It has been two weeks since I returned from Vietnam but “the Tonkinese Alps” has got under my skin so bad that not even a day passes by when I don’t think about it. The dreamlike landscapes of Vietnam is not the only reason behind this feeling but it’s the enchanting culture of Sapa and its people. I love exploring the untold human stories so on my last trip to Sapa I tried to sneak a peek into the lives of ethnic tribes of Sapa. This post is an attempt to look beyond the surface and discover the true beauty of Vietnam. A beauty that is not perfect. A beauty that lives with a smile on the outside and a raging fire in the inside.
Sometime in August 2015, while I was channel surfing I saw the first glimpse of Sapa in a NatGeo program and the idea to visit Vietnam got incepted in my mind. Come Nov 19, 2015 and here I was in the quaint land of mist and mountains. It was 4:30 am and I was half asleep when my lux bus (great legroom, reclining seats, and toilet on board among other amenities) reached the Sapa bus stand after a comfortable 5 hours Hanoi-Sapa journey. I had barely slept last night so I conveniently snoozed the conductor’s announcement to retreat to the warmth of my blanket.
At 5:30 am when I alighted from the bus I noticed a flock of short Hmong women dressed in vibrant traditional outfits smiling and asking if I need a guide. Politely refusing them I took a taxi to reach the famous landmark – the Holy Rosary Church, aka the Stone Church. As I hailed from the taxi I felt I had been transported into Shimla. The centre of the town was dwarfed by the nearby mountain ranges, and especially the peak of Phan-Xi-Pang (Vietnam’s highest mountain at 3,100 m). The Stone Church built in late 19th century by the French was standing tall in this orient-meets-the-alps retreat. Just across the Church lay the town’s main marketplace and plaza, which made me wonder if I was in Vietnam or somewhere in Europe. The call time for my guide was 6:30 and at sharp 6:30 she was there. After a hearty buffet breakfast I started my trek at 7:30 am.
During the trek the soft spoken, ever smiling, traditionally clad Si told me that Sapa has numerous ethnic minority groups (Hmong, Dao, Giay and Tay) and majority (approx. 80%) of the population is into agriculture. I was trying to pay attention to Si’s words while my mind was playfully lost in the jaw-dropping stunning panoramas of the valley. The patchwork rice terraces cascaded down the mist-shrouded emerald lofty slopes. The sun was playing hide and seek through the clouds offering teasing glimpses of even more spectacular soaring peaks farther off. Bathed in morning sunlight, the misty vistas looked giant watercolour paintings of the greatest painter, the almighty. We were walking through terraced rice paddies, Indigo fields, Bamboo forests, rivulets and small waterfalls. Water buffaloes and pigs stared at us from rice fields. My muddy slip-and-slide adventure trek was both rewarding and tiring. It got extremely sweaty despite the cool breeze. But the view made it up for all the hard work.
While trekking we were greeted by tiny Hmong women trying to sell everything they had in their traditional woven baskets: embroidered hemp skirts, bags, belts, purses, silver bracelets, earrings and traditional necklaces. I learnt from these innocent looking English speaking shrewd traders that looks can be deceptive. They seem to have promptly embraced capitalism. Talking means buying their stuff. If you don’t, be prepared to get nasty looks. And taking their picture. Just forget it. For them it’s simple. “No money. No picture.” Initially I perceived them to be rude and the new slaves of capitalism but later on my heart-to-heart conversations with them revealed a harsh reality.