‘Are you tired?’ Pan asks me. She puts a pot over the fire burning in the small indent etched into the kitchen floor as I look up at her. She’s pretty, maybe 30 years old, but she could pass for much younger.
‘A little,’ I say, knowing that I should be much more tired than I am. I’ve just finished six hours of trekking through the mountains and villages of Sapa, a mountainous region in northern Vietnam. An overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi had delivered me and my friend Li to the small town at 6 am. The town is masked in fog, and finding our way through the angular streets to the hotel where we were to meet our trekking guide is a challenge. But we find it, nestled between some small restaurants and hotels on a gently sloping street. We meet our guide, Chinh, around 9:30, choose the route we will take over the next two days, and start walking, landing among fog-covered rice paddies and mountains in less than thirty minutes. Soon we are among workers plowing the fields, preparing for the upcoming planting season, water buffalo lazing in the grass, and small villages dotted along a steep, majestic valley. Another local woman has joined our group and walks behind us, winding string around her hand and barely glancing at the jagged trail ahead of her. As we pause for a break, she holds out her hand to Li and I, offering us both a small horse that she has made with some of the thick grass on the mountain. I ask her how to say thank you in her language and forget it almost immediately.
We run into many tourists during the first half of the day as we travel on a well-worn path known by many of the local guides. We are all heading to the same place for lunch, but our guide assures us that we would get away from the tourists in the afternoon. About an hour outside Lao Chai, the village where our guide grew up and where we will stop for lunch, we take a short break at a small hut that looks out over the valley and stair-stepping rice paddies. Our guide points at a young boy walking along the road, chewing on a thick brown stick that looked like bamboo. ‘Not bamboo,’ she says. ‘Sugar cane. You want to try?’ She goes to a basket, pulls out two sticks of sugar cane, and shows us how to eat it. ‘You don’t swallow. You rip small piece, chew it until juice comes out, then throw it away,’ she says, throwing a freshly chewed piece into the valley below. We continue walking, chewing the sugar cane, letting the sweet juice sit on our tongue to satiate the hunger that is slowly creeping up on us, and throwing the dried, fibrous leftovers onto the rocky road beneath us.
As we reach Lao Chai and sit down for lunch, we discover that the local Hmong woman who has been following us has been doing so with an ulterior motive. She, along with four or five other locals, including a couple small children, approaches us, holding out bracelets, handmade bags, and pillow cases. ‘I go back to my village now. You do shopping,’ she says, holding out her merchandise. We shake our heads, mumbling gentle thank you’s, as she repeats herself again and again. After about five minutes, I try to look away, simply ignoring the offers, but it feels wrong. I know they are doing this so they can buy their meals for that week, or so they can afford to buy new clothes for their children. I know they need the money they will make from the many foreigners eating lunch in this place, including me, but I don’t want anything they’re selling. Eventually they give up and move to a new table, but more come up to us during the hour we are in the restaurant. It’s a relief when we can finally leave the village, winding through the small houses and up into the mountains once again. Within ten minutes we can look back and see the entire village, sitting quaint and quiet in the forefront of a towering line of mountains. The path becomes calm We pass only a few locals carrying wood or other supplies to and from the village. We don’t meet any more tourists that day. The last two hours of the trek are the hardest. Our legs are burning, the air is a little thinner as we climb higher, and even the clouds can’t keep out all the heat from the sun. By the time the local house where we will spend the night comes into view, we are drenched in sweat, but every time we look behind us and see the expansive landscape, we gain more determination to complete the first day of this journey. The final challenge we face before reaching the local house is crossing a set of rice paddies, which requires intense focus and balance as you walk along the thin edge of one layer of the fields. Step too far to the left and you tumble off the side and into the layer below. Step too far to the right and you fall into the muddy water next to you. Chinh, Li, and I both make it across without much trouble and walk up to the small wooden house where we will stay for the night. It’s a surprisingly well made house with four sizeable rooms and a front porch that looks out over the mountains and rice paddies, partly covered by thick clouds settling in the valley. But the house is simple, and the only furniture I see is plastic chairs, a kitchen table, seven beds (enough for the family and the trekkers that stop by the house two or three times a week), a couple small end tables, and a small cabinet in the kitchen. Most of the house is empty space.
‘On a clear day, you can see Sapa town from here,’ Chinh explains, pointing to a line of mountains off to the right, hidden mostly by fog, and I am allowed to visualize the 7 miles we completed that day. Chinh, a short, round woman with long hair pulled into a ponytail, walks around the house, looking for her ‘auntie’ that owns the house. She’s the same age as me, but has already been married for four years. Every day she dons the traditional outfit of the Hmong tribe, complete with her favorite hat, a pink and white sun hat with a large flower on the side, and leads foreigners on treks through these mountains. ‘Not here,’ she concludes after making a lap around the house. ‘She is coming back from work. She will be here in a little while.’ She manages to get the door unlocked and brings a table and two chairs out to the front porch and serves us some tea. I’m perfectly content to sit and look out over the landscape, sipping tea, chatting and laughing with Li, and allowing myself to fully relax for the first time that day. My legs and hips are aching and I know they’ll be sore the next day, but it’s the kind of sore I can be proud of. I earned it with every step I took up and down the mountains that day, and as I realize that, the aches don’t bother me much.
