Friday, September 16, 2016

Trekking in Sa Pa

I had been really sick for a couple of days. I had allowed myself to get too dehydrated, and then I got some stomach virus that just knocked me on my butt at the hostel in Hanoi. So I was laid up in bed for a couple of days. And during that time, I decided to plan a trip to Sa Pa, Vietnam, hoping I'd be better by the time I took the trip.  I set up a journey of four days and three nights through the travel desk at the hostel.

It was down to the wire, but luckily I was much better by the time it was time to depart. But in the meantime, I had a French placement test scheduled for the French class that I am hoping to take in Hanoi. The Institut Fran├žois de Hanoi has a really great French class that is amazingly cheap. They also have a Vietnamese class, and I'm thinking about taking that there too, but I'm not certain about that yet. So I had to drag myself out of bed, hellishly ill, and walk across town to take the placement test. I don't think I did too badly, and probably ended up about where I should. I hope. The first four or five pages were pretty easy, but then it started asking for long narratives about really specific things, and that's where I didn't do as well, definitely. I was blanking out on a lot of words that I thought I should have known...obviously, I didnt know them well enough. After the test, I went back to the hostel and just crashed for the rest of the day, and I felt much better the next day.

So I was well-rested and well-hydrated, and feeling really good when it was time to go to Sa Pa. I checked out of the hostel in Hanoi, and got to see my Vietnam visa for the first time in my passport when they gave me my passport back. They had kept it when I checked in, after I had arrived straight from the airport (where I had an ATM-card losing fiasco), and they don't give it back until they get the room key. Sucks, but I guess that's what they do.

All of us who were on the Sa Pa trek made our way down to the lobby, and we were led down the street by someone from the hostel to where we would catch our bus. The bus arrived after a few minutes of waiting, and we all clambered aboard. It was an overnight sleeper bus, with sleeper pods instead of seats. We had to take our shoes off and put them in a bag upon boarding. The sleeper pods were about the bare minimum space that I have seen allocated for a human to sleep in. There were two levels of pods, six long. There were three rows of these twelve pods on the bus, two on each side, and one in the middle. I had brought a small pack on the bus with me, and there was no room for it in the pod with me. Luckily, I was on the bottom row, so I put my pack in the aisle. Somebody told me that sometimes these buses get so full that people are sleeping in the aisles. There was a very compact bathroom in the back of the bus, but I was not aware of that until the next morning, when I spotted someone coming out of it, which was great, because I had been lying there needing to go badly and thinking there was no bathroom. The bus was to arrive at four thirty the next morning, but we were instructed to stay in the bus until six, when someone would come to meet us.

And, as we were told, at six am, Mr. Hung showed up to pick us up and take us to our hotel.  At this point, I came to the realization that I know very little about what the sequence of events was, and what would take place was largely a mystery to me. But did I really need to know? Couldn't I just go where someone told me to go and see what happens? I knew there would be two nights of homestay and one night in a hotel, but I didn't know whether the hotel was first, nor did I know much about what was going on. 

We drove to the hotel and ate breakfast. We just left our things at the hotel; I was not staying there until the third night (and some on our tour didn't stay at all because they were only doing one or two day tours). our group's guide, Van, showed up to take us on a trek to the first homestay. But she told me that me sandals would probably be inadequate and that I would need a raincoat. I wasn't going to change my footwear at first, but she was very insistent. So she led me across the street to rent some mud boots, and then I also bought a raincoat and some rain pants to take on the trek.  Sa Pa is about 25 kilometers from the border with China, at the very northern end of Vietnam.

So we headed down into the mountains. It was raining quite a bit, off and on. For a decent while, it was the craziest hike down a steep, narrow path that was completely made of slippery mud. At times, I would look at the next ten feet, and think, "No fucking way." And this happened about every ten feet for the first half of the hike. And in some places there were some truly precipitous drops right off the edge of the muddy, slippery trail. I couldn't even take pictures for this part of the hike, because I was concentrating too hard on making sure my feet met good footholds, ensuring I didn't tumble off a cliff, and trying not to fall on my ass, like many people in my group did on the slippery mud, some several times. I couldn't take pictures of an amazing waterfall we passed, nor of a place where we crossed a deep abyss on two bamboo poles, let alone many other amazing sights. But at least I kept my footing and never fell; I saw others with some scrapes from slipping on the mud.

