The next morning, we woke up at 6:30 a.m., showered, and stepped out onto our balcony. There was a gorgeous view down at town in the morning light. The room had been warm overnight; there was no air conditioning or fan. They are not usually needed here, this place has historically been a respite from the heat of lower-lying Vietnam. But we were here during an unseasonably warm time. We could tell that today would be a hot one as well. We were going trekking today, and we hoped that there wouldn't be too much uphill in this heat.
We walked over to the dining room for breakfast. They provided a very nice buffet, and we were astonished at how many guests were staying at this hotel. There was a steady stream of folks coming in for breakfast. We enjoyed cheese, French toast, madeline coconut cake, sausage, pineapple, yogurt, cereal, coffee, fresh orange juice and fresh peach juice. The juice glasses were very avant-garde - they leaned at about 1 30 degree angle, giving the constant illusion that your juice was about to tip and spill all over the table. As we walked back to our room to grab our day packs, we noticed that there were some giant rabbits in an enclosure. They were eating some lettuce which had just been fed to them.
At 9 o'clock, we met Cuong and Mr. Giang out front. The parking lot was gridlocked with buses and vans picking up tourists for their daily activities. Hotel employees were acting as traffic cops, directing oversized vehicles to make 100-point turns. It was downright treacherous walking to our car. It was like one of those puzzles with the square pieces that need to be slid in a very specific order.
Mr. Giang drove us 5 km out of Sa Pa toward Ban Den. We pulled over at a mile marker and got out of the car. The views of the surrounding mountains and valleys were spectacular. Green rice terraces as far as the eye can see in the hazy sunshine. Groups of Black Hmong women were gathered here at the road, approaching tourists who started trekking here.
Soon we had an entourage of four women accompanying us on our trek. They were wearing traditional Black Hmong clothing: dark indigo-dyed short dresses with embroidered sleeves. There is elaborate embroidery hidden under their collars. Their legs were wrapped from their knees down to their ankles with woven strips of indigo fabric. Most of them wore the ubiquitous white flip-flops we had seen all over Ha Giang. They wore silver hoop earrings. Two of them had babies, and the other two carried baskets on their backs. They could all speak English to some degree, and asked us where we are from. One of the ladies took me by the hand as we walked. Her name was La and she was very sweet. Though they would occasionally try to get us to commit to looking at the handicrafts they had for sale, they also chatted with us and warned us to be careful of oncoming motorbikes.
We walked down a dirt road down into the valley. We stopped in at a school to deliver some school supplies that Cuong had brought. Although there were a lot of tourists trekking today, they are not usually allowed to stop in at the school. It must be too disruptive. But Cuong had arranged a visit for us by providiong a donation of school supplies, so we were very honored and grateful to have this uncommon experience. The class had 19 students, sitting two to a desk. The classroom was decorated with all kinds of primary school art projects, as well as colorful teacher-made learning aids. I felt nostalgic for my teaching days during and soon after college. The class sang a song for us and clapped along for percussion. We passed out the notebooks, pens, and crayons to the kids, and they were quite excited.
When we came back out of the school, we noticed that the same four women were waiting for us. La took my hand and we resumed our trek. As we passed houses, we noticed that running water was being harnessed to automatically pound rice. A large wooden log would be fashioned into a large spoon which balanced on a fulcrum like a see-saw. Water would flow into the bowl of the spoon. When it got heavy enough, it would tip. The water flowed out and the now-empty bowl jerked up in the air, causing a blunt instrument on the other end to pound a bowl of rice. Such a simple machine, making use of gravity and natural resources to perform a task. In our lives, we rely so much on computer-based technology, it is refreshing to see a more organic solution.
The views in all directions were stunning. It was sunny and a bit hazy, and we could see terraced mountains at all depths until they disappeared into the haze. We stopped at a woman's house to use the rest room. The house was made of wood with a corrugated tin roof. She was sitting on the porch with her baby. He was adorable and gave a toothy smile for a picture. He had some plastic toys and a mirror that he was playing with. She put him in his western stroller that still had some of the protective plastic on the handle. He was perfectly content while she did a weaving demonstration for us on her loom. Out back there was a barrel full of indigo dye. Cuong showed us the leaves of the plants from which they extract the dye. Cuong then showed us how to manually use a grinding wheel by pushing and pulling a handle in an elliptical motion. A foot-pedal-operated sewing machine sat idle. We thanked our hostess and said goodbye.
