Sapa – Where rice paddies happen
I originally planned to visit Sapa for only 3 days or so but ended up staying an extra 2 days at the last minute. Sapa is thé place to visit if you want the scenic rice paddies you see on postcards and when people are talking about rice paddies. It is fairly easy to wander around the town and visit the outer lying villages by yourself on foot or with a motorbike. You can find tons of Hmong people around the town selling little handicrafts and offering to guide you to their home village. Their English is suprisingly good, not really a big shock if you think about the amount of tourists visiting the place. We found this one Hmong lady that was amazingly chatty and cheerful. I’m sure many other travelers have encounter this lady called “Cho-cho”.The first couple of days I just visited the nearby sights and villages on foot and also rented a motorbike to visit the sights which were further out. It was the first time riding a motorbike, automatic one at that, but it was fun as hell and was first of many other bike trips in Vietnam. The most spectacular view was the one in the valley and worth the trip on the motorbike. As a visitor you’re enclined to pay a small entrance fee whenever you enter the village though. It’s such a pity that on the day that I decided to drive around with my bike, it was raining cats and dogs so I couldn’t get any clear pictures but the sights itself were still amazing. Anyway, after a couple of days I felt like I’ve seen enough and was about ready to leave. On the way to the bus station I stopped to have quick lunch and happened to bump into Cho Cho again. We talked for a bit again and I decided to her home village and do a homestay for a night. I didn’t want to take a tour with a travel company and have the money go half into their own pocket and not to the actual Hmong people. By we, I meant me and Cathleen, a French girl I met in the hostel I was staying at and convinced her to tag along. The “tour” started with a nice little hike to the house where Cho Cho was staying, but it wasn’t her who guided us through the village, but it was her 15 year old daughter who showed us the way. She told us about her life in the village, what her hobbies are, how school is, her dreams and even her love life. Yeah, we were curious about that as well, turns out she doesn’t want any boys, she wants to study piano in the big city and play piano and sing. Clever girl. The first part of the hike was rather simple, but once we get closer to their house, we were asked to walk over the borders of the rice paddies to get to their actual house which was strategically located in between several tiers. It was rather difficult and adventurous to walk on the narrow ledges of the paddies where on the one side you have the waterfilled paddies and on the other side a short drop into another one. Right before we arrived at the house I slipped and dipped my feet in one of the paddies up until the ankle of my right foot. Good thing I didn’t slip to the other side! After we arrived at the house, Cho Cho’s daughter, who’s name I forgot so I’ll just call her Lucy, made us a simple lunch. Some white rice, chopped green beans and of course morning glory. We had the same meal for lunch, dinner, breakfast and then lunch again. Not trying to be graphic here but after those 2 days, I was shitting green poo like a cow. While Lucy was cooking her sister-in-law and her new born baby were awake as well. I told you before that Lucy was 15, her sister-in-law is 14 and married to her older brother. They just had a baby together and are living in the house together. Later that night when Cho Cho got back we talked some more about their family and a bit of their village culture and past. Apparently when someone is in labour and about to have a baby, they don’t rush to a hospital or doctor in the neighbourhood, it’s simply too expensive and too remote. They deliver the baby at their own house with the help of one of the mothers and other family member and they deliver the baby by themselves. Cutting the cord, delivering, cleaning and all that. I’ve never had a baby before so I don’t know what the whole procedure is, but I can already tell that delivering a baby without professional help and no anesthesia is tough. And they’ve been doing it for ages apparently, one generation after the other. Amazing, these women are true warriors, I know for sure I wouldn’t be able to do what they are doing. In the morning we ate some breakfast and watched Lucy and her brothers go off to the paddies to work. We were feeling a bit restless and Cho Cho asked us if we wanted to try working on the fields and so we did. We plowed a bit in the mud, trying to fortify the ledges with mud by adding an extra layer to it and making it all smooth. This looked easier than it actually was since you see them doing it so smoothly and effortless, but believe me when I tell you that’s all just an illusion until you’ve tried it yourself. There is some technique to use though but if you’ve never done it before, you can expect a lot of discomfort. I felt some shooting pains in my lower back after 15 minutes of working like that, leaning forward the whole time, scooping the mud, working with the uhm… plow thing. It requires a lot of strength! Anyway after about an hour of that and 2 bad-looking paddies, we called it quits on that and we helped Cho Cho plant some rice. This itself was actually easier, but it was still quite straining on your back since you were leaning down the whole time. If you’re used to sitting at a desk for 8-9 hours a day, this kind of work seems so much harder. I do have so much more respect for farmers now and try to finish ALL the rice on my plate. So after a morning of work and a 4th meal of rice and morning glory we made our way back to town where we said goodbye to Cho Cho and her family. I’m really glad I decided to stay a few more days in Sapa to do a homestay. Back at the hotel we exchanged some stories with other travelers who did the tour with some of the travel agencies and found out they had some fabulous buffet breakfast with fresh fruit and pancakes. This made our morning glory diet seem shitty, but the on-hand farming experience was hard to top though. I liked my morning glory and I can say that I kinda know tough it is to farm rice. I do highly recommend EVERYONE to visit Sapa and try to do a homestay with one of the families, just to make sure that the money goes straight to the families that actually need it.