What the Fog Cannot Hide

Took a break from vanilla tourism recently and joined Singapore Trekker on a 6D5N (19 – 24 May 2011) trek cum photography trip to Hanoi and Sapa Valley, Vietnam. More details about the trip to come later in my travel blog Explore Life Lah!. For now, I would like to share with you the one subject that left a deep impression on me … the children of Sapa Valley.

Located in the Lao Cai Province (northwest Vietnam), Sapa Valley is home to a number of ethnic minority groups dominated chiefly by the H’mong, Dao, Tay and Giay tribes. Agriculture is the main order of economy here and due to its highland location, the valley is constantly shrouded in a veil of fog with the sun having only a temporal peek during the high noon.

I’ve passed by Southeast Asian planatations and farms in Johor Bahru, Bali, Phuket and Chiang Mai but I’ve never walked into one to get upclose and personal with the farming community. So this visit to the Lao Cai and Cat Cat villages in Sapa Valley is a break from the urban lifestyle I’m so used to. I won’t say I totally enjoyed the experience, but the journey was a visual harvest of breathtaking mountainous ranges stepped with rice terraces, bright and colourful indigenous costumes, and the fresh smell of nature (an infusion of cool crisp O2 with manure). But above all, it was the opportunity to walk into the lives of villagers and observe them through the camera that was the most rewarding…

Sapa Valley was almost always fogged up & rainy during our visit. While the cool weather was a perfect getaway for the heatwave in Singapore, the misty condition was a photo-killer. Many of my snaps were grey, soft-focused & lacked contrast due to the diffused lighting. Depth of vision was also terribly limited & the fog hid many things. But it can't hide the challenging living conditions of farming families here. Especially for children.

A rare moment where the sun dissipitated the fog and revealed how skillful this boy was in controlling a beast many times his size. While the older kids tilled the fields, the younger ones freely converted any spot they were on into a playground. They played wherever they are with whatever they can find.

Kin on My Shoulders. I love this photo of a girl carrying her sibling while waiting by the side of a mud terrace where her mother toiled. Check out her funky mohawk-like hairstyle! She totally rocked the look!

Playing Up a Sand Stomp. No Angry Birds, no PSP, no Universal Studios, no child-friendly slides, no padded playgrounds... these 2 boys were having so much fun just repeatedly jumping off a heap of sand. As I was looking at them play, I kept thinking that a simple life somehow allowed them to derive pleasure from everything and anything.

Filthy Habit. I don't think the living conditions for the children were very sanitary. Many of the kids have yellow and green mucuses dangling from their nostrils, a sign of trapped bacteria or the body's reaction to viral infection. This girl is even more scary. When I first saw her, she was picking off dirt within her toenails. I started to take some photos. Then with one swift swoop, she pulled her big toe into her mouth and started chewing on it! I gagged when I thought about the thick layer of black dirt caked inside her toenails and the village grounds were toilet for buffalos, fowls, hogs, & dogs.

Instead of chewing on dirty digits, have some sweets instead. Brought along some treats for the kids as a way of thanking them for allowing me to take their photos. This little guy was just a joy to watch as he was eating a Kit Kat. He took a bite and started studying the chocolate bar in his hands while wiping off the mucus from his nose. The photo doesn't show it clearly but the scalp condition of this boy was rather unhealthy due to lice infestations. Many of the children live with head lice in their hair.

The loving gaze of a grandmother tenderly giving the child all that he needs. This scene reminded me of how my maternal grandmother used to look at me while I'm snuggled into her bosoms with a protective hand holding mine.

I guess when all that we have is each other, we won't ever want to let one another go. This photo was taken on a street near our hotel at Sapa Valley. There were quite a number of these tribe kids begging on the streets or trying to sell you something. I'm not sure if they are sisters but these 2 girls trailed us after they saw sweets being distributed. I'm so glad we had something to share with them that money cannot buy.

Gave the street children hamburger gummies and Kit Kat bars, sweets that can't be bought because they are not found in Sapa Valley. In fact, looking into the provision shops, tidbit choices were very limited. Of the child beggars, my heart particularly went out to this one because of his deformity.

Take a break by giving a break.

This post was inspired in part by the Kit Kat contest where I’m to create entries to the theme of “Take a Break &…”. This photo trip was confirmed months before the contest happened and I’ve planned to bring something for the children. It just happened that I made it as a finalist so I decided to give Kit Kat bars to them instead.

But the contest theme couldn’t have come at a better time. It got me to really reflect upon what it means to take a break. We would usually consider going on a holiday as having a break. However, instead of taking and having, how about giving? We can give anywhere we are at. It feels good giving, be it possessions, time or energy. It feels good seeing someone else’s eyes light up, to see a smile, to know you’ve helped relieved that person’s plight, even just for a little while.

I’m no saint. Neither am I a humanitarian advocate. I’m just speaking from observation of how sharing the Kit Kats with the kids made me feel. An act of compassion and kindness lets our souls breathe. So the next time you want to take a break, start by giving others their breaks!


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Magdalene
    Jun 19, 2011 @ 12:08:25


    Being a ‘new’ mum, this blog entry brought tears to my eyes. Tears of joy, understanding and heartbreak.

    The simplicity of their lives remind me of how little we truely need and that the loving and assuring embrace or look from a loved one is all it takes to comfort us. The enjoyment of a simple game involving contact with a mate as oppose to an electronic device is EXACTLY what childhood should be – the importance of soclialisation and community.

    The low standards of sanitation is most likely not a fault of their own (I have never been to this destination) but rather the lack of local infrastructure (e.g. easily accessible clean drinking water, medical, etc) and information is reflected on the physical appearance of this community. However the heart of the matter is, it does not seem to bother them one bit. This is life, to them and they don’t know any ‘better’ because they have nothing to compare it with.

    Your simply kindness of sharing a candy car with the children (most likely their first candy bar!) brought a smile on my face as they sample this unique treat.

    The children with disability simply breaks my heart.

    Thank you once again for opening my eyes and heart to this ‘other world’ and for reminding me of how truely bless I am despiite the months of sleep deprivation tending to the demands of newborn twins.


    • Darren Ng
      Jul 04, 2011 @ 10:39:09

      hery mag… yeah, they have nothing to compare life with but they do have access to tv so i have a feeling they do have an idea of what things could be like outside their world. but like u said, it’s beyond their control as it is an infrastructure issue. i’ve seen farms in european countries and the farmers don’t live like this. congrats again for ur newborn… they are BEAUTIFUL like their mommy :o)


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