In Which I Remember How Challenging Hiking Can Be

The train from Hanoi to SaPa wasn’t a European train by any means. It was a noisy and staggering primordial creature of iron, steel, and simulated wood grain, and it heaved in exaggerated movements from side to side on the 8 hour overnight ride.

It bleated like a strangled donkey, and occasional loud thumps woke me frequently through the night, so that by 530 AM, when we arrived at Lao Cai I really hadn’t slept much.

Lao Cai sits 2km from the Chinese border and people come here simply because this is where the train station is. But my impression is that nobody is really coming here – mostly, like me, the goal is SaPa, which is known for its hiking and many bucolic views of rice terraces.

I was met by my guide, P, and climbed into the van that took us about an hour away to SaPa town. There I was escorted to a nearby hotel for breakfast, after which I packed a few things that I would need for the next 36 hours into a small backpack. I didn’t bring the larger daypack that I had taken on the Inca Trail, because I just didn’t think I would need that much space, but as I hauled my small overladen pack onto my shoulders I regretted not having the bigger daypack – if nothing else it sits much better on my back.

While we waited to depart, I had a few moments to walk down the street. There were a few vendors of trekking equipment as well as a few restaurants. This is a place that seems to cater to tourists here for hiking.

Far beyond the edges of this overcrowded small city, a halo of mountains stands waiting.

When P was ready we hit the trail, and as we went along she told me about herself and her people, the Black Hmong. The SaPa region has numerous small villages with numerous ethnic minorities. Today we expect that we will also encounter the Red Dao and Tay groups.

I haven’t hiked anywhere since the last days at Machu Picchu, and have forgotten how tough it can be. The altitude here isn’t bad, but the track is mostly unpaved, and is often comprised of packed muddy clay. Inclines can be treacherously slippery.

P walks ahead talking continuously, holding her parasol in one hand, while I struggle to merely remain standing. She is a tiny person – probably standing 4.5 feet tall at most, and her feet are exceptionally miniscule. I can’t help but notice this because she finds places to step that my mammoth feet simply won’t fit into.

Our course takes us among rice terraces smeared with arrogant brush strokes of green and gold and brown, arranged in garrulous nebulae that remind me of blobs floating within lava lamps.

It is harvest time here, and many of the fields have already been harvested, but others still bear their golden crowns. An occasional farmer labors in the field cutting and gathering the rice.

As we hike we enter the first “village,” which isn’t really identifiable as such because the houses are so diffusely spaced. And slowly we begin to see other hikers. I worry that I am hiking slowly, but it seems that others are taking short cuts.

We pause periodically to take in the view. This is beautiful countryside, although not quite as striking to my eye as the Andes.

In the second village we stop with the rest of the hikers and eat our lunch. Our path out of town takes us past grazing water buffalo, and then we leave the main road and follow the edge of the terraces.

Around us the country has grown hazy with the smoke from the burning of rice plants after harvesting the grains. The ash will be used as fertilizer next year. P also mentions that in the past it has been used to make shampoo, but her children only want store bought shampoo now.

The afternoon walk is brief – an hour and a half at most, and it is an easy one, as we generally are sticking to the roads to take us to the next village.

In the village, women are preparing bamboo.

And along our path we see motorbikes laden with rice fresh from the harvest.

And rice laid out to dry in the sun. It amazes me a bit that birds don’t eat it.

And at the end of the trek we find at last my home for the night, a functional room in which to spend the evening. This is SaPa, and this is my “homestay,” which is what one does in these small villages where hotels don’t exist. So after a dinner with the family, I retired to my room for some blogging and an early nights sleep.

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