We arrived in Sapa around 5am getting off our overnight train and supposed to be picked up by our guide, Son. As is customary in Asia and Vietnam, there were some gentleman waiting to take us wherever they pleased and they approached us telling us they were tour guides, acting as if they were our tour guides. They asked our names and my Dad replied by asking their names, after it was clear they were not who we were looking for (though we may have been who they were looking for), we proceeded out of the station before sunrise and our guide was waiting for us at the exit. We hopped in the van and took a short drive to a local market in the Sapa province, called the Lo Cai market, where there were all kinds of things for sale. On the way there, Son pointed out that we were a stone's throw (a 500 meter throw) away from China, so we waved and then Laurie and I fell back asleep. After about an hour or so, we arrived at Lo Cai and jumped out to check out the market.
Not many touristy things were for sale, except a few dolls and crafts, because the market was really for locals. The items that stood out to us were ones we had never seen for sale before: water buffalo and, sadly, dog. They were cute but mangy puppies and when they got too yippy, the owner stuffed them back in a bag. Needless to say we didn't stick around that sight too long. There were also pigs and chickens for sale but we had seen that before. It was quite the cacophony of sounds though: pigs screeching, dogs barking, chickens clucking, and people talking, laughing and bargaining. It had also rained the night before so the ground was exceptionally muddy and most of us were trying just not to slip and fall. I won the award for Least Muddy Pants by the time we left. ;)
Then we were taken to our beautiful hotel, The Victoria Sapa, which was covered in fog (and would remain that way for our 2 nights there), where we just relaxed and unwound from our long overnight journey and early morning excursion. On the way to the hotel, we drove up (finally in the daylight!) along a windy road, through numerous sticky rice fields that blanketed the landscape as far as the eye could see (which also meant as far as the fog would let us see). The terraces provided a truly remarkable sight and we tried to take some photos to attempt to capture the beauty but we probably didn't come close. The lush greenery mixed in with interspersed houses and a crisp running river provided a beautiful setting. We learned from Son that those terraces were first dug out of (or into) the hills about 100 years ago. It's certainly a testament to their sense of tradition that the terraces were kept. After taking in the beautiful scenery, we made it to our hotel and unpacked for our big day ahead of us that would involve us visiting some tribes and seeing what it's like in their villages.
In the morning, Son picked us up in an old Western 4x4 Jeep that was going to bring us down the mountain (and out of the fog) so we could visit a family and a Red Dao village. I was a bit apprehensive because I feel awkward about these kinds of visits because I don't want to seem as if I'm admiring the noble savages or anything pompous like that. I just want to learn about different people and how they live. It's a fine balance that needs to be found: I didn't feel like I could act as if I was completely at home with them because I was obviously a guest, but at the same time, I didn't want to act too gentle as if I would break them because that obviously isn't true either. So, in order to assuage my apprehensions, I, and all of us, had to find that certain level of respect that all, both guests and hosts, were comfortable with. Of course, we brought some gifts, considering it was Tet, that we picked up at a local food store and that always helps.
The first place we stopped was a small, 2-room home that housed a family belonging to the Black Hmong tribe. The house was bigger than I had first assumed but still only 2 rooms. The beds were raised off the floor with mats for mattresses. The floor was concrete and they had limited electricity. I suspect they had some of these "luxuries" because the tour group gives them some money. There was a little electricity (though primitive wiring), no chimney, no bathroom or plumbing, some posters that seemed to reflect some kind of Judeo/Christian ideas and a loft where they kept bags of rice and other some such supplies. The apartment was cold but the kids had no shoes on or even warm clothes. I guess they were used to it. There was a hole in the concrete floor for their fire, which was smoldering when we got there. And they also had a TV, DVD player, radio, and satellite dish. No heat or proper dental hygiene, but they had Satellite TV; go figure. Nonetheless, they were very welcoming and smiley. Once we showed up, I noticed the man disappeared but the wife and the two kids were very welcoming. It took a few moments for the kids to warm up to us but my Dad was playing with them and the camera. It felt strange taking pictures of their home as if it was a tourist attraction but the wife was okay with it and, plainly, I just didn't want to lose the images. Our guide said that his company compensates the family for letting us visit with them and it is a fairly common arrangement many villages (and I guess families) have with these tour companies. The few times we had visited a village, we had never actually been in someone's house, so this was a new sight. Previously, we had always seen the outsides of the homes and the village as a whole. Not that every village or home is the same by any means, but it was nice to get to see some of the life on the individual scale. But after seeing the material poverty was, to use the wisdom and parlance of Black Rob, "like Whoa!" and we promised each other we'd never complain about the cold again after seeing the bare house and the kids without socks.
