6 am – curtains open, our windows no longer share the view of the Sapa ranges. Instead, the light outside has yet to peep out of the heavy clouds that have descended like a massive veil through the night, enveloping everything within sight. So I blink twice when I see that our driver for the day is already waiting for us: four tourists dragging our feet down to the hotel’s lobby.
One by one, in cosy thermals and trekking shoes ready, we slide into the car. Like most of our communication with locals, we are limited to three options – the kindness of someone to translate, Google, or good ol’ hand signals. My mother, on the other hand, likes to think that her banter is universally known and tries to strike up a conversation. The driver proves his exceptional skill as he tries to decipher her broken English and hand signals while driving through the fog, trying hard to keep the car on the road and not into the abyss running alongside.
The drivers in Vietnam must be made of some sort of exceptional courage. Back in Hanoi, roads are littered with all forms of transport. Road rules are flung out the door as riders slide past one another, stopping at will wherever they choose. You are made to question your choice of walking when it seems that the people on the roads – rule the city. Crossing in itself feels like a struggle between life and death.
As we learnt on our first day, watching for 15 minutes before finally deciding to cross, there is no straight path across the road. You are made to dodge traffic and trust in the fact that you get the pass of being a blatant dumb foreigner who has never jaywalked. It feels like a rightful accomplishment when you finally do get across and dream of having the balls that these riders do.
The half-built roads up in the mountains are clearly no exception to this. The fog does not seem to get better the more we drive. In the distance I see the faint outline of the back of a bicycle pedalling slowly along with the rider three times the size of a normal human being. I hold my breath and pray we haven’t encountered some mystical beast of Sapa. As we drive closer, I catch a slight glimpse of the mysterious fog rider – an older lady in her conical cooli hat lugging along three bags of rice.
We finally reach our destination without a single scratch and our driver yawning. The ETHOS headquarters looks more like a house than a business, and rightfully so with their tagline being “spirit of the community”. Shoes are sprawled at the door’s entrance, reminiscent of my Asian home during a family gathering. Thankfully, it is warm and cosy inside as my attention gets diverted to trinkets and handicraft around the room. A tiny lady stands next to me as I peruse the cultural attire hanging from the walls.
“We make all of that by ourselves. Every big occasion, a girl is expected to sew her own dress if not she will have nothing new to wear. New year is coming soon. See.”
She says as she points to a lady crouched sewing with bright yellow thread.
I soon learn that these women would be our guides for the day, decked in their traditional wear but with Nikes on their feet. Apparently, you can’t sew sneakers.
We are all handed glasses of warm herbal tea as we sit around the heater next to a French family and an older couple. A tall Caucasian man walks in with his beard at half past decked in a mixture of traditional and non-traditional attire, looking like he is trying too hard to fit in. He calls my mother by her first name as if they have been friends for a long time, when in actual fact they’ve just communicated over email (excessively). Phil engages in friendly banter with the French family before starting with what I can imagine is a sermon he has recited many times over.
See, ETHOS isn’t like the other touring agencies around Sapa, or the Fansipan ranges whose main aim is to get money and exploit the local culture, all without including locals. Mock villages are set up around the main town area in which those working there are not even run by the people of Sapa. Instead, they are populated by big city people like those from Hanoi. This seems to have come down from the area’s historical background with the French pulling opium from the mountains to bring into Hanoi.
Building railways and smaller towns on the way, the French invaded whatever land they could to make the journey easier for them. Word got around about the business the French were doing, and locals decided to follow suit. A taste of their own medicine did not sit well for the French. To keep an upper hand, they decided to enforce stricter laws and build around entire towns – all at the expense of the mountains nomads.
The nomads who moved from land to land, looking for arable land to plant spinach and rice to feed their family and ferment rice on. The nomads who filled fields with their stilted houses and naked children. The nomads who when the time came to find new land and it was now an opium stop, were forced to scavenge the towns instead. Now they spend part of the year growing crops for half the year’s food and the other half selling trinkets to tourists who have been ‘warned’ to not buy from them.
As a result, their decisions now don’t stem from months or years of planning, but happen in a matter of weeks – failed crops, bike injury, death. A mother of three now has to leave home with her children to go into the city to sell trinkets, the children beg you to buy small keychains from them as they lug around their half-asleep baby brother, an old woman sits on cold pavements selling handicraft from early morning to late night.
