I opened my eyes and squinted into the hazy light that filtered in though a small, dusty window above my bed.
Muffled sounds of morning in Lao Chai village sorted themselves out in my mind as I remembered where I was. Roosters squabbled and flapped and called loudly. Children chattered and shrieked playfully as they made their way to school.
Pigs snuffled in their pens. Their farm-y odor permeated the guest quarters of the Hmong homestay where PJ and Hanna, my Belgian co-trekkers, and I had slept the first night of our 3-day trek into the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam.
I rolled over and stretched beneath my children’s cartoon character sheets. The movement sent a sharp pain through my calves and thighs. Sitting up, I bent to strap on my sandals, then rose to my feet. The previous day’s 16-kilometer hike over rough mountain terrain had left me with blisters and bruises, and I now felt every one of them acutely. I stifled a gasp of pain.
Eyeing my mud-caked shorts and tennis shoes drying nearby, I decided to delay putting them on for as long as possible.
Half tip-toeing, half limping past my new friends, I slipped through the guest house door to the covered patio.
I was greeted by streaks of white mist trailing past the homestay, dissipating in the distance over the verdant mountains. Light rain fell, giving the vista a cozy, mysterious aura.
Our Hmong guide, Soo, who had slept in her own home that night, returned and helped the lady of the house prepare breakfast. We’d be hiking 12 kilometers that day, so we made sure to fill our stomachs full of bananas and crepes (sadly, not a local dish, but the tourists always like it, so they make it for them/us).
After breakfast, feeling refreshed and in good spirits, I pulled on my stiff, slightly damp shorts and mud-crusted shoes, and we headed once again into the wet but beautiful rice terrace hills.
I relished seeing life as usual happening around us while we hiked.
Kids riding their lumbering water buffalo up the paths. Strong mothers with their babies strapped to their chests and baskets brimming with produce strapped to their backs. Little boys laughing and splashing each other while washing up in the rivers. Villagers on motorbikes bumping their way up or down the crude hillside trails, passing us with inches to spare, though no one worried.
After a few hours of mostly uphill trekking in the damp heat, we came to the traditional village of Ta Van. This was the home of the Giay minority people, descendants of Chinese immigrants who’d adopted the area some 200 years ago.
Electricity and running water are a rarity here; villagers generally stick to the tried-and-true methods of the past (despite some tentative forays into modernity, such as a purported “wifi cafe” at the side of one road).
Soo lead us into one of the local homes, a wood and tin shack featuring one large room. To the right was the sleeping area, separated from the rest of the space by sheets strung from the ceiling.
Near the doorway where light streamed in abundance, a simple loom was set up. On it, a spool of hemp thread was currently being turned into a swath of sturdy woven fabric.
She demonstrated how the loom worked (Soo was a veteran of such arts, having made most of her own clothes this way), and showed us the vats of indigo dye where each section of fabric would be dipped and dried repeatedly for several months until it had reached the prized deep, deep blue color.
After drying, the cloth would then be smoothed with a heavy rolling stone until it took on a lustrous appearance. Soo explained that Hmong brides and grooms wore traditional clothing of the shiniest hemp material on their wedding day.
Hanna, PJ and I were all a little shocked when she went on to describe the engagement process that is occasionally the choice of young men: kidnapping. The bride can say no, but if she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, she’ll just go along with it and marry him.
These days, young folks are more likely to marry for love instead of submitting to arranged marriages or kidnappings.
Soo guided us through a second doorway to the left where a small stream cascaded past the house. A large simple wooden lever harnessed the power of running water to rhythmically pound dried rice into smaller, finer pieces to be ground up.
At lunch we stopped at Soo’s house (also a homestay for travelers) to fill up on yummy noodle soup, savoring a chance to rest for a bit.
As during the previous day, prior to lunch, we’d been joined randomly by older women toting large baskets on their backs. They made a point to help us through the sometimes treacherous boulders, mud and steep rock faces.
I was a little conflicted now that I knew their ulterior motive — to sell us stuff at lunch — but they again saved me from falling on my butt a number of times (so far I’d managed not to fall once the whole day, which I was pretty pleased about).
