Chi: Our fearless guide. Four-foot-ten on a good day, eighty pounds, twenty-seven years old, mother of two. She's a Sapa trekking guide and woman extraordinaire. She's honest, fiery, fierce and tells it to you straight. Her hair is long and without a kink, falling to her hips even when pulled back. She carries a purple umbrella, protecting her skin from the strong sun.
Like most Hmong women who live in Sapa, Chi does it all; she treks, farms, cooks, raises her children and manages her family's income. Her petite stature makes her appear no older than fifteen, but I size her up and know that I'll be in good hands. The six of us (all Backroads leaders) explain to Chi that we're hiking guides and quite confident in our physical capabilities. She seems unfazed by our determination to tackle long miles and simply says, "Okay, then we go."
We embark on a 3-day, 2-night trek through Sapa and within the first mile the six of us are humbled. We head straight downhill into the Mung Hoa Valley, wishing that we had tightened up our shoelaces. Despite the steep descent, numerous Hmong women--who are three times our age or half our size--scamper past us, wearing strapless sandals and bamboo baskets. We watch these women in awe, adjust our backpacks and follow them deep into their own territory.
Sapa sits in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of Vietnam, roughly 250 miles northwest of Hanoi. Backpackers from around the world flock here to experience the Vietnamese mountains, which offer low risk of malaria and high probability of finding an inexpensive guide. Our journey to Sapa began with an overnight train from Hanoi, followed by a taxi to Sapa Town. I chose to come to Sapa in search of a peaceful respite from the bustling Vietnamese cities. However, the taxi from Lao Cai train station dropped us off in a city with endless road construction, hotels and t-shirt vendors. At first glance, this definitely was not the backcountry experience I was craving. But before the regret had time to settle in, we met Chi over a hot cup of ginger-honey tea, picked our route and set off on our trek. Mile by mile, my cultural lens was widened and the fog that clouded my eyes was lifted.
We weaved our way down, across, up and through the Mung Hoa Valley. Green mountains engulfed us on all sides, while countless freshly harvested rice paddies reflected the sun in every direction. Jutting just behind the peaks were even taller peaks, some of which stand nearly 10,000 feet tall. We were blessed with dry weather, but clouds hugged the peaks from behind, a reminder that rainfall is unpredictable in the mountains.
Just like our own Backroads guests, all we could wonder was, "Who finds these routes?" Chi took turn after turn through bamboo forests, up toward magical waterfalls, across suspension bridges and over the village aqueducts. We skirted rice paddies like novice gymnasts on balance beams, careful not to slip into the flooded pools on either side of the 6-inch dry ledge. We encountered water buffalo bathing in muddy water, smiled politely at farmers harvesting fields of indigo. Chi and the other locals know these mountains better than we may ever know our own neighborhoods. These mountains are their livelihood--they trek them every single day to earn a living, harvest them to have food to eat, traverse them to gather wood to build their homes.
Every few miles, we'd come across a hidden village of no more than one hundred people. Sapa is inhabited by nearly ten ethnic minorities, but more than half are Hmong. At times it felt strange to walk through personal yards, invading space and privacy. Yet as we skirted homes and huts, we peered into daily lives of a world unfamiliar to us.
On the first day, we encountered a group of people in all-black attire, jovially drinking and flirting. I thought we were at a secondary school until Chi explained that this was actually a funeral. They were playing a drinking game common at most births, weddings and funerals. I stood slightly removed from the chaotic game, observing kids who looked no older than fourteen pour glass after glass of rice wine for one another. A funeral unlike any other, I thought, as we continued toward more quiet villages.
The next day we came upon a child about three years old, sitting alone outside her family home hacking at a piece of bamboo with a machete. My heart dropped, and I wanted to call for her parents. The child mirrored my curious gaze, looking at me with as much wonder as I did her. All the while, she never stopped working the knife, adeptly going about her daily chores, and I subdued my worry and accepted this way of life.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were hosted by hard-working families who filled our tiny bowls with heaps of rice, chicken and vegetables. We would usually finish the trek at sunset, 10 miles beyond where we had started. Our hosts always welcomed us with hot tea, a pile of garlic fries and showers as warm as their smiles. We would sit around the table, playing card games and recounting the day until our hosts would carry out plate after plate of bountiful traditional food. Chi and the family would eat with us, chatting vibrantly in Hmong about their day, other travelers and answering our endless questions. Bellies and hearts full, we'd retreat to our humble yet comfortable mattresses by 9 p.m. and sleep soundly until the dawn would break with a rooster's crow.
And so the days went like this, slow mornings lingering over tea and banana crepes, full days of vast views of the valley below, a modest lunch, trekking into the sunset and a welcoming dinner. Communication with locals was withered down to "xin ciào!" ("hello!") and a humble bowing of the head to show our gratitude.
Chi, who seemed unaffected by the views that we gaped at, shared insight into her life: "It's sad that I have never seen the world. But even so, the whole world comes to me." Chi has never stepped outside of Sapa. It's a strange paradox--never having explored the globe yet seeming so worldly. Of our trekking crew, Martin has been to thirty countries in five years. Quinnen has biked across the Americas. Cara is a biologist, Danielle a naturalist, Casey a sociologist. I myself am an opportunist. The six of us have seen more of the world than perhaps the Hmong people collectively. Yet in 3 short days, our world views were expanded beyond what any of us could have ever imagined. What at first seemed kitschy and overrun turned out to be one of the most unique, humbling and expansive experiences I've had.
Chi, if you ever get to read this, I thank you for showing us your world, all that is good, most that is tasty and some that hurts. I hope someday you see the world, but until then, I will be looking at it through your eyes. Tạm biệt.