Trekking to a Hill Tribe in Sapa

We pack our day packs with an extra pair of clothes, and make sure to layer up because Sapa is famous for having 4 seasons in one day. It’s a cold morning with clouds hovering over head, threatening rain. All I can do is hope it doesn’t get too slippery on the trails, because all I’ve got is a pair of running shoes.

Tamara and I walk down to the same spot we met Song yesterday. We’re a bit early, so we run to the market to buy some fruit for breakfast. I get 3 small bananas for 5,000 dong ($0.25).
As soon as we meet up with Song she explains that we’ll have some company today. Two other people have arranged to trek out to her house with us, which is totally cool with me. She also makes sure to mention that we don’t tell them how much we paid. Apparently they’re paying more and she’s worried that they might be angry if they find out. I promise her I won’t tell them. Now I have a burning curiosity to know exactly how much they’re paying, and I plan to find out.

Shortly after, we meet our trekking companions. They’re a couple in their late twenties who live in Hanoi full time, teaching English and running a catering business. Mark is from Australia and Ryka is Dutch. They met in Romania and have been together ever since; what a cool way to meet someone!
We wander through the market while Song picks up all our necessary groceries for the next three meals. I try to be patient through the small talk but am eager to find out what a fantastic job of haggling I’ve done. I finally get to ask them what they’ve paid for the trek. They say $20 EACH per day. I keep my promise and tell them we’ve paid the same, when in reality we’re only paying $13 each per day. Mark says he’s heard of people haggling it down to $18, but that you would never get it any cheaper than that. Mark, who lives in Vietnam. It’s pretty hard to keep the smile off my face. Victory!! I love a good deal. The couple have been referred here by their friends, who visited Sapa and found Song the same way Tamara and I did; by bumping into her on the road. They loved her tour so much that they keep her cellphone number handy and recommend her to everyone who goes to Sapa. Today is going to be a good day.

We start out on our 7 kilometre trek to Song’s village. A number of other tribes-women join us and talk to us a little bit, but Song’s English is by far the best. Once we’re out of the town we start along a rocky and pretty steep ascent. The rain has held off thus far, and the sun has even managed to poke through the clouds a little bit!

We make a quick stop, where I take the opportunity to de-layer and gulp back some water. Song points to the left to bring our attention to the marijuana plants growing on the hillside. Wow, she’s not kidding. Now that she’s said it, I can even smell it a little bit. She says it’s grown here to make clothes and that it’s rarely smoked by any locals, but that if foreigners ask they can usually buy some from the farmers. Of COURSE they can. A few minutes later we also pass by a massive plot of land used for growing Vietnamese green tea. That’s more my scene.

The trek is insanely beautiful. Part of me is a little bit disappointed that we can’t see the view from the mountains due to the thick fog, but something about being able to see it creeping towards us and rolling over the rocks along the trail ahead, makes the walk even more incredible. The fog also does a pretty good job of keeping us cool and protecting us from direct sunlight, which I’m sure my skin will appreciate.

It’s pretty hard to put into words how spectacular my surroundings are. Lush green jungle in combination with massive limestone cliffs and orange tinted dirt make for quite an incredible few hours. Photos never do it justice, and I take a few, but I try my best to just absorb my misty surroundings instead, because I know that I’ll never experience something quite like this ever again.

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We stop for lunch in an open and relatively flat area of grassy land next to a farm. Just beyond the fence, some children are playing a game where they release baby chicks into the yard and run around catching them all again, shrieking and giggling with delight.

Song pulls out some soft baguette bread, and slices up pieces of cucumber and tomato while we all relax in the grass. We stuff our bread with the vegetables and call it lunch. After a long morning of hiking I feel pretty hungry and the vegetables taste so refreshing. We have watermelon and banana for dessert.
Then the fun starts. Three of the women who’ve accompanied us on our trek start pulling out their handmade items and encourage us to buy. “You buy this from me and I go home.” in the most pouty tones they can muster. We say no over and over again, but it doesn’t deter them much. This lasts for about 10 minutes before they finally give up and walk off, disappearing into the fog. I hate feeling guilt tripped and pressured into buying something. I also hate feeling that they beautiful hill tribe women are a nuisance, but in all honesty, 90% of the time they are. They act like beggars, are shameless in their sales tactics, and I’ve seen them swarm tourists in Sapa who make the mistake of caving and buying something. Because Sapa is now such a popular tourist destination, the street selling has gotten out of control. There are signs around the town of Sapa asking people not to buy anything from children specifically. I’ve learned that this is because their parents will pull them out of school and send the kids out to whine “buy from me” at tourists in the hopes that their cute, irresistible little faces will turn a higher profit. Some people choose to ignore these signs and do it anyway. I saw one woman hand a camera to her friend and ask her to take photos while she distributed cash in exchange for fabric bracelets to a hoard of hill tribe children. This is another reason I tend to dislike other tourists.

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The last portion of the trek is extra slick with earthy red mud, and all downhill. We are extra careful with our footing, but each of us fall at least once. Song leaps down the mountain in nothing but a pair of plastic sandals and doesn’t trip once.
I’m so happy I wore a pair of jeans that no longer fit me, so I won’t have to feel so bad about them being destroyed. I fall a couple times and the seat and knees of my jeans are instantly stained a rusty orange colour. If I had 1,000 dong for every time I almost fall, but somehow manage to catch myself, I’d be rich.

