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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Vietnam


The gentle rocking of our carriage came to a gradual stop as the long whistle of the train announced our arrival in Lao Cai. Peering out the window of our cozy berth, my traveling partner, Ramona, and I witnessed the deep pink of a dawning sky as the sun rose to burn off the morning mist.
We had traveled on the night train to the very northern reaches of Vietnam, home to more than 50 indigenous hill tribes that populate the countryside. This was the beginning of our two-week journey in Vietnam. Our mission was to create an itinerary that captured the heart and soul of the Vietnamese culture for the future clients of our travel company, Soul Adventures.
The bustle and excitement of passengers exiting the train gave way to the rich morning sounds of a village just awakening. Roosters crowed in the distance as locals pushed their wooden carts of wares, and drivers lined the street outside the train station, engaged in friendly banter.
Ban Ho is tucked away in lush tropical vegetation of bamboo and palms.
Still chilly from the frosty night, we bundled up and went in search of our driver. We found our guide, Thang, and were welcomed with a big hello and a warm smile as we loaded our gear into the truck for our journey north into the Sapa Valley.
We swayed on the winding road as it led us deeper into the mountains, and the deep green of the rolling hills blanketed our route. Local hill-tribe women, heavily laden with finely woven baskets on their backs, traveled on foot toward town to trade their goods. As we made our way around the final bend in the road, we spied the bright orange and gold of the Victoria Hotel atop a hillside.
Inside, we were greeted by the crackling of a warm fire and fresh mango juice. Finely carved wooden musical instruments and rich tapestries — crafts made by local villagers — adorned the lobby and guest room walls. This was to be our base camp of adventure for the next four nights.
A cool morning mist blanketed the valley as we ate a hearty breakfast buffet — a combination of Western classics and the robustly spiced foods of Vietnamese cuisine. Steaming hot noodle soup, sushi and fresh breads filled us up as we gazed at the villagers filling the streets of Sapa below.
The town of Sapa is part of a network of small villages that can be reached by a complex array of footpaths. Ramona, Thang and I left our hillside retreat and descended about a half mile on a steep and rocky footpath to the valley floor, which was elegantly carved by the cool, rushing waters of the Muong Hoa River.
Hunched over large boulders at the river’s edge, a woman dressed in the blue denim dress of the Black Hmong tribe scrubbed a pile of clothing in the river as men and women passed on foot bearing heavy loads of rock, wood and bamboo. Crossing the river over a solid foot bridge, we ascended the northern bank and wound our way through seemingly endless rice fields of the many villages dotting the lush landscape. A handful of houses comprised each village, and as we passed by, children ran from their homes and, with the biggest of smiles, loudly exclaimed “Hello!” A “hello” back always resulted in deep laughter, as they repeated their “hello” in hopes of prolonging the exchange.
The sun was warm on our backs as the winter mist of the valley gave way to a clear blue sky. We walked gingerly, balancing along the slippery mud mounds outlining each rice terrace, careful not to fall into the thick gooey mud of the recently harvested beds.

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