Despite arriving in Sapa, our final destination, neither Sanne or I were in particularly good spirits. Once more, I had a broken bike that needed fixing. It was Sanne’s last week away from home and the weather was the total opposite of what you expect from a tropical place. Instead of the sunshine she was hoping for, it was raining heavily and such thick fog you could barely see across the street. We weren’t exactly helping to lift each others’ moods.
Though we did fix my bike and go for a wander around the town and it’s surroundings, we spent most of our first day in Sapa huddled in our room watching films and drinking tea under blankets against the cold. Not quite what we expected from the infamous mountain town – known for it’s stunning views and trekking!
When the weather (and our spirits) were still low the following morning we decided to leave that day…but first we made a quick visit to the “Love Waterfall”, 14km higher in the mountains.
After an atmospheric walk through the forest, we arrived.
The sheer quantity of water flowing down the fall meant that when it landed in the plunge pool below, it flew back up into the air and into our faces. The cold spray from the waterfall had soon soaked us but it felt wild and good. We were alone, so soon I was stripping off for a quick dip in the swirling water. It was the perfect pick-me-up for my spirits. 🙂
We headed back to Sapa, planning to refuel and continue our journey to Lao Cai… however, the fog had rolled in even thicker than before and the roads had turned into rivers and waterfalls of dirty brown water themselves. We decided to stay just one more night in Sapa….and thank goodness we did, because it was only then that we really discovered it’s charm…and we ended up staying 3 more nights!
It is a small town built 1500m or so up in the mountains. Though it has clearly built up around tourism,unlike most tourist traps in Asia, it has retained the feel of a quaint place with character and magic. The fog rolls in and out and in between you get incredible views of the mountains and valleys around, all covered in rice terraces and wooden huts.
When it rains, the water pours down the road (thanks to the lack of any drainage system) and all of the restaurant and hotel staff build makeshift dams from blackboard signs.
Of course, there are a lot of touts trying to sell you their tours and their wares but amongst this you will find locals who genuinely just want to you to have a lovely time and will smile and say Hello each time they see you.
We were lucky enough to meet one of these local ladies called Chocho. She was incredible.
A Hmong lady in her late forties, she bounded up to us fully clad in traditional clothes and struck up conversation. Of course, halfway through she told us she could take us to her village, and although she was clearly talking to us to sell us a tour, she still radiated good humour and fun. She carried around a small notepad full of reviews from other tourists and many said it was the best day they had had.
We decided to take a tour with her the following day, which just happened to be my birthday.
But first…we ended up going out for a meal and then some drinks in the local pub, aptly named “The Hmong Sisters” (I’m not sure why but something about it made me think of Harry Potter). As is often the way with unplanned nights, it turned into a good one and we ended up playing pool, chatting to locals and travellers alike and seeing my birthday in with a triple-layered flaming shot.
The next morning I woke up and the first thing I did was throw up. Blaming the late night birthday shot I figured that, since I had now got it out of my system, I would still be fine to go trekking. I couldn’t eat (or drink for that matter) but made it out onto the street to meet Chocho.
Unfortunately I didn’t make it any further and was soon back in bed, where I spent most of the rest of the day sleeping. By the evening I was feeling a little better and managed an evening meal of Potato Soup! Whether it was the dirty late night shot or food poisoning I will never know, but I suspect the latter. I woke up the following morning, still with a dodgy tummy but determined to be well enough for the tour that we had postponed for a day.
I made it, and it was one of the best days I have had in Vietnam (along with the day in Catba climbing & kayaking with Fede).
We walked the 10km or so to her village. A mixture of walking on roads (sometimes just a narrow concrete path wide enough for just one motorbike at a time), through and on rice terraces and up and down steep and narrow and slippery mud mountain paths. It was brilliant and going with a guide meant that we took a route that you would only be able to find with a local.
We saw people herding goats and tending to the rice and finally arrived at her home around 1pm, set halfway up the mountain and accessible only by foot. We enjoyed a meal with her, steamed cabbage, fried beef and stewed squash (absolutely delicious) and afterwards she showed us, and let us try our hand at, some traditional Batique. It was a beautiful day.
What made it even better?
The conversations we had with Chocho.
She was fairly quiet to begin with, but as the day wore on, and we asked her more questions, she started to talk more and more. She was disarmingly honest and it was amazing to listen to her speak about her life.
She told us that, years ago, marriage was arranged by the parents of the Bride and Groom but at some point that changed. It was replaced by a culture of “stealing”. A man, who wants a wife, begins his search by looking our for potential young girls working in the fields in the area. When he sees one he likes, and wants, he steals her and takes her to his home. The details get a bit hazy here, but at some point negotiations begin with the bride’s family and in the end she is made to marry the man who stole her. Chocho was stolen herself, and although it is not as common as it used to be, it still happens.
It seems that girls never resisted because they were unable to. In Hmong culture daughters do not have any rights to their parents land, and only when they marry to they gain any. For this reason, no woman wants to remain unmarried. It seems also that they have nowhere to run to.
Chocho says that her husband has not always been kind to her and although she wanted to leave many times, she stayed for her five children, the first of which she had at just 17 years old.
Now, she and her husband seem to live mostly apart. Chocho lives mainly in Sapa now, in order to do her job as tour guide more effectively. It is her husband’s home, and the home she lived in since she was married, that she takes tourists to. However, her husband is usually not at home during these visits as he is out tending to the goats.
Chocho is one incredible woman and probably just one of many who live in these hills. Life is changing rapidly in the villages around Sapa with the influx of tourism and it is encouraging to see the freedom that it has given many of the girls. What an unforgettable day!