Sapa to Saigon. Part II: Sapa

4:09 AM Jessica Montgomery 1 Comments

     Sapa, Vietnam had always been on the "maybe" list when it came to drafting my original backpacking plan. Since I was heading from Northern to Southern Vietnam, it was a bit out of the way (North of Hanoi, along the Chinese border) and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to fit it in. But, after seeing photos from trips previous and chatting to the absolutely lovely staff at Little Hanoi Hostel, I was sold. I booked an impromptu overnight bus and home-stay through Little Hanoi and within a day of booking I was heading North. 
     *A little background on Sapa: Sapa is said to be one of the true gems of Vietnam. Virtually untouched by tourists until recently, Northern Sapa is populated by ethnic minorities that can only be found in the mountains there. Tribes such as Hmong, Black Hmong, and Dao have remained relatively unchanged through the trials of the Vietnam War, French Occupation, and other conflicts. The people of these tribes still don their beautiful traditional attire and work the land, cutting rice terraces. The climate is cool, mountainous, and lush. Tourism is now a booming business there. And, after my time spent there, I highly recommend you leave the main town of Sapa immediately and trek on to more remote villages such as Ta Phin. 

     The overnight bus was a luxury cruise line compared to any of the buses I had taken in Cambodia. Sleek, brand new, plastic reclining pods were to be my home for the next eight hours or so and I was as snug as a ....bug in a plastic pod. The bus had air conditioning, bottled water, a bathroom, and apparently wifi judging by the constant glow illuminating my fellow travelers' faces. That's some serious budget traveling luxury right there. 
     I was to meet my home-stay host and another couple that'd be staying with once I arrived in Sapa, but, I had no way of knowing who they were or what they looked like. I was just supposed to "find them" once I got off the bus. I was pretty complacent with this and enjoyed the flow and spontaneity of my time set aside for Vietnam anyhow. I had no destined schedule and relatively loose dates. I was essentially, for one of the first times in my life, cheesily blowing in the wind. So, if things worked out as they "should", great! If I never located my host family and was left to find new accommodation in Sapa, great! Either way, I assumed, would play out just fine. 
     I slept for most of the night and woke to find the bus parked. It was chilly and damp, and the bus windows were fogged and condensed. I was one of the first to wake up and attempt to peer out of a window. Through the fog of the window I could see shadowy heads, bobbing up and down attempting to gain a vantage point into the bus. Both sides of the bus were surrounded and I began to feel like a lizard in a terrarium. This feeling was only reinforced once one of the figures outside decided to tap on the glass in an effort to wake us all up. A few other passengers awoke because of this and we all met with startled eye contact. We all smiled unsure, skeptical, smiles and gathered up our belongings. Just as a few more people began to rise, the bus doors opened and the figures from outside began to push their way inside of the bus. Men and women waving flyers for discount hotels and women dressed in traditional garments were attempting to locate their home-stayers. It was a bit chaotic and I'll admit that I was bit worried that I would be lost in the shuffle. I stepped off the bus with my backpack and stood for a bit to take in the new air of Sapa. The air was different. Incredibly fresh, chill, and light. Far refreshing compared to that of Hanoi. (It actually reminded me of leaving Daejeon, my home in South Korea, and heading up to Inje.) I joined a German guy that I had met in cue for the bus the night before and we decided to stick together since we both felt lost and had relatively the same itinerary. We assumed that we were looking for the same home-stay host. Soon enough I was approached by the beautiful Mai-Lay, my host for the next few days. He face was warm and her smile exuded that feeling. She was wearing colorful, traditional, Hmong attire paired with modern day Teva trekking sandals. She was adorable and full of spirit. "Jessica?", she said as she flipped her paper sign around to reveal my name. Yes! How did you know?! Did I look that lost? Probably. 
