We’d booked a guide and car and driver to take us around Sapa for the day-and-a-half we were spending there, and they picked us up mid-morning for a walk to one of the minority villages where the Red Dao and Black Hmong people live. As we got out of the car, there was a group of a dozen or so colourfully-dressed women from the village with baskets on their backs. They surrounded us and told us pleasantly that if they walked with us, we should buy something from them, which sounded fair enough and I agreed. Three of the women allocated themselves to me therefore, shooed away their rivals and set off with us cheerfully, asking questions and chatting in what little English they knew. They did not say Manchester United when I said where I came from (which virtually everybody else in the world does), so I amended my reply to England which they had heard of. The path was initially a concrete track – the local council had thought that foreigners coming to Sapa to hike in the hills might find the concrete more appealing to walk on than a real mountain track. It drizzled for much of the day, and the guide did not actually say before we set off that the walk was going to take 3 ½ hours, so I was rather dispirited when we stopped for a little sit down as I was really tired, to find out that we were only nearly half-way there. I looked at the three Red Dao village girls who were amiably waiting for us to continue, felt guilty at taking up their whole day on an unnecessary walk, shared out the biscuits my guide had brought for us, and set off again.
The walk was not particularly difficult, on more or less flat terrain but pretty despite the drizzle, with rice terraces and mountains, the odd fellow-walkers, a girl with buffalo, and we went into a farmhouse where two girls were softening a roll of material with an ancient wooden contraption they stood on and rolled with a pumping motion of their feet. There was a hole for a fireplace in the ground, sacks of rice, corn and chillies piled on the earth floor, some puppies and a TV, and the girls looked tired. The village we ended up in was little more than one lane lined with shops selling snacks and water for the tourists who arrive, exhausted, here. One of my Red Dao girls pointed up a hill and said they lived 2 kilometres further on, and I was amazed by their lack of fatigue when I had been fit to drop for a couple of hours. By the time my guide sat me down in a plastic garden chair I was therefore in no state to resist their salesmanship which consisted of them selecting from their baskets what I should buy – a wall-hanging, a pair of matching cushion covers and a scarf, one from each of them – and telling me what I should pay. One of the girls did say, “I say price, you say price” but this prompt to bargain passed me by at the time. I struggled feebly to convert the hundreds of thousands of dong they mentioned into sterling in my head but could only manage the vaguest figure that I still knew was over the odds, but handed over the cash virtually without a murmer, much to their surprise. My guide was slightly disgusted with my profligacy, but scooped me up into the.car before I could do any more shopping and took me to a hot little café for pumpkin soup and ginger tea.
The next day I knew I was in for another walk, but counted on it being shorter. It was indeed shorter, only 1 ½ hours, but all uphill on a concrete path with no shade and in really hot, humid weather. We drove for half an hour to a village in a valley with local radio screaming out from a loudspeaker, and where the guide took me to Mr Lan’s house for a cup of tea. Mr Lan had built an upstairs storey on his house where he had made a dormitory for overnight visitors, he had to just ask the village elders for permission to do so. They made all the men of the village there help build it, and in return, Mr Lan had to throw daily dinner parties for them – no money changed hands. It sounded like a jolly good system. Anyway, we trudged uphill, my guide picked leaves and crushed them with his fingers and put them under my nose until I recognised the smell as coriander or lemongrass or whatever. There were tiny piglets and chicks, geese, kittens, cocky dogs, a baby buffalo, and peasants of all ages from the village at the top, all striding along with a stamina that comes from daily necessity. It was not enjoyable at all, but was too embarrassed to tell the guide I wanted to turn back, and hoped that the next day I might enjoy it in retrospect. Two small village kids at the top took my empty water bottles and bashed them up happily whilst their mother clearly wondered why I was so red-faced and sweaty, and breathed so noisily. The guide took me to another farmhouse in the village – they just say hello and can we come in – and again, it was just a large wooden barn but with electricity. It was lunchtime and the family were eating bowls of rice together at a low table, and paid us little attention. The village was poor and ramshakle like the ones yesterday, not charmingly rustic as the tourist guidebooks imply, and I felt like an intruder. We walked back down to the car and climbed gratefully back in.
But I am still enjoying both walks immensely in retrospect!