Sapa is probably the best place Vietnam has to offer. This northern town is near the Chinese border and has the most beautiful mountains. After centuries of hard-work, the locals have cultivated rice terraces into the mountains. If there is a stairway to heaven, Sapa is where it is. These lime-green rice paddies look like large steps on the dark green mountains.
For only two day, I went trekking through these mountains to visit hill-tribes in their villages, eat their local foods and take lots and lots of pictures of the scenery. The hike itself wouldn't have been so difficult if it wasn't for the muddy floor and rainy conditions. Each person in my group took a bamboo stick and hoped for the best.
A 6 year-old girl from one of the nearby villages followed me the entire afternoon. She told me about how she walks these 9 kilometers every day with her sisters. In some ways, she reminded me of those pictures that you see in brochures from non-profit organizations for the poor. Her hat was tattered and her clothes were plain. For sure, she was poor. Once we got to her village, she asked me over and over again if I wanted to buy something from her.
It struck me. Of course, these tribes are poor. Money was never an object in their lifestyles until tourism banged on their doors: a new opportunity to pry into another, otherwise, isolated community. This was the first time the word "poverty" didn't carry a negative stigma for me. These people were happy and self-sustainable without money (what a novelty), but now they're addicted to tourists.
That night, an old widower from the village cooked us dinner and let us sleep in her house. Dishes of friend garlic and greens, steamed rice, tofu and tomatoes, fried beef and ginger....oh man. I hadn't eaten so well like that in a looong time.
To finish us off, she brought 2 jugs of homemade rice wine to celebrate one of the Isreali's in my group's birthday. So you've got to imagine it: 2 Swedes, 2 Isrealis, 3 Russians, 1 American (me), 1 Danish, 1 Ozzie, and 3 Vietnamese taking shots from this old lady who didn't stop pouring our glasses until we passed out. They sang traditional songs. We sang the "Happy Birthday" song in our respective languages. They exchanged farming stories. We exchanged traveling stories.
The next day, we continued our trek through the mountains in our hangover haze. Along the way there were schools to visit and farmers in conical hats to see. The trip was practically over and I was soon on myway back to Hanoi.