiny, she’s known as Big Song), After renting a pair of plastic gumboots for Carol from a nearby store (the largest size was still too small for me, so I stuck with my waterproof shoes), we shouldered our small day packs and set off on our trek, walking a short way back the road we had come, then off a side road and down the hillside. For some while we were tailed by two local Hmong women, but eventually they realised we were not good buying prospects and let us go on alone. Big Song can’t get involved in this, because these are women from our own community without jobs, trying to make a living. So, not wanting to be pestered with selling pitches on our trek, we just politely ignored them and they gave up.
It was still misty in the higher parts of the valley, but thankfully not raining – especially since the trail down past endless terraces of rice paddies was incredibly muddy and slippery. Carol is less sure-footed than I, so I helped her down the trickier bits, but she did very well. Though I’m not sure I’ll believe her ‘short legs’ excuse anymore after seeing tiny Big Song nimbly navigating the reply rutted paths and drop-offs. Before long the soles of my shoes were caked with thick patties of caramel-coloured mud, and I slid and slipped with every step. However we did occasionally stop studying our feet to appreciate the stunning views across and into the Muong Hoa valley.
Sapa, sadly, is undergoing a huge building boom, and tourists are swarming into the little town. I can’t help but feel that not only will this soon ruin the special quality of the place, but that the local hill tribes will be pushed further and further into the lowest echelons of society here. Which is why we chose Sapa Sisters, which is run by, and benefits, local hill tribe women. And, I might add, is incredibly well run, judging by our experience.
We trudged up and down hills, through little groups of ramshackle buildings, past shuffling droves of piglets and the occasional water buffalo, and sometimes, at stops, were approached by brightly-dressed Hmong women selling fabrics, or little girls selling woven wristbands; or we swapped a few pleasantries with other trekkers (there were small groups of trekkers not far ahead and behind us).
Eventually we made our way down to the bottom of the valley, across a large bridge, and along a mountain river gorge to a village where we had a big lunch of rice and noodles in a concrete building overlooking the river. It was of course filled with other trekkers, and there was some mild hassling from Hmong women and children selling, but nothing that couldn’t easily be redirected with one or two polite “no, thankyous”.
This area is the Hmong village of Lao Chai though it’s hard to tell where the villages start and end, as they are quite spread out. We walked through streets lined with tourist stalls, then Big Song took us to a Black Hmong (there are several Hmong community groups: Black, Striped, White etc; so called because of their clothing or crafting fame) handicrafts shack and described some of the traditional techniques. A bit later we backtracked to this building and bought some indigo patterned scarves and a wall hanging. (The Black Hmong are named after the deep indigo dye they use, which comes from leaves we had earlier had pointed out to us, and rubbed between our palms to see the dye.)
Eventually we reached our homestay accommodation for the night – Lotus Hoang, a concrete building made up of one large room with an upstairs mezzanine around three sides, and a kitchen area with an open hearth. Here, we were incredibly lucky to be sharing with a fun group of people: Damien and Danny, two young guys from Sydney working too hard in the financial sector and discovering there was more to life; Genavié and Mathilde, two young women from Quebec, on a long trip around the world and full of enthusiasm and excitement; and Kate, also from Sydney and trekking with the latter two, a funny but very work-focussed woman with a large bag of stories.
We all chose a mattress to sleep on up on the mezzanine level, and then convened outside around a table with beer and wine for a lot of good conversation. I had a long chat with Genavié and Mathilde, who were great fun, and we covered many topics to do with travel and life. We all spent some time encouraging Damien and Danny to work less and travel more, and dragged out Damien’s story about his latest love interest. Kate had a very dry Australian sense of humour.
We brought the table inside for an excellent dinner, and ended up toasting in Vietnamese with shots of rice wine with the grizzled grandma running the place, like a scene out of Indiana Jones. There was even some singing of favourite Karaoke songs at one point!
A wonderful, memorable night, the kind of travel experience I haven’t had since South America. I slept very soundly despite the barking dogs, whining cats, and early-morning roosters, safe in my mosquito-netted cocoon and cosy and warm under a thick embroiled blanket.