We began our day in the usual way. I shall show you our hotel, since you might think Vietnam has no modern conveniences. Our staying in this hotel reminds us that, although we are far from our homeland, modern life is very near. Take a look at our beautiful hotel where we have breakfast each morning.
Now we will walk out the door. Take a look to the left and right.
Now walk a bit.
Now it is time to leave.
This day filled our hearts and minds with beauty, connection to nature and another culture, and appreciation for this trip. Sit back and enjoy, but let me warn you, choosing to go on this day with us should be done when you have the time to truly relax, maybe with a cup of tea. Don't be in a rush to get through it. Let your mind wander to the hills and villages you will see. Imagine sharing our day with us, because it was truly extraordinary.
You will meet Sue and the mom with her seven month old. Our friendship was fast and furious. Leaving them, my eyes filled with tears. My heart broke open again and again as I reached out to hug them. Their smiles reassured me that all is well enough. Join us on this tour with your heart wide open. If it seems too much the same, too many pictures that look alike to you, I am guessing you would benefit by another cup of tea slowing yourself down to a pace commensurate with our day.
Ready? If you are, you'll not need sunglasses nor sun screen. It's a bit foggy today, but really this is the best day they've had in Sa Pa. We are grateful, right? Got your water and some vicarious good boots on or waterproof shoes? You will need them. The road is not paved, and there is mud and water in many places. We will be walking for four hours today. Here we go.
We learn from Ha, our wonderful tour guide, that Sa means sand and Pa means town in Chinese characters. We are near the Chinese border now, and we know there is Chinese influence here. Yet, Sa Pa was discovered by the French in 1903. They were so enthralled with this area, that they immediately came in and proclaimed it theirs. The tribal people had been living here for 700 years before that, but we won't quibble about rights. Right?
The tribes are originally from Lao. Note the "s" is not pronounced in Vietnamese, so we shall call it Lao from here on out. Okay? Ha is from Xapho, so that is her tribe.
As we walk, we see many different sights. Take a look with me at all that is around us.
Kohlrabi is a popular vegetable grown here as are peas, squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers. Sound like home? The gardens are pristine, no weeds that we can see anywhere. There's a lot of stone that appears out of the ground. We hear generators in the background. People are cutting up the stone to transport and reuse it. Ha tells us they use dynamite too sometimes, but there is no blasting today.
I ask about the water buffalo we see grazing. Ha tells us that the people have no tractors. Water buffalo are used instead.
Ha also tells us that today we will see two villages and meet some of the people. The road will be long and in places a bit arduous. Let's go!
There are many animals and sights to enjoy. And there are many new things to learn. For instance, the tribal people make all of their own clothing. They sew them with hemp. Here is Ha explaining it to us.
This is one side of the road. Now look to the other side.
We meet new people on our path. Shall we become friends?
We see some what appear to be rather crude abodes. Would you like to live here?
They have beautiful scenery year around. Snow is not common but once in many years.
We walk together.
So much to see. Oh this is good! Isn't it?
How's that cup of tea? Need a refill? We are just getting started!
We come to know our new friends little by little. I walk mainly with Sue. She tells me of her life, and a trust begins to form over the couple hours we walk together. Listen in on her life story. It is interesting. I cannot write with the dialect she speaks, but after working with children who speak dialects of their own, I remember that her language skills are pretty good compared to my tribal language abilities. When I write in her voice, it is my translation, but I shall try to reproduce the gist of what she told me as her voice. Listen in.
"I am 32. My name as you will know it is Sue. I am married. See my wedding necklace? In my tribe, our parents pick our husbands. His family gave me this necklace.
My family was given by his family good water buffalo. It is a trade, a wife for a water buffalo, and I got a necklace from my husband that marks me as married." [At this point, Ha, who is listening a bit, breaks in to tell me speedily in English that the more beautiful the daughter, the more water buffalo that are given for the daughter. In Sue's case, she likely brought in two or three water buffalo.]
"I must work for many hours of the day and night. My husband does not help. I have three daughters and the youngest is a son, so four children. My husband is not happy that I do not want to have another baby. He tells me, 'Give me another boy, or I will get younger girlfriend and bring her here to live with us.' I tell him, 'No more babies for awhile. I cannot do everything alone."
Then Sue explains to me that she would carry one baby inside her, one in the front suckling, and one on the back. A child on a hand completed the set, and she just cannot do it all anymore with yet another baby.
"My husband does nothing. I do all of the laundry, wash all of the clothes by hand and dry it" She shows me her hands. I hold them in mine. My heart breaks. They are rough, very tough hands that look much older than her 32 years. Our eyes meet and speak unspoken words as I hold her hands in mine. "Yes," she smiles.
"I do all of the child care, all of the cooking and cleaning of everything. My husband does not help." I remember Ha's explanation from yesterday that many of the men drink, only 3% of the males work to help the running of the house, so I know Sue's story must be true. Why wouldn't it be? She has no reason to lie to me.
I twirl the bamboo bird in my hand that Sue had made for me.
I wonder at her life. I ask, "What do you say to him with all you have to do?
"I tell him, 'Go! Go! Get out of here if I am not good enough! No more children!' But he does not like that. He does not like me to talk that way to him. And it does not change anything, but I feel better."
I think to myself she is brave and has the right idea. I also wonder at arranged marriages. 90% are arranged. How does that work for most of the women? I wonder.
We look together back out at the scenery.
I ask Ha about the treats we see. Ha explains that the children sell the western food to tourists but prefer the sugar cane for themselves. It rots their teeth, Ha tells us, and is bad for them, but their parents do not have the education to know that, so they give it to them often to quiet them down.
