A Trip To The Tonkinese Alps Part 4 : Learning Beyond The Classroom Walls

We took the plunge. It was a leap of faith. The kids should be able to survive without any electronic devices. Never tried it since the advent of the iphone. No ipad, no electronic games. Just us, them, and everything else in between.

The trip apart from hiking, was meant to show the kids the lives of people in the less developed part of the world.

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Prior to the trip, I was worried about many things. The food, the weather and how well they (or we) could survive the long journey without their electronic games. I was worried that the holiday could turn into a nightmare.

We packed some UNO cards and a handful of Lego figurines and the boys were happy playing with them during our 8 hour train ride. At the end of each day, they were tasked to write down in their journals, a couple of things they saw during the day.

During the trip, the kids got to mingle and make friends with the local children. Play was their common language.

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They learned about fruits and plants that grow in the wild. Our 13 year old guide showed and fed us some wild weird looking fruits along the way. Some of the plants have medicinal uses but I think they eat them mostly to quench their thirst and fill their stomach.

These are green tea fruits. The leaves are use for making tea but these fruits can’t be eaten.

These fruits which look like berries, have a local name which I couldn’t pronounce. They taste really refreshing and sweet with a tinge of sourness.

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The relatively cheap hiking boots which I got for my 5 year old were perfect for him. It was tough and waterproof, perfect for him to trash in it.

I am quite sure his confidence level went a notch up after all the climbing and waddling through running streams, muddy trails and slippery rocks.

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He learned that rivers and streams play an important role in the lives of these people.

They bath and wash their clothes in them. The water is used in the padi fields and for generating small amount of electricity in their homes.

The boys enjoyed the food and the new friends they made. They played with what the local kids play with, from climbing trees to slippery rocks, from weaving their own toys to making up their own games.

This bow and arrow was made from bamboo strips that he picked up along the way.

I realised that the boys were more adaptable than I thought. They were much more capable of self entertaining than I thought.

I am not sure how much they were affected by the poverty they saw or whether they feel that they should be thankful for what they have. (I hope they do)

They knew that their friends took months to grow their rice and many of them don’t have a chance to go to school. If you ask my 5 year old, he would probably tell you that his deepest impression of the place was their toilets. They were holes in the ground and he worried about falling into them when his legs get tired from squatting.

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Our 1 week in Sapa was an experience that we wouldn’t have had living in our cocoon world of comfort. It was a learning experience that goes beyond the 4 walls of a classroom and I was reminded of the Chinese saying, ‘better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books’.

I realised that much of my initial worries were unfounded. The boys did not reject the food that were served or complain about the very basic condition of their friends’ homes. They dug into the gunny sack of toys like treasure troves and they enjoyed every moment spent with their new friends. I am glad that they did not shun the kids they met along the way, often with torn and tattered clothes.

I am glad the boys took in the new experience so well.

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If you ask Malcolm about the kids without clothes playing in the padi fields, he would probably shoot you a nonchalant look before diving back into his book and Marcus would tell you that the kids were having fun.

I realised what I saw as poverty and struggle was perhaps to my children just a different life, probably a happy and carefree one.

They had readily take in the fact that there are people who live very differently from them and believe in very different things.

I realised that perhaps my children could see better than me and they were right that the children of Sapa were just different, and happy and needn’t need anything more, at least not iPad or any electronic games and gadgets.


Read Part 1 of our trip : A Homecooked Meal
Read Part 2 of our trip : Hiking the Mountains
Read Part 3 of our trip : Children of Sapa

A Trip To The Tonkinese Alps Part 3 – Children Of Sapa

The 8 month old baby boy apart from her mother’s milk, was fed rice water. He came to this world a month premature and his mother, Ca, a 19 year old Hmong girl, felt the labour pain while on a trekking assignment. Thankfully she was given a handphone as a tour guide and could contact her mother-in-law and husband. They arrived in time but it was too late to bring her home or to the hospital.

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With a pair of scissors, her mother-in-law skilfully cut the umbilical cord and tied it into a knot. Her baby boy was delivered along the dirt track, by a rock. He weighed only 1.5kg. When we met her, she was eager to show us the place where her baby boy was born.

Her elder daughter is 2. She was luckier when she had her. She was born at home with the help of her mother-in-law. After giving birth, she was out working in the field by the 4th day.

IMG_5860This is how most women still give birth today in this part of the world. 1 out of every 3 children dies before they reached their first birthay.

Another local guide, Zar at the age of 40, told us how she gave birth to all 5 children at home. It was easy and to have their babies in a hospital would have been scarier. This is Zar’s youngest daughter.

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Apart from being a tour guide, she does home stay for tourists and her daughter and son-in-law runs a small snack stall. Among the tour guides we had, she is considered more well off, with better living condition.

She helped her 20 year old daughter deliver her baby boy at home. This is her grandson, about a year younger than her youngest daughter.

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Lala, daughter of Guide So, is 4.5 years old. She could piggyback her elder sister who is 9 and double her weight. Lala could start the fire, brew the tea, slice the pork, cook it over the fire and serve the guest when the parents were out. Some 5 year olds I know can’t even feed themselves, much less handle anything in the kitchen.

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These girls, especially the Hmong lead a hard life and I think that is what makes them tough even at a very young age. They face multiple disadvantages. Constrained by the traditions of family preference for sons, girls spend long hours on domestic chores with little chance to rest, play or socialise, let alone complete school.

Seen as ‘other people’s women’ from birth, they have accepted their traditional feminine identity and are largely isolated from the modernising world. Many of them struggle to imagine lives different from that of their mothers.