We all had these amazing Hmong women as our guides, who stuck to us like Secret Service agents stick the the US President. There is very little chance I would have made it through this hike, much less even survived on this steep, muddy slope, if it had not been for my superbly skilled personal Hmong guide, Ngo, who didn't speak any English, but anticipated every need I would have, and took me down this insane path with surgical precision. And she carried a baby on her back the whole time.  She scampered over slippery, muddy terrain like it was nothing. Sometimes she and the other Hmong guides would just Each of us who were hiking in the group had a Hmong woman beside them leading them through the most intense parts of the hike. Each of us who were hiking in the group had a Hmong woman beside them leading them through the most intense parts of the hike. Sometimes Ngo and the other Hmong guides would just run up a boulder above the path, and scamper ahead to pass us and be in the location they needed to be to guide us to the next place. She and the other guides helped us all get through this hair-raising, rollicking, stupendous hike through the mountains. She would anticipate when I was going to need help, and then she would be instantly next to me, firmly gripping my hand and moving me onward. When needed, she would point to me the precise location to put each foot, step by step, to find the most solid footing in the slippery mud. After the roughest part down the muddy cliff, most the rest of the hike was fairly easy to accomplish, and my guide Ngo only appeared by my side and grabbed my arm for a few dicey spots.

The scenery was absolutely spectacular. There were rice terraces all up and down the mountains and in the valleys, potbellied pigs and water buffalo all along the trail, and we would pass through tiny traditional villages as we made our way on the trek.

After the hike, Ngo offered some of the items that she had made for sale. I was only too happy to oblige, since she had just spent all day guiding me down a mountain. I bought a couple of small purses as gifts for my daughters. Ngo and the other individual Hmong guides left at this point, and we were left with Van as our group guide. First we stopped at a restaurant in the little village to enjoy a communal lunch. Then we trekked several more kilometers to get to the first homestay. A woman from another tribe in the area (not Hmong) decided to shadow me and pester me to buy something; I ended up buying a little carrying bag from her after she had walked several kilometers along side me, which I needed anyway to carry some items I had just stuffed into the pockets of my jacket.

The first night we spent at a homestay near Ta Van.   It was a pleasant little house with several beds upstairs in an atmosphere that was like the attic of a barn. The beds were draped in mosquito netting.  The homestay was right next to a bubbling creek, in the valley. We had a delicious dinner there, and then settled in to sleep for the night.

In the morning, we headed off on the second day's hike.  Most of the group only hiked for a short while to the bus stop, as only two of us (me and a Korean-Canadian guy named Scott) had signed up for the next day's journey. So we hiked about 5 kilometers to the bus stop, dropped off the majority of the group, and then Scott and I, with Van as our guide, embarked on the daylong hike to the second homestay.  This was a longer hike than the first day's hike. It was not as difficult, though it definitely had some challenging moments, including one point when we climbed down a cliff made of mud, and we had to tread carefully to find useable handholds and footholds to make it down.

While on the trail just a few meters short of the second homestay, I lightly brushed my arm against some thorny tree, and it put a big jagged deep cut on my arm. As I was walking up to the homestay, my arm was bleeding so badly that it was dripping off the ends of my fingers. But the female host of the married couple that ran the homestay grabbed a handful of some herb; the guide, Van, said it was to stop bleeding. Sure enough, after I held the herb on my arm for a few minutes, it stopped the flow of blood.

The second homestay was in the village of Ban Ho. Ban Ho is mostly populated by the Tay people.  Once we settled in there, I went off on my own to explore the town and the surroundings. I walked around for a while, but I was getting some serious blisters and sore points on my feet from the poorly-fitting rain boots I had rented. Mostly I had just been trudging through the pain; at least it would only be another day until I wouldn't be wearing them any more. I had left my sandals behind at the hotel in Sa Pa in my haste and confusion when we suddenly had to leave to the trek, so the uncomfortable boots were the only footwear that I had with me. At least they had a good grip on the muddy ground and had kept me from falling. But my feet were in some serious pain by this time, and for the rest of the journey.