About an hour later, Pan, the owner of the house, finally arrives and invites us into the kitchen to sit by the fire she begins building. It is a little cold outside, and we’re happy to sit by the fire as the sun starts to slide behind the mountains. The only light in the small room off the main area of the kitchen comes from the natural light of the fire and a small, bare lightbulb that hangs from the ceiling. It fades in and out as it struggles to pull enough electricity to cast an adequate amount of light on the room. Pan puts a large pan over the fire and dumps oil into it, letting it heat up. A few minutes later, her husband comes in with a large bowl of raw French fries, and I can’t help but chuckle. We’re invited to wait outside at the table once again as the fries are prepared. They’re delicious when done. They’ve tossed them with ginger, garlic, and onion, and the flavor is unique but still familiar to my American taste buds. The rest of the meal is no less delicious. A storm starts to blow in just as dinner is finishing up, so we bring the table into the house, surround it with ten of the plastic chairs, and we join the family as the meal is served. The table is covered in spring rolls, stir fries, rice, and sauces. I usually only eat vegetarian food, but the food on the table is too much to resist, even with the chicken and pork strewn throughout. We eat mostly by candlelight because the lightbulb in the makeshift dining room isn’t working well that evening. ‘Not enough electricity,’ Chinh explains. Pan’s husband pours a clear liquid into small glasses in front of Li and I, and, in my ignorance, I mistake it for water. I take a sip, quickly discovering that it’s some kind of alcohol—rice wine, as I soon learn. A few minutes later, Pan’s husband holds up his little glass, toasting us in the local language. Li and I, not wanting to offend our hosts, drink the shot, and our glasses, to our dismay, are quickly refilled. We’re careful not to drink it all in one gulp for the remainder of the meal.
Li and I spend the rest of the evening sitting by the fire as the family cleans up (they refuse our offers to help with dishes), listening to the thunder that comes closer and closer until rain starts to hit the metal roof above us. It continues throughout the night, but by the time we wake up around 7 the next morning, it has stopped, and the landscape is mostly dry. I wake up a little before Li and go out to the front porch. The rain had cleared the fog and clouds, and the entire valley is visible before me. I discover that Chinh was right—Sapa town is visible, sitting small on the side of a distant mountain.
Pan comes out to say goodbye before she leaves for work. Her three children already left an hour ago to make the hour and a half trek down to their school in the village. I thank her, wishing I had brought some kind of gift to show her how much we have appreciated her hospitality, but words will have to suffice. Chinh serves us breakfast on the porch. She’s made some kind of pork soup, rice, and pancakes, which she serves with honey. I haven’t had pancakes since arriving in Thailand, and they’re simple and delicious. I eat seven of them. Sitting on the porch, looking out over one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, I’m struck by the life I’m creating for myself. I know this is one in a long line of adventures that have already taken place and will continue to take place in the future, but this is the first time that I genuinely feel like a traveler. I feel comfortable in this place, comfortable in the fact that I’m so far from anything familiar to me, and comfortable with the knowledge that the way my future looks to me is changing. I’m craving more moments like these, and an intention to seek them out is forming. My life will be a series of adventures—I will settle for nothing less.
After breakfast, we brush our teeth, pack up our things, and we’re off again, heading up a nearby mountain, stepping to the side when several young men come by dragging long pieces of wood. They’re almost running down the mountain as the wood chases them. ‘To build the houses,’ Chinh explains. We climb for about an hour before the trail levels off and finally begins to descend, but going down is almost harder than going up. The ground is mostly dry, but it’s still soft from the rain, and much of the path is steep. Finding the right place to put your foot is a skill, and one that you have to master quickly to keep from slipping. Li and I both slip several times, but I’m the only one who falls. Li is more experienced with trekking, and I fall behind a few times as my feet, ankles, and knees try to learn how to handle the terrain. But the joy of walking through the small clusters of local houses, balancing on the rice paddies, passing by the water buffalo that have to move to give us the path, and smiling at the locals as they watch us pass easily overwhelms the discomfort in my legs and feet.
About two hours into our second day, we take a break at a waterfall that runs down the side of the mountain. Li and I take our shoes and socks off, letting our sore feet soak in the coolness of the water. We can see the village where we will have lunch from where we sit. It takes us only another hour or so to reach it, and that’s the finale of our journey. From there, Chinh hires two motorbikes for Li and I to get us back to Sapa town, and we climb on the back and hold on. The drivers give us helmets, but they aren’t careful, and the road is not in great condition. It’s a fun ride, but it also causes some anxiety. I try to focus on the valley to the left of the road, where I can see all of the mountains we have traversed over the past two days. The mountains of Sapa are laid out before us in a way they haven’t been until that time, and, unable to use my camera on the back of the motorbike, I try to soak in the scene, hoping it’s something I won’t soon forget.
(Stay tuned for a post describing the rest of my time in Vietnam.)