I grudgingly bought a small indigo hemp pouch from them. PJ and Hanna attempted to resist, but ended up buying some small items as well. Finally they left and we were able to finish our lunch in peace.
After about an hour of refueling and relaxing, we trekked on.
During the first couple of hours, we traced the waving dirt rims of the rice paddies, balancing ourselves on the narrow mounds with the help of our bamboo walking sticks that Soo had chopped down for us that morning (immensely helpful!).
Though I was sore and soaked in sweat and mud head to toe, I never tired of the views. The sight of rice terraces and mountains and villages and rivers soothed me. The fragrance of earth and fields of rice, and the quiet hum of crickets were beautiful tranquilizers.
It was nearly nightfall by the time we reached our homestay in the village of Giang Ta Chai.
We were all utterly exhausted. Hanna and I were both particularly beat up from the jarring walk downhill on hard cement. We peeled off our shoes and socks and gratefully accepted the rubber sandals given to us by our hosts. I didn’t think I had ever been so achey and stiff in my life; I waddled about like an arthritic 80-year old, groaning miserably at even the slightest movements.
While dinner was cooking, we took turns showering, and put our feet up, giggling as a cute toddler, who had far too much energy for his grandparents’ liking, zipped about, getting into every kind of trouble.
After dinner with our gracious Hmong host family — served at a very low table while we all perched on tiny blocks of wood — we trekkers sat and chatted for a few more hours. Soo sipped juice while PJ, Hanna and I decompressed with a couple of cold Biere Larues.
Finally, it was time for bed. I could not have been more ready for it.
The next morning, still in pain, I dragged myself from the loft area where we’d slept and climbed slowly and achingly down the ladder. Standing on the front patio, I gazed out at a truly magnificent scene:
This was the last day of our adventure.
I only had to make it through another few hours to declare victory over this trek, but even now I fought the urge to stay right there on the patio and skip the morning hike. Feelings of self doubt crept back in, whispering to me: You know this will be so much harder for you than it will be for them… you’ll only slow them down again… you could just stay here and read… it would be ok…
Fortunately, Hanna and PJ came to the rescue and encouraged me to keep going. “I mean, don’t you think you’ll regret it if you give up now?” PJ reasoned.
Yes, I would. It was absolutely true, I had to admit it. I had come this far, I could handle a few more hours. Don’t be such a wimp.
Sighing, I put on my hiking shorts again, which were now so embedded with dirt that a puff of dust would rise if I scraped against something. My shoes were also stiff and infused with packed mud, little chunks crumbled away as I shoved my feet in.
The hike began with my least favorite thing: an hour and a half of continual ascent. Scorching temperatures and suffocating moisture in the air made it especially tough for me. I lagged far behind the others and leaned heavily into my bamboo hiking stick.
Eventually we arrived at our destination, a two-room village primary school. No electricity. We peeked in at the classes through the door. One little boy waved and whispered “Hallo!” to us. I waved back quickly, trying not to be too distracting.
Soo told us about the school and the education process. She said that all children in the area attend classes, but rarely go past the primary level. In school, they learn some Vietnamese and English but computers are usually either unavailable or there’s only one, so they don’t get much (if any) experience with technology, though everybody does have a cellphone these days.
Afterwards, we headed back to the homestay. The lofty road and epic views — the last I would see during the trek — offered a perfect opportunity for a group selfie shot:
An hour later we sat in a squeaky air-conditioned van chugging our way up the same road we’d hiked down the previous evening. I concentrated, trying to burn into my brain these final images of the golden rice paddy terraces and green broccoli Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, knowing I likely would never see them again.
High above Muong Hoa Valley, we passed in reverse at what felt like lightning speed a few of the places we’d hiked through — some I could only see from a distance of several kilometers. Rivers and rock formations. Bamboo houses perched atop hills. Tiny towns and villages, homes of the amazingly kind and gentle Hmong hill tribe people.
I remembered how terrified I was on the first day of the trek. It seemed like a long time ago.
Maybe I’m not anyone’s version of an athlete. My giant mountains may be other people’s tiny hills. Maybe I needed a little extra help. But I didn’t quit. I didn’t give up.
I climbed mountains. And I was incredibly proud of myself.
Next stop: Two relaxing weeks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and then on to Kathmandu, Nepal!