I was scared.
Not merely nervous. Not just apprehensive. I was full on gut-twisting, heart-thundering, dizzy-feeling, difficulty breathing frightened.
And I hadn’t even left the Sapa O’Chau Treks home office.
Was I insane? Why did I ever think I was capable of doing a 3-day hike through the mountains of northern Vietnam? My mind flipped through all the scenarios in recent years where I had attempted anything involving hiking and climbing, and the misery and embarrassment those terrible ideas had brought upon me.
I am a writer, not a hiker! my frantic brain admonished as I stared wide-eyed from the Sapa O’Chau deck at high, distant ridges of the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains spiking through fog and stands of rain-drenched pines. I belonged somewhere quiet with a book, not on a mountain. And certainly not with a heavy backpack for two nights, three days and 28 kilometers of major elevation changes and the muddy, rocky terrain of Sapa.
Silently I cursed the 20-something Aussie girl back in Ho Chi Minh City who had recommended this tour, mesmerizing me with iPhone photos of idyllic rice terraces and cloud-laced peaks. “It’s more of a walk than a hike,” she’d said dismissively, “Not hard at all.” Why – WHY – did I listen to an Australian on issues involving athleticism? Every Aussie I’ve met while traveling has been in amazing shape, so of course it’s no biggie to her.
I had only myself to blame.
And now I was going to die.
Served me right, really.
My panic attack was progressing nicely when my trekking companions arrived. They were a Belgian couple in their mid-twenties, both lawyers from near Antwerp, called PJ and Hanna. At 8:30am, our trek guide, Soo, entered the Sapa O’Chau headquarters and introduced herself.
25 years old with an innocent, smiling face and long, thick black hair which she wore tied back, Soo was a fusion of modernity and her Hmong tribe traditions. Her Nike tennis shoes with neon green accents seemed at odds with her colorful Hmong skirt, dark leg wraps, and a long indigo-colored hemp vest she’d crafted herself. She carried no water bottle or backpack, only a small handmade purse, strap slung across her torso.
“Ready?” she asked cheerfully after we’d completed our last-minute water packing and plastic poncho organizing.
“Sure.” I croaked as another wave of fear sucker-punched me in the gut.
We abandoned the relative safety of the office building and marched out into the rain.
The first 45 minutes took us through the outer cusp of Sapa where the typical tourist shops and cafes thinned out and finally disappeared. It was all downhill, to my simultaneous relief and dread, as I suspected this much down likely meant there would be some insane uphill coming soon.
But it never came.
We had actually descended into broad, fairly flat Muong Hoa Valley where we hiked through our first rice terraces in tiny Cat Cat Village.
We came to a small river bridged by very loosely placed scraps of wood; the others stomped confidently across while I followed, nervously tip-toe-zig-zagging over the strongest looking pieces of wood.
Minutes after congratulating myself on surviving my first trek obstacle…
My tennis shoes with their worn-smooth treads skied down a small, swampy embankment for a split second before my entire body tipped backwards, sending me butt first into thick mud with a juicy thwuck!
Ahead of me, everyone spun around and gasped, shocked and bewildered to see me suddenly splayed out on the sticky ground.
At some point during the previous half hour, we had been joined on the narrow path by several locals; thin, gap-toothed, grandmotherly women of maybe 50 or 60 or so, and smaller than me. Two of them scampered back to help dislodge me from the muck, tsk-ing and asking, “Ok?… Ok?”
“I’m fine, heh. Thank you.” I stood, embarrassed, and twisted around to survey the damage.
My backpack was heavily splattered, and my rear end and right leg looked as if I had attempted a fully-clothed mud bath. I hadn’t brought any other hiking pants, for reasons that now completely escaped me.
We moved on. My squishing shoes emitted watery brown goo with every step.
The energetic old women, their large reed baskets strapped to their backs, seemed to appoint themselves my official spotters. At each muddy precipice, wooded ridge and rocky riverbed, they gently demanded my hand and pointed at where I should put my feet to avoid slipping.
Humiliating as it was to have to literally lean on ladies who would probably qualify for senior discounts in the U.S., their sure-footedness saved me countless times.
However, I still managed a few more soggy nosedives despite the firm grips of their tiny hands.
I found myself saying “thank you” so often, it occurred to me to ask Soo how to say it in their language. I knew it was cam on in Vietnamese, but I’d heard that the Hmong people didn’t speak Vietnamese. Our guide told us it was simple: O chau. Like the name of the tour company.
The next few couple hours were peppered with my new favorite phrase, o chau! as I wobbled and stumbled over the terrain.
During fleeting seconds when I was afforded a chance to raise my eyes from the rough trail…my breath would catch in my chest.
Rice paddy terraces, some over a hundred years old, stretched to the mountainous horizon in great undulating scallops of green. Many of the fields had begun to deepen to a golden yellow hue, a sign the harvest was nearly ready.
In some paddies, farmers were bent at the waist, slicing, pulling, gathering the rice; the center of their diet and of their world. Everything depends on the harvest. The Vietnamese don’t get taxed by their government, so hill tribe families don’t have to go to market with their produce, but growing what it takes to feed their own is enough of a challenge.
