It’s exactly the kind of encounter every traveller hopes for. I’m 3,142-metres above sea level. My feet are shaking and my teeth are chattering, almost as fast as the wind whipping at my face.
Through the thick of clouds, I see a flash of colour inviting us. A young woman, her clothes as colourful as her smile, approaches us.
Her hazel eyes warm and cheeks red, she smiles and the lines around her eyes reveal her age. Her black dress is hidden under a rainbow poncho, and scarf with never-ending shades of blue.
Her small, rough hand reaches out to me. She takes mine into her grasp and slips on a thin, silver engraved ring onto my finger. “Very beautiful. I’m Kiab,” she says proudly.
“Where are you going?” Kiab asks inquisitively. And before we had time to answer, her friends arrive and throw a hand-embroided scarf around each of us, giggling at each other.
With my thin jumper and three-quarter length pants, I’ve got a horrible feeling I’m shamefully unprepared. A quick glance at my friend and we nod in an unspoken agreement. Their level of English impresses me and soon we are immersed in a cultural exchange. The girls link arms and start walking. “We want to take you somewhere,” says Kiab.
Nestled closely on the border of China, we find ourselves trekking with three hill-tribe girls in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam.
After spending weeks in sweaty cities and crowded tourist hotspots, any mention of mountains and cool weather is enough to convince us. 1 taxi, 1 train, 1 bus ride and 10 hours later, we’re 380km north of Hanoi in the beautiful Sapa.
Walking down a mountain en route to Kiab’s village, we see water buffalos chewing away and pigs nosing around. I concentrate on the plunging green valley as we follow a thin path into the heart of the white mist.
Even a thick blanket of cloud couldn’t hide the beauty of this place. I’m drunk on the atmosphere. As we walk down the narrow, cobblestone streets, gravel crunching under our feet, the girls are never far from our side.
We stop at a small eatery for a sweet Vietnamese coffee. Pouring the silver coffee pot, I sit back and enjoy the rush of heat through my body. The coffee is strong and sweet. Good thing I like it because it’s the only choice in Vietnam.
I hear a scratching noise, magnified in the silence of the valley. Kiab runs over. “Try this, it’s good.” She picks up on my hesitation. “It’s sugar,” she explains. And I’ve never been able to say no to sugar.
As I munch on the tough, stringy sugar cane, Kiab talks us through her life: her 12km daily walk, her husband and her outfit, which she spent 6 months sewing. I hang on her every word as she unravels her culture, her family and her village.
We splash lavish stories at her of our travels and I feel a pang of regret after as she tells us she’s never left the mountain. But our comments are not disheartening to Kiab and she continues to poke us with questions.
We pass by splashing waterfalls and damp green rice fields that seem to go on forever. Dark tyre marks keep us on course, a well-travelled route for locals.
The sun is setting and I start to smell the stench of fish markets in town – the only clue we’re close to where we started. Kiab hands us a leaf woven love-heart and we thank them by buying two beautiful hand-made bags.
The sweetness of sugar cane lingering in my mouth, I fight the hard-to-swallow lump, that forms in my throat when I say goodbye.
With exhausted legs, but an exhilarated heart, I wave goodbye to Kiab with her ring still on my finger.