To celebrate six years of devout camaraderie, Trinh and I set off to the Sapa Valley to climb Indochina’s tallest mountain – Mt. Fanxipan – Fancy Pants. Escaping our offices on Wednesday afternoon, we boarded a plane for the first time in nine months to test our bodies, minds, and our precariously maturing relationship. Despite living in the Best-of-all-Possible-Worlds, the drastic change of scenery let us reflect on the grand and even grander journeys ahead.
Riding on the Crazy Bus
We slinked to an empty parking lot outside the Hanoi airport to board our much-delayed neon-lit Tom and Jerry cartoon-themed sleeper bus to Sapa. My eyes, tired from months of computations, were delighted to spot the blinking beeping bus with gaudy cartoon stickers all over. From 10 PM to 4 AM, our Tom and Jerry dream cruiser whisked us along perfectly smooth roads towards the Sapa Valley.
My Near Death Vision
Tom and Jerry dropped us off in Sapa, a hazy tourist trap that married Kathmandu and Hanoi. Over the last 300 years, Sapa evolved from a hill tribe trading center into a 1990s eco-tourism bus stop. Chilled by the foggy Mountanya air before sunrise, we hired a driver to terrify me by hastily sliding his car over mountain roads littered with death drops and landslide debris. Holding on for dear life, I’m rather attached to my current incarnation; a bright flash of irony engulfed me in a near-death vision – where I got out of the car and onto a horse. Unlike bored boys driving taxis, horses have a self-preservation instinct that stops them from running gleefully off the side of a mountain.
Charmed by our Lodge
We arrived at our magical mountain lodge just after sunrise. Exploring the property, we were charmed by the folksy wooden furnishing, welcoming family-style service, and the way that everything in our luxurious hut worked fabulously. We’d spend the next few days chirping with the staff and giving the lodge’s dogs real good ear scratches.
Setting out in Sapa
Recovering our wits with a power nap, we spent the first day’s daylight walking through the valley with our stocky hired guide – Thinh. Thinh walked us through the tribal villages that coexisted in the valley. Our hiking path converged with two tribal women, who happily followed us through rice terraces, saved me from barbed wire fences, and held my hand when I was afraid to cross a plank bridge.
Along the road, we lunched on the valley-grown foods. We puffed the refined and sophisticated North Vietnamese tobacco pipe.
Over 2,000 meters above sea-level, the Sapa Valley is the last soggy French fry of the Himalayas. The valley is a few hours’ drive from southern China. Sapa is a Hmong homeland enriched with rice terraces, plowed by horny oxen, and picked by young mothers with babies slung on their backs in cloth hammocks. Slinging a baby to your back is cool when your sling is a $200 REI accessory. It’s a grotesque mark of poverty when a mother wraps a baby in an inexpensive blanket. How dare they maintain their unpatented, unprofitable, ancestral ways!
We’d spend the next few days walking amongst villagers meandering in traditional clothes, Asiatic rice paddies begging to be photographed, misty mountains that might house Kung Fu masters, and well-rested goats, ducks and pigs; living their busy lives without any regard for us, COVID-19, the unresolved US election, their pending slaughters, and subsequent reincarnations.
Moving through Hmong villages, Thinh shared that the Hmong don’t send their kids to school. The Hmong are skeptical that the government schools will teach the children Vietnamese culture and pull them into the mainstream. Hmong girls often stay home to learn traditional crafts and the boys find work in farming and professional husbandry. Over centuries the Hmong migrated from modern-day south China to Indochina and on to southern California. They fled to California to avoid brutal retaliation for siding with US-backed and abandoned anti-communist movements. Like a divorcees’ child, they maintain an affected harmony and quiet suspicion within their two homes; Vietnam and Laos.
After a hot bath in a wooden tub, we put back on our boots to venture down the road to discover whatever the light touches. As we crunch down the valley road, we passed both human and buffalo mothers, protectively herding their fragile children home.
Trinh felt sympathy for the buffalos rounded up into makeshift pens to sleep in a huddle through the night’s cold mountain air. Before she could articulate her anger at human cruelty, she saw that these humans don’t have electricity, flat land, houses, and without tourism dollars any money.
Closed borders turned the Sapa valley, a must-see travel destination into a ghost town. All the eco-lodges with Western books, wooden bath tubes, craft beer, and indoor fireplaces were closed. Without western tourists, the valley really looked like … Asia.
Trafficking our Stars
That night, Trinh and I propped bean bags on our porch and passed our binoculars back and forth to watch motorbike lights crisscross the dark distant mountains like star lights rolling down the sky. Hearing some commotion, I peered off the porch towards the road. There I saw children sitting on the street in front of our lodges’ gate. I determined they were seated close to our lodge to connect to the WIFI. The nightwalkers roaming for midnight’s sweet WIFI, reminded us that this border region with China is a hotbed for human trafficking. Every month there’s a news story about a girl who survived being trafficked into China to be a Chinese family’s workhorse bride. Only returned escapees make the news. The long queue of missing girls doesn’t make the headlines.
The Sun Also Rises
Trinh and I awoke to a pink sunrise over a clear valley. Wiping the sleep from our eyes, we were dazzled by our first clear view of the mountains among us. I pushed our bamboo coffee table to the edge of the porch and took in a rose gold feast for the eyes as the light touched the tops of a finally visible Fanxipan.
We continued our delight with the lodges dogs and breakfast. Our legs were hungry for more meters, so we set out to explore the valley on our own. We tumbled down the rice terraces passed the arcane pleasantries of people working the rice fields with hand tools, stubbornly autonomous goats, old ladies sowing cloths, and ducks of ducks.
We walked beyond our valley’s boundaries to discover roaming black pigs, cable-drawn bridges, and steep switchbacks climbing surrounding hills. Every corner we shlept around gave us something new to chuckle at. Like a free willy’d little boy hurrying home, purposeful pigs escaping their captivity, hearing our echoes across the valley, and funny musing on our fatal unpreparedness for snow – should the Angels win the World Series.
Now I’ll fall asleep remembering Trinh protecting me from the friendly dog barks I mistook as threats. What a hero!