Sunday, 14 March 2010

Wednesday 10th - Saturday 13th March

Trekking around Sapa

Before we start this blog just one point of clarity: the Vietnamese have short legs and do not understand the concept of trekking. Getting them to walk more than 10km in a day is next to impossible. They get on a motorbike to go 50 yards down the street.

Slightly shell shocked from the train journey, we drove the 30km from the train station in Lao Cai with occasional views of the amazing hill terraces in the early dawn light. We breakfasted at the hotel whilst waiting for our guide, Zing, a really pretty 19 year old Black Hmong girl with a great sense of humour, very good English and good knowledge of the local area. She was a great guide and chattered away about all sorts of things like:

1) A person should only kill one to two buffalos in their life - any more and bad things happen.
2) Her mother was married at 12 and had her first child at 17 - she's nothing like her mother...
3) While alive you can pick out your own burial spot.
4) Black Hmong and other mountain tribes do not consider themselves to be Vietnamese - they prefer to affiliate themselves with China / Thailand - hence the government suspicion.

We walked out carrying fairly pared down kit; sleeping bags, water proofs and some warm clothing, to see Black Hmong and Red Dzao villages, led by Zing and trailed by two local women. Everywhere was mud as streams ran through the hillside terraces, filling them to brimming before overflowing into the terrace below. The area is being prepared for rice planting next month so, despite a scarcity of rain this year, is being thoroughly saturated. Most of the paths followed the narrow terracing and some of the footing is treacherous.

The local women still wear traditional clothing, indigo embroidered tunics and puttees, they also have brightly coloured wellies and umbrellas. Zing took us to visit her brother's house - a single room, wooden bamboo walled with a firepit in the middle and a raised sleeping area. And very low ceilings as the bump on Olly's head can attest. There was nothing of luxury (except the ubiquitous mobile phone), the room was (almost) lit by two bare light bulbs, pigs and chickens run in and out across the dirt floor. It was also our first experience of the inevitable consequences of an open firepit with no chimney: the whole house is filled with choking acid wood smoke, something we grow rather more used to over the next couple of days.

Walking on up through the valley pass through Red Dzao villages, where women pluck away their eyebrows when they get married and coat their teeth in gold. People here are very reluctant to have their pictures taken.

Finally we arrive at our homestay - a slightly more luxurious (brick-based) shack - the weather is damp and very chilly; sufficient to drive us inside around the brazier. After a delicious meal we go to sleep up on the mezzanine floor, shivering in our sleeping bags.

Next day we head up the valley towards the road to Sapa. There appears to have been significant government investment in schools in the area. Being the only "proper" buildings they stand out a mile, however the couple of schools we visited appear less interested in teaching the "three R's" and more interested in providing tourist entertainment.

After a night in a hotel back in Sapa we do a final day's hike out towards another set of villages. The landscape here is completely different - after a beautiful (and very small) area of protected forest, we emerged onto lands belonging to the next village which was pretty much scorched earth. Much less water than we'd seen over the previous couple of days and the village has clearly burnt all of the available vegetation. Zing says that the locals are worried about disappearing natural resources, but have no other options.

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