The alps of Tonkin

We arrived early morning in a town called SaPa and were taken to a hotel in which we had showers and left our big bags. The town was build on the side of a mountain and around us we could see many peaks, one of them being over 3000meters above sea level, the last great peak of the Himalayas in the east. After a buffet breakfast we where greeted by our guide and met the rest of our group (around 7 others). As we started our trek a group of elderly ladies in traditional dresses joined us and I noticed that they all had something particular in common. Their height, or rather, the lack of it. Vietnamese aren’t exactly known for being very tall but the mountain people where even smaller. Soon I found out that they belonged to one of the mountain tribes, (I don’t know how to spell it, something like ‘hmong’) of which there are about 3 million spread around china and north Vietnam. They speak their own language and the majority live as rice farmers in the mountains.
We left Sapa and started trekking through the rice fields and hills of the surrounding area. On our path we would cross little villages (no more than a couple of bamboo houses) in which we were greeted by a swarm of children trying to sell us their handmade souvenirs. The villages would also usually have chicken, ducks, dogs and black pigs running around. The paths often went down or up steep hills which made going on then very difficult at times, especially when the water had eroded most of the path. Whether it was to cross stream and rivers, climb steep hills or just walk along a washed away path, using ones hands to move along was often necessary. This physically hard going was made even harder by the sun that shun mercilessly on our small group. But every time we reached the top of a hill the struggle to get there was forgotten and one was blinded by the beauties of the mountains and valleys. At the bottom of the Valley a great river made its way through the landscape and on its shores would begin the beauty of the rice terraces. The hills where carved into steps to retain the water rice needs and this made the landscape look like it was a children’s toy. The beauty of these hills is hard to put down on paper, it was simply astonishing to see. As the mountains got either to steep or to high to grow rice a dense rainforest started. The intense green of these forests slowly disappeared in the clouds the higher you looked. The peaks of these mountains always had a veil of clouds around them.
After crossing a bridge that would by no means pass European safety standards we had a lovely lunch at a small restaurant and took a short break. Throughout the hike I would talk with the guide about life in the mountains, which is a bit more difficult than down in the lowlands as they can only have one rice harvest a year. Having studied the land reforms in Soviet Russia and China I was wondering how the land was distributed here, whether it belonged to a community (a sort of kolkhoz) or if people owned their own land. She responded that obviously the land belonged to individuals, arguing that if people shared it the lazy would be rewarded and that incentive would be removed from the farming process. Perhaps the Vietnamese government learned from the failures of China’s ‘Great leap forward” and decided not to collectivise farming. However there was a problem she described which was similar to one Alexander II and his descendants faced after emancipating the serfs in 1854 in tsarist Russia. When a farmer dies his land gets divided between his children instead of being passed down to just one, which results in smaller and smaller fields which will eventually not be able to feed a family. Interestingly the Vietnamese government has responded by implementing a two child policy to slow down the population growth. Perhaps this will not be enough and a policy similar to Stolypins reform of the early 1900s is needed to combat this issue.
After hiking a while longer we reached a village in which our home stay was. A home stay is, as can be gathered from the name, when you stay at someone’s home. In this case the home was a big barn with two stories, on the top there where thick mattresses with a mosquito net hung over them for about 16 people and on the ground floor the bathroom and dinning hall. We spend the evening playing cards and drinking rice liquor (served from a plastic bottle) with our fellow travellers and a very giggly hostess.
We had a great night in Sapa as the beds where the most comfortable we have had so far. The early part of the trek led us past a few rice paddies in which I was able to have a closer look at the irrigation system. At first it looks very primitive but when taking into consideration that there are hundreds of layers of fields that need to have a certain level of water one can only marvel at its complexity. As we gained height we started trekking through the rain forest which was made even more difficult than it normally was by the fact that it had rained at night. Climbing through the dense bamboo forest was an extremely difficult affair but was rewarded at the end. As we left the forest we saw a giant waterfall plunge down the rocky Mountain and took a closer look. Our guide took us to an area where we could sit and enjoy the view before we made our descent into the valley. Nearer to the bottom we took a bath in the pool the waterfall had created and cooled of. About half an hour later we reached our final destination and had lunch. It would appear St Christoper, the patron saint of travellers, was looking out for us because the second we had gotten into the bus it started raining heavily and it had not rained a single time while we where walking (only once at night). Tired and with a little sunburn we took the bus back to Hanoi that afternoon (8 hours).

Have I mentioned that a week before we went to the mountains in Sapa some tourists got robbed by Opium dealers with knives?


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