Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Buffaloes in the Mist, Pastries by the Fire

You might say we got Sapa wet. We arrived in Lao Cai, one kilometer from the Chinese border with Vietnam, at 5:17am in a foggy-wet rainstorm and it didn't quit for 2 1/2 days. Good thing we'd hauled the raingear around for over five months -- now we could use it! And did we ever. Sapa was still stunning the rain and we had an excuse to drink warm beverages as we tried to decipher mountains through the layers of mist. Plus, we bargained for a hotel room with a basic kiva-like fireplace--who would've thought we'd want one of those in Asia!? We also got hot water for tea from the restaurant and found a French patisserie (Bless the French!), so we had our first "room service" in months and delicious, crackling fires that had us smelling like Hickory Farms sausages upon our return to Hanoi. Check out the photos!

Sapa is a picturesque village-town in the northwest corner of Vietnam. A former French hill station for wealthy French Indochina colonists who needed a break from, ahem...the heat and luxuries of Hanoi?, Sapa is nestled in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range (dubbed the Tonkinese Alps) and defines what I would have thought to be an oxymoron: a tropical-alpine climate. Who knew? These Alps climb to over 10,300 feet at their highest, the supposedly majestic peak of Fansipan -- we don't know as it never popped out of its heavy shroud of mist -- and they're utterly covered by a chromatic shades of green. Forests of trees, patches of slippery moss, terraced rice paddies, cornstalks, tapioca plant crops, leafy plum trees and rambling roses. The only interruptions of this incredible green are slick slices of ochre (nerve-bending, mud roads) and woven squares of basket-brown (extremely primitive village huts). This spectacular landscape is cut into the sides of hills, through valleys and carves up toward the mountain peaks, and you feel small and obvious exploring the natural splendor.

Sapa is also the land of the Montagnards. French for "mountain people",~> read more

 then bastardized by the Vietnamese to become a derogatory term for hill tribe peoples, Sapa is home to the greatest concentration of Vietnam's nomadic ethnic minorities, some of which exist elsewhere in southeast asia s well. The northwest provinces are a crossroads of tribes from China, Thailand, Burma, Tibet and Vietnam, and around every corner of Sapa you spot different native dress, levels of cheekbone, colors of skin and slants of eyes. And it's a primitive, exotic rainbow of colors that feels a bit like you stepped into Cost Plus, yet somehow vividly authentic. Groups like the Black H'mong, Red Dzao, White Thai and Flower H'mong live in villages around Sapa, farming the land and milking-ever-so-gently the burgeoning tourist industry. Luckily, that hasn't happened too fast and you can still visit the people, their villages and tribes and feel like a visitor instead of a voyeur.

Andy and I spent a few days on a rented moto (what we'd call a moped or scooter at home) in between the rainstorms and fog, exploring the velvet green hills and basic villages that are mostly untouched by time and progress. Yes, there are now food stalls that sell bottled water to tourists in each village, and many of the women know "tourist English" and French and pedddle gorgeous, intricate embroidery to visitors, but for the most part, the tribal families farm the land and carry baskets of their crops, their babies and tools on their backs. Water buffalo are the tractors of tribes and rice paddies plowed by hand, planted by hand and picked by hand. So many times, we turned cautiously around a muddy, blind corner in the misty mountains with our horn honking as an arrival announcement, and come upon a slender man in indigo hemp shorts slogging through the mud in barefeet behind a water buffalo and wooden harrow. Or, we'd run into women with the most leathered, lived in skin that contrasted sharply with their colorful, to us fanciful headgear as they headed home to most surely cook a full meal after they'd worked hard with their bare hands in the fields. A very different, almost timeless way of life, for sure. I can't say romantic or idyllic, even though so ascetic, because it just looked like hard, hard work.

Many people, especially the children, smiled at us right away and called out "hello, hello!" as we zoomed along. Picture Andy on the front of a chinese knock-off of a japanese moto intensely focused on navigating slick rock and mud roads, while I sat on the back in my red slicker waving and calling out "hello!" and then asking some if I could take their photo. Many obliged, and I think we got some awesome smiles, crooked teeth and faces that tell a story. We hiked into one village and worried we were truly on in the mixing ground of bird flu. Chickens, pigs, ducks, chicks, piglets, feces, water, mud, humans and trash all intermixed around us. Very near our feet and hands as we climbed the steep paths in the rain. It was a bit unnerving and while we rationally knew we likely wouldn't be infected with anything, it couldn't help but underscore that people in this part of the world live with their animals and waste and land very, very differently and that culture and lifestyle are so embedded in the epidemic that it's no wonder there's a problem in fighting it.

My favorite part of Sapa was during our last minutes in the village-town as we waited for the bus to Lao Cai. Andy and I sat leaning against our backpacks in the first yet last sun of the day. A group of Black Hmong women walked up to offer handicrafts; we could tell their by their indigo skirts, colored cloth belts wrapped in numerous loops, the leg warmer-ish wrappings on their brown legs and grams and many grams of silver jewellery. We declined, but one lady named something close to "Mae" plunked herself and her wares down next to Andy on the step and started talking in tourist English. She asked us both "Where you from?", but she seemed most interested in Andy and I sat slouched back into the cushion of my pack and enjoyed the moment. She gestured with her brown but indigo stained hands in animation with Andy, and he sweetly answered and asked questions right back in simplified English with a good dose of pantomime. Mae was one of 11 children, over 44 years old and had brothers who fought in the American War. She cackled at Andy's age, "You SO yuuuuuhhhhnnnggg!I Ohhllld!!" He blushed, smiled, laughed and clucked right back, "You look so young!! NOT old!" Then she blushed, it was visible even beneath her worn, tamarind colored skin, smiled and laughed too. And I smiled and laughed. Indeed, we're not all so different after all.

we have some photos here, there are more than a few but we hope you enjoy them!


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