Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.
We had lumbered up Dragon’s Jaw, a prominent peak in Sapa boasting magnificent views and glorious gardens, just the day before, and were now looking forward to visiting the small neighboring Hmong mountain village of Ta Van. Although good weather, sunshine and mid-60 degree temperatures, cradled us throughout our climb of Dragon’s Jaw, the morning of our outing to Ta Van was different. Heavy rain had fallen for much of the night before, and morning fog and drizzle threatened to thwart our excursion to the tiny village in northwestern Vietnam. Thankfully, following a breakfast buffet of cheeses, cold cuts, “made to order” omelets, carrot juice and Vietnamese milk coffee, accompanied by splendid views of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, the weather broke perceptibly and became simply cloudy. By late morning, we forged a calculated risk that showers would abstain during our jaunt through Ta Van, and booked a car to drive us the 10 kilometers from Sapa to this popular village.
Our driver, serious in demeanor with scant English, arrived in the early afternoon and brusquely signaled for us to slide into the van. We pitched along the mountain passes affording us more beautiful glimpses of the “Tonkinese Alps.” These alluring images were in stark contrast to the children with soiled clothing and unkempt hair traipsing along the roadways, hands outstretched, as we passed, imploring us to stop, presumably for spare change. We paused just outside Sapa to take photos at a viewing station, and were quickly mobbed by five young children who, rather forcefully, motioned for us to buy trinkets from them. Taken aback, and feeling conflicted over the challenging lives these youngsters must lead versus perpetuating this type of demeaning soliciting activity, we dolefully decided to move on.
Before reaching the village, we stopped at a booth on the side of the road where we paid a 15,000 Vietnamese Dong (70 cent) entrance fee. Arriving at the visitor parking lot designated for Ta Van visitors, we disembarked from the van, expectations high. When arranging for a driver to take us to Ta Van, the hotel receptionist inquired if we required a guide to accompany us. We responded with being partial to going it alone, as we did not want to be confined solely to the guide’s itinerary. Crossing a steel plank bridge tinted with maroon hues, we were met by ethnic Hmong women leaving the village on foot for destinations unknown. The village’s main thoroughfare was spattered with residences, and what looked to be family shops, including household and food markets, and motor scooter repair garages.
Once in the village, we spotted other tourists, similarly intrigued, roving the primary road and bordering hills of this compelling community. Although not wanting to intrude, I felt impelled to take pictures of families in their homes, through large open air entryways; kinfolk engrossed in routine daily activities, with only a passing interest in our fascination with them. These families likely considered us a necessary nuisance woven into the fabric of their lives and commercial existence.
Making our way along muddy hillside paths, we were enraptured by the uncomplicated and unpretentious lives of the Hmong. Simple wooden structures with tin rippled roofs, a couple of dogs lazing outside the front door of a residence, countless terraces of flooded rice paddies, women in traditional garb trudging purposefully along pathways or tending to the fields, all amid luxuriant greenery. One young Hmong woman who was definitely interested, fell in step with us as we made our slow and deliberate ascent, undoubtedly wanting to launch an exchange. Concerned over another soliciting onslaught, I was dismissive of the potential intruder, while Bishara, reverting to our personal camouflaged language, conveyed that he thought we should engage this young woman, as she might help us maneuver this remote territory and point out interesting aspects of the Hmong lifestyle. Swayed by the argument that the potential learning opportunities from a willing local outweighed the hazards of further solicitations, I acquiesced.
“Hello, my name is Bishara, and this is my wife, Michele. What is your name?” A quizzical look and an unintelligible response. Again, a bit more slowly and assertive this time, “What .. is .. your .. name?” A blank expression. “Ta Van is beautiful,” Bishara persevered. A twinkle of recognition and grin spread across the young woman’s face. Apparently, hand gestures and elementary English would have to suffice for our time with this amiable villager. Continuing to amble along a patchwork of dirt paths and paved walkways, our companion in tow, we soon encountered a younger Hmong woman, a baby bundled on her back in a colorful pink scarf. The two young women traded niceties, and barely skipping a beat, were soon both in lockstep with us. We continued to relish the lush environs and tranquil community along the hillsides, and, at one point, confronted a rushing creek that both women handily skipped over using custom footwork and conspicuous stones. Bishara and I held back, innately fearing a broken ankle or leg in the middle of an inaccessible and undeveloped area with only meager medical services, at best, to rely upon.
