Sorry this post is so late. I just found it in my written journal! From Vietnam – Sept 23.
Sapa, it is like a surrealist painting. Every piece of this corner of the Earth oozes spirit and unfeigned beauty. Dad and I arrived yesterday, weary from our journey by train, but utterly mesmerized by the astounding majesty of Sapa. At dawn, we crept our way up the winding mountain side, watching the sun rise and illuminate the ripening rice patties. The temperature outside is chilly; perfectly reminding me of my distant homeland, when autumn relinquishes itself to winter.
Dad and I started our exploration of Sapa and its surroundings on a 6km hike, down into the Cat-Cat Hmong village. Our guide, Cuih, is an amazing young woman, smart and funny, but most of all – genuine. Too often in Asia have I seen the hill tribes people be exploited and forced to put on a show for ht thousands of giddy tourists that pass through their ancient homelands each year. Cuih though learned English fluently and now gives tours of her hometown, making sure to respect local customs and show us how life really can be in this mountainous town.
We started our tour by making our way down into Cat-Cat valley. Cat-Cat is more of a heritage site than an actual working village, dedicated to showing how the local culture has adapted over the years.
On our way down to the heritage site, Dad asked Cuih about a field of green leaves. “What kind of plant is this?” “Indigo,” Cuih said, blithely hopping into the field and picking off a few of the leaves. “How do they get the blue color from Indigo?” Dad asked. “It starts off green, but then it changes, here I will show you.” She then asked for my hand and began to crush the leaves into my palm, leaving a green stain behind. Soon, the stain began to turn turquoise and finally a deep blue. Then, Dad tried and we began squealing with delight and comparing who had the darker shade. As we continued our descent into Cat-Cat, Cuih showed us how the Hmong people used to grind corn with a hand pushed mill. Dad and I pushed and pulled as fast as we could, pulverizing the corn into flour.
Finally, we made our way to the bottom of Cat-Cat. A towering waterfall awaited our arrival, its water crashing down with a thunderous roar. It really is incredible to see the power of nature. Here the water can crush and mangle, but it also feeds the rivers that wind through the Sapa valleys, sustaining the life that congregates at its shores.
Like the waterfall, Cuih has feed my love for this local culture. Because of our similarity in age, it is easy to talk to her. In some of our musings, we dream idyllically about boys. Cuih bravely announced that she in fact has no intention of marrying anytime soon. She is determined that one day, if the right man were to come along, she would. Cuih was surprised when Dad and I started to ask her about the local culture, “most tourists don’t ask these types of questions!” she said. I asked her what the dating and marriage customs were like. She told me that in Hmong life, they have a very famous love market. All of the single Hmong girls and guys go to the market. The boys peruse the crowd and when they find a suitable mate, they take her to his parent’s home. The girl stays there for 3 days and nights, getting to know the boy and the family. Then, she returns to her home and tells her parents whether or not she wants to marry him. If the answer is no, she will present him with a bottle of rice wine and he will be on his way. If the answer is yes, they will marry within a week’s time. Imagine, finding love and a partner in less than 2 weeks time.
Today, Cuih, Dad and I went on the longer trek to her home village of Lao Cai. The 12km trek starts in Sapa town and winds its way down into the Lao Cai valley. Along the way, we kept Cuih busy, asking her questions about Hmong traditions. We passed a hospital and Dad asked about traditional medicine. Cuih again laughed, musing that we were some of the most curious tourists she had ever met. She told us how although modernization has brought medicine to the area, elders in the village still practiced traditional medicine. She related a story about how when her father was younger, he had joined the army and broken his arm in several places. He went to one of the new hospitals with modern medicine and they told him that they would have to cut off his arm. His mother, Cuih’s grandmother, told the doctors no, and brought him home. There she performed a healing ceremony and set and pasted his arm with traditional herbs. He was healed a few months later. Unfortunately, Cuih said, younger generations simply aren’t interested in learning the traditional methods of medicine and the practice is dying out.
Perhaps the best part of our trek was getting to meet Cuih’s family. Unlike the other, larger, tourist groups, Cuih took us to her sister’s house just outside of Lao Cai. Her sister has no electricity, but keeps a modest wooden house in well working order. She showed us where they sleep, a loft made from bamboo stalks, and how they cook, a Fanta can with oil and a wick. We also met her nephew, a spunky boy who can’t say her name; instead he calls her Dah, her last name. Next, we made our way up the hillside and through some muddy buffalo ruts. The buffalo walk along this narrow trail and sink into the mud. Their steps have left muddied stairs in their wake. Soon, we arrived at Cuih’s mother’s house. She, unlike her sister, has electricity (she is closer to the village). She showed us where her mother kept a vat of indigo dye, stewing to deepen its color. She dared me to stick my entire hand in, but I was too chicken to go back to Malaysia with a blue hand. We met her sister-in-law and niece there. Her niece was adorable, playing a game of peek-a-boo with their voracious pig.
Sadly, soon after, our adventure came to an end. We traveled back to the Sapa Township and ate our final meal before getting back on the train to Hanoi. I truly think I am in love with Sapa.