Sapa town to celebrate 110th anniversary. A wide range of activities will be organised to mark the 110thanniversary of the popular resort town of Sapa in the northern mountainous province of Lao Cai on November 1-2.
Highlights of the event will be a grand ceremony followed by a fireworks display at the town’s stadium on the evening of November 2. On the occasion, the locality will receive the Decision of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism recognizing the Sapa terraced field as a national landscape site.
A folk cultural festival, which spotlights traditional cultural activities of ethnic minority people in the locality, will take place at Xuan Vien park the same day.
Domestic and foreign experts will gather at an international conference to discuss the conservation of cultural heritage of ethnic minorities in association with the development of sustainable tourism products in the context of globalization.
Several other activities include a tour to discover Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and a street festival.
According to Chairman of the Sapa district People’s Committee Le Duc Luan, preparations for the event have been completed.
The celebration of Sapa’s 110th anniversary aims to promote the locality’s unique tourism products, thus fostering socio-economic and tourism development in the locality.
A new day dawns
The new day began with a sonic cataclysm. Almighty claps of thunder rolled and rumbled through the valley, seeming to last an eternity as the angry bursts echoed back and forth off the valley walls. Then rain soon followed, lashing against the roof in biblical torrents. As great flashes of lightening split open the night sky, bodies began to stir from their slumber.
Within minutes, the air became tangibly cooler. The sweet smell of rain filled my nostrils as my heightened senses assessed the changing conditions. Life in the highland communities is intrinsically linked to weather. Indeed the weather changes so quickly and so often that a stormy morning may turn to clear blue sky in a matter of minutes. Heavy rain serves to cleanse the air of particulates, and without haze, the Hoang Lien Son Mountains shimmered a vivid emerald green in the clarity of the crisp dawn. The colossal peaks of mount Fansipan towered overhead with great trees adorning its rugged slopes like marvellous jewels. Swifts darted through the morning sunshine catching insects on the wing while giant bamboo fronds swayed slowly in the morning breeze.
My bed for the night had been in a homestay, a purpose built lodge that can accommodate up to twenty guests. Nestled between the traditional homes, there are six other such homestays in the village. The term 'homestay' is perhaps a misrepresentation as staying overnight in a minority house is illegal without governmental permission. Indeed permission is almost impossible at attain, so the purpose built lodges offer tourists the best possible compromise.
As many as a thousand tourists a day trek through this valley, mostly to observe the ancient and peaceful lifestyles of the many minority groups in Northwest Vietnam. It seems strange to me that after almost 15 years of tourism expansion, the villages remain so poor. Whilst the tour companies who send visitors on prearranged packages have become incredibly wealthy, the paradox is that those whom we all pay to visit have gained so little from tourism. They put up with the crowds, the litter and the intrusive photography in their own villages, yet struggle to earn enough to allow their children a balanced diet or access to basic healthcare. Malnourishment is common and infant mortality is high.
Breakfast for those in the homestay was an all you can eat feast of banana and honey pancakes with plentiful tea or coffee. With a backdrop of verdant rice terraces and a crowing rooster as a soundtrack, it really did feel like a little piece if paradise; an alternative world at piece with itself. The irony is that most backpackers who tread this route don't have the time or inclination to gain any real detailed knowledge of local culture, traditions or hardships. After everyone has had their fill, there are pancakes to spare. I wonder how many of those full bellies take time to consider that just over the limestone ridge in the next valley; almost every child suffers from a lack of protein, malnutrition and walks around in dirty rags for clothes.
I'm in Lao Chai to attend a funeral. The three and a half year old nephew of a friend took ill two weeks ago and after the local hospital sent him to the nearest city for treatment, the family were told he would need to be taken to Hanoi, the capital city. They simply did not have the finances to pay for such a trip, so instead, brought him back home. His chronic lung problem rapidly worsened, and he slipped into a coma and died. The simple truth is that in the west his illness would have been cured. Death is more common here and folk law, music and stories are often used to cope with grief. When I asked about his death, the story I was told was heart wrenching yet uplifting. Hmong people believe that every living entity has a spirit. The little boys’ spirit was adventurous and playful. He was a mischievous child and a wanderer who loved to explore. His spirit went walking one day and found some new parents up in the sky. As his little spirit spent more and more time with his new parents, his earthly body weakened until he died. His spirit lives on and is happy. Every culture copes with death in their own way, but no story, however beautiful could mask the wails of pain emanating from his mothers house on the day he died. It's a haunting memory and one I will never forget.
