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The night train to Lau Cai was interesting to say the least…It transpired my 3-night package did not give me the privilege of a sleeper carriage marked ‘T’ for ‘Tourist’ and ‘T’ for Terrific? I walked passed enviously and climbed in to my own carriage with the locals. ‘L’ for ‘Local’ and ‘Limited’? So my digs for 9 long hours was a 6-person berth and my bunk – yes, luck was not on my side – right at the top. The ceiling of the carriage was a kiss away as I lay tired but unable to sleep. My roomies were 5 men and trusting no one after an unfriendly encounter in Hanoi, I hugged my possessions and locked myself in with a fleece blanket.

VIETNAM2As soon as the engine started, I understood why they were generous with the blankets. A gush of cold air escaped the air vents with a hissssssssss that threatened to give my toes frostbite.

Somehow I managed to eventually drift off to sleep… One of my roomies was trying to wake me 9 hours later. ‘Lao Cai!’ a voice was calling from somewhere in my dreams. I opened one eye groggily. ‘Lao Cai!’ one of the men repeated, gesturing his hand towards the window where outside, dawn was breaking in to a new day.

Half asleep I found the representative of the Summit hotel and followed him on to a minibus where I would be driven to my home for the night. We were heading to Sapa – Vietnam’s ‘Queen of the Mountains’, near Mount Fansipan, Indochina‘s highest mountain peak at 3,143 metres. The obvious draw to Sapa is the spectacular landscape, but as the gateway to mysterious tribes, Sapa is also a ’culture-vulture’s’ must-see, ablaze with the billowing red headdresses of the Red Dzao and indigos of the H’Mong tribes.

VIETNAM6The Summit hotel was teeming with newcomers when we finally reached. We were eager to commence our journey in to this mystical land but sensing our weariness, our host ordered us to shower and fill up on an abundant buffet breakfast of carbs. We were going to need it… A 3 hour trek was on the agenda for us and tomorrow a 5 hour trek…There was no rest for the wicked here. A nap would have to wait.

Our guide for the 2 days introduced herself as Ving. She was adorned in the distinctive dress of the H’Mong tribe; an indigo dress finalised with hand embroidered bands to the arms and waist. On her legs despite the heat, were leg warmers, wrapped tightly around with an embroidered ribbon. Her fingertips were stained ominously with indigo; effects of the purple dye from the indigo plant, used by the H’Mong people to dye their clothes in their respective tribal colours. Around her neck, was a silver necklace in the shape of a crescent moon; an accessory she told me is worn by married women. She couldn’t have been more than 18, yet there was an aura that she was wise beyond her years.

I walked next to Ving on our hike down from Sapa town to the Thac Tien Sa waterfall inundating her with questions. I was in awe of her. Ambitious, strong and determined to provide her family well, she taught herself English at a young age to become a guide. At 18 years of age, she was already married with a baby girl.

VIETNAM5Eventually we arrived at the Cat Cat village. There were no scooters in sight now. Only rows of huts where the H’Mong people were selling their colourful wares of satchels, pencil cases, bracelets, and beautiful textiles. The rice harvest occurs just once a year and out of harvesting season, women come out of their villages to further their income.

‘Buy from me! Buy from me’ a vendor heckled as we walked past each stall.

‘You remember me. Buy from me!’ another one cried. All of them were approaching us now like I was suddenly in a horror movie with zombies surrounding us! Arms came at me from all directions holding offerings of threaded bracelets. I tell them ‘no’ politely but they will not take no for answer, shouting out question after question – ‘What your name?’, ‘Where you from?’, ‘How old you are?’, ‘How many brother sister you have?’, ‘Are you marry?’

The scenery was breathtaking as we climbed mountain after mountain. Cascading rice terraces spilled down the mountains like a mammoth green tiered wedding cake. She was abundant, curvaceous, epic. I paid one of the H’Mong women for an embroidered belt. I wanted to enjoy my surroundings in peace and it seemed the only way to quieten them – momentarily.

Further on we tested our balance and stepped one foot in front of the other along the formed mud ridges of the terraces. It was easy to lose your concentration; daring to tear your eyes away from your feet to take in the striking architecture of our surroundings. Each basin was perfectly formed in an arc and repeated hundredfold as it ascended up the mountain in to the heavens. Could this aVIETNAM1us as far as the eye could see. It was out of this world.

We trek towards Ving’s village now passing paddy fields, water buffalo and women with babies strapped to their backs. Others were weaving or carrying baskets laden with goods. A school sat half empty where outside scruffy children were left unattended in wheelbarrows while their parents worked the tourists.

Ving led us to a single storey hut with a corrugated roof to protect its inhabitants from the changeable weather conditions. The hut is Ving’s mother’s home but it is also a factory for traditional H’Mong clothing. There was no sign of sanitation, no sign of today’s technology. Still, Ving pulled out her mobile phone and started chattering away animatedly… Perhaps in another decade, the world of electronics will take over Sapa too.

I do hope not… As a new group of zombies approached us, I felt the essence and charm of Sapa had been ebbed away over the years. As beautiful as Sapa is, I felt I was another tourist fueling that wanderlust at the expense of others.

A little girl of about 2 years old smiled at me from a doorway. ‘Hello, what your name?’ Her words sounded rehearsed. I looked at her sadly, wondering what the future had in store for her. As an ethnic minority would she ever make it out of these lands? Or was her life destined to stalking the likes of you and me, singing at the top of her voice “Buy from me!”