Hill Tribes

Red Dzao woman in front of her home

SaPa – Lao Chai – Ta Van – Giang Ta Chai – SaPa , North Vietnam
October 7 – 9

Red Dzao woman in front of her home

“Lovely jubley!” The cockney slang for “awesome” came from neither of the two good- looking Brits sitting across from me. Like mine, their surprised faces broke into enormous grins as they watched 23 year-old Thom, a young woman belonging to the Black Hmong minority indigenous to the rice terrace region outside of Sapa in North Vietnam, pass a shot glass full of potent rice wine to the Kiwi sitting at my left. Poor Meredith, the hapless New Zealander, was on her fourth or fifth shot in as many minutes as our game of Egyptian Rat Screw (or something similar to it) flew clockwise around the table at a maddening pace. I hesitate to call the evening’s form of entertainment the perfect antidote to a long day of hiking through the outlying villages. But it was intriguing to see this mountain girl, dressed in traditional embroidered indigo wraps and heavy home-forged silver jewelry, hassle the handful of Westerners seated around the communal table.

The trip to Sapa, however, did not begin so auspiciously. I began to sense that the gods of travel had turned their back on me shortly after we left Hanoi’s motorbike-clogged streets the prior evening. Ryan and I had finally had our first real tiff and were not speaking for the moment, save to curse at each other. And even at 9:30pm, Ollie refused to settle down, instead preferring to inspect every train carriage sitting at Hanoi Central Station. Once we’d found our train and its assigned berth, we discovered that Ryan was a good six inches too long for his bunk, which required him to lie at a very difficult angle. As with the overnight from Beijing to Shanghai, Ollie would be my bunkmate, which meant I could look forward to a long night of flip-flopping and flailing fists. But the fates truly aligned when we realized we had been assigned a berth directly behind the engine room. At around 3:00am, the rattling and droning of the engine works finally had an anesthetic effect on me; my brain had vibrated so much inside my head that even the occasional kick to the face from Ollie went completely unnoticed.

Eight hours after pulling out of Hanoi, we arrived in Lao Chai, a small transfer town snuggled up to the Chinese border. Still exhausted from our evening with the centipede in Ha Long Bay, I could scarcely envision myself crawling off the train in the pre-dawn darkness and over to the sidewalk for a roadside ca phe sua (coffee with sweetened condensed milk). The prospect of hiking through the hills for the next two days seemed absolutely inconceivable.

But trek, we did. Shortly after our arrival, we were met by a fleet of Black H’mong girls, their souvenir baskets at the ready. Their English was impeccable and it was clear that the past decade of Western tourism in their homeland had taught them much. Sao, our guide, spoke with an Australian accent and made frequent stops to chat on her iPhone.

Despite the tourism, this was a region living well below Vietnam’s poverty line. Most of the ethnic minority families subsisted on rice and corn farming and the proceeds from the small embroidered handicrafts sold by women along the tourist track. “You buy from me?” was a phrase that echoed up and down the river-traced valleys, and we came away more little ribbon bracelets than we ever could have imagined.

Despite the hawkers and convoys of Western tourists, the vistas were exquisite. Tendrils of mist snaked between the hills and occasionally melted away to reveal sculptured rice terraces where water buffalos and snowy white ducks pruned back the spent stalks that had been left after the harvest. Between the hillsides, Red Dzao women shuttled back and forth from village to village, their tasseled red headdresses brilliant spots of color against the landscape. Young H’mong girls whose grandmothers had woven ornate baby papooses each tried their luck at harnessing Ollie to my back with the intricate network of cloth and well-placed knots, to no avail. One small girl shook her head at Ollie’s unwillingness to cooperate. “Maybe you have one more baby; this one too big and crazy. Maybe nice girl. Then you buy from me?”


  1. Cannot believe your adventures!!! I want to play drinking games in a far away land! Miss you all!
    PS Kiss and make up with poor Ryan!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.