One of the philosophies we are taught during Pulse Orientation is that we should work hard but also play hard in our down time. Some of us are in foreign lands and should take the opportunity to enjoy that. I had the pleasure of going to Sapa, Vietnam this weekend with two other GSK Pulse volunteers. Sapa is in the mountains near China. It is known for the trekking (aka. hiking) and the 6 ethnic minorities that live there.
So Bob talked myself and Mohamed into going. He arranged the trekking part and I arranged the travel up there. To get there you take an overnight train. It takes about 8 hours. A highway recently opened but the buses are not as good but faster. So when I say train please do not think we were on a magical train to Hogwarts. After doing some research we learned that we needed a “soft sleeper”. This was basically my college dorm room with 4 bunks. But this was luxury compared to cars with just wooden benches.
We got up there without incident. We take the bus ride up the mountain for an hour and we come to the Sapa Sister’s office. We eat and shower and prepare for our trek. We meet our guide, Su. She is tiny and 5 months pregnant. She was direct and very blunt (which I loved). She looks at me and says “Why do you have that bag”. Well you see I was not given much information. I thought we were going to the “homestay” first and then hiking. Then I learn we are going to trek to the home stay which is 11 kilometers away and will take 8 hours. See I brought this very cute leather overnight bag that I bought in Hanoi for weekend getaways. She was like NO! She insisted I get a backpack, only put in a change of clothes and be done. Then she was like…those are not the right shoes! I am wearing Nike tennis shoes. Mind you the only shoes I brought. She said it would be very slippery! They got me a backpack but I was stuck with the shoes.
So off we go. As we walk down the street 5 other ladies join us. You know they want to sell you their hand made crafts but they do not say anything. They are one of the ethnic minorities in the area. Our guide was Black Hmong and so were these ladies. They were the traditional garb and have a different language (all 6 ethnic groups have their own languages) . I asked one if they wanted me to buy something. They said at lunch they will ask. So these ladies have a business model and it was very effective.
So we start the hike. When I say hike I don’t want you to think about a casual walk on a trail with steps and handrails. I am talking a muddy path that does straight down a mountain through the rice patty fields and corn fields. It is about a foot wide if you are lucky and there are rocks to step on and water every where. So Su was correct. I did not have the right shoes. It was very slippery! At that decline in the water there was no way I was not falling. And that is where the ladies of the Black Hmong tribe come in. They help you! My helper, Li Li, made me a walking stick out of bamboo, showed me exactly where to step and helped me up on more than one occasion! Mind you they were only wearing rubber flip flop while doing this. One of the helpers had her 2 month old baby on her back as she went down the mountain! With their help we made it down! We get to eat lunch in the valley and the ladies ask you to buy their crafts. I will say that Li Li made out like a bandit. I assure you she earned it. Keeping my butt from falling down the mountain was worth a lot to me:)
A few hours later we end up in Ta Van village where the homestay was. The owner was very nice and made us dinner. I asked if they could wash my clothes. Su handed me a bucket and some soap and told me to have at it. She then got angry because I did not know how to hand wash clothes. So needless to say I got a lesson and hand washed all my clothes.
The next day, with oh so weary legs, we had to do another 6 kilometers. Su said she did not want to take the tourist route. We were like ok but yesterday was really hard. She said we would take the shortest route. Do you know the shortest route up a mountain? Straight up! Yes folks for over 3 kilometers we hiked at a 60-70 degree incline. You know what else I learned. When you climb a mountain like that you must also climb down a mountain like that. Wow. Now she said the views at the top would be unmatched and she was not kidding. Breath taking. One because they were beautiful but two because we literally just hiked up a mountain!
In the end we survived and we all loved it! It was amazing and one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I am so thankful to be able to say I have trekked in Sapa! So I will continue to work hard and play hard on this amazing opportunity.