Sunday, 6 December 2015

Among the Hmong (< 48 hours in Sa Pa)

screenshot from Gran Torino
The title could be confusing unless you watched Gran Torino by and with Clint Eastwood 

(HIGHLY recommended AND it is on Netflix Canada) or are familiar with  ethnic minorities worldwide.

The area that the Hmong live in probably is  not EXACTLY rectangular

I am wearing socks and a hoodie in the hotel reception where I had breakfast and a shower in the very basic bathroom made available to early arrivals.  The hotel staff is wearing padded jackets behind the counter I have come to the conclusion that the technology of heaters is yet unknown in these parts.  

Short glimpses of sun are wetting my appetite

but the fog returns as quickly as it disappeared

One always learns new things
I walk up and down the steep street for a bit, trying to kill some time and to stay lukewarm until the arrival of 'The Tour Guide'.

I wonder what is down there
fog everywhere

Towering mountains !! Where did those come from ?

'The Guide' soon personifies as a young short Hmong woman that arrived in a group of four guides.  During the day she will provide much information and entertainment and will cause our group of 5 Westerners to smile and laugh frequently (OK, 4 out of 5 have a sense of humour). Our group consists of the guide, 2 blonde Dutch sisters 24 & 26, and a mid 20s to early 30s Vietnamese couple living in Australia (She complains about slightly steep hills on the first day. If only she knew what awaits her on Day 2 ;--)

Oh WOW. If that fog wasn't always coming back !
The guide is carrying an umbrella, it looks like rain, and I'm the only one wearing shorts.  Our guide walks in front of us, but no one has told us where we are going, whether we will walk the entire way, or how long the trip will take.  A general "Ah, I'm sure I'll survive somehow" feeling is evident.

We blindly follow the guide who is walking downhill. Hmong women offering the most beautiful woven fabrics are everywhere.  

spiders must like fog 

Oh yummy

Now, if there wasn't any fog ...
There are brief moments when the  fog lifts and gives us a glimpse of a magnificent landscape. 

 But the Vietnamese fog is FAST and returns in a second.

we're definitely not the only  group on this trek
The fog comes and goes and  comes again
 And then it happens. The fog disappears (don't  worry, it'll come back) and we are facing huge mountains that we didn't even know were there !

Guide girl pays our entrance fee into a CATCAT tourist area, a bad sign; wonder what touristic marvels await us.  

We continue downward, but now on steep steps through a maze of stores with more and More and MORE gorgeous hats and scarfs and blankets.  3 times I just can't help myself anymore and buy things. Prices are about half of what they are in Hanoi and an even lower fraction of what they would be at home if one could get such beautiful stuff there.
spot the pig

a water--driven automatic grain stomper

Rice patty in winter fog

The density of stores along the steepening path decreases and I can here splashing water in the distance. 

Then I see the water. And a cable suspension bridge.

Asian tourists dressed head to toe in Hmong garb

Vietnamese doing some hopping to Vietnamese music.The dancers are no loss to the Ballet of Vietnam

pigs everywhere

Reminds me of Chinese paintings: the LOVE waterfall
Just before we leave the waterfall area, an Asian woman in her 40s steps right in front of me and extends her arms sideways, not to hug me but to show off her garment.  WTF?  Then she explains " I saw you buy blanket in store, so I stop and buy this".  What can I say?  It looks very good on her and at least in her mind I am partially responsible for her buying it ;-)
Then there is another delay.We are ready to leave the waterfalls, when an Asian man in his 40s approaches the Dutch women and with sign language indicates his wish to use his selfie-stick to take a picture of himself with them.  Tall blonde women are in short supply in Asia, so he’ll probably show that picture around like a trophy in the coming months!

Shortly after we leave the waterfalls, our guide stops at the side of the path and picks a green-leaved plant.  Indigo, she keeps saying.  And that if one rolls it between the palms for 5 minutes one gets INDIGO, Naturally I am the one to volunteer. THIS I HAVE TO SEE !  One of the Dutch women, who has the plant in her hand, happily hands it over with the words "Yeah, YOU try  it".

