[ If you missed part 1, you can read it HERE ]
I was both relieved and disappointed that our 25-kilometer trek up Mount Fansipan had been canceled. In fact, thanks to the torrential rain that morning, every hike had been canceled save for one. It was called the “Non-National Park Trek”. Everything about this promised to be less than ideal, but it was the only option I had left, so I went for it.
Setting Out For Our Trek
The trek was going to be 19 kilometers long, and it was absolutely pouring rain. There were only a few of us from the hostel that had chosen to venture out. From inside the hoods of our ponchos and raincoats, we looked at each other miserably as the guide yelled to us over the roar of the rain in indecipherable English. We followed our guide down a steep road and a group of H’mong women and children followed us in rain boots.
At our first opportunity we veered off of our concrete road in favor of a gravel road that led us straight down hill. Through the rain we could see clouds swirled and changing around the valley.
Next we walked to the edge of the road and began a steep climb down what looked to be the route of a small mudslide. There was absolutely nothing to hold onto, and no amount of shoe-treads was going to make this any less slippery. We went over this little cliff like lemmings, beginning our descent into muddy, friction-less hell. The H’mong that accompanied us were like ninjas in their rain boots, hopping from place to place, never slipping for a moment. This was not their first rodeo.
As we walked the H’mong helped us through the particularly slippery spots, taking our hands for balance. In the beginning I was too proud to accept their help, but after a few hard spills, I was forced to face a hard truth: I needed them.
As we continued slipping and sliding down this muddy clearing in the rice paddies, I noticed that whenever one of the H’mong grabbed my hand it was always the same person: a little girl in purple rain boots. We all had assigned H’mong helpers. This was almost certainly a strategy for getting us to buy something from them later in the day, but I was grateful enough for this help that I would probably oblige.
The little H’mong girl that was helping me was named Mé (pronounced like ‘Meh’). I’m totally guessing with the accent on the ‘e’ – unfortunately there is no H’mong name database that I’ve been able to track down to verify the spelling. I know it’s spelled ‘m-e’ though. She was 12 years old and apparently did not come on these hikes often. That was as much information as her level of English would allow me to extract. She was probably 4 feet tall and no more than 70 pounds. (This information is going to be important soon.)
Sometimes I would take a step and slip. Other times I would take a step and sink deep enough into the muck that my shoe threatened to remain stuck in the mud even after I lifted my foot back up. I was pretty focused on my feet getting to the next level space or rock, but whenever we stopped to look up, we were pretty blown away. The rain was annoying, and the fog turned everything in the distance white, but even in the absence of a background, the foreground was pretty amazing. Looking down at the layers of intricate, luscious rice paddies was already an incredible view. My camera was wrapped in a plastic covering with a cinch around the lens protect it from the rain. It was the first time I’d been forced to use it and it was almost impossible to take a good photo with it. Still though, I think I managed to get a few quality pictures by virtue of sheer volume.
We continued on, now winding through the rice paddies on a relatively level path. Still, there were times when it was tough not to slip. I was doing okay though… for a while. Then we came to section of path that was tricky. Imagine a 2x4 board, that is level length wise, but width wise, is tilted downwards at a 60 degree angle. While this path did was not leading me up or down, the right side of the path was significantly lower than the left side, creating a precarious sideways tilt. On the left side was a huge step up to the rim of a rice paddy. On the right side was a quick drop off into the jungle below. The ground on the path was very muddy and smooth (clearly extra slippery) so there would be nothing to grab onto or use for balance.
I was a bit behind from juggling my camera back into my backpack so I did not have the luxury of observing how everybody else had gotten across this section, if they had at all, so it was up to me to figure out. I gave it my best shot. My first few steps went well, but then I slipped, and I really slipped.
Out of nowhere, Mé’s little hand grabbed onto mine as I tried to dig my right foot into the side of the cliff to keep myself from going over. She had been pretty far ahead of me when I slipped, so she definitely had had to make a pretty significant leap to catch me. My left foot (the one that was still on the path) was still slipping precariously closer to the edge. It would not be long before that foot slipped as well. It was a steep drop, but not one that would have killed me (if you were worried about that). I would have been bloody, muddy and camera-less at the end of the fall though. In those moments I remember looking up and seeing Mé’s little rain boots digging into the muddy slope and her brow furrowed, clearly putting all of her strength into keeping me from falling.
Through some miracle of physics, this, like, 70-pound girl managed to give me enough support that I could get my body back over the side the ledge. But as I hoisted my right leg back up onto the trail the math of our physics equation finally gave out and she fell towards the edge too with an embarrassed yell. I managed to get my foot back up just in time to put an arm out to catch catch her though.
I was absolutely covered in mud by the time we reached level ground again. I looked like that scene from Slumdog Millionaire where the kid jumps through the outhouse hole into the pit of slimy poop beneath him. I was happy that that was the worst of my problems though. I gave Mé a high five. “We did it! What would I do without you?” I laughed. She probably didn’t understand a word of that but I think got the basic sentiment behind it. She laughed too.
