Travel Journal

Vietnam Part Sapa, 4/21-4/23

(Wednesday 4 May 2011) by Joanne Chang
We get to Lao Cai (near the China border) around 5 a.m. and have to take a minibus to Sapa. By the time we arrive in Sapa it's 7 a.m. and it's been nearly 24 hours since we started our journey in Ha Long Bay. Our introduction to Sapa is a sweet-looking ethnic Black Hmong village lady piggybacking the cutest baby in the world outside our minibus window. The bus pauses where she stands and a younger Hmong girl walks up, looks inside the bus, and shouts something with excitement. Suddenly there's a a dozen or more Hmong girls surrounding the bus, and as we start moving they all start shouting and running after us in their colorfully embroidered Hmong clothing, each one decorated with similarly patterned purses and ornate jewelry. It's a fun scene, but also a bit frightening at 7 in the morning. What are they going to do to us when the bus stops? At the first stop, a couple gets out and the girls stop shouting. They let the couple pass to their hotel, the bus pulls away, and they wave goodbye. The Sapa welcome committee! Later we decide they must have thought we were a trekking group, on our way to the trail head.

The trekking relationship goes like this -- you start your trek with a guide, and a Hmong woman follows you, one per tourist. They may or may not speak at first but eventually ask where you're from and how old you are, which may be the extent of their English vocabulary. They follow you for hours until you reach the next village (theirs), then pull out a pile of handicrafts -- purses, belts, wall-hangings, ornaments -- and put on the hardest sell ever to get you to buy. I seriously have never seen sales people like this in my life; they do not stop until you cave and hand over your money. Guilt, aggression, whining, hissing, all fair game. In order to avoid the wrath we state upfront we don't want to buy, which is stated more clearly as "no money", which means for the entire day we don't take money out to buy anything including water at lunch (because they still continue to follow you, to make sure you really have no money). It's off-putting, but I have to give them credit. To be this aggressive and to sell in a language you barely understand takes some serious will. These women are hungry and earn every dollar they can squeeze out of you (even as they turn around and use it to buy a soda!).

The trek in Sapa is absolutely gorgeous, one of the most incredible scenic hikes I've ever experienced. The mountain range is massive and the rice terraces within it so vast. It stretches on forever, the valleys deep and wide, terraces stacked on top of each other surrounding you and growing further in the distance. I look at my pictures and they don't cut it. You really need to stand in the middle of it all. On the way we see man and buffalo plowing the field (whoa, hard work), children bopping around (imagine this being your backyard!), white ducks swimming in paddies, the most beautifully situated middle school, and a cock fight. Our guide is great (we opt for the private tour) and it's cute to see him pal around with the Hmong village girls, joking with them like brother and sister. The younger girls are adorable and quite posh actually, with their outfits and jewelry. I almost want to buy an outfit so I can look as young and hip. We are treated to tea at the 3rd and final village and catch a ride back to town just as the rain starts to fall.

We eat and live well in Sapa. Yummy street barbecue of mushroom, spinach and meat skewers with chili sauce, bamboo sticky rice dipped in crushed peanuts, and sweet potatoes. At the market we get 'banh cuon', pan-fried sticky rice, and fried rice-paper spring rolls. We drink strong Vietnamese coffee (numbered 1-8 for strength), write postcards, splurge on massages and follow it up with a potent herbal soak in bamboo tubs. We stay in a great hotel for $20 with a balcony and view of the mountains (aptly named "Mountain View"), where we sit and chat with our evening beer. It's a great little town, and once you learn how to navigate the sales girls it's quite peaceful and serene.

It's really beautiful and rich, this experience. Sapa, Vietnam, all of it. When we get on the train back to Hanoi I know our time is ending. I want to stop time and stand still here. I want the 8-hour train ride to last forever.


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