I was looking forward to get away from the sauna that Hanoi is; but I surely was not excepting the shift, called Sa Pa.
I survived the night train. I probably owe my good night of sleep to the genuine night note left on the nightstand, signed ‘’merry Christmas and happy New Year’’. Before I knew it, the train arrived at the terminal and I found myself in the rain, on the platform, in my pajama’s, without my contact lenses. Thanks to my Italians car-mates, I find my pick up guide and within one hour I will make it to Sa Pa.
It is raining cats and dogs. The stairs are flooded, my socks are already wet and the mountains are comfortably hidden behind thick grey clouds. Not made of sugar, I am not going to let a few drops get me down. I buy a perfectly fake jacket, which at least is waterproof; and hidden under my pink poncho I hit the road, together with 7 other companions. As we start walking down to the valley, the rain stops pouring, the sky turns blue, the sun rises and so does my optimism.
A group of local woman will follow us for the first half of the day. Their colorful outfits highlight their dark skin and bright smile: they look totally different from the women back in Hanoi. If language might be barrier, communication remains easy. They smile, grab your hand, and lead you through the – very – muddy path, sneaking around the terraced rice fields. We are now in the only place of Vietnam which has an actual winter: the locals keep up with mountain’s rhythm, they know their way and they seem very happy to welcome us on their playground.
We will cross a few villages: some organized as tiny cities with a few shops and bars; some just made of farms and fields. Walking on the edge of rice fields, we hump deeper in the valley, and the view keeps on becoming brighter and more spectacular. Keeping an eye on the slippery ground, we carefully proceed and keep on admiring the immense green field of terraces, flooded and flourishing. As globalization doesn’t spare anybody, we found around a corner a hut, selling ice cream and beers. The ice cream break gives us some time to get rid of all rain gears, and to share one tube of sunscreen. Looking down the valley, we can see the rest of our path and I warmly welcome the idea of crossing the bridge over the muddy river.
On the side of the roads we walk, under some fragile roofs built on the mountainside, or in the swamped rice fields; we meet multi-generational families. Half naked toddlers are building their confidence while walking in the mud, stunning young girls are begging you to buy a bracelet; their parents are farmers, carpenters, cook or mechanic … or all of it at the same time; grandparents keep a wise and controlling eye on the all situation. It is summer holidays, so all village’s toes and hands are getting dirty on the golden and red path we walk. I would like the meet the English teacher who put into the most adorable little girl’s mouth those catchy sentences ‘’If you do not buy from me, I will follow you for ever’’, ‘’you are not human’’ or again ‘’thank you for nothing’’ when you try to politely turn down their insisting bracelets and handbags sales speech. As much as I try to keep my mind open and to not judge everything with my European eye; I cannot help myself but to pity those kids whose education seems to find it’s only purpose into getting money from hikers crossing their village. The girls are the sales force; they follow the path of their moms. The boys are in the field or at home fixing things with daddy.
I will never insist enough on how lucky I feel about being born in Europe, in a country and a family which encouraged me to get educated so I would always have options. My freedom and my safety are, at the end of the day, the only things that really matter to me. Free to think, talk and move; and safe enough to do it without thinking twice.
I remember a chat I had with three teenagers working in a specialty coffee shop in Hanoi. At first, they did not really dare talking to me, so they asked once too many if I liked the coffee. Quickly, we were sitting the four of us around the bar, talking about travels and cultures. A question one of them asked me was as direct as confronting ‘’How did you do it? To buy your tickets? I am working very hard here but I am quite sure I will never be able to go on a trip around the world and spend a few months in Europe’’. They travel in Vietnam, where they were born; and they love it. They know their country, they travel with their friends and family; but they also dream of crossing borders and trying out food and coffee from other places. How did I do it? I was born at the right place and I made the right choices. It is as easy and unfair as that. Even with the best will in the world, it will remain nearly impossible for those teenagers to achieve their travel dreams. For the simple reason that you can have 10 coffees here, for the same price as a single espresso on the Champs Elysees. Good news is, the coffee here tastes better.
Again, they do not look unhappy and I find myself envying their creativity more than pitying their condition. I am happy to have options, but the choices I have to make can be source of a struggle that those kids will never know. They accept their faith and make a life out of it, spending their energy into creativity; when I spend my time wondering what I could do better, stronger, faster, and in a more efficient way…
The first day of trekking ends in a big wooden house, build by the river side. Quick shower for everyone and a pile of local beers to go with the sweet and sour fries the host has prepared for us. We share a huge and delicious meal, in the heart of the very modest house. The living room, the kitchen and the bathroom are on the ground floor; and the mezzanine making the 1st floor will be the place where we will sleep tight after too many rice wine shots. I love how travelling brings people together, I just find it beautiful how easily we connect and open up. Our relations might be ephemeral, but it does not make them any less real. Just like the hundreds of butterflies and dragonflies we spotted today: if you stop running and look, they are everywhere. Memories to catch, learn from and live by; without ever possessing them.
It was not even 11 pm (felt like 2 am) when we trudged to the first floor. Firm mats on the floor, mosquito nests tucked in to prevent the intrusion of cockroaches; and the 8 of us slept like we were dead.
As the morning rise, we enjoy breakfast with a view I could get used to. Freshly made pancakes, with honey, lime and bananas (yes, it happened. I survived, I actually enjoyed.). The second day of trekking starts, together with my sweat production.
As I swipe the sweat running from below my cap, I laugh thinking back to a brief talk I had with a guy before leaving Sa Pa yesterday. He was telling me how travelling was not to be considered as real life, because I was not producing anything for the society while I was on the road. Primo, I produce: sweat, and memories. Secondo, I have never felt more useful and rich than I am now. Terzo, how sad is it to reduce happiness and life to productivity?
After a few more challenging muddy steps through a bamboo forest, we found ourselves facing a majestic waterfall. Following Lucas, French master of risk management, we almost all ended up sitting in the fresh running water, washing away the dry dirt we could not get off in the shower yesterday. Refreshing our sour legs, facing the valley and its infinite green terraces, I could not contain my joy and satisfaction. I was on the top of my happiness production. I made it here, so again, tell me once more what it is that I could not achieve? All doubts and guilt that I may feel sometimes along the way were being washed away by the fresh, clear, running water. I deserve this, and I am making the best out of it, going my own way.
Back to the village of Sa Pa, we managed to find a place willing to give our 10 feet a synchronized massage. Tough negotiations, delightful moment. All relaxed, I headed back to the station where my night train was waiting. Bit freaked out when I realized there was no one but me taking this train, I ate a full bag of m&m’s. I finally found a few travelers to board with me, and I eventually fell asleep and woke up in Hanoi early morning.
Keeping up the trekking spirit, we met up today with 2 of the 7 companions I share my last two days with. Making the best out of the maze that Hanoi is, we shared food, got a manicure, had good discussions and sincere laughs… and before we said goodbye, we made plans to meet again. The world is a small place and I am happy for I realized how easy it is to build from nothing. Like those amazing robinwoods we met yesterday: they did not know what a picture was, but they could build their own archery. Your best weapons in life are already in your hands, all you need is the time and the space to shape them. Trying to fit or to have people adapting to your needs is a waste of time; for you already have enough soulmates around who will respect and encourage you. It is a matter of patience, with a pinch of courage.