The route: Along the well trodden tourist trail
The chat: Having heard great things about the Sapa Sisters (http://sapasisters.webs.com/) – a group of local, women only tour guides – we’d booked ahead for a one day hike with the company. We met the surprisingly cynical (for one so young!) Zao, from the H’mong tribe, who took us on what was more of an amble than a hike to her village in the Sapa valley. Unfortunately, Zao’s village also happened to be the destination for (literally) hundreds of other hikers, and so we were never far from the madding crowd!
Still, the views were splendid, the sun shone, and we learnt a lot from Zao about the H’mong culture – and especially the threat to old traditions that tourism (both domestic and international) inevitably brings. It was incredible to learn that in the village of 2000 people where she lives, seven different tribes (each with their own language) are represented, and it is very unusual to marry or indeed socialise with those from other tribes. We also had an opportunity to test some of the ‘facts’ we’d learnt at the Women’s Museum in Hanoi (which has a floor devoted to the hill tribes) – according to Zao, many of the traditional health, birth, marriage and death traditions have now been replaced or diluted with more Western conventions.
At lunch, we were herded into a riverside restaurant (staffed, bizarrely, by a middle aged chap from Somerset) where the H’mong hordes were lying in wait. Fortunately, we were left alone to a greater extent – perhaps the mirrored shades, or maybe Zao had forewarned the pedlars that as pedallers ourselves, we had not an inch of space to carry extraneous trinkets – but others were less lucky. It was at about this time too, that Zao disarmingly informed us that she’d got married the previous day – for the second time – no time for honeymoons if you’re a H’mong, clearly. She seemed glad it was all over, describing H’mong weddings as costly, tiring events at which relatives you don’t particularly like come and get drunk at your expense. So not that different to anywhere else in the world…
After the walk into the valley, we motorbiked back to town, picked up our bike and kit from the friendly but simple Family Guesthouse, and rolled 2km out of town to the comfort of Sapagarden B&B (http://www.sapagarden.com/) to enjoy my 33rd birthday. Run by a lovely older local couple with a very upwardly mobile son, Nam Hong, the family house has been on the same site for decades, but has been renovated from a wooden hut to a very comfortable, English style country house, complete with beautifully kept gardens.
We ate a real feast – prepared by Nam’s mum – that night, and enjoyed our first glass of wine for two months – luxury!