Like the butterflies that roam Vietnam’s terraced mountains, Sarah is larger than life.
The day after she flew in from LAX, we girled around Hanoi, exploring historical sites, buying gifts for loved ones, and getting our nails done — all the while risking our lives between throngs of motos every time we crossed the street.
That evening Tiger beers with a view was in order before we hopped on the night bus for Sa Pa.
Despite our different socioeconomic backgrounds and political leanings, Sarah and I have similar values. It is partly because of this that we now struggle with similar questions. It is also because of this that we are amazingly good at having fun. Like, the best ever.
Day 1 in Sa Pa
Sa Pa lies in northwest Vietnam, close to the Chinese border, and houses the Hoang Lien Son mountain range — an eastern extension of the Himalayas. Fansipan, at 3,142 meters, is Vietnam’s highest peak. Trekking Sa Pa is an exploration not just of Vietnam’s landscape, but also its culture. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, the largest of which is Viet (86%). Despite Vietnam’s recent capitalist efforts and heavy encouragement of foreign investment, some of the smaller ethnic groups, such as the H’mong, have managed to preserve their traditional cultures in Vietnam’s northwest mountains, which they terrace to cultivate rice and corn.
With our 19-year-old H’mong guide, named So, our entirely female crew set out for the hills.
Friends for the morning
Good times with rice wine until the poor couple realized they lost their water buffalo!
Day 2 in Sa Pa
Meet So, our tour guide. Although her dream was to work in a hotel (so that she would have whiter skin), she opted for a position as a tour guide because it allows her the flexibility to continue working in her mother’s fields every week. The rice season is between May and September, and is arduous labor, to say the least.
The amount of property a family owns is an indication of wealth, So explained, not because they sell what they cultivate but because it’s an indication of how much land the family can divide up among the children once they marry. At 13 or 14 years of age is when most H’mong people marry one another. A girl’s group of friends will lie in wait to kidnap her and bring her to her suitor’s house. So told us that the girl was expected to marry the boy unless she cried and cried for three days and didn’t eat or drink anything. “If she eats even one piece of rice,” she said, “then she has to marry because it shows she’s not unhappy enough.”
So shared her own story of having survived a marriage kidnapping, and ended by saying, “Handsome is for everyone. I like the heart.”
This sweet, sassy girl followed me for a kilometer without taking her eyes off me. The oldest children aren’t able to go to school because it’s expected that they care for their younger siblings and work in the fields.
Day 3 in Sa Pa
Each day, Sarah and I talked ourselves quiet. Although she is a doctor and I, an attorney, we are at similar stages in launching our respective careers. We discussed leadership — its various forms and challenges, and how we see our own roles. The topic of faith also arose, a first between us, and we realized that we share the same foundation for our respective beliefs. Another central theme was…men! Duh. And boys. But mostly men.
Still rocking my Kiwi socks
We checked out a few local schools
After the trek we were off to Ha Long Bay! A post for another time…
I really enjoyed this blog post. Brought back memories of my trip to Sapa area. What an incredible part of the world. I loved meeting the people and seeing the scenery, way of life. Like going back in time.
I have done several posts on my blog DesignDestinations.org including a description of visiting a school, a lady who blackens her teeth and some other similar kinds of experiences. I love reading about other people’s travel experiences like yours and sharing mine through my blog.
I am interested in what you think of Halong Bay, especially after the authenticity of Sapa. Can’t wait to read on.
I’d love to go back to Sapa. I travel a lot and there aren’t many places that I can say that about but the northern mountains of VietNam are compelling.