In the Mountains of Sapa
‘Are you tired?’ Pan asked me. She put a pot over the fire burning in the small indent etched into the kitchen floor as I looked up at her. She was pretty, maybe 30 years old, but she could’ve passed for much younger. There was a hole in the side of her plaid, button-down shirt, a tiny window into her life’s hardships, despite her efforts to cover them up with her lighthearted conversation.
‘A little,’ I said, knowing that I should’ve been much more tired than I was. I had just finished six hours of trekking through the mountains and villages of Sapa, a mountainous region in northern Vietnam. An overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi had delivered me and my friend Li to the small town at 6 am. The town was masked in fog, and finding our way through the angular streets to the hotel where we were to meet our trekking guide was a challenge. We found it nestled between some small restaurants and hotels on a gently sloping street with a small sign hanging on a wall stamped with ‘Sapa Sisters’, the name of the company we had chosen to use.
This particular trekking company was started by four members of the Hmong tribe of Sapa in an effort to create a business that would eliminate the middle man who often exists between the guides and the tourists. Through this company, many Hmong women have been able to receive a steady income by offering personalized trekking experiences without having to wander the streets of Sapa Town, pursuing and persuading tourists, as many of the female guides in this region must do. We met our young guide, Chinh, around 9:30. She was a short, round woman, with long hair pulled into a ponytail and a big smile that revealed a gap between her two front teeth. Every day she dons the traditional outfit of the Hmong tribe, complete with her favorite pink and white sun hat, and leads foreigners on treks through the mountains. She sat down and helped us choose the route we would take over the next two days, and we started walking through the streets of Sapa Town, landing among fog-covered rice paddies and mountains in less than thirty minutes.
Soon we were among workers plowing the fields, preparing for the upcoming planting season, water buffalo lazing in the grass, and small villages dotted along a steep, sublime valley.
Another local woman had joined our group and walked behind us, winding string around her hand and barely glancing at the jagged trail ahead of her. As we paused for a break, she held out her hand to Li and me, offering us both a small horse that she had made with some of the thick grass on the mountain. I asked her how to say thank you in her local language and forgot it almost immediately.
We ran into many tourists during the first half of the day as we traveled on a well-worn path known by many of the local guides. We were all heading to the same place for lunch, but Chinh assured us that we would get away from the tourists in the afternoon. About an hour outside Lao Chai, the village where Chinh grew up and where we would stop for lunch, we took a short break at a small hut that looked out over the valley and stair-stepping rice paddies. Chinh pointed at a young boy walking along the road, chewing on a thick brown stick that looked like bamboo. ‘Not bamboo,’ she said. ‘Sugar cane. You want to try?’ She went to a basket, pulled out two thick sticks of sugar cane, and showed us how to eat it. ‘You don’t swallow. You rip small piece, chew it until juice comes out, then throw it away,’ she said, throwing a freshly chewed piece over the railing and into the valley below. We continued walking, chewing the sugar cane, letting the sweet juice sit on our tongue to satiate the hunger that was slowly creeping up on us, and throwing the dried, fibrous leftovers onto the rocky road beneath our feet.
When we reached Lao Chai, Chinh led us to a small, local restaurant overlooking a shallow stream, and we sat down for lunch. Despite the setting, the lunch wasn’t peaceful. We were constantly approached by local women trying holding out jewelry, handmade bags, and pillow cases. I tried to look away, simply ignoring the offers, but it felt wrong. I knew they were trying to sell us these things so they could buy their meals for that week, or so they could afford to buy new clothes for their children, but I didn’t want anything they were selling. It was a relief when we finally left the village, winding through the small houses and up into the mountains once again. After ten minutes we were able to look back and see the entire village, sitting quaint and quiet in the forefront of a towering line of mountains. The path became calm. We passed only a few locals carrying wood or other supplies to and from the village. We didn’t meet any more tourists that day. The last two hours of the trek were the hardest. Our legs were burning, the air became a little thinner as we climbed higher, and even the clouds couldn’t stop the sun’s heat from reaching us.
By the time the local house where we would spend the night came into view, we were drenched in sweat, but every time we looked behind us and saw the expansive beauty of the landscape, we gained more determination to complete the first day of the journey. The final challenge we faced before reaching the local house was crossing a set of rice paddies, which required a great deal of focus and balance as we walked along the thin edge of one layer of the fields.
Step too far to the left and you would tumble off the side and into the layer below. Step too far to the right and you would fall into the muddy water next to you.
Chinh, Li, and I both made it across without much trouble, our exhaustion forcing us to into intense focus, and walked up to the small wooden house that we would call home for the night. It was a surprisingly well-made house with four sizeable rooms and a front porch that looked out over the mountains and rice paddies. Evening was approaching, and the mountains were partly covered by thick clouds settling in the valley. But the house was simple, and the only furniture I saw was plastic chairs, a kitchen table, seven beds (enough for the family and the trekkers that stop by the house two or three times a week), a couple of small end tables, and a small cabinet in the kitchen. Most of the house was empty space.
‘On a clear day, you can see Sapa Town from here,’ Chinh explained as we reached the front porch, pointing to a line of mountains off to the right, hidden mostly by fog, and I visualized the 7 miles we had completed that day. Chinh walked around the house, looking for her ‘auntie’ that owned the house. ‘Not here,’ she concluded after making a lap. ‘Coming back from work.
She will be here in a little while.’ She somehow managed to get the door unlocked and brought a table and two chairs out to the front porch and served us some tea. I was perfectly content to sit and look out over the landscape, sipping tea, chatting and laughing with Li, and allowing myself to fully relax for the first time that day.