We continued down the mountain to a village of the Red Dao. The village members, when dressed traditionally, have a sort of bowl cut reminiscent of friars or monks and they dress in very bright red short pants and wraps. This village seemed pretty big; it had electricity running throughout it, some indoor plumbing, some outdoor, elaborate gardens and tools to grind sticky rice, looms, satellite TV, 2-story homes (almost completely made out of bamboo), several small stores (where one could even buy a SIM card for their cell phone), and what looked like a restaurant. Thinking about it now, it sounds like a touristy kind of place, but it didn't look that way at the time, nor did it feel that way. I'm sure tourists are brought there (we saw one couple I think) but it didn't seem like a tourist trap in the slightest....and we've gotten pretty good at smelling those out. My best guess is that the village has gained quite a bit of money from the tour companies that bring visitors to them, and well they should be getting money; I just would hate for them to become dependent on tourist money because that doesn't seem to work out for the villages in the end.
Upon arrival in the village, we caught up to Laurie who was sitting with a group of ladies drinking tea and we were all invited to join them on the porch. The men were drinking by themselves and the ladies were all together as well. When we got to the porch they invited Laurie, and us, inside with them where the fires were burning and they were cooking sticky rice cakes. These were a treat in honor of the Tet holiday, and they were certainly a favorite dish for the locals. Our timing couldn't have been better. Somehow they were very sweet and kind of a little gummy when you chewed on it. They were best eaten right off the fire and we were given more than we could eat. It was one of those moments where we just felt completely welcomed into their lives, if only for a few moments. Of course, Dad was playing with his camera and with the ladies and children, who almost always get a kick out of seeing their picture after its taken. We were at one of the larger homes in the village and Son told us that tomorrow the next little party would be hosted at someone else's home since they rotate hosting these gatherings, much like the Fijian men rotate hosting their cava-drinking social gatherings. Son asked if we could go upstairs and see the rest of the house and they were fine with it, so up we went and we saw full on heavy furniture, a big TV, several beds, and I note how heavy the furniture was because the floor was made of thin bamboo strips all lined up next to each other. The stuff is strong, but it does have to be replaced more frequently than our culture is accustomed to replacing things. Nonetheless, the home was very large and spacious and after a few moments we went back downstairs and took our leave of the ladies and the home and checked out some more of the village when we came upon another large home and saw a huge sticky rice grinder out front next to a loom. One of the elder ladies in the village showed us how she used it and it was fairly labor intensive in that she had to spin a heavy wheel fairly quickly for several moments at a time before any worthwhile amount of work was completed. After her demonstration, we just walked around a little while longer and headed to where Son would make us lunch of noodle soup with chicken, and it was some of the best noodle soup we had the whole time in Vietnam. While walking around, I noticed a lot of cement that was poured as roads and floors to patios. I wonder who paid for the concrete. Was it the gov't? the village?
After eating Son's tasty noodle soup and a short ride back up the mountain (the roads definitely necessitated the 4-wheel drive) Son brought us back to the town where we walked around the local Sapa town market where Dad was determined to do his best to singlehandedly raise the standard of living, but he only got a few trinkets and scarves despite some sales ladies bombarding him with offers and swarming him with their wares, much to his delight I'm sure. Phoebe, Laurie and I picked up an item or two on the side and then just watched the madness ensue. Finally, we had to pull him away from his pastime of bargaining because it was getting to be evening and therefore chilly.
The next day we had to take our overnight sleeper car back to Ha Noi, but before we left we had time to get a Vietnamese massage, which Laurie and I were pleased to take part in and to lavish on Dad and Phoebe as a small token of our gratitude. The massage ended up being kind of a combination between a Thai massage (ouch!, but sometimes a good ouch) and a Lao massage (ahhhhh), so it was really nice and relaxing for us before we crawled into the small couchettes of the sleeper train. Looking back on our time in Vietnam I think we would all say that Sapa was a highlight, if only for those moments with the ladies and their sticky rice cakes, and I'm pretty sure we were all fascinated with the simple, yet sophisticated, lifestyle we witnessed in the villages and homes.