Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trekking in Sapa

We awoke early on our second day in Sapa rested and ready for our trek. After some coffee and breakfast, we headed out of town with Zee.
Me and our guide Zee

Our plan for the day was to walk from town to her village – approximately a 3 hour trek – where she would cook lunch for us. Then we would hitch a ride back to town on a moto in time to catch a ride to the train station (for another night train, ugh!) at 5pm.

As we made our way to the village, we strolled through Sapa’s mountains and valleys on foot paths, dirt roads, and mountain trails. Occasionally, a group of locals would walk past on their way to or from the rice paddies, and twice we did cross paths with another small group of tourists, but other than that it was just the three of us and Zee walking through the mountains. The air was crisp, the birds were chirping, and the scenery was breathtaking.

Our route took us through farmlands and past small villages and every so often we were able to catch a glimpse of life up in the mountains.
A group of men working together to cut lumber to build a new house for one family in the village

Some boys playing on stilts in their beautiful back yard
Everyone in Sapa is carrying something on their back – typically it’s either a basket or a baby! In town it’s common to see children as young as 10 years old helping out their parents by carrying the babies around.
Farmers plowing a field where corn will soon be planted
Water buffalo are the most important asset for a farmer in Vietnam and can cost upwards of $1,000 USD for a large one.

The sky was overcast, but most of the fog from the previous day had lifted giving us great views of the mountains. The air had also warmed and the temperature was perfect for a hike – cool and comfortable. Although Zee’s English was a bit difficult to understand at times, she was a great guide and taught us a bit about local customs and culture, while we taught her a bit about ours.
But of course, the most amazing thing about the trek was the stunning scenery.

When you’re looking at the mountains, it’s impossible to miss the human intervention with the natural landscape. But here in the Lao Cai province of Vietnam, instead of interfering with the natural beauty – as we normally do with highways and cell towers – it has only made the region more beautiful. The people of Sapa have converted entire mountains into rice paddies, working in harmony with nature and using the natural contours of the hills as their guide to carve rice terraces out of Sapa’s steep slopes.

 Rice terraces of Sapa
Right now people are just beginning to prepare the paddies for planting this year’s crop. The cold winter has left the hills a bit drab and brown, but I can’t even imagine how incredible the landscape must be when all of the paddies are flooded with water or full of lush green rice. Nonetheless, the sight was as impressive as it was beautiful and left me in awe of the hard work and ingenuity of the people of Sapa.
For almost three hours we walked through the mountains taking in amazing vistas around every turn. Finally, Zee’s village came into view – a small collection of bamboo houses set high up on a hill, overlooking the valley below. It was unlike any village we have visited thus far in that there was absolutely nothing touristy about it – no shops, no tourist traps… just a village that Zee was gracious enough to invite us to visit.
As we approached her house, a small boy came running up and grabbed Zee’s hand. Her son, only 4 years old, left his friends and came to greet his mother.
Once we arrived at Zee’s place, she got out some small wooden benches for us to sit on and began preparing our lunch.
Zee cooking for us

Her house was made of bamboo with a pounded-dirt floor and a corrugated iron roof.
It had two bedrooms, a kitchen (that had a spare bed in it for visitors), a living area, and a small room with a big water reservoir. They also had a loft up top for storage. It was pretty spacious living quarters for a family of 5.
Hanging out in Zee’s living room
The entertainment center – hooked up to a satellite in the front yard
The water reservoir

Just outside of the house is a small garden where they grow corn and some herbs and spices for their personal use and beyond that are rice terraces.
Zee’s front yard

Zee cooked us a great lunch of morning glory, instant noodles, stewed bean sprouts and tomatoes, and steamed rice. There was more than enough food for us all and to wash it all down, she offered us some of her husband’s homemade rice wine. Aimee and I only had two small glasses, but she insisted that Nick have 4 - for good luck, of course!

 Zee was like an Italian grandmother – eat more, you must eat more!!
Pouring rice wine for nick

After lunch, Zee brought out some of her homemade garments and asked us if we’d like to buy something. She was most gracious when we declined and even gave us each something small for free – Aimee and I each got a headband, and Nick got a small money bag (read: purse).

At about 3:00, we moseyed down to the road into town (about a 15 minute walk from Zee’s place) and hopped onto motorbikes for the beautiful ride back to Sapa. One of our driver’s was Zee’s husband and before we left we even got to meet Zee’s daughters who were just finishing up their day at the nearby school.
It was an awesome day, and one of the most memorable experiences of our entire trip. Sapa is definitely a place worth exploring and there is no doubt that I will return there if I ever have the chance.

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