Following my fun first two treks around Sapa I decided to do a two-night homestay trek to some different villages on the weekend. Me and one young H'Mong guide named Mr. Lou took motorbikes to Ta Van where we trekked to Ban Ho, overnighted in Ban Ho and walked to Trang Phu, motorbiked from Trang Phu to overnight in Lao Chai, and walked back from Lao Chai to Sapa on the third day.
It might have been my frame of mind, but it wasn't quite the rewarding experience of my previous walks. The trails were narrow, muddy and tough when we weren't walking down a main road. I fell in buffalo chocolate, which was actually one of the more fun parts – it's slippery and you go down fast! I got covered in mud from the shins down as I sunk into rice paddies and every mud puddle in sight. The ground was wet over the first two days and the heavy red clay was sticking to my boots along with pieces of fallen fruit – my boots felt like they had ankle weights attached, not a workout I was looking for when I was already struggling up the steep slopes.
The first homestay wasn't anything like my Red Dao experience – it felt more like being in a village dorm – lots of mats laid out for beds in one big room, and no french fries or lovely barrel bathtub. For the second homestay I changed plans to stay with Ms Mai in Lao Chai – the first homestay set up through Sapa O'Chau, the organisation I stayed in Sapa to volunteer with as an assistant English teacher. Ms Mai made the tasty garlic french fries along with a dinner following the same menu as my Red Dao homestay. Then she invited me to see the shaman ceremony next door being performed for her sick mother.
I went over to watch the shaman who was dancing and drumming and singing loudly in a mist of incense smoke, as old H'Mong women sat around twisting hemp fibre into yarn, while a few children slept and an old man prepared a fire. I met the shaman part way through the ceremony. “Hello. Where you from?” She looked and sounded just like the women selling handicrafts on the street, it completely threw me for a few minutes. But then she went back to drumming and speaking in other tongues. The shaman ordered a pig and later two chickens to be killed. I saw the pig squealing as it was held down during the incantations, then transformed into a waxen statue after it was killed, stripped of its skin and laid out with incense and powders adorning it.
I didn't see the end of the chickens, it was late and I was getting tired. I found out the next morning that the ceremony went until 3am – after the rituals ended around 2am they ate the pig.
Ms Mai, a single mother of three, attended the whole ceremony and made my breakfast (banana crepes, a Vietnam staple) before heading out to lead a some other tourists on a two day homestay trek.
Mr Lou took me past the power plant on the least scenic route out of Lao Chai, where we scrambled up the vertical mountain side to meet up with a road filled with crowds of flip-flop wearing tourists going past us down the hill. I was feeling tired and a little crabby as the three day trek had not matched the scenic walks of my first two outings, and even then none of them could really be considered mountain 'treks', with big chunks along main roads. 'Why more up?' I asked Mr Lou for the fifth time. It turns out it's hard to find a straight flat path through the mountains. We scrambled up buffalo trails, I picked my way precariously down rocky drainage ditches and despite myself was not unhappy when we hit the flat roads. Mr Lou made up for it by the end of the day, as we visited the traditional H'Mong home of his grandmother (and his first cousin who he bride-napped) and the more modern home of his family in the valley in Cat Cat village before climbing straight back up to Sapa.