We woke up early in order to pack and eat a decent breakfast before our H’mong village guide picked us up at our hotel along with six or seven other women from her village, all dressed in their traditional black pants and embroidered tops. Our guide, Zoo, knew a fair bit of English and was a great resource to answer all of our questions about her people’s culture and lifestyle. However, the other women with her had limited English that they picked up from tourists in order to sell them handmade goods. Again, they all asked “Where you from?”, then “How old are you?”, then “How long you stay in Sapa?”, and then the one I was anticipating, “You buy from me?”. These women, some carrying babies or heavy baskets, walked all the way from their village (many miles away) in their worn plastic sandals just to follow us during the tour in the hopes of selling us a few dollars worth of goods. Meanwhile, the men are still in the bars drinking copious amounts in a drawn out celebration of Tet.
We were joined by three South Africans and one German as Zoo led us down steep rocky paths down into the valley of rice paddy terraces. The path snaked past many farms with piglets sniffing around, baby chicks following the mother hen, and small children running around and yelling “Hello, Bon Bon!!” whenever a group of tourists passed by. Our guide explained that the children expect candy from us and we are not to encourage this behavior.
Even though the sun was beating down on us, making me regret wearing full length pants in order to respect the conservative village culture, it was wintertime. This meant that the rice paddies weren’t yielding any crops, and the dry season left many of them empty with sun baked mud at the bottom. We rested at a wooden pavilion to regain our breath and gnaw on the sugar cane stalks the ladies handed us. I bit off a chunk of the fibrous plant and chewed on it for a few seconds, savoring the sweet juice that filled my mouth. Soon the sweetness was gone and I just had a wad of dry plant on my tongue. All of the tourists struggled with spitting out the sugar cane, but we eventually got the hang of it.
The next bit of path was an extreme slope with slippery sand, so we eased down, one step at a time, with a lady holding onto each hand to guide us. It was comical how we were all dressed in athletic clothing and hiking boots and yet we were clinging onto the women in restrictive dresses wearing bathroom sandals.
After crossing a bridge over a river in the bottom of the valley, we stopped in the H’mong village for lunch under a big pavilion. The women that had been chatting nonchalantly with us the entire morning now became the fiercest of saleswomen, guilting me by reminding me of their help down the steep path and the woven grass heart they made me. I had to hand it to them, they were good. I paid way too much for a bangle bracelet and a wristlet, but in the end I felt good about it because these women were using the money to support their families by buying food and clothing, which was a very worthy cause. The children were a different story. They also swarmed our lunch table and shoved their grimy hands into our faces demanding that we buy woven bracelets from them, while putting on the most innocent looking faces. As much as we wanted to say yes, Zoo told us that doing so would only encourage more begging, which keeps the kids on the streets and away from school.
We continued our trek through more villages of a different ethnic background, the Red Dzao. These ladies wear vibrant Christmas-red clothing including a handkerchief tied on top of their heads. We learned that the higher the bandana sits on a woman’s head, the more elevated her status in the village is.
The afternoon path meandered through clusters of farm houses and rundown cement sheds serving as general stores. Faded banners across the door announced that we could purchase a 3G Sim Card for our mobile phone, should we need it in the middle of the remote village. We had trekked all day away from civilization, yet here we were, deep in farm country, and we still saw signs advertising free wifi, heard the pounding base of house music emanating from a farm house, and even saw a spa (right in between a pig pen and a rice paddy) with a trip advisor award. It really proved to me how ubiquitous modern technology is–even in the midst of the paddies.
We arrived at our homestay with mixed feelings. I was rejoicing in the fact that the toilet was indeed western and I would not have to be negotiating the unpleasantries of a squatty potty. However, the house also had wifi, a warm shower, a private sleeping room for all the tourists, and a cooler full of western beverages, which took away from the authenticity of the experience. Our guide ensured us we were staying at one of the most popular homestays because it was the best and most comfortable. I would not readily give up the western toilet, but, I would have enjoyed being a bit less comfortable in order to really immerse myself into the lifestyle of a villager.
We still thoroughly enjoyed the night, especially when a German couple and French couple joined us in the large wooden house and sipped tea and snacked on candies, played around with the cat and dogs, and watched in amusement as the men folk returned quite drunk from the bar (yes, the teeny tiny village had a “bar”) to be scolded firmly by their wives who had been working hard all day.
Our host, who we only saw a handful of times, served a filling dinner with heaping piles of meat and vegetables. Zoo told us the next day that the family never eats much meat and they only serve that amount when the tourists come. Next, the host brought out three reused water bottles filled with mysterious liquids.
“Happy Water! You drink it, and it make you happy!”
We humored our host and all raised our glasses to toast “Chuc mung nam moi” (they really milk this New Years stuff for as long as they can) and then threw back the fiery drink. I much preferred the more subtle apple and plum rice wine that we sipped while chatting about French, German, and American culture before bed.