“Chukka!”. We clinked our glasses of rice wine and swallowed the potent liquid, for the fourth time in the last 10 minutes. Or was it the fifth? I was losing count already.
It was nearing 10pm and our guide Mao’s children were sleeping silently in their part of the almost open-plan house. They could surely hear every word of our ‘happy water’ infused chatter, but they never stirred.
I blinked through the alcohol and took in my surroundings. A hand-made wooden house belonging to Mao, her husband, her three young boys and one extremely friendly pig. We were in the heart of the H’mong tribal area near Sapa, a mountain town in the north west of Vietnam.
We had first heard about Mao when we had bumped into a lovely Dutch couple over lunch. We had arrived in Sapa early afternoon (via the new Sapa Express bus from Hanoi, which only took an impressive 5 hours!) and were greeted by dozens of pint-sized women from the H’mong tribe. All of them making up for their lack of stature with huge personalities.
‘Come hiking with me!’, ‘No, choose me!’ were the cries of the crowd, and it was all a little overwhelming. We had already made plans with Ha, a H’mong lady offering trekking tours into her village, but as we arrived, she gave us the ol’ switcheroo, trying to send us with her sister in law and charge us a lot more for the privilege.
Tired from our journey, and with some previously-made plans falling through, we contemplated our next move over a feast of clear vegetable-infused soup and pork with piles of rice. The couple at the table next to us chatted happily about the ‘best guide ever’, and our ears pricked with interest.
‘The best guide ever, you say?’ I leaned over to them. ‘Any chance she would be free to take us trekking tomorrow?’
So the decision was made, we called Mao and I knew when I heard her cheery voice that she would be one of the good people.
She picked us up at 10a.m. the next morning, full of beans and ready to take on the day. Her enthusiasm was infectious and pretty soon we were bouncing along beside her, first through town and then straight up into the mountains
And the views were incredible…
En route, we bumped into two of Mao’s friends who didn’t have much to do for the day, so they decided to walk with us. They spoke no English and we spoke no H’mong, so it was an interesting afternoon of pointing and things and laughing at each other’s attempts to master the other’s Mother Tongue, all the time relying on Mao’s translation skills of course.
A quick guide to the H’mong language
Hello: Conya Hey
Thank you: O Chau
My name is Hayley: Coom Bay Hoo Hayley
Goodbye: Conya Coomoo
Please: Shanti Eh
I want to speak H’mong: Coosa Hey Loo Mong Ah
The walk was relatively easy-going, and passed several small villages en route, with farm animals scattered around the path… Ducks, chickens, buffalo… Mao said that buffalo are the most stupid animals she’s ever known. Completely vacant in the head. I’ll let you make your own mind up.
As we passed, the village children came out to say ‘Conya Hey’, and walk with us for a while. Some of the kids were gorging on a special kind of blue berry which grows in the valley, and it had turned their tongues bright blue! There’s no sneaking a few tastes of this berry!
We also walked through a few fields of hemp, which locals use to stuff mattresses and make clothing.
We walked for around four hours to reach Mao’s village, a tiny cluster of houses close to a waterfall. The H’mong are a traditional people, who rely heavily on agriculture to survive, and on the earth to provide everything that they need.
Mao’s husband is a farmer and has a small patch of land on which he grows corn, enough to feed his family of five, but not enough to sell at market. The family also has a few pigs and chickens providing food for the family, and one very spoiled piglet which they keep as a pet.
You could say that although Mao’s husband is working tirelessly in the fields, that Mao is the main breadwinner as she brings in money from tourists taking hiking tours. This money is used for the children’s educational needs (books, pens etc) and to buy a few luxuries, such as the rice wine she was so willing to share with us.
We settled down for a home cooked dinner of bamboo shoots, soup and a delicious curry, followed by regular shots of what Mao calls ‘happy water’, but which is also known as rice wine. Be warned: This. Stuff. Is. Lethal.
Then we took our leave and walked up the ladder to the guest’s sleeping area, a simple hemp-weaved bed with a mosquito net… Exactly what we needed, and we fell asleep almost instantly.
The morning after the night before, we showered and hit the trail again to walk through rice paddies and through the valley on the way back to Sapa. Mao, despite downing probably half her body weight in rice wine the night before was on top form, and even climbed into the field to show us how the rice is grown.
We crossed an extremely wobbly bridge (Mao closed her eyes and almost ran across through fear), and came to a beautiful waterfall where we relaxed for a while before we were moved on by the land owner!
Our two days with Mao concluded with a thrilling motorbike ride through the mountains back to Sapa town. What better way to end such an incredible adventure?
The tour cost US$20 per person per day ($40 for the two day, one night tour), and included all meals whilst hiking and staying with Mao.
If you would like to book with Mao, call her on (+84) 164 537 1770 a couple of days before you plan to arrive in Sapa. As is common with the H’mong people, she cannot read English but can speak it perfectly, so the best way to contact her is to chat to her on the phone.
And tell her Hayley says hi!
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