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Published: November 12th 2007
With my guide's family
They were very friendly, feeding me fruit and asking questions.
In Hanoi, where Starbucks, thank Buddha and God, has not arrived yet, there is the Tamarind Cafe. Cozy atmosphere, Wi-Fi, strong Vietnamese drip coffee, and the yummy "Es apokay" shake (avocado, banana, lime, yogurt, soy milk, honey). I booked my 2-day, 3-night trekking trip to the northern mountains of Vietnam thru the Handspan office at the back of the cafe. Recommeded!
In the overnight train, one of my cabin mates had been to Rio for 12 days. So, after a little chat, we all said "boa noite" and were awaken before dawn, at 5:30am, when we arrive in Lao Cai.
Another 1-hour road trip overlooking the misty mountains of North Vietnam, as we waided our way up, and we arrived in SAPA
. It was cold, but I got to warm up at breakfast with a bowl of steaming noodles. Yeap! Soup for breakfast, alongside some dragon fruit and strong vVetnamese coffee with condensed milk. Here goes another Yeap!
Even anutritionist gets used to condensed milk here, because it is very commonly used.
My trekking buddies were 2 guys and 1 English woman, and a Japanase woman. So, 2 couples, our local guide called Pet, and I were
Prettiest Hill Girl
There she was, carring her brother on her back, no English, but comfortably let us take pictures of her. Nothing asked from us. I gave her a bennie, she thanked and walked away.
to spend the next 2 days trekking togheter.
As we started to head down the mountains, 10 Black H'mong women, all dressed in traditional indigo-dyed linen clothing and cylindrical hats, started to follow us. Along the paths we saw many women busy weaving or embroidering clothings, or tending the rice, herbs or vegetable fields. Many carried their babies tied to their backs. Depending on the tribe they belonged to, their way of dressing was completely different.
Up and down the challenging, steepy, muddy and narrow paths we clamsyling went. While we started to slide like if there was soap on the mud, our "sticking-to-us-like-glue hill ladies" became very useful, holding our hands, one on each side. They laughted at our uncoordinated way to handle their mountains. They gossiped about us too, I am certain, as they wisppered to each other. We rested at a house of the "Giay People", and a peek inside the simple house revealed very little material possession.
Taking quick stops to catch our breath, we had a chance to admire the incredible mountains, the already harvested rice paddy terraces, the water buffalos, the kids and the villages. We than encountered the "Red Dzau"
Hill Tribe Woman & Baby
I was glad to see many women breastfeeding, unlike in Cambodia
people, a group that practices ancestors worship of spirits and hold sacrifice of pigs and chicken. They wear elaborate clothing with silver-coloured beads, the hair is kept long but is shaved around the forehead and tied up into a large red embroided turban. It's a peculiar but beautiful look! We got to see many Red Dzau people walking up the mountaing going to a wedding and when back in SaPa I was intruduced to 9 members of my guide's family and even posed for pictures with them.
The first 8 hours of the trekking were definately challeging, but rewarding, and we miracously survived the trails without falling on our behinds. Tired, we arrived at our HOMESTAY with a "Tay" family. A man saw wood, a woman shredded yucca and leaves for the soup to be fed to the 3 pigs, another cooked our dinner. Covered in mud, I braved into the primitive bathing facility, washing myself with scoops of freezing cold water from a bucket. It was one of those moments when you put life into perspective.
A delicious dinner of greens, tofu, meats and sticky rice was served at the patio overlooking the village, followed by green
tea and shots of the very strong rice wine (stronger than cachaca or tequila!!!).
Local dancers performed next door. We could still hear them singing as we went to sleep on the second floor of the stilt bamboo house, matreeses on the floor, covered by super colorful blanquets and under a mosquito net.
SHAMEFUL FOREIGNERS : at around 11pm, the solitude and peace of the valley was greatly disturbed by the blasting of Western music played by a group of disrespectful Germans on their 50's. I felt ashamed as a tourist and was amazed by how they could be so disrespectful to the culture they came to visit, and supposedly not impose on. The same group also undressed completely as they changed their clothes at the waterfall, in front of modest locals, next day.
SECOND TREKKING DAY: After banana pancakes and fruit for breakast at the patio, we headed for our second day of trekking, this one to be much easier. We went to a beautiful waterfall and visited some locals as we walked thru villages. Many women were working the fields, rusking rice or weaving. The men weren't to be seen anywhere, or were smoking water pipes
inside the simples homes.
After a late lunch, I met a 90 year old man and learned a little more about the traditions of the highlanders. Traditional medicine, spirit worship, dog eating, etc. Ah, we saw a real cobra by the house too, and it was killed in front of our eyes.
Mid afternoon we took a wild ride on an old Russian jeep back to SaPa. It was time for a visit to the busy market, a catholic church (!!!), and encounter with the multitude of colorfully dressed Hill tribe women selling beautiful handcrafts. It was hard turning down the offers, as price was great but my bag space was limited. FACTS ABOUT THE HILL TRIBES OF NORTH VIETNAM:
-There are 15 ethinic minorities inhabiting the NW mountains of Vietnam, and collectivelly they are called "Hill Tribes". The colorful people are from Chinese decent and have distinct language, clothing, house structure, and spiritual beliefs. Some groups remain in a medieval lifestyle, while others have incorporated more of the lifestyle of the modern world. They live in close proximity of each other in small villages occupying the valleys.
- The Vietnamese used to refer to
And to a wedding she went...
on the back of a motocycle. Note shaved hair.
these highlanders as "savages". Today they are named "national minorities" but little help with education and health care is provided to them. Although there is no official discrimination, prejudice is a reality.
- Saddly, domestic tourism has created a market for prostitution and "innocent" international tourism has started to interfer with old traditions. It's hard not to feel like a hypocrit being one of the visitors, but there are things tourists with a conscience can do. For exemple, not buying from kids, as they usually drop out of school after 2 or 3 years, since tourism means fast profit. We can also donate to the schools and contribute to bringing health care, as practicaly only traditional medicine is practiced here. To illustrate medical ignorance, my guide told me that "people only get sick here is they drink water at the same time as they eat the "wrong" food." So, "timing" is important, "combination" is important, by not the cuprit which is probably the contaminated water.
By dressing modestly, not littering, not using drugs, not giving sweets or money to kids and simpling by being polite and respectful, we can enjoy this amazying mountains and people without leaving a negative
Strong old lady
At 67 years, she trekked with us for hours, helping & smiling.
I only visited Hanoi and the NW hills, but I plan to come back as I heard other parts of the Vietnam are amazing as well.
This trip is Recommended!
So, I leave Vietnam with a feel that we owe to this country and it's people a great deal. The Vietnamese on the top of the economy game are doing very well, but the majority are still enduring hardship, and a great deal of suffering as they still try to rebuilt their home.
And to Laos I go... write to you from there.
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