The night is cool and crisp and we are boarding our train from Hanoi, Vietnam to the northern mountain town of Sapa. Our train is a modern overnight sleeper; clean, comfortable, and sparkling white. The rest of the station is like stepping back in time. Ancient boxcars darkened by time, are parked in the yard, and steam is rising in the air. People donning conical hats are huddled around open fires. Some squat on small plastic stools eating noodle soup with chopsticks. As I look out the window I feel as though it is 1969.
We are led to our bunks by a petite and quiet women from ODC Travel. The company based in Hanoi where we booked our four-day, three-night excursion. For $75 each, all meals accommodation and transportation are included in our trip to see the magnificent rice terraces and to experience the traditional lives of the hill tribes of Sapa.
It is not long until I am peacefully sleeping. Rocking with the rhythm of the train I dream of the adventure ahead. 4:30 am arrives quickly however and I awake famished and thankful for the complimentary sweet bread and bottled water.
We have arrived in Lao Cao, a small town on the Chinese border. As I step onto the platform a brisk, cold wind awakens my senses. Luckily, a van is waiting to take us the rest of the way, so we don’t have to wait in the morning chill for long.
It is a harrowing journey up the winding mountain road. We put our lives in the hands of our speeding driver who dodges herds of water buffalo, oncoming traffic and local villagers herding their oxen. Whizzing around each corner, we are thankful to not have plunged off of a vertical cliff into the deep valley below.
We arrive a little shaken but all in one piece to our hotel where we meet our guide, Xin. He is a friendly young man who grew up in the area and as we will soon learn, enjoys singing and playing the guitar. We will be spending the next two days with him as he takes us through the mountains to visit the Hmong and Dzai People who live among the rice terraces.
The morning is beautiful. The sun in shining, the chill is gone and the blue sky is full of fluffy white clouds. After some tea and a hot breakfast we shed our layers and begin our journey into the hills.
The scenery is magnificent and as we venture farther from the town, my breath is taken away by the incredible view unfolding. Thousands of rice terraces filled with water glisten in the sun for as far as the eye can see. Every turn becomes more overwhelming and I am struck with awe by the giant terraced mountains surrounding me.
Barking dogs guard their territory as we pass and gaggles of ducks waddle by following their leader with frenzied dedication. Villagers from the Hmong Tribe speed past us carrying heavy loads in their woven baskets. They walk with ease as I gasp for air climbing the steep path.
As we continue to hike, Xin tell us about the people and the history of the land and how it has changed. The Hmong village we are visiting has come to depend on tourism and he tells us not to feel pressured to give money or to buy jewelry to the people who will be approaching us. Not wanting to contribute to a begging society, I chose not to give children the “bonbons” that they have come to expect or to give money for nothing. Instead, I gladly buy some silver bracelets from a lady who invites us into her home for a glimpse of tribal life.
The house is stuffy and dark and a fire is burning in the kitchen. We huddle around the flame as Xin points out that the Hmong people have two fires in their dwellings, one for cooking the other for warmth. Many generations live together under one roof and the house consists of a large open room. It is a fascinating experience, but I feel a little uneasy to be staring at these people who have put their lives on display.
Leaving the Hmong Villages behind, we venture farther away from Sapa and deeper into the mountains. I am relieved to not have people pestering me for money and no more children asking me for candy.
We make our way to the top of a mountain, where Xin puts out a picnic lunch and we dine among a herd of water buffalo. As we look into the deep valley, children stop by for a visit and we share some cookies and fruit. It is a place of overwhelming beauty.
The contentment is short lived however, because we have a lot of ground to cover to make it to the village of the Dzai people where we will be spending the night. Being farther away from Sapa and not a part of the usual one-day tours, this tribe is less corrupted by the tourism industry. They are completely self-sufficient at harnessing water from mountain runoff for irrigation. They grow their own rice, sugar cane peanuts and vegetables. Every child attends school, they raise their own livestock, and weave and dye their own fabric for clothing. This is truly a people who are at one with the land.
We stay with a family that has four generations living under one roof. Their house, built by the hands of villagers using traditional methods is gigantic and surprisingly cozy in the brisk mountain air. It takes one year to build a home and everybody pitches in.
We are treated to a feast after we settle in and enjoy their friendly hospitality. The 94-year-old grandfather keeps my plate full, urging me to eat more and we stuff ourselves until we cannot move. After dinner, the rice wine is served and they will not take no for an answer. So it is “bottoms up all night”. Xin translates for us as we tell them about our country and they tell us about their way of life.
Later that evening we walk to visit other houses and the celebrations continue. Rice wine is flowing as we sit around the fire in their kitchens singing songs. The local people are eager to hear songs from our country and there is no getting out of belting out a tune. They applaud with enthusiasm and then Xin treats us to a traditional Vietnamese folk song before heading back to bed.
It is a cool night, but we sleep well under a thick warm blanket and awake a little groggy from the abundance of alcohol the night before.
Saying goodbye to our hosts after a breakfast of fried eggs and a warm baguette, we slowly walk to the mountains feeling the burn in our legs from the day before. We trek to the high waterfall overlooking the valley, walk through a bamboo forest, and once again witness the beauty of gigantic rice terraces.
A jeep picks us up at the end of our trek to take us back to Sapa where we sleep comfortably that evening in our small hotel. Our last day is spent exploring this beautiful town. We hike up Ham Rong Mountain to see its many gardens and stone forest, shop for fresh fruit in the market and relax on a terrace overlooking the mountains. The people are friendly and as usual, the scenery is magnificent.
Northern Vietnam is a fascinating experience. It is rich in culture and history and diverse in landscape. Vietnam will surprise you, sometimes shock you but it will always keep you enthralled.