When I left off, I mentioned sitting down with the Tour Director of the Mountain View Hotel, and putting in our requests for various tours. The Missus had given me a list of items, and I went through each, and ensured that all our requests were clarified. The Missus had wanted to do something called the Matra-Taphin "trek", which I didn't really know anything about, and frankly didn't pay much attention to....I just went ahead and paid for it. 15 minutes later, we met our guide, Mai, a friendly young lady of the Black H'mong group. Black H'mong women are easily recognized by their indigo dyed, hemp clothing. As we were walking to the Van that would be dropping us off, I was reminded that the hike would be about 15 kilometers or so. 15 kilometers! Yes, just what my sleep deprived mind and body needed, a "little" 15 kilometer hike......
We were dropped off about 8 miles outside of Sapa, walked down a short dirt road, and started on our way.
And I must say, the rice terraces lulled you into a kind of pastoral peacefulness.
I took my time, and snapped photos while the Missus's grilled Mai, with all kinds of questions..."why do you where leggings?" "What happens if a Black H'mong marries a Red Dzao?" And on and on....Mai took it all in stride.
Growing rice in Sapa is not an easy task; there is only one crop a year, and a short window for planting. And this year's window was extremely short. The winter had been cold, long, and dry, and many Water Buffalo, key partners in the tilling process had died, and so much of the planting was taking place without them.
The beautiful landscape belied the fine tightrope that the people who worked the land walked.
The harmony between man and beast was quite apparent, as the free roaming livestock paid us no heed.
And spring had brought on the birth of offspring of those that survived the winter.
Well, most of the livestock paid us no attention. This Water Buffalo seems to be a bit irritated at having his photo taken; as if to say "whatta you lookin' at?"
As we approached the Black H'mong village of Matra, we saw more and more children. This kid was pretty talented.
He was bawling his head off, and tightrope walking on the dike at the same time!
These are the plants that yield the Indigo Dye that the Black H'mong use to color their clothing.
Hemp is the textile most used by the Black H'mong, many other types of cloth will not "hold" the indigo dye. The indigo plant is processed and made into a powder. It is then made into a liquid that will "hold" to the hemp, often using urine and rice wine, among other additives. The whole soaking process can take up to 2 months. A nice post can be found here.
As we approached the village of Matra, we started seeing many more children. The first thing I noticed, was in spite of the very rural conditions, many of the homes had satellite dishes......after all, you gotta have television, don't you?
We were really enjoying our walk; learning a lot about life in these villages from Mai, when it happened.....The Attack of the Red Dzao.
Now, we're not adverse to people trying to make a living, and frankly it comes along as part of the package anytime you travel, whether it's Peru, Cambodia, Vietnam, you name it. But I don't think I've ever felt more like I was being held hostage(well, perhaps other than having to attend a time-share presentation years ago), than I did on this stretch of trail on the way to Taphin. This gal would not take no for an answer, and even got a bit nasty at the end. "I walk all this way, with baby....you have to buy something! Have to!" And the tough thing was, she invited three of her other close friends.
At least after this experience, we knew what the standard script was. In order, this is how it went every time:
"What your name?"
"Good name, good name!"
"Where you from?"
"How long you in Sapa?"
"You buy from me ok?", followed by "Why you no want buy from me?","If you buy, you only buy from me. ""You have to buy from me." And so forth.
It seems like only the Young Dzao Women are this persistent; the Older Women are funny, on our way back to Sapa we picked up a group of them who looked like they needed a ride. They where having a heck of a time in the van. And though they tried to sell us stuff, they weren't nearly as aggressive as the younger Red Dzao women. When I returned from vacation, I was reading one of Vietnam guides, which mentioned how "shy" Red Dzao women are.... Hmmm. Luckily, Red Dzao women are pretty easy to pick out by their bright red head-dress and their shaved eye brows. The also shave the front potion of their scalp.
This put Mai in a very tenable position, she could see that we were being aggressively accosted, and we'd been stuck to for over 2 kilometers, with no sign of a let-up. The village of Taphin is also a Red Dzao village, and there was the potential of picking up even more folks trying to sell us stuff. On the other hand; though Mai told us that this isn't a very popular hike, she does bring tourists this way, and needs to keep up a good relationship with everyone. Her solution soon became apparent, she took us off the regular trail, and we ended up skirting the valley. And we were thankful, not only for the chance to enjoy some peace, but for the views this afforded.
The area around the building you see in the background was where we were headed; Taphin.
Eventually, we came across a concrete "road" where we saw a few tourists on motorbikes, and entered into the village of Taphin. Don't let the more modern looking path fool you; life here is still quite hard.
One of the concrete paths ended at this cave. The Missus read the sign in Chinese next to it, and told me it was the "Dragon Cave". According to Mai this large cave is where many of the villagers hid during the war. After a short rest to soak up the cool air, we decided to head on over to the lunch spot.
As we turned back and headed down another path, where we came across 2 girls trying to chase down some runaway goats. Their giggling was infectious. And if you enlarge the photo(click on it), you can get a peek at a man sitting on a water buffalo watching on in amusement.
We stopped at the end of the path for lunch. you could tell that this was the place by the motorbikes. And if that didn't tell you that this was the place to stop, the Water Buffalo parking sure did.
And some really nicely fried eggs(and don't forget the laughing cow cheese)...when it dawned on us; Mai had carried this stuff in her back pack, than prepped and cooked everything for us.
We felt kinda bad....and we mentioned this to Mai, who told us, "oh no, sometimes I have to carry and make lunch for 10 people, that is heavy." The lunch was deceivingly filling and refreshing at the same time. During lunch we got to know a bit better, She has been a guide for 1 1/2 years, and is only 19 years old! And here's the kicker, Mai has been working her whole life, whether helping in the fields, or caring for one of her 8 siblings and was never able to go to school, and thus is not able to read or write in her own, or any language. Mai's English was excellent, so we were wondering how she learned English. Mai told us that she picked up English from tourists. Talk about being resilient...
After lunch, we made our way to our ride, and back to Sapa. In addition to being bushed, I was in need of a shower. We had learned much from our hike, and much of it was due to Mai. If you're ever in Sapa, maybe you'll consider getting a local guide, we think you'll be glad you did. Thanks Mai!
That evening, still strangely full from lunch, we had some street food(that is another post all together) and dodged raindrops back to the hotel. We sat on the balcony watching the lightning, and staring in amazement as we watched the wall of fog move up the valley envelop us. All while sipping on the wonderful Snake Wine from Le Mat. Life was good!