I was already sporting a slash of red clay across my backside and was about to earn a second stripe when two sturdy hands emerged from the mist and held fast to both my elbows as my feet went skyward.
“Okay, Banana?” whispered one half of my safety net, while her partner giggled shyly at my attempts to remain upright on the muddy slopes of the terraced rice paddies in northern Vietnam. Banana, the nickname my trekking colleagues had bestowed upon me, was for the bright yellow plastic poncho that enveloped me, ballooning in the wind and rain.
We were a band of five on a two-day hike and homestay in Vietnam’s Hoang Lien Son Valley, near the old French hill station of Sapa, just south of China and east of Laos. We’d taken the night train nearly 200 miles from Hanoi to Lao Cai City, the last stop in Vietnam before China, disembarking at 5 a.m. in heavy fog, misting rain and cold temperatures.
Then a van took us 20 miles to Sapa, known as the gateway to the highlands, where we ate breakfast, met our guide, Khu, a member of the Black Hmong tribe, the largest ethnic minority in the area, and set out walking above the clouds. Also with us was an unexpected entourage of elaborately attired Giay, Yao, Dao and Flower Hmong tribal women, hoping that we would make their village our lunch stop and buy some of their handicrafts.
Meanwhile, they made sure that we all made it, especially Banana, since her fellow adventurers — three Aussies and my 22-year-old nephew — were 40 years younger and sure-footed.
Sapa and the Lai Chau province did not open to tourists until the early 1990s. The region’s dramatic landscape of mountain peaks — the highest is Fansipan, at 10,311 feet — meandering rivers, deep gorges and 27 ethnic tribes has made it a popular destination among both foreign visitors to Hanoi and residents who want to take a break from cyclo-clogged streets and sidewalks made impassable by pho vendors. In summer, its cool breezes offer happy relief from the high humidity of the low lands.
Here, in the eastern extreme of the Himalayas, you can take a walk on the wild side and savor a breath of unpolluted air — air so thick that you can see it. Sapa, a lively town of ethnic markets and 200 tourist hotels, has 160 days of mist annually. On our spring trek, we encountered three seasons in a single day: It was mostly damp and cloudy, followed by a spike in the temperature and some sun, prompting us to shed sweaters, parkas and vests, only to bundle up again minutes later.
We walked out of Sapa down a dirt road and onto a footpath. A roadside entrepreneur offered us bamboo walking sticks, which we declined, and stalks of fresh sugar cane, which we happily accepted.
Grazing water buffalo ignored us as we marched single file through the countryside. Heavy cloud cover would momentarily lift, exposing a lovely terraced village, or a waterfall, or a plum tree in purple bloom. Then the clouds would drop again, obscuring the landscape in a filmy veil.
We crossed over gorges on high swinging bridges, and bamboo brushed our shoulders as we zigzagged up a hill. Piglets squealed as we entered a village; women showed off their embroidered pillow covers, purses and belts, all designed for the tourist trade.
We met nature bravely.
“Snake coming down the path,” yelled Hugh, one of the Aussies, who liked to lead the pack while his girlfriend, Sarah, and I trailed with our friendly safety nets.
“How big a snake?” shouted Sarah.
Big. And black and coiled twice around a smiling man who held its head in his left hand, too close for comfort on the narrow trail.
Khu said that the snake, which the man had hunted high in the mountains, was worth 2 million as a culinary delicacy. We were in sticker shock, until she clarified that she was speaking of Vietnamese dongs (there are about 20,000 dongs to the dollar).
As the day wore on, our shoes got heavier and we would periodically stand in streams to wash away the caked mud. Wet feet trumped extra weight.
Lunch was in the Giay village of Ta Van. The air smelled of woodsmoke and we sat on a patio above a riverbed and dove into plates of scrambled eggs accompanied by cucumbers, tomatoes, bananas, oranges and baguettes — thanks to the French who once occupied the area — and, surprisingly, Laughing Cow cheese in individual foil packets.
Khu left us on our own for lunch. We found her later in the kitchen, watching a big-screen television with some villagers.
The 23-year-old wore blue jeans with silver rivets, carried a North Face backpack and regularly checked her cellphone. But her family are subsistence rice farmers, and during harvest month, she stops guiding and works alongside her parents, brothers and sisters in the paddies.
The area supports only one rice crop a year; people supplement their diet with small vegetable gardens, and families raise ducks, chickens and pigs. Most girls marry at 14. But as the world comes to Lai Chau province via the big screen and international travelers, Khu and others face the dilemma of honoring tradition while embracing newness.