So this is Mé everybody! My hero:
I was clearly going to need to give her some sort of token of my gratitude at the end of the tour, and luckily I had a bag full of chocolate. (Why did I have a bag full of chocolate? Because when I thought I was going to climb Mount Fansipan I had been told that I should bring lots of sugary snacks to keep my energy up. As you know, the trek ended up being canceled due to inclement weather, but I had already bought my chocolate, so I figured that I might as well bring a snack. Thus, my chocolate.)
It was not long then before we made it to another paved road, much further down the side of the valley than where we had started. Once we were there the rain stopped and the clouds blew away allowing for enough visibility to see the other end of the valley. It was gorgeous, but my first priority was high-tailing it over to a nearby hollowed-out piece of bamboo positioned so that it was catching runoff from a mountain stream and spraying it out like a small fountain. I was covered in mud, head to toe, so I took a few shameful minutes in this fountain to clean myself up.
Then it was picture time:
Of all the photos I took though, these two were my favorites:
Before we climbed down our final stretch of muddy disgusting-ness, we stopped for a quick break in a small shelter with some buffalo. The rain had started in again, and these buffalo seemed to be seeking refuge the same as us. Corn hung from the roof and men sat in a circle drinking wine.
Out Of The Mountains
We walked down the road even farther until the narrow crevice that was the canyon we were trekking through opened up to make way for more flatland. It was starting to rain harder now. The various waterfalls and streams that we had passed had finally found one another and consolidated into a swollen, raging torrent of brown, muddy water. We could see a small village coming up downstream.
I stopped to ask Mé if I could take her picture (for this blog, so I could write about my savior) and the older H’mong women began to chuckle and whisper amongst themselves. The guides said that they were saying I should come back in 10 years for her.
Anyway, when we reached the village it was clearly time for her to make her sales pitch to me. An adult gave her a hard nudge and she clumsily began rooting through her back. It seemed like she was uncomfortable with trying to sell something to me, which wasn’t surprising considering that she didn’t go on these hikes with foreigners often. With some effort she produced a plastic bag full of small purses decorated in the H’mong tradition. Unfortunately, I had checked my bag and was unable to find the chocolate for her. I need to give her something, so I decided to instead show her the kindness of not haggling the outrageous price she was about quote me. I chose the smallest purse she had and she responded that it was 200,000 VND (9.16 USD). Now, I knew that this was, conservatively, four times the correct price, but I fought my urge to push the price down and said “okay”. I hated that I didn’t have any other way of saying “thank you for not letting me fall off of that cliff” besides playing the part of the rich, dumb foreigner who takes the first price, but at least I had given her something.
We sat down for a small meal of chicken and noodles in a little shack, and, of course, I immediately found the chocolate I had been looking for. Children swarmed our table trying to get us to buy from them. I say ‘no’ to all of them but it never got them to go away. One of them said “If you don’t buy from me I’m not happy”. That’s when I tried a little social experiment. I gave the little girl who was pushing her homemade bracelet into my face a bag of M&Ms. She stared at me silently as she took them. Expressionless, she looked around to see if anybody had noticed, shoved the M&Ms into her bag, and walked off without another word. We all laughed. Now you know how to get these kids out of your face: give them candy.
From there it was a long walk through the rain and the rice paddies to another road, where a van was supposed to pick us up. We were all tired and wet. During this entire final stretch, I was walking next to a women who was one of the Red Dzao people, which is another, smaller ethnic minority in Vietnam. She made some small talk with me for a while, and I was actually interested to learn about her life, but eventually she started trying to sell me something. I told her ‘no’. She responded by telling me that the Dzao people and the H’mong people are different and I should buy something from both ethnicity. Classy move to play the race card. I told her ‘no’. I wouldn’t have bought anything from anyone if it hadn’t been for Mé. I’m not here for charity, and even if I was, this would not be the form that my charity would take. Then the woman told me that another man on this trek had spent 1.5 million VND (68.74 USD) buying things from people. That was good for him (the poor sap) but I still wasn’t going to buy anything. Finally, the woman told me that I shouldn’t have let her talk to me for so long if I had known the whole time that I was not going to buy something from her. She could have spent her time talking to somebody else.
This conversation was on repeat for my last 20 minutes of walking. “No.” “No.” “No.” I kept saying, getting pretty annoyed. Our van was late to pick us up because it had apparently been hit by a landslide. The absurdity of that aside, the real issue was that this woman followed me all the way to the bus stop.
Unfortunately, instead of any real insight into Dzao culture for you, all I have is complaints. But, finally, the van arrived, and I jumped out from beneath our shelter and dove into it to escape this woman. We had to cross a number of water falls whose path went across our road, but none substantial enough to sway our van from it's path. I was just happy to be off of my feet finally.
When I returned to the hostel, my first order of business was to have a beer. After a long, hard day it just feels right.
And when I eventually got back to Hanoi from this trip, my first order of business was to take off the muddy, damp socks that I had been wearing, and throw them in the garbage.