“My” (pronounced as “me”) is our tour guide on most days during our stay in Sapa. She recognises the different plants and fruits that grows along the roads. She even knows the buffaloes by their faces. I am convinced that she and her younger sister, Sio were probably the reasons why my 5 year old could walk so far. They played with him, held his hands and sometimes even carried him on their backs.

If you ask My, she will tell you that she is 16, because she thinks that 16 is a nice age to be. We were told that she is probably 13 or 14. They couldn’t be sure as she doesn’t have a birth certificate. She was born at home and her mother probably didn’t register her birth, either that or she had misplaced it. Without any form of identification, she is effectively without any nationality.

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My has been working with Ethos Adventures as tour guide for more than a year now. When we met her, she was almost as tall as me but we were told that when she first joined the team, she was small and malnourished. She is one of the many local tour guides that the tour agency employs, usually women from underprivileged families. (Ethos Adventures have done extensive studies on how to improve the lives of these people. I recommend you to head over here to have a read if you are interested).

Beside employment, Ethos Adventures provides My lodging, food and teaches her English. She could speak fluent English when we met her and her ambition is to one day open a tour agency that is even bigger than the one she is working now.

Our days of trekking brought us face to face with many local children. We saw much poverty. Children barely dressed and without shoes. They are often smeared with dirt, badly in need of a good bath.

It was the summer school holidays. The children spend most of their waking hours working the fields and tending the buffaloes. They are supposed to return to school after summer but some do not go back.

Sometimes, the school is too far away – it could be an hour and half by foot, one way. Sometimes, they are needed to work in the fields. Sometimes, they think that Vietnamese school is the government’s way of subverting their identity and way of life. Sometimes, they just don’t see the point. Sometimes it was more profitable selling made in china trinkets on the street. It is perhaps with a little more than a tinge of sadness that I write this. The vicious cycle of poverty in slow poetic motion.

IMG_5863There were these 2 kids, barefoot and dirty, presumably brothers who were standing by the fence to their land. They were barely 4 or 5 years old. We passed the older brother two biscuits, with the intent of passing the younger brother some biscuits as well. With neither a word nor a moment of hesitation, the older brother turned and gave one to the younger brother. They stuffed the biscuits into their mouths with their mud covered hands and stared at us. In poverty, they have learned to share what little they have. Amazingly touching, I can’t find the words to describe it.

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A friend brought along a portable photo printer and started taking pictures of the local kids and printing them out for them along the way. These 2 boys were ready to smile for the camera after seeing how their friend got a picture of himself sitting on the buffalo.

IMG_6185Somehow, the look on their faces and the the light in their eyes tell me that the little pictures of themselves would be cherished.

It is the local children of Sapa that touched me the most on this trip. Thoughts of them continue to haunt me. I think of them much, about their difficult lives in the mountains, their future, their poverty. But most of all, I think of the strength, the spirit and the beauty of their people in these children. They have left an indelible impression.

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Read Part 1 of our trip : A Home Cooked Meal
Read Part 2 of our trip : Hiking The Mountains
Read Part 4 of our trip : Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls


A Trip To The Tonkinese Alps Part 2 : Hiking The Mountains

Hiking or trekking in Sapa is not quite like most countries we have visited where trails were well marked, distances annotated, and difficulty graded. Over in Sapa, these concepts don’t exist. Trails exist not for the hiker or the tourist. They exist for villagers in the mountains to get from one place to another. They are well trodden by villagers. The paths exist so that the villagers can survive and make a living.  The guide told us that she had to walk 10 km just to get to the market in town.

During our trip, we would trek to some remote villages and have hot lunches at a local home. We started on shorter routes to get a good feel of the trails and did longer ones when we got more accustomed.

Unlike in temperate countries, the trails here in Southeast Asia were often muddy with occasional landslides. Our guides who were locals were very familiar with the area and knew exactly where to avoid.

We went with friends and our fitness level varied. Luckily with a lot of encouragement and cheering, everyone was able to subdue their fear and overcome the obstacles. We crossed multiple rivers. Some with bridges while others, the slippery rocks were the only way.

Having spent most of our weekends riding bikes and hiking back home had somewhat helped to prepare the kids for this trip. Still, it wouldn’t be possible for my 5 year old to make it all the way if not for the occasion free rides on his Dad’s strong shoulders.

My old hiking boots gave way after just 1 day of walking but luckily I had brought my running shoes along. However, without good ankle support and with soles that weren’t really meant for trails, I was worried that I couldn’t make it far in them.

The local guides all wore the same kind of slippers. They told us that their 1 dollar slippers work best. The soft soles allowed their toes to grip on the rocks and gave them a good feel of the soil. Few of us could match their speed in traversing the more challenging terrains and I think we must have looked really stupid moving clumsily in our ‘expensive’ looking hiking boots.

We arrived on a cloudy day and the weather forecast for the next couple of days kind of dampened my spirit. Even with a waterproof jacket, I was not keen to be hiking in the drizzle for a few hours.

Thankfully, like in most mountains, the weather never matches the weather forecast. We had the most beautiful weather during the last 2 days of our trip and we did the best hikes with the best views.

The villages had been praying to the mountains and ‘spirit trees’ for their padi fields and they were happy to have their prayers answered.

I realised that while trekking the mountains to us is a form of sports, hobby and leisure, to the villages, these mountains are sacred and their livelihood depends on them. I was reminded how these mountains deserved our respect simply by being there.

Read Part 1 for the trip : A Homecooked Meal
Read Part 3 of the trip : Children of Sapa
Read Part 4 of the trip : Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls