Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Northwestern Vietnam: Rice Terraces and Hill-tribe Encounters in Sapa - Part 1: The Streets of Sapa, and a Black H'mong Girl Named Ha

Local Black H'mong Hill-tribe Villagers Working the Rice Terraces Near Sapa

After completing my tour of the Bac Ha Sunday market and a traditional Flower H’mong house at the nearby Ban Pho village (covered in my earlier blog post), we begin the 110km drive to the town of Sapa. We retrace our earlier route back to Lao Cai, save for a stop outside of Bac Ha at a roadside fruit stand where my guide buys some papayas to take home to his family. Once back in Lao Cai, we cross the Red River and continue southwest along (national road) QL 4D towards Sapa, enjoying the scenic views that unfold during our winding ascent. Situated on a steep scenic slope above terraced rice paddies and scattered hill tribe villages, the former French hill station of Sapa (elev. 1650m) is a popular tourist destination for those who enjoy trekking and are interested in experiences ethnic hill culture.

The Sloping Streets of Sapa

Chau Long Sapa Hotel, Near the South End of P Cau May Street
We arrive in Sapa about 2 PM, passing by the town’s picturesque lake and the public square in front of Sapa Church en route to my hotel. We turn left onto P Cau May Street, which is the primary destination for arriving tourists given its concentration of restaurants, cafes, tour agencies, and western-geared hotels and guest houses. It becomes readily apparent that P Cau May is also the primary destination for the town’s numerous wandering Black H’mong and Red D’zao hill tribe vendor girls and women eager to sell traditional tribal handicrafts and trinkets to the arriving tourists. P Cau May Street, given its sloped grade, surrounding mountainous natural beauty and the assortments of establishments that line it, has a vibe reminiscent of Ubud's Monkey Forest Road, though the number of Black H'mong and Red Dzao hill tribe vendor girls that work the tourists on the street or seated at curb-side restaurant tables to make a sale is somewhat reminiscent of the transplanted Ahka vendor girls encountered on Bangkok's Khaosan Road. The driver stops to let my guide and me out in front of the Chau Long Sapa Hotel, which is located near the south end of P Cau May Street. I’m a bit surprised to learn after checking into the hotel that I have to surrender my passport to the hotel for a period of about 6-8 hours. My guide explains that my passport would be reviewed by the provincial party officials, who need to know the particulars of any foreigner entering the region. My guide establishes what time he will meet me in the lobby tomorrow morning to begin our trek on the outskirts of Sapa and takes his leave. As the hotel is built on a mountainside, its split-level design puts my fourth floor room one floor below the street level entrance. The room affords a good view of the valley and the surrounding mountain peaks when the weather permits; given its ridge-line location and 1650m elevation, Sapa sees a lot of fog and rain, and visibility can change quickly with the shifting winds.

Sapa's P Cau May Street

A Black H'mong Hill-tribe Woman and Child
A Red D'zao Vendor Woman Intent on a Sale From Me
A Flower H'mong  Hill-tribe Woman in the Sapa Market
I leave my small pack in the room and walked back up to P Cau May Street to begin exploring the town on foot, and soon have my first of many encounters with the wandering hill tribe vendor girls. The local Black H’mong and Red D’zao girls, wearing traditional costumes and toting their tribal handicrafts and garments in embroidered sling bags or draped over their arms, are an ever-present sight in town; their persistence in trying to make a sale can eventually try one’s patience, if not become down-right annoying. A visitor browsing at the offerings of one vendor girl may soon attract several more, and one seated at a sidewalk cafe or restaurant may be seen as a captive potential customer. The Black H’mong vendor women, who are in the majority of those encountered, wear indigo-dyed and multi-color embroidered hemp or cotton cloth jackets, aprons, skirts, leggings and pillbox hats. The vendor women of the Red D’zao hill tribe wear indigo-dyed and white embroidered jacket and pants, and large red turbans which make them easy to distinguish; per their tradition, the women shave their eyebrows and their hairlines back to high on the forehead to denote wisdom. The Black H’mong vendors, which tend to be younger than the Red D’zao, are perhaps the most friendly and business-savvy of the ethnic minorities encountered on the streets of Sapa. They also tend to exhibit the best command of the English language among the local hill tribes, and can be quite open with regards to what they reveal about themselves and in the personal nature of the questions that they may ask in conversation.

