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Zao 4 LIFE!

day 4-5: sapa

sunny 36 °C

Sapa has the most beautiful and breathtaking sceneries I have ever seen. Imagine if you will huge mountains, surrounded by the step-like rice paddies. Add a river in the valley and orange clay roads and there you have Sapa. Scattered here and there are small wooden houses, bamboo forests, and the occasional goat, pig, or cow.

Yes, my friends, this is truly paradise on Earth. It could not be any more different than Ha Noi.

I "slept" on the train Wednesday night, which was nearly impossible. Imagine you are being shaken awake by your mother or whoever. Then imagine they are shaking you during an earthquake. This is the train in Vietnam. Every once in awhile it would jerk to a stop sending you and your belongings flying. Good times.

So I arrived Thursday very early, exhausted, sweaty, and dirty. I was given a nice breakfast at the hotel and introduced to my guide, Vinh. I feared that I would be doing this trekking and homestay alone, but fortunately, two lovely people from Finland, Sini and Juki, were to come with us. It rained.


Oh how it rained. Visibility was limited - we went down the narrow roads through the mountains and when you looked to the right for a nice mountain view, all you saw was white. And then I got wet. Really wet. Drenched, even through my cheap poncho. Two beautiful little girls tagged along with us, one whose name was Chi, and her friend. I believe they were Zao. Chi's English was beautiful; I'm sorry to say more beautiful than most of my students' in Korea, who pay a hefty price to have the same skills as this little girl. She would follow us all the way to her village of Ta Van where we would be spending the night.

(Chi, right, and her friend)

We started our descent down maybe 3km of slippery yellow clay. You would look around you and see the different local people, with about 50 kilos of corn strapped to their back, looking at you strangely as you struggled not to fall. They would merely shrug and go around you, because they take this road nearly every day, rain or shine. We stopped for a nice lunch of cheese, boiled egg, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches on fresh baguettes. It sounds maybe a little strange, but it was definitely delicious.

We continued on, passing some of the local schools and many of the local women and little girls, all shouting, "You buy from me? You buy from me?" I didn't keep track of how much I spent, but I came away with numerous embroidered bracelets, a few silver ones, three pairs of earrings, and a red zao headscarf. If you bought from one, you could expect at least four more women to crowd around you. These women are relentless. Not mean-spirited, but definitely relentless. The women make all of these items and sell them while the men stay at home and raise the boy-children, if there are any. The smallest girls are carried on their mothers' backs, but around the age they learn to walk, they begin selling.

So we visited the villages of Y Linh Ho and Lao Chai, which I believe are both home to the Black H'Mong people. Thank you in their language is "O Cho." In Ta Van, where we spent the night, they say "Cho Bayoooooo!" in a very sing-song voice. We arrived around 2 or 3, cleaned up a bit, and generally relaxed. The house we stayed in was very nice, and as Sini said, very similar to a traditional home in her town of Lapland. They had a big living room/dining room area with a stone floor, a little area where they and other people from the village would watch their satellite TV, a nice big kitchen area, a bamboo outhouse complete with running rainwater through a bamboo pipe, and an upstairs with about 10 beds for their houseguests. It was a very lovely home, and it was amazing to see their ingenuity.

The man of the house is 31, and his wife is 27. They have been married for 10 years and have two sons, the oldest of which is 8 years old. They have guests such as us about 3-4 times a week. For dinner, they prepared us a veritable feast of pork, beef, tofu, egg, rice, spring rolls, and vegetables, all locally grown or otherwise acquired. It was DELICIOUS. The whole time Juki, Sini and I made yummy noises, which I think might have amused them. Then they broke out the rice liquor, which is very similar to vodka, and I believe is actually the same as the soju in Korea. To toast in Zao, you yell "ONE! TWO! THREE! ZOOOE!!!!" I didn't last very long with this liquor and quickly switched to shots of Tiger beer. The boys both seemed irritated that we were being so loud and they couldn't join in, especially when it was bedtime.

After a while of this, naturally came the portion of the evening where we sing. Sini actually enjoyed this bit and sang some beautiful Finnish songs. The husband sang one in Zao and Vinh, our guide, sang in both Vietnamese and French. When it came to my turn, for lack of a better typical "American" song, I sang the Penguin song, which I learned when I was a Girl Scout camp counselor. It's the most ridiculous of songs, complete with dancing like a penguin. As all of the different cultures I have taught this to, they enjoyed it as well. We stayed up talking, drinking, and singing until around 10pm. Sini, Juki and I went up to our beds upstairs and contented ourselves with the fact that all we could hear was the river nearby and crickets. It was also pitch black. If this experience was not authentically Sapa, then I don't know what is.

The next day we were given banana pancakes and coffee for breakfast, which we ate on the front porch facing the mountain. We headed out around 10:30, after saying goodbye to our Zao friends. We climbed up, then we climbed down. Repeat. Repeat some more. Slip a bit, fall a bit, get your shoes caked FULL of mud. Look around, sweat, breathe, and enjoy the experience. We went through a bamboo forest, then stopped to rest at a very nice waterfall. I was wearing my Red Zao headscarf, which was met by many a surprised Sapa face. We visited a Red Zao home, then we ate a lunch of the Vietnamese style ramen, which was very tasty. We hiked up some more to where the bus took us back to the town of Sapa. I have no idea how far we hiked, but in the tour booking it said something like 30 km.

So now I'm back in Ha Noi, waiting to pick up my friend Mikey from the airport. It's a completely different world, and I am again used to the sounds of honking horns and "Madam, cyclo?" "Madam, taxi?" "Madam, moto?" But for two days I lived in a clean, simple, and beautiful area of Vietnam, one that I will never forget.

  • *A personal note: when I got back to Sapa, I received an e-mail informing me that my cousin's husband lost his battle with cystic fibrosis on Sunday. Beppe was one of the sweetest, funniest men I have ever met, and he was Italian to boot. He leaves behind his wife, my cousin, Kristi, and their two twin daughters, Sofia and Asia. He will be greatly missed and it is with a heavy heart that I write this. Please keep the Parri family in your thoughts.

Posted by lrbergen 19:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking

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Well written and inspiring. Congratulations.

by ian-w

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