Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
260Trip End Ongoing
Show trip route
What we found were more incredible views and more cute kids. They're everywhere. For anyone who knows me, I'm sure it comes as a shock to hear me talk about kids so much. I'm not normally a big fan. They're loud, they smell, they're messy, and they don't respond to rational arguments. I guess they're a lot like adults, but their cries are much more piercing.
But these little hill tribe kids are adorable. They're quiet, friendly, industrious, I can't understand them, and their snot covered faces are somehow endearing. They're magical little creatures. And it's nice because they're still fascinated by visitors. We've been to some places where it's obvious they don't see a lot of Westerners. But adults are rarely friendly and fascinated. They're distrustful and wary. But we were up on some mountain, sort of lost on some trail, and we saw this one little girl near a hut in the distance. When she saw us, her face lit up, she screamed "HELLO," and she ran toward us. When she reached us, she just stood there and stared at us, interested but polite. It turned out that she had exhausted her English after our initial greeting, and we don't know any Vietnamese or whatever the H'mong language is. But the three of us were pretty content to just smile at one another and share some silence. She didn't look malnourished or anything, but we had some crackers with us and thought we'd offer her some. She was thrilled. She smiled big and then ran away. We assumed she was done with us. In fact, she was just going to share her prize with a little girl who was hiding in the trees. They both screamed and ran toward the house. Then more kids approached. Some quickly, the rest cautiously. Eventually we had 6 children standing around us. They were all smiles and giggles. They didn't have their hands out or request anything. They didn't all come for the crackers. I think the gesture just let them know that we were friendly people. One of the little girls was heartbreakingly cute. Her hair was tussled, her clothes a little worse for wear, she hadn't discovered Kleenex yet, but she smiled constantly, her eyes were full of wonder and joy, and all of it added up to make her the cutest kid I've seen in a long time. We all sat around for quite some time. Eventually we brought out more crackers and wished we had more to offer. It's not that they expected anything or looked particularly needy (some will disagree when they see the photos, but that's just how most the kids look here), but it's nice to do something nice for them. And handing them money isn't the answer. Food's always good. We've been trying to find some coloring books or something to take them. But one thing that immediately makes most of the kids happy is seeing themselves in your digital camera. We took lots of pictures and let them see. They'd all giggle and get embarrassed and then pose again. I shot some video of them talking and laughing and showed them that. They about lost their minds. It was a joy that's more pure than I often see. They were great. We eventually figured out how to ask their names and we went through introductions several times. They all had cool names like "Shohl" and "Blah" and "Bai" and "Tao." I'll post the video of them saying their names. It's worth seeing. After all this we finally decided to say our goodbyes. I was genuinely sad to leave, which is crazy because we could barely communicate. But I liked them much better than a lot of people I can understand. Maybe there's something to that.
As we left they started an impromptu game of hide-and-seek. Also adorable. I shot a video of that too. Like I said, all the kids like looking at the LCD and seeing pictures, but seeing a video and hearing their own voices just sends them over the edge. I was glad we had something that could make them so happy. It's a great feeling to have some exchange, instead of feeling like we, the travelers, are the only ones getting something out of our visit. Sometimes we give money, sometimes food or books or toothbrushes, but the thing that made me feel the best was watching those kids. It's better than all the pagodas and wats and statues put together.
But I still don't like kids. Even yours.
After leaving the children, we headed out toward the river. From the ridge of terraces, we could see all the way up the valley toward Sapa. It's gorgeous. It's just mind blowing how much they've altered the landscape. I've seen terracing and I've always liked it. The Amalfi Coast in Italy, the Peruvian Andes, but this is on another scale entirely. Cutting these ridges into the side of a mountain isn't easy. If you've seen 10 terraces on a hillside, you've seen the product of a great deal of work. There are sections of these mountains that are completely covered in terracing, from the banks of the river to the top of the mountain a kilometer up. And this is work done by hand with a hoe. You can watch them doing it still. Yes, they have beasts of burden that can help with the plowing, but the initial work is done by hand with back-breaking labor. I have some shots of the people filing out of the valley into the surrounding mountains at sunrise with their hoes and baskets on their backs. I'm sure there are tree huggers that find this upsetting, but they're not covering the land with concrete. Trees are replaced with rice. After harvest, the animals graze on the drying stalks. Then they burn it, flood it, and start all over again. Right now they're burning everything and the air is thick with ash. It's like living at the foot of Vesuveus. My lungs love it.
So check out the shots of the valley. The light makes it hard to see it, but all those lines in the mountainside are terraces. They're 4 or 5 feet tall and 8 feet deep. I looked down from a distance and the land lost form. It looked like one of those mazes on a restaurant placemat. My eyes just followed the lines, trying to find a way out. But I was lost in them. It's quite a sight.
We crisscrossed through the mountains on dirt paths that would often disappear into flooded terrain. We'd try to just pick our way through the fields toward the correct spot on the horizon and we'd eventually find our path again. Whenever we passed hill tribe people on our way, we knew we were at least heading toward some village somewhere. I noticed when we arrived in Sapa, but have yet to point out, how similar these people look to Central and South Americans. It's striking. Their facial features are alike, they're clothing and textiles are almost identical, their jewelry looks alike, and they're general culture reminds me a great deal of Guatemala in particular. It makes sense, since people crossed into the America's from Asia at least 14,000 years ago (or they took an ark 4000 years ago). But it's still fascinating to see the similarities despite such a relatively long period of geographic isolation.
By this point we had hiked so far that we decided to make our way to Lao Chai. The sun sunk in the sky quickly yet again, and we didn't get to the village until dark. But we saw the surrounding valley in the fading sunlight and the colors were deep and vibrant. The sunlight tends to wash it all out, but for the first and last hour of the day, the landscape is paint-by-numbers, and it's all oils and acrylic. Rich hues and curving brush strokes abound.
Photos will be on Kodak Gallery.