Trekking in Sa Pa with Zer-Zer

Posted in Travel

Trekking in Sa Pa with Zer-Zer

On 24th August Butch Googled “trekking in Sa Pa Vietnam” and found a guide called Zer-Zer followed by a telephone number. Little did we know that a life changing experience was awaiting us.

To contact Zer-Zer: phone +84 16 75312817

Butch was quick out of the blocks, phoned the number and a gentle voice answered, said she was Zer-Zer (pronounced like Scissor but with Z s).   She was excited by the prospect of guiding us and they agreed we’d meet at the steps of the Church in Sa Pa on the 24th September.   That was the arrangement. I, not so quick on the uptake, only asked on the morning of our arrival in Sa Pa whether this arrangement had been confirmed or had any communications taken place after that call.   “No” said my beloved “but she’ll be there and she’s from the Black Hmong Minority tribe and the Hoa Tao village”, and with that we set off with all our earthly belongings in a backpack to find the Church, that at least shouldn’t pose too much of a problem in a non Christian country.   So on a gloomy, wet, fairly chilly (by Vietnamese standards) day we arrived at the Church.  The place was swarming with Minority groups and no-one speaks English.  

We asked around for Zer-Zer and blank faces stared back at us.   After a couple of minutes, my beloved doesn’t hang around waiting for people; we trotted off up the road to a French Bistro-coffee-shop, hooked up to the wi-fi and caught up with our friends and family on Face Book and What’sApp. Butch looked up his internet connection, called Zer Zer’s number. I’d hardly caught my breath when this tiny girl-child dressed in traditional Hmond wear looks up from across the road and asks whether we are looking for Zer-Zer (who’s 4ft tall at the very most), yes! we say and she says “I am Zer-Zer and I was told two very big people were looking for me and I’d find you here!”   The next minute this “boy” arrives and I think “Ok, here we go” only to be told this is a 30 year old man and her husband, who was going to assist her with the carting of our luggage to their home up in the mountains.   Once we were fully erect and she saw us and gauged our ages she must’ve had slight misgivings about our accommodations for the night, but we assured her we were up for the challenge, fit and rearing to go.

The first leg of our journey was on the back of  motor bikes, there we were with those funny German helmets on our heads (grand horreur) gunning down the narror streets and winding country roads up into the mountains to start our trek.   Fortunately Precious had his “Crocs” on (no rolling of the eyes, these are the nice ones that look like plimsolls) I on the other hand had my never fail Havaianas on (I could write a book about them too). Strange trekking footgear, but we were totally unprepared for this escapade as I honestly thought we were going walking from one village to the next and only heard “trekking” when we arrived in Sa Pa. It had rained/monsoon in the valley the day before so there were puddles, mud, clay as slippery as glass, ruts from previous vehicles trying to negotiate the “roads”.   Not to be outdone or to lose face we soldiered on slipping and sliding our way through a Vietnamese tropical jungle.   Fortunately Zer-Zer had the presence of mind to cut us both a bamboo walking stick; this really did help us.   The scenery was spectacular.   Zer-Zer was a very caring guide, but also very informative.  

We stopped for lunch at a street vendor and enjoyed watching life go by. After quite a hike up a steep hill we finally made it to Zer-Zer’s modest home where her husband and his family live on a small plot of land, being subsistence farmers.   The annual rice yield is used by the family as their food source with the addition of some vegetables and herbs and a few chickens.   They own one pig which is their most valuable possession and is the sole (besides Zer-Zer’s guiding) source of income.   The pig is slaughtered at Tet (New Year) and sold at the market, after the Shaman has received his portion!

Butch and I relaxed while the family did various chores; feeding the pig was of course uppermost in the hierarchy of being fed and hours were spend grinding and chopping his mulch. He also has pride of place and lives right there at the entrance to the house, which we entered by bending and gingerly side-stepping his feeding trough. to while away the time I played games with the children who are very eager to improve their rudimentary English. They even sang a song and held a little concert. Later on we celebrated with a feast at their table.   This was a humbling experience; seeing a family so united and thankful for the very little they have in the way of material things.   We were watched with awe and our chop-stick skills carefully scrutinised! We enjoyed heaped bowls of delicious Bun Cha until I thought I’d pop!   We were each presented with a glass of Rice Wine, which is locally produced and has quite a kick to it, I declined the second tot, but Butch had to man up!

Zer-Zer’s husband is the cook when she’s tired especially after a day’s trekking with clients.   He painstakingly prepared our meal, chopped, peeled and cooked with such passion, care and joy. A table was knocked up for our benefit and we had first pick of the tiny chairs! There is running water in the house and for our comfort a pot of water was boiled so that I could do my toilette before bed time.   Butch had a more frustrating time with the antiquated tap which spurted in all directions when he tried to turn it off, much to the delight of the four children. The lavatory is a plastic lean-too at the bottom of the garden, flushing is done with ladles of water from a bucket, it might sound weird but once you get the hang of things it’s not too bad, very clean and hygienic.

