Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sa Pa; the northern gem of Vietnam

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Pushing past the negative fog that hovered over my body after such a blood curdling experience on the 11hr overnight train to Sa Pa was no easy task as there were delays after delays upon arrival; however once the trekking began and my over-tired state kicked in I felt like I'd fallen asleep again, only this time I'd woken up in surroundings that would hold a special place in my memories for the rest of my days.

Rolling fields of green mountains with rice paddies cut into them like stairs leading up to heaven itself; these are the charms of the mystic oriental landscape of North-Western Vietnam. As we hike through the Lào Cai Province, close to the border of China, the scenery hits me like a gush of fresh water splashed onto my face making me gasp for air yet awakening me to the gorgeous countryside that exists far from any concrete civilization or hustle and bustle which comes from the fast-paced city life back in Hanoi.


The mountains surround this elevated country town some 1600m above sea level like the walls of a volcano with the bursting culture of hill tribe ethnicities pouring over its edge like lava in every colour imaginable. It's ethnic minority groups, namely the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and a small number of Xa Pho are at one with their highlands; ordained in handmade fabrics dyed in every colour of the rainbow and made from hemp extracted from the cannabis (that's right, marijuana) which grows wild and uncultivated in the fields amongst the sugarcane deep in the valleys of the rice fields. Each costume represents a different tribe and so they wear their hand-weaved costumes with cultural pride as they guide us through the terraced rice paddies leading us to their village in their brown plastic sandals. I ponder as to why they would be hiking in plastic sandals and put it down to cost; how could they afford sneakers I think to myself. Around the corner a wide river appears and we are instructed to cross it in order to explore the next village and as I begin to sink in the muddy river mush, socks soaking in every drop like a sponge and synthetic netting on my runners turning brown I am soon reminded again that I am the tourist and these local tribes know the way of the land. Continuing on with a squish sound accompanying every step, the pathway becomes more narrow and complex to cross as the steepness increases and rocks from the land above cover the tracks.

I begin to fall behind from the others and a young girl from the Hmong tribe notices and waits for me while reaching her hand out to me as a means of stability. Every hour of hard work is ingrained in the wrinkles on her young, ever smiling face and as i take her hand I can feel the cracked skin covering what used to be tender hands, now aged with the burden of having to feed her children and colour coated in natural indigo from the many dyed materials she plans to sell to me after we reach our destination. We both know that I will be helping her in return by buying something she has made and neither of us mind; a few thousand Vietnamese dong to give her wrinkles from smiling alone is a deed I'm more than happy to do for her caring, helpful nature.

After a day of trekking and stopping at several jaw-droppingly gorgeous lookouts we soon retire in a beautiful cottage hidden amongst the rice paddies with a Vietnamese family hosting our stay and accommodating our every request. With a backdrop of luscious green landscape we eat a scrumptious authentic Vietnamese dinner made by our host family, so rich in flavor yet without any spices added. The stir-fried vegetables, moistened juicy beef complimented with steamed rice, fish sauce and soy sauce was a combination to die for; the fact that the act of eating this food also provided me the benefit of replenishing the nutrients I'd lost from the trekking was only a bonus as the mere taste sensation it gave me was enough of a delight for me.

To my surprise our hosts introduced us to a beverage which traditionally accompanies Vietnamese meals; rice wine. Consumed in shot glasses, this wine is so potent that the burning continues through the body as its being processed. A Russian couple we trekked with familiarize themselves with the culture, explaining to us how vodka is complimented with most meals in the same way back in Moscow. I find myself heavily intrigued as this isn't a common event at the dinner table back in Australia especially with those of the senior generation. Every shot taken is refilled almost immediately by our smiling hosts and as it is rude to refuse what is offered in Vietnam, because they perceive what they are offering you is alike to a gift, we try to keep up with the ever flowing current of wine constantly pouring into our glasses. A few hours later we find ourselves in the middle of a black-out playing a Vietnamese card game with our local hosts by the candlelight and I rejoice in my limited abilities of spoken Vietnamese language. Mostly excited about finally integrating with the locals; a widened smile becomes cemented into my face and I conveniently blame it on the wine. A little later we retire to bed where I laugh myself to sleep at the thought of leaving such a dreamy place to enter my own dream world; which couldn't possibly conjure up anything better than what I'd seen throughout our day.

For more stories and updates from Followdee please visit www.followdee.sampasite.com