Our driver picked us up and delivered us to the overnight train to Lao Cai for our visit to the Sapa area. The sleeper was a little softer than previously although we were again in a six berth compartment. So it was Sonia and I along with four Vietnamese men in varying states of respiratory decline. They were nice enough and I even had a sort of a conversation with one of them, but there was rather a lot of coughing, snorting, spluttering, snoring and wheezing as the night wore on. We were a little tired when our driver at the other end met us to take us up into the mountains to the town of Sapa.
The sun was coming up as we arrived and the scenery was spectacular. We spent a bit of time at the tour company's office taking in the view. After this we went to the Sapa markets where we started to see the different tribes in their distinctive clothing. Many women and children started a fairly intensive marketing campaign on us and we staggered away with a bunch of handicrafts and jewelry. I have some good photos of the people in their different tribal dress that I will post on to this when I find a computer with the capacity to do so (probably back at home). Most of the people we saw in Sapa were of the Black Hmoung group who wear indigo blue outfits with cylindrical indigo blue hats. Their hands and feet are also a little on the indigo blue side as well as they spend so much time working with the dye.
After this we met our guide for the two days. He was a delightful and bright young man named Tuan from a Black Hmoung village who was full of interesting information and spoke very good English. At 9:00am we set off on the first of our treks. It had been very cold up there so we bought some winter gear in Hanoi but we struck a patch of very good weather so it was actually quite hot once we started walking. We set off from a village called Lao Chai down the mountainside into the valley. The tour company we booked with base their operations on ecological sustainability so Tuan was very conscious of us "doing the right thing" with the ethnic groups which was good. This was a Black Hmoung village and since the advent of tourism the women and children are all on a mission to sell. He told us not to buy and sometimes not to engage in conversation. It was OK for us to talk to some of them, however, and this was all a bit tricky. Groups of the women and children tag along with you on these treks. Our posse contained a mother and daughter and an old lady who we were told was 90. She didn't look a day over 89 to me and she set a cracking pace with us up hill, down dale, across stream, along thin sections dividing rice paddies, over piles of buffalo droppings, around sows feeding piglets and through bunches of goats, chickens and ducks. After about 15 kms of this and while Tuan was preparing our lunch (or smoking out of a water pipe, which he did every now and then) they hit us up to buy things. When we refused as instructed, I think they gave us a right dressing down in Hmoung. In the end, Tuan suggested that we give them a "donation for their village" so that they might stop following us. Along the way, we visited a Black Hmoung house and saw how they live. They are mainly Catholic (this surprised me) and seem to have a belief system based around this mixed with tribal taboos and "bad luck" concerns. We also saw the graves that they seem to place "wherever" in the fields and are marked by large piles of rocks. It would seem they lead a fairly harsh existence.
We walked to a village called Tavan which is populated by the Giay ethnic minority. These groups live quite close together but seem to keep themselves separate and have different languages. Tuan obviously speaks Hmoung but was not able to understand some of the children from another group. From here we walked through a bamboo forest (very important here as it is basically the utility "build everything" material of choice) and on to the village of Giang To Chai which has Red Dao (or Zao) inhabitants. The women in this tribe wear an amazing red head arrangement adorned with coins and ornate silver decorations. If they are over "flirting age" (as Tuan described it) they have shaved eyebrows. Tuan explained that they do this because of an ancient myth where a woman poisoned her husband because an eyebrow hair fell in the soup that she had prepared for him on his return from hunting. All in all, it gives them a fascinating appearance.
After all this walking, a car picked us up and delivered us in the early afternoon to the eco lodge. This was a beautiful place perched along the edge of a mountaintop. We had our own bungalow with a verandah that looked directly down into the valley below. It was very comfortable and a incredibly quiet and peaceful after the bustle and noise of Hanoi. We had a couple of drinks at the resort and met a nice man from San Francisco travelling with his daughter and some other Americans and Brits. It is amusing to listen to the Americans in conversation. They all seem to be loaded, splash money around in tips and always have a private guide assisting with their every move. They also are never given to the unspoken thought so you hear some interesting things coming straight from their brains to their mouths. When the conversation turned to the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese which is so apparent at every turn, one of the American men said ".... who in the hell decided it was a good idea to have a war with these guys ...". Summed it all up quite nicely, I think.
We had a good meal and a very relaxing night at the lodge before heading off on the second days trekking. This took us from a village called Su Pan down the mountainside to a Tay village called Ban Ho. On the way down we stumbled upon a group of Zao men slaughtering a goat which was a bit of a surprise (I think the goat was also a little surprised). The walk was fairly hard going and we crossed suspension bridges and scaled down some fairly steep inclines. We visited a Zao village called Nam Toong, had some green tea and ended up clambering over boulders to get to this waterfall with a swimming hole. It was at this stage that I discovered I'm not quite as young and sprightly as I think I am and something went pop in a muscle in the back of my leg. It hurt like hell but I hobbled on and we had a swim in the icy cold water. While we were there, a Vietnamese city tourist accidentally fell in the swirling water and had to be pulled out with a rope by his taxi driver and Tuan (always a surprise in this country). This brought out an interesting story from Tuan who said that as a Black Hmoung he should not directly help people from other parts of the country as this would bring bad luck on his village. We are all supposed to "keep separate", he said, but it was OK to help "indirectly". I did notice that he kept on the end of the rope when they were pulling the guy out. I guess that was indirect enough for him not to feel spooked. Anyway, a wet and embarrassed young man from Ho Chi Minh City emerged from the water after a while.
Tuan fashioned a stick for me out of a piece of bamboo and we soldiered on. Sonia and I were pretty knackered by the climb up the hill and the calf muscle was making it pretty tricky, but in true Gallipoli spirit we kept going all the way back up the mountainside. After stopping at a Tay house (I think) for lunch (more water pipe for Tuan) and looking through the dwelling, we continue on our rather steep way. At place where the goat was being slaughtered, a group of Zao families were finishing a feast (presumably the goat was involved in there somewhere) and three little kids were riding down the hill on a homemade scooter arrangement. It was basically three bits of wood with old wheel bearings providing the round rolling bits. I think there was also some "happy water" (rice wine) involved as there was much merriment amongst the men. Tuan said that they were making themselves sick eating raw meat and that they were celebrating a new house.
We finally reached our driver who took us back to Sapa. After a hobble around here and some more wealth redistribution at the market, we were driven back to the train in Lao Cai. This time we had the upmarket 4 berth soft sleeper (I don't really think there is actually a Vietnamese word for "soft") which was a bit more comfortable and had lots of wood veneer and a bit of lookalike granite about the place. There was a Vietnamese couple in with us and this time the man only seemed to have a minor throat infection. They were nice though and we had a relatively peaceful night before arriving bleary eyed in Hanoi early this morning. After breakfast, we checked in to the hotel.
I think today might be a rest day after all the physical exertion and mental stimulation up in the mountains.