Mai-Lay: Our fearless leader.
     My new German friend and I ( who would later find that he was in the wrong group. My fear!) followed Mai-Lay to meet the other half of our party. We soon met Yael and Alon, a travel couple from Israel. Yael, Alon, and I quickly connected and became fast friends. (It was only later that I found out that they were ex-Israeli Army Intelligence officers. Who would've guessed!) Our German friend departed and we began the trek to Mai-Lay's home in Ta Phin. The countryside of Vietnam is stunning. Parts reminded me of Scotland, some of Korea, others of... an otherworldly existence. The air was invigorating, the villages were small, charming, and efficient, and the people were heart-stealers. As we left Sapa we were joined by Sa and Mai-Kai, two women whom lived close to Mai-Lay's village. These women! It's hard to explain the instant sweetness and connection I felt to them. I'm well aware of the fact that they walked along with us in the hope that I would eventually buy something from them, yes. But! They were beautiful souls and treated me like more than a wallet. We chatted about their families, my family, and our common and differing culture. Mai-Kai explained to me some of the symbolism behind the garments and jewelry that she wore. Some signified marriage (silver bracelets are worn, much like our Western wedding bands), some children, and of course tribal affiliation. Sa and Mai-Kai even helped me navigate through a couple tricky points in the path, holding my hand along the way. 
     Our group: Yeal, Alon, Mai-Lay, Sa, Mai-Kai, and myself walked along the rustic paths cut into the countryside for hours. We stopped at a spot for lunch and upon entering Mai-Kai dropped the souvenir-bomb on me that I'd been waiting for. "Maybe after you look at my things?", Mai-Kai said pointing to her basket that she'd been carrying the entire way up the mountain. Of course. Of course! Our meal was lovely. Yael and Alon were surprisingly vegan and that added to our instant bond. Veganism was in no way holding us back from enjoying the food of Sapa or Ta Phin. All food served came directly from the surrounding mountains: Tomato tofu dishes, bean sprouts paired with fried garlic, and spring rolls were among the highlights. We devoured and Yael and Alon weren't shy on asking for more. I was grateful to have them along, haha!
     I could feel Mai-Kai and Sa eyeing me, waiting for me to put down my fork and pull out my wallet. Yael and Alon were laughing at my situation. I was a bit nervous about it and didn't want to ruin, what I felt, was already an actual relationship with them. I planned on buying some Hmong garments the minute I bought the bus ticket North, but how I was I to know that I'd be buying from someone like Mai-Kai? Mai-Kai pounced as soon as I was finished, pulling beautiful garment after beautiful garment out of her bag. She pulled out this incredibly crafted scarf, stitched with the traditional Hmong colors of red, navy, and white, and I knew that it was mine. At first Mai-Kai was a bit hesitant to let it go. She had spent approximately 6 months on it, hand stitching, and it showed. She was eventually happy to part with it, smiled, and even gave me a hand made bracelet as a gift. Sa did as well. I am and still stand by my choice to buy from them rather than a shop. Yes, you might be haggled a bit at lunch. But. Compare that to haggling with a mass production shop that mimics the hard work and artistry that goes into each real garment for the same price. As an artist myself, there is always a pro to truly buying local. Make memories with your art. Let them tell a story. I know I will cherish these items forever.
     We walked a bit further and Sa and Mai-Kai continued to follow. I wanted to get closer to Mai-Lay and chat to her a bit. She let me know a little bit more about Mai-Kai's attire. She told me that some of her garments represented a grieving period for her husband who had died the year previous. My throat grew dry as I remembered her clutching her silver bangles earlier, smiling and telling me that they represented her marriage. This truly resonated with me and my eyes watered. Yet another tell-tale reminder that we are all human. Despite what we eat, what we wear, where we live, and how different we may seem we are all bound to humanity. 
      
