Friday, March 2, 2012

Trekking in northern Vietnam

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain

I'm starting this blog post with a quote I found in the "South East Asia Backpacker," a monthly magazine full of inspiring stories written by people who are either traveling through or have moved to South East Asia. I find it to be quite appropriate for the story I'm about to tell. Firstly, I knew absolutely nothing about the hill tribes living in the north of Vietnam before I came here. Secondly, had I not met them in person, I would not be inclined as passionately as I am to do something to help them. And lastly, it made me aware of how fortunate I am to be able to travel. So many people are "vegetating" in their own corner of the earth and could only dream of traveling, but are too poor to do so. I used to be one of these people up until not long ago. Coming from a developing country myself, I've experienced poverty and lack of mobility. But I kept dreaming. And I am now so grateful to have fulfilled some of those dreams.

We really wanted to do a trek through northern Laos and stay with one of the hill tribes there, but we didn't have enough time. When we got to Vietnam, we were happy to find out that they have similar tribes living in the mountains in the northern part of the country. We were able to arrange going up there, hiking around and staying overnight with a local family. Despite the cold weather that took me unprepared and reminded me of San Francisco, I absolutely loved this trip and would've gladly stayed there longer, had we had more time.

The Black Hmong villages in northern Vietnam are located very close to the border with China. Apparently, many of them migrated centuries ago from China and parts of Mongolia. To get there we took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cao, a sad and grim, communist-looking town on the border with China. It reminded me a lot of childhood winters in Communist Romania. We arrived in Lao Cao at 6am and were shuttled in a packed minivan over a windy mountain road for about an hour until we reached the town of Sapa. Sapa is like a mountain resort, and the starting point for a lot of activities, such as hiking Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. It also boasts a full-on North Face fake store. Everything in the store is a copy and it costs about $20. I haven't been inside, but some people we met said the clothes looked the same quality as original North Face clothes.

Our guide was waiting for us in Sapa and after we ate some breakfast we started the trek. During this time of the year, it is very cold and foggy, so you can't see much. The rice paddies are also not in full swing, so they don't boast the lush green you'd expect. Also, because of the heavy rains, the roads turn into a deep, slippery mud. Our hike was basically walking uphill or downhill through intense mud. Downhill was quite treacherous, at times it felt like hiking down a slip-and-slide.

The girl on the right is our guide. The one on the left is one of the many women that followed us during the entire hike. Their strategy is to walk very closely behind you or right beside you. They try to become friends. They ask you a million questions: where you're from, how old are you, how many siblings you have, if you're married and have babies, if you have a boyfriend, etc. When you look like you're about to lose balance and fall, they're right there, holding your hand and showing you where to step next. Your heart melts and you think you just made a new friend. You are impressed at how friendly and helpful the people are. And four hours later, at the end of the hike, the shit show begins!

All these ladies that have been following you start taking out their merchandise from their baskets, the surround you from all sides and BEG you to buy from them. "Buy from me!" "Buy from me!" "Me, unhappy, buy and I happy!" "Why you buy from her and not from me?" "Buy from me too now!" "Cheap price for you!" After all the friendly chit-chatting and holding hands on the trek, this emotional blackmail works wonders. These women are absolute masters at a very sophisticated type of emotional blackmail. How can you not buy a little thing here or there, after they've hiked with you for the last 4 hours? With babies strapped on their backs. Stopping by once in a while to breast-feed them. You have to buy, even if the things they sell are ugly or really bad quality.

Daniel, flanked by two Zay women. The tribes distinguish themselves mostly through the type of clothes and hats women wear. Zay women wear red hats and embroidered pants, while Hmong women wear embroidered skirts and colorful head scarves. After harassing Daniel for the longest time possible, the two ladies called mission accomplished. He succumbed and bought a pack of postcards for 5 USD. Mind you, in Vietnam, $5 is the equivalent of a day's wages.

Anne and Daniel, flanked by Zay women. A few other women got their back too. They were their constant shadow.

