The train bounced up and down as it chugged through the countryside of northern Vietnam. In our sleeper compartment, our bodies rose and fell to mirror the train’s movements. Eventually sleep washed over us somewhere in between Hanoi and Lao Cai.
We arrived at a train station that rests just one kilometer from the Chinese border. A van picked us up to bring us to a hotel to wait for our guide; we were meant to trek through the rolling hills of Sapa for the next two days.
After driving up the snaky and coiling roads, above the morning fog and through the trees, the van surprisingly made it to Sapa Village.
Immediately women wrapped in thick black clothing with colorful embroidery swarmed the van. These women with rosy cheeks, hooped earrings weighing down their lobes, and blue fingers were standing and pointing at us – as if deciding which foreigner will be theirs. We were told about the Black H’Mong women who will attach to your side, ask you questions about your life, and then urge you to buy one of their crafts. Behind the glass, we smiled and waved, prepared for the bombardment.
We soon set off for the hills behind our charismatic guide, Tu, and seven Black H’mong women. They asked how many siblings we have, where we are from, how old we are, and why we aren’t married – that question always seems to come up.
Standing on the edge of the mountainside, layers of terraced hills carved into domineering mountains sprawled out before us. This is the land of native tribes in Sapa Valley. Spread out among these toasted green hills are the villages of the Black H’Mong people, Red Dao People, and a few other tribes. The native tribes completely survive off of subsistence farming. Each family is allotted to grow 1.5 tons of rice each year. Of course there is a communal agreement that each family with help out the other as planting and growing rice is an arduous task.
We spent the majority of our time walking with the Black H’Mong women and through their villages. I found particular interest in one seventeen year old girl with a baby on her back. She was already married and this ball of joy with sun-kissed cheeks was her first child. She could not understand why I was not married at twenty-five nor had any children. I kindly explained that I would love to be married one day but I am not on that path yet in my life. She asked if I felt lonely and I did my best at explaining the difference between being alone and lonely. These questions, which come quite often in my life, only make me smile. We are all on such individual and unique paths. One person’s story cannot and should not match another’s. There is no set timeline for our lives where we must check a box off for accomplishing a milestone at a certain age. I hope to be married to a loving man one day; yet I am in no rush to settle down with one person and grow roots in one place – it will happen when it is meant to. That being said, I do not think those that have done so have made a wrong choice. To each their own, and while others visit Lowe’s to remodel their house, I visit random islands to remodel my soul.
I cannot help but feel the power of the human spirit in situations like this. Thousands of miles away from home, in a remote village in the hills of northern Vietnam, a young tribal girl and I can connect and communicate over the one thing that unites humanity: love.
Sapa Valley is breathtaking. We trekked seventeen kilometers through placid rice paddies, up steep mountains, and over gurgling rivers. Water buffalo grazed, piglets foraged for food, and countless baby chicks chased their mothers. Our guide, Tu, told us about the local way of living, history of the tribes, and overall life in Vietnam. He has a gentle heart but a mischievous sense of humor.
The terraced rice paddies were filled with water, preparing the soil for planting the new season’s crops. The clear sky was reflected in the shallow pools, giving the illusion of a cracked mirror. We stopped at one woman’s home to see how they make their clothes. A middle-aged woman with a stupendous grin is one of three women who know how to make their traditional cloth in their village. Their robes are made from hemp and died in indigo with beeswax used to make the designs. We passed by schools that are furnished by UNICEF and staffed by volunteers. Their houses are simple wooden frames sitting atop massive amounts of land and surrounded by farm animals and gardens. They live off their land and make extra income by selling their crops in Sapa Village Market or their crafts to the tourists. They live a traditional and humble life, although they have accepted the modernity of electricity.
We carried on with our trek, letting the rush from the inspiring views give strength to our tired bodies. On our way to our homestay, we stopped to watch the sun set behind the geometrically designed hills. We thanked Tu for giving us a glorious day. He took us on the path less taken where no other tourists go. It was simply our group, tribeswomen, and the spacious valley of rice paddies.
We walked the distance of what most groups do in two days in one day. Exhausted, our bodies found their way to a local family of the Black H’Mong Tribe where we would spend the night. Our kind hosts opened their heart and home to seven strangers. After showers we toasted to our gracious homestay family and to beautiful Sapa. They cooked a feast for us and let us partake in some of the preparations. The food was delicious and the atmosphere made it even better. Tu translated the tribe’s dialect into English and told us about their family and daily life. Our host was a small and strong man with an infectious grin. His children are all school scholars and shy. Three of the young ones piled into one bed, using each other’s bodies as pillows, as the adults stayed up to drink rice wine and share stories.
At one point I mentioned a headache I have been battling with for the past few days. Once Tu translated this to our host, he jumped up and ran into the kitchen only to return moments later. He held a small black goat’s horn and piece of coal. Without another word, our host placed the hot coal inside the horn and then put the horn on the middle of my forehead. The hot coal burned the oxygen into the horn and suction cupped it to my forehead – I became a unicorn. Similar to Chinese cupping, this traditional form of medicine is commonly used by the tribes. I sat there for well over thirty minutes while my company giggled at the sight of me. After some time our host took of the horn and I was left with a red mark – but no headache.
We rose with the clatter of a house coming to life and farm animals clucking from being fed. After a pancake breakfast we commenced the heartfelt goodbyes to our gracious hosts. Their generosity and hospitality will never be forgotten. There are few places tourists can travel to in the world that are still as honest and authentic as Tu and our hosts in Sapa Valley.
We trekked another seven kilometers that day, crossing wooden bridges and stopping to play with the local children. Some young ones are made, by their parents perhaps, to sell bracelets to the passing foreigners; however, most children are free to be their innocent selves and play with laughter and imagination in the hills of Sapa. Most children waved from afar shouting out English words they know. Others folded into their shyness, hesitant to give us a smile or high five. We stopped to chat with one little girl whose job was to watch the water buffalo all day – a common chore.
My oldest sister was meant to go into labor during my time in Sapa – where I would have no access to internet. As I trekked through the mountains my mind kept wandering back to my family at home. I prayed for a safe and healthy delivery, letting the wind carry my prayers to San Francisco. I was of two minds, reveling in the beauty of Sapa yet anxious to know of my nephew’s birth. When we returned to civilization in Sapa Village I discovered that my nephew was not yet ready to leave his mother’s loving womb – and unbeknownst at that time, would not be for two more days.
We boarded the bouncing sleeper train once again to carry on our journey to Ha Long Bay. Sapa was by far the best part of my visit to Vietnam, and one of my top three experiences on this trip. The simplicity of the tribes was mesmerizing. Their work correlated with their need for survival, there was no excess or greed. My heart was left behind with the children who have not lost their innocence – they are free to make mud pies from the earth, catch tadpoles in the water pools, and collect wildflowers for their mothers.