I never thought that learning the beam would come in handy in a wet paddy field. But my childhood gymnastics classes paid off while crossing a rice terrace in the Sapa Valley in Vietnam. The ledge was less than a foot wide, with knee-deep water pooled either side. The most challenging part of the exercise was to stay balanced while keeping an eye on the stunning landscape. My local community centre didn't offer similar distractions.
The Sapa Valley, dubbed the "Tonkinese Alps", lies close to the Chinese border in northwest Vietnam. My journey there started in Hanoi, where I boarded an overnight sleeper train. The carriage accommodation was basic, but comfortable and I shared it with a Vietnamese mum and her two teenage sons. After setting up our pullout bunk-beds I was lulled straight to sleep by the train's rhythmic motion, only to be woken by the eldest son passing wind in his sleep.
Sapa town has two distinct dress codes: tourists donning waterproof outdoor gear and tribal women with colourful headscarves and sporting bamboo baskets on their backs.
Arriving at Sapa in the morning meant I headed straight to the mountains after picking up supplies locally. The hill-tribe people from the surrounding villages come to the market each morning to sell their handicrafts. The market also has shops offering good quality outdoor gear for a fraction of the price at home.
As with all Asian markets, the food section is interesting. A huge variety of colourful fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices are displayed. The butchery is not for the squeamish; full cattle carcasses are hacked in half, and skinned sheep heads stare out with their eyes intact.
Near the market was the meeting point for my trekking group. We were nine in total and had signed up for a two-day hike. We met our guide, a local man encouragingly called Zoom. Contrary to the connotations of his name, we set off at a slow and steady pace.
Our group doubled in size as we left Sapa town. An entourage of H'mong tribal women walked with us. Each chose one of us to befriend and later they did the hard sell of their inexpensive, but well-crafted scarves, bags and purses. The H'mong are the largest tribe in the region, accounting for 52% of the ethnic minorities in Sapa. The women were great company and happily chatted, giving an insight into how they live and offering a helping hand when the terrain became challenging.
I visited Sapa in winter, when it was cold and wet and the rice paddies were brown and empty. But still, the scenery was jaw-droppingly beautiful. The rice terraces are cut into the earth with such precision and graduate downwards like giant steps into river valleys. The moving body of clouds and mist made for an ever-changing landscape and parted to reveal Vietnam's highest peak, Fanispan (3,143 metres). Dotted throughout rice paddies are farmers working the land while buffalo, ducks, pigs and chickens roam freely.
After a 12km walk we were happy to rest for the night. Our mountain accommodation was a home-stay with a family from the Giay tribe. Unlike the H'mong, the Giay family did not dress in traditional costume. Their house was surprisingly modern with a TV and a Karaoke machine, which seems to be a household necessity in Vietnam. This was in contrast to the kids playing hopscotch and with homemade bamboo toys in the villages we passed through that day.
The second day's trek was just 7km but on tougher terrain. We navigated up and down muddy paths and across the terrace fields on slippery ledges. A welcome respite came at a cascading waterfall on the far side of a lush bamboo forest.
That night I boarded the night sleeper train back to Hanoi and I was surprised to end up sharing the carriage again with the same family. We greeted each other with warm smiles and communicated in broken English and over-dramatic hand gestures.
During the night I woke up my cohabiters with snuffles from the cold that I had developed on the trek. At 4am the mother treated me like one of her own and leaned across from her bunk to mine and maternally slapped me on the back while I coughed. As a lone traveller I was happy to find that mammys are the same all over the world.
Deirdre Mullins paid €90 at a hostel in Hanoi for a two-night trekking package to the Sapa Valley. This price included transport (including train), food, accommodation and guide. You can pre-book a trip to Sapa with a number of tour companies including; www.intrepidtravel.com, www.sapatrekking.com and www.vietnamdiscovery.com.
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