The beautiful mist bowl of Sapa valley in the early morning.
At 5am I‚Äôm sat in a mini-bis van attempting to defrost from the popsicle like state that the air conditioned sleeper train cabin has left me in. Mike had warned me that Sapa gets pretty darned cold at night so shivering in my middle bunk for 90 minutes or so I thought I was crossing into this new climatic zone. But no, I step out into a warm pre-dawn Lau Cai. It was just a psychopathic A/C system.
Sapa sits tucked in the far north west of Vietnam. Approximately 350 kilometres from Hanoi, at about 1,600 metres above sea level and not too far from Mount Fansipan, Indochina‚Äės highest mountain peak at 3,143 metres.
The more hilly and mountainous regions of Vietnam teem with any number of different ethnic communities, no more so than here in the villages and outlying areas of Sapa and Son La. If I heard correctly from Vin, a very informative lady yesterday at the Vietnam Ethnographic Museum in Hanoi (and it could I think have been misinterpreted in translation) there are 54 ethnic community groupings in Vietnam of which 53 are represented somewhere in this region of the country. I find this last fact a touch hard to believe, but hey, far be it from me to know!
Amongst many others these groups include the Tay, Thai, Muong, Khome, Hoa, Nun, Yao, Dzao and H‚ÄôMong peoples, each group constituting between 1 to 1.5% of the Vietnamese population. The vast majority of these groups all together only comprise a sum of 4.
Yes, believe it or not there are tourists trying to leave the cafe here : you can quite feasibly be mugged by large numbers of wonderful, colourful people in Sapa :)
5% of Vietnam‚Äôs total population, with communities sometimes numbering less than 1,000 people. The 87% ethnic majority of Vietnam are the Viet people who predominantly live in the lower river delta and coastal regions of the nation.
Some of the ethnic minorities subdivide further into differentiated inter-community groups each distinguished from one another with subtle differences in dialect, customs and predominantly the women‚Äôs dress. For example there are the ‚ÄėBlack‚Äė, the ‚ÄėBlue‚Äė, the ‚ÄėWhite‚Äô and the ‚ÄėFlower‚Äô Hmong communities. The ‚ÄėWhite‚Äô and the ‚ÄėBlack‚Äô Thai communities with their different architectural approaches to home building.
Some of these ethnic groupings have a presence dating back in Vietnam many, many hundreds of years such as the Yao from the 13th Century, however larger groupings such as the H‚ÄôMong only date in Vietnam from the 18th Century.
My first meeting with Ku (left) and Sa (right) two ladies of the Black H'Mong ethnic hill tribe.
Many of the northern ethnic groupings are of Chinese/ Han origins. Soon to cross the mountain border into Yunnan Province, China I am going to be fascinated to see how the social and cultural signposts of dress, customs and aesthetic appearance shift subtly as I move through the ‚Äôsister‚Äô communities of southern China.
Within the streets of the Sapa, a hub town in the region where tourists flock in large numbers (especially at weekends) you will meet - ‚ÄúOh boy will you meet!‚ÄĚ - the ladies and girls mainly of the Black H‚ÄôMong and Red Dzao communities. It is the former that come to town in the largest numbers. Their distinctive dress : lengths of black fabric wound many times, thickly around their calf muscles and bound in place with ribbon; black velvet ‚Äôshorts‚Äô running up under a deep blue-black indigo died kimono-style shirt dress bordered with bands of beautiful, elaborately embroidered silk-stitch patterning or delicate brocade.
A congregation of the Red Dzao (I think?) ethnic group.
Upon their heads the women wear a variety of traditional headdress. Sometimes a velvety black circular ‚Äėtube‚Äė, about 6-7 inches deep, encircling and containing their hair or else a brightly coloured check-tartan scarf arrangement almost like a super-sized pirate bandanna. For accessorising, large silver or aluminium ¬ĺ necklaces hang about their necks with a chaotic cascade of chain-link arcing from it across their chests. Several circular earrings of the same materials hang circular, large and weightily from ears often causing elongated lobes over time.
The women come to town, out of the rice tending months to try to earn further income by selling examples of the beautifully crafted and coloured textiles treasures of their communities‚Ä¶ with modern functional twists of course.
"You wan' one you buy fro me Mistuuuuh?". The cotton-carrying little H'Mong tribes girls of Sapa.
Satchels and pencil cases and such like. To assist them in their task a lot of them speak some rudimentary, often quite serviceable English and the linguistic trickle-down effect to their young daughters is impressive to observe. Especially at the busy weekends it can be quite a hard sell, and in fare warning to you if you are the kinda person/ traveller that does not tolerate or enjoy constant - and I mean constant!
- attentions, propositioning and conversation in aid of trying to sell you stuff you are going to have to prepare well; toughen up a little before you come here if you are to take away the undoubted magic of Sapa. You will not be left alone. Not for one minute. Not for one second. Not never. Seriously. I‚Äôve been in some hellish soul-hammering markets or street scenarios in maybe Cairo or Bangkok but actually the experience in Sapa is potentially much more intense, much more suffocating for the uninitiated or unsuspecting.
Personally I‚Äôm well inured to the hard-learnt arts of patience and travel-humour required to survive and float through 10,000 conversations demanding a new and inventive way of politely saying ‚Äúno thank you‚ÄĚ. I‚Äôve even reached that point in my journey where in some perverse way I kinda enjoy all the insane, buffeting and attentions. A kinda human-contact junky maybe? But a lot of people will not enjoy this despite the fact the ladies are happy, friendly, often funny and always well meaning in their approaches‚Ä¶ but for sheer dogged persistence they cannot be beaten in my experience to date.
