Saturday was my birthday and the first present that I received was to wake up just before sunrise to discover that the overhead cloud had cleared and that the sun was lighting up the clouds deep below in the valley and casting a magnificent glow on the mountain peaks high above. It was almost as if the scene had been prepared especially for my eyes. More eye candy to add to the enormous amount that I have experienced over the past 10 days.
We reached Sa Pa sooner than expected due to our covering far more klms than we realised because of the aforementioned changes to village names. We have disovered that during this year the borders of the provinces of Dien Bien and Lai Chau have been chaged due to the fact that money alloted to the province of Dien Bien was mainly going to the city of the same name. That still doesn’t explain why the villages are also swapping their names as in the former Tan Duong is now Lai Chau and is situated approx. 150 klms past the former village of Lai Chau which nobody can tell us is its current name. Nearly all the village/town names have been swapped and some people refer to them by the old names and some signs still bear the old names, some the new. Our map is totally out of date of course which makes it a bit useless but we still have yet to drive out of the mountains to Lao Cai on the border with China which is also known as Cam Duong by some people????
On Saturday evening after we had treated ourselves to a birthday dinner with red wine we met a Red Zhou lady named Man Me in the street. At first she tried to sell us her handicrafts as all the ethnic peoples in Sa Pa do but when she realised that we are not the typical tourists she began talking with us in a mixture of English and Vietnamese and ventually she invited us to visit her house yesterday (Sunday). We met up with her in the late morning and drove our motorbikes about 15 klms out of Sa Pa where we left them at a small country store. From there we had to walk along narrow and steep mountain trails for about 1.5 hours until we reached her families homes.
The 3 houses belonging to her Man Me’s family are situated at the top of a mountain peak and it was an arduous task to reach them up small steps cut into the muddy slopes surrounded by the terraced rice paddies. It is necessary to walk through the house of the mother to reach the other two houses so we were invited to sit by the fire and drink tea in the mother’s house first. Then we walked higher up the muddy slipperly tracks to reach the house in which Man Me lives with her husband and four children. Their house is fairly new and even though the floors are of pressed dirt it was very clean and a pleasant design. Sitting at their fire I felt very comfortable.
At first the children were very shy with us and just sat expressionless and staring at us but gradully they began to thaw a bit and our smiles were returned to us. Man Me’s two eldest children are two of the most beautiful girls (images to come when I get back to Ha Noi) you can imagine who looked coyly at us and disapeared if we looked back too intensely at them. Her two youngest are boys the eldest of whom has a really bad cough which is in dire need of some treatment. Man Me told us that he has been coughing badly for 4 or 5 days and it has spread to several of his cousins who together voiced a chorus of lung renching coughing fits. We contemplated how we couold get some medicine for them and decided to buy some handicrafts without bargaining too hard and Man Me did walk back out with us too use our money and buy drugs which was encouraging.
Man Me and the eldest daughter prepared a delicious meal for us, wok fried pork (ironically eaten with several of the family pigs running around our feet), home grown cabbage and the best beans I have ever tasted in my life. There was steamed rice as well and the husband poured us several shots of his potent home made rice wine which was also delicious and warmed our insides for which I was very grateful.
Man Me constantly urged us to stay for the night, in fact she wanted Mimi to stay with her for a month, but we hadn’t prepared ourselves to stay over so we had to constantly decline, although if it had rained before we walked out I’m sure we would have had to stay. The afternoon cloud was descending so we decided to depart before it got too cold and dark. The sister in law of Man Me cut us some walking sticks from the beautiful bamboo forest in front of the mother’s house and Man Me walked back out with us carrying most of Lisa and Mimi’s belongings in the babmboo basket on her back. She helped Lisa down the slopes and Lisa commented that when she gripped her wrist her grip was so strong that it almost blocked her circulation.
These small people who lead such spartan and simplistic lives are so friendly and so accommodating that it is humbling. Man Me wants us to come visit her family again and stay for a while and I hope that I get a chance to do this at some point in the future as I would like to rek for while through this magical countryside. Words are not adequate vehicles to descibe how beautiful is the land in which these hill tribes live and neither are the images. Only by visiting and standing in the middle of these terraced slopes can full realisation be achieved.
I’m very sad that our motobike adventures are nearing completion but there are more adventures ahead. We have a couple of days back in Ha Noi to look forward to, then back to Sai Gon where I have only 1 day to prepare for a 2 day leadership and management seminar that I am presenting on the 19th and 20th. Then on the 23rd we are off to Laos to spend Christmas with Hamish in Vientianne and we will no doubt rent a motorbike to ride around some areas in Laos that we want to see. Eventually we will get some time to re-group and reflect on all that we are doing now but until then I’ll leave you with the motto that is held in high esteem here in the mountain coutry of northern Viet Nam…
“In Minsk we trust”.