The train station was chaos. We had been dropped off in the middle of a block party–travelers waiting for the night train to Lao Cai. The main lot of the station was cornered by two yellowing concrete buildings with rows of wooden benches. Most people were outside seated at makeshift restaurants drinking, eating, and waiting. Sticking to the outskirts in large groups, young European and Australian backpackers on organized hotel tours observed the scene.
James and I were on our own. He was still sick and struggling to stay present. I was loaded up with a suitcase and two backpacks. We tried to figure out what was going on, how to redeem our tickets, where could we sit, was the train here yet? We were exhausted and finally settled for two empty spots on the crumbling cement steps. No matter where we waited, we were in the way.
A voice from the loud speakers. Mass movement. We followed a herd of people through one of the long buildings into the rail yard. No platforms, no signs, just a tangle of rusted tracks and several stationary trains. Which one was ours? The crowd had split up, and there was no clear destination. As if we were back in NY at Penn station, a man glanced at our tickets, grabbed my suitcase, and ushered us onto the correct train. In this case, I was happy to give him the equivalent of $5.
Our cabin was a small room with two sets of bunk beds. Our cabin mates were two engineers from China on their way back from a business trip. They were quiet and polite, and despite the hard mattresses and startched sheets, we both fell asleep as the train pulled out of the station.
City on a hill
Just south of China, at the base of Mt. Fansipan, Sapa clung to the side of a steep foothill. The surrounding mountains reminded me of the spiked peaks I had seen in photos of Matchu Pitchu. They went from green to blue and were veiled by a constant layer of low hanging clouds. After the heat and stagnant humidity of Hanoi, the mountain air cooled my lungs and caused small goosebumps to raise the hair on my arms at night.
The hotel had a panoramic view. Mountains, farms, terraced rice paddies, and the French architecture of Sapa. We spent mornings in the rooftop hotel eating thin pancakes with chocolate and bananas or local honey and lime. We swallowed our malaria pills with hot Vietnamese green tea, enjoying the view and avoiding large black mosquitoes. After an early morning rain, a faint rainbow extended from the village, ending mid-arch in the clouds. At night we fell asleep under a canopy of mosquito netting that we had fortified with an extra layer.
The streets were lined with the Black H’mong and Red Dzao people selling brightly colored bracelets, bags, earrings, hats, and tours of their villages. The Black H’mong wore deep blue clothing made of hemp and dyed with the indigo plant that grew in the area like a weed. Sleeves were embroidered with the same neon thread used for bags and bracelets. The Red Dzao women shaved back their hairline and wore elaborate red head pieces.
On our first walk around Sapa, we were overwhelmed by the persistence of the Black H’mong and the Red Dzao to sell us things. Especially the very old and the very young. One wrinkly old woman with skin like leather tried to tie a bracelet to my hanging wrist. Children surrounded larger groups of tourists holding out embroidered ornaments and more bracelets. Politely saying “no” was not enough to break free.
At one point, we accidentally made eye contact with two teenage girls. “Hel-lo! Where you from?” We tried to ignore her. “Where you from?” I just couldn’t. “We’re from New York City,” I said. “Ah, how long you here? You come in this morning?” Her English was much better than my Vietnamese, or any other language that I have partial knowledge of for that matter. I told her that we had arrived in the morning, we were going on a hike the next day, and leaving the following night. “You come to my village? I take you to my village?” We declined. “I meet you tomorrow morning. Where you meet me?” We declined. “I have two baby. You married? You have baby?” Again, we declined and started to walk away. They followed, and followed, and followed. This was the first of many times that we were stuck in a similar situation. We learned to keep our eyes to the ground and answer firmly “No, I am not going to buy anything from you today.”
Cat Cat Village
We were not looking to collect culture. I really just wanted to see a waterfall on the other side of the village. But at the bottom of a steep hill about a mile outside of town, we found ourselves in the middle of an ethnic Disney Land. We were required to pay a small fee to enter Cat Cat village, which I should have known was a bad sign.
