In the mountains of Sapa with the minorities - Travel Blog -
In the mountains of Sapa with the minorities
Sapa is in north Vietnam, almost to the China border. Up in the mountains, its cool, green and the terrain is terraced with rice paddies. It took a 9 hour train ride, and 45 terrifying minutes in a bus, but we made it. And its beautiful.

Although Sapa is known for its mountain trekking, neither Karis nor I are into it. We're much more into exploring the town promising a neat marketplace, motorbike rides to the cascades and plentiful photo opportunities.

We check into the Green Valley Hotel and Glen greets us at the front desk . About 6'1", dark shaggy hair, sleepy eyes, an armful of leather bracelets and a thick Australian accent, Glen reminds me of Shaggy in Scooby Doo. Minus the accent. He gets us settled in our (beautiful) 7 dollar a night room and offers to take us on his motorbike to his favorite restaurant when we're ready.  

Karis and I both climb onto the back of Glen's bike and he putters us to the restaurant. While digging into standard Vietnamese fare, Glen fills us in on his story. Twenty nine years old, he was visiting from Sydney, fell in love with the town, was offered a job at the hotel and stayed. He now bums around Sapa, is dating a 19 year old Hmong girl from the village down the mountain and is soaking up as much of the traditional Hmong culture as possible.
He has vertical, 4 inch long bruises all the way around his neck. Apparently, Glen has a cough (a tickle in his throat) and traditional Hmong remedy has the elders gripping his neck skin and pulling it away from his person to draw out the cough. Karis suggests trying rest and chicken soup instead. I suggest that he's a nut. He laughs.

Throughout our entire meal, a middle aged Hmong woman is sitting outside the window of the restaurant, staring at us . When we glance out, she holds up her wares, pointing, indicating we buy. We try to avoid encouraging her by making eye contact, but she remains for the duration of dinner.
The Hmong people are an Asian minority group that live all across South East Asia. The Hmong language is a spoken language and therefore their history is that of the oral kind. From what Glen tells us, there is not a written language and learning the Hmong Tongue is extremely difficult. Glen doesn't seem to know much Vietnamese at all, really, and seems to be absolutely in an altered state. His sleepy eyes suggest he's been hitting the whacky tobacky we've seen all the men here smoking out of their two foot long bamboo didgereedoo looking pipes. He's a sweetheart, but is clearly two shakes to the wind.

After our long train ride, Karis and I are exhausted and head back to our room where we have our first encounter with a two inch long cockroach happily settled on Karis' bed. Insert shrieks here.

Really?.....Really?! WHAT the HELL is WITH this country and their COCKROACHES?!

We are unsuccessful in squashing our new friend and heskitters away, presumably making his bed underneath mine. Karis and I shack up for the night in her bed. Yes, we both need to toughen up. Well aware, thanks.

We're getting more accustomed to the dead animals and bloody meat everywhere, but the Sapa marketplace was extreme. Entire back ends of cows, severed chicken heads, splayed chicken feet, plucked ducks, buckets of innards, pig tongues . Too close by for comfort are the fresh fruit and vegetable stalls with some vibrant fruit, some sad and browning fruit, some crunchy leafy greens and some droopy depressed greens. We realize that all of the food we're going to be eating in Sapa probably has come from the ingredients in this market. Sobering.

The Hmong women are everywhere: manning the stalls, selling their tarnished silver jewelry, their head wraps and scarves. Most of them have fingers stained blue or green from dying the threads and silks themselves. They're relentless, constantly at our elbows "You buy from me? Where you from? What's your name? You buy from me tomorrow? You buy for your sister? Your mother? Where you stay? I take you to my village? You buy from me?" Again, I find myself making quick exits from stalls where I would have bought a pretty silk, or a neat braided headband or bracelet because I just hate feeling harassed.

Though the majority of Hmong people we see are women, there are the occasional men, usually accompanied by one of the little girls. They all wear their traditional garb or brightly woven belts and head wraps and dark blue or black tunics and cropped pants underneath. The women have strips of fabric wrapping their lower legs, bound with the same colorful fabric of their belts and vests and head wraps. Many of the littler girls have a tiny brother or sister strapped to their back by tightly wound fabrics, little fists and feet dangling as their sister trots alongside tourists. "You buy from me now? You buy from me tomorrow? What's your name? Where you from?"  

