The air was thin and crisp, and clean. Every breath injected new life into a travel-weary soul. The valley fell away in a sharp descent, its face patterned with flooded rice terraces staccato’d with the small dots of local women working the land by hand. A heavy downpour had cleared the skies overhead, and the life-giving combination of sun and water had brought the villagers from their shanty huts, and had brought good spirits out in all. Cat Cat village was yawning in to life below, nothing ever rushed in the mountains. The trail we were following wound down and through the small community, populated solely by the Black Hmong people of northern Vietnam, whose dark name belied the simple beauty within each and every one of them.
Descending further, we began to be able to pick out the lumbering forms of water buffalo pulling rusted ploughs behind them, wading through the knee deep flooding on the drenched paddies. Fresh rivers wound their way amongst the ancient contours of the land, dark robed villagers swung hoes into the patches of green that were lush and dry. A woman picked the shoots of rice out by hand, individually pulling grains off the stems and collecting them in her handwoven basked of reeds. Turning a long, gradual bend we were forced to edge our way around a grazing buffalo who paid us no heed as he tore up the long grass at the edge of the path. To his right another buffalo lay fast asleep in the sun and, in a picure worth of any postcard, a small Hmong boy lay asleep across his heaving flank, rising and falling with every breath. It was an image of peace, tranquility and oneness; an image that was sorely lacking in Hanoi.
We passed through Cat Cat, greeted by smiling workers and barely bothered with offers of trinkets or goods. The village couldn’t have consisted of more than 20 earthy houses, several lacking doors (what need?), most filled with excitable beaming children and life-worn, grinning mothers. At the edge of the village centre one of the rivers hit a sudden dip in the land and tumbled down a waterfall, breaking the otherwise absolute silence otherwise interrupted only by the scything of the locals. A small wooden bridge, ornately carved, led over it, and back round to the beginning of the ascent on the other side of the hamlet. The boy was still asleep on the buffalo as we passed by overhead, the sun showed no sign of relenting, and then the rarest of realisations struck. In a life ever moving on, living out of a backpack, being transported, always in transit: in Sapa, the world was still. The relentless green and unbreakable peace, the envigorating altitude and unspoilt air; the almost indetectable pace of life in beautiful Sapa sucked you in to a void of contentedness, wanting for nothing.
As we shared some Bia Hoi with some locals that night, sat at plastic childrens tables and chairs on the street, not a common word between us, infinite stars shimmered in the background off the pools and terrances leading up to Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fansipan. There was quite simply, in that moment, at that pristine village in the mountains, detached from modernising Vietnam, nothing else that anyone could ever possibly wish for.