Rice Terrace Wanderings

As if being set in a terrace laced village high in the mountains of Northern Vietnam wasn’t far removed enough already, I venture farther. Beyond the tracks of any road. Beyond the comfortable reach for many of the other daring travellers with whom I made the overnight train trip to the city of Sapa, followed by a long hike into the countryside to find our tribal homestay.

When all paths disappear, I tread carefully between the steep rice paddy staircases. Pigs lay in the mud taking in the warmth of the sun. Water buffalos trim leaves from the tall, thick bamboo brush. Ducklings waggle along afraid to jump in the murky waters that hold rice when the season is in bloom. Villagers pass by me in their traditional H’mong dress and rubber boots. They smile widely, multicoloured teeth gapped here and there. They all say “Hello, where are you from? How old are you?” It doesn’t matter that our communication may be limited. They are warm, friendly and obviously hard working. I am on their lands now.

The H’mong women are excellent at developing rapport. They seek out arriving foreign explorers in Sapa before following them and even helping them all down muddy embankments while they carry large baskets of textiles or babies on their back. Only at parting, many hours later, do they request you take a look through their merchandise. Smart sales indeed, it only takes minutes to feel at ease with them.

Once I strayed far enough from the home stay village, carefully attempting to recall my path, I met Lam. She is a 42 year old mother of two, but you would never know it. Her strength and agility rival mine and her English is shockingly good. Seeing the book I held in my hand she has already deduced that I am in search of a place to sit, listen and write. She leads me higher into the mountains, shows me her village deep in the valley, the waterfalls and tells me about her life as if we had always been friends. She was on her way home, the sun will be setting down in just an hour. Without the light it may be impossible to navigate the slim terrace walls. She is friendly with everyone we encounter. They are all headed home after working since sun-up. They go by us apologetically, “I must go to sleep, I am glad to meet you.” Lam stays with me. We are parked high upon a terrace overlooking her home. The silence is comfortable. I begin to write; she commences her newest textile. A small table cloth will take her over 2 months to make. She will then try to sell this for mere dollars to any tourists she meets – most will never know the magnitude of the task involved in making it. We chat some more. She tells me about the hill tribes, her husband, and her children.  I tell her about the rest of her country. About the outstanding places Vietnam holds just hours away from here. Those spectacular places I came exactly half way around the world for; things she will never see.

Children scurry by, wearing their traditional clothes, UNESCO school bags strapped tightly on their backs. Perhaps Lan’s children or grandchildren will get the opportunity to earn an education. Perhaps someday they will get to go farther than their own two feet can take them. Lan and I hope they do. As the sun dipped I had to insist that Lan went home to her family instead of making the long trek back to the outskirts of town where I am doing a hill tribe homestay. Her smile grew wider as she said she hoped to see me again. She called me friend as she took my hand to tie a bright yellow hand-made bracelet on my wrist.

Thankfully, my sense of direction prevails and the trip home was easy, although day turns to night quickly as the mountains block the light, I stop to trade simple words, big grins and compliments with every villager I pass. I walk to the light clinking of my new earrings, like raindrops on a wind chime – I acquired them just hours earlier from another villager named Tay. I told her I liked her traditional ones better than the ones she was selling. Thankful that she understood my compliment I proposed a trade; my Canadian patch and a couple of carved pens I brought from Guatemala for the earrings. Just another reason to stay off the beaten path.

~An Extraordinary Story by Karina Noriega~

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