Sapa / Lau Chai : Sticky Rice, Burn and Indigo Crush

Sapa Travel Blog

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The topographic majecticness of the slatted rice paddy terraces.

In my several circuits of Sapa town yesterday I had hoped to happen across two friendly H’Mong ladies Sa and Khu again who’d kindly invited me back to their village, but I never found them.  I asked around but gave up.  Words gets around it seems though.  After I polish off my honey pancake and coffee breakfast, taking in the fabulous views on what is to be a fortuitously glorious day, I step out of the hotel and there, standing opposite grinning at me are Sa and Ku!  Great.  Well, that was easy!  They’ve been waiting for me.  In the twinkling of an eye we’re heading through Sapa’s morning market and heading out of town and into the valley.

Guides and friends : Khu 'Burn' and Sa 'Sticky Rice' of the Black H'Mong minority hill tribe.

Sa and Khu are good friends.  Happy and high spirited ladies.  Their names they tell me mean ‘Sticky Rice’ and ‘Burn’ respectively.  I swear a smile never leaves Khu’s face for a second of her life.  The taught skin about her eyes, and at the union between her cheek bones and nostrils crinkling, creasing and stretching energetically with every smile in a way I’ve noticed as peculiar to many of the hill tribe women of Sapa.  Laughter for Sa always revealing her two glinting ’golden’ teeth.  Sa and Khu are members of the Black H’Mong ethnic minority tribe and both hail from the valley village of Lau Chai, about 7 kilometres south of Sapa.  This is where we head.

Walking along the main road (that will eventually run all the way to Hanoi) and through the checkpoint where guests must pay 15,000VND ($0.

Stevie helps out Khu with her 'backpack' being a trained expert in the art these days :)
80) entrance and on down onto the less traffic populated hillside dirt tracks the scenery is quite incredible.  Perfect weather today too.  Bright, bright skies and burning sun.  This is my first glimpse of the topographical beauty of really extensive stretches of terraced hill-side rice paddy farming.  The hill slopes cut and carved into a series of stepped arcs or otherwise sinuous basin-shapes that are capable of collecting and holding rain and irrigation waters to facilitate the ’wet harvesting’ of rice.  In a month or so it will be the back breaking rice planting season.  Rainy season.  When the men and women of the village work together daily from 4.00am until 5.00pm and beyond for two to three weeks to plant out the delicate rice seedlings or ’paddys’.
Khu and the valley.
  Their one crop for the year.  No time to entertain tourists then.

Sa stops beside the path and breaks some leaves from a plant to show me.  An Indigo Plant.  She crushes up the indigo leaves between her fingers and, taking my hands, rubs and rubs the broken green leaf flakes into my palms.  Khu adds a sprinkle of water.  Pretty soon my palms look as if they possess two large circular bruises upon them.  The effects of the purple indigo dye.  It is the dye used by the H’Mong people (amongst others) to dye their clothes the dark blue-black hues that they are. 

We eventually arrive at Sa’s house.  A single wooden hut construction with a corrugated metal roof, containing three compartmented rooms.  Electricity has come to the valley in recent times.

The fern-plaited heart that Sa very kindly crafts for me.
  24 hours a day, so TV and phones are now a possibility for minority families who can afford them.  I was amazed also when following the first photo I take of Sa and Ku today Sa says “If you please you can send me some nice pictures by e-mail; to my Facebook.”.  Facebook?  “You have Facebook?!”.  “Yes yes.”.  Fair play.  It truly has conquered the World entire.  Ethnic hill tribe minorities ’n’ all!  When we later return to Sapa I spend a good hour reading e-mails received by Sa and her friends to them and typing their dictated responses to previous, international trek-buddies.

At Sa’s home we play an amusing game of ‘dress up’ as.

H'Mong Stevie :)
  Being of an appropriately H’Mong stature I am made to dress, top to toe in the traditional garments of Sa’s husband.  I’m sure the pet cat and dog are laughing at me!  I button and tie up and take the opportunity to ask and learn a little about the fascinating outfits that the Black H’Mong women wear.
There are the distinctive black velvet ‘leg warmers’, called ‘Khotu’ which consist of a single long bandage style tapering length of material that wraps around and around one’s calf until the ‘tie off’ ribbon is reached and used to secure the Khotu at the top.  Next are the long shorts or ‘Té’ made of the same Chinese velvet as the Khotu and then the main body wear, the ‘Choté’, made from hemp and died with indigo to a deep bruised purple-black.
Stevie and Khu : I'm not big, it's merely an optical illusion :)
  Along its arms are wide bands of intricate brocade stitch patterning.  An often colourful belt, or cummerbund called a ‘Hlang’ holds this tight and a sleeveless over garment, with slit sides, a high brocade collar and made from hemp rubbed down by stones to a lustrous purple shine called a ‘Choku’ goes on top.  The large iconic metal necklaces, with their loops of chain link and silver trinkets suspended from them are called ‘Bo-Khuda’.  One or sometimes two or more of these are worn.  I must emphasise that the above spellings are merely phonemic guesses on my part.  The ladies are much amused by my arsing about in the near perfect fitting H’Mong garb that they get me up in.  Laughing all the way.

We have a pleasant lunch at a restaurant-come-textiles workshop owned by Sa’s sister-in-law.

