After an incredible 10-hour sleep, we’re greeted with a sunny mountain morning and banana/lime/honey crepes. “Do you want to do the challenging walk or the easy walk?” Elise asks. “Challenging!” we bellow in unison, remembering yesterday’s moderately-paced amble. After thanking the home stay family, we’re ready to go. A fresh quartet of genial female entrepreneurs is waiting for us just up the trail, beyond the water buffalo. We’re trying to make it clear that we won’t be buying anything today but just at that very moment, the trail becomes incredibly narrow, incredibly steep and incredibly muddy. Once again, the grandmotherly one of the bunch gives me a smile, holds out her hand and off we go. Thanks to the superhumanly strong, sure-footed Ji and a sturdy stick, I make it across the mud bog, up the mountain, through the bamboo forest, out the other side to the waterfall and down the rocky hill. Never have I been happier to pay for a service rendered.
Parting ways with my guardian grandma, we cross the Red River again and head up the other side. The trail winds through rice paddies, fields, tiny villages and right through people’s yards on occasion. Houses are modest; the children are solemn. Bamboo is used for everything: walls, fences, telephone poles, irrigation systems. We stop for lunch in the Zao village of Giang Te Chai where the ladies are ferocious with their bright red head dresses and shaved eyebrows and the whole town has kind of a menacing wild west vibe. I’d read somewhere that the Zao are particularly unkeen on having their photo taking as they believe cameras are soul-stealers. Keep walkin’, stranger!
Elise and I talk about our lives. Her brothers attend high school but the family doesn’t have enough money to send the girls. University is out of the question. Women marry young from among men of their own ethnic group, have two or three children (for her parents generation, it was more like 8 or 10) and that’s life. She had a boyfriend but his family was very poor and had no land so Elise’s parents ix-nayed the match. A fortune teller looked at Elise’s teeth and told her she’d marry someone far, far away. When I tell her I think she’s really smart and knows all kinds of interesting, important things, she laughs a laugh that means Lady, you are nuts!
16 km and my dogs are definitely barking by the time we reach the home stay at Su Pan. The Dzao and Tay salesladies come around but give up on us almost immediately because we’re too tired to do much more than pull off our boots and stare into space. We’re joined at the home stay by Vanessa (French) and Vince (American) who work as dive guides at a luxury island resort in Indonesia and are nearing the end of a month-long holiday in Vietnam. As dinner cooks over the open fireplace in the kitchen, we play with the kittens and tell travelin’ tales… No happy water tonight; none needed.