These hill tribes ain't your Benjamins or Zebuluns

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, April 16, 2006

Disappointed that our motorcycle trip crashed and burned, we nonetheless hopped right back on the horse and booked a train for that evening bound for Sapa, the best jumping-off point to explore amongst the hill tribe villages in nothernmost Vietnam (China border only a stone's throw away). After another pizza for Ryan (he was positively enchanted by the Beefy) and the market for me, we hopped on the back of two motorbikes to catch our train up north. A bit of a leap of faith was involved as we boarded as in lieu of return tickets we only got a note on an envelope from the travel agent with the name of a guy who hangs out in a restaurant in Lao Cai and would apparently hook us up. Clear that all the foreigners were grouped together in the carriage, we tried for a while to explain the Iowa Caucuses to two Brits and a Dutchman before the siren song of the metal train cot worked its magic.
We woke up in Lao Cai with our 6AM arrival, hopped a minibus to Sapa, and soon met our guide, Dom. Dom was a strikingly short 22-year-old H'mong girl, the second oldest of nine kids, pretty much supporting her family by guiding, and might or might now be marrying this random crazy English lad who we brought dysentery medicine to and told us that when he gets into a motorcycle accident when he's "drunk as a monkey" he rips up a 100,000 dong note into bits, throws it at the feet of the bus driver whose vehicle he's dented, and punches them in the skull for good measure.
All the H'mong women (as indeed only females were guides) wear the same navy blue getup with only different colorful patterned armbands for individual expression. Outside the hotel where we met our guides there was also a gang of little H'mong girls selling tourist trinkets, all making you pinky swear that you'll "buy from me, OK." Vu was the best hussla among them, she got everyone to give her half their autobiography as well as letter her fuss with something (i.e. camera, jewelry) of theirs. She even got a hold of my guitar ... which she promptly sued to try to win over some other tourists with a song that she didn't know.
Dom led us to the market to collect food for our two-day trek, bargaining for a few baggies of chicken, veggies, bamboo, and fruit that were soon dangling off our day pack carabiners as we walked out of town. At first it was also very foggy (which I hear makes for great motorcycling conditions, by the way) cutting off our view of the valley what we were trekking along. As we descended, however, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the rice terraces until the trail decrescendoed to nothing and we were plowing through ankle-deep slop. It was moments like that when I grew to really love those full-grain leather boots keeping my feet dry ... until the slop became calf-deep. Even the magic boots have their limits. Along the lake we defacto joined with a few other guides and travellers: two girls working for an NGO in Bangkok (one was from Cal, GO BEARS!), two Dutch brothers, a young Danish couple, and a mom and daughter set from Oz. We all marched on through the rice paddy terraces with rims of packed earth that would crumble at the slightest provocation from my clumsy, heavy feet and that were containing a foot or so of standing water from which green stalks would shoot (never got a proper explanation as to where the rice in the form that I recognize comes from). We stopped for a break to skip stones and a cunning but only partially successful attempt by two H'mong girls to push me into the pond, and continued until lunch at a hillside shack where the girls kept teaching me bad words in H'mong that kept them in stitches and the elderly proprietors in half-smiling frowns.
We finally came across the home where we'd be spending the night. The friendly group of us settled in for a fun and relaxed afternoon-into-night of rather downer fortune telling at first by the odd New York doctor (I will have no love, money, or friends while Ryan's woman has a wandering eye and he's going to prison for white collar crime), what we've learned to be the indispensable and universally known traveller's game of sh*thead (wild 2s, 5s, 7s, and 10s with a clearing and reversing 4-pack is the only way to do it right), delicious dinner and drinks (who knew bamboo could be so good), and sing-along with the guitar until I broke my voice, knowledge bank of songs, and top E-string (but not before we got the whole international crew to learn the first few stanzas of the Cal drinking song!).
We had a lovely tea in the morning (though I had to trade promises of my matrimony for two glasses of Lipton with a lot of sugar) and were soon hiking along and in the terraces again. For a while we stopped to watch men work the bulls in plowing and shaping the paddies. I've never seen such a natural interaction of people and animals as I did in that whole area. While it's true that the animals were kept as beasts of burden/dinner, they were permitted to wander, stop and go where they like, and were always treated well and with respect. Small problem when a head of cattle is blocking the head and just won't move when we've got to go, but well worth the harmony and peace I felt from the place. Ryan also got into the spirit of harmony with nature and while stepping aside for a moment to leave his unique contribution ended up face-to-face, so to speak, with an old H'mong woman carting a basket of blankets over the wrong ridge at the wrong time.
On the way back when we broke for lunch, I bought a traditional weaved shirt which I thought was a great deal but would come to regret later in Thailand. Finishing our trek, we hopped a few motorbikes the 30kn back to Sapa. With some time to kill until the van back to the train, I wandered around town, to the market again (this time wearing my traditional shirt so you know I blended right in), and stopped to play a game like hackeysack with some kids, except with a sort of crunchy badminton birdie instead of a beanbag. Soon enough we were outta the north country and steaming our way back to busy Hanoi.

Moral of the story: You can have your friendly, balanced relationship with animals ... and eat them too.
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