Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day 33 - The Gorgeous, Lush Rice Terraces of Sapa, Vietnam!

I doubt I can really explain to you how beautiful it is here in Sapa, Vietnam, or even show you in pictures. I think it's something you have to see for yourself...

The train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai was surprisingly good. It was definitely a class higher than the sleeping buses I got so accustomed to travel on. Each berth had 4 beds that were spacious enough to sleep comfortably. The movement of the train rocked me like a baby and I slept through most of the night.

Once we got to Lao Cai, we took a bus ride higher into the mountains to Sapa. The weather was cool and foggy for once in Vietnam! Along the way, we got a glimpse of what we would be expecting to see - Lush mountains and rice terraces surrounding us 360 degrees around. The higher we drove up, and the deeper we went into the mountains, the more alluring everything was.

The northern Vietnam area is home to many ethnic minorities that speak Vietnamese, but also their own languages. They come from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and the other surrounding areas. The way to tell each tribe apart from another is (aside from their physical features) by their clothing, which is usually very intricate and colorful. Most of the Sapa Village is inhabited by the Black Hmong group, and their clothing is usually Black. Other Hmong groups include the Red, Green, and Flower tribes.

Their lifestyle is very basic, with the women usually in town trying to sell merchandise to tourists, tending the rice terraces, or taking care of the children, while the men are usually taking care of the water buffalo and home, or driving motorbikes for tourists. Their diet consists mainly of rice and vegetables, and they obtain meet in the marketplaces.

After arrival at our hotel and breakfast, we headed on a 12km trek all the way down the mountains to the valley below. We had a black Hmong group accompany us and one of them spoke some English enough to explain some of our questions. Our tour group was small, consisting of two brothers from Australia, and a Fijian couple living in Australia, but of Indian descent. I liked that our group was small because it helped take away the "tourist" feel you get when you are in a large group. It also leads to less waiting around for laggers. It GREATLY helped that everyone was really friendly and talkative. You could easily get stuck with non-talkative or rude tour-mates, but I got lucky this time.

When we started our trek, a Black Hmong member walked alongside each of us and asked us basic questions like "What is your Name? How Old are you? Where are you from?" I really felt like they were very welcoming!

The trek down the mountains was incredible, because we were right beside the rice terraces and could see everything near and far, including the clouds that were both above and below us. The irrigation system is very extensive and complicated, and I could only imagine how long it must have taken to make it all work. Water was flowing non-stop from the top of the mountains down to the river below. Each terrace was filled with water to nourish the rice plants completely. I don't think I saw any error in the irrigation system. Everything was a deep green, and all the plants and vegetation looked healthy- No dry spots anywhere.

It took a while, and some help from the Black Hmong, to get down to the bottom. Luckily, it only drizzled for about 15 minutes or so while we were hiking down. While we had our rain boots on, slipping here and there, the Black Hmong were wearing slippers and easily trekking along, even a little girl who looked maybe 5 years old was walking down with no hesitation.

By the time we got to the bottom, it was time for lunch...but not before we were all bombarded with Black Hmong women selling merchandise, including the women who trekked with us down. It felt like an ambush...and we all felt obligated to purchase something, which is what we all figured out. They would walk with us and feel that it was necessary for us to purchase something from them. I ended up purchasing a bracelet since there really wasn't anything else I thought I could use.

After lunch, we had another hour trek in the valley, this time, being escorted by some Red Dzao members. I think we all tried our best to let the members know that we weren't interested in buying anything at the end of the hike. It's hard to say no because they explain that they are very poor and sales have been very slow recently and that with my purchase, they could go home... Way to guilt trip! In the end, I bought another 2 bracelets. I think I'm going to be accumulating a good amount of these on this trip. I already have 4 on my arms now.

By the end of the hike, we luckily were able to get a van ride back up to our hotel. I didn't realize how far down and how far away we trekked until we rode back up in the van. It didn't seem that far, but I guess I was just too mesmerized by my surroundings to care how long or how far we walked.

The rest of the day was open for us to explore the city on our own. The village near the hotel was small, and it was easy to walk around and take in the market activities occurring everywhere. People were trying to sell you anything and everything! I loved some of the clothing the Black Hmong wore, and was thinking of maybe getting something to bring home, but then I realized that probably wouldn't wear it...

I had a couple of beers with the Fijian couple at night as they told me stories of their daughter's husband, who trained for 3 months in Bangkok to fight Muy Thai in the ring against an experienced Thai person with a pretty impressive Win-Loss record. In the end, he actually knocked the Thai person out, and the crowd was cheering "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" because he was the underdog. A pretty incredible experience to be able to share with your friends and family, no? I doubt I would train Muy Thai, but I would love to be able to catch a match in the ring the next time I'm in Bangkok!

I learned a little about Fiji as well. There are a lot of people from Indian descent living in Fiji, because in the past, there was an indenture system implemented in the area. It's always interesting to see why and how there are huge populations of different ethnic groups all over the world.

They shared their stories of traveling, and they reminded me somewhat of my parents and made me miss them. I told them that I would love for my parents to be more open to traveling, but would also feel too worried to let them go all alone... I feel like I'd have to watch out for them against the traveler world of scams...and non-existent traffic lights...

At the end of the night, I walked around the village again, before deciding to get an hour foot massage to relax my tired legs. Must be more prepared tomorrow...and stretch often...

I don't think I need to caption much. Just enjoy the views!

Black Hmong on her Cell Phone

My Tour-mates and our Black Hmong group trekking down a steep path

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