On Thanksgiving Thursday, November 23, Daniel and I hopped an overnight train to a city called Lao Cai in the far north of Vietnam, only three kilometers from the Chinese border. We arrived in Lao Cai at 5:00 a.m., then caught a bus to take us 40 kilometers in the dark up a steep road to the hilltop town of Sa Pa.
Sa Pa is Vietnamese but close to a number of ethnic minority villages, including Hmong villages. On the weekends, the town is inundated with Hmong and other villagers (Dao and Giay) buying provisions and selling handicrafts.
We got out of the bus outside a small, rustic-looking hotel on a street with a frontier feel to it. We met the front desk worker, an engaging young Vietnamese guy, and arranged to be part of a small group who would be led by a Hmong guide into the tribal villages. We would be fed lunch and dinner, put up for the night, fed breakfast and lunch and taken back to Sa Pa the next day. All this for only $20 each.
While we were making the arrangements, four Hmong girls (about 13 or 14 years old) approached us. Wearing traditional dress, they had handicrafts to sell but seemed more interested in conversation. Their English was amazing. And they were quite the conversationalists, able to banter and make jokes and (miraculously) understand ours. One was wearing a big basket on her back and repeatedly called the others without baskets ”lazy.” When she would tell us something about their lives in the village, one of the others would interrupt to correct the details and call her a “liar.” They had remarkable comic timing and the basket-toting one would have done fine with her own HBO comedy special.
With our nieces on our minds, Daniel and I negotiated the purchase of a few items. On a roll, Daniel then bought some things for himself. By the time we were eating breakfast inside the little hotel, Daniel was fully adorned in Hmong regalia.
Our guide arrived and we set out for the villages. The guide was well under five feet tall but had sufficient stature to lead our small band of eager travelers. The others were a Slovakian, two Brits and a South African expat living in Australia. As we trekked through the hills, over rivers and along rice paddies, a handful of female villagers accompanied us. During the hike, they made little animals out of reeds and gave them to us with bright smiles. Their faces were tremendous, especially those of the older women, with crevassed brown skin and beaming gold-toothed grins.
We passed buffalo and pigs and chickens. In the villages, half-dressed children stared at us and sometimes waved. Our guide made us lunch in the upstairs of a two-story open-air shanty. After we ate, Daniel and I showed some slight interest in possibly making an additional purchase, and within seconds a throng of villagers swarmed us, holding out handicrafts.
The Hmong villagers who escorted us wore blue. Hmong from other villages dressed differently. One group wore bright red headpieces, their hair pulled back tightly and concealed underneath. A third group of Hmong wore green. The red group is called Zow and the green group Zai (spelling is phoenetic).
Our group slept on a row of mats in the loft of a barn-sized cabin. The host (Zai) family slept downstairs. They cooked us a grand dinner, comprised of multiple dishes like Chinese food. In the morning, they fed us a neverending supply of pancakes, which we filled with bananas, honey, lime juice and sugar. All of the meals were prepared over a crude stove built into the floor, something you’d more likely see in a museum exhibit of ancient peoples than in actual use.
The second day we trekked through more rice paddies and into a bamboo forest to visit another village. During a break, a young Hmong woman leading another group seized the opportunity to handle a cell phone call. That was an unusual sight–watching a Hmong woman in native dress, standing on a hilltop overlooking a rice paddy, chatting on a cell phone.
We returned to Sa Pa by van. By this time, Hmong villagers had filled the streets, there for the Saturday market. We saw some of the foursome we’d laughed with the day before. They were more aggressive in trying to make additional sales, which disappointed me. But overall, the experience was the highlight of Southeast Asia for me and my brother.
We rode the overnight train back to Hanoi that evening after dinner in Lao Cai. The next day, Daniel and I did some final wandering together in Hanoi. Then Daniel left for the airport and began his many hours of flying for home. Seeing him go made me sad. I spent the night alone in Hanoi and burned most of the next day in an internet cafe. Then I caught a sleeper bus south to the central part of Vietnam.