Our guide also assures us that the colour will be easily removable from the palms.
I roll, I look, I roll, I look.  It is turning a blueish green, not quite the colour I know as indigo. 
Rolling, rolling, rolling ...
Time warp ahead a few hours.  After washing my hands before lunch in a restaurant, I see that a) the stain does NOT wash off and b) The green plant juice washes off easily. This leaves my hands stained for an unknown period of time with the most beautiful shade of indigo I have ever seen 
the resulting colour after washing my hands a while later

But back to the hike. 

Obelix would have a field day here ;-)

The local school for younger kids

The hike up the significant difference in height actually takes less time than the walk down. Less vendors and less beautiful stuff to ogle and buy ;-)

We soon approach Sa Pa from again and our guide is looking for the restaurant where our lunch is to take place.

She finds the restaurant and leads us inside. It will be a set menu Asian style.

The  restaurant's  window advertises: Wifi. Free Internet. Have Fireplace. That's nice but everyone is cold because the factually existing fireplace is not lit ;-(

Pumpkin Soup
Pumpkin soup  is followed by sharing dishes of vegetables, steamed rice, beef, pork, vegetables, and tofu. The tofu actually tastes the best!  Now I learn that all meals, i.e breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included in the price of the tour.

After lunch, the guide leads the entire group to my hotel, the Sapa Lodge (actually the wrong direction for the rest of the group)  Oh WOW. I am fortunate to stay here and not in the hotel where I took a shower and where my backpack is still in the luggage storage room. 

This place is NICE. In thoughts I thank my receptionist for AGAIN having come through for me. First the 3rd row seats at the water puppet theatre and now this hotel.  Walking into the lobby I can instantly feel that they have a HEATING system here and consequently the staff is not wearing padded jackets ;-)

I hike back with the group to their hotel to pick up my luggage and get lost twice on the way back to my hotel in the thickening fog that makes every street look like just every other street.  Good thing I remember my hotel name so that the motorbike taxi guys can give me directions ;--)

Now that is what I call INDIGO

Back in my room, I notice that the fog that was obscuring everything earlier is now lifting. WOW.

hotel laundry drying (?) outside

The hotel extension was built not long ago. The open space between wall and tiles is about a hand-width

I also head back to the other hotel, because - just as my hotel in Hanoi - the internet is F**ed up in some strange way, allowing me to access any page  I want, except anything to do with Blogger.

Of course, AGAIN I can't resist Hmong women offering GORGEOUS fabrics for sale. I will have to buy a suitcase !  Not only do I buy fabrics, on the way back, one of the women that talked to us just before lunch recognizes me and with a blinding smile tells me that now is the time to buy a jaw harp from her.  Not being the musical type initially balk, but in the end succumb to that smile and her cutting the price in half.   
If there was a lake, I'd think that I'm at Lake Como in Italy !

Back in my room again, Karma grants me a spectacular light show.

What are the chances of such a show after all that fog early in the day?

I also realize that coming to Sa Pa sooner than later is a good thing, just as it was in Ha Long Bay. Hammering and other construction noises are coming from all directions. New hotels with a view of the valley are going up all around me. Across the valley I see a crane being used to build what looks like the summit station of a cable car.  It brings money to an otherwise desperately poor region, but with a touch of sadness I wonder what Sa Pa looked like 10 years ago and what it will look like 10 years from now.

Before meeting the group again in the same restaurant for free dinner, I try to take a shower and realize that there is no hot water. A receptionist comes up, fiddles with the electrical contraption in the bathroom ceiling, puts his hand under the now barely lukewarm water and says Ya Ya Ya.   10 minutes later either the main fuse of the hotel blows or there is a general short power failure in Sa Pa and after that my air-conditioner speak HEATER doesn't start again.   

After an entertaining dinner with average to mediocre food (prepaid groups get the dregs), I am amazed to see that I now have access to both hot air and hot water.

It must be all that walking today.  9 pm and I can't keep my eyes open any longer.

I wake up refreshed at 5 am and try to extend my legs to full length.  OOOOUUUU!

Make coffee!  Use the hotel-provided 3 in 1 instant.  Wny is it that the Vietnamese can make GREAT instant coffee and a huge worldwide company like Nestle can only produce the mediocre crap called Nescafe ?  Cigarette!  

I step onto my balcony and realize that it is much warmer than last night and that there is no trace of fog left.  I can see the lights at the constructions sites for the cable car across the valley and individual Vietnamese running around their grounds on the valley floor with flashlights. 