  Here I also meet her husband, her father (80 years old but busy as a bee constructing a dry stone wall for his daughter-in-law) and one of her two grandchildren.  Sa and Ku are mothers to 5 and 2 children respectively.  Marriages within the H’Mong community remain quite young (17 on average, Sa was 14 when she married) and are predominantly matches of choice nowadays.  As with many patriarchal societies it remains relatively easy for a H’Mong man to disown and separate from his wife and relatively difficult for a woman to demand the same right.

Simultaneous to the rise in tourism in the last decade in the area (although not necessarily in anyway as a result of it) the integration of the various hill tribes of the region has started, by small degrees to become more pronounced with girls and boys now marrying ‘out of community’.

  H’Mong marrying Dzao and moving to their villages and vice versa.  Marriages to foreigners are not unheard of or frowned upon within the modern H’Mong community either.  On this matter, half-jokingly, Sa and Ku are very keen to get me hooked up with a nice H’Mong girl (being of the right size ‘n’ all) and I am forbidden to marry a Vietnamese girl.  Although there’s no particular animosity between the hill minorities and the Viet majority population it’s clear the tribe women take a dim moral view of their city-based ‘sisters‘.  I say I can’t make any promises on either point.

The scenery remains fantastic as we descend into and walk through their village of Lau Chai, crossing a river bridge along the way.  A couple of other tourists seem to have hooked up with some of the ‘guide girls’ and this to me seems such a more pleasant way to be introduced to the communities of the area, rather than a dry $12 group package trip through some agency or other.

  Sa and Ku have all the time in the world for me today and I just love joking about with the hordes of H’Mong friends that accumulate around us, my height; my asymmetric shortness the well-spring of constant disbelief and fascination for them (and the people of Vietnam generally) in my time here.

We stroll on a lot further and through the minority Dzao village of Ta Van.  At the end of Ta Van, getting a little leg-weary at this point the three of us hop on the back of a couple of motorbike taxis and have an exhilarating ride along the snaking mountain road back to Sapa, a green heart shape crafted from a plaited fern leaf earlier in the day by Sa gripped between my teeth as I hug the waist of my driver for safety.

It’s been a beautiful, fascinating and fun day.

Bike back to Sapa "vroooooom!"
  I really love Sapa and the people here and will extend my intended stay here just a little to soak up the atmosphere and carry on having the amusing conversations a little longer.  Everyone is so incredibly friendly here and for fear this may change - if only just a little - when I head north into China I want to soak up as many happy vibes as possible whilst they rain down like so much sunshine freely upon me.

Stevie_Wes says:
Hmm? A pertinent question but not one actually that I may be best to ask. If you go with any of the 'tour packages' through hotels/ agencies you will pay usually $12 per day for however many days you trek... if you do it more informally you are in the vaguer zone of "whatever you want you give" when the awkward moment finally comes at the end of the day. I probably paid way over but decided it was what I wanted to give them regardless as I had had a fabulous day and a private experience not swamped by others or deadlines. Between them I gave 300,000VND ($17). Far above expectations I'm sure (as I'd paid for drinks and lunch for all of us volutarily 60,000VND and also for bikes back to town for all of us 60,000VND again) so if you wanna give less, maybe quite a bit less it may well be fine (I talked to a Canadian couple who gave 140,000VND for the both of them and it was quite evident this had been a bit of an insult). The girls later showered me with gifts (bracelets, stitched cushion covers and suchlike... again both a sign of our burgeoning friendship but also recognition of unwitting over-generosity. Trick is to go with your heart, make good friends and don't worry 'bout the money for such an experience.
Posted on: Apr 13, 2009
reikunboy says:
I was just wondering if and how much money you had to give them to show you around and what a greaat cultural experience it would have been. I want to go to Sapa NOW
Posted on: Apr 12, 2009
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The topographic majecticness of th…
The topographic majecticness of t…
Guides and friends : Khu Burn an…
Guides and friends : Khu 'Burn' a…
Stevie helps out Khu with her bac…
Stevie helps out Khu with her 'ba…
Khu and the valley.
Khu and the valley.
The fern-plaited heart that Sa ver…
The fern-plaited heart that Sa ve…
HMong Stevie :)
H'Mong Stevie :)
Stevie and Khu : Im not big, its…
Stevie and Khu : I'm not big, it'…
Bike back to Sapa vroooooom!
Bike back to Sapa "vroooooom!"
A scene from the Sapa valley.
A scene from the Sapa valley.
The ladies wash the indigo dye fro…
The ladies wash the indigo dye fr…
Khu!!! :))) She smile a LOT!
Khu!!! :))) She smile a LOT!
The vast bed of water-silvered ric…
The vast bed of water-silvered ri…
Sa and her home on the hillside ab…
Sa and her home on the hillside a…
Stevie in his hemp-tastic super-he…
Stevie in his hemp-tastic super-h…
Stevie and Sa : demonstarting the …
Stevie and Sa : demonstarting the…
Sa with her grandson and husband.
Sa with her grandson and husband.
A giant bamboo swing.  These are o…
A giant bamboo swing. These are …
Brocade decoration on Sas Chote
Brocade decoration on Sa's Chote
Sas traditional outfit (detail)
Sa's traditional outfit (detail)
Khus traditional outfit (detail)
Khu's traditional outfit (detail)
Khus earrings.
Khu's earrings.
Sapa house (abstract)
Sapa house (abstract)
Dusk in town at the night market.
Dusk in town at the night market.
One of many colourful, tiled Viet-…
One of many colourful, tiled Viet…
Sapa town seen from on high.
Sapa town seen from on high.
This is Sky. Not her real name b…
This is 'Sky'. Not her real name …
photo by: Paulovic