A Stepped Walkway Leading Down to P Cau May Street

I continue my uphill stroll in the direction of the public square and familiarize myself with the nearby restaurants, cafes and businesses. Given Sapa’s mountainside layout, some of the fairly steep streets that intersect with or run parallel to the inclined P Cau May are accessed via quaint stair-stepped cobblestone walkways. As I walk, a Red D’zao vendor woman toting an umbrella (pictured above) approaches me and offers to sell me something from her stock of handicrafts contained in a plastic shopping bag. Smiling, I politely refuse her offer and walk on. Undaunted by my lack of interest, she begins following me, staying about a half-step behind and periodically looking up at me with imploring eyes as she hold out another handicraft for my examination.

The Steps Leading From P Cau May Steet Down to the Sapa Market 

The Sapa Market

Cobra, Scorpion and Herb-Infused Rice Whiskey

The Hill-Tribe Handicrafts Section of the Sapa Market

A Red D'zao Vendor Woman
The Market's Fresh Fish Section

I take the steps leading down to the Sapa Market, which is located at the intersection of P Cau May and D Tue Tinh streets. The market’s open store fronts and tarpaulin-covered stalls sell the normal assortment of dry goods, produce, meats and fish, and household items. Most intriguing are the bottles of medicinal rice whiskey that contain ginseng roots and a coiled cobra with a scorpion held in its mouth by the tail. The market’s hill tribe handicraft vendors are mainly concentrated upstairs inside a building fronting P Cau May. I work my way through the market taking photos, with my new-found Red D’zao friend and her bag of handicrafts close by, matching me step for step so as to stay just off my left shoulder as I explore the meandering streets in the vicinity of the market. She gives me quizzical looks as I contort and position myself to frame different compositions, and at one point asks why I would even bother taking pictures of a parked motor scooter. I circle around with the Red D'zao woman still in tow and again arrive back up on P Cau May. As she holds up a small decorative wall hanging of red and black cloth embellished with embroidery and silver jewelry, my will is finally broken; I purchase the piece and, after taking a photo of her, we at last part company.
Red D'zao Vendors at the Sapa Town Square
I walk to the nearby public square adjacent to the Sap Church where a number of hill tribe vendors sell their traditional handicrafts laid out in the open atop blankets on the pavement. Much of the black and dark blue hill tribe fabric and clothing offered for sale is dyed with local indigo that is not well-set into the fabric, with the blue-green stains seen on the hands of the fabric and clothing vendors in the market being ample evidence of the fact. There are also a number of Vietnamese vendors in the square with their goods for sale displayed beneath tarpaulin canopies that line the periphery of the square. Lacking my copy of the Lonely Planet Vietnam guide, I then spend some time exploring the more quiet streets on the downhill side of P Cau May to see what my options are in the way of cafes, restaurants and such, which after a while gives my legs quite a workout.

After an early-evening plate of beef fried rice and a large Lao Cai Beer (67,000 Vietnamese Dong; USD $3.22) for dinner at a restaurant on P Cau May Street call Buffalo Bell, I decide to swing by the hotel to retrieve my passport before continuing to explore the town on foot. As I head out the door and make my way past the restaurant’s outside seating with my daughter’s borrowed point-and-shoot Cannon digital camera in hand (my compact Casio Exilim having lost the ability to take clear still shots about a week earlier in Singapore), a hauntingly familiar female voice with a British accent calls out to me, “Hey, I thought that was you! Hi!” I turn to see my two night train 4-bunk sleeping compartment companions on the trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai. The two girls (one from England, the other from Canada) were friends traveling together around Southeast Asia, and had also visited the Bac Ha Sunday market earlier that day but were planning on spending two nights in the Sapa area (as opposed to my one night) so that they could do an overnight home-stay in one of the local hill-tribe villages. Her face brightened when she looked down to see the Cannon camera in my hand, and she excitedly told me that she had what appeared to be a similar model of camera, but had unfortunately forgotten to bring her battery charger with her, and that she would be very appreciative if I could put an hours’ worth of charge on her battery as they had dinner at the same restaurant. I agreed, and she extracted the battery from her camera and handed it to me.

