Published: December 4th 2011December 4th 2011
Sometimes our lives are changed by the people we meet, the places we go to, the things we do and the choices we make both good and bad. Sometimes those changes are temporary other times they leave a permanent mark and alter us forever.
Sapa is one of those times, those moments, those decisions where the people I met changed me forever.
I start my tour at the Kangaroo cafe in Hanoi with Max, the charismatic Ozzy who has run this western joint successfully for the last sixteen years. He is charming, funny, friendly and not once did he get fed up of me hounding him and his delightful staff over his tours. I didn’t want to go to Sapa alone, I don’t know why I just didn’t. I kept coming back every day to see if anyone else had booked themselves on to the tour. In the end I gave up and booked a tour to Sapa to stay in a hotel for three days on my own. So I arrived at the Kangaroo Cafe at 7pm, in time to have some dinner before I caught the night train up to Lai Cao near Sapa. It was here
when I met two people who I deeply believe I will have an eternally lasting connection with. All three of us have had our lives affected by the things we have seen. Max introduced me to Pippa and John, a beautiful couple from Leeds although they have been living in London long enough for the northern accent to only vaguely be heard. We introduce ourselves awkwardly but the awkwardness only last a matter of seconds. I felt like I had known them for a life time, the conversation flows easily and it is fun. We meet Nabhia and Chanda from Paris moments before we leave for the train, another enjoyable couple to accompany our tour.
The five of us cram in to the four birth sleeper carriage and talk until late into the night. Jon offers me his space in the carriage but I am fine with my one, separate from the clan but only next door. I can scream if there is a problem but as it turns out the two Italians that I share the room with are perfectly amenable and even offer me a choice of bed, even though the seats were previously allocated. I chose
top bunk and slept fitfully, my body rocking gently with the train as it climbed higher and higher steadily up the mountain.
We arrive at 5am and it is pouring outside. The rain drops smash in to the windows splattering in to a million pieces as they thud against the glass while we silently pull up in to the dark station. Sellers peer in to the cabin offering us waterproof macs for 30p. We accept, tuck ourselves in and make for the safety of the station platform. We march over the railway lines, and out of the station towards the cafe we are being picked up from. We are drenched, tired, hungry and just desperate to get to Sapa to dry off and shower.
If you don’t go to Sapa then you will never know the exquisite beauty this place holds. It is simply mesmerising. You could stand for hours watching the sun and the clouds transform the landscape. The steep slopes are cut in to steps for rice farming, the roads are made of mud amid an expanse of green, and there is little development as you look East, away from the town of Sapa. The town
sticky out belly
these boys were playing on the path. I ended up buying a little bag from them and they squeeled with delight when I handed over a doller more than they asked for.
itself is a thriving bustling hub of tourists who are brave enough to make the fierce journey here, spirited tribes women make their own dangerous expedition across the rickety landscape and mud tracks and business men who have realised they are on to a good thing develop more hotels, more shops, and more tour agencies. As I stand over-looking the scene like some God, I see the chaotic town to the left of me and the tranquil slopes of the tribes’ people on the right.
It’s cold in Sapa, very cold. The morning is spent buying thick warm socks, second skin leggings, waterproof coats, jumpers and shoes to replace the flip flops hanging from my feet. I spend near $70 on fake North Face gear and hope that it is just as good. But I learn, sooner rather than later, it’s not. The trek was beautiful; the villages are small, the scenery incredible and our guides; Sue and Moa enchanting. We talk about life as a tribes woman, as a mother, as friends, as a wife and as a guide. They love their jobs, they love working for Max and Cat Cat View hotel, they love their friends and
family and the tourists. They have never been to school, never read a book, never learnt to write yet speak seven or so languages each which they have picked up from the tourists gracing their days. These women are sensational. Sadly their jobs take them away from their families several times a week as they spend long days and nights with the tourists on their home-stays and treks. Sue tells us how she dislikes her husband, how crazy he is, how drunk he gets and how aggressive he can be and how she wishes she could divorce him but cannot. She has tried, but has been turned down by the village elder for the husband refuses to leave her. However, if the husband wanted to leave Sue he could, easily. If she leaves him she must give up her home and children to her husband but cannot leave her children. She thinks women who do are wicked but recognises how unhappy they must be. She tells me how last week a woman in her village left to go to China on the quiet leaving behind an abusive husband and four children in the hope life will be better. Within the
last month, three women have disappeared for similar reasons with comparable hopes and dreams. I wonder what life awaits them on the other side and hope it is worth the battle, but know deep down these women will never forgive themselves for leaving their children. The decision must have been more painful than what they felt bringing them in to this world.