From high forested trails, plow-pulling and grazing water buffalo were scattered like dark seeds over the landscape. Sometimes we’d round a corner and nearly run straight into one standing on the path, calming chewing. Other times we’d have to gingerly step around a calf taking a snooze on the path in the heat of the day as its mother kept a very close eye on us from a few yards away.
By noon I was beginning to seriously struggle.
Fierce rays had emerged from behind the fog from the morning’s rain. It was not even 80 degrees, but the nearly 90% humidity made it feel as though I were trying to breathe thick, steamy sauna air through a straw. My muddy backpack, clothes, 1.5 liters of water, and gargantuan camera felt impossibly heavy and seemed to drag me backwards as I trudged up, up, up.
My pace slowed and I started to lag way behind the others. I stumbled more often, exhausted. My worry had dissipated for a little while we were on flatter ground, and the amazing scenery had also distracted me from it for a bit, but now it came storming back to my conscious.
I honestly didn’t know how I was going to make it through the rest of the day like this. And what about the next two days? There were no taxis here, there would be no simple way to get back to Sapa if I really couldn’t finish the trek. I mentally kicked myself again for signing up for this when I knew I was in awful shape.
Despite drinking most of my water, I was becoming light headed. My heart was a steam engine. My lungs strained against the sticky air. Sweat and steam coated every inch of me, mixing with drying spattered mud.
“I have to stop,” I called, barely loud enough for the others to hear. “I need a minute.”
Soo backtracked, making her way to me. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah,” I wheezed, gulping air, trying to force my heart to slow from its thundering gallop. “I think so. I just. Need. A second. Sorry.”
“Do you want me to carry your backpack?”
Utter joy and total shame collided in my brain. “You…you don’t mind?” She smiled and shook her head no, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly a gift from the gods for her.
“Oh my gosh. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
She transferred the bag to her own strong back.
That was a good thing, because it was the end of the road for my fall-prevention system — the two older ladies, still tagging along in the heat.
It turned out that the reason for their mysterious appearance, and inexplicable dedication to keeping me upright, was not as much out of kindness, but to sell me a few items they’d made when we stopped for lunch (I’d had my suspicions).
How could I not buy something when they’d saved my butt so many times? And this little bit of money was important to them.
I ended up buying an indigo hemp (the material they’re known for) pillowcase. It was lovely, but I had not been in the market for more stuff to add to my already crammed-full backpack.
After lunch, feeling a little more rejuvenated, we headed back onto the trail and hiked another six kilometers. We passed through more terraces, walking the six-inch wide ridges; scaled steep mud inclines and navigated equally precarious drops. We climbed up and down bouldered slopes and crossed rickety swinging bridges that had rusted away in various spots, allowing clear views through gaping holes at rushing river currents below.
At last, in the early evening, we arrived at the Hmong homestay in the village of Lao Chai where we’d sleep for the night.
Hanna, PJ and I pulled up child-size red plastic chairs and sat at a low table at the center of the front deck, peeled off our mud-caked shoes and, despite the heat, sipped the tea we were given by a sweet older woman who introduced herself as Mu.
I shook her weathered hands; they were permanently a greenish-blue hue from the wrists down, likely from decades of dipping woven hemp fabric into vats of indigo dye.
As it happens, the very dark indigo color of their traditional clothing has lead the Hmong people of this specific area to be known as the Black Hmong minority.
Soo disappeared into the kitchen to help prepare dinner, along with the older woman and one of the younger ladies who lived in a neighboring home.
As incredible smells began to waft from the open kitchen door, we relaxed and chatted. I rubbed my aching feet and legs.
Around us, mild chaos was continuously errupting. A whirlwind of racing children, a curious baby, a hen and her entourage of a dozen chirping yellow chicks, bickering roosters nearby, squealing pigs, caged birds, and one very patient old dog.
Dinner turned out to be an incredible feast. The children, us hikers from the West, and the adults all gathered around the table with our rice bowls and chopsticks and dug into the deliciousness.
After the meal, we sat with Soo as the last of the day’s light turned into a peaceful, warm night. She taught us a few words and phrases in her language. And she told us about her family; her husband, young son and daughter. She talked about her late father, who when she was a little girl, had bravely defied the government’s strict religious regulations and brought Christianity to Lao Chai by smuggling in forbidden bibles. It was in fact solely thanks to Soo’s father that grace was said before dinner.
Later, I slid toward sleep listening to a wonderful cacophony of crickets like I had never heard before.
Sometime during the night I woke to the sound of a passing thunderstorm playing a soothing song on the tin roof. Lying in bed, I briefly remembered the challenges I’d endured that day. Even though I’d fallen on my rear, had to be helped by tiny grannies, and had been forced to hand over my backpack for fear of heat exhaustion… I was proud of myself.
I’d never done anything like this before, and I’d managed to not die. In fact, it was kind of an amazing day.
Still, I prayed the next day would be easier.
I would soon find out.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my trekking adventure in Sapa, Vietnam!