They're truly beautiful to look at and I want to fill my camera with their likenesses . But again, in the hope of discouraging harassment, I don't ingratiate myself with them the way I would perhaps other locals in towns we visit.

At night, upon returning home to our room, we flick on the light and do a once over from the doorway for our new friend. I think the coast is clear until I step one foot past the threshold and Karis gasps "THERE IT IS!" And there's the cockroach. Scooting along the nightstand. Karis rips off her sandal, insists I'm at the ready for backup with my sneaker, and once more, we fail to kill it. Shacking up together again, Karis sprays all four bed posts with OFF bug spray before we climb in. We don't sleep well.

Renting motorbikes for the day is 7USD. We want to hit the mountain roads in search of the cascades we've heard are hidden further up in the hills of Sapa. I've never ridden before, but Karis has assured me how fun it will be and I'd been told to lean into curves and not try to turn.  

Lean, don't turn. Got it.

The bike is way heavier than I thought it would be, but I've got my helmet on and my balance feels solid. Karis is ahead of me, leading the way and we're off, up the hill into town and towards the mountains. I'm feeling good, ("This is SO easy!") and I see our first big curve in the road coming up. Its a busy curve, right in the center of town and its lunchtime, so there are plenty of other motoriders and lunchers walking. I prepare myself to ease into the curve.

And my bike doesnt turn.

Instead of braking, like any smart person would, I paniked and may or may not have sped up a tad as I careened into the back wheel of another motorists bike.  

I go down hard, landing on my right side, the bike on top of me and I skid across the road.

The flurry of excitement I cause, between people yelling and hoisting the bike off me and helping me up, is dizzying enough without the fact that I'd just flipped a motorbike onto myself. After standing for a second, quick self check- nothing broken, I drift over to the sidewalk and sink down on the curb. Karis tells me later I went gray green white and she thought for sure I was about to pass out. Would have been funny.

One blink and I am SURROUNDED by locals, all asking if I'm okay, checking my bleeding arm, leg and ankle. I see three guys checking my bike and the woman whose wheel I hit is crouched down next to me. She's a Vietnamese tourist from Hanoi and she's assuring me she's fine and asking me am I okay and then takes off. Karis, who had been ahead of me, makes her way into the crowd and we stare at each other wide-eyed. I'm in shock and she's in shock and we just keep going "What do we do?" Nothing's broken, so that's huge, but I'm definitely bleeding all over the sidewalk and have a badly bruised ankle and am shaking like a leaf, so getting on the bike again seems unlikely.

The woman I hit comes back with cotton and hydrogen peroxide and is cleaning my cuts and road rash before I even register that she's come back. She dabs at my arm, blowing on the cuts to take the sting away. She could have spit at me and cursed me for crashing into her, but no. She's cleaning me up and blowing the sting away.

The Hmong women standing above me are all assuring me in broken accented english that my bike is fine and her bike is fine and am I okay and where am I staying. I start laughing and say that I just feel like an asshole and they all start laughing, probably in relief that I'm not crying or in hysterics.  

If I am to be 100% honest with myself, I have to give a nod to Karma. My great joy in life- to be witness to people's falls, face-plants, trips and diggers- wouldn't be fair unless I have my share. So, hopefully Karma takes note of this one (it was a good one) and I'm squared away for awhile.

One of the Hmong girls is friends with Glen and offers to take me on the back of her bike to the hotel, and her sister will drive mine. They deposit us at the Green Valley Hotel and as soon as Karis and I are out of sight, I allow myself some tears when Karis hugs me . Hiccuppy, scared tears, and just a few, but they make me feel better. My ankle hurts like a bitch.

We clean me off, marvel at how, despite the sweet road rash on the skin beneath, my thin LuLuLemon crops didn't even have a scuff on them (Guaranteed for five years with proper care) and after icing for a bit, I wrap my ankle in an ace bandage. We only have today to explore the hills of Sapa and I refuse to be a baby. I want to get back on the bike.

And I do.