A Hmong funeral is a three day event with burial on the fourth day. While his tiny, pale body lay on the mud floor inside his home, three men crafted a basic wooden coffin. As news of his death spread by word of mouth, friends and relatives arrived to pay their respects. Gifts of rice, chickens or pigs from those who could afford it were gratefully accepted. The tiny house was filled with more than a hundred people, several of which were carrying small bamboo chalices and bottles of rice wine. Within seconds of entering the home, I had a full glass in my hand and was being encouraged to drink. I obliged and the glass was immediately filled again. Apparently, custom determines that after drinking, it is your prerogative to find a willing volunteer to take the chalice and drink next, thus sharing the cup amongst the mourners. This practice helps people bond and serves to alleviate saddens. As it happened, I found the fingers on my left hand being wrapped around a second glass as I was busying myself trying to offload the first to a young woman who had just arrived with a chicken. Needless to say, a huge volume of rice wine is consumed at funerals.
Most of those paying their respects on this occasion were family from the Ly Thi clan. As the shaman beat out deep, rhythmic notes on his buffalo hide drum in the dim firelight, two other men began to chant in the direction of the little coffin placed in the centre of the home. Although clearly intoxicated, the wine fuelled chanting was pulsating and enchanting. Although the true meaning of the words escaped me, I was transfixed. Mourning the loss of a child is laden with great sadness, but there was no doubt that many of those in attendance shared in the belief that his little spirit was now free to wander with his new parents in the sky. What a beautiful thought.
Stairway to heaven
With calved rice terraces that climb heavenwards, the natural splendour of Lao Cai Province in Northern Vietnam is matched only by the unique cultural heritage of the many ethnic tribes who have made this rugged and unforgiving landscape their home.
Walking through Sapa marketplace, the imagery is reassuringly familiar. Having visited annually since 1998, I'm always startled by the site of the many new hotels, trekking companies and restaurants that now line the streets of the ever expanding little town. The long fingers of Asia's economic boom is even reaching the remotest regions. This brings with it new prospects and exciting times for many. But tourism, if not managed effectively, also poses many perils.
Under the gaze of Ham Rong (Dragons Jaw) Mountain, Indigo clad Hmong men stand and in small huddles talking purposefully. Meanwhile, women waddle past butchers stalls scouting for the freshest buffalo, biggest chickens feet or even tastiest looking dog head available. Once selected, the haggling begins with earnest.
Inquisitive children shuffle past carrying heavy woven rattan baskets that carry their life's burden. For many, the site of foreign faces is a new experience and their mix of fear and intrigue is plain to see. Mountain peoples are notoriously small and many of these visitors tower over their tribal counterparts. Yet this is no premeditated show for the tourists. This is simply everyday life for the mountain people of Vietnams' North West highlands.
Gaggles of teenage girls gather in small groups and while away the hours gossiping with beautifully embroidered belts dangling from their waists. In these mountain villages of Vietnam, you are what you wear and the lavish costumed Hmong, Dao and Giay people take great pride in their intricately designed tribal ware. For them, the beautiful costumes magnificently woven and dyed using nothing but natural products are merely part of daily life. For tourists, the array of coloured costumes are a genuine marvel. I wonder if the natives busying themselves in the market have any notion of how far many of the visitors have travelled to get a glimpse their ancient existence? Half the world in my case!
Riding down the winding trail towards the little village of Lao Chai, an eerie mountain haze quickly sweeps in. The ghostly mist quivers like a brides veil as the rapidly changing clouds tumble down mountainous terrain. The weather here is notoriously changeable, adding to the air of mystery that stems from high up in the vast forest clad mountains.
Light rain begins to fall, cooling the air. A freshening smell of sweet nature rises from the terraced paddies. The ancient terraces stand as testament to the industrious, dedication of the many people of the region. To those visiting, the very existence of the giant steps is a wonder in itself. It's almost unfathomable as to what great endeavour led humans to manipulate and drastically shape the great mountain slopes to such a degree. Their beauty could be described as artistic. In reality, the decades of toil that forged the great terraces was simply a matter of survival. The single, annual rice crop determines the working calendar in these highlands, such is the vitality of rice that grows in the water filled fields.
