After traveling through the cities of Vietnam with populations of 7-8 million people I found myself recalling the words in a message I received from my cousin: “should yonder mountains come a callin’ check out Sapa Sisters”. Don’t get me wrong I do love cities. I love discovering new cuisine, cafes and restaurants with a groovy vibe. I love street art and trying to understand the mind behind the painting on a crumbling wall. I love the culture that cities provide but after the chaos of Vietnam’s most populated cities, I was reminded that I am also a nature girl. My backpacking, rock skipping, tree-hugging, clean-air-loving persona screams to be seen and taken to the natural world. She needs to hear birds, watch butterflies, and feel the awe of mountains, rivers, and flowers. I need to feel the way nature fills my soul and medicates my “monkey-mind” with calm. I am not the only one in my family who yearns for nature. Our girls love the freedom of running ahead on a trail, the joy of discovering bugs, and playing in the dirt. Jacob loves the city skyline but he also loves to hike just as much as me. So, a trek in Northern Vietnam, near the Chinese boarder, sounded like just the thing to satisfy our cravings.
There are no less than a million companies offering treks to Sapa where you are led through the mountains whose slopes are covered with terraced rice fields, to the surrounding villages where you stay with a local family. Treks are usually offered in one, two or three day packages. Sapa Sister’s is a tour company that is owned and run by local women of the Black H’mong hill tribe (pronounced mung). They have been leading treks around their home for many years working for tour companies that paid them extremely low wages. These women took charge of their own destiny and started a business of their own, with the promise to pay their guides and support staff what they deserve to earn. These are most definitely my kind of ladies.
(sing it Beyonce: “to all the women who independent, throw your hands up at meeee”)
We opted for the three-day trek and when we landed in Sapa and we had absolutely no expectation of what we would see or the physical exertion our bodies would undergo over the next three days. Our guide was a small, soft-spoken Black H’mong woman with a sweet disposition and I would come to be in complete awe of her strength and agility. Her name is Chi (I later found out she is one of the owners) and she embodied energy just like the Qi (Ch’i) or “life force” described in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. We met Chi at 9:00 a.m. the same day we arrived in Sapa. She gave us several options for the route and hesitated when we asked her to take us on the less touristic trails. She said an alternative route would make the hike more difficult. “We are from Colorado,” we explained, “we are used to hard hikes, we will be fine!” and with a shrug from Chi, we were on our way.
We meandered through narrow roads past local houses, gardens full of vegetables and limestone outcroppings. We walked through bamboo forests and thick jungles; up and down, up and down, up up up. Once we emerged into open air again we got our first view of the mountains. You know that scene in The Sound of Music where Julia Child is spinning on the top of a green mountain in Switzerland celebrating her family’s newfound freedom and in the background are even taller snowcapped mountains? Well, picture that except Asian style with fields of corn and terraced rice patties and rather than snowcapped the mountains were instead decorated with low hanging clouds. As much as I wanted to spin around and sing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music”, I restrained myself and just played out this scene inside my mind (but, I tell you, it took A LOT of restraint).
Our trail took us up, down and across the rice terraces and past farmhouses. We walked as if on a balance beam with the next rice patty below, trying not to notice the steep drop should we lose our footing. Most of the houses we saw were made of wood and had mud floors. The “barn” for the animals was like a covered patio off the side of the house. Chickens, dogs, roosters and huge water buffalo all lived in close proximity. The water buffalo were often chained up to their stall with the rope attached to the ring in their nose. Shortly after our lunch on that first day, it began to rain. Chi had been pushing us to go a bit faster so that we could stay ahead of the storm but it was a futile effort. The rain began just was we started down a steep path through another bamboo forest. Our path immediately turned to mud. All four of us struggled to stay up right but not Chi. She bounced down the trail, umbrella in hand as if she had spikes in her shoes. She noticed Quinn struggling, hoisted her on her back, found bamboo walking sticks for the rest of us and kept pushing forward.
When we finally reached our first home-stay after 6 hours of trekking, I was satisfyingly exhausted and felt cleansed from breathing clean air. We were joined at the house by a couple from the UK who were guided by a young mother who had carried her baby on her back for the duration of their trek. The way she had her baby tied onto her back reminded me of the many women we saw in Peru with their babies slug on their backs as they worked in the field or nursed while selling goods out of their stores. Chi and her colleagues made us a huge spread of delicious food and after dinner they pulled out their colorful string and taught my girls how to weave bracelets. Our second day of trekking was much like the first although a bit shorter. The girls had now bonded with Chi and were glued to her side (or back as Chi carried Quinn several times on more tricky parts of rice patty balancing). Our second night was at Chi’s own house tucked up in the hills on a farm of her own. We met her husband and two small children who were delighted to see their mama.
Chi never stops. She set us up with beers and showers and then went about her business of weaving fabric on her loom (to eventually dye and make into a new jacket, what?), cooking dinner and attending to her farm animals and children. My first world, tired bones were in awe of her seemingly endless energy. As I sat watching the sunset, my mind drifted back to the scene of Chi’s colleague with her baby and was impressed at how they have created a life for themselves that allows for balance of work and kids. Perhaps this is romanticized a bit as I have no clue what happens when they say goodbye to the tourists or if they even like leaving for 2-3 days at a time to take foreigners through the mountains to their homes but from the outside they seemed happy.
Somehow it seems industrialized nations have forgotten the importance of mothers and babies. I realize that living in the US we cannot just sling our babies on our backs while we sit at our computers or nurse while we conduct business meetings; however, in agrarian cultures such as these, babies are unquestionably part of the workday. I know we can find a better balance in the US around the needs new moms and dads. I have my own stories of feeling unsupported in the workplace as a new mom and have heard countless stories from other moms who speak about the rigid expectation to return to full-time work after 8 weeks of maternity leave. It’s like we need to pretend the whole pregnancy didn’t happen and return to life as normal. However, it isn’t normal. There is a new normal. Women are expected to put careers on hold or denied opportunities because they want to stay home at least part-time while their babies are young. I wonder if we can ever return to a time when families are important again or if businesses will realize that they lose valuable employees because they are unwilling to work together to think of creative work situations to allow more time for mom and baby to be together. To have the choice to be a stay-at-home mom is a luxury and a privilege that not all moms can make nor does every mom want that for her life. I guarantee every mom wishes she could have been home for longer than 8 measly weeks after giving birth. Don’t even get me started on the rights of Dad’s to have more time off to bond with their newborns, most only get 2 weeks, if any.
I wonder if this was one of the issues Chi and her colleagues experienced when they worked for other trekking companies. Maybe providing a workplace more sensitive to the needs of local families was part of the driving force behind starting a business of their own. I’ll never know for sure, maybe if you go to Sapa and join a Sapa Sisters trek you can ask.
Our trek in Sapa was a gift. Not only did we experience another amazing place on this earth but also how the people that live there add to the beauty. Chi inspired me to keep creating a life that feels balanced to me. From my first world lens, it looked like she worked incredibly hard (and she did) but it also looked like she enjoyed her life. She enjoyed coming home after trekking for 5 hours to sit at her loom high in the hills of Sapa, serenaded by birds, laughing kids and squawking chickens and looking up from her work every now and then to take in the scene of the mountains in the distance. It is a life in balance to her and one she created for herself on her own terms.