We’re in Sapa!
We ended up having the entire cabin to ourselves last night and slept pretty decently. We arrived in Lao Cai at 5am and were ushered off the train with all the other tourists. Instead of having to fend for ourselves we had been told to go to a local restaurant and all the other members of our party would meet there and be taken to our hotel.
It was a long journey up into the mountains from Lao Cai; 38km of twisting mountain roads. The fog hung over most everything, but we could still see some terraced rice paddies, mountain rivers, and lush foliage – gorgeous. When we arrived at our destination – Cat Cat View Hotel – we were shown to our rooms and then had breakfast on a lovely terrace overlooking the valley. Of course, we couldn’t see much due to the early morning fog. Following breakfast we went up to our rooms (right above the restaurant terrace) and decided to catch some sleep before our afternoon hike to the Cat Cat Valley.
Zach and I grabbed some lunch at Baguette and Chocolate, a restaurant where they teach poorer children how to cook and work in a restaurant, and then met up with Steve and our guide, Mee (not sure how that is spelled). The fog never really burned off entirely so we weren’t able to get the stunning view of the terraced rice paddies that is seen when you google Sa pa, however our afternoon was really one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life so far.
Mee, our guide, is a Black H’mong, one of several native tribes in this region. She met us in our hotel lobby and, with a couple other H’mong girls tagging along, we began our trek into the Cat Cat Valley. The girls were all extremely friendly and chatty, asking us our names and where we were from, if Zach was my boyfriend, how old we were. Of course they were just buttering us up for a sale at the end of the hill, but it worked. They were charming and genuine, and they definitely know how to make a sale. I bought a purse from one of the girls before they left us.
Mee continued on and we began our real hike through the Cat Cat Village. Right now is harvest time so many of the paddies are in various stages – cutting, drying, removing the grains, drying the grains. We were able, on several occasions, to get up close to many water buffalo and Mee also took us inside one of the homes so that we could see how the people lived. Their homes are incredibly dark- no electricity – the bottom floors are used for living, the top for storing the rice and corn that they grow.
During the day most of them are outside working in the fields or dyeing and weaving the hemp that they grow. Indigo is one of the signature dyes they use – they extract the dye from the plant. There are chickens, ducks, roosters, dogs all running around freely. With the influx of tourists many of the women also set up shops along the trek so that you can buy some of their products. We bought some cloth fish that we can use as Christmas ornaments and a couple of scarves. Their products are all extremely bright and colorful. I am drawn to everything, but have to be careful when and how much I purchase. If word gets out that you will buy, people will follow you everywhere…
Along the way Mee told us a little about the village and how tourism has had an effect. Around 15 years ago no one went to school, only the wealthy. Now all the kids can go to school beginning at 4-5 and go until around 13. For many, learning English will help them get a job as a guide, which will provide more for their family. In general the families are less impoverished than they were maybe 10 years ago and a lot of that is due to the tourism. However, one can only wonder what ultimate effect tourism will have on this region. Mee is 29 and didn’t go to school; she has learned English on her own by listening and communicating with the visitors here. She has a 7 year old daughter, who is in school, and a 2 year old son. She told us that everyone stays in the village, no one leaves. But I wonder if their way of life can be preserved forever, especially with Sapa being one of the top destinations in Vietnam.
We are going to rest up a bit and then go out to dinner with Steve. Tomorrow morning Mee is meeting us at 9:30am and we are going on a long afternoon trek to Lao Chai.