The sun gives way to the clouds, in turn the rain triumphs showering us with its almighty anger. My bones shiver, by skin is saturated and my feet are swollen from shoes which are too small yet were too big yesterday. Typical fake converse! Sue diverts us to a refuge over-looking the valley as it is on the way to our final destination and we stop there to shelter from the rain and get warm over a fire. At first I thought we were sheltering in a barn or a dilapidated shed, the kind of shed that sits lonely in the back garden forgotten by the family with very little in it due to its irreparable nature. It didn’t take long for me to realise this was a house; Sue’s house. She pulled up a plastic chair,
a wooden chair and a little rocky bench gesturing for us to squeeze onto them whilst she, Mao and the other tribes women who had been following us sat on their haunches. She introduced us to her three children who were 6, 4 and 2; beautiful little things they were too, although they looked years younger than they were. Sue herself is thirty but looks no older than twenty. She is tiny, but then so are all the tribes women.
We sit by the fire trying to keep warm, drying off our soggy clothes. I sit wishing I hadn’t listened to Jon back at the hotel, he managed to convince me that I did not need that extra pair of trousers or that nice warm jumper. I can’t complain though, only an hour ago I was thanking him for not having to carry the extra weight. Us westerners shiver from the cold seeping in to our bodies as the tribes women natter but not once do they moan about being wet like we do. Eventually it stopped raining and Sue decided it was time we should go before the rain commences and batters us again. We beg her
to stay with her children, telling her she should be here rather than with us. As we speak, her six year old daughter starts to cook dinner. Sue leaves telling us her daughter and sons are used to it; it is heart breaking. Her husband has been gone for days, ‘one of those gambling trips’ she says. Her little face creases in anxiety as she says it but as quickly as those lines appeared they dissolve in to a round smile again.
We speedily follow her and Mau to Ta Van village over sodden roads resembling rocky streams. We tumble over the protruding rocks, twisting our ankles, I fall in to step with the others trying to keep the pace but knowing as I do so, my toes are twisting, rubbing and scrapping against these ridiculous canvas flaps embellishing my sweaty feet. I am dreading tomorrow. The villages are shacks, broken and tumbling yet strong enough to stand against the bitter wind. Oreo’s, wine and Tiger beer adorn the front stalls and soon enough signs read in English “Lipton Tea”, “Hot Chocolate”, “Coffee”, “Beer”. Clearly this is an area used to home stays and anticipates the heavy footfalls
of the foreigner. Sadly this is not the road less travelled.
The home stay was not really a home stay. Rather it’s a house, made from wood, looks traditional enough but sleeps up to twenty tourists. Three other Brits sit outside sipping their tea, and we recognise them. Only hours before we had walked with them chatted and got on quite well with them. It was a shock to see we had clearly joined some similar tour as we all thought this would be an authentic experience, but then what is an “authentic experience” when you are a westerner in a developed area ready to con the tourists out of every last dong? We dry off, Danielle, one of the Brits kindly lends me her clothes as I have nothing: everything is drenched, including the spares in my “waterproof” North face bag. I hang it all up by the fire including my non-waterproof ‘waterproof’ coat. I shiver over a cup of hot tea and feel the warmth trickle down my gullet in to my stomach. It feels good.
That evening we play games, talk like old friends, and I am thoroughly enjoying my time with my new amigos.