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Muddy aftermath

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We walk through one last stretch of thick greenery, where Song picks us some berries that look like tiny, yellowy-orange raspberries. They taste bitter, but have just enough sweet flavour to balance it out.
We finally make our descent to her village. I’m not quite sure what to expect as we approach her house, but I am eager to see how she lives. Four or five young, barefoot children run up to greet us, and seem excited to have their mother home. Only two of the children are Song’s; an 8 year old boy and a 6 year old girl. They look just like her. She turns the key to a small padlock hooked between two metal loops on her front door and we step inside. The house is made up of two rooms, a living room/bedroom and a kitchen. The floor is made of solid exposed concrete, the walls are simple hand cut planks of wood, and the ceiling is made of mismatched scraps of metal. Song tells us that her and her husband built it themselves over three years. It’s very modest, but beautiful in it’s way. A small television sits in one corner of the room, and a single lightbulb hangs down from the ceiling. There is no running water, and no bathroom of any kind. Song fetches big barrels of water from her brother-in-laws house down the road to use for cooking and cleaning.
There are animals absolutely everywhere. The children have fun playing with a small puppy, while a funny cat comes and meows aggressively at us all, demanding some attention. Two or three chickens roam around, sometimes letting themselves into the house, and are followed by a flock of baby chicks. Pigs and piglets also hang around outside the home, and on occasion we see a wild dog. Bugs don’t seem to be much of an issue here, though cob webs can be found on almost everything, I don’t see any spiders or even a mosquito.

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I pull out my phone to take some pictures, and the kids all run over to see if they can play with my phone. I check with Song and she doesn’t mind. I don’t have many games at all, let alone games that cater to 6 and 8 year olds, so instead I try to find them a video to watch. All I’ve got is the Of Monsters and Men music video for Little Talks. The kids watch it over and over again. If you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know it’s one of the weirdest music videos of all time, so I kind of understand why they love it so much.

By the third go around I can’t watch it anymore, and my phone has a mega-protective case on, so I let the kids play with it for a while and go to help Song in the kitchen. There isn’t much to do, but we sit around the open fire and chat while she cooks. I notice some miscellaneous pig meat hanging to dry in the corner of the room. Song explains that it’s been cooked in salted water, and after drying for an hour or so, it will keep for months to come. They eat every part of the animal; hooves, tail and ears included. I’m disappointed to find out that her husband won’t be coming home tonight. He works in the rice fields and only comes home every few days. It would be so interesting to meet him! I foolishly made the assumption that they had an arranged marriage, but she tells us that they met in Sapa when she was younger, they fell in love, and were married at 16. In her tribe, you are able to marry whomever you choose, but by age 20 it is common to be seen as old and undesirable. Anything under 16 is too young, so basically, only the time between the ages of 16 and 19 are deemed acceptable for marriage.

There’s no mirror in the house, but Tamara, Mark, Ryka and I all inform each other of our sunburns. I can feel mine burning on my face and chest. I don’t understand how I managed to get so burnt in such thick fog, but it happened.

Dinner is ready, so Song pulls a small wooden table into the middle of the living room and brings out large bowls of food. We all sit on small plastic chairs and fill our bowls with rice, tofu, mushrooms, carrots, and water spinach. Everything tastes especially wonderful after a long day of trekking. I lose count of how many bowls of food I consume. It’s only 6pm when we’ve finished eating but I feel absolutely exhausted! I step outside to use the washroom (aka. any nearby bush of my choosing) and to brush my teeth. It’s so too bad about the overcast sky, because without any light pollution I’m sure the stars would look incredible from here.

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I’ve been confused about where everyone will sleep since I’ve arrived. There are only two places to choose from, and even if we squish I don’t think all seven of us will be able to squeeze into two beds. Song clears away the table from where we had eaten dinner, and pulls out 6 bundles of long dried rice stems. She unties each bundle and starts spreading them on the floor. The last two bundles are used as pillows to complete this rustic version of a pull-out bed. I’m skeptical as to how comfortable some dry sticks can really be, but I also hope that we get to sleep on this make shift mattress because how many opportunities am I going to have to sleep on something like this again?

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I worry about how we’ll make the decision between who sleeps where, because I can see that Ryka and Mark are also eager to sleep on the rice bed, but Song just assigns us each to a bed an fortunately for us, we get the one we want. Song and her children all sleep together on her bed.
She’s hung a bug net from nails in the wood around the room, which makes me feel even more comfortable with sleeping on the floor. I am in the middle of the forest after all, and even if I don’t see the spiders doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The bug net is key. We test out the rice bed and are pleasantly surprised by it’s comfort level. The dried rice is really there primarily to keep us warm, but does provide a layer of padding too which is nice!

By 7:30 we’re all wishing each other goodnight and falling asleep. I see a couple fireflies have made their way thorough the gaps in the wooden plank walls, and are perched on the outside of our bug net, glowing a pleasant red as I drift into a blissful sleep.

I only wake up briefly to the sound of heavy rain on the metal roof top and a quick sight of lightening illuminating the room through the spaces between the walls, before I fall back to sleep.

I think about how lucky I am to be here, and how fortunate I was to have met Song out of all the other hill tribe women. Her opening her home to us like this is extremely humbling and so kind.

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