A Sapa Christmas

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We usually see family for Christmas but we couldn’t make the 9,000 mile voyage back home this year. Instead we headed for Vietnam and spent Christmas in the northern highlands of Sapa. From Hanoi you board a night train that delivers you to the town of Laocai by morning. From Laocai, Sapa is a short drive on winding roads tucked in the hillside. I felt like Alice in Wonderland following the white rabbit. In our case,  the nervous train expediter who picks you up at your hotel, gets you to your train car, and then magically disappears as quick as he got you to the station. I was so sleepy by the time I hit the bed in our car I was fast asleep and the next thing I knew I was waking up in a foggy mountain town at 4 am far from the chaos of Hanoi and even farther from the insanity of Jakarta. It certainly felt quite surreal, especially since I feel like a loony toon in the mornings until I have my first cup of coffee. And I kept forgetting it was Christmas Eve’s Day.

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We booked our stay with Sapa Rooms, which was the best thing we did on this trip. A post solely on the hotel will come later. We booked a trek to a Hmong and Red Dzao village with a home stay with a Red Dzao family that evening. The proprietor Pete was equal parts charm, heart, and whimsy. He made sure we were fed well and ready for our trek later that morning. We were given both Western and Vietnamese breakfast options. John and I both ordered the pho, coffee, and beautifully concocted juices. The Sapa Rooms Special is an elixir of apple, banana, pineapple, yoghurt and mint. And I rarely order chicken pho but the Sapa-specific addition of star anise, fresh ginger, and cardamom was enticing and ended up being a very nice subtle enhancement to the broth.

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By 10 am, we headed out on our 14 km trek to the village of Taphin settled by the Hmong and Red Dzao ethnic minorities. Our guide Thu May (literally meaning fourth girl) was very informative and took us on the winding paths through paddies, villages, and hillsides that eventually brought us to her home.

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indigo dyed fabric

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The Hmong and Red Dzao mainly rely on the sale of their handicrafts as their livelihood. The Hmong traditionally dye cotton and hemp fabric with the plentiful indigo flowers that grow throughout the area.

indigo flowers

The textiles are then sewn with intricate colorful patterns that can take months to complete. Needless to say, we came home with heaps that we are not sure what to do with yet.

After six months in Jakarta where the pollution blackens the snot in your nose down to your lungs, the mountain air was intoxicating. I wanted to sing like Julie Andrews and hoped that all the farm animals would join me and start dancing about. I was seriously getting high off of pure oxygen.

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So many piggies!

Hmong village

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hmong women washing clothes

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The adorably menacing kids armed with long spears who put their game faces on and stomped behind us for a good 200 meters. The little girl who had to hold her pants up with one hand, while grasping her spear with the other, grunted at us while we walked along.

enormous duck

Enormous ducks. I always had the impression that livestock was small in Southeast Asian countries because the village chickens in Indonesia are more bone than meat and the goats always look so malnourished. But everything here was FAT! The ducks, the chickens, and the innumerable piggies. Thu May had a hog that had been penned up for three years just growing to the size of Jabba the Hutt.

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Still not sure what this red stuff is that’s in the paddies but it was beautiful.

cat, thu may and her mother

thu may making us lunch

We finally get to Taphin and Thu May and her mother whipped us up some greens and noodles for lunch. We were starved and slurped everything down in less than 30 seconds. While we were chatting, we noticed that both women were wearing these glinting bracelets.

marriage bracelets

marriage bracelet

marriage bracelet

When two Dzao people get married, they bring a number of silver coins to be melted down and made into these bracelets. They wear these instead of wedding rings. These were made by Thu May’s father in the back of her home. It was amazing to see that craftsmanship can still be so alive and maintained in a culture. I realized how far removed I’ve become and understand the urge to revive true arts and crafts.

After lunch, we headed straight for the herbal baths. We were tired from our journey. We had flown from Jakarta to Hanoi, boarded a train in the evening, woke up in Sapa, and walked 14 km to Taphin. The traditional bath consisting of 32 local medicinal herbs was exactly what my muscles were yearning for.

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the beautiful bath of 32 herbs

The tubs were made from fir and were just big enough for me. I have no clue what herbs they include in the bath but it was completely restorative and magical. Traditionally, the Dzao women partake in the herbal baths after childbirth which is supposed to help with the healing process.

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Always stitching away!

traditional red dzao jacket

These are the traditional Dzao jackets that are dyed indigo and handstitched.

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We stayed with Thu May’s cousin in her home.

dinner with the family

Dinner was amazing! Everything was simply prepared and perfectly so. From the garden greens to the Sapa mushrooms to the stir fried jicama; J and I both feared we were pigging out but didn’t want to seem ungrateful either. The family had also stir fried some cured pork that had been hanging above their wood burning stove and naturally smoking for months. It was priceless salty and smoked slices of pork fat that I will doubtlessly be searching for for the rest of my life.

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watching satellite tv

The only house in the village with satellite TV, which is why kids are constantly streaming in and out to catch their favorite shows.

playing cards

They day of our trek was gorgeous but the next morning was freezing and all anyone wanted to do was huddle around the fire and play cards and eat a million fire-roasted sweet potatoes.

giant walk over a wood burning fire

An enormous wok over a wood burning stove.

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family we stayed with in Taphin

I can’t begin to describe how much I actually appreciated this Christmas. Before we had left, I was having a conversation with a friend about how the holidays have become meaningless if not depressing. And I admitted that Christmas for me boiled down to giving and receiving presents; which I tried to contend is not completely materialistic. But spending just a short time visiting Taphin and staying with this family was a shift in my perspective I wasn’t expecting.

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