We are taught new games by our tribe women, we eat incredible food and laugh like there is no tomorrow. We learn more about the lives of Sue and Mau and amongst all this happiness, there is also sadness. A deep sadness in my heart, I feel it weighing heavy in my chest and both Pippa, John and I talk at length over the ways in which we could help these two women and maybe the other minority women in their communities. The big question: How can we empower them? How can we bring them the means to take control and change their own lives? There is no simple answer. We ask Sue to tell us what she wants and her face creases again as her eyes drift upwards. As I watch her in contemplation, I myself consider what she is possibly dreaming of. What does this little charming lady with great depth desire most? Divorce? Love? Money? No; none of these, she accepts her fate. As a mother would, she wants the chance to change the fortunes of her children and give them the opportunities she never had which will enable the children and the grand children and the
great grand children to be self sufficient and not reliant upon the greedy Vietnamese taking over Sapa. The H’mong people are not recognised as Vietnamese citizens and therefore are not afforded the opportunities the Vietnamese are. They cannot run their own businesses, afford schools, own their own houses and a woman in this situation is worse than a man, they have even less doors open to them. So how do we solve this? How do we help her? After lengthy silence, Sue coyly pipes up explaining how her dream revolves around a business idea she has but will never achieve due to lack of money, resources and ability to publicise her business. She dreams of running her own real home-stay at her house so she can be with her children as they grow up, she hates leaving them alone all day and all night for days at a time. She dreams of teaching the foreigners how to cook, how to embroider the traditional clothing of the H’mong tribes and trek up the mountain paths only she and a few others know. She wants the opportunity to go to school, learn to read and write as well as provide her children
with quality of life whilst affording them a place at school and maybe even university.
These dreams are seemingly inconsequential to us westerners; we can open a business, we can go to school, we can afford a good standard of life. Yet, here this delicate, colourful lady sits spinning her dreams to us. Small dreams for us, although huge for her. I wish at this moment I could have waved my magic wand, said the magic words and BAM! a house appears ready for a home stay, but it won’t be as easy as this.
Pippa, Jon and I thrash out the ways of the universe, the what if’s the how’s, the why’s and the when’s. Done!
As of today; The Mao-Sue Foundation is up and running. Okay so there is a hell of a long way to go; we need to register our charity, raise the funds, develop the plans, and make the improvements necessary to make it a liveable place for tourists and eventually open the business and advertise. Things like a wall needs to be built in order to replace the tarpaulin currently acting as a kitchen wall, a toilet needs to be built
as we cannot expect tourist to tinker in the garden like Sue does. We need to teach Sue and Mao about hygiene and cleanliness of the house and of themselves; they need to wash. There is a lot more to it than this, and we recognise what we are getting ourselves in to. This is a huge project. Our aims our not just to stop at Sue and Mao’s but we hope their houses will act as a ray of hope and raise the expectations of the locals for their own lives and development. In turn we can help each villager improve their standard of living with the tiniest of changes which we overlook in our worlds. We are not just here to support improvement in living conditions but we are also here to give a chance to those who otherwise would never get it because of who they are and the tribe they were born into. We will hopefully offer blankets, mosquito nets, mattresses, kitchen appliances, and insulation to keep them warm in the biting cold months, even toilets or rain water collectors to help these people gain a better quality of life.
Back in the town
of Sapa, we ask Sue to take us to meet her sister Shu who is trying to set up a school in the mountains to help the tribes people learn. They currently cannot go to school and there is no limit; she helps the old and the young. Thing is, there are no teachers, so it’s pretty hard to teach when there are no teachers. So what happens when a qualified teacher, with a desire to help turns up? Well, I stay don’t I? Another strand to our charity; not only do we aim to empower minority tribes women but we hope to educate them and expand the limited opportunities accessible to them and their children. I don’t want to change their traditional ways or damage the beauty of their culture and neither does Pippa or Jon, but equally we see the importance of education and how small things like insulating a house or providing blankets can help these very poor people. In fact, you’re probably sitting reading this nodding your head in agreement.
My story does not end here. Neither do my adventures. I will stay in Sapa, help to set up the charity with Pippa and Jon,
over see the projects and hope to create opportunities for people like you to help these tribes too. If you would like to help us, please contact me here through this blog site; we would be eternally grateful for your pledges. We are in the very early stages of our plans and this is something we cannot do alone. Raising money is just the start. We have a long journey ahead of us and boy don’t we know it.
When I left England my mother said to me “it’s about the people we touch and the quality we bring to their lives”. Travelling as a backpacker is not for me, I don’t feel like I contribute positively, at least not in the ways I hope to. My travel plans have changed yet again, but this feels right.
To Sue, Moa, Pippa, Jon, Nabhia, Chanda, Danielle, Paul, Matt and Max: Thank You for a life changing experience.
Check out www.msfsapa.org to see what we are doing
There are more photos below