A Slice of Northern Vietnam – My Journey Through Sapa

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.

the wonderful So
the charming So
"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are travelling for."
“The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are travelling for.”

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.

my visit to the wonderful Lao Lu ethnic group will be remembered for a long time
my visit to the unique Lao Lu ethnic group will be remembered for years
So, left, and one of her friends from the local hill tribe
So and one of her friends from the local hill tribe
the Hoang Lien Son National Park is among the most photogenic ones in South East Asia
the Hoang Lien Son National Park is amongst the most photogenic  in South East Asia
playtime
playtime
not having one's hair cut is one of the 'rules' Black H'Mong women obey to after marriage
not having one’s hair cut is one of the ‘rules’ Black Hmong women like to obey after marriage…
...while the Red Dzao community likes to practice the opposite after getting married
…while the Red Dzao community likes to practice the exact opposite after getting married

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.

stocking up before our hike at the local market
stocking up on fresh fruit and veg before starting our hike
"I am pretty sure this is vegetarian; it is very fresh, too." "Oh great, what is it? Chili?" "It's duck blood." that Vietnamese humour..
“I am pretty sure this is vegetarian; it is very fresh, too.”
“Oh great, what is it? Chili?”
“It’s duck blood.”
this picture is Black and White for a reason
this picture is black and white for a reason
and so is this one...
and so is this one…
dinner time
dinner time
the man of the house
the man of the house

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.

walking on stilts is the way to go in all this mud
walking on stilts is the way to go in all this mud
the respect I have for these women cannot be put into words
the respect I have for these ladies cannot be put into words
Everyone smiles in the same language.
Everyone smiles in the same language.
the colours of Sapa
the colours of Sapa
choosing a path off the beaten track is always a good idea
choosing a path off the beaten track is always a good idea
stillness
the quiet trails along Sa Pa village

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.

X Carmen

 a selfie-worth moment after being given a traditional woven head scarf which kept me warm throughout my Vietnamese adventures
I was given this traditional woven headscarf  by So. This is one of  my all-time favourite souvenirs, and it even kept me warm throughout my Vietnamese adventures
crossing the spectacular Tran Ton Pass (highest road of Vietnam) on a motorbike is a must
Finally, crossing the spectacular Tran Ton Pass (highest road in Vietnam) on a motorbike is a must

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.

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