Pea soup tastic
21.02.2012 4 °C
I grip the chair in front tighter and strain to get a glimpse of the road ahead. We've only been on the bus for ten minutes and I already feel sick. We're winding our way up to Sa pa on a bus packed to the rafters with tourists, with no way out (literally as our bags are piled up in the stairwell and emergency exit). Justin is perched on a fold down seat that is seriously sagging under his weight. His ipod is on full volume with 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' blasting out. I mouth a few lines from the chorus over and he hastily turns it down.
The road ahead is pure fog and on one side is a sheer drop into a steep valley. The driver, either through skill or pure luck (I'm inclined to go for the latter), manages to drive at pace with only a few meters of visibility whilst avoiding buffalos, landslides, cars on the wrong side of the road, cars on the right side of the road (whilst we're on the wrong side of the road), small children etc etc. His mobile phone starts to ring...please please don't answer.
Sa pa is a little market town in the northwestern hills of Vietnam. It sits on the side of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley where every available nook on every steep slope has been turned into a rice terrace - quite a feat of human engineering. It is stunningly beautiful even today when the whole area is completely shrouded in mist. As we gain altitude we start to see local hill-tribe women, men and children wandering up the roads towards the fields and Sa pa. They're dressed in beautiful colourful clothing and silver coloured jewellery. I have tried to find a decent website to explain more about the ethnic minorities that live in this area. You can go on the e-tour of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology: www.vme.org.vn if you are interested.
We arrive at our hotel for some breakfast before our walking guide Jay arrives. She is about half Justin's height and dressed in traditional H'mong clothing and a pair of bright purple wellies. 'You going to be okay in those?' she asks pointing at my £100 hiking boots. 'Sure'. She raises an eyebrow before tutting at Justin's trainers. My dad always told me to do what the locals do so I'm not sure why I'm so keen to completely ignore the advise on hiring a pair of wellies...possibly because I've carried my hiking boots for over four weeks and I haven't worn them yet.
We set off into the mist with a group of five tourists and an entourage of ten H'mong women (and one sleeping baby!). They all bustle around us laughing and chatting away. It is lovely to walk along and listen to them sharing stories. The majority can ask a few questions in English and we learn a little local dialect to help us along. Jay speaks fluent H'mong, Vietnamese, English and bits of French - all self taught (she didn't go to school so has never learnt to write, but all her children will go to school until they are 16).
One of the ladies is called Mea. She has taught herself English over the last four years by talking to tourists. We chat about being 28 and H'mong and being 28 and British. Mea married at 18 and has three children. She met her husband at a local market (a few people called it the love market because lots of young people go their to meet up and find a boyfriend / girlfriend). Mea works seven days a week - most days on the treks or in Sa pa selling embroided blankets and bags she has made by hand. Many of the pieces take up to a week to make (not including the time it takes to grow and die the fabric indigo). She also manages a small farm around her house whilst her husband works on the slopes. She has never been outside of Sa pa, but would love to go to Hanoi one day on the overnight train. She thinks the idea of taking a six month holiday on the other side of the world is very wierd and keeps patting me on the arm and tummy (I find out the next day that they all thought I was pregnant...really need to lay of those french cakes)!
We head off the main road and down into the steep valley and rice paddy. The rice paddies are empty at this time of year and very soggy. It becomes blatantly obvious within the first few minutes why everyone wears wellies...they're cheap, you can wash swathes of mud off easily and they have giant grips for the deep sticky mud. All the ladies find it highly amusing to watch us slip and slide down the slopes, whilst they leap down without a care in the world, pointing out buffalo chocolate (poo) with much glee. My favourite moment is watching two 50 year old H'mong ladies taking Justin by the elbows and literally pulling him along a slope. I'm not sure what would have happened if his 90kg weight had fallen on top of them though. It isn't long before I provide the amusement for the rest of the trip as I first fall over, then slide about seven meters down hill, try to stand up and fall over again. I'm left with a giant streak of mud down my skirt and leggings, which we all have a good laugh about. No broken bones and everyone is relieved someone else fell over first.
We stop for some lunch and it is time for our lovely guides to head back to their village two hours trek away. We're surrounded by women waving embroided bags, cushions and blankets at us. I point at Justin - 'He has all the money.' They all surround Justin who looks a little bewildered. He cheekily puts in a ludicrously low offer to his guide for a bag to see what happens and they all start shouting at him and pretending to hit and poke him whilst laughing and chatting away. We buy some bags and bracelets, but we don't have anywhere near enough money and I make a pinky promise with Mea to buy some cushions and bracelets when we are back in Sa pa. We watch a couple of the other tourists practically shouting at the ladies until they had got the price down to a dollar or two. Even in some cases haggling over less than a dollar.
We wander up to our homestay in the afternoon. By now it is starting to get dark and cold. Our homestay has no heating so we spend the night huddled around a fire for the evening watching the TV (possibly the longest opening ceremony to a sports competition I have ever seen, literally 45 minutes of thanking every single person on the committee of committees).
We show Jay a couple of pictures from our wedding and she tells us about her son's wedding. It is traditional for the husband's family to pay for the party and to give presents as the wife's family will in most cases lose a member of their household as the bride moves to live with her husband. As part of the presents they'd had to give the bride's family a 70kg pig, but apparently that has now gone up. It is probably more of a Justin sized pig, which we all find amusing! Jay also talked about giving birth to her four children - at home, with no pain killers and no-one to help and all in less than two hours! Justin asks her how she knew what to do. She gives him a wierd look and says 'I'm a women, I know'...oh and she was back trekking within a few weeks. Apparently childbirths a doddle!P
The whole way through the story Jay was working away on her embroidery or ringing home to make sure the buffalo had been brought in...in fact she didn't stop working the whole time we were with her. One very amazing women. We head to bed. It is freezing cold by this point and we pull on three very hefty blankets. We can't move at all but at least we are warm(ish). I distinctly hear Justin muttering something along the lines of 'whose idea was this'...
The next day we trekked back to Sa pa with Mea's daughter home from school for the weekend and along for the walk. I'm not sure where she had appeared from but it was a good two hour trek from her village to our homestay. We walked down through the valley and ironically just as we were boarding the bus the mist cleared and for the first time we saw the full valley filled with terraces. Mea was waiting outside the hotel when we got back and we had a chat and bought some beautiful cushions and bracelets before saying a very sad goodbye. I can't put into words what a wonderful couple of days this has been. It has been made all the more special because of the people we met and everything we have learnt along the way.
We board our bus. There was an excitable American lady who evidently hasn't travelled on a tourist bus (nowhere near as full as a local bus but pretty cramped in comparison to a personal car or tour car). 'Wow we are going to be cosy' she says. Justin looks around the bus 'We will be when the other ten people get on'. She laughs. That wasn't a joke. The other ten people get on and then a plastic chair for the eleventh person to sit on. We pass a sign on the road out 'Thank you for visiting Sa pa.'...and ominously in bold at the bottom 'GOOD LUCK'.