Lao Chai Village like the many others in the Hoang Lien Son River Valley teems with life. Young boys tend to water buffalo while the girls collect firewood. Natures dangers are never far away with snake sightings, landslides and floods all frequent occurrences. This means that responsibly begins at an early age and it's commonplace to see little girls carrying their younger siblings in traditional baby carriers. A lifetime of farming these magnificent floating fields is etched on the faces of the older men and women. Many have walked these forests and tended the paddies for a generation or more.
I sit with a trio of ancient men who are relaxing with potent rice spirit. The air inside the Hmong house is tinged with smoke from the log fire. Between puffs on a large bamboo pipe, they tell of life in the forests above the villages. Shared tales of encounters with tigers and bears thrill the listening children who are eager to hear more of the forest adventures. When the stories turn to dragons, many of the youngest flee leaving only the bravest souls listening intently in the firelight. Hmong, until very recently, was - none written language. Consequently, musical tales and oral histories are a vital part of culture and a traditional form of entertainment.
As dusk gathers, women with baskets and innovative horse hair shoulder straps drive their buffalo home. Children giggle as they chase the myriad dragonflies that dart to and fro above the emerald fields. As they spot me, playing ceases and these little entrepreneurs greet me with a cacophony of 'you buy one from me'. Tourism also brings with it the new notion of capitalism and all of the entrapments linked with it. A successful sale might mean that fresh meat can be added to the usual rice and boiled vegetables on tonights' dinner table. Who knows, it might even be possible over many months to save up for a television or motorbike. These are the new dreams of a people still living an ancient lifestyle. A part of me longs to tell them that happiness should not be too heavily attached to such possessions, yet as I mingle with these beautiful people, I note my observations on an iPhone and document the simplicity of their existence with an expensive camera. I am part of the process of change. My very presence is intrinsically linked to newly these forged ambitions. This thought doesn't sit easy.
As the light fails and dusk rolls in, the first stars emerge above the towering bamboo. A light breeze breaks the silence as it whips through the giant stems stretching skyward. Crickets chirrup enthusiastically and tiny paddy field frogs join the cacophony of sounds that adorn the night in a mountain village. Fireflies slice through the darkness as the spirit fuelled chatter emerging from the little homes slowly fades and turns to silence. Lao Chai village sleeps. Tourism it seems hasn't changed everything. At least not quite yet.
How do you Chu?
I can't quite recall the exact moment when I met Chu in the small and remote mountain town of Sapa. I remember a cacophony of Hmong voices, random clothes placed on my body to the chorus of "jolie!" (I later learned this was "beautiful" in French, perhaps a bit of market savvy to flatter the high numbers of French tourists that come through this mountainous area?). These memories were from five years ago, and I have since returned to Sapa on many occasions, the town being the focus for ETHOS and our project activity in Vietnam.
I once asked Chu if she would like to visit me in Hanoi. She laughed, "I could never make it down there. You see, Phil, it is too hot. They would laugh at me, to see this young Hmong girl. I have no clothes other than these. So, you, you come see me at the market." So that is exactly what I do. On each return visit, I head straight for the market. It never takes long to track her down. Chu is now 17, and one of the highest of her generation. She has ambitions to become a primary school teacher, the first girl from her tribal group to do so in northern Vietnam. Chu is also keen to assist us with developing ETHOS as a sustainable tour operator.
The dirt floor in Chu’s house was cool, the dim light of smouldering embers lit up many tiny faces in the shadowy bamboo shelter. Local children crowded round to teach me some Hmong phrases: Where are you going? I am going to the market, to home, to the field. There was no formal greeting of "How are you?" but rather, inquiries about where one was going, where one was from. I suppose that is the essence of language, to explain the comings and goings and the in-betweens.
We ate a simple meal of cabbage and lard, while discussing which families could most benefit from ETHOS adventures and tourism. Chu was keen to point us towards the poorest families, usually those with only one parent. She led me from house to house, introducing me to so many tiny faces. It is this open attitude to life that led me to fall in love with Sapa in the first place all those years ago.
Phil Hoolihan - Founding member of ETHOS and self confessed Sapa enthusiast.