We continued on our trek, passing an area with a lot of infrastructure construction going on. There were sections of concrete pipe and bricks laying in the newly dug earth. Cuong was afraid that they might be planning to put in a dam right outside of Sa Pa.
We passed some house construction, with a wooden frame and corrugated metal roof. They were using bricks to seal off the ends. We stopped into a little building for cold sodas. The sun was very hot. It was such a pastoral atmosphere. But it was far from low-key. There were many tourists doing the trek, and each had an entourage of locals who were hoping to get a piece of the money that tourism contributes to the economy.
We crossed a small suspension bridge over a stream and came upon two toddlers. One was half naked and playing with a carving knife. Adults were working here and there in the fields, but these two kids were unattended. Cuong put the knife out of harm's way. We arrived at another school, this one a kindergarten. The students were eating their lunch outside on the porch. Each had a small plastic bucket of rice that they brought from home, and the school augments it with additional food. There are 10 teachers and 120 students at the school. We presented the teachers with stacks of notebooks, crayons, and pens. They were very grateful, and when Cuong went to take pictures of us with them, one took Craig's hat off of his head and put it on her own. Sa Pa is also considered a remote location, so these teachers are also paid double the wages, like the teachers we had met in Ha Giang. The teachers pointed out one particular student, only four years old and very small, who walks two hours each way to school and back, all by himself.
As we left the school, we noticed that our four companions were still waiting for us. By now we were beginning to feel a bit guilty. They would definitely be expecting us to buy something from them or to tip them after spending the whole morning with us. We had kind of expected them to disappear when we were in the school for so long.
We continued on, stopping in at various houses of people whom Cuong has gotten to know over the years guiding here. We passed water buffalo and pigs in fields. We passed a workshop where men and women were carving soapstone into intricate shapes. There was a large urn with a Buddha on the top and dragons as handles on the side that was about four feet tall.
We passed a shop where they were selling soapstone carvings. Some were white and some had been painted over with black to accentuate the details in the carving. We were tempted by a carving of the One Pillar Pagoda, but it was too heavy and breakable to carry home. So we opted instead for Tran Quoc Pagoda, which we had seen at West Lake in Hanoi. While we were in the shop, a man passed by outside carrying a huge metal water tank on his back. Despite the obvious weight and awkwardness of it, he was smiling and greeting everyone as he passed.
We continued on our way and passed a man who was doing construction on a building. He had taken stalks of bamboo and cut them in half length-wise. Then he had scored each of them vertically so they laid flat. He wove them through horizontal wooden slats to make walls. It was very interesting to see the simple ways in which people made use of natural resources. Along our trek, we saw several community guest houses that offered home stays. We were happy that we had done our home stay in a place that was less touristy.
As we walked further down the road, we could smell rice wine. Since when could we recognize the smell of brewing moonshine? Since seeing Chuong's still in Ha Giang, that's when. Cuong spoke to a woman who invited us into a building where she was tending a still. She took the byproducts from the process and fed them to her pigs.
When it was time for lunch, we stopped at a house whose owners were friendly with Cuong. Our Black Hmong companions took food out of their baskets. They had been carrying our food all day; it was only now that we realized that Cuong had actually hired them as our local guides. We had wondered if they had stayed with us all day just in the hopes that we would buy something from them. We were glad to know that they were being compensated either way. Had we known that we had hired them, we probably would have engaged with them more. We hadn't wanted to lead them on if they were not going to be paid.
