Imagine a view so breathtaking that it drives you to live exactly in the moment; a spectacular vista that belongs on the glossy pages of a travel magazine or in your wildest imagination or dreams. A sight so startling that you feel dizzy with wanderlust.
As I stood at the edge of the rice terraces in Sapa, Northern Vietnam, I was somewhat unaware of the beauty that was about to steal my heart in the upcoming days. I was mostly unaware of the deep-rooted culture of local indigenous tribes, the sheer magnificence of the landscape and the breathtaking accommodation Moe had booked in haste days before just outside of Sapa. I was preoccupied dealing with my grainy eyes due to a lack of sleep on the overnight Tulco train from Hanoi – a fairly pleasant yet, at times, rough overnight journey.
Our guide for the trek, Mr Hai from Topas EcoTours, greeted us at the office located in downtown Sapa. The town of Sapa itself seemed to be designed only as a tourist launching pad, with local indigenous women crowding the streets, determinedly trying to part with their hand-made fare by tying bracelets to our wrists when Moe and I weren’t looking. For a price, of course.
The trek began in the heart of Sapa where we were joined by at least six members of the Black Hmong tribe dressed in their traditional hand-dyed garb.Mr Hai explained that the women would follow us on our walk in the hope that they would make a “business transaction” with us. I turned my full attention to these charming indigenous woman who were suddenly tripping over each other to introduce themselves to us. A couple had babies tied to their backs and were wearing flimsy sandles. I wondered how on earth they were going to trek alongside us down the steep, slippery path into the heart of the rice fields.
As we left the town of Sapa behind, the landscape became alive with locals harvesting their rice terraces, wild water buffalos lounging in their mud pits and meandering up the country road and chickens and pigs sporadically darting between our legs and rushing to their owners when called.
The Black Hmong people chatted enthusiastically alongside us, asking our age, where we were from, offering their hand-made bracelets and grabbing my arm several times when I took a dangerous slide on the uneven earth below. I was surprised by their firm grip. It appeared that, even with babies tied to them, they were still more sure-footed than us and knew the terrain better than they knew their own children.
Several times during that day I was overwhelmed by the sight of the rice terraces disappearing off over the horizon. The air was mild but fresh and the beauty of northern Vietnam was exactly as promised by the many travelers we had met along the way. It was startling. The kind of beauty that makes you utterly exhilarated to be alive and healthy with the ability to travel and explore.
We stopped for lunch in a idyllic valley, split in half by a river where local children were splashing around to escape the heat. Mr Hai explained to us that the majority of children in this area did not attend school as their parents found them more valuable in helping to harvest the rice and undertake everyday tasks. A local teacher served us up a delicious feast of fresh vegetables and fried spring rolls. She also kindly offered us some home-made rice wine which I drank out of curiosity, knowing it probably wasn’t the best remedy for trekking in mild heat (even a heat much cooler than that found on the coast of Vietnam).
The afternoon saw us climbing amid the clouds in the rice fields, past charismatic shanties belonging to the Black Hmong tribe. As we passed, we watched as they cleaned the rice and dyed their traditional clothing, pegging it up to sell. Our guide, Mr Hai, spoke animatedly with the Black Hmong in their local dialect, laughing at their persistence to sell us their fare and finally convincing them to save their backs and return home to the shade with their children.Which they did with toothy smiles and fond waves.
We trekked next to grazing water buffalos, and children sleeping amongst the rice terraces. We stopped to talk to friendly locals whose eyes lit up when they saw us. Though we both spoke very different languages I imaged that we understood each other on a level that exceeded the need for verbal understanding.
This environment gave a true new meaning to the term ‘free range’ with baby animals enjoying the freedom to roam and puppies rolling around their back yards without fences. I respected the way they treated the animals when they were alive; with freedom and care. The way that animals should live.
During the trek my heart was elated by the sights surrounding us. We meandered lazily past chickens pecking in the dirt, and local children dragging their feet on the way home from school. There were local men building houses and groups of Black Hmong people gathered together in make-shift sheds enjoying refreshments and offering us drinks as we passed by.
