“Are those new?”
Kim, the Lewis to my Clark, is back on the road after a brief hiatus, toting a pair of hiking boots I don’t recognize.
“Yeah! I thought they might come in handy since we’ll be doing a lot of hiking and caving.”
“Oh…” I contemplate our upcoming itinerary: Vietnam and Malaysia, destinations known for their smatterings of outdoorsy adventures. I glance at my own options for footwear: Toms, flip-flops, tennis shoes. “Boots were a good idea.”
“I’m sure you can buy some here if you think you’ll want them.”
My assortment of shoes isn’t exactly REI-recommended, but it has always suited my needs.
“It’s cool — I usually hike in sneakers anyway. I’m sure my tennis shoes will be fine.”
Our Vietnamese odyssey kicks off in Hanoi, a bustling hip city that is the jumping-off point for northern tourism.
After poking around Hanoi for a few days, we organize our first excursion: a 3-day, 2-night trek to Sapa, a French hill station from the 1920’s that is said to be a “trekking paradise” for travelers who love “to be active and experience jaw-dropping surroundings.” Right up our alley! We reserve seats on the bus and load up our small backpacks with three days worth of necessities.
Since Sapa is a mountain town, we anticipate colder weather and make sure to bring our thick socks, beanies, wind-breakers, and so forth. Kim grabs her hiking boots and I suit up in my trusty sneakers as we bid a fond farewell to our flip-flops and tank tops.
After a six hour drive, our bus rolls into Sapa, where the fog is so heavy that we can’t even see end of the road, let alone the peaks of the Hoàng Liên Son mountain range that are supposedly all around us. Restaurants have lit fireplaces, stores sell almost exclusively coats and hats, and hostels look more like ski chalets than budget accommodations. If you told me I was in the Swiss Alps, I would’ve believed you.
Unlike in the Himalayas, Kim and I are trekking with a few other backpackers: Laura, Will, Jono, Chez, and Louis — all awesome, all Aussies (go figure). Our guide tells us the plan is to hike to a homestay deep in the mountains, taking in the gorgeous scenery and local flavor along the way. After a good night’s rest, we’ll rise early and hike back out again.
“I think it’s supposed to be quite muddy,” Laura says as we hop off the shuttle at our starting point.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Have you seen the shoes of people coming back from this trek? They’re a mess. Absolutely caked in mud.”
“It can’t be all that bad,” I say, stubbornly standing in solidarity with my sneakers. “Otherwise the guide would’ve mentioned it.”
“Guys —,” Jono pops up alongside us and subtly motions to a group of five local women who seem to be following us onto the trail.
“Are they with us?” I ask him.
“I guess so? The guide says they’re going to do three things: befriend us, try to sell us stuff, and then help us.”
“…Help us? With what?”
Jono shrugs. “Dunno.”
We carry on, ignoring our confusion and concentrating on our stunning surroundings.
The first few kilometers of our journey are on a paved road that winds through villages, past rice mills and open fields littered with water buffalo. The valley scenery looks like a landscape painting, with every grazing animal and conical hat-wearing farmer positioned as if by an artist.
But after about an hour, the terrain starts to change. Rocks become more frequent, the bamboo gets denser and the trail considerably narrows.
Our guide stops us in our tracks. He reaches into his backpack and whips a machete out of a wooden sheath.
“We need walking sticks,” he announces, starting to hack at some nearby bamboo.
“I’m good without one,” Will says.
“No,” the guide insists, fashioning a stick and forcing it on Will. “You need.”
A few hundred meters later, the pieces start to fall into place: the mysterious tag-along villagers, the seriously necessary walking sticks, and the reason why you do not wear tennis shoes in lieu of hiking books.
Enter Mud, the antagonist of our story.
Mud everywhere. Fresh, slippery, ankle-deep mud. Our lovely paved road turns into a trail that is so much the opposite of paved that you can barely walk, even with the help of poles.
Suddenly we’re all slipping and sliding like four year olds on an ice rink for the first time. The tread on my tennis shoes is so poor that I feel more like I’m skiing than hiking — but even the guys in proper hiking boots are wobbling all over the place.
One by one, we start dropping like flies. Chez goes down, then Kim; Will and Jono both slip within seconds of each other, as if they’re performing a Marx Brothers routine.
“Here, here!” the Vietnamese ladies call to us, noticing that we’re sloshing about and offering themselves as support.
It seems like we have two options: risk slipping and falling, or lean on women twice our ages and half our sizes.
This is Sho, without whom I literally wouldn’t have survived the “trekking paradise” of Sapa. Her job is helping travelers along this trail (and trying to get them to buy her woven goods). She and her crew are legends: they don’t use walking sticks and they support the weight of frantically flailing foreigners —and they do it all in plain ole rain boots, which can’t have much better tread than my sneakers.
I clutch Sho’s hand with an iron grip. Bamboo stick in one hand, Sho in the other, my utterly useless tennis shoes continuing to do me no favors as I glide ungracefully across the grimy ground.
This perilous portion of our trek lasts for many more hours than advertised, considering zero hours of mud-traversing were advertised. Every kilometer seems to present a different challenge: uphill mud, downhill mud, wide puddles of mud, many little mud puddles, narrow muddy passageways through jungle, mud dripping off the sides of cliffs… One memorable stretch has us hanging on for dear life to tree roots and vines so that we don’t tumble over the edge.
Twenty-two kilometers and several slapstick slips later, we arrive at our homestay miraculously in one piece. We wiggle out of our mud-crusted shoes, peel off our mud-hardened clothes, and mentally prepare ourselves for having to put it all on again in the morning.
But the next day turns out to be much less treacherous, and although we’re all in heartfelt want of a shower, we hike the remaining thirteen kilometers without much drama.
Sore, dirty, and also completely envigorated by the feat accomplished, we get back to our hostel, immediately douse our shoes in water and scrub like there’s no tomorrow.
The mud melts off of Kim’s waterproof boots effortlessly, whereas my tired-looking shoes seem to be fighting to retain as much mud on them as possible. The mesh is a fully different color than it was forty-eight hours ago. They certainly took a beating — but then again, so did I, due to wearing them.
“Want to go shoe shopping tomorrow?” Kim chuckles.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”