The women sat in the sun embroidering while we ate a picnic lunch of baguettes, Laughing Cow cheese, tinned pork, pears, bananas, and soda. As usual there was way too much food for the three of us to consume, so we shared it with our companions. When we were done and ready to resume our walk, the ladies asked if we could look at what they had for sale so that they could go home to their families for lunch. Cuong said that we didn't have to buy from them since they had already been paid, but we wanted to buy something from each of them to show our appreciation for the time they had spent with us. We bought an embroidered purse from each of the four women. As a thank you, La and her friend tied little embroidered ribbon bracelets around my left wrist. "To match your shirt," La said. The other two women each gave one to Craig.
We said our thank you's and goodbye's and continued on our way through the gorgeous landscape. We passed houses where the front rooms had been turned into small shops. At one house, raw meat was sitting out on a table next to an old-fashioned scale. The butcher wasn't visible. Another house contained a little hardware shop where metal heads for pickaxes, hoes, and hatchets were displayed without wooden handles. Brightly colored plastic buckets, synthetic brooms, hammocks, and extension cords were displayed for sale.
We walked a bit further, crossing a bridge over a small river, and arrived at the place where all of the drivers were socializing while waiting for their tourists to finish with the trek. We waved and called to Mr. Giang and he drove us the short distance back to town.
We would be taking an overnight train back to Hanoi tomorrow night. This meant that Mr. Giang would need to drive the car back to Hanoi to meet us. He would be starting his journey today to give himself a day and a half for the trip, and we would have a local driver tomorrow. We asked Cuong if there was a more direct route, or if he would have to retrace the same route that had brought us here. He told us that he would need to retrace our route (without taking the detour to the Panhou Village)
Mr. Giang dropped us off at a Foot and Body Massage shop on the main street in Sa Pa. We said goodbye to him and wished him a safe trip, and then he drove off. Cuong likes to bring clients here after trekking, to help give business to one of the masseuses, who is legally blind. Craig, Cuong, and I sat in comfortable chairs with big pillows for our heads. We were each brought square wooden buckets full of near-boiling water and herbs. After letting it cool to a tolerable temperature, we soaked our feet. Our masseuses started out perched on the back of our chairs, massaging our necks and shoulders. Then they dried off our feet and massaged our feet and lower legs. It was very relaxing after our morning of walking. Both of us got massages for a total of $15. What a bargain! And we were happy to help out the blind masseuse, who had performed Craig's massage quite skillfully.
When our feet were nice and refreshed, Cuong asked if we were ready for some more walking. Up behind the Catholic church, we walked up a path past some stores which were selling traditional remedies. There were glass jars full of alcohol with various flora / fauna items soaking inside. It reminded us of the alcohol that Chuong had shared with us in Ha Giang. The jars were arranged in a neat display, with taxidermy squirrels in between them. It was quite surreal.
We came upon a gate welcoming us to Ham Rong Tourist Mountain. The mountain gets its name because it resembles a dragon. Legend says that it is the female half of a pair of dragons who were turned to stone and washed away by a flood. Cuong paid for our entrance, and we joined a group of tourists walking up stone steps and along a nice stone path. We passed through a garden of orchids and saw a sign for the Garden of the 12 Earthly Branches. This garden paid tribute to the animals of the Vietnamese zodiac, and there were statues of each animal peppered in amongst boulders, plants, and water features. Some of the statues were pop culture representations of the animals (the cat was represented by Tom of Tom and Jerry fame, and the mouse was represented by Mickey Mouse). This was obviously meant to appeal to kids, but it made the whole thing seem even more surreal (and a bit kitschy).
We continued further up the mountain, through a very nicely landscaped set of gardens. The sun was hot and Cuong was encouraging us to keep moving. We arrived at a building and Cuong led us inside to have a seat. It turned out that he had been in a rush to arrive here for a 3:30 p.m. ethnic music and dance performance. We were the first people there, so we sat on benches in the front where we would have a good view. Cuong got us some cold sodas and the hall soon filled with tourists.
