Our adventure in Vietnam didn't actually begin until 12 hours after we touched down at Hanoi.
From the airport, we took a 45 minute taxi ride (US$10 / RM35) to Hanoi train station, passing by a stretch of Thit Cho (dog meat) restaurants along the way.
We slept in an overnight train to Lao Cai, which took 8 hours and costs us US$22 (RM77) each in a 4-person cabin. Dinner was French baguette dipped in condensed milk we bought from a tattered poor girl in hawking outside the train station.
When we reached Lao Cai the next morning, we had to endure another 1-hour minibus ride (25,000 dong / RM 5) up the windy roads to our final destination - Sapa.
Finally we can begin our adventure in Vietnam!
Sapa is a tiny agricultural town nestled on the mountain top near the Chinese border. It's a little troublesome to get here from Hanoi, but our effort was worth it all.
We have arrived at the coldest town in Vietnam with the most spectacular mountain sceneries.
Sapa is an enchanting little place. It isn't just the specatculars views that attracted many travellers to travel so far to get here. Sapa is also home to many ethnic minority tribes, the largest being the H'mong (è‹—æ—) and Dzao people (ç‘¶æ—).
This is one of the very few places in world where we can still witness the hill tribes dressed in their colourful traditional clothings, going about their daily lives. Much of their culture and customs are preserved, isolated from the rest of the population in Vietnam.
It was cold and drizzling when our bus reached Sapa. Nicole and I sought refuge at a nearby souvenir shop. I went off to buy some disposable raincoats for later use, while Nicole stayed in the shop.
When I returned 5 minutes later, I received the biggest shock ever.
Our friend had transformed into a local H'mong girl.
I know they say "Do As the Romans Do", but this is ridiculous.
Kenny: "We're going to trek mountains later you know? How are you gonna go trekking wearing a skirt?"
Nicole: "Nevermind! Can one! :D"
Nicole: "So cheap. RM40 only!"
Somehow, I had a baddddd feeling about this trip.
Anyway, we had breakfast and strolled through the local market while waiting for the rain to clear.
Life in Sapa is so simple and different from what we are used to. It is fascinating just sitting here idly watching life goes by. I've been to some fairly undeveloped rural towns before, but Sapa is the first true village experience I had.
An example would be when we were at an internet cafe checking our e-mails, and a herd of water buffaloes gently walked on by.
How often do you see water buffaloes walking past internet cafes?!
That was so cool! That was when we really know we're at the countryside.
A common sight in Sapa is H'mong women persistently following hapless tourists, pestering them to buy jewellery and trinkets.
With the boom in tourism business a few years back, a lot of the H'mong women and girls had gone into the souvenir business.
We were being followed by a few during our short stay here. Some even went as far as to wait outside the restaurant where we had breakfast.
It is difficult to turn them down, especially when they are being so friendly and patient. But there's an ugly side to everything.
When a frail old lady approached me holding a silver bracelet in her hand, I purchased one from her out of goodwill.
Within mere seconds, hordes of tribe women swarmed towards our direction peddling their wares.
"Buy from me!"
"You want earlings? Nor? Hawr arbout purse?"
Now, it WOULD HAVE been quite nice if the girls looked like those bikini babes from will.i.am's music video.
Unfortunately, reality wasn't as kind...
We had no choice.
WE MUST FLEE!
Before we knew it, Nicole and I had escaped onto the path to a H'mong village.
The ethnic minorities don't live in Sapa. Most of them live in traditional villages around the area, coming to Sapa only to go to school or do business. The nearest H'mong village is Cat Cat Village.
Contrary to its name, there's not a lot of cats in Cat Cat Village.
Anyway, the boy from Cat City went to Cat Cat Village.
We met a 16-year-old H'mong girl called Ha along the way. This one is a little different from the rest.
Not only does Ha look way younger than the 16 years old she claimed to be, she also spoke to us in perfect English. Unlike the other H'mongs we met who are mostly shy and quiet, Ha is one loud and feisty little lady.
When she approached us, she wasn't pestering us to buy her wares.
"Are you crazy?!", she pointed to Nicole's incorrectly worn tribal belt. "You wear your belt like this, it means death!"
And that was pretty much our opening topic.
Maybe it was Nicole's tribal dressing, but Ha took an immediate liking to her. Ha warmed up to us and stuck with us through the remainder of our stay here.
Ha liked Nicole a lot. She gave her a flower, put it on her ear, made her a crown our of fern leaf and helped tie her hair up into a pig tail.
I kinda suspected Ha didn't quite like me as much though. All she seemed to care about is my man boobs.
Throughout our journey, the feisty little H'mong girl repeatedly:
- pinched my nipples
- slapped my ass
- said I'm fat like a buffalo :(
Yeah I'm pretty sure Ha liked Nicole better, eventhough she still squeezed her boobs and felt up her skirt.
Anyway, as much as we were being bullied by a 16-year-old, it's great to have Ha come along with us. Nicole and I didn't wanna hire a tour guide to save money, so Ha ended becoming our impromptu guide and translator in Sapa. Not once did she try to force us to buy anything.
The hike down Cat Cat Village was easy and the sights are breathtaking. Even with the fog obscuring much of what lies in the distance, we had magnificent views over the rice terraces and small houses below.
Life in the villages is as basic and simple as it can get. There are no TV or fridge or any other modern amenities that we take for granted over here. There's not even basic water, electricity and gas supply.
