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



A Trip To The Tonkinese Alps Part 1 : A Home Cooked Meal

We just came back from a one week holiday in an incredibly picturesque mountain town in Northern Vietnam. Sapa is located at 1500m above sea level and lies in the mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as the Tonkinese Alps.

We were contemplating between going back to the quaint mountain village in Switzerland and somewhere nearer. We chose the latter for its rugged scenery and its rich cultural diversity but we later realised that the journey with a 3 hour plane ride to Hanoi and an 8 hours train ride to Lao Cai followed by an hour drive to Sapa town, was comparable to a trip to the Swiss Alps.

It was our first time taking a night train and it turned out to be one of the highlights for the trip. The cabin we booked for our family was a cozy little space with 4 bunk beds. The boys were thrilled to board the train and they would have climbed and jumped from bed to bed the whole night if we allowed them.

We had read up a bit about the place before the trip but it didn’t quite prepare us for the experience that followed. There was much uncertainty when it came to mountain weather and the mood of a 5 year old. Thankfully the tour agency we chose, Ethos Adventures, was very flexible in planning an itinerary that suited us. They basically took into consideration the weather, the fitness level of our group and our needs and preferences. I seriously haven’t come across a tour agency that is more thoughtful.

The tour agency is run by an Englishman Phil and his Vietnamese wife Hoa and I was truly impressed by how they strive to be a responsible leader in the tourism industry. Apart from providing tourists with an unique travel experience, they aim to preserve the traditional cultures of the colourful hill tribe people and help to improve the lives of these ethnic minorities.

We arrived in Sapa on Sunday morning and as soon as we deposited our luggages with the hotel, we were introduced to our tour guide, So. She was a chirpy 30 year old who was from the Hmong tribe but spoke impeccable English. We planned to have a traditional home cooked lunch at her home and we had to make a trip to the local market to get the necessary ingredients.

A typical meal in the family consists of mainly rice and vegetable. Meat dishes are considered a luxury and are only reserved for special occasions like for weddings and friends. The Hmong are farmers who make their own traditional costumes and grow their own crop. It takes about 6 months to make a set of traditional clothes, from making their own thread to sewing it and 4 months to grow the rice. They store the harvested rice to feed the family and corn for the buffaloes that work in the padi fields.

They barely grow enough crops to feed their family and few families are able to sell what they have grown in the market. Leaving leftover rice in your bowl is considered a serious wastage. Guide So supplements their family income by working as a tour guide.

She brought us to her home which is built from wood and laid with clay flooring. The house was dark with almost no light except for sunlight that streamed through the cracks between the roof and wooden walls of the house. When it comes to winter months, the cold air enters through the cracks and makes the house unbearably cold.

It literally takes a village to build a house as all houses in the village were built by the villagers. Guide So told us that it took them many months to gather the wood needed to build the house but just 1 day to put the house together, with the help of other villagers.

In the living room, the kids helped to prepare susu leaves for stir fried. Susu plant is a local plant they grow for its fruits and leaves. Everything was cooked over an open fire in the house with lard which was stored each time a pig was slaughtered.

While waiting for lunch to be cooked, the kids poured out a gunny sack of toys – rusty metal rings and wooden walking stilts. They spent a fair bit of time playing with newly hatched little chicks and learning how to ‘weave’ their own toys using wild plants from the roadside.

Finally, after an hour or 2, our first home cooked meal was served. We had tofu, susu leaves and some stir fried meat dishes. It was a meal like no others.



Read Part 2 of our trip : Hiking the mountains
Read Part 3 of our trip : Children of Sapa
Read Part 4 of our trip : Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls

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