After two night buses, a make-shift plane situation, and early morning Vietnamese techno car ride I can officially say we have made it to the far north of Sapa. The car is winding around large curves up a mountain covered in an endless fog, I look out the window .. up, down, left, right…the fog continues only slightly breaking in points to reveal the most subtle of tree-topped mountain peaks. Like telling someone you have a secret and then not revealing what it is, I put my forehead to the chilled window hoping something will slip and the clouds will part to show us something. anything. Instead I’m only greeted with the occasional bump and the sounds of Vietnamese dance music booming from the front of the bus. It refuses to let me get too wrapped into the scenery. Something about a pastel sunrise above mountain peaks and a man pump fisting in leather pants on a small ceiling tv seems so comical at 6:30 in the morning. However at seven the bus pulls to a stop in a small town. Although the fog has not lifted I see a group of men and women in heavy clothing are gathered outside of my window peering up at us.
Lacking sleep and thwarted by the coldness of my window, I keep my head rested against the glass watching as the rest of the bus exits.I soon find out that the men and women are from the local Hmong hilltribes. They live here in these cold temperatures and isolated mountains year-round. The women are craftsmen, the men apprentices of the rice fields. Why they crowd around a bus at 6:30 in the morning is obvious. These people with white skin and large bookbags seem to have a great deal of what they have not. Cash.
As i step off the bus, women in colorful scarves show me bracelets on their wrists and pull wire earrings from their pockets, “buy from me” their lips and eyes say while the men offer accommodation in guesthouses. Aided by the cold, Laura Dan and I are quickly following someone to a room.Sandals and barefeet in cold weather lead to rash decisionmaking. Oh, and One thing about people in Asia, they walk so fast. Although half our size, we were panting to keep up with the little body moving swiftly 20 feet in front of us, passing a glance back occasionally. Nestling into a room and stymied by the cold we spend the next 10 hours in a host of different buildings. Our favorites being those with fireplaces and warm tea.
Here we sat quietly, each of us secretly wondering how we would manage to hike in sandals and one layer of clothing. We seriously underestimated the temperatures here. Defeated and ,well ….cold we return to our beds around 6 pm bury our heads in our own books and covers and fall asleep hoping that morning will grace us with some sunshine.
At 7 o’clock I wake up to cold shoulders. I sink down refusing to acknowledge that the day is here. I fade out. 8:30 am I wake up to the sound of boots clicking on the wooden floor. Voices of the manager tell me that Dan has clogged the toilet. I laugh inside. But, not wanting to cause him embarrassment ( we have known him five days at this point) I peak through a small hole in the blankets before I fade out again. The boots leave and once again I’m comforted by the warmth of heavy blankets.
At 9:15 I decide I need to get up. Laura’s curls are motionless in the bed next to me and Dan is gone. I put on all the warm clothes I have.. brown capris and a pair of borrowed sweatpants…an I love Bangkok tanktop and a cardigan before opening the door to step outside. I literally can not believe my eyes. While the chill is still here, mountains surround our small little room reaching up into the sky. The fog moves away and the sun is out. I wake Laura up and we head down to the street.
The Sapa of yesterday and the Sapa of today are completely different places. Today, the center of town is flooded with the women and men I described earlier. With woven baskets and babies attached to their backs the faces have set up clusters of small markets selling their goods from their respective villages.
I later find out that the walk from the village to Sapa is around 7 km over the mountains, they completed this while I was still in bed this morning and when its not raining.. this is a daily trek. One of the interesting things about the Hmong people is that they have no formal education system, the English that they have learnt is a complete result of their interaction with foreigners. Therefore, their conversations are limited to phrases of the marketplace. “Buy from me, where you from?, whats your name?, you buy from me later?, do you have brother and sister?”. The same pattern of curiosity comes from each smiling scarf not in a exploitative manner but with a generally interested tone of voice, and something in their eyes. A woman picks some of the stray hairs from my sweater as she asks me about my brothers, another points to my sandals and displays a motherly sentiment. By eleven thirty we sit down for lunch and I’m exhausted with both sadness and intrigue. Another world exists here, I’m just not sure how I feel about it yet.
Little did I know that the best was yet to come. A girl the height of my elbow with long jet black hair and a patterned skirt approaches Dan asking for his purchases. He kindly refuses but before we know it her conversation has transformed into a witty dissertation of a university classroom. The only difference is that she interrupts the flow of conversation with an occasional bite from a large sugarcane stick. Teeth to stick. Stick in mouth. She rips, chews, then spits the remains on the ground. Her name is Ha and she is beautifully smart and humorous. We spend the afternoon together.