I continue on my way down to the bottom of P Cau May Street, following the short street to the right where P Cau May hooks to the left before leading out of town. As luck would have it, my passport had just recently been returned (indicating that I had passed official scrutiny, and would not be having to meet with a local party official to answer questions about true intent for my visit) and was waiting for me at the front counter. Back in my room, I attempt to insert my traveling companion’s camera battery into the charger, but find that the battery is just about an eighth of an inch too long to fit into the charger. I secured my passport and headed back up to the Buffalo Bell to let the girl know that unfortunately her battery was just a bit too big to fit into the charger. As I walk up P Cau May, I noticed that the hill-tribe wandering vendor girls, exclusively Black H’mong based on their attire, were already making the rounds of the captive curbside diners in an attempt to sell their handicrafts. She is decidedly disappointed as I give her the bad news and point out the offending dimensions, but she thanks me for the effort.
Ha, a Unique Black H'mong Vendor Girl in Sapa

As I wish the two girls a pleasant stay in Sapa and happy travels beyond, and turn to head back towards the public square, I’m stopped by a Black H’mong vendor girl wearing her traditional indigo jacket over a printed T-shirt whose intent on selling me something from one of the tribal sling bags hanging from her shoulder. I patiently express my lack of interest in buying anything to the vendor girl (I tend to only buy a T-shirt for myself to commemorate a visit to a new destination, especially given that I travel with a small pack usually already stuffed to the gills) and turn to continue on my way, but a simple three-word entreaty conveyed in a particularly lilting feminine voice causes me to pause and look back. “Buy from me…?” Her attire is the first thing that sets her apart from the other myriad vendor girls encountered since arriving in town, and to me the styling looks distinctly Chinese. Her pastel plum blouse, white pleated skirt and belted sash are all ornately embellished with embroidery, sequins, imitation gemstones, lace and beaded fringe tipped with small dangling silver charms.
Ha and Her More Traditionally-Dressed Black H'mong Friend

With a playful grin and a mischievous gleam in her laughing eyes she continues her no doubt well-honed and practiced routine calculated to charm a prospective customer. “You buy from me? Buy-from-me-buy-from-me-buy-from-me…?” She gazes up hopefully into my eyes while maintaining her playful grin. When I smile and say that I’m really not looking to buy anything, she over-dramatically conveys feigned disappointment by letting her grin slip into a somber frown as she tilts and lowers her head while pursing her lips into an exaggerated pout beneath her now downcast eyes. “If you don’t buy from me, I’m gonna…DIE!” The last word is said in a deep voice and drawn out long enough to comically emphasize the mock gravity of the situation. When my laughter subsides, I ask her name and inquirer about her ethnic minority heritage. I learn that her name is Ha, and that she is a 17-year old Black H’mong from a nearby village called Cat Cat. She says that she wear a costume in the style of the Chinese H’mongs because it makes her stand out, which is very good for business. She then quickly gets back down to business, holding up a folded Black H'mong garmet made of embroidered indigo-dyed cloth and what looks to be a rainbow-banded Flower H'mong shawl. "So, you buy from me? Buy-from-me-buy-from-me-buy-from-me…?” I tell her that I don't have room in my small pack for any souvenir H'mong textiles or garments. I then attempt to throw her off of her sales pitch by asking her questions about Black H'mong culture, telling her that I had visited a H'mong village when I was in northern Thailand and described the type of costume that the women of that village wore. “Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah; all you do is talk! Are you going to buy from me?!” My will was yet again broken, in part by her quirky yet endearing personality, I heaved a little sigh of resignation and asked what small handicraft she might have for sale in one of her colorful ethnic sling bags, thinking that she might have some piece of inexpensive tribal jewelry that I could buy to give as a gift (as I had done with some persistent Akha hill-tribe vendor girls that had corraled me on Bangkok's Khaosan Road).
The Black H'mong 'Jew' Mouth Harp to Bought from Ha on P Cau May Street