The guestroom, which is a new addition to the house, is very simple, but, the bed was comfortable and the linens spotlessly clean and neat.   Fortunately we had our “headlamps” with us, as there’s no light in the room. No towels were provided, but, I always have wet-wipes so we weren’t fazed. After supper the whole family and some neighbours enjoyed a Japanese Soap Opera on the T.V and what really impressed me was the three girls, ranging from 9 years to 14 years old all did painstaking embroidery, learning from their Mother at a very young age. The cloth used is hemp, which they weave, dye and sew on ancient pedal sewing machines themselves.   The dyes used are all natural roots, leaves, stone or bark and indigo is the prefered colour.   I was presented with a beautifully embroidered handbag which smells earthy and sweet like a carrot. I’ll always treasure this very special gift.  Zer-Zer gets up at 4h00 every morning to put the rice cooker on the boil, the daily ration of rice is thus cooked and ready for the children when they get up and go off to school, they’ll eat the rice again for lunch and supper.   But, for us she prepared a beautiful rice batter pancake which was cooked on the open fire. We were treated to delicious Vietnamese coffee and Condensed Milk, a traditional brew everywhere. Our pancakes were filled with bananas or a savoury filling which was very tasty indeed. Butch and her husband did partake of a few shots of rice wine, but fortunately a neighbour dropped in with his grandchild and Butch could decline honourably. 

After breakfast we packed our bags, which were carried down by her husband and transported back to Sa Pa by motorbike.  We did our final trek to another village; I had the pleasure of visiting the children's primary school, which was a rare treat indeed.   All the children were just adorable, eager to learn, friendly and inquisitive. Butch in the mean time had a shower at her brother’s house before we set off.   It was a pleasant, easy hike and we enjoyed the water buffalos grazing in the rice paddies alongside the farmers harvesting their crops.   We were amazed by the ancient farming methods used and wondered in awe at the years it must’ve taken to painstakingly build those kilometres of terraces. We imagined the farmers de-foresting that dense jungle then preparing and removing the stones which were used to build walls and dykes and then the terraces could be built and ultimately the preparation the soil for the rice paddies.  We enjoyed refreshments, a lovely local limeade and ice and local beer in the village and then back it was to Sa Pa on the scooters, which we were quite comfortable on by now. Stopping at regular intervals to admire the amazing farmlands and take photographs.

Even if I live to be a hundred years old I hope I’ll never forget this amazing adventure, meeting Zer-Zer was one of the highlights of my life, a person who’ll always be close to my heart. She’s intelligent, kind, knowledgeable; she’s overcome her shortcomings in life with grace.     Zer-Zer’s language has never become a written language, her children are the first generation of children to be educated, she’s illiterate and her daughter has been teaching her to speak and write English and Vietnamese.   Being able to speak English has made it possible for her to do home-stays and guiding, enabling her to change the lives of her family and affording them the TV and electricity.  This is a family with very strong bonds, a husband who not only attended the births of his children but delivered them too, who respects his wife and family, adores them, who’s kind and gentle, patient and hardworking, who is satisfied with his circumstances and considers himself blessed and wealthy.

She has many stories to tell, which I’d love to share, but then I might spoil a wonderful encounter for you.  It is with pleasure that I recommend a day walk, hike or trek with Zer-Zer, I know your life will be enriched by the experience and she’ll leave an indelible mark on your heart and soul. It is a unique experience and fascinating and one that I wish everybody can experience.Zer-Zer and her husband accompanied us to our bus (when we asked her about transportation back to our train she said “No to worry” she’ll take us to the “Goverme baa”,   Butch and I thought. Wow, this is Communism at its very best, a government bar? Turns out she meant the Government BUS) and there we had tears, hugs, kisses and a really heart wrenching farewell. What really touched me was how she spoilt me with gifts of her earrings, a handbag, bracelets, all her precious possessions, so hard-earned and I should’ve been the one bearing gifts.   I cried again when I unpacked my suitcase yesterday and saw these treasures. I’m not deserving of such love, friendship and kindness.   This is paying it forward personified.

Preparing for a trek:Be reasonably fit and healthy. Take the following: good walking shoes, conical hat, Macintosh (light), head lamp, shorts and T shirts. Towel. Personal toiletries, wet wipes. Insect repellent, a tube of anti-histamine ointment for bugs bites. 

For the children: books, crayons, pens, pencils, sharpeners. Anything educational! If I’d known I would’ve taken a Children’s book to read, with fables maybe. Games like snakes and ladders, cards, flash cards. Nothing sophisticated.

Tailormade hikes, homestays, trekking, guide, day guide. 

To contact Zer-Zer: phone (+84) 01675312817


(Black and White photo) Three generations (eldest daughter 14, Grandmother 48, Zer-Zer 30, son 7, sisters 8, 11)