When I awoke in Sapa a mist had descended. My guide, Su, suggested that if we headed down the mountain through the villages of Lao Chai and Ta Van, we might still catch glimpses over the mountains and terraced rice fields.
We headed down the road but it wasn’t long until we veered off and down a steep and slippery path.
Now, I’ve hiked up mountains and climbed an active volcano until the smell of sulphurous gas filled my lungs, but nothing can prepare you for the first time you descend down a slippery, sticky, muddy slope.
The other trekkers before me slipped and skidded and I did my best not to giggle but instead focused on keeping myself upright. The local H’mong women just smiled and pointed to the best path. Sometimes, Su held my hand to make sure I didn’t slip. A beautiful, young, H’mong woman trekked along with us, her small baby was harnessed to her back.
The trek passed through some magnificent scenery and it did not seem to matter that so much was covered in fog. We crossed suspension bridges over roaring rivers and stood on mountain ridges overlooking terraced rice fields.
It was peaceful and the air was cold. I spent many minutes hearing nothing else but the squelch of my boots in the mud.
After many hours, we stopped for lunch at a village rest house. Fried rice and a bowl of fruit. After I had finished, I sat looking out the window at the view, when a boy of 10 signed ‘eat’ to me, tapping his fingers on his mouth and looking at the banana on my table. Of course, I passed it to him. It broke my heart as I watched him eat it just outside the window. My heart rushed with both empathy and guilt for all the things we take for granted in our own lives.
After lunch we trekked further, passing through Lao Chai Village. Some children passed by rolling an old bicycle tyre down the hill, controlling it with a bamboo stick.
Life abounds; village pigs roam free in the fields with their offspring only to return to their pens at night. Tiny chickens follow their mothers through the rice fields and the villages grow all kinds of crops.
“Oh look, “ Su says, “They’re going to kill the dog.”
I close my eyes but I can still hear the squeal.
Of course I don’t condone the killing of dogs but I pass no judgment on the villagers in Vietnam using the meat to feed their families. But all of this started to challenge every pocket of my consciousness and I started to ask questions.
How distant have we become from the meat we eat in the developed world? Is it just another packaged product in the supermarket? If you want to eat some meat, are you willing to hold an animal down and kill it?
For a while after I trek quietly. Before we reach Ta Van village the young girl with the baby parts ways offering up handicrafts for me to buy. I bought a hand embroidered indigo bag and some bracelets.
We walk on and reach Su’s village of Ta Van where I will homestay with her for the night. I showed her children photographs of my girls and they sang H’mong folk songs to me. Su cooked up a banquet for dinner and I slept beneath mosquito nets on the mezzanine of her house.
If Hanoi is busy and bustling then the mountains of Sapa are slow and peaceful. No doubt, there will be moments when women selling handicrafts surround you or follow you persistently, but it’s not what prevails. There is a sense of time here. Time to think, time to consider, and time to live.
Mountains of Sapa Musts
Travel responsibly. I travelled with Sapa O’Chau. It’s a socially responsible organisation that offers trekking tours, has a community café and runs a school for disadvantaged minority children. Not only will it ensure you travel in a way that is sensitive to the local hill tribe communities, your guide will be accustomed to the terrain.
Don’t get too frazzled with the hard sell from women selling handicrafts. Easier said than done when you have been trekking for six hours.
Enjoy the quiet.