Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ta Van and Lao Chai villages, outside Sapa

Since we had several hours to spend, we hired a driver to take us out to a couple of villages in the hills beyond Sapa. Our original thought was that the driver would take us to Lao Chai, we'd walk around for an hour, then he'd take us to Ta Van where we'd walk for an hour, then he'd take us back. Instead, he drove us near Lao Chai and dropped us off, planning to pick us up a couple hours later, after we'd walked from one village to the next (3km, he said.....everything here is 3km from everywhere else, we've noticed!). OK. Walking through the valley, past rice fields, wonderful!

The moment we got out of the car, we were set upon by three Hmong women and one 9-year old Hmong child. And I mean set upon. We weren't even quite out of the car when they were grabbing us. (This is one striking thing about Vietnamese women, and I like it a lot: they constantly touch us. It's a little unsettling, as is their relatively small personal space and their willingness to get into mine, but I like it after I get used to it.) So anyway, at first we thought we could talk to them and get away, and enjoy the afternoon's walk in peace and quiet, as our morning walk to Cat Cat had been. After a few minutes it became clear that the only way to enjoy ourselves was to relax and give in, and spend the hours walking with them.

They were beautiful, and had easy laughter. They asked us the now-standard questions: What is your true name? Do you have brothers and sisters, how many? How old are you? Where you from? Do you have children? They'd ask these questions over and over, which made me laugh. I'm still 52 (oh, so young!). We asked them the same questions back. Eventually, we kind of split into groups: I walked with a Hmong woman from Ta Van and a young girl (Hmong, I think) from Lao Chai, and Marc walked with a couple of Dao women. My two guides wore the indigo Hmong clothing and the black(ish) hat, and Marc's wore these bright pink and green plaid headscarves. Marc got different information than I got; he learned that the tribes are not friends. I learned about the schools and how to say different things in Hmong -- it's a tonal language, and while I tried very hard I suspect my charming guides were laughing at me as much as with me.

The main deal, of course, was to buy something from them -- which I wanted to do. The young girl said "you buy from me, I likey you you likey me." She said that a few times and it made me laugh. The women with me told me to buy from them, not from the women with Marc. At the end, we bought something from all of them. Their company alone was worth much more than we spent, and we got handmade Hmong textiles which -- they assured me -- took a long time to make. And don't I know that.
i love this photo -- a bridge somewhere between Lao Chai and Ta Van
we stopped along the way for another shot of the valley -- wordlessly beautiful
these are the various small villages -- including Lao Chai and Ta Van
harvesting the rice; it's a family task -- enlarge the photo and see a woman harvesting rice with a baby on her back
preparing the harvested rice
the woman holding my hand, helping me cross, is 42 years old. i loved her smile. from her, i bought a small bag.

here we are at the Lao Chai school; that's my guide, smiling at the camera
the 9-year old girl walking with me ran into some friends of hers and they held hands and laughed and chattered.
another sort of surreal day for me, like the day Marc and I were in the little boat going up some unnamed (to us) Lao river, to the waterfalls:  here, we're just walking through the Sapa valley with a group of Hmong women. My mind just tilts, and my heart feels like it's going to burst.
buffalo are a big help; my young girl guide told me that her family has one buffalo
home building in Ta Van village
someone's home, with rice fields and vegetable gardens all around. plus, that view.
this smiling woman greeted us as we walked past.
After our walk, we had a late lunch in Sapa and then waited for our bus. When the bus dropped us off at our hotel the day before, the driver told us he'd be back to get us at 4:30 to take us back to Lao Cai, to the train station. Well, we didn't exactly know who he was or how he knew us, but everyone seemed to know everything without us telling them. So we were waiting in our hotel lobby at 4:30, when a guy walked into the lobby, walked over to Marc, and handed him his cell phone -- 'call for you.' Someone was talking to Marc about the trip back to Lao Cai, but he didn't know who it was. No one ever verified who they were talking to, not the guy on the phone or the guy who handed Marc the phone. So the bus came by but the women at the hotel desk seemed confused, and walked out with us. She spoke to the driver, and told Marc that the driver was bitter, and that we should let the hotel take us to Lao Cai. NO PROBLEM. We knew we'd need help at the train station, and a bitter guy didn't seem like the one to help.

A half hour later, another mini-bus came by and the hotel woman walked us out to it and said goodbye. Who was the driver? THE BITTER GUY. And the hotel woman was smiling and chatting with him. We were so confused. We drove through town, picking up people here and there -- including on the street, and at a school -- and then stopped to get gas. Finally with an overly-full load of people, we headed off to Lao Cai. Marc sat next to a young woman from Hong Kong who was desperately flirting with a young Vietnamese guy, and I sat next to the window hoping the smell of mildew wasn't going to give me a migraine. Eventually, we got there and got on the train and everything worked out.

waiting at the train station
We got into Hanoi at 4:10am, to find that it had been raining a lot. I guess the next tropical storm had come through. The hotel gave us a room to shower and crash in, while we waited for our room to be ready. It's raining pretty steadily today, not quite sure what we're going to do, but I do know that we're going back to Madame Hien's for dinner tonight and I can't wait.

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