The performance featured young men and women performing a variety of traditional dances dressed in ethnic costumes. They danced with various props, including parasols and fans. Recorded music was played to accompany them, but in between dance numbers a young man got up and played tunes on traditional flutes. As a grand finale, they brought out long bamboo poles. Three people sat on each side of the stage, each holding onto a pair of poles. They moved the poles in a rhythmic way and dancers stepped between them. They invited audience members up to dance. Of course, the first person they approached in the audience was Craig, who politely declined the offer. Although this is normally something I would participate in, after all of the walking we did today and with the foot massage on top of it, my feet didn't feel strong enough to attempt such a thing in public. Luckily there were many good sports who did try it.
At the end of the half-hour long performance, the troupe sold a CD-R which contained video of their performances. We decided to support them by buying one, expecting to pay $10 - 15. It turned out to be less than $3 (they tried to give us change back from 3 dollar bills). It was certainly a bargain.
After the performance, we wandered down the mountain at a leisurely pace, enjoying the gardens in the late afternoon sunlight. We joined in with all of the local tourists who were getting photographed in front of a topiary which spelled out "Sa Pa." We walked through the orchid garden again, and it looked other-worldly and lush. The shadows and long sun wavelengths made us feel like we had stepped into a fairy tale. Cuong called it a Kodak moment. There was a gazebo made of concrete in the shape of a giant mushroom / tree / parasol. From there we had a nice view down at Sa Pa below.
After descending the mountain, we popped out next to the Catholic church at around 6 o'clock. We were close enough to see the stained glass windows which adorned it. Cuong said he would meet us at 7 o'clock at the Nature Bar and Grill for dinner. We said goodbye to him for now.
We walked across the square and up the hill toward the hotel. We stopped at Tham's shop to pick up our laundry. When we arrived she was embroidering a small tapestry. We asked if she had done all of the embroidery for sale in the shop and she said yes. We purchased one, along with a few other souvenir items. Tham asked if she could be our friend and keep in touch, as she had enjoyed our interactions with her. We happily agreed and exchanged contact information. She presented us with three larger embroideries she had done as gifts for us and each of our parents. She mentioned seeing our parents in the photos we had shown her yesterday, and she wanted to give us something for them. She also gave us a small woven wallet. It was very sweet of her, and we got some photos with her.
We went back to the room. It had been a long day of trekking, so we both appreciated a nice shower. We had known that Cuong had been pretty hungry, so we decided to go down to the restaurant a few minutes early. As we had suspected, Cuong was already there. The proprietor of the restaurant was very happy to see us for the second night in a row and greeted us warmly. Cuong poured us each a shot of Hmong apple rice wine. It wasn't the same without Mr. Giang there, but we toasted in his honor. Cuong called him to say "Chuc suc khoe" in person, and to wish him a safe journey. It turned out that he was at his grandson's house, spending the night there on his way back to Hanoi.
Our appetizer was chicken soup with garlic bread. This was soon followed by vegetable spring rolls, beef kebabs with tomato, mushroom, and onion, as well as fish, deer meat in sauce, rice, and pork. Everything was so delicious, a complementary combination of textures and flavors. We enjoyed our conversation with Cuong, and as usual, we shared a lot of laughs. A large party of around 25 people were seated at a long table in the middle of the restaurant. They stood up and burst into what could only have been a drinking song in a foreign language. They happily toasted one another. We thought we heard the proprietor say that they were Latvian.
We had banana fritters with honey for dessert. As we left the restaurant, the proprietor asked us if everything was ok. "Better than ok!" said Craig enthusiastically. The proprietor repeated the phrase. He seemed to be amused by it. We thanked him for the wonderful food and wonderful service, and then headed back to our respective hotels.
I wrote in the journal and we went to sleep at 11:11 p.m.
View from our balcony
La holding Steph's hand while hiking
Sa Pa countryside
Black Hmong mother and child
Kindergarten students eating lunch
Craig and Steph with Black Hmong local guides
The Garden of Twelve Earthly Branches, Hamrong Tourist Mountain
Dancers, Hamrong Tourist Mountain
Hats for sale
Hamrong Tourist Mountain
Orchid Garden, Hamrong Tourist Mountain
Craig, Tham, and Steph
Cuong and Craig drink a toast at Nature Bar & Grill