We learn that irrigation is not used as rice crops do not give much money to the owners and irrigation costs would be out of the question. Terraces are plowed with water buffalo before the rains come. Then it rains, then the land is raked flat, then rice is planted and it grows. Seeds are first pre-grown in a nursery of sorts. All the plants are planted by hand, one every 15 cm from the next. The planting must happen quickly. Measuring the distance is by eye. 15 cm allows the area to be weeded easily before fertilizer is added. Plus the plants need the space to grow. At this point, Ha bends over and demonstrates the quick pace with which planting occurs. She looks up at us and says, "I know because I spent years of my life planting just like this."
We look off in the distance and see where some of the land has given way. "Land slide," Ha informs us. "They will repair it before preparing the ground for planting, April to May after TET holiday.
TET is the beginning of the New Year since Vietnam is on a lunar calendar. This is a very special holiday. Each family throughout Vietnam, including the tribal families, believes that each household has two imaginary kings and one imaginary queen living in its house. The kings and queen live mostly in the kitchen. They keep track of all of the goings-on. This reminds me of the idea of Santa Claus who knows when we are naughty and knows when we are nice. The kings and queen keep track of the generosity, particularly of the wife, but of all family members.
The family, in preparation for New Years, purchases fake money and fake fish. These are burned in front of a home outside to send the king and queen on their way prepared for the trip. The family may also purchase fake motor cycles for the trip. All is burned. [Remember the picture I showed you of the families burning what I thought to be garbage outside their homes? Well, it was not! It was the fake money, fish, and cycles! Of course I just learned that now. Sorry for the misinformation yesterday.] Fake incense and fake clothes is also purchased and burned as the kings and queen have a long way to go. They then report to the big book in the sky. A decision is made as to the luck the family deserves, and when the kings and queen come back after TET, they bring that amount of luck back to the family.
These guys taking this huge peach tree under the wires next to the building provide distraction and a laugh for us. They did it successfully. Unbelievable!
The young mother with her son tells us the boy has been sick for two months. He throws us often. He drinks her milk. She stops and breastfeeds him on the path. She cannot afford to take him to the hospital.
Sue continues to talk with me, eager to share her story, "I must pay for my daughter's education, 400,000 dong per year per child (about $18 USD) and also give the teacher a nice gift so the teacher feels glad she teaches my children. My youngest son is not in school yet, only the three girls.
My husband wants to take all the money I earn from sewing. I want to visit my mummy and papa who I see only once per year, but my husband says, 'No! You cannot! That money is mine, not yours to spend!" Since she does all the work and sews and sells the goods too, she tells me again, "I tell him 'leave!' but he does not. He is not happy with me."
My heart breaks again at her words.
These roads are rough, but the scenery makes up for it.
We are tickled to see the domestic animals.
The road gets rougher and steeper. We walk with our friends' help and hope we do not crash down the hill. Slow but sure wins this race.
As we get near the town, Sue stops to tell me of her clothes. "I make all my clothes and that of my family." Ha pipes up and tells me the tribe is called "Black Hmong" for the very dark blue clothing with colorful scarves they wear. The dark blue is made from indigo. The indigo dye holds the fabric for three months. The fabric is dried, then soaked for another three months. this happens three times before the final drying of the fabric to be used for sewing clothing. Amazing.
Sue shows me the indigo plant and scrunches some of the leaves on my hands. In a few minutes it turns green. Longer and it would turn dark blue.
We have arrived. It has been hours since we started our walk this morning. We are hungry. Are you? Ned a break? Time to do that if you need it.
The government provides schooling in Vietnam. Because of tourism, the cities' school children have pencils and paper provided for them through the school. Ha explains that when the pencils come easily to the children, they do not appreciate them. (Sound familiar, my teacher friends?) This government is Communist and all schools and other governmental buildings are yellow with Communist flags flying from them.
As we arrive to the village, Ha signals that it is time to sit down. She has prepared the owners of the make-shift restaurant for our arrival. They will make food. First, however, we buy from our new friends. The three women who walked with us know that this is their moment to have their new year go well if we purchase. We do. We buy many items. (Oh where will I put this stuff?) As we buy, Ha makes the women promise they will not give the money we give them to their husbands. Ha tells the young woman that if her son continues to be sick, she should take some of the money and take him to the hospital. She promises us she will. They are so grateful, they hug us. As I hug Sue, my heart opens and breaks again. I start to silently sob. Tears fall. She holds me. We smile to one another. (Even now as I write this, my eyes fill again with tears. This was a touching moment. Can you feel it?) Our new friends have 15 km to walk to their homes. They must leave now.
We sit down to eat lunch after saying our good-byes.
Lunch was more delicious than any we've had in awhile. We pronounce lunch a success and Ha beams, smiling ear to ear.
We continue to walk. Here is more of what we see.
These pigs touch our funny bones. We love seeing the animals as we walk.
This walk is finally over. We are tired. It's been five hours of walking, eating, talking. We loved it, but we are ready to get in the car and go back to Sa Pa. We do. On the way back to the hotel, we make an appointment for massages and hot baths for tomorrow for the three of us: two hours for each costs $110 USD in all. We also make reservations at a hot pot restaurant for 7 p.m. and go back for a rest at our hotel saying good-bye to Ha for the day and thanking her immensely. Didn't you think today was amazing? We did!
Time flew and soon it was time for dinner.
It's a bit nippy out, but dinner is hot and delicious!
After a few hours of blogging, I hit the hay at midnight. We are night owls despite our busy day.
Hope you enjoyed this tour of the very north of Vietnam. Did you learn something new? Thank you for joining us.
Lori, Rich, and Ellery