Hiking the Red Dao Villages


Happy 2018 from arctic Brooklyn! Everyone on the streets outside our apartment is dramatically shivering and exclaiming about the temps here, which are much lower than normal. Our January goal is to get caught up on sharing 2017 travels so that we're all ready to share our 2018 ones--and we have some incredible trips planned. So. We're taking it back to May of this year and our visit to Sapa in Vietnam. It's a beautiful one!


After arriving in Sapa around lunchtime, and noting our hotel's itinerary for us (we had prebooked some hikes through the hotel), we scarfed down our lunch and walked the 400m from our cottage to the designated hiking launch point. And here is where my head actually almost exploded because, after a bit of complete pandemonium and confusion, we were told to find our paperwork as we were not booked for the hike. We showed what they had just printed, but it was not enough. We raced back to our cottage and the front desk to figure out what had slipped, and our guide took the opportunity to  . . .  leave without us!


As the main goal of the Sapa jaunt was to hike, we were super annoyed (and still think it was very poor form for the hotel. When we asked for a manager, we were told they were all gone at a conference. Hopefully they learned something!). Luckily, another traveler was just coming back from hiking and told us just to walk to the hotel's entrance and ask the tribal women for some guidance. Incredibly, when I'd read reviews of the hotel, the one negative was that the tribal women were persistent in selling goods at the hotel's entrance.


We could not have been more pleasantly surprised. Despite speaking about 15 words of English, four women took our hands and led us on a three hour walk down through the rice paddies and into their homes.


The Red Dao's shave their eyebrows and hair lines and decorate their heads with beautiful hats. Everything they wear is hand-sewn themselves.


As the next day was clouded in, we were grateful for the sunshine--although I was sticky as a clam climbing the muddy slopes in just my boat shoes (hiking boots next time!)


The views were completely unsurpassed and as it was the beginning of the planting season, the paddies had just been flooded and shone white in the sun. Walking along the thin, wet clay edges meant my ankles sunk a few times, but the women kept saying "Alie!" and holding my hand to help with my balance.


I couldn't have done the hike without their firm grips, and when we chatted with others at the lodge that evening who had gone on the scheduled hike, we learned they had trouble walking--so the kerfuffle turned well in our favor in the end. 


We walked down into the village of Lech, and then they asked us if we wanted to continue back, or see their house.


We decided to go for it, and they pointed up a very steep, mudded slope toward their homes. Walker managed fine, but I needed a hand ago to surmount the slide. The slick clay coated my soles and I was often just stuck in the mud, afraid my shoes would suction off.


Walking into the ladies' home was humbling in every way. That they would welcome us without knowing anything other than our names was incredible.  Puppies scattered around the yard as we approached.


Despite the floors being bare with very little furniture, I was struck by the beautifully ornate paintings on the walls. And those beams!


We sat down on itty stackable plastic chairs,  and Fanny, whose house this was, insisted on us drinking some rice wine. 


Baby, that was some strong wine--I begged Walker with my eyes to finish mine. How unbelievably generous to share their wine with us; we could not have asked for a more genuine experience.


Best of all, they gave us a tour of their home. There were piles of greens stacks on the floors--for the pigs, they told us--and very little of what we have, including running water or refrigeration. I did a double take at the hearth. They pointed and smiled--kittens! I guess they like to play in the warm embers!


After meeting several other family members who shared the house, which seemed to be hundreds of years old, we picked up our pace again to head back to the Topas Ecolodge.


I cannot tell you how I smiled the whole way, the awkward chatter and questions that neither us nor the women understood. The huge smiles on the beautiful women. They told us of the difficulty maintaining the shape of the paddies in the hillside, and how they spent their summers in the fields and their winters embroidering the gifts we later bought.


I had been keeping my eyes out for a bridge I'd read about in my trip prep, and kept asking them if they were going to take us to see one. They did not know the word 'bridge', so I had given up on the idea until there it was in front of us--the cutest little suspension bridge!


We continued back onto the main road after out paddy hiking and through several small gatherings of houses, ducks pecking alongside the road, bamboo-pipe irrigation systems gurgling about.


Water buffalo roamed freely and after our spottings in Africa, I cringed a bit. But they were a totally different, domesticated species that the women assured us were not dangerous.


Three hours later, we had new friends, new embroidered items (we had to buy from each of them; they were the pushiest saleswomen I have ever met!), and were back at this haven in the middle of rural Vietnam. 


 Walking with them was definitely a highlight of our travels in this huge, intricate world.