“Sin chai?” I asked the school children behind me while pointed forward. It was past 11am and my last day in Sapa. They were heading home for lunch on the asphalt road that supposedly led to the village. I had come from Cat Cat and decided to walk the 5k to Sin’ Chai with a medium-sized Dzao drum bursting out of my small backpack. The older among them who looked to be about 10-11 years old nodded then hurriedly ran past me. The younger ones laughingly followed. I had gotten lost earlier when I was following a European couple with a local guide. They hanged a left on a dirt track that led to the village. I kept my distance so as not to let them suspect I didn’t know where I was going and was merely following them. As they paused for some pictures amidst the empty rice fields, I took a different path thinking that it led parallel. Motorbike tracks assured me that it led to the asphalt road. No problem if I get lost. I’d simply head to the road. The track was muddy and led me past a few houses until it ended on a house where two bikes were parked. The road had stopped. Dead end. I looked around me. Two small kids were on the track and I asked them, “Sin’ Cha?” though I knew it was improbable for me to have arrived at the village with only 15 minutes walking from the turn-off at Cat Cat. They didn’t seem to understand. I probably wasn’t pronouncing the accent right again. “Sapa?” She pointed to the right. “Sapa.”
I figured I was parallel to the road anyway and I saw some electrical posts above me. I climbed above a low embankment and came onto more fields and another embankment. I decided to backtrack. The couple and the guide were now gone probably heading to Sin’ Chai through the rice fields.
Back at the road, that when I came upon the kids. I followed them for about a hundred of meters before the one I had asked turned left to a track. The others stopped and watched. I continued walking. The sound of a dog barking and the pigs scurrying led the girl back to the main road. They all scurried past me again. They were soon gone from my sight and I was alone on the road. Occasionally, motorbikes heading to the opposite direction passed me. I heard the sound of rushing feet and another group of school girls were behind me. “Sin’ Cha?” I asked again. They nodded, laughed, then ran. When I came to them, they turned to a dirt track that went up an embankment. “Sin’ Cha?” I asked. They pointed to my direction. The road made a sharp turn to the right with a little ascent. As I heaved myself, the kids were just coming up from the embankment. It was a short-cut! They were giggling as I laughed at them and shook my head. Either they were playing a game with me or they thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the track.
When we reached a wooden house, the kids entered the open door and watched me. I smiled at them as if to say good-bye. When I passed the school, the sign read “Sin’ Cha.” I had found the village. As the fog grew denser, the road turned into a narrow pavement that cut through a village of one-room wooden houses similar to those I had seen in my other treks. Two H’mong women sat embroidering on the open doorway of their house. “Sin Cha?” I asked. She nodded and said “Sin’ Cha.” It was quiet all around and I was surrounded by old wooden houses while bolts of indigo hung out to dry. The only other sound was a dog barking somewhere and some pigs scrounging around for food. The fog had cleared about. The pavement continued way past where the houses ended. I turned back and asked the women, “motorbike?” She looked at me puzzled. I made motions with my hands and repeated the word. She seemed to have understood as she want to an older woman who had emerged from another house. I looked around the village. By now, news had probably traveled fast that there was a lone stranger looking for a motorbike. People had gathered around. Unlike the women who readily agreed to be photographed, the young man would shy away whenever he came into range of my camera. They had a good laugh seeing themselves on the screen. Except for the woman I had asked for a motorbike, no one came up to me saying “buy something for me?” in that melodious H’mong voice.
Several minutes later, the older woman was back. It was 50,000 VND for a motobike back to Sapa which was just the amount Lily in Hanoi had told me. A man who looked like he was in his late 40’s came out with a motorbike. People had gathered to watch me get on the motorbike. The helmet wouldn’t fit with my H’mong cap on so I took it off. They all laughed on seeing my bald head. I climbed on the back of the bike and waved good-bye. “Slowly, slowly, ” I told the driver. He gingerly and carefully navigated the wet narrow pavement leaving Sin’ Chai behind us. A few minutes later, we were back at the asphalt road to Sapa. He dropped me at the market and shook my head as I gave him the 50,000 note. He seemed genuinely grateful. As I turned to the market, I realized I still had the helmet on. I frantically called him. Fortunately, the other drivers saw me and waved him back. I handed the helmet to him. Again, another grateful smile.
We passed by a couple of people who were probably heading to Sin’ Cha too. I was glad I arrived before them. After the tourist circus that accompanied the other villages I went to, it was wonderful to had an entire village for myself.