As the afternoon sun began to dim we made our way on a bus to our accommodation for the night. At that stage, all I knew of it was that Moe had chosen the huts based on the fact they were meant to have spectacular views. What I saw when I rounded the corner was more than spectacular. The huts in the distance appeared amongst the clouds and exotic flowers bloomed around us. There were no words to describe just how spectacular Topas Ecolodge was – how it made me feel like I’d stumbled upon a little slice of heaven right here on earth.
That evening we explored the 360 degree views offered at the lodge. Everywhere we turned our eyes were rewarded with something beautiful. In the distance we spotted the local dao tribe hiding in the bushes, avoiding management and striking to make a business deal with tourists staying at the lodge as they wandered past.
As part of our accommodation, Moe organised an outdoor dinner, where we were presented with the freshest ingredients from the local area. We enjoyed sauted tofu, fresh carrots, fruit and an array of seafood imported from the coast. It was simply cooked on the BBQ and was one of the most delicious meals I’d enjoyed whilst travelling.
We slept restlessly in the heat in our basic bunk, yet the view from the balcony was simply spectacular as the sun sunk over the horizon.
The next day we rose early to complete our second day of trekking in the local area. It was just Moe and myself partaking in the trek. Mr Hai guided us out of the accommodation where we were immediately approached by the dao ethnic minority, grabbing our hands and producing a range of hand made bags, pillow cases and bracelets from seemingly out of nowhere.
“My name’s Carmen, I walk with you and you buy from me!” One lady claimed as she grabbed my hand and pulled me next to her.
The others followed suit, grabbing onto us and tying their bracelets to our wrists as a sign of good will. Mr Hai spoke with them in their local dialect and finally convinced them not to trek with us on the basis that they would suffer from the heat and that we would return in the late afternoon to purchase some of their goods.
We wandered down into the valley with Topas Ecolodge and the surrounding rice terraces towering around us. On the way we ran into one of the local dao ladies who was walking to her daughter’s house, almost an entire day away from where she lived, to help them harvest their rice. As we trekked higher into the hills the view around us became more magnificent, stretching off into the distance and appearing to be never-ending. Mr Hai changed the walk each time he did it, as a local man, he was familiar with the terrain and liked to give visitors – such as ourselves – a different experience of the area each time.
We stopped for lunch at a small cafe where children played, puppies rolled around and locals enjoyed each others company. Afterwards we wandered through the villages of the dao people who smiled and waved at us like long lost friends along the way. Their gardens were vibrant and dotted with tropical flowers and watter buffalo grazing amongst chickens and pigs. We stopped to talk to some locals and Mr Hai explained that they didn’t sell their rice here, they only harvested enough to feed themselves and their families for a year. We peered into the windows of a local school and as some of the local children passed by they showed us their homework; I was impressed by their immaculate hand-writing.
Mr Hai and I came to loggerheads briefly when he laughed at a recent Australian tourist who cried when she saw the local people sacrificing a buffalo. I explained that we weren’t used to seeing that kind of brutality in front of our eyes, and that it was particularly hard for myself to take as a vegetarian.
I explained that I saw no need for people to eat their family pets when they could live off the land with an abundance of rice and vegetables. Perhaps it was my passionate speech that launched him into a tirade about the heart break he felt when his father killed his first dog and served it up to the family for dinner. How it was seen as a family treat. He explained that his mother and father had fought during the war and that in that time food was few and far between and that they had to eat anything to survive. After this, I tried to keep my opinion to myself as I understood it was a sensitive issue that I couldn’t come to terms with.
In the late afternoon, we arrived back at Topas Ecolodge where our dao friends were waiting for us. They surrounded us, grabbing our arm from every direction until we were forced to purchase a rather gorgeous hand-made pillow cover and a range of other hand-crafts.
In the evening, after a cool shower, we sat outside on our balcony and cracked open the complimentary champage. We stared out at the panoramic view and marvelled at the magnificence of the surrounding region. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity again, a delight for all the senses and truly an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.