“Go with Su Su.” That’s what two different groups of travellers said to me when I was looking to doing a trek through the hill tribe villages in Sapa. They talked about her as if she was a legend. “You’ll have the time of your life,” one English guy said. “She was amazing,” said my American friend, Elizabeth.
They passed on a number on a ripped piece of paper and I called Su Su up to arrange to meet the next day. Su Su gets most of her business like this; word of mouth between backpackers.
A woman in her 50s came to meet us as we stepped off the bus, haggard and tired from the overnight journey from Hanoi. Her well-lined face was friendly and marked with a permanent smile that makes you warm to her immediately. Four silver hoop earrings weighed down each stretched ear lobe and her black long hair is wrapped around her head, decorated with four silver clips and secured with a silver comb. Five heavy silver bracelets clinked together on her left wrist as she talks to us about the trek. “You go with Su Su, you see everything. Rice paddies, mountains and you stay in my home, I cook.”
Su Su showed us the route we’d be taking through the mountains and the terraced rice paddies, the stunning landscape that attracts people to Sapa.
She tied a bright-coloured friendship bracelet around our wrists as a sort of contract and we pinky promised we’d see her tomorrow morning to start the trek.
“And no shopping today, wait until the village,” she said.
Most of the H’Mong women live off the income from selling their handicrafts or
leading treks and it’s an incredibly competitive business. Even during our
quick trip to the market we were quickly overwhelmed by the swarm of women
dressed in their black embroidered tribal wear saying “lady, lady, you buy from
We got out of the bustling town centre and into the tranquil hills as soon as we could – the first day via motorbikes, winding through the mountain passes. We drove to Heavens Gate, where the mountains slope into a valley like fingers laced together.
The morning of the trek, Su Su and her friend Shuh (pronounced “Shoe”) came to our hotel to meet us, picked up food from the market and then led us into the hills. In our group was myself, a Californian named Jamie and an English girl named Georgie as well as a Kiwi couple named Steph and Hutch.
Su Su, 59, a mother of six, said she started leading treks about four years ago. An Australian couple asked her to take them on a trek to her village, then recommended her to some friends and soon travellers from all over the world were ringing her up and asking to stay at her home.
She walks these hills every day and has climbed Mt. Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina, three times. The wrinkles etched on her face, deep from sun exposure and wild facial expressions, belie how physically fit she is. She’s barely breaking a sweat as the rest of us huff and puff up the muddy track. It’s only about a half an hour of steadily uphill climbing before we were high in the mountains, overlooking Sapa town and the green mountains that encircle it.
We crossed over to the other side of the mountain and that’s when we got our first full glimpse of the terraced rice paddies, levels upon levels sloping down into the valley like carpets of green velvet. Wisps of clouds hung in the middle of the valley, making the scene postcard perfect. Hutch’s GPS estimates we’re at about 1500 metres up.
We got to Su Su’s village around 2:30 p.m. We removed our sweaty shoes and sat in the shade while she prepared lunch. We feasted on tofu – probably the most delicious I’ve had - marinated in tomato sauce with noodles on the side. We ate until we’re stuffed, thanks to Su Su and Shuh making sure our bowls were never empty.
After lunch we walked down to the village shop, past a little boy riding a buffalo and children chopping wood with machetes. Just before sunset we bathed ourselves in the waterfall, cool and refreshing after the hot day.
Inside Su Su’s house — a modest, two-room wooden hut with a metal roof — she showed us pictures sent to her by other travellers.
She held up a photo of her next to a Canadian girl dressed in the full black embroidered coat and skirt that the hill tribe women wear. There are some of Su Su and Shuh during their trip to Hanoi, the furthest away from their village they’ve ever been. The well-worn photo album holds about 20 photos, but there used to be many more.
“My husband, when we fight, he threw the pictures in the fire,” Su Su said.
“Su Su’s husband very bad husband,” Shuh added. Su Su’s right ear lobe is taped together to support her trademark earrings. She said her husband ripped the hoop earrings out of her right ear during another fight.
He left two years ago and is now married to a women from another village. Shuh, who is 30 and has a husband and two kids, has acted as an extended family for Su Su and her four kids under 18. At dinner, as we all gathered around a long, low table, dimly lit by a single lightbulb, it was clear Shuh and Su Su’s children act like siblings.
Georgie and I horsed around with Shuh’s five-year-old daughter, Thuh, who is anything but shy and adorably mischievous. I braided her hair and she looked at it adoringly in the mirror, then tugged at my blond mass of curls, probably wondering what planet I’m from.
Su Su kept filling our shot glasses with the rice wine, aka
“happy water” from the 1.5 litre Aquafina bottle on the table — which I take
care not to mistake for my bottle of actual water. In Su Su fashion, we barely
drained our glass before she topped us off with more, making sure we retire to
bed just the right amount of tipsy.
In the morning, the rain splattered hard on the corrugated iron roof and a thick grey cloud obscures the landscape, so we started off a few hours late. The patience is worth it because when we do start our trek, we’re showered by only a light drizzle and the dew seems to make the rice paddies shine even more emerald green. We walked back to Sapa’s main town, snapping photos of the landscape, wishing we could curl up on the blanket of lush green mountainside and stay here forever.