One of the most interesting areas of Vietnam must surely be the north-west, a region of rugged, mountainous terrain and rice terraces, populated by the colorful Montagnards, the name bestowed upon the ethnic hill tribes by the French. The town of Sapa is a popular destination for tourists and many tour agencies in Hanoi can arrange a visit to the area. It is also possible to travel independently, catching the night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai on the Chinese border. Here, there is no shortage of minibus drivers scrabbling to sell you a ride to Sapa, only 24 miles away but a long, winding two-hour journey over the mountains.
Many visitors arrive at the weekend to coincide with Sapa's main market. The local women and children flock into town to sell their produce and wares. Tourists snap up the cheap hand-embroidered clothing and textiles. They discover only at a later date that the indigo dye favored by the Black H'mong people is not set, their bodies exhibiting a deep shade of blue. Far more fun, however, is to leave the town and visit the people in their villages. Many operators offer just this: trekking through the rice terraces with the opportunity to spend a night at a home-stay.
The least disruptive way to trek is in small groups and early one morning, my husband and I, along with a British couple, set off with our guide, Khanh. The mountains were entirely encased in a shroud of cloud but we were too busy focusing all our attention on not falling on the narrow, slippery pathways to notice the scenery, or lack thereof.
At lunchtime, we reached the village of Lao Chai, home to around 600 Black H'mong people. Muddy children in ragged clothes played, barefoot; they paused only long enough to stare at us with mild curiosity before returning to their games. Dogs barked at us and pigs snuffled. Roosters hurried out of the way. Like brides walking down the aisle, we passed through the village, flanked by women and girls smiling and nodding at us. Their hands reached out to us, not seeking money, merely displaying their embroideries and jewelry for us to buy.
The Black H'mong are Catholics, a legacy of the French missionaries, and their large numbers of offspring stand testament to the proselytizers' success. The more prosperous tribes settled the lower lands and the H'mong people were lumbered with the higher ground, where the cold climate produces fewer crops. This obviously flawed equation of less produce versus more people has resulted in the H'mong people being the poorest of the ethnic minorities.
"The Vietnamese look down on the hill people," Khanh told us, "and the hill people look down on the H'mong people." It seems the H'mongs are on the very bottom rung of the ladder. Whereas the older girls and women wore their traditional garb, the small children were dressed in Western clothes, probably donations from aid agencies. We visited one of the homes, where a lady nursed her baby and a toddler played around the open fire. The couple had eight children and they lived in a two-roomed house.
We sheltered from the persistent drizzle in the schoolhouse: a basic, bamboo and wooden building with an earthen floor. Uncle Ho's picture looked down imperiously on the low desks and chairs and a blackboard at the front showed that elementary math was the lesson of the day. "The children go to school from 6.30 in the morning for four hours," Khanh said. "Then they go home to help their families with work."
Wet conditions hampered the afternoon's walking. The narrow path often ran along the edge of the rice terraces. Cold, muddy water beckoned on one side and on the other, a five-foot drop and cold, muddy water. We watched, amazed, as nimble women, with children tied to their backs, picked their way sure-footedly along the terraces.
When the sun no longer had the energy to pierce its rays through the dense cloud, we reached our destination for the day. Ta Van is a village of around 500 people, mostly the Zay (also Dzay, pronounced 'tzeye') people. A path led through the village, with houses on one side and cultivated land on the other. Not far into the village, we stopped at our base for the night. The house belonged to one family, which consisted of one woman, two children and one old man, presumably the woman's father or father-in-law; we never saw the man of the house. The family welcomed us; no one spoke English so wide smiles and nods of the head abounded. We settled out on the front porch, seated on brightly-colored, plastic chairs- on which only toddlers could comfortably fit- with some warming green tea. Khanh told us there were six dwellings in the village that hosted tourists and we saw four other small groups of trekkers file past us to their accommodation.
The house was quite large, particularly compared to the cramped conditions we had seen earlier in Lao Chai. Bamboo and wood again provided the walls; the floor was bare earth. The visitors' bedroom and the kitchen flanked a large central living area. Curtains separated our bedroom from the rest of the house; it contained two double beds, each with their own curtain for privacy. I was glad to see the thick blankets as I had a feeling the temperature would be dropping dramatically during the night. The family slept in a room up in the rafters.
An open fire warmed the kitchen resulting in this quickly becoming my favorite room. The old man's job was to keep the fire well-stoked with bamboo, which fortunately burns with little smoke. They stored the bamboo in the rafters above the fire in order to keep it dry. The old man seemed to keep himself warm with generous servings of rice wine. A large wok-like bowl sat to one side of the fire, which was used to ferment the rice for the wine, as well as mix the swill for the animals. A trough at the rear of the kitchen stored water for washing; it had been diverted from the stream that ran alongside the house.
After several cups of green tea, it was time to find the toilet: past the pig pen, where two porkers frolicked, and round the side of the house to the stream. A section of water had been screened off with bamboo. With one foot on either side of the small channel, it was time to squat. This was surely the cleanest toilet I had visited in Vietnam, with the water carrying away all deposits into the fishpond further downstream, probably explaining why the fishpond was so murky. Mercifully, the water was siphoned off to the kitchen before it passed through the outhouse.
Around the fire, the woman prepared our meal, chopping the vegetables and meat, as well as peeling the potatoes to make fries. The Vietnamese appear to have the misguided impression that Westerners cannot cope without access to fries and banana pancakes. The old man shared his precious rice wine with us, its fiery brew warming our insides.
Khanh hoped one day to go to university and become a school teacher. He spent time with the children of the house, helping them with their homework. They knelt around the small table in the living area, one bare light bulb providing their light source. Another light bulb hung from the rafters in the kitchen, over the food preparation area.
The woman cooked the dishes individually in the wok but so skilled was she that all the food was steaming hot when she set them on the table in front of us. The old man moved the light bulb along the rafters to hang over us before the family retired to the other room. It truly was one of the best meals I ate in Vietnam, all prepared in just one pot over an open fire. Once we had finished, the woman prepared the meal for her family whilst we huddled round the fire for warmth. The family ate the same meal as us- but without the fries. Once they had finished, they turned off the lights and switched on the tiny, black-and-white portable television. Khanh explained that there was not enough electricity to run both the lights and the television at the same time.
Within the next two years the villages will be hooked up to the electricity grid from Sapa, news which has displeased the people. At present, water-generated batteries provide their power, which means that they must bear the initial cost of installation but suffer no running costs. Electricity bills are the last thing the villagers want.
Having traveled to escape modern technology like television, we closed the curtains to our room and snuggled down under the blankets. The thick wooden shutter over the small window kept out most of the night chill- and the morning light, as it was after 8am when we awoke from a solid sleep. We realized how much our ears had appreciated a peaceful night away from the incessant horns of Hanoi.
The home-stay is definitely not for the traveler who cannot live without their modern conveniences but it offers an excellent opportunity for those who want to experience a more gentle way of life.
We performed our morning ablutions in the kitchen where the icy water from the trough woke our senses sharply. A bowl of pho and yet more green tea provided the heartening start to our day. Shortly after, it was time to set off trekking. We thanked our hosts for their hospitality- and excellent food- and nods and smiles sent us on our way, into the clouds once more.
© Helen Conway 2002