Hill tribes and mudslides

I left Sapa this morning equipped with a large umbrella, in the hope that it would keep the rain away or at least keep me a little drier than I was yesterday (which wouldn’t really be difficult). The paths were still very wet from yesterday’s downpours and there was a thick mist over the mountains, obscuring the view. The Hmong village of Lao Chai was todays destination, tucked away in between mountains and rice fields and beside a beautiful clear stream running through the rocks.

Not long after leaving Sapa, we were met by a bunch of adorable little Hmong girls wearing wreaths on their heads made from tree ferns. They were incredibly photogenic, so I bought a couple of woven bracelets from them in exchange for a few photographs. One little girl immediately warmed to Sam and the two of them walked down the road together holding hands and chatting and laughing like old friends. The children’s command of the English language was absolutely incredible. I know their livelihood depends upon it, but when I think back to the 15/16 year old kids in Laos, who were only just managing to grasp English on a very basic conversational level, the fact that these children (who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old) could also understand and answer questions about their culture and lifestyle was remarkable.

We said goodbye to the children and set off down a rocky track, which was extremely muddy and slippery after the rain. The views were awesome, but managing to watch our footing as well as take in the scenery was an incredibly tricky task. It became even more tricky when the heavens opened a few moments later, and the rain began to wash the mud down the slopes, taking us with it if we lost our concentration for a split second. Bearing in mind the difficulty we were having simply staying on our feet, it was most annoying to see the local Hmong children in wellies or plastic sandals skipping past us with ease . . .
The further downhill we clambered the more difficult the track became. We were picking our way down steep slopes caked in a thick layer of mud, and there was a distict lack of vegetation to hang on to, should we lose our footing. At the bottom of the steepest slope, after several of our group already had attractive brown stains on their trousers or rain macs, we had the task of crossing a river, balanced on a length of bamboo which was coated with mud, like grease. Most of us chose to wade through the river rather than take the pretty high risk of falling in. We then continued our trek by walking inbetween ricefields balanced on a narrow, wet, muddy ledge. One foot wrong and we would have ended up like the buffalo : bathing in the stuff! We climbed the wet rocks beside the rice fields and walked along a rather precarious escarpment until, after 3 long hours, the village finally came into view.
As we made our descent into the village, we passed a group of villagers skinning a buffalo and separating the blood red meat from the bone. The unfortunate animal had lost its footing and fallen down the mountain. Rather than leave his body there to rot, the Hmong tribe were being resourceful with his remains. I wouldn’t have minded this encounter so much if it hadn’t been just before we stopped for lunch!
As if by magic, in the time that it had taken us to eat our lunch, the rain had cleared up and the sun was shining in full force. We passed a number of women working in the rice fields, and men guiding their buffalo through the muddy soil, preparing it for the next crop of rice. The Hmong children cheerfully followed us, and chatted to us as we waded through the muddy path, which lead to the Zay tribe village of Ta Van. It was quite a surreal sensation : the sun was burning down on my shoulders whilst at the same time my feet were wet and cold and covered in mud. If you’ve seen the film Labyrinth, think of the bog of eternal stench and that’s exactly how it sounded as I squelched my way through the mud! I truly believed I’d try to pick my foot up and leave my shoe behind! One girl lost her leg in the mud, and rather than help to pull her out her friends stood there and took pictures of her! Still, I think I would have done the same had it been one of my friends!
We walked uphill through Ta Van village until we were so high up we were looking down upon the layers and layers of ricefields, the blue sky peeking through the clouds. This was more like it; it’s weather like this that helps you appreciate the real beauty of this place. Sapa is much more than I’d imagined and I wish I’d chosen to spend longer than just 2 days of my trip here.
Although we organised a tour from Hanoi to Sapa, it is possible to complete the journey and the treks independently. Two French Canadian girls we spoke to had done just that and reckoned that the whole experience (including accommodation, food, admission to the villages, and the train to and from Sapa) had cost them $40, when we paid $57.
Back at Sapa, we showered, washed our muddy footwear, and just had time for dinner before catching the overnight train back to Hanoi. I took the top bunk this time and actually managed to fall out of it before I’d even got in! I’d put my right foot on the little step (which was barely large enough to accommodate my big toe) and then put my left knee on the bed to lift myself up. Only my knee slipped and my whole body subsequently came hurtling to the floor. I scraped my leg somewhere along the way and landed on my arse with a bump. Sam looked rather bewildred to find me sitting on the floor looking up at her only moments after I’d made my climb to the top!
Photos :
Woman working in the ricefields with her baby strapped to her back
Cute little Hmong girl who made friends with Sam

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