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.