The last of dear companions

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Aug 14, 8:30am, breakfast at the terraced cafe.

It's raining again... I could get sick of this, but this is my last day here in SAPA; my last full day in Vietnam (knock on wood).

Back to the day before yesterday, though. We headed up the wet path, it was not raining at that point, but a tumultuous grey sky was constantly changing overhead. The view in all directions was amazing: green valleys, dark mountains and clouds moving in all directions.

The field that the path led us through was full of wild flowers, lots of beautiful orchids. Lots of thorns too, but it was too nice to complain. It was hard not getting ones feet wet, there were puddles everywhere and everyone was slipping about.

As we got higher up the hill, the path dissolved into cattle trails and we happened upon a small herd of water buffalo. They stared at us unmoved. The shepherd boys, 4 of them, stared equally as much. They all had black little jackets, shorts and hats of various types: one army, the others straw or wood.

They stayed together, and pointed at articles, fascinated by what we were doing, what those camera things were, my hat, swiss army knife. They would often ask by hand gesture if they could have something. Gina was having the most fun with them, all five of them were in giggles. The others started to push on, but the boys led us Gina, Viviane and I up a different path, to a wider patch of cattle mowed grass.

There was a little hurdle up there, made of sticks, and we had a little jumping contest. Didn't think of it too late, but I probably should have missed a jump. They would have gotten a kick out of that.

We eventually went to catch up to the others. They were doing their best to push up the ridge and over to the other side, but the paths were like a maze and the way was often blocked by large puddles, or just ended in midst of thick undergrowth.

We finally got up to the the top, but then Jacob and the Danish guy started to have this little battle to see who could lead us down the mountain side. The slope was pretty steep back down into the valley, clouds were coming up it and occasionally swallowed us, only to climb up beyond us and disappear. We could make out the road below us and corn fields above it, closer to us and rice terraces farther below.

I hung back from the battle between the two "leaders", finding it more enjoyable to snack on my loaf of French bread and cheese. I offered a little bit of advice, but was too quiet. It didn't seem worth pushing.

You could buy little triangles of processed cheese from the cafes and I just smeared one onto the back of my bread, eating it as I strolled along. It was simply divine. Maybe I was just hungry, but it tasted like no other lunch ever has.

The Dane eventually got us on the right track, but it was a tough one, through all sorts of brambles, down little slippery slopes and gulches. Jacob gave up leading and focused on Viviane, trying to hold her hand, and hovering over her with just a bit too attention. I would've felt suffocated. He would occasionally clap his hands together and say "let's go!" I spent much of my time wishing he would fall flat on his ass, but he didn't.

So down we went down and down, through weeds, ferns, grass, prickly shrubs, flowers, small trees, you name it. We eventually reached a corn field and it was much easier going (the one thing that I did say loud enough). I came out with numerous scratches, nicks and two leeches. Just felt this annoyance on my ankle and then finally looked after a while. There they were: one already getting fat, the other looking though as he'd just got started. Stupidly, I just ripped them off. The wounds did not bleed for too long though.

I kind of worried a bit about our choice to come down through the corn fields though, besides the leeches in the soil: more foreign impact. We couldn't exactly have helped the crops. It was hard coming down and there were a few casualties.

Viviane and Gina were falling all over the place and having a great time of it, laughing and laughing.

Actually, I was so quiet (most of the conversations were in French, Jacob was concentrating on Viviane, the Danes were basically the only ones I spoke to) that the Danish guy was calling me the Quiet American. I always can appreciate a good literary joke, so accepted it in good humor, also always happy to defeat European expectations of what Americans are like.

He went on to say that it was a good thing to meet an American who realized what Europeans thought of them.

The Danes had actually both been studying Mandarin a little on the Mainland and we had some good talks about Taiwan, China and the Chinese.

We joined them for dinner later, with the three French teachers. There were actually lots of older Frenchmen around. Some seem to have fought at Dien Bien Phu and were coming back through for a look, others may just have lived here. Lots of the older Vietnamese still spoke French from Colonial days. From what I read, Sapa was once a French resort town, colonials would come here for rest and relaxation. I was beginning to wonder how different we might be.

The morning as usual was not much, just breakfast. The my companions had decided to leave that day, and started to arrange their departure, buying tickets and such. I wandered off for a walk around the town, bumped into my French friend from Hanoi again. She was also leaving that day, and she showed me her hotel. It was a little cheaper so I got a room there. We had a little chat to catch up again. She was going the same direction as I was: into China, so I hoped to see her again at some point. If not in China or on the Trans Siberian, then perhaps in France.

The hotel manager where I had been staying was upset that me and Jacob were leaving. He complained that he would not be able to fill the room now, and how he had turned people away. Jacob had said two nights when we booked in. I felt a little bad about not asking him the price of one room, but I'd already paid for the other place. He pissed me off, though, when he wouldn't take the money I offered him. It had a little mark on it.