I think I politely said ‚Äúno thank you‚ÄĚ no less that 50 times to one lady. They will float along behind you like happy little shadows for any long number of minutes, or blocks of the city.
Pitching the occasional question at you. ‚ÄúWhat your name?‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúWhere you from?‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúHow long you stay in Sapa?‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúWhere your fren‚Äô / your famly?‚ÄĚ. ‚ÄúHow old are you?‚ÄĚ.
The usual roll call. I‚Äôm actually asked the latter question three times in the 200 metre walk from my bus to my hotel on arrival. I‚Äôm sure there‚Äôs something wrong with having to reveal the fact that you‚Äôre 30 three times before you‚Äôve even had breakfast! Dignity requires caffeine to wake up too.
The little girls will be all over you wherever you go. First two, three, then four then more. They appear, in their little dresses and leggings and walk towards you holding up brightly coloured offerings of stitched thread bracelets.
If you hesitate for a minute or - G. forbid - actually express interest the number will suddenly billow to anywhere up to ten or more! Where did they all come from?! All standing around you in a circle, holding up their little thread rainbows. ‚ÄúYou wan' one mister?‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúYou wan one you buy fro me!‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúPlease mister help one buy one for me?‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúOne one cheap price for you!‚ÄĚ.
Hands lifting, crossing, pawing, clawing and clutching and waving before your eyes. Colour and children‚Äôs faces blurring all around you. Disorientating. I‚Äôm reminded of those classic shots from the George A.Romero zombie movies where the camera locks on a seething mass of waving limbs, faces with gaping maws, reaching for the lens.
The kidz of Cat Cat
For you the viewer! Faces with no other purpose left in what was formerly 'life' other than to pursue one goal "BRAAAAAAINS!"
or in this case, a sale! ‚ÄúAAAAaaagh!‚ÄĚ.
It‚Äôs all good fun. I have an absolutely great time walking around the town of Sapa and its streets and markets all day interacting with the H‚ÄôMong and Dzao ladies. In the afternoon, following from an early morning downpour the weather improves greatly and so I take a stroll 3 kilometres to Cat Cat village, the nearest and consequently most tourist-orientated of the many villages in the Sapa area. As with most tracks and trails that lead you to areas of either scenic splendour or villages of cultural interest there is an ‚Äėentrance‚Äô fee.
Thac Tien Sa waterfall near Cat Cat village.
Usually 15,000VND ($0.80) but sometimes higher. To go further afield requires more time, and possibly a guide. I‚Äôm still considering my options but am keeping an eye out for Sa and Ku two very friendly and humorous H‚ÄôMong ladies who I got joking with in the morning and whom invited me back to their village.
In the evening I hook-up with Daphne, a very pleasant lady. A San Francisco nurse who worked in Mongolia for two years with the Peace Corps. She‚Äôs drawn my attention to a performance of traditional ethnic music and dance performances that happens some evenings at one of the swankier hotels (the Bamboo Hotel) so we pop along and greatly enjoy this.
It‚Äôs night. I lie in bed. Can‚Äôt sleep. Suddenly a hand bursts through the wooden headboard above me.
Ripping right through from the wall behind. The little hand clasps a bunch of rainbow coloured cotton-thread bracelets. Another arm bursts through the other side of the headboard. Then another through the wooden door on the opposite side of the room. Children are bursting through and into my room. Arms held aloft. Wavering. I jump out of bed but trip and fall. More little bracelet clutching kids are tearing and clattering through the thin plaster walls now and are advancing towards me! Help. They hold their arms out before them. The arms with little hands extending to offer me their brightly coloured offerings. There‚Äôs no
escape. There‚Äôs too many. Three, then four, then more and more. Swarming in from G.
knows where! ‚ÄúPlease mister, pleeeeeeeease‚Ä¶.‚ÄĚ.
Help! ‚ÄúYou wan one you buy fro meeeee‚Ä¶..‚ÄĚ.
Red. Pink. Green. Blue. Purple. Orange. Yellow. An advancing ocean of colour that I am to drown in amidst their groans and implorations. Ribbons of brocade and cascades of black hair swirl around me. Arms reaching, pawing, clutching, clawing. ‚ÄúMiiiister, you wan one you help one for meeee‚Ä¶.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúHELP! Can anyone hear me?! HELP!‚ÄĚ.
I‚Äôm drowning. There‚Äôs too many of them. Too much deadly intent to sell, to pester to compel me to purchase.
Portrait of Thu (her earring)
Guilt starts to sink its fangs into me. They‚Äôre on top of me now. These one track mind(less) cotton bracelet entrepreneurs have got the better of me! It‚Äôs a nightmare right?! A bad dream that I‚Äôll wake up from?! A bad movie!? ‚ÄôNight of the Living Threads.‚Äô
Pinch me. ‚ÄúYou buy for me mistuuuuuuuuuh‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ
coming. Is there no
hope?! I reach for my camera with one hand but it‚Äôs held tight by three kids whilst another ties the brightly coloured cotton manacles around me‚Ä¶ pinch me!‚Ä¶
I reach for my wallet with the other, the only thing surely that can defeat them; that can make them go away. To force them back from whence they came‚Ä¶ but it‚Äôs too late!
I moved too slow.
My left arm's already bound tight with a very pretty, traditional stitched brocade belt length. PINCH ME! I‚Äôm done for. Collapsed. It‚Äôs dark. Except for glittering eyes above me and rainbow coloured threads all about me. Will the pestering ever stop!! Nightmare. PIIIIINCH ME SOMEBODY PINCH ME!!!
‚ÄúOuch! Not that ‚Äėard that hurt!!‚ÄĚ. Phew. Just a dream!