We have barely begun our three-day trek and Chao disappears into the forest. Half a minute later she returns beaming, machete in one hand, and what looks like a piece of dark bamboo in the other. She squats down and starts to whittle away at it, and with strong, accurate strokes, strips the bark within seconds and hands me the pole.
Sugarcane becomes our new favourite trail snack. Fresh and abundant, and full of liquid energy.
She, like the other H’mong women, wears a brightly coloured headscarf, a kind of tartan of oranges, greens and pinks, complete with trailing tassels and strings of beads. Her woollen clothing is dyed black with natural indigo which grows on the hillside, the tradition passed down through the generations.
The H’mong group is one part of the Mong-Dao minority, one of the many tiny and distinct ethnic groups up in the northern highlands of Vietnam. They arrived more than 300 years ago and still live a semi-nomadic existence, predominantly relying on their own sources of food and water to survive. These are among the poorest people in an increasingly urban economy but you wouldn’t know it from their unwavering smiles and boundless generosity.
Chao is married with two children, a boy and a girl. They live in her husband’s village which she tells me is ‘very close’ to her parent’s house where she grew up, ‘just a two-hour walk’. Our concepts of close clearly differ. She measures most distances by how long it takes to walk. It’s the only way to get up and down the valley’s mountainous slopes. Some manage to ride motorbikes about half way up but watching on, I’m convinced they will topple over backwards.
It’s traditional for the bride to move to the husband’s village to set up home and raise children. Chao was lucky enough to choose her husband, but she tells me that, traditionally, marriages were decided by the elders.
She explains: ‘we can choose our husband, he can be from any tribe. The old generation is happy for us to marry whoever we want. But they had arranged marriages.’
I ask her what she is saying to the villagers as we pass them on the trail, and why they are laughing.
‘Everyone is saying you are very red, you took too much happy water.’
It’s true that I had been polite enough to help finish the bottle of rice wine the previous evening but I think today’s redness has more to do with the punishing midday sun.
I tell her that I burn easily.
‘It’s the Irish in me. It goes nice and brown after a few days, that’s my Indian grandfather’s genes.’
She is surprised that I want to have brown skin.
‘My people want to want white skin like yours. It is more beautiful.’
I show her my lobster claw of an arm and she laughs, ‘maybe we don’t want your skin if it goes like that.’
We seem to ascend incredibly quickly, I glance over my shoulder and already there’s a breathtaking view of verdant rice terraces jutting out like stacked drawers and then falling away spectacularly. The river snakes the valley floor beneath carving the curve of the hillsides.
In one picture-perfect view, you can see an entire way of life that’s hardly changed in hundreds of years. Only in the last fifty or so have the motorbikes and tourists come, but the people fundamentally live the same way.
This picturesque mountainous region, the Mung Hoa Valley, is home to the town of Sapa, a former French colonial hill station, which, because of its location near to the Chinese border, was a strategic position during the many wars between the nations.
These left their scars on the town which has now rebuilt itself as a tourist hub, packed with guest houses offering treks and tours of the beautiful valley and nearby Fan Si Pan mountain.
The people here are hanging on to their traditional crafts, languages and values in the face of contradictory policies from the government. The communist party are building schools and public amenities for the people here, but there are underlying concerns about their real motives and stories of minority peoples being moved, away from the rice paddies which provide their food and income, to lower lying areas.
Our tour is organised by Sapa Sisters, one of the few tour companies jointly owned by local H’mong women. This is one way for the country’s growing tourist revenue to be given back to the people, rather than squirrelled away by the government or foreign guesthouse owners.
The local women work as tour guides, leading treks around the villages where tourists can experience the traditional way of life and even stay in the homes of local people. Many of these homestays have become more like mini hostels as demand has increased, with the families living in a separate building, but we are lucky enough to be staying at Chao’s parents’ house, in which they still live. The only problem is it’s at the top of a mountain.
As I struggle up the unbearably steep mud path, I cultivate a smug satisfaction, feeling I am sweating off some of that rice wine I knocked back so graciously the night before. I stop for a rest, panting. Chao, pointing down the valley without a drop of sweat on her, tells me, ‘the yellow building is government building or school.’
My smugness turns to shame as she explains how she had to traverse this track twice every day just to get to school and back. A good two-hour trek up a mud path, which might be buried in snow, flooded or baked hard by the glaring sun, depending on the season. She tells me she was taught Vietnamese at school but learned to speak English selling traditional handicrafts to tourists while helping her mother at the market in Sapa.
She says that people in the village one mile down the valley speak a different language which she doesn’t understand, so they communicate with each other in Vietnamese. I thought it was amazing that cities in the North of England had different accents from each other. These villages are about two miles apart and they speak an entirely different language!
After an hour or so of ascent and a bit of scrambling, we head through a wooded area on top of the hill. Eventually the trees clear and we are met with the kind of view that makes you instantly grateful to be in such a special place. Suddenly, everything seems like a movie and all your physical aches and trivial worries are put into perspective by the majesty of nature.