The dirt road leading to the village was cracked with deep trenches from periods of heavy rain. Butterflies landed on the bright flowers around us, and dragonflies controlled the mosquito population above us. Turning the corner, we passed a six year old boy in charge of three waterbuffalo. He was perched on the back of the largest buffalo urging it on with sharp whacks from a thin stick. The large buffalo was followed by it’s baby and an awkward looking sunburned buffalo with white hair, lacking the normal dark protective skin. Thinking of my beef cows in Vermont, I reached out to pat the baby, but the boy jumped down and moved it away from my outstretched hand. I was embarrassed and in the way.
The village itself had a clear entrance set up for tourists; a set of stairs with hand painted signs in English and French. One read, “Please do not give money for children.” Two long huts with just a roof were set up demonstrating traditional crafts such as embroidered pictures and woodworking. We traveled further into the village, feeling more and more uncomfortable. Naked babies and dirt stained children. Puppies, chickens, pigs, ducks. Late afternoon naps and small snacks. From the safety of the path, I watched the lives of the Black H’mong. This was where they lived, worked, played, and it was all on display. Their private lives on display.
And how can I criticize tourism? We were there–we were a part of it. I had wanted to pet the buffalo and take pictures of the children. Tourism has given the Black H’mong and Red Dzao extra income, but they have to sell their culture, their dignity, and their privacy. Through tourism they had learned basic English and French, but most of them never had the opportunity to finish elementary school. Nearing the end of our walk, James and I were followed for ten minutes by a five year old girl with her baby brother strapped to her back. She was selling bracelets and continued chanting “You buy, you buy, you buy” no matter how many times I refused.
“Probably” the best hike ever
The word used was trekking, not hiking. I imagined an expedition or pilgrimage extended over several weeks. My widgets dictionary described a similar idea: a long journey on foot; a nomadic life. And then, scrolling down, one small bullet point simply defined trek as “a tourist hike.”
That morning was damp and overcast. It wasn’t really raining, but the threat was there. It was always there. We stepped into one of the many French cafes and ordered two cheese baguettes to go. We found what can only be described as a convenience store, despite the cluttered mess, and bought bottles of water and a bag of sweet potato chips for the amazing English translation on the back.
Trekking around Sapa would have been impossible on our own, so we decided to hire a guide, choosing Topas Travel for their apathetic slogan: “Probably the best view in the world.”
The 7 hour, 14 kilometer hike was just what we needed. For the first time, we were away from people. No one asked us to buy anything. There were no motor bikes or bus horns. No tourists.
The rain had stopped, but it left behind a muddy trail that was especially dangerous on the downhill portions. We walked along the edge of rice paddies with views of a river that looked like coffee. Our guide taught us about the growing season for rice, and the control of irrigation systems. He told us about snake wine, gracefully insinuating that he had never tried it because of its reputation for decreasing sperm count. “Snake wine is for old men,” he said.
We climbed uphill and downhill, not without falling in the mud. The trail narrowed and eventually disappeared. The sun brightened as we descended toward the river. The heat became unbearable, so we jumped to a large rock on the edge of the river for a lunch break. I pulled out my cheese baguette and within 5 minutes, it was gone. Large ants carried away any discarded crumbs.
For the next half hour, we hiked straight uphill. James was lagging behind, and like a 5 year old kid in the back seat of a car, he continued to ask, “are we there yet?” His face was red, and he was on our last bottle of water. At the top of the foothill, we found a small village and fell onto the porch of the school house. Even our guide was tired. James could barely move–maybe this was a mild case of heat exhaustion?
The rest of our hike was downhill. We passed several amazing houses built on stilts and took another short water break in a cafe hanging over the swollen river. There were more signs of civilization here. Motorbikes pushed us out of the way as we crossed a narrow suspension bridge.
Finally our guide brought us to the home of his friend to wait for our ride back to Sapa. The house was a large open area with a roof supported by stilts and a concrete floor. We sat at a round table sipping strong green tea, listening to conversation in Vietnamese. An energetic puppy was begging for attention. I asked his name. “He doesn’t have a name. Sometimes we call him Meat.”