HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, October 28, 2011

Back to Sa Pa

Bao and Su woke us up at 5:45, after another fitful night of sleep. It was a misty dawn, but we wanted to get out on the trail before the Brits started stumbling down in the haze of their hangovers. We followed the path we had taken up for about a half hour, before branching off in a new direction that would lead us to a different place from where we had initially started the trek. Somehow, this new path was even more muddy and slick than all the others. We had a hell of a time keeping our footing, and there was yet more poop to dodge; although it was shaped differently than the buffalo crap. 

We soon discovered where this new shit had come from. As we crested a hillock, we heard something big crashing about the shrubbery just ahead of us. A family of four wild horses trotted out onto the path; as startled by us as we were by them. A staring contest ensued, before the horses finally scampered off into the forest. 

Shortly after our equine encounter, the path opened up into the flattest, most open section we had seen in a long time. Fields of flowers lined both sides, and more piles of excrement sat in the middle of the walkway. This easy stretch was just a tease though, for we were about to hit one of the most difficult descents yet. 

The trail quickly became nothing more than a steep, narrow gully, carved out by storm runoff, with loose rocks at the bottom. I could never be very sure about my next step, because the footing could have given out at any time. This would have been a nightmare in bad weather. Blisters were also starting to develop on the tops of my toes, so this was a rather unpleasant bit.

After an hour or so of inching down near-vertical boulders and squeezing through narrow crevasses of dirt, we emerged into another open area full of flowers, as well as another horse. We could hear sounds of civilization in the distance - children shouting, and what sounded like drums being played. We rounded a bend and spotted the first buildings of a small H'mong village sitting on the mountainside above a broad valley. 
I slipped on a rock and bruised my tailbone, which was annoying, but the views completely distracted me.  A vast expanse of terraced rice paddies covered the foothills on the other side of the valley. It was harvest time, and we could just make out people working the fields. The trail led down to the bottom of the valley, so we would see things up close shortly.
The village was extremely basic, and quite similar to the one we had seen in Cat Cat a few days before. Low-slung houses made of wood and corrugated tin squatted on reddish dirt amongst gardens, pigs, goats, chickens, dogs, and roosters. Dirty children played at what was either a school or an orphanage. I was surprised to see a satellite dish on one of the houses, especially amidst all of this obvious poverty.

As we moved through the village, an open ridge gave us full-frontal views of the paddies we were moving down to. Farmers were hacking away at rice stalks, while others whacked the stalks on plastic tarps to get the actual rice kernels out. Once the kernels were removed, they were placed under the hot late morning sun to dry.
We crossed a rickety bridge that spanned the small river running through the valley, and stopped for lunch on the other side.

After hoeing into rice and eggs in a plastic bag, Tin asked one of the porters to ask a farmer if we could help harvest some rice. The woman farmer assented, so we took off our shoes and plunged into the muck of a paddy. The H'mong locals watching had huge smiles on their faces, and laughed every time one of us stumbled in the mud. We each took turns scything down a few stalks of rice, praying that we weren't doing anything offensive or wrong. We placed our stalks in a pile, and barely made it out of the sticky mud without falling down. Hopefully we didn't ruin the harvest for the poor people of the village.
rice stalks

If teaching falls apart, I always have H'mong rice harvester as a backup profession.

mmmmm, mud

An example of traditional H'mong outfits
We had spent a lot of time looking at the scenery and cutting rice, and the porters were getting impatient. Apparently, our van back to Sa Pa was already at the meeting point, and we had about 40 minutes left to go. The rest of the path was almost completely flat; as well as paved in certain sections, so that motorbikes could access the village. The views were astounding: the clean river running below ragged mountain peaks draped in terraced paddies. Simple houses perched on steep slopes; some with pumpkins growing on vines attached to their roof. Children ate on porches next to puppies and kittens. Water buffalo eyed us from paddies and piles of their poo, while ever more pigs and chickens scrambled across the path. Nearly every dwelling had clothes hanging out to dry, and people of all ages were working hard to harvest the rice. This area of Vietnam only gets one harvest a year, so they have to make it count. The northwest is not an easy place to live.

I couldn't really take any pictures of all of this, though, because Bao and Su were in a hurry. They saw this stuff every day, and they didn't want to make our driver wait any longer. We finally arrived at the pick-up point, after a 35 km (22 mile), 3-day trek, which started at 1900 meters, peaked at 3143, and ended a little below where we started. We piled into the van (after it pulled a 48-point turn in a narrow alleyway), and headed back to Sa Pa.

Climbing Fansipan was, without a doubt, one of the greatest experiences of my life. We had seen untouched wilderness, authentic rural life, a few wild animals, and some staggering scenery. I had a bruised left knee, a sore ass, and swollen thighs, but I didn't care.

After cleaning off three day's worth of dirt and grime and resting for a bit back at our hotel, we had a huge meal, hoping that it would help stave off some of the soreness we knew was coming. Before going to bed, we ambled around Sa Pa's central square. Once again, the full moon was shining brightly in the clear sky. A young man staggered drunkenly through the street, while a motorbike dropped off a prostitute. Was it the beginning of her shift, or had she already had customers? Even in the mountains, the vices of society remain.

We would be taking the night train back to Hanoi the following evening, so we had most of the next day to explore more of the Sa Pa area. We planned to rent motorbikes, but a good night of sleep in a soft bed was the first priority.
The finishing point of our hike. What an experience.

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