the rice terraces are breathtaking. in the faint fog with soft sunshine filtered in, the stretches of rice fields wave and curve in thin layers; mountains of terraces rise and fall unstoppably. i always fall behind, knowing that the view which lies behind me will never fail to invoke in me a spring of wonder, trying to capture every moment when i know clearly the camera cannot come close to imitating reality. girls munch on fresh sugarcane on tiny rocks in the river, the clear, clear water wetting our toes a little as we sit there in the sun, friends hilariously losing sugarcane to the currents. scaling precarious ledges and praying for the best, no more inhibitions as hands contact mud surfaces as long as they offer another wall of safety from the steep slopes below.
most of the time we look down at the path but when we look up, and back, an unreal view greets us. there is this small sense of awe seeing the foggy white hotel in sapa town that marked the beginning of a treacherous trek growing smaller and blurrier. drunk villagers come from a wedding, making their way about the narrow paths more skilfully than us, women deftly make the trek in rubber slippers, never missing a step, children skip about the stones with baskets on their backs, weaving together little handicrafts out of nature: straw horses with a little fluffy tails and heart shapes.
at school the children climb onto the roof and pounce onto each other without restraint, giggling and learning to ride a motorcycle although the scene might have made a Singaporean mother’s heart drop. playing five stones with real stones in church, using a plastic bottle as a bat to hit cans around- indeed anyplace and anything becomes their playground. red algae multiply over the crop waters, pregnant pigs wander into open home gates, ducklings waddle in drains swimming with trash.
faint lights shine through the slats of the little wooden house at the break of day as the roosters cry incessantly to stir us awake. who first interpreted this sound as cockle-doodle-doo? the rumble of motor engines and I look up to see patterned lines of light cast onto the roof I am sleeping under; they eventually move away from me and disappear to be replaced by darkness once more. the animals come alive first and then there is the indistinct chatter of villagers and children. ethnic minorities proudly don their traditional dress as they zoom by on motorbikes and go about their daily activities. the fresh, crisp morning air the best remedy to lift a slightly hungover head, still a little woozy from happy water and extreme hospitality from the previous night. smiling at our homestay host’s husband as he opened the gate for us, venturing out into the village in borrowed rubber slippers which all the villagers seem to have. imagining how it would feel to wake up every morning to a view, a feeling, a peacefulness quite like this, striking conversations of awe and light-hearted laughter. i can’t be persuaded to go back into the house for breakfast when i’m feeling this way; when i can feel nature’s therapy working into me and the sunlight on the fields, the roaming animals make me smile; i didn’t know it then but my longed-for tethered freedom approached its zenith.