We spend the afternoon cruising the mountain roads, and I truly love riding my motorbike. I find myself white knuckling a lot, but slow and steady, I'm comfortable on the roads. The photos we take are beautiful, the changing light playing off the mists and the little hillside villages are precious and quaint and rustic and beautiful. Everyone smiles and waves at us as we pass by. The cascades are nothing special compared to the ride we take to find them.

We're both exhausted and looking forward to face-planting into bed. Our cockroach is nowhere to be seen and we allow ourselves a moment of relief before Karis, eyes fuzzy without her contacts, calmly says "Give me my shoe, please." and nails a fat, hairy, leggy spider against the wall by her head.  

Something inside Karis snaps, and she jumps from the bed "I am SO OVER all of these EFFING bugs!!" (She didnt say effing.) And proceeds to respray the bedposts, pull the mosquito netting tight around our bed, tucking the corners in and instructing me to pee now because she says I'm not allowed to go in the middle of the night unless I wake her up for permission . I laugh, and she stares at me. She's serious.

At lunch the next day, killing time before our 36 hours of travelling from Sapa to the coastal town of Hoi An, we're prime targets for the Hmong hawkers. We're sitting outside on the patio and there's no where to escape.

A tiny woman, who can not be more than 4'11" tall, draws up to my side. She has a young girl with her, both of them dressed in their Hmong glory. "You buy from me? I make myself. You like? Where you from?" I feel beaten, bruised, worn down, and I dish out the "No, I don't need. Beautiful, yes, but I have no room. I'm from America, New York City." Her hands are stained a deep blue-green and she keeps patting my arm, which I shrink away from. 

"You pretty, you buy for your Mother? For your sister?"

"No, I don't have a sister. Still no room to take things home."

"I make all myself. Sew sew sew. See? Pretty . Like you. You buy from me?"

"Its lovely, yes. I no need. I no buy."

I'm feeling impatient, my ankle hurts, my elbow is seeping, I have 36 hours of travel ahead of me. But her face is beautiful, a combination of the tightest, stretched over the bones skin I've ever laid eyes on teamed with some of the deepest most weathered lines I've ever seen. Her teeth are false, but she doesn't look elderly. Just sunbaked, rugged, leathered. Her hands, while deeply greenish blue, are dry. And her diminutive frame is charming in her Hmong outfit. I humor her. We keep talking.

Her name is Yu. She lives in a village down the hill and the little girl with her, Lu, is 11 and is her sister's daughter. Her father died last year. Hmong girls begin to have children at 14 or 15, so Lu's still considered a little girl. Yu keeps talking about her friends. "My friend, she stay two week, come back four year after, I miss her." "My friend live Canada. She pay me money, I say no no, just help in home. She stay three day." She shows me little photos, clearly passport photos, of the friends she speaks of, all of them with written messages on the back telling her how much they loved her and enjoyed her home.

Yu hosts Homestays.

Homestays are when you arrange to stay with a local family in their home. Sometimes you pay them or sometimes you work off your stay in the fields or helping around the house, etc . Yu keeps saying, "Next time you here, you stay with me. We cook. I cook rice I show you vegetable." I'm finding myself wishing I'd thought of checking out Homestays beforehand. I would have loved staying with Yu.

Warming up to this tiny little person next to me, I'm playing with one of the hand woven bags she's offering my way. More Hmong women and girls come over to us with their goods. I tell them, "If I buy, I buy from Yu!" A couple wander away but one of the girls who looks maybe 18 or so and I begin chatting, her English better than the others.

"You the one fall off motorbike?"

Yep. That would be me.

Her name is Su (yes, really- all Hmong names are like that- Lu, Su, Yu, Nu) and she is actually 29 years old. She has children ages 4, 6, 8 and 10. She tells me she doesn't want anymore kids (natural childbirth, in home "It hurts all times!") and that she wants to tell her husband to leave her alone. I die.

I decide I want to buy something from Yu and I choose a little zippered pouch, hand woven and embroidered, the same color green blue as her hands.  

Yu grips my hand saying "A gift, for you, my friend." And ties a green, pink and gold Hmong woven bracelet around my right wrist. "Next time you come Sapa, you stay with me."

Yu, I sincerely hope to.