When I found the Sapa Sisters website, I had no doubt in my mind that they would be the ideal company to trek the Sapa Valley with. For one, it’s a company started by women and run by women. In a country where women aren’t typically seen as the breadwinners, it’s nice to see a group of strong, passionate women making a life for themselves and their families.
We booked a 3 day/2 night private tour. One night would be a local homestay at our guide’s home and the second would be a larger homestay with more guests.
On Day One of the tour, our guide, Pen, picked us up from the Graceful Hotel in Sapa town. She was dressed in the traditional Hmong clothing. There seemed to be two layers to her jacket with intricate cross-stitching on the arms and the collar. Her legs were each wrapped in indigo fabric that looked as soft as velvet, the fabric held in place by a ribbon on each leg. The piece of her outfit that wasn’t quite what I expected was a khaki fishing hat with a USA tag on the front. To keep the sun off, you see. Even then, it was only temporarily covering her intricate hair, kept in place with a number of detailed, silver hair slides.
Following lunch, Pen told us about her home that we’d be staying at. She mentioned in passing that she lives on the side of a mountain. I thought, ‘oh, she lives on the side of a mountain,’ no big deal. No. She lives on the side of a mountain. I was drenched with sweat as we made the occasionally treacherous ascent through the clay hills, cursing the chickens who hopped and clucked so easily up the hill. What my lack of mountain-trekking fitness did give us, however, was time to stop (for me) and chat (to make it seem like stopping wasn’t just for me).
We learned a lot about Pen and the lives of her friends and family this way. She asked us how long we’d been married. We explained two years and then she asked about North American and Europeans and how often they tend to get divorced. I did not take this personally in any way, but I noted how curious she was and how odd it must be for her to hear about the divorce rate being one out of two couples in our cultures, when in hers it is rare. So rare that it really only happens in cases of abuse.
I was ecstatic when we got to the top of the side of the mountain and collapsed onto the provided chair. We met her in-laws, the mother-in-law a gorgeous woman with the most welcoming smile. Her youngest daughter was at home and I could tell from first glance that she was playing shy when really she was sassy. I like sassy kids. As we sipped our tea, Ga (the daughter), walked near us with an old motorbike tire. She looked at us. Paused. Then rolled the tire. I caught it and we began a game going back and forth. When I stopped the tire and spun it on its centre she convulsed with laughter. Then David got involved and it was a game of where would the tire go next? She eventually abandoned us for sugar cane. Turns out kids around the world are all the same. Candy trumps people.
As it began to get chilly we ventured into the warmth of the kitchen. Their home was a traditional one, built by the father-in-law. The son, Pen’s husband, grew up here. The walls are made from flattened bamboo (replaced every two years), the floor was hand-churned concrete, and the fire was the hub of the home. We sat on stools no higher than three inches off the ground and helped mix the spring roll filling and ultimately wrap the rolls. Pen is very adept at cooking, her chop sticks acting as spoon, spatula and knife.
With the kids off to bed at 6:30, the adults dined at 7:30 on a feast. I really wish we’d known there was this much food coming, or we wouldn’t have eaten so much at lunch. Spring rolls, chicken, pork, steamed pumpkin, rice and the dangerous rice wine were all on offer. Rice wine is homemade and man… can you tell. The burning trickled down my throat and I couldn’t suppress the alcohol cough. Pen’s father-in-law definitely had a chuckle at me.
During dinner Pen and her husband were squabbling over the cell phone and a text message. David and I turned to one another and smiled. How many times had we argued over who got to use the Wi-Fi on the iPhone during this trip? Again, people are the same around the world. Different ways of life, similar reactions. Or, as the Thai would say, ‘same, same, but different.’
The next morning we devoured homemade pancakes with Sapa honey and bananas, all made over a traditional fire. When I asked Pen’s mother-in-law if I could get a photo, she answered yes, then disappeared into the house. Okay, then? She returned carrying the two layers of the Hmong jacket. I assumed they were for her, but then she turned me around, grabbed an arm and thrust the jacket onto me. I looked to David wondering if it’s culturally inappropriate for me to be doing this, but then couldn’t stop laughing. She pulled the jacket tight around my middle, patted my stomach and giggled, saying something that I can only imagine was along the lines of ‘they make them bigger in Canada’ then went inside again for her ensemble. We posed together alongside the laundry line of drying indigo fabric, which they dye over three months to get just the right shade.
Downhill was another matter altogether. We took a different route that was slick and muddy and more than once I worried I’d hurt myself. Turns out I would injure myself later in the day, but on a flipping easy road. Anyways, Pen’s kids descend and climb this hill every single day to get to school. Then the horrifying thought crossed my mind.
“Pen,” I asked. “When you were pregnant, were you still doing this hill every day?” When I say hill, insert mother trucking huge mountain.
She looked confused, responding, “of course.” Pen described her three pregnancies, where she was each time and how she would just feel “a little pain” then mosey on home to deliver the baby. Once she had to deliver her baby in the town, and was back up the mountain four hours later. I shudder at the thought. Also, a little pain? Oh, and apparently everyone knows how to deliver a baby. Of course! These are not life skills that I am blessed with.
My overall impressions of the Hmong people is that despite the differences of clothing, customs and living conditions, we’re not all that different. We love our families. We love to play and laugh and sing. We share stories. We want to learn more about one another. Some people say that the more you travel, the more you realize that by and large people are the same around the world. I couldn’t agree more with that.
That said, I will never relocate my home to the side of a mountain.