Monday, June 25, 2012

Over the clouds in Sa Pa

I just got back to Hanoi after the most incredible weekend in the quiet mountain town of Sa Pa in northwest Vietnam, near the Chinese border. My friends and I spent three days trekking to different villages in the mountains (in high 40 degree weather). Despite the extreme heat and humidity, which at times made the hike almost unbearable, it was definitely worth it because the views were out of this world! The steep ascents were made a bit easier with the help of the 5 local hilltribe women who followed us (the entire way!!) just to sell us things (which we later discovered, of course). It's hard to image that these women have to walk miles and miles through the mountains and rice paddies just to get to and from their homes every single morning and night. It was hilarious to see me and my friends slipping and sliding through the mud when we were fully equipped with high tech running shoes with grips and support, while the local black H'mong women could manoeuvre perfectly down the steepest slopes in nothing but plastic slip-ons!! I was obviously the first to fall on my ass in the mud....but then it wasn't long before the others were following suit. 

On the first day we trekked to the YlinhHo and Lao Chai villages of the black H'mong people, and after a picnic lunch in the village, we kept trekking alongside the Muong Hoa stream and over suspension bridges (!) to Ta Van village, home to the Dzay people. Finally, after a 7 hour hike, we arrived at our overnight homestay in the Giang Ta Chai village, home of a Dzay family with the two cutest little boys ever! Their house was in the middle of nowhere, right near a river (which we immediately dove right into!) The homestay was one of my favourite parts of the trip. We helped prepare the meal, feasted, and then spent the night making our own little party in the middle of the mountains. Our homestay "father" was a cool cat - all throughout dinner, he kept on pouring us shots of his home-brewed rice wine, which, if I had to guess, had the alcohol percentage of something more along the lines of Bacardi than wine. Once we were all pretty tipsy and having a good time, he started playing some tunes for us...with nothing but a leaf! All in all, it was a pretty good night. 

The next morning, we woke up and started off on another 6 hour hike into Hoan Lien Son National Park and Giang Ta Chai village of the Red Dao minority. In the middle of a clearing at the top of a mountain, we were met by a bunch of kids trying to sell us bracelets. The young girls, who couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 years old, even had indigo-stained hands from dying the traditional clothes worn by the women. They surrounded us from every corner and whispered in tiny hushed voices "buy from from me..." How could you say no to those faces?! I immediately did promise to buy from every single one of them. 

After having bought about 20 bracelets in all, I later found out that buying from these children actually brings more harm than good. By buying from them, we are directly encouraging them to not go to school and to sell items to tourists instead, hoping to make money for them and their families. It was absolutely heartbreaking seeing these poor children up in the middle of nowhere so desperate to sell you a bracelet for 10,000 VND (50 cents), which represents, to them, an importance income for that day. 

We continued on our trek to Su Pan for lunch, after which we took a car (thank god) back to Sapa, where we got to rest our feet after all the hiking. That night, we went out into town and had time to have a couple of beers before the entire town suddenly had a power outage and went completely dark. 

The next day was much more relaxed - we spent the morning in the Sapa market, and then made our way down to Cat Cat village, where we saw the beautiful Cat Cat waterfall and the water power station built by the French in the early 20th century. We had a free and easy day motorbiking through Sapa and the surrounding villages until 6 pm when we transfered down to the Lao Cai station for the night train back to Hanoi, where I had 8 hours to rest before coming straight to work the next morning! 

Kids selling bracelets at the top of the mountain 

Beautiful rice terraces 

Above-mentioned homebrewed rice wine
Playin' the leaf

Making our way to Cat Cat village 
Cat Cat waterfall

Feeling at home in the Sapa markets

Water stream near our homestay where we went for a little dip after the long hike

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