It Takes A Village (Trekking Sa Pa)
Sa Pa, Vietnam – May 3, 2019
The town of Sa Pa had us feeling pretty sad due to the high numbers of exploited children trying to sell us feelings of sorrow along with woven bracelets. They really had the “feel bad for me” eyes down as a six year old boy swaddled his baby sister, rocking her softly above the city sewer-system. We couldn’t help but wonder if these beautiful brown babies were birthed specifically to be sent out begging on the street. I hate thinking that, but soooo many small costumed children had an even smaller costumed child strapped to their back in a beaded batik sling. I wanted to search around the city more, but I felt a bit sickened with other tourists trying on traditional garb, laughing at themselves for a photo, and casting the items back on the tarps on the ground, un-purchased. Has tourism sent this small village culture spiraling into poverty?
On to happier places; The first part of the trek took us through a foggy little wooden village selling coffee, veggies and grain that they milled with river-powered milling contraptions. Some Red Yao women carrying bamboo baskets on their backs joined us for our journey, and sheltered us from the rain under their bright plaid umbrellas. We walked by many open homes selling beautifully embroidered jackets, blankets, home goods and trinkets. The tribal handcrafts are absolutely gorgeous, but they’re not so practical to modern-day travelers (their primary clients). Stuck in designing traditional (somewhat unflattering) shapes, I wish someone would think, “If I put this same beautiful embroidery on a more modern silhouette, I’d make tons of money!!” But somehow, I think only western cultures are trained to think in this entrepreneurial fashion. We walked by a beautifully greying elder tribal woman dressed in a blue plaid turban and a velvet purple robe. Hundreds of handwovens were strung around her house on bamboo tubes. I bought the most elaborately embroidered tapestry I’ve ever seen for 1,000,000VND ($43). Our tour guide translated that it took the sweet Black Hmong woman three years to complete.
The trek, (especially day two), was absolutely breathtaking. Firstly because we couldn’t catch our breath while climbing some of the hills and secondly because the views were incredibly delicious. The trail wound around slippery red-clay roads that cut through the mountainous jungle and surprised us when every so often we’d see a brave motor-biker making the journey. Giant beetles buzzed in the treetops, bird-sized mosquitoes tried to sting us through thick clothes, and hidden monkeys “whooped” back and forth. The rice paddies were an incredible man-made production, with miles and miles of organically shaped pools cascading down the mountain sides. Water Buffalo churned the soil and women worked to plant one tiny grain-stalk at a time. The springtime runoff, and beautiful yet simple inventions (aqueducts made from bamboo or hollowed-out trees), worked to fill the steps with different shades of foggy muddled water. Our guide pulled up “pee tea” leaves, plucked the legs off of/pocketed a giant beetle, foraged pungent pink fungus, and hog-tied a giant land-crab along our way.
Upon reaching our homestay, we kicked off our mucked-up shoes, complained about sore ankles, and sipped frosty Ha Noi beers just as an incredible lightning storm rolled in. I’ve never seen lightning like this before as it strobed constantly against the mountains without a single sound of cracking of thunder. Peering through a curtain of rain that separated the guesthouse from the family house, we ducked over to join our hosts for a home-cooked meal. The Red Yao women wore embroidered hand-dyed indigo jackets, comfy crotchless pants, and funny red hats that kept reminding me of Santa Claus. They set out a feast for us, everything harvested from their own land. White rice and several different varieties of stir-fry, including: Lufa (Asian cucumber), pork and onion, chicken green pepper carrot, steamed ferns… all topped with a super-lemony, peppery, garlicky chilly sauce and crunchy fire-roasted soy beans. YUM! The adults ate first, and the leftovers were offered to the children and animals in the next room.
Once able to walk, you’re able work in the village. Women crafted, sold things, and worked as trail guides; Men built homes, dammed the river, and fixed the road; Groups of tiny mud-and-booger-covered children led massive water buffalo to their feeding zones, away from the rice and corn fields. Getting further from modern civilization, the village houses became more and more, “less is more.” True tribal living, reverting back to using only what we really need to survive—a roof and walls for shelter from the elements, a semi-comfortable place to sleep, separate sanitary “bath” rooms with squatty holes in the ground for toilets, and a place to keep the fire for cooking—the spark of modern mankind, evolved. When we waved at people passing by, the biggest smile crept across their faces, with deep wrinkles creasing their cheeky grins. The tribes are simple village folk: arranged to be wed at a young age (men can be married up to three times), raising human and farm-animal families, cooking together, sleeping in the same little dark bunk room, walking an hour or two to the tribal schoolyard, tending their personal rice-paddies, and helping their community members in any way they can—“It takes a village.
What a beautiful weekend spent exploring Northern Vietnam.
All the best,
Alena Horowitz | Miss Potato