A Slice of Northern Vietnam
My Journey Through Sapa
“You want one too?” she asked, while knocking back her third shot of home-brewed rice wine. I kindly decline, wondering how long it would take for the pungent liquor to reach the wee baby girl she is breastfeeding at the same time. It’s 11.50pm; I have already lost track of what day it is, but I am pretty sure it is mid January. I am balancing myself on a stool the size of a piggy bank, inside a hut located in the highlands of Northern Vietnam. Why, one might wonder. Well, I decided to make an attempt at experiencing the wild kind of Vietnam hidden underneath countless shady tourist operations. And, here I am; feeling exhausted from a long day of walking and too many hours on trains and buses after crossing the Chinese border two days earlier. On the other hand, I find myself feeling very content and grateful. It’s funny that, isn’t it? The hardest journeys are usually the most satisfying.
Next to the merry mother, my wonderful guide So talks me through our hiking plans for the next day. So is a mother of three in her mid 20’s with an incredible wealth of life experience. It is because of her kind and open soul that I will remember today for years on. Her English is excellent. When I ask her how to correctly spell her name, however, I hear a quiet ‘I have never learned how to read or write.’. This is just one of the challenges faced by most villagers in this area. In fact, illiteracy seems almost insignificant compared to a life expectancy of around 40 years, severe lack of food and shelter, and strong vulnerability to human trafficking.
The temperature starts to drop below zero and I am offered the ‘family bed’. It has been two days since I have slept in an actual bed, but all I feel is incredibly humbled and even embarrassed, as if my appearance results in the family having to sleep on the ground. The following day is spent hiking through neighbouring villages to the tune of Shaman’s bells. While stepping through lush wilderness, So tells me about her way of life. She explains the importance of the love market, an annual event attracting hundreds of members of various hill tribes with the hope of finding the one, family, and marriage. Never before have I been allowed the privilege to enter and share such a distinctive culture.
Ethnic minorities, such as the Black H’mong and Red Dzao, make up a major part of Vietnamese culture, but are often disregarded by authorities. Few, but very well-established not-for-profit organisations give visitors the unique chance to explore these tribes, which in turn helps to create more sustainable infrastructure and safer communities.
While I only spent three days exploring the awe-inspiring Sapa region, So, her friends and her family inspired me to practice gratitude, offer kindness, and seek depth in my interactions when travelling and at home.
PS. If you are interested in finding out more about or supporting the ethical social enterprise that enabled me to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience, head to their website or Facebook page. I cannot recommend Ethos Adventures enough.