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Destinations Cities

Travel to...Vietnam

Georgia Moselen-Sloog takes it one step at a time in Vietnam.

"What’s your name? Where you from? New Zealand people very beautiful!”
Ambling off a bus after a five-hour ride north from Hanoi, the Sapa locals’ cheeky greetings and warm smiles are a joy. These are the Hmong women, the lifeblood of the tourism centre of Vietnam’s northwest. It’s clear that beneath their charm is a need to sell their brightly coloured wares, but – much to their chagrin – the sale will have to wait.
We’ve come to Sapa to trek the rice fields. The locals farm the region’s hilly terrain in terraces – steps that are sculpted into mountainsides as far as the eye can see. The hue of the landscape is dictated by the ripeness of the rice and varies from emerald green to gold throughout the year.
Sapa’s cooler temperatures are a respite from the hot and sticky Hanoi smog, but provide yet another challenge for these hardy farmers, who can only produce one rice crop per year – not two or three like those in the rest of the country. So it’s no wonder the persistent Hmong women drive a hard-sell.
A group of them joined us for the trek and boy, was I glad they did. Their gumbooted feet handled the slippery, muddy tracks with mountain goat-like deftness and they were glad to lend a strong forearm to guide me along.
It rained almost solidly during our 9km walk – that worked out to almost four hours of squelching and slipping along the trail. Having travelled without raincoats, we hastily bought plastic ponchos before setting off and although a late purchase such as this is always going to be expensive, it was an investment I didn’t regret!
Four hours of soggy toes and slip-sliding around makes this trip sound rather bleak. But the scenery, company and taste of local life made the trek anything but.
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest rice exporter, with paddy fields a feature of the landscape up and down the country.
The rice terraces of Sapa, however, are unique – a feat of engineering made necessary by the lay of the land. The steps that are cut into the mountains enable the irrigation that rice needs to be able to grow.
Though agriculture is the main occupation of the various tribes of Sapa, growing interest from visiting groups such as ours means the women can also earn by guiding trekkers or selling handicrafts such as bedspreads, bags, cushion covers and wall hangings.
Only after spotting suspicious-looking green plants dotted along our trail did we learn these items are made from hemp, hand spun using wooden looms. The cloth is then dyed using the leaves of the indigo plant, which – as the name suggests – gives them their dark blue colour.
Many Hmong women have blue hands, stained by the dark pigment. The ladies are also easy to spot because of their distinctive dress – they wear the dark, denim-like fabric embroidered with patterns in rainbow-bright thread. Bright scarves are often wrapped around their hair, while large silver earrings weigh down their earlobes.
They’re skilled at the art of sales, building a friendly rapport with unsuspecting and flattered tourists before going in for the kill, insisting that you buy something. They don’t give up either – a pinky promise is their guarantee that you’ll buy from them and that promise broken means you’ll cut your finger off one day in the kitchen... or so they told me.
But who can blame them? With babies on their backs and toddlers trailing along at their feet, it’s clear the money will help them. And without their assistance on our trek, there’s no doubt I would’ve spent a lot more time in the mud.
When we parted ways with our Hmong helpers, I was the proud owner of a multi-coloured bag and bracelet. After all, despite the awe-inspiring scenery, the time we spent with these women was the true taste of Sapa.
Fly with:
Air New Zealand operates flights from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin to Saigon from June 24-October 25.
Best tours:
Asia Charm Tours, Hanoi, provided us with a package deal, including a bus from Hanoi to Sapa, a night’s accommodation, a guided trek of the terraces and a bus back to Hanoi. See asiacharmtours.com for more information.
What to pack:
Make sure you bring some seriously grippy shoes such as hiking boots – my Converse sneakers did not cut the mustard on the wet trail. Though you can buy a poncho, a raincoat would come in handy too.
Local etiquette:
Remember to bring a good amount of Vietnamese Dong as well as US dollars – many local eateries on the way to Sapa would not accept USD or a credit card.
Words: Georgia Moselen-Sloog
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