‘September,’ the local guide told me, ‘September is the time tourists flock to Sapa.’ At that time of year, the bright green rice terraces slowly lose their verdancy; the amber signs of the impending rice harvest blanketing the hills. The slopes glow sun-kissed yellow as ripened rice ears burst with kernels. I have seen the photographs on the internet and the view is indeed spectacular…
Time-starved I had opted for an organized trip; the only thing required from me was to turn up on time. An early morning flight to Hanoi meant I had a few hours to kill before boarding the overnight sleeper train to Loa Cai, a town near the Chinese border and the nearest train station to Sapa town. I did not exactly have high hopes for my train journey, having experienced late evening trains in Vietnam before and was filled with trepidation at the prospect of battling for space on the floor near my seat, or even on my allocated bed itself…
As it transpired, I arrived in Sapa in style, ‘Orient Express’ kind of style!! It felt like stepping back in time: royal purple velvet curtains festooned the windows; a classy lamp backlit matching flowers on the bedside table; there were chocolates, water and wipes and, as it is the 21st century after all, even a few sockets to allow us to charge life’s essentials… mobile phones. And the bed?? The softest bed I had touched for some time. As silence enveloped the carriages, the slow chugging and jolting of the train easily sent me off to much needed sleep in time for our arrival at 5 am for a taxi ride to Sapa town.
With no choice given in when we took our one-week break from teaching, I visited Sapa in early June at the start of the rice planting season, just after the winter chill retired from the mountains. Rice needs warmth and plenty of water to guarantee a good crop and in this mountainous area of Vietnam, winters are too cold. Unlike Central and Southern Vietnam, where the temperature allows several harvests a year, in the cooler hills of Sapa, there is only opportunity for a single harvest each year. Enough rice to feed the local population as families grow their own on family-sized plots, but scarcely enough to take to markets or wholesalers and sell on.
I may not have seen Sapa in all its golden glory, but the sea of greenery made an equally riveting scene. With warmer days ahead and plenty of heavy, revitalising summer downpours on the horizon, the rice terraces were brimming with activity at the beginning of a new rice season. The day before my arrival, Sapa had been drenched by heavy showers making the hiking trails extremely slippery and treacherous.
Probably not ideal for the tourists and hikers in the area, but a definite boon for farmers and locals who depend on the rain to get the season off to a good start. Add to this the arrival of the summer holidays for kids, plenty of hands about to put the seedlings carefully and meticulously, one by one, into the muddy and water-filled paddies. And it was muddy!! Having tried a bit of rice planting myself, almost knee-deep in the squelchy slush, it is back-breaking and monotonous work under a blazing sun.
Whereas in the flatter low-lying areas of Vietnam, many facets of the rice growing cycle have become more mechanized, in Sapa age old traditions still survive. As the rice in and around Sapa is grown on steeper hill flanks, only small machinery can be used to prepare the paddies and help with the harvest. Most of the work is still done by hand, laboriously and intensively. Farmers not only tend to the crops, they also need to look after the banks that separate the many rice terraces and keep the tender rice plants in their pools of water. Crumbling or collapsed banks are easily strengthened and repaired using strong and flexible bamboo canes which are found in abundance in the area.
Life in the Sapa hills is simple and largely self-sustaining as households still make ample use of nature’s resources for food, clothing and shelter. Many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities live in the mountainous regions, their traditional clothing, lifestyle and culture attracting as much attention as the ever-changing hues of the rice terraces.
Rice and corn are the main staples whilst buffalo, pigs and chickens provide additional protein. Traditional dwellings are built using wood; clothes are fashioned using the fibres and dye from locally grown plants.
On my first day in Sapa, we hiked down to the bottom of a steep valley to Cat Cat, a small village where the traditions of the Black Hmong tribe have been preserved to give tourists a glimpse of how life used to be, and maybe still is for many… Most of the Black Hmong we encountered proudly wore their customary clothes, carefully hand-tailored to achieve a perfect fit. The clothes are made locally using cloth woven from hemp plants which flourish in the valley. To give the fabric its distinctive blue/black colour, it is dyed in huge vats using the sap from the indigo plant, not only colouring the fabric but also staining the hands of those involved in the process. Lastly, batik details and cross-stitch embroidery are added, making each garment unique as every family has their own design.
But things are changing in the Sapa hills as tourism has become a major source of income for many. Although the extra money lifts a lot of families out of poverty, easy pickings from visitors are spoiling the authenticity of the experience and bargaining is a must for any purchase if you don’t want to pay extortionate prices (for Vietnam… ). Tourists make easy prey for vendors plying them with embroidered anklets, hand-made silver bracelets or batik textiles. Only, not all of these are made in Vietnam. With the Chinese border only about 30 km to the North, cheap copies and imports are all the rage. ‘Buy in the village,’ our guide urged us, ‘then you can be sure your purchase is genuine and helps the local community…’ Whereas it may be easier to ignore the adults, when children are used to tug at our heart strings, it can be difficult to resist. Dressed in local fashion and traditional attire they badger tourists, older children carrying their younger siblings in slings on their back…
Of course, I did my bit and bought the obligatory anklet and batik throw.. but only after three days trekking with one very nice and friendly local (the one in the left hand corner of the photograph above) who accompanied us the whole time… How could I not reward her hard work helping me stay upright on the slippery, muddy paths with at least paying for a few trinkets?? Buying from the children may seem reprehensible and should be discouraged, but they certainly learn English fast… How better to master a useful language for tourism and a skill for later life than through engaging with native speakers… Our local guides were living proof of that!!