The landscape, shrouded in fog the entire time, was magic. Tons of suspension bridges everywhere, but we didn't get to cross any. For every suspension bridge there was a new sturdier bridge built nearby. And some suspension bridges were really shabby, missing entire sections.

Main street and grocery store in a Hmong village. I can't begin to describe how poor these people are. The only other place I've seen similar levels of poverty is Bolivia. Despite that, people seemed happy. It seemed normal. It felt like the simple kind of life that humans have led for centuries in these parts of the world.

Main shop on main street in the village.

Hiking through mud along rice paddies. I felt really grateful for having my sturdy comfy hiking boots. This was yet another extreme test for how awesome they are.

Our wonderful guide and her 10-month old baby. The cutest, smiliest, happiest baby in the world! Our guide was 19 years old and she had been married for 3 years already. Her husband, a year younger than her, takes care of the baby in the mornings while she's guiding tourists. At noon she gets back home and brings the tourists with her, to show them where she lives. She does this, so she can breast-feed the baby, strap him on her back and then continue the hike in the afternoon. At the end of the hike, she cooks for all of us and after dinner her husband comes to pick the two of them up with the motorbike. For the late night ride, the 10-month old baby gets strapped to the front of the mommy, so it can be sandwiched between its parents on the motorbike and protected from the cold. For guiding a group of tourists like this, she gets paid 5 USD/day. She works 4 days a week. Her husband is currently building their house, where she invited us. The house consists of a big room, walls made of bamboo leaves, no bathroom, no kitchen. Just a hole in the ground with a fire burning above it. A bed in a corner. A few clothes hanging on a rope. A few plastic stools. One piece of pork meat, almost black in color, hanging to smoke above the fire.

The magic bridge - a photographer's dream. You probably can't even tell it's a bridge. It's suspended really high above rice fields, it's very narrow (a car can't fit), doesn't have railings and has zero visibility. We didn't see anyone walk on it, so we don't really know what its purpose was.

One of my top favorite photos of this trip so far. I guess by the end I'll have a solid collection of Anne jumping shots.

Anne tried to do a few shots of me jumping, but apparently I can't jump for a photo for the life of me. I look goofy in all of them.

Our guide's English was excellent, by far better than that of many people we've met in Hanoi or entire Vietnam for that matter. I asked her how she managed to speak so well and she said she started out following tourists and trying to sell them things. She would engage in conversations with them and pick up words really fast. Some tourists really liked her and wanted her to be their guide. The word got out that she's a likable girl with good command of English, so the trekking company hired her. The frequency of her gigs is solely based on feedback and reviews from tourists.

The kitchen of the homestay where we slept. It was so cold inside the house that you could see your own breath. A few of our group of 9 gathered around the fire. The pot in the middle is boiling food for the pigs: a mix of cornmeal and leftover scraps.

Warming up around the kitchen fire.

Dinner in the homestay. Food in northern Vietnam is plain and some of the dishes remind me of Chinese food, maybe because they are so close to the border with China. All the food is stir-fried in a wok. We got stir-fried cabbage, chicken with bok choi and vegetables, steamed rice, spring rolls and fried tofu. The family also served us rice wine, which tastes more like vodka than sake.

The next day the visibility was a bit better, so we could see the beautiful landscapes hiding behind the thick fog on the previous day. 
A hill tribe village and their rice paddies.

More hiking in thick slippery mud.

There was no bridge for this river, so we crossed the water on two metal beams, suspended across two rocks. We didn't want to do it at first, but it was actually easier than we thought. I love the ingenuity of the people here. There's always a solution for everything, even if it's not the most elegant, safe or logical solution. Things seem to always work out, somehow.

The woman right next to me is the one who befriended me during the hike. She told me she is 36 years old and already has several children. I told her I am 31 years old and she couldn't believe me. Again, another resemblance to women we met in Peru and Bolivia: hard physical labor, marriage and kids from an early age make these women mature faster and look older than they actually are. In the mountains of Peru and Vietnam, villagers look almost 20 years older than they are.