Ha reached into one and extracted small Black H’mong mouth harp called a ‘jew’; it is made from a pen quill-shaped brass leaf and cased in a bamboo tube that is covered in embroidered fabric, to which the brass leaf instrument is attached via a length of black string, and apparent used in H’mong courtship. Ha takes the instrument from its decorative case and demonstrates it by holding it to her mouth and varying the shape of her mouth cavity as she tweaks the brass leaf, which modulates the tone of the twangy hum of the instrument in a subtle Cry Baby wah-wah pedal fashion. She quotes the price of the mouth harp at 60,000 Vietnamese Dong, and then drops it to 50,000 Dong when I say that the price is more than I am willing to pay. The haggling continues for a bit I until at last Ha reluctantly agrees to my final offer of 30,000 Dong. I thank Ha in her native H'mong language ('O-chan' was the only word I had learned from my morning spent among the H'mongs at the Bac Ha Sunday market) and take a few pictures of Ha and her friend, who had first approached me and stayed close by to observe our transaction (and questions as to why I had only bought something from Ha but not from her), before going on my way. Sometime after returning back to the States, I would be browsing through videos posted of Sapa on YouTube and actually come across a few videos of Ha, and in one case of Ha with her friend shown in the photo above, that had been taken some years earlier when she was quite young. I couldn't help but smile when I saw that even back then, she was using her signature "Buy-from-me-buy-from-me-buy-from-me…?” sales pitch.

I ascend the stair-stepped walkway to a quite street that runs parallel to P Cau May and leads up to the Sapa Church. I hear the faint sound of what seems to be live traditional Vietnamese music being played up ahead and go to check it out. Following a bend in the narrow road, I end up at the side entrance of a small hall adjacent to the Sapa Church with a number of people standing around and conversing out front. Walking into the hall, I see what appears to be seated members of an extended family dressed in white robes surrounded other in respectful attire; surmising that the live traditional orchestra is performing as part of a funeral service, I leave as inconspicuously as I can manage.

I walk along D Ham Rong Street, which flanks the church and the town’s lakeside park. Along the side of the road are a number of grilled food vendor stalls housed in a long continuous row of adjoining tarpaulin canopies; a line of bare hanging light bulbs illuminates the haze of rising smoke as fat and marinade droplets sizzling on hot wood coals. As I stroll among the barbecue grills being fanned with woven cane mats, the enticing savory-sweet aroma make my mouth water even though I’ve already had dinner. I’m beckoned to take a seat by a litany of hellos from hostesses and waitresses standing behind platters of enticing grilled meats, whole fish, large prawns and assorted vegetables. I accept an extended invitation at one of the stalls and order a Tiger Beer. Though a couple of other foreign tourists are seen milling about, the assembled diners seated at the low tables in petite blue and red plastic chairs are all locals. Little English is spoken and my Vietnamese is limited to some basic words and phrases, but I still manage to communicate with those around me, with the sharing of my photos and video clips of the Bac Ha market helping to break the ice and bridge the cultural divide.

I take the stair steps back down to P Cau May and head back to my hotel. Sapa’s ‘tourist zone’ is pretty sedate on a Sunday night, with only a modest number of people out strolling the street and few vehicles going by. Somewhere nearby, perhaps just beyond the open accordion-style doors of one of the souvenir shops, a person is improvising somber-sounding melodies on a type of flute or reed wind instrument; the instrument’s melancholy wail merges with the sputtering growls of passing motor scooters, providing a soundtrack befitting of the laid back mood of the street. A bit further down the street, I notice four Black H’mong vendor girls sitting in a line on the right-hand curb in the distance, and can immediately pick out the one seated at the far end of the group as Ha given her colorful ‘Chinese H’mong’ attire. As I come closer, I can see that Ha’s hair, which was tied up when I had my encounter with her earlier, was now untied and extended down in loose waves to just below waist level, with one of the Black H’mong girl in traditional indigo-dyed attire gingerly brushing her exceedingly long hair as her vendor girl friend whose sales pitch I had turned down earlier sat closely to Ha’s left. Having had endured Ha’s somewhat sarcastic bantering that ultimately ended to her benefit earlier, and now feeling a sense of familiarity with Ha and her friend, I decide to stop and chat with them for a while before continuing on my solo stroll back to the hotel. Ha and her friend immediately recognized me, with the friend again inquiring as to why I purchased something from Ha but not from her.