As if they had been waiting for my appearance, several roosters start crowing. Not just crowing, but it sounds like one of them is also begging for his life.  15 minutes later the roosters are still crowing, but the fog is back!

Looking through someone's tarp roof
Breakfast at 7 am is yummy but nothing to write home about (so why am I?). The breakfast room is freezing and the cups and plates are so cold that I follow the other guests' example of placing them on top of the toaster oven for a few minutes. As a British or Australian woman puts it "The moment you pour the tea in there it's cold". 

Check-out time in my hotel is 11 am and my train does not leave until 8:30 pm, which means that I have to leave Sa Pa by bus around 7 pm.  Yesterday I saw a last minute special for a hotel room for the coming night for CAD$ 15 and am still thinking of booking it to bridge the dead time. It all depends on what our tour guide has in store for us. Maybe we will hike all afternoon?

To be prepared for cold temperatures on a long hike during foggy weather, I heap a fried egg, cheese, and sausages on a slice of baguette. The weather forecast calls for partly sunny weather and 21 degrees Celsius, but that will remain wishful thinking if the fog does not dissipate.

Sa Pa has an amphitheater !

and at least one church

I get to the hotel where the bus dropped us yesterday morning and where the rest of the group is staying at 8 am and do some catching up on my blog writing. 

  The guide arrives early and after asking her about today’s agenda I am informed that we’ll be hiking and lunching until 2 pm.  My Train in Lao Cai leaves at 8:35 pm. That’s a lot of time without a hotel room!  So I quickly book a room for US$ 11.50 at the Queen Sapa hotel. At least I’ll have somewhere to lie down and take a shower.

I already dragged my big heavy backpack up the hill to the group’s hotel, now I’m carrying it back down to the Queen Sapa where I pay for the room and leave my backpack. (HINT: If you book a cheap room somewhere, make sure to have a look at it first ! ;-)

When the group  walks by the hotel that I stayed in last night, everyone stops  to  take pictures from a wall that prevents people from rolling down the hill and that is right next to my hotel.  They even ask me whether I'm not planning to take pictures.  YES, my receptionist worked another miracle. I just point up  to the balcony of my room and say "That's my room and I had that view all day and night".  Spoiled, I know ;-)

leaving Sa Pa behind

Again, there are quite a few Hmong women approaching us and asking us where we are from and what our name was.  However, these ones don’t seem to go away after I politely answer but show my disinterest in buying.  I only clue in after 20 minutes, when Michelle ventures that these are our ‘personal guides’ because today’s trip would be challenging.  I don’t believe a word for it and still assume that they have the same destination as us and just came along for the group fun.

a paved road !!!
The 'guides' pair up with members of the group. I walk with a woman of about 60.  That's what I believe until asks me how old I am and I learn that she is 45 and that the 3 year old boy she is carrying (!) in her basket is her son.  
Our guides create animals (horse) from blades of grass

my HORSE in my still indigo hand

Only 10 minutes have to pass before we realize that Michelle was right.  No more paved road, as we turn onto a steep dirt path, which after the recent rains should be called a mud path.  3 minutes later we hear a loud scream as Twin, the Vietnamese-Australian girl, places her behind into the very wet and very ochre-coloured mud.  Now the pairing of tourist and Hmong woman comes into action.  The small locals try to keep the comparatively giant tourists from stumbling and falling by holding their hands.  Maybe it’s my experience walking along beaches everywhere, but I feel no need for a helping hand, au contraire, I feel that this would impede my balance.
see the path?

Our guide on the path made of the same material as the countryside (MUD)

rice patty. Sometimes the path looks lie this

Now I know why lots of Hmong women wear rubber boots !

At the top of this climb or a very similar one, I almost fall. But I catch my balance, alas so violently that the camera falls out of the kangaroo pouch of my hoodie and falls into the wet mud  of a rice terrace we use as a walkway. Fortunately the lens parts stay out of the mud because the camera falls on its viewing screen.
An Indigo plantation (YES, my hands are still purple ;-)

A first taste of pressure sales 

yes, the weather is dreary

That is a 3 year old being carried by his mother who is also sufficiently surefooted to help Westerners downhill at the same time ;-)

We keep stepping, slipping, and sliding forever.  Then we actually get to the valley floor !!

Hmong women bringing up  the rear

Prepare to SCROLL for the next picture ;-)

The building at the bottom contains generators driven by water flowing down the pipe on the left !