Our guide, Min Mao, met Phil one day as she was doing her rounds of selling handicraft.
“I practice my English with tourists. They teach me something new in English, I teach them something about Sapa. When I met Phil, I got a shock when he replied to me in Vietnamese.”
Phil had offered her the job after being just as shocked by her conversational English.
Min Mao couldn’t put down the offer. It was rare that someone from Sapa – even more someone from a rural village life – becomes a tour guide. I learnt later that day that it was because she was more than just that.
Sufficiently warm now, it was time for us to move on to our separate tours for the day. I wasn’t too keen on jumping back into the cold but I was excited to see what the day had in store for us. Our first stop was a long walk down into the padi fields of a Hmong village.
As we travelled further down, the fog cleared and gave way to cascades of lush greenery. The sun was now visible and so were the people busy at work in the rivers. I’m always very conscious of my foreign presence when I travel. The long stares and strange looks remind me of this as well. Despite my Asian upbringing, I’m aware that my looks and build are very Caucasian, and so sticking out like a sore thumb is easy. Walking next to Min Mao, I look like a giant. Regardless, I feel small in the landscape of Sapa.
Travel does that to you. It reminds you of how tiny your presence is in the massive world we live in. With how easy it is to get caught up in your own life and problems, visiting new places and learning about other people’s lives, their joys, their struggles – it grounds you.
Here – reminders are everywhere. The poverty is discernable as we walk through the village. Children, if clothed, wear old tattered clothing. Footwear is optional. When walking past the village’s school, it spans no more than the size of two houses. There are no streetlights or roads, only rocky pathways cutting through people’s backyards. The only shop within the village is tiny and sells basic necessities – with shampoo in packets and sanitary pads sold singularly. We buy biscuits as a thank you gift for the hosts of the home we are visiting.
I reminded again of my foreign presence when I enter the house and almost knock my head on the low hanging headboard. Just like Min Mao, members of the family we visit are just as small, so all of us manage to fit around a coffee table as our translated questions are fired away at Mr Kuam, the father of the host family.
The house is minimal; rooms are separated by cloth draped from the ceiling to floor. A tiny box television plays in the corner of the house with only one light bulb hanging from the centre of the mix of living room, work area and bedroom. The biggest object in the room is Mr Kuam’s daughter’s sewing machine. It is completely made of wood and is big enough for her to sit in it while she sews – sew not in the traditional sense with an electric motor. This machine is completely reliant on the leg and arm strength of the user. For one table-sized cloth, this could take about a month of work every day. The craftsmanship is incredible, and to think that so much effort is put into one piece of cloth.
Even the house itself was built by Mr Kuam and his family. Fashioned from split bamboo and rough matting, he explains that he learnt how to be self-sustainable from young. Being a boy meant that he had heavy tasks of shouldering his family’s troubles. The Hmong culture does not allow for marriage within the tribe and so when Mr Kuam married, he moved into this village and a new tribe. With no land, he had to sell his cattle to be able to buy the fields, and land he now owns. However, with more towns being built up and the influx of more tourists into the Fansipan ranges, Mr Kuam’s previous reality has become almost obsolete to his son. Their fields are dry for half the year, and there are only so many fishes that they can catch during the other half. He shares that his son is the last hope for the family as he points to the several certificates pinned to the wooden headboards.
Despite such circumstances, Mr Kuam offers us rice wine to toast to.
Min Mao translates loosely – “If rice can grow where many other plants cannot, then we have no reason to give up!”.
We profusely thank Mr Kuam for his incredible hospitality. On our way back to the car, a man passes by and asks Min Mao for a list of our names. He later explains that he is the village head and that he has to keep track of all the people that come in and out of their village. I travelled 3457 km – took a four-hour flight, drove eight hours and walked for an hour and a half – and a stranger had cared enough to ask for my name, to end up in the home of a man who does not even have a Facebook account, to learn the stories of people I would have never have met otherwise.
Just like the sewing machine in Mr Kuams home, it takes manpower to drive a story. Being open and sharing with one another, creating comfort in unfamiliar places, offering a slice of your heart to a stranger, receiving with open arms. We are too lost in our own lives and devices to remember that life is here and now and that the oldest form of communication is something we all are capable of.
Featured image by https://www.flickr.com/photos/millyofbuxton/