After precariously zig-zagging our way up and between the mountains, we arrive to find Sapa’s beauty concealed in a shroud of mist and darkness. When we awake, the town has too. Its aliveness proves a delight for the senses: the vibrant colours of the traditional dress, the whirl of hustle and bustle, the smell of roasting pigs and motorbike fumes – the west seems sterile and dull in comparison.
It is here that we meet Lan, our beaming local guide from the Dzay tribe. Her ancestors arrived here from China 600 years ago. Today her entire family live in the same nearby village, where the eldest inhabitant is 110. “No fast food here,” Lan chuckles. We begin hiking and she assures us that this afternoon will be even more beautiful than Sapa town. “More beautiful?” we exclaim back, eyes widening, as we take in the splendour already unfolding before us.
We are accompanied by the Black Hmong tribe, adorned in their traditional costume, steady and sure-footed on the uneven terrain. They are one of six tribes in the Sapa area, each with their own dialect. Occasionally men whizz past us on their motorbikes, undeterred by the steep gradients, unknowingly entertaining us with a game of who is carrying the most cargo.
Our jaws drop as we see the sweeping vistas of lush green, undulating, mountainous carpets, broken up by cascading rice terraces resembling contour lines on a map. We watch buffalo pulling ploughs through the rice paddies, manned by workers in their conical hats. The sunlight dances on the sparkling water, teasing and playful, like the children who shriek with delight as they run down the windy path into the awe inspiring backdrop.
Each sublime view is more breath-taking and magical than the last. Love Waterfall overflows from Heaven’s Gate, which is as beautiful as the name promises. I marvel at my surroundings and at Lan, at how our similarities far outweigh our differences. Although roughly the same age, Lan is married with two children and the main breadwinner for her family. An independent spirit, she married for love, later than most girls here, and enjoys learning about the world from her tourists. We giggle as I admire the traditional dress and she tells me that the girls in Laos have much prettier dresses.
While Lan’s self-taught English is remarkable, the universal language of a clean plate and a smile works a treat at our homestay. We end with oodles of noodles and spring rolls and rice, plus bamboo and leaves we collected and fried up with garlic. Night falls and I watch the sea of clouds sinking into the valley, the majestic mountains emerging superior, silhouetted against the moon. I fall asleep with a smile, full to the brim with the beauty of nature and people and life.