In the street, roughly in front of where the four seated Black H'mong girls were seated, was four Vietnamese (or perhaps H’mong?) guys of about twenty-something years of age playing a hacky-sack type game using a badminton shuttlecock in lieu of a small beanbag (or a woven cane ball, as the Burmese game of ‘chin-lone’) that the girls were engrossed in watching. The guys were batting the shuttlecock back and forth with their feet at heights and distances that was a testament to their skill, which made it quite interesting to watch and likely a far more appropriate form of evening entertainment than crashing a funeral party to take in some traditional music. I take the opportunity to give my feet a now much needed rest and had a seat on the downhill side of the inclined curb to Ha's right; as I did Ha glanced my way and flashed me a slight, somewhat devilish grin tinged with what seemed to be a dash of mock smugness, then leaned her head back as the Black H'mong girl behind her, perhaps a few years her junior, continued to to alternately brush her long hair and smooth it out with her free hand. The deference shown to Ha by the other girls suggested that she was the alpha female of the group, and seemed to be both quite aware of her status among the others and really take pride in it. When I commented that I was surprised how long her hair was when it wasn't tied up, she replied with an air of presumed mock smugness, "Oh, this is nothing! You should have seen it before I cut it; it was down past my butt!" "Ha is the most popular girl in the village!", one of the girls in the group added emphatically to confirm her status as the alpha female. "Yup, I've already had five boyfriends!", Ha proclaims proudly. "And I haven't even had one boyfriend yet...!", one of the younger girls in the group adds with an embarrassed giggle.

I turn my attention back to the shuttlecock being passed back and forth from foot to foot, and the mixture of groans and giggles when someone fails to connect and it skitters across the tarmac, as the girl behind Ha make a final pass along the length of her hair with the brush and her open hand. Two additional Black H'mong girls walk towards the group, prompting the seated girls get up and walk over to meet them, with only Ha and I remaining seated on the curb as she gathers her hair into a single ponytail and secures with a small multi color cloth band. "I don't know why I let you buy that mouth harp for only 30,000 Dong. It should have been the full price, or closer to it...", Ha says as her friends move just beyond earshot. I reminded her that she had made the initial offer, and that we had gone through iterations of counter-offers until she finally accepted my 30,000 Dong offer. "I lowered the price from 60,000 Dong to 50,000 Dong; that was a real good deal. You made me drop the price so low that I think you still owe me something, and should give me more...", she replies. I'm a bit surprised by her wanting me to fork out additional cash after we had already sealed the deal, and wonder if she seriously expects more Dong from me after we had sealed the deal, or if this more of her drama queen shtick.

I told her that I hadn't intended to buy anything from her in the first place, but after talking with her for a while decided that I could see if there was some small trinket that I could buy from her to compensate her for her time. I again reminded her that she always had the option to refuse to go lower that 50,000 Dong, or offer to split the difference and perhaps settle on 40,000 Dong. She responded that she knew that but wanted the sale and accepted my 30,000 Dong offer, and is now regretting having done so given that she hasn't made much money at all today, which is why she thinks that I still owe her something to make amends. After telling me this, she breaks eye contact and leans back slightly as she folds her arms and appears to shift her gaze as if looking at something on the second-floor balcony of the older French-style building across the street, with her upturned nose, closed eyes and the hint of what might be the beginning of a smirk conveying a bratty defiance and the confidence that she believes she has the upper hand. She pauses for effect, then returns her gaze to me with that mischievous gleam again in her eyes. "So, what's it going to be...?" In drama queen fashion, with her elbows still at her side she rotates her forearms outward to expose her upturned palms as if she is holding something in them, and as she enumerates the two options as she sees them (both of which involving my Dong) she nods first down into her right palm, and then down into her left palm, respectively. "Are you going to give me 20,000 Dong, or are you going to give me 30,000 Dong?" I give a little exhaling chuckle and roll my eyes. "C'mon, Ha. A deal is a deal..."

