Our local tour guide Su (20 year old mother of a three year old boy) met us in the lobby and briefly explained the itinerary
. We picked up some bread, cheese and fruit at the market and were joined by three Black H'mong women in beautiful traditional dress with baskets on their backs. Young and old they were so nimble on their feet in plastic sandals, crossing bridges and streams and scampering down steep rock or dirt ledges with ease. Jason tried to keep up but bumped his head on a bamboo eaves trough instead. The hike proved to be more difficult and the weather much hotter than expected. However, the spectacular scenery made it that much easier to carry on. A couple of hours in we stopped for lunch, and that was when the relentless efforts to convince us to buy handicrafts began. We ended up purchasing a few small items from the women who helped carry our food, but it didn't end there.
We roamed the countryside, on the edges of rice terraces and through ethnic minority villages with mountains on both sides and a deep valley below. Thankfully our tour guide had many break spots picked out, varying from bamboo shelters with soaring vistas to souvenir shops selling locally-made products. We dropped off the notebooks and pens we'd brought along at a couple of schools. Jason's IT band began to ache as we descended the dry path of a waterfall and hiked through a bamboo forest.
After crossing a narrow bridge with no handrails (under repair by the local welding team), we completed our 17 km journey (including 500 m of downward elevation change) and finally arrived at our home stay
. We were the only two guests and Mr. Gam, a Zay man, greeted us by serving green tea. We enjoyed much-needed showers after a long hot day on the trails. A couple of Black H'mong women lingered for about an hour and would not take several polite no's for answers, showing us everything they had before moving on around sunset. We don't mind looking, but this was over the top for us, especially after hiking for six hours in the sweltering heat. Our tour guide cooked dinner with the family and we helped prepare the spring rolls (again). The meal was very good but the rice wine cheers were even better... mot hai ba jo! We slept under a mosquito net inside a wood-board house complete with satellite TV.
When we awoke the next morning lines of sun revealed the openings between planks. Breakfast was an outstanding mix of cured pork belly, boiled greens, freshly roasted peanuts and steamed rice washed down with Lipton tea. After a few more laughs we were on our way for day two of trekking.
Fires raged in the cardamom forests on the other side of the mountains and our tour guide's husband was off fighting them with hundreds of other village men, risking their lives not only in the fires but also on the treacherous 'roads' to get there by motorbike.
Our walk was less strenuous this time and the breeze beat back the 30-degree heat
. There were more people out working in the fields that day, planting corn on steep hillsides in full traditional clothing, some with children on their backs. Lunch was served in a house / restaurant run by a retired military man with many medals and his wife. We met a couple from Montreal and chatted over noodle soup. The hazy skies made the surrounding scenery less alluring than the day before. Finishing another 500 m descent we passed a huge hydroelectricity project and arrived at our second home stay, this time with Red Dao people. The ice cold shower was a bit shocking but refreshing as well. Another big Tiger beer was a welcome quaff. We spent the late afternoon playing Angry Birds with our tour guide.
Family and friends gathered in the main room of the house for food prep, cooking on an open fire and smoking from a bamboo pipe. We supped outside as the moon rose over the valley. The night was capped off with a few card games. We slept on a mattress on the floor of a huge open room, the only piece of furniture inside the four walls that didn't quite meet the floor or ceiling.
Day 3 began with pancakes, honey (with the ants removed) and tea. With the humidity hanging over us like a hot wet blanket we were thankful that it would be a short walk
. We crossed two bridges, then hiked mostly uphill to another school. On the way our tour guide told us more about life in the villages. A boy in his mid-teens chooses a girl and asks her to marry him. If she says no he enlists the help of his family and friends to kidnap her and bring her to his family's house. They see how things go for a few days and she decides whether to stay or go, but most often they stay. If he is from a different tribe, she must wear the clothes worn by his people. The men often drink and abuse their wives who have no other option but to work and take care of their (often large) families alone. Retracing our steps down we paused at the river to soak our tired feet in the cold water.
Back at the home stay we collected our things and met an elder Australian man travelling despite two previous strokes. The bumpy hillside bus ride back to Sapa dropped our jaws and turned our stomachs. Cat Cat View Hotel pleased us one more time with its mountain-view shower suite. We explored the town for a short while before heading back to Lao Cai for dinner and another night train.
Showerless after three days on the bays we arrived back in Hanoi with half an hour to spare before our next tour started. We ventured out to our favourite New Day Restaurant but it was so busy that after sitting and waiting until our deadline we asked for takeaway and they obliged. A taxi and guide took us to the station where we boarded the night train. We shared a four person soft sleeper berth with a newlywed Vietnamese couple on their honeymoon. After wolfing down our curried Singapore noodles with prawns and chicken, Sylvia slept up top and Jason down below. Clickity-clack was all we heard from 9:00 pm to 5:00 am and earplugs were essential for Jason. After a hilly 35 km minibus ride in the dark we arrived in Sapa town. As the hotel staff slowly roused themselves we yearned for hot showers and hearty breakfasts. The sun rose above the surrounding green peaks and all our wishes were granted.