Rice Paddies, Buffalo, and the sad fate of the Cardamom Trees

Apparently Sapa Town is pretty beautiful. All the pictures of hostels we looked at on Hostel World had amazing views of lush green mountains. But alas, we were not meant to see them just yet. The town was so foggy when we got there that we couldn’t even see from one side of the street to the other and to make matters worse, it was cold. After being soaked to the bone for three days in Hanoi, we were not happy about the circumstances here. We tried to explore the town a bit and went in search for a good jacket for Izzi, but with the fog being what it was we soon decided just to head back to the hostel. The hostel served hot food, at least, so we treated ourselves to rice and veggies and sat as close as we could to the fire. We struck up conversation with a Canadian couple playing cards at the table next to us. They had just finished their trek and we were interested to hear their thoughts. Unfortunately, it turned out that they hadn’t been able to see anything for their whole trek because of the fog. One of them said that all she had wanted out of her trip there was to see a rice paddy and not even that had been possible. Izzi and I finished our meal glumly and then, downtrodden, took to our beds to rest up for what were pretty sure would be a disappointment. Looking back on it now, our mood seems pretty funny. We sulked all day in our beds, ready for the worst, when what actually lay ahead was the most amazing three days of our whole trip.

We had booked our trek with a company called Sapa Sisters. There are many tour groups to book with in Sapa, but most of them are owned by foreign operators or hotels and don’t actually do much to benefit the local people. Sapa sisters is run entirely by local Hmong women, so they benefit directly from the tours instead of working through a middle-man. In addition to truly supporting local tribes, since it’s run by women of the Hmong tribe, it gives them an opportunity to make their own living and to be independent from their fathers and husbands. I felt really good about our decision to book through them. The day after arriving we made our way to their office where we met with our guide, Cho. She explained the different routes to us and the different levels of difficulty —we decided on medium difficulty, although it was tempting to choose the highest level. Then we left our big bags in their storage room and rented some boots. They were thin rubber rain boots which looked like the kind of thing a little kid might wear while gardening with Mum. I was skeptical and was sure that I would be better off in my sneakers. But, Cho strongly recommended that I rent the boots which, of course, turned out to be the right decision.

Once we were all booted up and ready to go, we set off through the town behind Cho. Two Hmong women followed us out of the town and at first it made me a bit uncomfortable, since I had no idea why they would be following us. But, since Cho didn’t say anything I relaxed. I ended up being very happy to have them. Once we reached the hills it got very slippery on account of all the rain (this is the part where I was thankful for my boots). Going up the hills was easy enough, but once we started going down it was downright scary. One of the ladies grabbed my hand each time it looked like I was going to fall to steady me. Although I appreciated her intention, at first I was determined to do it all by myself. I had been hiking in Patagonia, for goodness sakes. I could do this! But then I fell… twice, and after that I accepted her help. Eventually I think she realized I was a somewhat capable hiker and we came to an unspoken understanding. She only offered her hand to me when she thought I would really need it and I learned to trust her definition of a tough spot. They stayed with us until we reached the town where we would be eating lunch. When we thankfully sat down at our table, very ready to eat, they unveiled what had been hidden the whole time in their beautifully woven baskets and it all made more sense to me. It was time for us to buy some of their crafts to thank them for their help. At first I was disappointed. I had naively thought that they were really just there to help us. But I was genuinely grateful for their help and the crafts were beautiful, so I bought a couple woven pouches. Over the next few days countless women and children would offer us help along our trek, obviously expecting us to buy from them afterwards. Cho explained to me that she couldn’t tell the other women to go away. If she did, she said, the community would say that she was bad and didn’t want to share her fortune with the rest of the tribe. But she also told me that it was absolutely fine for me to deny their help. I was very grateful for her explanation and afterwards I learned to say a polite but firm no thank you. 

Izzi and I both absolutely loved Cho. We had all been a little quiet at the start, but as we hiked and got to know each other better we began to joke and laugh quite a lot. She also taught us so much about our surroundings. Once, when we were walking through a more forested area she pointed out some trees which she said were Cardamom trees. She told us that the trees were becoming quite rare because of how the weather was changing. She said that before, it never never snowed in Sapa, but now it was snowing sometimes and the young Cardamom trees couldn’t survive it. She told us that the Hmong people say the tourists bring the snow because before the tourists came there was never any snow.

A Cardamom Tree

It was depressing to realize that there was a fair amount of truth in what they said. Perhaps the tourists didn’t directly bring the snow with them, but tourism means airplanes and airplanes mean carbon emissions and  carbon emissions mean climate change and climate change means strange weather patterns and strange weather patterns mean snow in Sapa. It was a very confusing mix of emotions, feeling very lucky to be there learning this from Cho but also knowing that I was at the very centre of the problem.

Indigo plants

Cho also pointed Indigo plants out to us. She told us to rub the leaves very fast in between our hands without warning us that it would turn our hands well… indigo. Maybe I should have thought about that myself, but I didn’t mind anyway. She told us that she is part of the Hmong Black people which have that name because they use Indigo to dye all their traditional clothing, which turns it all black. I was beyond happy to be learning all this. I really wished I could be writing it all down in my notebook, but that would have slowed down our trek significantly so I concentrated hard on remembering every fascinating tidbit that Cho shared with me.