Over here, the water comes from the sky, lunch means cooking freshly-plucked vegetables with charcoal and going to the loo means hiking out to the nearest bush and pee there.
There are no iPods or Xboxes. Whilst kids in Malaysia fight over the latest handphone and gadgets, kids in Sapa keep themselves entertained by sliding their bare bottoms down the staircase in flattened water bottles.
But they're still happy. Look at the brilliant smiles on their faces.
I was almost convinced to take off my pants and join them.
I love it here. Being the countryside, there are no shortage of farm animals and small lifestock around.
A little toddler girl would be eating their lunch. Then next to her will be three puppies sucking frantically on their mom's titties.
Out of nowhere, a man would be chasing a bunch of mountain goats down the footpath.
These are the kinda sights you don't get to see everyday.
Within just a few hours here, we are already relaxed into the slower pace of life here. I'm just glad to be away from all the hectic schedule back home.
Cat Cat Village isn't big. We reached the end point of the trek after roughly an hour.
As we still had tons of time to spare, Ha asked if we wanna go to her house in nearby Sin Chai Village where she would cook us some lunch.
Authentic H'mong hospitality? Of course!
Unfortunately for us, she must have exagerrated the use of the word "near", because her house ain't even close to being near.
Sin Chai is located much further away Cat Cat Village and access is only possible with a motorcycle ride (US$1 / RM3.50).
For once, we had gone well and truly off the beaten path, into a place only the locals knew.
Still, we were glad we came here.
Sin Chai is a lot less touristy and a lot more authenticH'mong village. For the first time in my life, I was inside a true countryside village that is as every bit as I imagined it to be - water buffaloes ploughing through the rice fields, workers harvesting from the terraced hill slopes and a small stream flowing through the valley in between.
It was surreal.
I felt like I was in one of those water-coloured paintings we used to always do back in secondary school.
If only I knew how to use Photoshop back then, I wouldn't be getting a 'C' for Arts.
From where the motorcycles dropped us off, we had to trek nearly an hour up and down muddy terrains and slippery rocks.
It was difficult navigating up and down the hill, and this is coming from a guy who had climbed Mt Kinabalu before.
Ha was easily hopping from rock to rock like she was previously born a mountain goat. After all, she has been doing this everyday since the day she was born.
Things didn't go too well for Nicole. At one point she slipped and hurt her shin.
She was alright, but the little H'mong girl was almost in tears. "I'm sorry!", she said, guilty that she led us through such a difficult path just to go to her house.
I didn't know why she had to apologise. I just feel sorry for ourselves that we couldn't even keep up with a 16-year-old girl half our size!
Ha's house was such a welcome relief when we finally reached there.
As simple as it might be, it had all the basic creatures of comfort.
Looking around her house, it hit us hard on how poor the H'mong people are. We are on holidays but this was a tough reality check to swallow.
The entire house is only about the size of a standard classroom. The walls are made of wood and the floor is nothing but harderned mud.
The bedroom has a mattress that has seen better days. There is no wardrobe to store any clothes.
The living area, which is also the dining area, is basically a wooden table with two small benches. There was some corn hanging dry over the roof and some maize piled in the corner. The washing area has a barrel to catch rain water, but no doors. The cooking area is just a stove pit to put the charcoal in.
There are no electricity, no toilet, no water pipe, no gas stove, no lights, no carpet, no TV, no couch, no Astro, no computer, no phone, no internet. Pretty much all the things that we took for granted, they don't have it.
How they managed to live in such conditions, I have no idea.
All they have is roof over their head, and few simple clothes they could wear. There are very few personal belongings, if at all.
This is no Venetian Macao that's for sure.
And yet, despite living in extreme poverty, Ha was among the most hospitable person I have ever met. She didn't have much, but she gave us what she could. I was touched by her generosity.
She washed my dirty sweater in a hollowed log. She invited us into the comforts of her simple home and cooked us lunch. Nothing fancy, just rice and vegie fresh from her backyard. But it was her sincerity that shows.
Honestly, one of the best-tasting meals I've had in Vietnam. I yearned for her fragrant rice even until today.
Sitting in Ha's house, part of me feels sad for the H'mong community. Tourism in Sapa may be booming, but little of it directly benefits the ethnic minorities. Many of them still live in extreme poverty and requires Oxfam assistance. Enterprising businessmen had flocked to Sapa to chase tourist money, but the locals didn't like it.
It's little wonder why the H'mong don't even regard themselves as Vietnamese. They may be from the same country, but the H'mongs think differently and at least treat their visitors with more dignity than mere cash cows.
Before I left, I bought a traditional handwoven tribal men's shirt from our little tour guide.
Ha didn't name me the price and I didn't know how much it should cost, but I paid her 150,000 dong (RM30) for it. I knew I paid more than what she expected when her face lit up instantly.
I was happy to. What's 150,000 dongs compared to her spending the whole day with us, showing us her village, guiding us through the paddy fields, inviting us into her home and cooking a nice lunch for us? When's the last time a complete stranger did that for me?
It was a token of gratitude from me and I'm sure she'll put the money to good use back within the H'mong community.
We left Sapa that evening with a warm fuzzy feeling in our stomach. Sapa is a beautiful place and true paradise on Earth, and it is made even more endearing by the presence of the great H'mong tribe.
We were truly humbled by how caring and close-knit they are, and how they managed to remain so happy eventhough they're so poor.
Perhaps, us city folks oughta learn a thing or two from them.