Mai-Kai, Sa, and my dorky self.
     As we turned off towards the village of Ta Phin, Sa and Mai-Kai departed. Yael, Alon, Mai-Lay and I continued along greeting farm animals and villages along the way. We even encountered patches of water created from the terrace run-off peppered with four leaf clovers! Apparently common in this part of the world, Yael, Alon, and I were quite giddy about this discovery. Yael and Alon also shared my affinity for animals as we chased them and photographed them along the way.
    We reached Mai-Lay's home in the mountains of Ta Phin and met her family, all housed within. She lived with her father, her two sisters, their husbands, brother, sister-in-law, and a few children including her own. Her home was simple and rustic, yet completely homey. The home was founded on dirt floors and large beams of wood supporting a tin roof. The guest portion of the home had an open common room overlooking the terraces and mountains. Mist flooded our view and giant black and yellow spider hung down from almost every nook. Mai-Lay served us tea and I finally had an opportunity to serve that pomello that I'd been carrying around since Hanoi! haha! We were promptly joined by yet another half of our home-stay group. They were a British couple who had just come back from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. The husband, Ned, was friendly and joking, but his new wife Pam seemed cold and unimpressed. I later found out that her condition could quickly be cured with a dose of alcohol...ha!
Check out this DIVA!

Mai-Lay's home
     
     We settled in and prepared for dinner. Mai-Lay began to cook vegetable after vegetable over an open-fire wok. Fresh, young, bamboo shoots, beans, watercress, carrots and squash. Tofu and gigantic spring rolls (sloppily wrapped by us) were also fried up. The spread was incredible and debatably the best meal I've had in all of Vietnam, perhaps even all of SouthEast Asia. While dinner was being prepared, Mai-Lay offered to boil water and roast herbs for us to take a medicinal bath. Ned and Paula went first and came back red and flush and roaring with compliments. This soon converted Yael and Alon to the idea and I decided I would like to take one after dinner. 
     Dinner was expectedly fabulous and we all ate together with Mai-Lay's large family. Mai-Lay's father toasted to his guests and we all took the first of many shots of "Happy Water". Happy Water is essentially rice moonshine. This moonshine is made by the family and is stored in plastic water bottles. Not sold yet? Well. Let me tell you... After dinner, and a few shots, I left to take my bath. This bath was one of the moments where you can't just help and reflect on the amazingness of your surroundings. The "bath" was in a shed-like room next to the main area of the house. The bath was a wooden barrel that was manually filled up, bucket by bucket, by Mai-Lay's sister-in-law. I climbed into the barrel (naked. Yes, naked. In the wilderness of Vietnam! Ha! If you know me personally, I expect you're not surprised about this...) and was greeted with what I can only describe as tea. I took a bath in tea! Medicinal herbs bobbed around me as I looked around my surroundings and breathed in pure freedom. That's how I can describe this feeling: Pure Freedom. Maybe it was the happy water, but I've craved that feeling ever since.
     Oh yes! Happy Water. I came back from my bath to a table riddled with empty plastic bottles and half full shot glasses. Yael was beginning to fade but The Brits were just getting started. Ned and Pam's guide, one of Mai-Lay's friends, had joined us earlier and he was the main culprit of this debauchery. We took shot after shot and eventually began singing songs together. Yael and Alon sang the Israeli national anthem, Ned sang some Guns N' Roses, and I think I ended up singing some Lumineers. The night was a bit foggy. We ended up drinking the entire family's supply of moonshine. And their stockpile of beer. 'Dem Brits I tell ya...


Food over the fire. Yum~

      The next day we departed ways from The Brits and hiked another area of Ta Phin. I was so sad to leave. Waking up feeling damp from the mountain air was invigorating and hangover-cleansing. Before we departed her home, Mai-Lay made us each a stack of banana crepes complete with brown sugar syrup and Vietnamese coffee. One last heavenly meal for the road.
     On our trek we visited an elementary school in the mountains, had lunch at a roadside "cafe" as Mai-Lay gossiped about all the locals in her town, and eventually trekked back to Sapa Town. I said goodbye to Mai-Lay and Yael, Alon and I headed to the "local market". Mai-Lay pointed us in the direction but wasn't too keen to follow, and I quickly understood why. Remember what I said about leaving Sapa as quickly as possible? Yeah, about that... The market was a tourist bed of Hmong knock-offs and made in China key rings. One pass through SE Asia and you quickly become aware that all these "markets" are the same. Yael and Alon were on board though and Alon proved to be an incredible haggler. He was a sport to watch! Yael went from shop to shop buying bracelets and eventually Alon sighed, "Yael...die." Alon could see the shocked look on my face and laughed. "Die means 'Enough' in Hebrew.", he smiled. Ohh! 
     Yael, Alon, and I decided to spend our last moments together at a cafe. They were taking the train North in a few hours and I was taking a bus South later on that night. Saying goodbye to them was bittersweet. (These travel friends! I swear!) Yael and Alon both looked at each other and then turned to me, as if they'd discussed this before, and said, "You know, we've never really connected with anyone else like we've connected with you." This warmed and floored me. Me? These two incredibly bad-ass Army intelligence officers who had an entire battalion under their command at the age of 22, connected with ME? I mean, I felt a beautiful and strong connection to them as well, but this was such a compliment of confidence to me. They told me that if I ever find myself in Tel Aviv to look them up. What an invitation! We hugged goodbye and I sat writing at the little hostel coffee shop for the next few hours or so. Reflecting, watching, and enjoying. Dare I say...being?

   Sapa resonated with me in ways that I never imagined it could or would. I was expecting a great adventure and got, not only that, but incredible friendships. Sa and Mai-Kai hold special places in my heart. Mai-Lay's and her family treated me like family and shared the fruits of their hard work. Ned and Paula constantly fed my adventure-is-out-there appetite, regardless of your age. And Yael and Alon proved that stereotypes can be broken over something as simple as a meal. 
   
    Sapa. GO!
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