Sapa O’Chau: ‘thank you Sapa’ (Hmong)

Another day, another dawn, another trek. With aching limbs and heavy bags, we walked up Sapa’s main street to the Sapa O’Chau Office, where we’d booked another trek – this time, a four day trek through Sapa’s ethnic minority villages. Fansipan was just a warm-up.

Sapa O’Chau, a social enterprise, started with a dream. The dream of a young H’mong woman called Shu Tan who wanted to create a sustainable tourist organisation which was not only economically beneficial to the ethnic minority villages of Sapa but also helped preserve their culture. She began to set up homestays owned by ethnic minority people and founded an ecologically conscious trekking service, employing local guides. Traditionally ethnic minority people, such as the black H’mong or red Dao, had little opportunities beyond farming and selling handicrafts. Shu Tan set up a school to tackle illiteracy and to teach English to the people of the rice-farming villages around Sapa. These days, the grassroots organisation, which now includes a cafe and H’mong handicraft store, thrives and benefits ethnic minority people at every level of society: trekking guides, homestay owners, students, craftswomen and their families. It was on one of these treks, the ‘ultimate trek’ that we were about to embark.

On that first day, we breakfasted at the Sapa O’Chau cafe before we met our guide, Su. Su was from a H’mong village on the outskirts of Sapa. He was nineteen, his English was very good, he had an easy smile , wore trainers and carried a big yellow umbrella. As we left Sapa, we were tailed by a couple of women, wearing heavy silver jewellery and the brightly embroidered bags and sashes of the H’mong people. Su said that they would follow us to try and sell us handicrafts. When we said we may not necessarily buy any, they smiled and said they would just walk with us to their village and continued to press curious questions on us about where we came from in stilted English. It was a sunny day and the views from the edge of Sapa were oustanding. A rare panorama that lives up to the splendour of picture postcards which honestly can’t capture the scale of the spectacle beneath you: rice terraces in neat winding steps, some cracked and muddy, others bright green, some skimmed with a pinkish algae and others fringed with small blue wildflowers.

The first part of the walk was incredibly muddy and without the help of the two ladies in our company, we may not have made it down in one piece. I learnt that the H’mong word for ‘thank you’ was ‘o’chau’ and repeated it like a mantra as one of the ladies repeatedly took me by the hand to help me down the vast majority of the way down the waterfall. We stopped in the valley for a water break and watched two boys stride through a shallow stream on stilts, scattering flapping ducks in alarm. Animals wandered freely along the streets, pigs with piglets, chickens, buffalos, gentle giants despite their large horns. The dogs and cats looked surprisingly healthy (unlike the ones who stole our food in Kiau Nuluh). I asked Su how people knew which buffalo was theirs. He grinned: ‘they always come home at night because they know where the food is.’IMG_7436.jpgimg_7444In the end, we did buy some handicrafts from the ladies who’d held our hands down into the valley when we stopped for lunch. They smiled and pushed bracelets onto our wrists to say thank you: ‘o’chau’. After we’d finished lunch – fried rice with chicken and homegrown cabbage – we said goodbye to them and proceeded to walk to the next village, a H’mong village called Lao Chai. We were welcomed by a tray of tea, took off our walking boots and stretched our legs. Before they stiffened up, we decided to go for a stroll. We wandered slowly up through the village, bright handicrafts and traditional clothes blowing on washing lines, contrasting with dull concrete tracks. Guard dogs lolled with one eye open and ears slightly pricked at each house, cats miowed from unseen hollows and buffalos wandered unchecked next to cherry-pink blossoms and pens of ducks. We walked past ladies making cinnamon incense cones from fine sweet cinnamon powder and past pieces of tarp spread flat with shavings of woody matter left to try in the sun (we asked Su later and discovered it was a type of local medicine). Dinner was made by the daughter of the homestay owner, a Ms Mai who was accompanying another trek group, and we ate with her daughter and son. Towards the end of the meal, the daughter and son went to bed and were replaced by Ms Mai’s husband and two bottles of local rice wine. We drank the rice wine in rounds of shots, which were repeatedly topped up by our host. The shots seemed to never end – we wondered whether it would be impolite to refuse – but eventually we were out of rice wine (we had drunk two litres between four of us!), wished our host goodnight and wound our tipsy way up to our attic bedroom by the light of our Fansipan candle.

After a night of weird dreams, which I attributed to the rice wine, we dressed, repacked our bags and went down for breakfast: amazing thick Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and also a huge stack of pancakes with banana and honey. About an hour later than we were supposed to leave, our bags were on and we were on the road (Su didn’t seem to mind our lateness – I think he was a tad hungover). We walked the way we’d strolled the previous evening before peeling off to the right (at a place selling opium wine) and going up a straight narrow path past motorbikes making their dangerous-looking way down parallel to a stream where a younger man helped an older man to cut his hair. As we stopped to strip off some layers in the heat, we watched two buffalos fighting on the rice terrace.img_7457img_7461We walked down through a muddy bamboo forest which we managed without the help of our H’mong ladies from the day before. We crossed a bridge and walked up the other side of the valley, which sloped steeply upwards but levelled off when we reached a gravel road. Our stomachs were rumbling and it was another 2km before we reached the town where we ate lunch – coffee, noodles and oranges. The paths weren’t too bad from there, we walked down the valley next to a huge humming hydroelectric pipe at the bottom of which was our homestay in the village of Ban Ho. The owner was of the Tay minority, a man called Mr Dao van Truong, and we were welcomed by his wife who, smiling, brought us tea. We offered to help make dinner but were politely refused and ushered onto little stools just above floor level.