My legs and hips were aching, and I knew they would be sore the next day, but it was the kind of sore I could be proud of. I had earned it with every step I took up and down the mountains, and as I realized that, the achiness didn’t bother me much.
About an hour after we arrived, Pan, the owner of the house, finally appeared and invited us into the kitchen to sit by the fire she began building. It was a little cold outside, and we were grateful to be invited to enjoy the warmth of the fire as the sun started to slide behind the mountains. The only light in the small room off the main area of the kitchen came from the natural light of the fire and a small, bare lightbulb that hung from the ceiling. It faded in and out as it struggled to pull enough electricity to cast an adequate amount of light on the room. Pan put a large pot over the fire and dumped oil into it, letting it heat up. A few minutes later, her husband came in with a large bowl of raw French fries, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. We were invited to wait outside at the table once again as the fries were prepared. They were delicious when done. They had tossed them with ginger, garlic, and onion, and the flavor was unique but still familiar to my American taste buds. The rest of the meal was no less delicious. A storm started to blow in just as dinner was finishing up, so we brought the table into the house, surrounded it with ten of the plastic chairs, and joined Chinh, Pan, and Pan’s family as the meal was served. The table was covered in spring rolls, stir fries, rice, and sauces. We ate mostly by candlelight because the lightbulb in the makeshift dining room wasn’t working well that evening.
‘Not enough electricity,’ Chinh explained, and I wondered how often there was enough electricity.
Li and I spent the rest of the evening sitting by the fire as the family cleaned up (they refused our offers to help with dishes), listening to the thunder that slowly approached over the mountains until rain finally started to hit the metal roof above us. The night became cold, and as we prepared to go to sleep around 9:30, Pan offered us both an extra blanket. We pulled the mosquito nets down around us, settled into the firm mattresses, and placed the two thick blankets over our exhausted bodies.
Sleep came quickly.
The rain continued throughout the night, but by the time we woke up around 7 the next morning, it had stopped, and the landscape was starting to dry. The rain had cleared the fog and clouds, and the entire valley was spread out before us. I discovered that Chinh was right—Sapa Town was visible, sitting small on the side of a distant mountain. Pan came out to say goodbye before she left for work. Her three children had already left an hour before to make the hour and a half trek down to their school in the village. I thanked her, wishing I had brought some kind of gift to show her how much we had appreciated her hospitality, but words had to suffice. Chinh served us breakfast a few minutes later. She made pork soup, rice, and pancakes, which she served with honey.
After breakfast, we were off again, heading up a nearby mountain, stepping to the side when several young men came by dragging long pieces of wood. They were almost running down the mountain as the wood chased them. ‘To build the houses,’ Chinh explained. We climbed for about an hour, the soreness in our legs making us move a little slower than the previous day, before the trail leveled off and finally began to descend, but going down was almost harder than going up. The ground was mostly dry, but it was still soft from the rain, and much of the path was steep. Finding the right place to put your foot turned out to be a skill, and one that you had to master quickly to keep from slipping. Li was more experienced with trekking, and I fell behind a few times as my feet, ankles, and knees tried to learn how to handle the terrain. But the joy of walking through the small clusters of local houses, balancing on the rice paddies, passing by the water buffalo and goats that had to move to give us the path, and smiling at the locals as they watched us pass easily overwhelmed any discomfort I was feeling.
Chinh was considerate and gave us several breaks, once picking a grassy slope that looked toward the village where we would end our journey. She pointed out the village where she and husband were living. She was the same age as me but had already been married for four years. As we talked, she picked a small leaf off a nearby plant, placed it over her right fist, and slapped it with her left hand, causing the leaf to pop. ‘Before cell phones, that’s how boys call the girls when they want to see them,’ she explained, laughing. She let Li and I try the trick, but we both failed, unable to position the leaf correctly on our closed fists.
‘You can’t get the boys,’ Chinh said jokingly, and we all laughed, the sound echoing in the valley below us.
About two hours into the second day, we took another break at a waterfall that ran down the side of the mountain. Li and I took our shoes and socks off, letting our sore feet soak in the coolness of the water. After leaving the waterfall, we crossed a river using a rickety, wooden bridge, and arrived at the village about an hour later. That was the finale of our journey. From there, Chinh hired two motorbikes for Li and me to get us back to Sapa Town as she followed behind us with her husband, who had arrived at the village to take her back home. The drivers gave us helmets, but they weren’t careful, and the road was strewn with cracks and potholes that the drivers constantly swerved to avoid. It was an exciting ride, but the possibility of danger caused some anxiety. I made myself focus on the valley to the left of the road, where I could see all of the mountains we had traversed over the past two days. The Hoang Sien Lon mountain range was laid out before us in a way it hadn’t been until that time, and, unable to use my camera on the back of the motorbike, I tried to soak in the scene.
I wondered if Chinh, who had lived in the mountains her whole life, saw the same beauty I saw in that moment, if she felt fortunate to wake up each morning to a view of these mountains, or if she imagined another life, the life of an American perhaps, waking up in a quiet, suburban neighborhood with a view only of her own backyard.
This lovely and inspiring story has been written for the readers of Postcards from the World by Jennifer. Jennifer Phipps is a high school English teacher and private tutor in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In her free time, she seeks to explore the world through traveling, pursuing new experiences, spending time with friends and family, writing, and reading. She plans to continue cultivating an adventurous, joyful life through teaching and traveling for several years.
Thank you, Jennifer!
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