I tried equally as hard to remember the sights, although taking a photo is a more socially acceptable form of delay than writing down notes. The fog turned out not to be a problem in the slightest for us and the entire trek we had perfect views of everything. Although visually they couldn’t have been more different, Sapa gave me a similar feeling to being in Patagonia. All the space around me seemed to have an extra dimension, as if the 3D world I was used to was actually very flat and I had just never noticed. As I looked around everything continuously seemed to be folding in and out of itself, looking very much alive. At times it would seem unbelievable that I was in the middle of all this beauty. The mountains made me feel very small. It’s a feeling I get often when I’m traveling and which I absolutely adore. I love feeling small because it reminds me that I am a part of something much bigger.

There were rice paddies all over the place and we hiked along thin paths which wound their way between them. I was actually surprised how much I liked the paddies. Usually I’m not a big fan of visible human impact on the land, but the rice paddies certainly felt like they had more of a right to be there than I did. They were carved so perfectly into the mountains and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how long they’d been there. Water buffalo roamed through them, grazing on the shoots in the water and I realized that the paddies were a part of humans and buffalo and rice living together in this place. Sapa wouldn’t be Sapa without them and they were spectacular.

I also grew quite fond of the bamboo. On our second day we hiked through a bamboo forest and the shoots grew tall and thick around us with only a tiny footpath to follow. It was dark in there, but the trunks were narrow, letting just enough light filter through them to give a mystical feeling. In other places, away from the forest, the trees clumped together in little patches, bending from the weight of their leaves which sat in tufts like a bad hair day and made them look like something from the world of Doctor Seuss.

After our long days of hiking it was always nice to arrive at our stopping points. On the first day we had stopped at a restaurant made for trekkers for lunch, which was fine. But that night we stopped at a homestay which we shared with two other small groups of travelers and which was infinitely better. We were given rice wine and amazing food and our hosts were so welcoming. Although we were tired, we stayed up chatting and drinking with the others, our goal being to finish our bottle of rice wine. Cho told us that in their culture, odd numbers were unlucky. So, for example, if you wanted a scoop of rice you had to take two and if you wanted three scoops of rice you’d have to take four. It turns out that the same goes for shots. Needless to say it was not difficult to finish the bottle.

Since Cho was good friends with the guide of one of the other groups we had lodged with, named Pen, we all continued the trek together the next day. For lunch we stopped at Pen’s mother’s house which I was naturally very excited about. It was wonderful to be inside a real home. Since the Chinese New Year was on its way everyone was in the middle of preparations, making traditional celebratory clothing.

They also served us the best rice dish Izzi and I would eat during our entire stay in Vietnam. I learned that nearly all the families there grow their own rice in their paddies and have their own vegetable gardens. Coming from where I come from, this seemed absolutely dreamy. Don’t I wish that everyone back home had the space and the time to grow their own food? Don’t I wish that everyone grew just enough to feed themselves and share with their neighbours? But, of course, Cho and many others don’t really feel the same way. Many people feel stuck in their lives, unable to do anything but grow rice for their families. It’s important to remember that the beautiful life of a small farm is only ideal if you have chosen it for yourself.

On the last of our three-day trek, Cho gave us the option of taking it easy and spending the day at a nearby waterfall, an offer we eagerly accepted. When leaving Sapa Town in the fog we had been so convinced the weather was going to be horrible that we almost spitefully left our bathing suites behind. Now, of course, we were irritated with ourselves, but we decided there was nothing wrong with swimming in our undies. When we got to the waterfall there was a bit of a chill in the air and getting into the water took some courage. But there are only so many opportunities to swim in a waterfall in Vietnam, so we stripped down and dove in. Yes, it was cold. There was a definite moment of shock that required some deep breathing, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as the salt lake in Chile. This time, Izzi lasted longer, too. The waterfall wasn’t very big but it was beautiful. The sound was gentle and calming and made me want to spend the whole day floating on my back with my face pointed up towards the sun. Every few minutes I would dive down into the river as deep as I could. It felt amazing to let the water run passed me and wash off all that travel. It made me feel more clean than even our nicest hostel shower had. When I came back up for air I settled again, half in the water and half in the sun. To my right there was an ancient looking tree which had grown out of the side of a small cliff. It grew low and twisted towards the sun, and its roots wrapped around a huge grey stone as they made their way down towards the river. Just next to it  two water buffalo, a mother and a calf, grazed in the rich green grass, not at all concerned with our splashing. Beyond them I could see the rice paddies carved endlessly into the mountain sides and I was glad that the cold water had turned my skin numb so that I could concentrate all my focus onto what I was seeing.

My body felt tired as I pulled myself out of the water and I loved it. I sat and warmed myself in the sun with the others and it was impossible to imagine a more perfect way to end the most glorious three days. We still had most of our trip to go, but even then I knew that our trek in Sapa would be very difficult to beat.

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