The house was a hive of activity: a toddler toddled round, smiling happily at the strangers sitting in front of the fire; ladies chopped herbs and vegetables, stoking the fire above which was being cooked a stock and strips of pork fat smoking over the fire above that. One of the sons of the homestay owner burnt a hole in a plastic bottle out of which emerged wriggling rice eels (caught in the rice terraces that day). We later watched him kill them, neatly but bloodily, with scissors. We went back inside to sit round a table with people who were growing steadily in numbers – it turned out that the homestay owners had invited a load of their family and friends for our visit. It was great, friendly vibes bouncing round the room, despite us not being able to speak Tay (Su only spoke a few words) and them not being able to speak English. Our host did speak a bit of English and proudly introduced us to everyone and told us all about his family of whom he was very proud. He talked about how one of his sons was a doctor, the other was in the police force and how incredibly lucky he was to have an amazing and beautiful wife. Dinner was hotpot with what seemed like everything: tofu, local mushrooms, tomato, several kinds of greens, pork, fish, beef, turned eggs, rice and the eels (which actually tasted ok; they were just very bony). It wasn’t long before the rice wine came out and we we were all clinking our glasses, cheerily wishing each other ‘chuc mung nam moi!’ (new year never ends here). Mr Dao was hilarious, admiring and complimenting Oscar’s leg hair. A cartoon played in the background for the toddler. The ladies gossiped around the fire. Su, quite tipsy, went to bed early. We stayed up later before eventually retiring, hoping we wouldn’t be hungover for the next day of the trek.

Woke up feeling ok to an incredible breakfast of rice, heart fried crisply, greens and stir-fired pork with lemongrass and vegetables. It was a harder trek day than the others had been – there was more uphill, more sun and more sweat. We stopped for a water break at a primary school where brightly coloured butterflies flitted in the sun and shy children watched us from the classroom, some waving and saying hello. We continued uphill off beaten tracks, balancing along the ledges of the rice terraces, swaying slightly with our arms outstretched to stop us tumbling into the muddy water on one side and off the ledge completely on the other. A bit of a feat with heavy bags and sore legs but definitely an adventure and a beautiful one, the terraces pepped with tiny blue and purple flowers. It was a particularly scenic day, making the uphill worth it, the rice paddies curving their marbled ways around the mountains. We stopped at a Tay household for lunch who cooked us rice with a herby omelette, crispy sausage, homegrown cabbage and fish sauce with chilli.

Our Tay homestay was only down the road from there. Before dinner, we walked down to the stream, where we took off our boots and submerged our feet in the cool mountain water. I felt very peaceful, content to just sit on the rock and think, turning a stone over and over in my hand. Oscar tried to read a bit of his book but was distracted by Su who was eagerly trying to read over his shoulder. We went back to the homestay and helped our hostess (the rest of the family were absent) to bring the food she’d cooked to the table. Everything we ate had been grown (or killed) by the lady we were staying with – none of it had been bought. It was delicious and there was a lot of it: rice with cooked bamboo, cabbage, fatty pork, pork sausage and herby omelette as well as local mushrooms. We proceeded, traditionally, to drink a lot of rice wine, probably the most potent we’d had yet. Su bantered with Oscar and taught us H’mong drinking songs; I showed him pictures of Yorkshire. It was a merry last evening and I was sad it was coming to an end – the trek had been great, the homestays welcoming and Su a legend. We turned all the lights off and went outside to look at the night sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars, tiny pinpricks of light bubbling all over the sky so that it almost brimmed over with silver luminescence. Despite our unsuccessful attempts to pick out constellations, just admiring that sea of light was a beautiful experience.

I was woken by the sun shimmering through my mosquito net. We ate egg noodle soup before setting off on the last day of the trek. We bade farewell to our hostess who smiled and wished us good health. Because of the sun of the last few days, the ground wasn’t too slippy as we climbed up through orchards of jackfruit, mangoes and oranges. Su snapped off the branch of a cinnamon tree which didn’t smell of anything but when you nibbled at the tender stalks it tasted really intensely of sweet cinnamon. We took a few twigs to put in tea; Su took the rest of the branch. We walked past a man bottle-feeding a baby horse who explained, Su translating, that the mother had died leaving behind the orphaned foal. The trek ended at a bridge where a car was waiting for us to take us back to the Sapa O’Chau office. Saying goodbye to Su was really sad; he’d been such a great guide and amazing company.

Later that evening, I sat writing my journal on the balcony of our hostel. The sun sank down behind the mountains, turning the sky pink, then lavender before the light began to fade. Lights twinkled from Sapa town in the gathering dusk. The time we had spent here had been among the highlights of Vietnam; the weary victory of Fansipan, the merry night at Mr Dao van Truong’s Tay homestay, the sweeping rice fields beneath our feet, the galactic night sky. All I have to say is Sapa o’chau. Thank you Sapa.

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