Catching the last bus out of Bac Ha for the day, it was crammed full of people and their wares. The driver stacked us one upon the other as though some of us weren’t tourists. The Japanese behind me loudly complained as the driver suggested a teenage boy sit in his lap, and the couple next to me refused to sit on one another’s lap choosing instead to jimmy their way in between my hip and the minute space left between us. In our row, six of us sat in three seats. I was pretty lucky to get an actual seat with foot room, but Chris sat above the tire well with his knees to his chest. When we arrived in Lao Cai to grab further transportation to Sapa, Chris announced it was the worse bus ride yet. A surprising statement since he had two people sitting in his lap on one of our Ecuadoran bus rides!

From Lao Cai we caught an empty minivan onto Sapa, enjoying an entire row to ourselves (total luxury after the previous ride). The scenic trip to Sapa is breathtaking. Sitting high in the mountains, we passed rice fields and limestone cliffs on our drive. As we climbed farther up the mountain, a blanket of fog obscured the landscape. During the winter months of January and February, Sapa is often socked in by fog. This was our experience for the extent of our stay. It was eerily foggy every day unless we headed out to the countryside.

On one of our days, we rented a motorbike and headed out to the minority Black H’mong and Red Dzao villages around Ta Phin. We enjoyed our ride through patchwork rice fields and little clusters of homes. Arriving in Ta Phin, a group of Red Dzao women surrounded us showing us their handiwork in the hopes that we would buy some of their textiles. Their textiles are made from tree bark, which is then dyed and handwoven into blankets, bracelets, purses, and scarves. Four women wearing the customary garb of the Red Dzao, blue embroidered clothing and a red scarf wrapped around their ankle-length hair, offered to show us their village. We walked through rice fields as they talked about their families and daily lives.

They speak impeccable English, more for the tourist trade than anything else. But, they also speak Vietnamese and H’mong along with their own language. And yet, they live in very basic conditions. A pot over firewood serves as their kitchen. Our host had a huge wok for roasting pig, but otherwise only a few other pots existed. One cutting board and one knife served as her prep tools. Thinking back to our home where we own at least ten cutting boards with a wood block stocked full of knives, we felt humbled. The minority people live very basically compared to their Vietnamese counterparts, but they are some of the happiest people we’ve met.

In exchange for the women’s hospitality, we bought something small from each of them. Ending the tour and showing us the way back to Sapa, they waved us goodbye as we headed out of town.

When we were in Bac Ha, a fellow traveler told us about a Black H’mong community that painted their teeth black. We thought they sounded pretty interesting, so we decided to make the trek to see them. Getting to their village meant crossing over Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam at 1900 meters. Renting a motorbike, we headed out into the dense fog hoping that it would clear as we got higher. It never did. Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is a dangerous business, riding in fog is lunacy. Nearly half-way there, we ran into dirt roads with deep grooves due to road construction. The muddy road combined with the dense fog gave us pause, and we debated continuing. But, I hate not fulfilling our goal for the day so we pushed on (much to Chris’ disappointment since I was screaming in his ear at every turn to lay on the horn).

Reaching the turnoff point for the village, we realized we only had general not specific directions. Our notes of take a left and go through some rice fields were not going to work in this situation. We asked for directions from the locals by pointing to our teeth and to Chris’ black pants. Eventually, a shopkeeper caught on to what we were asking but sent us in a direction different from what we were originally told by David. After already perusing the area in an attempt to find the village on our own, we decided to try the shopkeeper’s directions on our final attempt.

We followed a dirt road into the boonies with no one else in site for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, a bridge below us indicated the dirt road might be headed back to civilization after all. By this time, we all but gave up on finding the black teeth people. We arrived in a small cluster of villages, but no one bared black teeth. Feeling defeated, we asked for directions back to Sapa. There were two paths out of this area, right would take us across the bridge and left headed further down the dirt road. The people pointed left, so we headed on. A few Black H’mong passed us on this road, and I smiled (secretly hoping they would smile back with black teeth). Greeting us with the blackest grin I’ve ever seen, I knew we found our people. Unfortunately, they were walking the other way. At another juncture we got off our bikes to negotiate a path, and a woman with black teeth approached us. I tried in vain to ask her where her village was located, but she didn’t understand. In return, she offered to sell me her skirt. As in, the skirt that she was wearing! I politely declined, but offered her money if I could take her picture. It was her turn this time to decline my offer.

Reaching the end of the road, it was clear we were not on the path to Sapa. The road ended at a mud and stick long house. Luckily for us, a trio of girls happily greeted us and spoke in English. They seemed overwhelmingly interested in Chris and kept flashing him coy smiles. I tried to hide my irritation as Chris unabashedly entertained them. My quiet Chris turned into a chatty kathy in mere minutes. He says it was just because I was sulking in the corner at being lost, but I think otherwise. They informed us we needed to head back to the bridge we saw earlier in order to join main highway leading to Sapa.

It was starting to get late, and we were hungry so we made a beeline for the bridge. We never saw the Black H’mong village we sought but we did get to see its people so we considered this a win for the day. The great views we shared of Fansipan at the top of Tram Ton Pass made it a double win for the day.

Photos from our time in Sapa can be viewed on Chris’ and Jodi’s respective flickr pages.

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