The rice harvest was going on in Ban Ho while we were there. The villagers would go out into the field to cut the rice, then shake it out and leave the kernels to dry on big tarps. They were doing the same with corn and other crops as well.  Most of the people in this whole region are subsistence farmers, and just grow enough to feed their families and animals. They also grow their own soybeans and make their own tofu, so each village has its own distinctive type of tofu. They grow the vegetables for their meals as well, so all the meals we had in this area were about as local as it gets. After the rice is dried on the tarps, it is then machine milled.

After we had eaten a delicious dinner and slept the night, the next morning we hiked to a spectacular little waterfall and pool on the river nearby.  There were also other tour groups who went to this location as well, so there were a number of tourists there. Some of the more adventurous jumped off the cliffs nearby into the water, but I just relaxed there. While we all swam and relaxed on the rocks, all of the Black H'mong women who were our tour guides chatted among themselves and worked on embroidering their clothing.

After the waterfall swim, we then hiked to the bus stop where we took a bus back to the town of Sa Pa.  It turned out that i was the only one of our original group who had signed up for a third day of trekking...Scott was due to take a bus back to Hanoi, while i stayed in Sa Pa. When we got to the bus station in Sa Pa, I took a second shuttle, a much smaller bus, back to the hotel, whereupon I promptly returned the rented mud boots that were destroying my feet. It was good to trade them back for my sandals,  and my feet appreciated the increased comfort and the chance to heal. This was the first opportunity that I had had to explore the town, so I spent a good deal of the day walking around the town. And it was the first night that I had spent in a hotel in a long time; this was the hotel where I had left the bulk of my luggage while I had been trekking for the past couple days. The hotel room was a gorgeous and expansive suite, with a prime view of the mountains just outside Sa Pa.

That evening, I met and had dinner with Paul, who was a friend of a friend living in Sa Pa I had been introduced to via Facebook. He stopped by my hotel suite, indicating that he had stayed in the same room a while back. We walked down the street and had a really nice dinner at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the mountains, but I faded fast after two days of long hikes, and unfortunately I was not much for conversation after as I was terribly tired. I had to excuse myself and head back to the hotel, where I had a good night's sleep.

Upon waking up in the morning, I headed down for the free breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and prepared for another day of trekking. I had to check out of the hotel, so I put my luggage back in the hotel's luggage storage area. Today we were going to the village of Cat Cat. I was the only one on the third day trek, so I was grouped up with another group. I was impressed how seamlessly this happened. Since the beginning of this trip, at many different stages I had been handed over to another sub-operator of the trip over and over again. An this happened throughout the entire tour, planned out by the tour operators.

This place was a little more touristy than the other villages. You had to buy a ticket to enter the village, and the path was lined with many souvenir booths and snack kiosks. We hiked around for the morning; it was a slow hike because there were some beautiful sights in the valley to explore, and because some wanted to shop at the many pavilions we passed by. We stopped for a half-hour break in an area where there was a raging waterfall that was at the confluence of two separate water streams. It was enchantingly beautiful. Then, I ducked in to watch part of a folk dance performance in the town auditorium. I also munched on some local food while I was there. I was particularly struck by a piece of grilled corn I had. It wasn't sweet like most corn I have had back in the US. It was more starchy, almost tasting like rice. It was good, but different to what I was accustomed to. It also made me realize that we are probably losing all kinds of seed that local cultures have used for a long time. Most of the agriculture done around this area is not the kind that is invested in big agribusiness, but rather, dependent on long cultural traditions. Clearly, some things have changed, such as machine milling of rice rather than using stone grinding mills, but the seeds are mostly from local stock and so far not as affected by hybridization and genetic modification.

After lingering in the village for a while, we kept hiking for about an hour, then we had to make our way up the steep hill that we had originally descended to get down into the valley. They offered people rides for those who wanted them, but I chose to walk back out up the winding road. It was probably about an hour and a half of constant climbing. Motorbikes and buses would stop along the way to see if any of the fatigued tourists would want a ride, but I just went ahead and finished the walk back to the hotel. At the hotel, I took a short nap in the lobby, and then boarded the shuttle to the bus station, and then the sleeper-type bus back to Hanoi. I had reserved a room back at the hostel when I returned, so I checked back in and went to sleep shortly after arriving in Hanoi.

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