Climb Ev’ry Mountain

February 14, 2007

As a kid, I always watched the end of The Sound of Music and thought, “Damn, those Von Trapps were a sturdy bunch” as they climbed to freedom over the mountains of Austria. Coming from Miami, it’s hard to picture scaling anything that high, but today, I felt like the 8th Von Trapp child.

We’re in Sapa, a slice of heaven in Vietnam’s Northwest. Used as a hill station by the French, it now draws thousands of travelers with its stunning mountain scenery and colorful hilltribe population. Trekking here is big; in fact, other than the famous Saturday market, that’s really all there is to do.

I had my reservations about a Sapa trek for the following reasons:

1) Trekking, in general, seemed a distasteful endeavor. Going to hilltribe villages, gawking at their ethnic costumes and wooden huts, snapping photos as if they were animals in a zoo, clucking over the poverty then moving on.

2) Sapa in February is rainy and foggy, with temperatures often in the 30s. The heaviest piece of clothing that I brought was a cotton pullover.

3) I’m a wimp. Steep hills? No. Jumping across rivers via rocks in the water? Ha! Last, and certainly not least, homestaying in one of the hilltribe villages, where I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be provided with mini-bottles of shampoo.

I’m sure you can figure out how this ended: I had a great time.

Rice paddiesFirst, walking through the mountains of Sapa is like walking on a bridge through the clouds. Fog rolls in and out at lightning speed; it recedes and reveals colorful swatches of the town, yet thirty seconds later, you can’t see as far as the trees in front of you. The scenery, though, made me pause, shake my head, and wonder if I was dreaming. Terraced rice fields snake down the steep valleys, creating the illusion of swirling rock. They are even like ripples, and at the same time, chaotic like stalagmites. The weather was cool and mostly clear, punctuated by refreshing, warm winds.

The trek went mostly downhill, easy on the lungs, hard on the knees. We were endlessly followed by women and girls from the Black H’mong tribe, named for the predominant color of their clothes, black. Other characteristics of the Black H’mong women are their long hair that they wrap around their heads, the heavy, silver hoops weighing down their earlobes, and colorful embroidery that dons the sleeves, belts, and purses that they wear. They are smiling and friendly, and avid saleswomen of their handicrafts, which they never let us forget.

Down in the valley, we passed through a village called Lao Chai. As expected, theSapa school poverty humbled. Dark and dirty huts, a bare-boned schoolroom with only tables and a chalk board, clothes on lines, dusty and old. Our guide told us the situation had gotten better in recent years: many villages could now grow rice, whereas their main food source in the past had been only corn and cassava.

In this respect, I was able to see the value of trekking and tourism in these villages. We stayed in the village of Ta Van, which was very different from Lao Chai. Most host families had sparkling new toilets and hot-shower facilities for us. They had color TVs and DVD players and a few pieces of nice furniture. The clothes hanging on the line were colorful and new. I’m sure our host family could by no means be called rich, or even well-off, but our presence at least raised the standard of living somewhat in Ta Van. I was also pleased to see signs throughout the village communicating the rules: no taking photos or entering houses without permission, no drinking or gambling, no walking around the village after 10 p.m. We were encouraged to purchase handicrafts directly through the villagers, as opposed to the Sapa markets and boutiques. This way, the village retains the economic benefits of their handiwork, rather than splitting the profit margin with already wealthy shop-owners in town.

Perhaps because our host family welcomes a new group of guests in every night, they were indifferent about us. No one spoke a word. The kids walked by us as if we were ghosts. We ate dinner together; they spent the whole time watching a Vietnamese soap opera on TV. Oh, well. Outside, they kept several pigs, cows, water buffalo, and chicken. The smell of poop was so pungent it made my nostrils pickle every time I walked by. Once the family jetted out of the living room after dinner, we sat around drinking homemade rice vodka and eating Oreos. We slept in the second story loft, on cushy futons and thick blankets. Certainly, this couldn’t be called an authentic experience, but it was an interesting change from drab guesthouses nonetheless.

Best of all, I finished the trek with flying colors. No whining and crying this time. The steep hills, the muddy rice fields, the rocky streams, I took them all with gusto. My calves and glutes hurt, but I felt like I’d accomplished something.

Sapa ValleyAfter our trek, they drove us back into town. I saw the mountains and valleys that I’d crossed on foot and thought, “You ain’t got nothing on me, Von Trapps.”

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2 Responses to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”

  1. Tammie said

    I am so proud of you, trekking through the mtns! I have a new found respect for your calves!

    The picture you portrayed of the scenery sounds so beautiful. Even though I’m not there with you, I feel like I am….

    Can’t wait for more!

  2. Jessi said

    It was beautiful and I think that’s why I had such a great time. We also went trekking yesterday in a humid jungle. There were stairs and, for all intents and purposes, it was an easier trek, but I didn’t enjoy it that much. The scenery is what makes the trek.

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