Not all Black Hmong tribe people know where that is.
As soon as we had exited the bus in Sapa, we learned that the many women surrounding us in traditional costume were going to be people we needed to ignore. At times it seemed that with every step we took in Sapa, we would be surrounded by 3 or more of these women repeating “Where you froooom?” and “You buy from meE!”. As soon as we walked by a few, they would leach on and follow us until we could convince them that we would not buy from them, which was sometimes a difficult task.
We are still learning how to take advantage of situations like that to learn about people, while not making them pissed off at us for not buying. We want to learn about the locals of the places we go, but it is difficult, for example, when they are shoving bracelets in your face demanding you buy. That is where our trek from Sapa helped us out. After breakfast our second morning in Sapa, we were taken to a hotel where we would meet up with our guide and three 22 year old girls from Isreal who would be accompanying us. I was surprised a bit when our guide appeared wearing the same traditional clothing as the many women buzzing around us like flies at a picnic. Instantly I knew I needed to change my mindset.
It turns out that the women we were seeing all around town in woven clothes and leg wraps, our guide included, were Black Hmong people who are spread between a few villages in the mountains. They are just one of the many minority tribes that are dispersed throughout the mountains near Sapa. We would be visiting one of the Black Hmong villages, along with a Red Dao (prounounced zow) village.
We begin trekking, and our group of 6 instantly became a group of 12. As we walked farther out of the city, all kinds of things were going through my mind, like “why they heck are these women following us? Maybe they are just heading back to their village at the same time as us. Do they really think we’re going to buy something as we’re trekking? Shouldn’t our guide be telling them to go away and leave us alone so we can enjoy ourselves?” As we begin to walk through rocky terrain and ballancing on the edges of muddy rice terraces, these other Black Hmong women became our personal assistants and keep us from falling. I begin to relax and chat with them a bit more as they could speak pretty good English and they weren’t trying to sell us anything. My thoughts changed to, “Maybe they assist the guide. Maybe she gives them a cut. It is pretty slippery terrain and most of these tourists don’t look much like hikers, they need the help.”
Our surroundings were phenominal! To one side we had the largest mountain in all of Vietnam towering over us, we were dropping into a valley were the walls were carved into perfect terraces, some filled with water, others dry and neglected as it is not the growing season yet, but all beautiful. The fog, which was always present, was high and the views were clear. We got many pictures and did a lot of staring in awe. Eventually we reached the village of where our guide and assistants lived. I snapped a picture of the lady who had been helping me along, and in the background on a terraced mountain side is her home. It looked beautiful. We ate a Pho lunch at a place meant to get large groups of trekkers in and out quickly, but it was pretty good. When we arrived for lunch our ‘assistants’ told us they had to go home now and began shoving things in our faces and saying “You buy from meE!” OH NO! I felt so horrible, I had built relationships with these people over the last 12 kilometers. I told my lady no. I told them all no. I felt so bad. We continued on to the Red Dao village, where after marriage, the women shave their eyebrows and heads and wear red cloths on their heads. We reached our homestay, which was just a larger building with many beds, around 2:30pm and had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves. Bryan and I roamed around and then sat and watched children play, chickens peck, dogs sleep, and fog roll in. It was very peaceful.
We had a nice, large dinner with the girls from Israel and enjoyed chatting with them for a few hours. It was really fun to learn more about Isreal, share pictures, and share perspectives. We also got to drink a lot of “Happy Water” (rice wine) with the girls and the husband of our guide. It was fun! We found out our guide, Lala, had been married 5 months, her and her husband are both 18, and they are pregnant! In their culture, the newly married couple lives with the husband’s family for the first 3-4 years.
In the morning, Bryan and I watched the fog roll out, children play, chickens peck, and dogs eat. After a nice, big breakfast we continued on to another village, over much muddier terraces completely filled with water. Bryan’s foot was as wide as the edge we had to balance and walk on, and the women and little girls (yep, this time two little 10 year old girls joined us as ‘assistants’) walked through the water and held us up when it got slippery. I tried so hard not to let the little girls help me, but there was a point where both Bryan and I needed a hand so we didn’t fall in, and the only one around was a 10 year old. (There is a sign in the center of the park in Sapa that asks that you please never buy from children because it encourages them to not go to school and they could be forced to work.) We passed by a large, but dry, waterfall. It was very large, so I’m sure it is very beautiful when it is running. At lunch a couple of the girls from Isreal decided to buy something from a couple of the women to thank them for the help. They regreted it! As soon as they showed interest, we literally had about 20 women surrounding our table all yelling prices over the others and shoving their purses and bracelets in the girls’ faces, and ours. It is how they live, but I can’t help but feeling it is very sad because tourism has done this to them. It was really nice getting to know some of those women on the first day, learning about their lives and getting to ask questions, and sad seeing them flip a switch and going into sales mode where you couldn’t talk to them about anything else.
Back in Sapa we enjoyed relaxing with some good drinks and food. Our last day there was off and on rain, and the fog was so thick you could barely see a car coming at you. We hopped around between cafes, restaurants, and stores. Bryan started playing games with the Black Hmong women who were trying to sell to us that day. When they would ask “Where you frooom?” He told a couple of them he was from Sapa, which made them laugh, and then he told an older woman he was from Antarctica! I could barely hold my giggles in, and I think she caught on pretty quickly because she started laughing and walked away! The second person he used the Antarctica one on had no clue where it was. When they would ask us to buy something, he would hold the bottle of water out and repeat back at them, “You buy from me!” One woman told him, “when you in our country, you buy from us, when we in your country, we buy from you.” Bryan told her she would never go to our country so she should buy from him now. She didn’t like that. Another woman said OK when he offered the water bottle for trade, and we think she would have done it, but we started laughing and she did too!
Bryan didn’t mention in the last post that we really enjoyed talking to the lady that sold us the trek tickets. We came across her in the first restaurant we went to on the first day in Sapa, and she was so great about giving us advice and just chatting. She was really eager to show us the new hotel her family is building, so we actually got to go walk around the construction zone, up to the third floor, with construction workers and hazards all over the place! They will be doing 7 stories and only had 6 so far. It was done through a combination of cement and bricks, and it appeared the electrical and cables all went right through the cement. Very interesting! She told us they would probably have an example room completed by our last day in Sapa, but she was busy that day so we didn’t get to see it.
Also there are a ton of new photos up [gallery].