The tour operator showed us photos of two classes of sleeper train, the first was a beautiful wood lined cabin with sultry low lighting, clean looking mattress, and pillow, finished off with a vase of fresh flowers. The second option was a grey blue Formica interior with low flickering lighting, clean looking mattress and pillow; this was much cheaper, so we booked the Formica cabin that looked more like an old prison cell. We were promised a restful night’s sleep on the sleeper train, which for the record didn't happen due to a small family of screaming kids and mini earth tremor snoring from both adults that shared with us. We were picked up from the train station in Lao Chai at 6 am, and then taken to the tour operators shop in Sapa. We were given some crumbling bread, ham and rocket fuelled coffee with condensed sweetened milk which I quiet like now while we waited 2 hours. Still wearing shitty clothes from the night before, I was groggy due to lack of sleep, menstrual cramps and hunger. We started our trek in the blazing heat of the North Western Mountains by the Chinese border.
The first thing
that happened are the little voices that echo the same same words all around you “Where you from? What your name? How old you? You have baby...no baby...why no baby?” Then once we have all got to know each other it’s ”You buy from me?” The black H'mong ladies NEVER give up. They follow you from tour guide shop to the hotel to the toilet, and then wait. They follow you down the first days trek to Cat Cat village “Buy from me lady bery cheap, I gib you cheap cheap”
I have learnt to N e v e r say to them ‘maybe later' as this is their red rag. These same ladies camp outside your hotel all night long, just to get one sale. The H'Mong tribes were the last to settle in the Hoang Lien Son mountain districts, they came from southern China in the 18th century where they split in to four tribes: white, flower, red and black and are all relentless in their selling “buy from me OK” drills right through ear matter and brain cells. I do loved their costumes, especially the kids, they weave then dye their own fabrics using the green
leaf of the indigo plant, which when rubbed between fingers it turns dark blue. They hand make all their clothing with elaborate embroidery, they still find the time to look after their young, hustling tourists all day long, walk miles every day from Sapa town to their villages some three hours trek away, although I do think a lot of them hitch rides on motor bikes, there is no way they can fit all these activities into one day.
After the first day was over I got a motor bike back up the hill as I was seriously flagging by 3 pm, cramps were kicking in and I burnt my leg on the exhaust, I soon noticed everyone had moto burns on their legs. I dragged myself back to the hotel and was a bit surprised after finally checking in at the shabbiness of it, especially as last minute we paid an extra $24 for this upgrade from 2 stars to a 3 star. But here in Vietnam the star system is not same, it’s very different. They base the 1 star on a hotel that has less than 10 rooms; a 3 star would have more than 30
rooms, 5 star fifty rooms and so on, so it is not based on quality, but quantity of room available. A room that has AC, great bed and clean white sheets, coffee making stuff, cable TV, Wifi , PC in the room, fruit basket and a single live rose in a vase but only 8 rooms available will be listed as 1 star. A hotel that has 50 rooms, no Ac, no Cable TV, no fruit bowls, a dribbling cold shower and nothing much else will be listed as 5 star, this made no sense.
Even though its 80 degrees in the shade it’s the beginning of May and I noticed hints of spring time everywhere, babe type hogletts fighting for a space at mums teats, puppies falling over themselves, buffalo calf's learning how to stand, kittens chasing flies, chicks following mummy ducks in single file to the water’s edge, bare bottomed babies happily suckling on exposed breasts or hanging patiently by a single bit of string straddled on mums back, there could have been baby shreks running around as it was that kind of farfarawayland. Flowers of every kind were opening up, tiny finger nail sized violet butterflies
fluttering in the breeze by a full flux of water fall, and amazingly as I walked and walked I did not complain about anything on this trek. I loved this walk. We had the H'Mong tribes as company the whole way “You buy something from me....Ok?....You promise tomorrow, you say you buy from me (I said no such thing)...you buy from me...look good price”
One thing they all said which made a change especially when I ran up a cliff and was not out of breath was “you are so strong” instead of 'you are so big' then prodding every inch of my flesh in search of unborn child! I heard that all these village, tribe people tell each other exactly how much they all earn, they all know each other’s business, and there are no secrets between them. We walked past two babies working, and I mean babies working. One little girl was a little more than three years old, her sister a little over two both carrying a woven basket full of logs, heart breaking. Sweat broke as I raced up and down the mountains and passes but since Hanoi's Dr. Pins I had amassed a new
kind of energy.
After day two we settled in for the night in La Van which is the home stay village. We stayed at the Hoang family home which was nestled in the terraced mountainous ridges. This was the best part of the trip, the house was very open plan with comfy foam mattresses up stairs and internet down stairs, and this was progress and due to western demand. They provided us with soft flip flops and a big bucket of cool water to shower with. An little old lady tried to sell us MORE stuff, I took her picture but did not buy anything, to be honest id run out of smaller change and was all retailed out. She said she will come back tomorrow to sell me something as I had taken her picture twice, I thought to myself but we’re off early tomorrow, I really didn’t care at that point and took another shot of her anyway. Mindless I know. I watched Grandma Hoang cut vegetables, she made us tea, then the 20 chicks had escaped from the pond, so she ran after them with a big stick and her granddaughter strapped to her back and
yaaaa hooed them back in to the pond enclosure. Granddad tinkered with the wire fencing for a bit and the small shed area needed sorting, they both played with the four grand children. Just as the sun was setting Granddad took a stroll along the mud ridge with his 2 year old granddaughter. It made me think how valuable grandparents are to the day to day running of a big and busy family, they do all those little things that are equally important to be done, yet too time consuming for the busy parent. I thought of both sets of my grandparents, right then at that very moment I missed them all.
Binh noticed the seeping mass of rotting skin on my leg where I burnt myself on the bike the day before, the blister had burst, he cleaned it up for me then he dabbed toothpaste gel, apparently they all do it around here and I must say it soothed the burning. All the women wear black velvet leg wraps, this is to protect them from such burns but also to protect their calf muscles with all this hiking, they place a wooden baton inside the velvet as
support. Dinner was made by Binh, it was a blinding meal, Vietnamese food is really delicious and so healthy. After dinner I was beat. After sleeping like a cocooned baby, the cockerel woke me up at the decent time of 7 am. The old lady seller was sitting on a plastic kiddie chair ready, waiting for me to buy her quilts and hand bags, I felt very bad, but I had behaved very bad, she must have got up at 5 am just in case we left at a god awful hour, I should have known better so I bought a hat, she was happy. I watched the ducks cleaning themselves, then played with the two dogs in between them also cleaning themselves and each other, I had a sweet little tabby cat sit on my lap cleaning himself to, the cat looked like my dear old cat Shaman who died 3 years ago, I miss him terribly, so moments like this was very special to me. Animals, children and the elderly, a combination of true loving wholesomeness.
On day three we trekked up mountains, my lungs were fine, breathing regular and clear, my ankles didn't swell, my cheeks
rosy, I was heomodynamically stable, my mood better than average in fact borderline ecstatic, things we moving along very nicely. It was so peaceful even though at some points Binh had soft music playing on his mobile phone which was actually really nice, we reached a ridge, then a song came on that made me cry inside and out. Terry Jacks ' Seasons in the Sun' sadly it was West Life's version but none the less the song reached out to me, this is the one song my Nana Edna used to sing to me when I was 9 or 10 years old. Binh turned the song up; we all looked out over the breath taking mountains, watching clouds disperse and the sun come up, men directing water buffalo with their kids following behind. At that moment I felt happy.
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