We are looking out towards the mountainous border with China to the north, a light fog adding to the mysticism. The rice terraces are giant steps down to the sprawling valley but this time there are mountains in the distance, poking into the clouds, like the pointed hats of the women working in the paddies. On the far horizon, the faint outlines of further hills and valleys emphasise the immense scale of the place. I’m blown away.
Chao’s parents’ house is a large wooden hut, the walls made by weaving strips of bamboo into each other. There’s some fencing around the yard with a family of rubber boots drying on the points, then on the next terrace down, a vegetable patch. Cabbages, onions and potatoes are thriving, for now. On the next level, the rice paddies begin the descent into the infinity of the valley beneath.
The whole valley is dependent on a mountaintop spring. Flowing through the house, it provides running water in the kitchen before flowing under the walls to become a stream for the ducks to live in, and the pigs and chickens to drink from. The stream flows on, channelled into the paddies. As it descends it breaks off into more and more streams, sustaining life further into the valley.
Not a drop is wasted. As it flows through the villages, people use it to power a rice crushing device. The repeated action of the giant mortar, a thousand times a day, gradually pounds a pestle of rice, separating the kernels from the husk. An ingenious automatic machine that can process the rice crop into flour with little manual labour and no energy other than gravity.
As the day’s last sunlight streams through the cracks in the bamboo walls, we sit around the fire on tiny plastic stools and start preparing vegetables for our meal. Chao’s sister-in-law, Lang, who lives with Chao’s parents, hands me a heavy cleaver and instructs me to dice an onion. She is very particular and it takes me a few tries to get it right – one of the more demanding head chefs I’ve encountered.
Next door, one of the chickens we were watching earlier has just been slaughtered and is being chunked, right through the bones. I feel bad that they’ve slaughtered one of their chickens just for us, but I suppose the income they get from hosting tourists must pay for it.
We cook together over the open fire and it’s magical. This is the kind of cooking I love: the smell of the smoke, the heat of the fire on my skin. It’s fascinating learning how the H’mong women cook and as the smoke hazes the room I can see where it has been blackening the bamboo ceiling for years.
Lang shows us how to roll strips of carrots and spring onions up in rice paper to make spring rolls. The cooking style here is influenced by Southern China, where the minorities who inhabit these valleys originate from, but they use plenty of fresh herbs and fish sauce as is typical in Vietnam. We fry the spring rolls in a pot of oil over the burning coals, stir fry the chicken in a wok, and fry copious amounts of garlic to flavour steamed pak choi.
The meal is served family style, each dish heaped onto a plate in the middle of the table, and we’re encouraged to dive in with chopsticks. Rice is served individually in small bowls and the table is lit by candles. The water-powered generator has stopped working and is the only source of power up here so there’s no charging our phones tonight.
The meal is fantastic. Light, yet rich in the deep flavours of fish sauce and soy sauce and the tang of rice vinegar, and it’s all the better for the warm and welcoming atmosphere. The vegetables are grown in the yard or come from the market and we know how fresh the chicken is, so it’s no wonder it tastes so good.
I don’t know when to stop and anyway once my bowl is empty, more food appears in front of me. It’s rude not to finish what’s on your plate and I dutifully oblige, not sparing a thought for the pig outside, who’s missing out on her leftovers.
Chao’s mother keeps bringing more rice. This is something they have a lot of and it accompanies every meal. In fact, Chao tells me that they have such an abundance they use it for everything. They dry it and grind it into flour. They cook it and make rice cakes of different shapes – banh chung and banh day. They make rice noodles and rice paper and anything that’s left, they cook up and leave to ferment to make rice wine, which is also generously offered. If any rice wine is leftover, it can be turned into vinegar.
They employ the kind of no waste policy that is trendy in modern cooking, but, of course, all these techniques came about precisely because of necessity and poverty, and the new trends are simply a return to the old ways of doing things. The strips of pork smoking above the fire are another reminder of this.
We say goodnight and on my woven mattress, under my mosquito net, I have a chance to reflect.
On the one hand, it’s an immense privilege to experience even the tiniest aspect of this traditional way of life and be guided by such an enterprising and thoughtful host. On the other, it’s heartbreaking to think that all of these traditional skills and techniques, and the language of the diverse minorities living here, may all be lost to our global society.
What Sapa Sisters is doing is, at least, putting the tourist profits back in the hands of the people who live here, but more needs to be done to secure the long-term future of these peoples and ensure that their cultures and ways of life don’t go the way of every other minority culture on the planet, swallowed up in the black hole of globalisation.
On a more positive note, it’s encouraging to see young women like Chao getting educated and earning good money for their families. I’m sure she’ll instil in her children, the same entrepreneurial spirit and warmth of heart that makes her such a memorable and inspiring guide.