Jacob must have been wearing off on me, because I knew the black market here doesn't accept "damaged" US bills (the preferred currency). But I fought. Viviane came in then, and with a look of disgust, exchanged one of her tens for mine. Made me feel a bit sheepish and embarrassed. Jacob just looked bored. He accidently took the key though, and brought it back and explained to the man how he was being so "nice" as to bring it back for him, having to go out of his way to bring it back and all. I don't think the landlord appreciated that sentiment somehow.

Unlike the Landlord, I was very happy to see him go. I haven't had the privledge to meet such an asshole in a long time, very snide and superior with the locals, always making fun of the way they tried to get our attention. Then he would take their pictures whether they wanted it or not. THE ugly foreigner.

We had a final meal together and said our goodbyes. My stomach was not happy after and I rushed off. On my way out a little later, I said goodbye a second time, the bus was late. The street was packed, a majority of the foreigners seemed to be leaving, and tribes women swirled all around us trying to make a sell. I left them there in the street to go for my own walk.

Away from town, it was nice to hear "silence," and to make my own way again. I walked past some houses and down a dirt road. I passed a few people: a couple of guys on their truck who asked me for a photo and gave me their address; some women harvesting stones from a little quarry. There were some houses, a chicken running down the road, but no people in sight.

The road ended, and I found a trail leading up past some farms and found myself on a top of a hill overlooking a ridge and the valley.

It was beautiful. All the hills on my side of the valley had been razed or chewed clear of any vegetation except weeds. The only trees around tended to be clumped around the houses, or clinging to rocks on cliff faces. Most of the cleared land had been converted to corn fields, was lying fallow, or was covered with long grass. There were small little peaks all around, all topped with large rocks, reminding me off sites I'd seen in Wales and Ireland.

I made my way along past more houses; many built near the shells of old colonial houses, only their foundations and one or two end walls still standing. The houses got scarcer and scarcer as I kept walking. The path branched here and there, and I followed one that dipped down into a mini valley and then up onto the ridge closer to the valley. It fell away in front of me in a steep drop.

Clouds sped up the valley and often split to either side of the ridge, as if I were standing on an island in the clouds. A herd of water buffalo were wallowing in a big muddy pond far below, and I could make out a few people in the rice paddies, horses, people walking on the road. With all the clouds pushing up and down the valley, it fell in and out of focus, disappearing and then reappearing.

Everything was all green and white, with lichen covered stones peaking out of the mountain sides. Swallows ripped around on the winds, black against the clouds, wings swept back in a curve as they zoomed past me. Clouds would meet from two different directions and swirl about each other.

I stood for a long time just watching and listening. I started to hear birds which seemed to have songs of a much greater length and variety. I could hear people singing, a lamb bleating, the water from a waterfall, and the wind. I even tried to tape some of it, as if I could capture it, just a part of it.

I made my way along again, back in the direction I'd come from, but on a path closer to the valley. I had to go down again, and I waited a while when I spotted a dog along the path. I didn't want any nasty encounters.

Up the top of another peak was a heap of jagged and pointy stones. I clambered my way up through waste high grass for another view. I felt I couldn't ever get enough. Behind it, I noticed a curious stone sticking up from the grass all alone. I went over to it and found that it was a grave: French people who'd died back in the 20s; women in fact, one who was really young and had lived but a few years.

I saw my first living people in while close to their grave: men hacking holes in a field. The holes were for trees, I think. They seemed to be too well spaced for anything else. I walked by trying not to attract any attention and managed it. I felt somehow the urge to be anonymous, just to be there without disturbing anything.

Come to think of it though, they were the first men that I'd seen who were actually doing work. Most of the men I'd seen here just seemed to stroll around. They would be dressed in black pants, long vests and skull caps. Their arms would be behind their back, one would be straight and the other would be bent so as to clasp the first arm. They always looked positively relaxed. Only one guy had ever tried to sell me something, the rest were a swirling mass of women in black, blue and red. The women were the ones bearing the burdens.

I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just what I see, but in restaurants as well: the man plays host, but the women do all the cooking and fetching - the man sitting back down. Boys are always working, but rarely a man. Of course Western women might point out a similar thing.

My way back almost saw me become dog meat though. They hadn't smelled me on the way up. Maybe the wind was with me. I was passing by one farm, when one finally noticed me as I passed on the road. It was a big sucker and doing some serious growling. I'd already passed the farm, but there he was, right behind me, tail all curled up between it's legs, gathering itself for a run. The owner heard it though and began calling it's name. It would relax then coil up again. All the while, I was moving slowly, keeping my bag between me and the dog. I figured if I ran, the dog was sure to come after me. Finally, the owner finally came out and restrained it, smiling as she did it. I waved a thanks and walked quickly away.

I had dinner again with the 3 French teachers, along with an Italian guy. We tried out our respective bad English and even worse French. Despite all that, we had a good time of it.

And now a new day, though it looks pretty damn familiar: clouds and rain. I'm going walking anyway. Got to get my washing done and then I'm off at 6am tomorrow; to find the border crossing in Laocai.

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