Waiting for the train at Lao Cai train station, in northern Vietnam, near the Chinese border, we have several hours to wander the square and shop for the essential bottled water. There are shoe-shine kids everywhere. They know we have come from Sapa and that our boots most likely are in serious need of a good polishing.
After days in mud and flooded streams, there is little life left in mine, especially. Of course it was me, without a ten cent walking stick, who slid down impossible ridges and was laughed at by locals for my inability to stumble and slide with agility as they do. My gear was seriously worse for wear.
After resisting kid after innocent-eyed kid, we propose a plan to tour the market place and find the best deal for two sets of walking boots. We go from stand to stand and haggle, just for fun. At last we settle on a youngster that we mostly like because of his spiel. His price is as good as the rest. Like all of them, he claims he is using Nugget, and he has a tin to prove it, but it’s not. The polish stinks of strange chemicals that will need to be removed, later, in Hanoi.
As soon as we settle on the deal, up comes an older man who intrudes and does a cursory brush of one boot, then walks off. He is the master of the apprentices and takes his cut no matter which child you select. Is it a union? Is it a gang? It is the way things are done. After great effort the boots still don’t shine but they look a little better.
Half restored to street credibility, we sit, out of the way, going through photos on the digital camera, reflecting.
For most of our time in the hills of Sapa, there was mountain mist and often light rain. The infinite distance was closed off. Flooded paddy fields became local and intimate awakenings, always there, around a bend, over a ridge top, behind a stone fence.
Tribes people would emerge unannounced, as if from a dream, on walk-ways just wide enough to pass. We’d smile and they’d disappear.
Green became grey. Details stood out: a giant water jar; a path beside a bamboo grove; a lonely house, attendant on its fields; a shaped rock; rain-coated tourists, huddling.
Coming down the mountain, on our final day, the mist lifted. The brochure Sapa was everywhere we looked but we were in a min-bus over-filled with fellow travelers rushing, headlong, as if in a race.
Then, out the window we saw, a small boy on a buffalo riding high and in command. They were walking at mountain pace, well within the landscape, while we sped by in haste to be done with Sapa.
We craned our necks to follow the gait of boy and beast and fix in memory this image of peace and justness. The boy had one leg drawn up, relaxed.