The thing about Sapa is that a lot of the Vietnamese people have exploited the Hmong culture. They offer tour packages to “treks” to hilltribe villages, buy crafts from the villages and sell them for more, and charge entry for almost anywhere you want to go. Ethnotourism at its finest. Luckily for us, we have somehow scrambled across Ha, and she doesn’t feel like selling to foreigners today. Instead she leads us on a beautiful walk, kicking the dirt beneath her feet and talking nonchalantly along the way.
After awhile,I have to ask. She laughs at me and answers…Ha is eighteen, and I can’t believe it. Actually, none of us can. We all thought she was perhaps twelve. We talk more as our bodies start to sweat in the sun. Afternoon reveals that she likes to “party” but not to drink, the farthest she has been from home is 2 hours, and she doesn’t have to worry about selling things everyday because she is free. (Free from what? Free from parenthood, marriage, and family responsibility I find out).. at least for the time being. Ha tells us that life here is boring for her except when she sells a lot of things to foreigner, then it is a good day. Let that sink in. Really. Read it again. Now I continue.. On those days, she gives the majority of her money and earnings to her mother. Her mother usually lets her keep a little for herself, but is angry if Ha doesnt bring anything back. I ask her what her mom will say today. Ha informs me that her mom will be angry but she’ll get over it, after all Ha doesn’t have children to feed like most of the other girls her age. We sit down on a mountaintop overlooking the valley below and I ask Ha more. She eats some strawberry ice cream with a tiny spoon, picking out the chocolate chunks as she tells me stories.
She has four brothers. Her and her dad are the only people in her family that don’t eat dogs. She has a friend from Australia and England who promise to take her there for free next year. She Her brother will be married in 3 days, she invites us to come with her. I regret that I leave tomorrow and am shocked by how connected I feel to these brown eyes, when will this ever present itself again. A silence arises again. She has learnt English from selling in the market but school isnt an option, the government only pays for elementary school not high school. So why would she attend school when she could earn money and learn English at the same time in the market? She is so wise, but so bitterly broken. As she finishes a second ice cream the sounds of her spoon scraping the bottom of the plastic make me feel like she is scrapping for more than melted vanilla. I don’t know how I feel about the silence. I am watching her. She smiles then looks away embarrassingly, “Whaaat?!” she says with a childlike giggle. Drawing out a long “a” sound. I can’t believe that this small girl is being pressured to have children, is only three years younger than me, is so intelligent, and yet so limited by the place she was born into. I simply shake my head and smile back at her in a way that says ” Oh nothing”.
The afternoon sun and the hike back up hill has resulted in the loss of some layers. I tie my cardigan around my waste and feel like the middle-school version of my youngerself. The hoodie days of rec basketball and the warmups with Coach Thomas. Why am I thinking about Coach Thomas in Vietnam?
Anyways… Making our way back into the village, more women approach us trying to sell a little something of their own.
We find a spot in the sun overlooking the market and sit in silence. Ha runs off and returns with a long stick of sugarcane. Before I know it she has whipped out a pocket knife and is shaving off its exterior. A piece is in my hands, and now we all sit. Eating the sugarcane like animals and basking in the sun. The sapa of today is a different world from the sapa of yesterday. Packing up our stuff, Laura and I must tell our friend Dan goodbye and Ha as well. In the morning, Dan will go on a three day trek with Ha through the mountains of Sapa and Fansipan before reaching her village and participating in all the marriage festivities for her brother and his bride! I can not fathom the amount of knowledge that has reached his eyes and ears as I write this. I imagine him dancing, or towering rather at 6 foot 7, among the Hmong people, all equally happy and curiously laughing at him.
Saying Goodbye to Ha and Dan, she gives us each a small bracelet and we humbly depart on a thirty minute trip back down the mountain. At the Lao Cai train station a fight breaks out amidst two drunken Vietnamese men. One man is hitting another with a red plastic chair. What a contradiction. Eventually the crowd calms and the night quiets before we board our night train back to good ol’ Hanoi.
For now, this seems like the first leg of a long jouney back West. And I have to be honest, the spirit of Sapa has made me ready for christmas with my own tribe, for the North Carolina I have described to the Hmong people in the last three days. As Che Guevara says, Ever onward. To Hanoi we go.