Commercial dyes, for instance, are replacing indigo in ethnic clothing. Women buy cotton from China instead of weaving their own cloth from homegrown hemp. Hmong, Red Dao, Meo, Tay and Yao women put on their traditional costumes and walk to Sapa almost daily in hopes of selling their wares to tourists, changing the daily life of the village by their absence.
Khu told us that the Vietnamese government has encouraged tourism, particularly in the past four years. It’s building new schools with English as part of the curriculum (we visited three on our hike), a point of pride for the ethnic minorities of the region, who are separated from one another and from the rest of Vietnam by religion, custom and language. Khu never attended school as a child. She learned English from Sapa tourists.
Many villages, some accessible only on foot or by motorbike, now have electricity. Roads are being cut through the mountains, and dams are under construction. Buses bring tourists to weekly ethnic markets. Villagers receive incentives to offer homestays and even to build new structures for guests.
“It is making for differences,” said Khu, whose village friends are married with children while she remains single and tries to navigate a modern world.
We walked into Ban Ho, a village of half a dozen houses, including our homestay, at about 4 p.m. Physically whipped, we were content to sit quietly on the open patio and take in the view of aging bamboo houses tucked into the hillside, surrounded by banana trees and fenced-in vegetable gardens. Three domesticated water buffalo put on a show, lowering their heads and bellowing and butting one another in a game of one-upmanship. A pup nursed at a sow’s teat alongside her piglets. A rainbow ushered in sunset and a foggy day ended in splendid color.
We appreciated the rustic peacefulness. But we were thrilled by our host family’s modern amenities of a hot shower and a refrigerator stocked with bottled water and nearly cold beer. The shower, served by a propane-fired water heater, was housed in a new free-standing bathroom with a sit-down toilet. Extended family members had all pitched in to help construct it, said Khu.
The smell of woodsmoke coming from the open fireplace told us that dinner was on the way. Gene Harb, my nephew and an experienced camper, went to work, sitting on the kitchen floor and chopping garlic for our stir-fry dinner. Khu instantly gained his respect as she wielded a large cleaver, hacking onions and cabbage, held in the palm of her left hand, into bite-size pieces — and finishing with both hands intact.
Plates lined up by the fire: nutty-tasting bamboo root; water buffalo with hot chilies, smoked pork and ginger, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, mushrooms. A big pot of rice boiled. It was cold, so we pulled the table into the kitchen and ate in front of the fire with our host family.
Sarah and I were in bed before 8. The macho guys stayed up drinking homemade rice wine with Khu. We all slept side-by-side on floor mats, beneath heavy quilts, in a one-room bamboo hut on stilts. An irrigation pipe ran beneath it, and we fell asleep to the sound of rushing water. We awoke to the sound of the village roosters.
Over a breakfast of crepes (which Khu called tourist food) filled with honey and bananas, we all agreed that the floor had been a salve for aching muscles. Before setting out, the women requested bamboo walking sticks, which we had so readily disdained 24 hours earlier. One of us began the hike with quivering quads.
This leg of the hike wasn’t as steep or as long as the first day’s route of six to eight miles. We walked along a stream, stopping at a village where all the women had blue hands, from dyeing cloth. We visited a school with classrooms sporting portraits of Ho Chi Minh. “We are not political,” shrugged Khu. “He is not important to us.” Minority tribes in the Central Highlands sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War.
We met a solo woman trekker from Belgium, and later, a bewildered Canadian couple dressed more appropriately for golf than for the weather-created obstacle course they faced. We crossed more swinging bridges, one with holes in the flooring large enough to devour a leg with no problem. We passed a cemetery with a fresh grave mounded with brush to keep out animals. Some tribes bury the dead twice, said Khu, exhuming them after three years to polish their bones and reburying them in a smaller grave.
We finished our trek above the clouds with a picnic lunch and bought our final souvenirs from our tribal groupies — plaid headscarves, hand-woven bracelets, embroidered bags. I selected a well-worn indigo jacket festooned with tiny silver bells to jingle and scare away evil spirits.
A van picked us up, and we headed back to Sapa. As we descended, the fog thickened and the city vanished in a whiteout.
The women went for hot showers and a massage at a local hotel. The guys went for a beer.
I took advantage of a shoe-cleaning service and got my new Keens, bought especially for this trip, washed and dried for five bucks. My nephew berated me for blowing the money. His shoes stayed in a plastic bag and stank for the rest of the trip.
Harb is a freelance writer in Virginia.