The older of the two villagers crossed back over the creek, and without hesitation, seized my hand, and pointing out the best rocks to use to ensure a safe crossing, boldly and effortlessly led me across the water. Bishara, still on the other side of the creek, appeared rather anxious, as he battles an inherent fear of water. The younger of the two women, with the baby onboard, seeming to sense Bishara’s distress, nimbly re-crossed the stream and graciously extended her hand to Bishara. A few hesitant, yet well-placed steps later, and Bishara was across the creek.
After some time, our bladders began enduring the effects of our savory breakfast milk coffees, and flavorful natural juices. Bishara did his best to impart to the young women the notion of needing a restroom, and when his hand signals floundered, resorted to a more direct, and comical, intimation, which was effective. The villagers led us, expeditiously, back to the town center, and guided us to the school grounds where young children bandied a ball about under a prominent banner with Ho Chi Minh’s image. A toilet was discovered, yet despite our two young friends’ best efforts to cajole a school administrator into unlocking the bathroom door, the bureaucrat was unyielding.
As we departed the school premises, in possible atonement for the perceived restroom lapse, or perhaps simply out of an abundance of hospitality, the older of the two villagers implied that she would like Bishara and me to accompany her home and stay the night with her family. Based on hand pantomimes, as well as a blend of indigenous language and trickles of English, we discerned that this young woman’s dwelling was in the loftiest reaches of the surrounding hills. Considering that our driver was already waiting for us, as we had unintentionally extended our sojourn in Ta Van beyond our scheduled time, and my underlying apprehension over embarking on an overnight stay with people we did not really know out in the middle of nowhere, we declined the considerate invitation. Of course, the imperative solicitation of souvenirs, including beautifully hand embroidered cloth wallets, coin purses, and mini-shoulder bags with braided shoulder loops eventuated as we approached the bridge to exit the village. Although normally reluctant to purchase street souvenirs, I was gratified to see expectant eyes turn thankful as I bought a multicolored wallet and coin purse from these kindhearted villagers. On the other side of the bridge, our driver’s arms flailed back and forth attempting to gain our attention. Dispensing appreciative hugs to the women, and asserting our wish to return someday, we scampered to our van. Our driver, obviously irked, uttered something incoherent and pointed to his watch as he drove off.
The informal tour schedule outlined by the hotel receptionist earlier in the day had assured a viewing of a second village, Lao Chai, which is where we assumed we were headed. Fifteen minutes into our ride, however, our driver abruptly stopped on the left side of the road without explanation. When we inquired why we were stopping, the driver erupted in a burst of staccato Vietnamese. His level of irritation grew with our lack of understanding, until a young Vietnamese couple walked by our van and our driver opened the van’s sliding door. More incomprehensible Vietnamese between the three until the young man outside the van peeked his head around the door jamb, and in faltering, though well enunciated, English sheepishly disclosed to us that the town in the valley below was Lao Chai, but it would take at least an hour and a half to walk down an arduous pathway and possibly up to two hours, or more, to hike back up the steep incline. The driver had stopped so we could survey the village from the road, but needed to return to Sapa for another client, continued the young man. Smiling, when we shook our heads in recognition, the young man spoke to our driver, whose stern countenance softened ever so much. The driver, clearly relieved, sped off for Sapa.
Our day closed with an exotic meal at Sapa’s Hill Station restaurant, including smoked buffalo, banana flower salad, carrot cake for dessert, and an exquisite view of the mountain landscape.
We would leave for Hanoi the following day on the overnight train from Lao Cai, and delighted in the prospect of revisiting the bustling and beguiling capital.