After a week in Hong Kong, we arrived in Northern Vietnam with a very good chance of missing our overnight train to Sapa. As much as I love to travel, there are many reasons why I am rarely left in charge of the logistics. Leaving less than two hours to land at the airport, obtain our visas, taxi 45 minutes to the railway station in Hanoi, pick up our tickets and make it on the correct train (in the pouring rain), is one of them.
The good news is we (just barely) made it on the train. The not-so-good news is that the VIP cabin we had booked was not-so-VIP. In fairness, our little cabin on the Orient Express with two narrow beds, two warm beers and cleanish sheets (we chose not to look too closely) was quite nice compared to the other options with 4 or 6 people jammed into the same space. However, we quickly understood that Dubai operates under its own special standard of VIP which doesn’t extend to trains in Vietnam. I couldn’t help but laugh when my husband sat tentatively on the dodgy mattress, looked sadly around the tiny room and said, “This is as good as it gets?”. For the train ride, yes.
We arrived at Lao Cai station at 5am the next morning in time to watch the sun rise through the early morning mist as we drove further into the mountain range along the Chinese border, 38 km straight up. An hour later we arrived at our destination, the Sapa Garden Bed and Breakfast. Owned by Mr. Nam Hong and run by his lovely parents, it was a beautiful place to stay a short distance from the town of Sapa. With a friendly greeting we were offered a shower followed by a homemade breakfast of strong coffee, toast and omelettes in the garden.
The mountain range surrounding Sapa has long been home to the H’Mong people and Mr. Hong had arranged for a tour guide from the local Black H’Mong tribe to take us trekking that day. She arrived around 9am, barely 4 feet tall and 8 months pregnant! With a big, friendly smile she introduced herself as Sir. “Don’t ask me how to spell it”, she said with a hearty laugh, “because I don’t know how to read or write.”
We began our trek up a narrow, muddy path at the edge of town, Sir confidently leading the way in her little plastic sandals, unhindered by her big belly. This would be her sixth child. A short distance later, two of Sir’s friends quietly appeared along the path to join us. Me laughed at my surprised expression when she declared she was also 8 months pregnant and My, the youngest at 26 years of age, smiled shyly and admitted she was six months along. According to traditional Chinese beliefs, children born under the year of the Dragon, the only mythical creature in the Chinese zodiac, possess strength, wisdom and good fortune. It only happens every twelve years.
We spent the rest of the day walking. We walked through narrow forest trails, dirt roads and steep mountain paths, by vegetable gardens, corn fields and streams. We waved to children, yielded to buffalo and dodged piglets, cows and roosters as we passed through remote villages. We breathed in the fresh air and paused periodically to admire the distinctive terraced rice fields that covered the mountainside, like steps carved into the earth. Our guides had learned English from tourists and we chatted easily as they absentmindedly crafted animals and hearts from grass along the way.
We walked until the mist grew dark and heavy in our path and it began to rain. It was a good time to stop for lunch and before I knew it, all three pregnant women had climbed on top of a big rock with more grace than I was able to manage. The five of us sat sheltered under colourful umbrellas, ate a simple picnic lunch and waited out the worst of the summer shower.
Later that afternoon we approached a little house on the hillside with goats and pigs on the left and a vegetable garden on the right. A woman on the porch waved as Sir said, “This is my mom’s house. Would you like to stop for a visit?” Of course. Her mom carefully swept any loose dirt from the porch and set down a wooden stool for us to sit on while Sir entered the small house where she was cheerfully greeted by her mother and a few young children. From the roof of the porch hung half a dozen bird cages with wild birds the family kept as pets and inside were three small rooms with bare dirt floors. The tidy home seemed quite pleasant under the warm sun that had finally succeeded in breaking through the clouds, but I can only imagine how difficult life must be for the H’Mong people when the air cools and snow covers the mountains in the winter.
As we continued our journey back to the valley, My and Me turned down different paths to their homes. We said our goodbyes and bought a selection of inexpensive silver jewellery from each of them, understanding that is how they provide for their families and why they had spent the day with us.
By 4pm we had trekked almost 17km through three villages including Sa Xeng, Hua Thao and Gian Ta Chai. Sir promised to let us sleep in the next morning and cheerfully returned to her home in the valley to cook dinner for her family and complete her evening chores. My husband and I returned to the bed and breakfast for a beer and a long nap. A friendly trio of pregnant women had clearly out-trekked us.
Dinner that evening was a table full of homemade Vietnamese food cooked by Mrs. Hong herself. An assortment of spring rolls, chicken, vegetables, potatoes and of course, rice. Neither she nor her husband spoke much English but they were very pleasant and we managed to get by. Full of fresh air and good food, sleep came quickly that night.
The next morning, Sir suggested a shorter trek to nearby Cat Cat Village, a lively, traditional village which has adapted to the large number of tourists that pass through each day. Children playfully ran up and down stone steps lined with handwoven blankets dyed with indigo plants, women sold hand-crafted purses, jewellery and trinkets and men tended to the rice fields.
We wandered up and down the steep, narrow steps of the village (how Sir physically managed to get her knees past her belly as she climbed the steepest steps continues to impress/baffle me) and took in a dance performance at the local theatre before continuing on our way.
The next couple of hours were spent wandering through some of the most beautiful landscape you can imagine en route to Sin Chai. There is a higher chance of rain in August, but that means everything from the mountainside to the palm trees to the ripening rice is lush and green. It is almost like walking through the pages of National Geographic magazine.
We ended our 6km trek in Sapa with a late lunch at Nature View Restaurant and reluctantly said goodbye to Sir. Then we wandered lazily around town before making the long journey back to Hanoi for the rest of our vacation. This time my husband settled comfortably into our not-so-VIP cabin.
Six months later I still think of Sir, My and Me. I imagine them navigating the mountain trails, this time with their little ones on their backs. I’m not sure they will ever see this post but I hope they are well and thank them and the Hong family for the wonderful memories.