Just before lunch our Hmong people say Good Bye.   And bring out the wares for sale from the baskets they have been carrying on their backs.  No one expected this and the younger members definitely did not want to spend more of their tight funds, but feel pressured into buying something  because they were being helped up and down the mountains.  I end up spending another 400,000 VDN, about $20.
Lunch with a view (the river is right below the edge of the restaurant)

After lunch starts the part of the trip that left a sour taste in my mouth. Guilty conscience or just being the victim of excessive pressure-sales tactics. The Hmong have been replaced as our guides by Red Dao women and they announce right  away that they will be our friend and that we will buy stuff from them like we did  from the Hmong women.  They only accompany us for 2.5 km and the road is flat  and paved the entire way but they expect that we buy as much from them as  we did from the Hmong. And  they repeat this every 2 minutes.  And why do I have two 'friends' and some members of our group  has none? Because they announced loudly that they had no more money.  Probably a lie, but a very effective one, because THEIR 'friend' vanished as soon as they said that.

Gorgeous house

It is about here that I hear Dutch people referred to as Tulip People for the first time.  The Dutch girls are used to it and explain that it doesn't only come from the floral export article of their homeland but also from their height and the speed they're growing.
The group with Red Dao 'friends'


At the end of the distance that  the Red Dao accompany us it comes to the showdown.  It is UGLY.  BUY FROM ME !!!!   You spent that much with the Hmong, you have to spend that much with me. 
Possibly they are destitute and desperate but they definitely are shameless  

Once you buy something from one, new Dao arrive and keep the pressure on : "You buy, I happy".to which in the end I can only reply   "Yes, but I buy, you happy, I no longer happy".

But I can't blame them. Numerous encounters with rich (compared to them) Westerners have taught them that this is THE way to bring home some money to buy food or clothes for their children.  

Remember, these people live with up to 20 relatives in a home and I don't even want to guess how many people share a 'bed'.
Red Dao desperate to sell something
 A sugar cane field.  Yes, it's child labour but the parents are trying to make some money selling stuff to the tourists.

I REFUSE to buy anymore but when the bus finally arrives (EVERYONE was praying, "PLEASE bus, save us", I hand out some Vietnamese candy to the small children.

Lucky escapees go  home to their posh homes and no longer have to worry about The Poor (note the WINTER clothes everyone is wearing)

Then it's time to say good bye to our tour guide.  She was always friendly, always funny, always interested, and always modest.  Everyone in the group loved her.  And as with most names that I hear in my life, I forgot hers.

I return to my newly booked cheap (US$ 11.50) hotel room take a shower and relax before the bus leaves at 5:30 pm (I had assumed the bus would leave at 7 pm when booking).

The room is bare basics, which I don't mind, but it is freezing.  But it has a fireplace.  After a frantic search for combustible material, I fire up the note pages from a Dutch-language Vietnam tour guidebook.  The smoke does not exit through the chimney, but floods the room. Now it is freezing and smoky!!!   I run down to reception and have to use sign-language to indicate that I would like a space-heater.  5 minutes later the hotel woman brings me a non-too-clean heating blanket.  

I take a quick shower (at least there is boiling hot water) and then spend an hour sitting cross-legged with my feet and butt on the heating blanket that I spread out on the bed.  Then I've had it with being cold.   I put on my very moist and mud-encrusted socks again, buy two new pairs of socks at a travel outfitter store next door, and head to a bakery around the corner, where I order a chocolate tart and a ginger tea and sit next to the cauldron containing coals to heat the water in a kettle above it.

Sa Pa is nice.

But I'm SO SICK of being COLD !!!!!

And that last sentence brings me back to the Red Dao. My 'friend' told me that she walks 3 km each way to meet the tourists, but only in the off-season, because in the other seasons she has to work the fields.  She has 6 brothers and 5 sisters and as a child she was always cold and hungry because there just was no money to feed all those mouths and to buy shoes for all those feet.  These people don't wear hand-made clothes for fun!

If you go on a tour of Sa Pa, do some thinking first.  Yes, the locals are after your money. But can you really blame them?  And they offer some gorgeous handmade things in return. Before you go, think hard how both to help those less fortunate and not to slip into a strange greedy discontentment that could ruin the memory and the experience of discovering a strange new world and its people !

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