But she is not detoured by my response. She next plays the sympathy/guilt card to coax the Dong out of my cargo pants pocket. She tells me that she has extra expenses to cover, as she shares a rented room in Sapa with some other Black H'mong girls so that she does not have to walk or take a 'xe om' motorcycle (or motor scooter) taxi back to her home Black H'mong village of Cat-Cat, which lies in a valley among the rice terraces and a rather picturesque waterfall northwest of Sapa, a roughly 90-minute trek from the Sapa market along a marginally-paved and decaying road, with the final segment of the journey being along a meandering path of cobblestone steps. Her tactic began to have the desired effect as the thought came to mind that I shouldn't have talked her down that low in price. Perhaps I was standing firm on principles regarding the perception of having been overcharged or down right ripped off as a tourist before (being overcharged for a woven shoulder bag at a Skor Karen hill-tribe village that I had spent the night in while trekking in northern Thailand, and being down right ripped off when forced to rent at a premium price a sarong and a waist sash from some overly-aggressive local vendor girls, despite having my own in-hand at the time, in order to advance to the ticket booth and pay my admission fee to enter the Batur Temple in Bali), and resolved to not let that become a recurring experience. She then played the next sympathy card, with the Queen of the Black H'mong vendor girls drawing an Ace and giving me the guilt trip in Spades. "I haven't made any other sales today, and I haven't even been able to eat dinner tonight!"

Yet again, my will is about to be broken, mainly because of a congenital soft spot in the heart that I seemed to have inherited which on occasion has gotten me into some interesting, if not edgy, situations (the one in Siem Reap, Cambodia being a case in point) ending in unanticipated charity. Ha seems to noticed the subtle change in my expression and my pause for consideration, and takes it as encouragement. "So what's it gonna be...?" Again, with the nodding down into the upturned palms for effect. "20,000 Dong, or 30,000 Dong...?" A slight pause as her upturned palms hang in the air like the pans of the old-school balance scales that you see being used in the rural markets. "20,000...or 30,000...?" I'm about to give in, but still hesitant to do so because I know she's just playing on my sympathy. "You really haven't eaten tonight, huh?" I ask. "No, I haven't", she responds, though her gaze is slightly averted as she answers. As the moment of (hopefully) truth arrives, I give her a final opportunity to be straight with me, figuring that I would be getting off cheaper that I did with the impoverished woman and child, and those three disfigured landmine victims in that Cambodian shanty town on the banks of the Stung Siem Reap River. "Look, Ha. I don't want you to have to go hungry if, in fact, you had not had anything to eat for dinner tonight. But, I need you to be honest with me, and not just take advantage of my generosity..." Now it's her turn to pauses for a second of consideration as she lowers her head slight, and then her expression softens and a slight smirk starts tugging at the corners of her mouth until it coaxes her lips into a little embarrassed grin. "Well...," she says  as her eyes take on a bit of a devilish gleam, "I could have always had a little more to eat!", as she punctuates the end of the sentence with the hints of a chuckle. I find myself chuckling too, despite having been on the receiving end of an attempted con job, and have to admit that her quirky personality is becoming more endearing as the evening wears on.

I glance at my watch and decide that it's time to be on my way back to the hotel to get some rest ahead of tomorrow's guided trek to view the rice terraces on the outskirts of Sapa and visit a couple of hill tribe villages, and then after lunch do a self-guided trek down to Cat-Cat village. I said goodnight and goodbye to Ha, wishing her the best and telling her that perhaps I would see her around town before departing Sapa for the return trip to Lao Cai, and thereafter the night train back to Hanoi. At the bottom of the hill where P Cau May Street takes a 90 degree hook to the left, I hung a right to follow the street that leads to my hotel.

Not far from the corner, I saw a placard next to a short stairwell that lead down from the declining sidewalk to a basement or sub-level doorway advertising some type bar downstairs. I decided to step in to have a look despite not hearing the sounds of music coming up from the open door, which would not be a big surprise given that it was a Sunday night. Looking to the right as I step through the doorway, I wondered if the bar was still under construction and slated to open in a few weeks or more, or if they were going for 'behind the Iron Curtain' command bunker minimalism. In the gloom of the dim indirect interior lighting, I could make out what looked to be bare concrete or dully-painted walls flanking what could have been thin solid color carpeting befitting of one of the greens of a miniature golf course. There was a very bland looking bar against the back wall with a couple of empty shelves behind it, with no bottles, glasses or even any wall decorations visible, nor bar stools or any other furniture in evidence. The place seems to be deserted, with no music, voices or any other sound to indicate any sort of activity, yet a rotating light ball located somewhere out of sight silently bathed the bare walls with a slowly sweeping star field of cool blue dots of light. I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and climbed back up to street level, and I was shortly back in the hotel lobby and up in my room to get a decent night's sleep before tomorrow's trekking.

Coming Next - Part 2: Three Villages and a Funeral

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