I had been more excited about the North of Vietnam than anywhere else on my itinerary. The guide books and images I'd poured over on the Internet promised mountains, rolling hills and terraced rice paddies scattered with rickety wooden houses and the odd water buffalo. I was spoilt enough with the terraced Sri Lankan tea plantations, but the rice paddies are wet so there's the added bonus of reflections winding around the contours. Fabulous for painting!
The journey from Cat Ba was long, a whole day and a whole night on buses and boats and more buses with not nearly enough loo breaks. Still, I was so excited I didn't mind. I'd booked into a homestay in a tiny tribal village half an hour away from Sapa town, perched at the edge of a wide valley. So you can imagine my acute disappointment when I arrived in thick, freezing, clinging fog. The visibility was at best ten metres but often less. We were totally enveloped by it, and according to my host Dat, it wouldn't clear for several days. What to do.... This honestly wasn't a choice, I layered up and settled in and explained to Dat that I'd like to stay until the fog lifted.
The first day I went trekking, which was oddly medatitive given that I couldn't see anything. Every now and then my guide May Sum, would gesture vaguely in front of us and explain that we were in a spot where people usually liked to take lots of photos and for some reason I felt obliged to do the same. May Sum was from the Red Dao tribe, one of the ethnic minorities from the North of Sapa and nearby Southern China. Named after their enormous red hats which the women traditionally wear once married. These days the younger generation tend to opt for a more wearable head scarf in the same colour. May Sum explained that like her mother and her sisters, her marriage had been arranged by her parents. She was married and had her first child at fifteen which is not uncommon in these tribes. May Sum did say that after two years she started to love her husband so we can take small comfort from that, although she stressed that her children would be free to marry whom they like. It was fascinating talking to her, she'd only started learning English from tourists five months ago and was already able to chat way effortlessly. At the end of the trek I was given a piping hot bath in the village with a secret herbal concoction made by the local women.
Day two and the fog was still very much present. I decided to walk a mile or so to the village of Ta Phin and at least attempt to paint something. Little did I realise that I was about to have the greatest day of my trip so far.
The tribal women in this area are famous for their clothes and their embroidery. Their outfits are a celebration of colour and texture, from the meticulously embroidered trousers, cuffs and scarfs to the beaten metal chest pieces and of course the enormous Cadmium red hats, all of which they make themselves by hand. I always think colours seem to look brighter on grey days so you can only imagine how wonderful they all looked sitting around stitching under an awning in foggy Ta Phin.
After refusing their offers of souvenirs (actually I made the mistake of saying 'maybe later' but that's another story) and asking if I could take some photographs I wandered off thinking how much I'd like to paint from the photos when I got home. Haaaannnng on! Embrace the present Alice Boggis-Rolfe and don't be so pathetic! So choosing a particularly elderly lady who seemed not to be in danger of going anywhere I mimed and pointed to my paints, smiled inanely and said a few random words as English people do when they are trying to get their point across. She was thrilled and we whiled away the morning painting, stitching and listening to the gentle murmur of the Red Dao gossip circuit. You couldn't ask for a better way to spend International Women's day.
Speaking of women I've been really struck by their role in society in Vietnam. They are always busy selling, cooking, farming, making craftwork, carrying heavy baskets of food and goods around the streets not to mention being mothers. Meanwhile more often than not the men can be found lounging around on their motorbikes half heartedly offering rides to tourists or getting drunk at the back of a shop playing board games or cards. Correct me if I'm wrong but it seems like the women rule the roost here and the men are very lucky to have them.
By lunchtime the Red Dao ladies and I had struck up a comfortable rapport and I was invited to eat with them. Next I painted May, who had the same name as my morning model and my guide... I later discovered all the women are called May followed by numbers differentiating them from their sisters. Afternoon May astounded me with her English, Vietnamese (each tribe has their own dialect) and French, all of which she has picked up from tourists. She was looking after her grandson Su while his mother tended to their farm. He was snuggled in a pouch on her back. Even Su was dressed to kill, I bought a hat like he's wearing in my painting and the coins sewn onto it date back to 1926.
The fog was thicker and colder than ever the following morning. But I was thrilled, the day before had been better than I ever could have wished for and another day of bad weather gave me an excuse to extend my stay further. I won't bang on as it was pretty similar to the previous day although May the fourth (fifth if you count my tour guide) insisted I pay her 100000 Dong to sit (about $3). It wasn't exactly money well spent as I think she must have had physical Tourette's, she wriggled relentlessly for twenty minutes or so before suddenly dropping into a deep sleep, head lolling onto her lap, hat askew and snoring loudly. She could've easily been eighty years old though so I really didn't mind and her repeated fits of excited hysterics on seeing the painting when she woke up made it worth it.
Finally the fog lifted and the sun shone and the views were indeed spectacular. It wasn't just the hills, or the valleys, or the terracing but the combination of all of these and the unexpected shifts between each. Dat took me off in his motorbike to get me to the ultimate painting spots. I'm not sure I could have ever done the landscape justice but I hope my paintings will provide good material to scale up once I get home.
The last day I went off on my own with a picnic, trekking for miles and hardly seeing a soul. A magical day and one I will remember for ever.
I was desperately sad to leave Sapa but the move was made a little more bearable by the promise of Vietnam's most impressive market in Bac Ha. It did not disappoint. Not only were there rows and rows of stalls selling heaps of embroidery and craft work and tourist treasure (it's never tat to me, you should see my flat!) but there was also the livestock market and the food market. So as much as some of it is tailored a little towards foreigners most of it is as real and functional as it has been for hundreds of years. This is most apparent when you stroll through the butchery section as I'm pretty certain you won't find tourists haggling away for the miscellaneous entrails on offer there. The town is nestled high in the mountains and surrounded by scenery to rival that of Sapa. So after the market I went trekking through the hills and local villages with my paints and as always wished I was staying longer.
Alas another night bus with no loo whisked me back to Hanoi before my chapter in Vietnam had to finally come to an end. The month has flown by, I've painted 26 pictures here and learnt so much from each one. I've pushed myself to paint subjects I've never been comfortable with before and been surprised to find that I often enjoyed these more than my previously preferred rural landscapes. Some of these were the streetscenes I painted in Hoi An, you can wTch a three minute film of me completing one below. I've also spent 28 whole days of my life feeling tall, which is a rare novelty at 5'2. The weather has not been particularly great, most days were overcast, nevertheless my arms seem to be two totally different colours. My left is pasty white and my painting arm is a deep nut brown. No only joking of course it isn't its bright red and has an unfortunate number of white bands from various hair ties.
In all seriousness though this country is magnificent and each region has so much to offer, if you haven't been already I implore you to do so. I've been spoilt with incredible views, architecture, food and people but there is still so much I've missed and wished I'd had time for. I very much hope it won't be too long before I come back.
Next stop, Japan.