Just like heaven

Thailand August 20, 2014 01:00


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Trekking through the rice terraces in Vietnam's remote northwest offers a rare chance to experience the lives of the local hilltribe people

I was Hanoi and beginning to suffer from boredom when a friend suggested a treat myself to a break in Sapa, the former hill station to which the French used to flee to escape the summer heat.
A day later I was on the overnight train from the Vietnamese capital to Lao Cai, waking up to a balmy coolness and looking forward to the trekking adventures that lay ahead.
First though, I had to contend with the 45-minute van drive to Sapa town, no fun for someone who suffers from motion sickness.
An hour later and still queasy from the ride, I rested while my travel companion enjoyed a hearty breakfast. I later joined him and was surprised to find myself enjoying a banana pancake at the Cat Cat Hotel’s rooftop coffee shop while savouring the view.
The trekking tour, described as “slightly challenging” certainly requires sustenance. My guide, a Hmong woman dressed in the traditional costume, told me that the journey would take us about three to four hours.
Other Hmong women joined us as we made our way up the hills, one of them happily carrying her newborn. Soon though, it started to rain and the track turned slippery causing me to curse my totally inadequate sandals. Fortunately, the Hmong are a friendly lot and before long I was being helped along by several young and surefooted girls, causing my travel companion to remark that I was rather like an imperial empress going to town with an entourage of ladies-in-waiting.
The weather continued to be unforgiving but the amazing view as we climbed higher more than made up for our soaking. Emerald green rice terraces spread out as far as the eye could see with small huts adding an occasional daub of brown to the rich palette.
We stopped to have lunch at a local eatery before continuing on another two-hour trek to Ta Van village.
Children surrounded us as we took our seats in the small restaurant offering us hand-made bracelets and pencil cases. Sadly, though, we had come ill-prepared with too little of the local currency to make many purchases.
I had opted for homestay accommodation up in the hills and was delighted to be invited to help cook dinner in the company of my host.
It was also surprisingly comfortable with hot water for the shower and a WiFi connection that tempted me into checking my Facebook despite having travelled thousands of miles in an attempt to escape the digital life.
Our host had slaughtered a chicken for dinner and we enjoyed a simple and homely meal of steamed chicken, stir-fried vegetables with glass noodles, delicious meat rolls and nourishing chicken soup. 
My guide and two other guests ate with the family and we were all soon totally immersed in family life, even settling to watch the local news.
It was still raining when I got up the following morning but as it eased, I went out to enjoy the cool breeze of the morning.
Shrouded in mist, Ta Van Village had a mystic charm just like heaven on earth and it was easy to understand why the French had named Sapa as the summer capital of Northern Vietnam during their occupation of the country in the 19th century.
After breakfast, we set off back downhill in a trek that turned out to be a lot less challenging. The rain had stopped too, making it possible for us to enjoy the walk without worrying about slipping on the track.
We stopped to admire vegetable farms, sprawling pumpkin vines and the well-fed pigs reared in the backyards of village homes. We also stopped at a handicraft village to watch the womenfolk weaving cloth with hemp from cannabis plants.
For those who do not want to make the trip down on foot, motorbikes are available for hire. It’s easy to see why the option holds appeal, especially for young travellers – an exhilarating mix of fin, fear and fantastic views.
Time constraints prevented me from staying longer than two days in this northern paradise but I resolved there and then to return. Next time, I told myself, I would attempt a more challenging trek through the mountains and remember to bring the right footwear.
If you go
_ Hanoi is the gateway to Sapa , the hidden jewel of Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains and near the border with China.
_ Most visitors take an over-night train from Vietnamese capital to Lao Cai on Vietnam-China border before taking a bus to the hill station of Sapa.