Misty Mountain TownFebruary 15-20
UPDATE NOTE: Sadly, the laptop which we had all of our update work saved to crashed on us just before we "went to press" with this update. Hopefully, we can recover the data from the laptop's hard drive and deliver a full update with detailed journal entries soon. In the meantime, here are some pictures and introductory text -- we don't have it in us to reproduce all that work! Check back in a couple of weeks, hopefully we'll have something better in place.
P.S. --> Those of you that have been wondering where all our people pictures are needn't look any further -- some of the best ones are right here on this page!
Great shot of a Red Zao lady
From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to the mountain town of Sapa, on Vietnam's northwestern frontier near China. The Tonkinese Alps, as they were coined by the French, are an absolutely spectacular mountain range. They're very high and rugged, which allows the interesting ethnic groups to continue their centuries-old lifestyles without much interruption from the rapidly modernizing lowlanders who run the country. Sapa is way, way out there -- far away from bustling Hanoi, far away from the maddening crowds of the city. It's a perfect place to get away from it all and sample rural mountain life.
A Giay Woman in town
Sapa town on a clear (!) day
Since we arrived in the middle of winter, we got some really interesting weather. For most of the five days we spent in Sapa, the weather was cold, damp, and foggy. This wasn't really a bad thing, though -- the weather just added to the surrealistic feel of the area. And all that mist made for some great pictures (just take a look at the shot of the Red Zao lady above). Sapa was built by the French a hundred years ago as one of those European-style colonial "hill stations," where those zany culture-bound French could get away from the steamy lowlands to a cooler climate more reminiscent of home. Many old buildings remain today, but of course, the French are gone -- it's almost all locals now, with some tourists thrown in to the mix on market day.
Red Zao with market basket
Sapa is beautiful, and the people who live there are colorful, tough mountainfolk. Most of them are members of one of the area's many montagnard (ethnic hilltribe) groups. These hilltribes migrated mostly from southern China over the past several centuries, and settled into the mountains around Sapa. They bear no relation to the ethnic Vietnamese who populate the cities and coastal areas. Each ethnic group has its own distinctive style of clothing -- usually quite elaborate.
Hmong at Sapa Market
The most common group around Sapa is the Black Hmong. Hmong people are widespread throughout Southeast Asia (we've seen them in Thailand before). Here, they dress in indigo-dyed black and blue costumes. The women wear their wealth visibly -- usually large quantities of silver necklaces, earrings, and bangles. Of course, wealth is a relative thing because most of these people are, by any standard, dirt poor. They live a meager life as subsistence farmers. Winters can be very rough, and famines occur occasionally. Because Sapa is the main market town of the area, many hmong and other ethnic groups can be seen here, stocking up on supplies to carry back home to their villages in the surrounding mountains.
Gold-toothed Hmong woman
We made friends with some of the local girls who sell jewelry and embroidery at the market. Two of these girls, Sho and Pen, were really nice kids. At the ripe old ages of 11 and 12, neither of them go to school any longer. They have to work from a young age to support their family (the average annual income in these parts is about $230 per year!). But they're remarkably intelligent and quick-witted girls. We had a great time getting to know them during our stay in Sapa. We recently even received a personal letter from Sho, who had written to us as promised after we sent her copies of the photos we took of her with her friends.
Our little Hmong friends, Sho and Pen
Jen with her little Red Zao friends, Ta May and Le May
Another colorful group in the area is the Red Zao. The black hmong have the most refined look, but the Red Zao stand out the most, with their brilliant red adornments and intricately-embroidered clothing. One day, we took a hike out to a Red Zao village, hosted by two of Jen's little friends, Ta May and Le May. We got to go inside one of the houses and drink tea with the family. It's remarkable what a simple existence these people live -- their floors are made of compacted dirt, the walls of crooked sticks, the roofs of leaky thatch. But everybody we met seemed happy. They all live together as one large, extended family. The young take care of the old and everybody works to support everybody else. That's the way these people of the mountains have been living for hundreds of years, and hopefully they will be able to continue for many centuries to come.
Hiking into Red Zao territory...
On our trek through Tavan Valley
Little ones in Tavan village
There are great trekking and hiking opportunities all around Sapa. One day, we set out on a path to the beautiful Tavan Valley, where sprawling emerald rice terraces spill down from the steep mountainsides into a tranquil river valley dotted with Black Hmong and Giay villages. That hike was a real highlight of our trip through Vietnam!
Very friendly old Giay woman known as "Mama"
The misty mountains above Sapa
From Sapa, we hopped on the 10-hour train ride back down the Red River Valley to Hanoi, where we posted up for a few more days before flying directly to Vientiane, the capital of Laos...
Back to Vietnam pg 2 On to Laos!
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