So, Sapa. Considered the destination of the country, Sapa was more of an overexploited disappointment than anything else, a disturbing trend that we’ve noticed in all of the “highlights” of Vietnam (ie Hoi An, Halong, Hanoi). We escaped Hanoi (the eight bia hois and street stall kebabs that we downed beforehand made the place more tolerable!) on a night train to Lao Cai, where we would have to get further transport (along with every other tourist in Vietnam) to Sapa in the morning. We opted for soft seats rather than a sleeper car and, while Gabe had no problem passing right out, I spent the night staring at the brutal flourescant light above my head (the only one that stayed on allllll night!) and listening to the grungy Australian backpackers next to me crunch beer can after beer can.
We arrived around 6 a.m. and naturally were immediately greeted by calls of “Sapa? Minibus? We go now, you follow! Sapa?” I was in no mood to talk to any of the touts, so I didnt – just kept walking until we reached some minibuses and someone told us that it would cost 50,000d. That was about what we’d expected to pay, so I paid the guy (“hurry, money now, money now!”) with a 200,000d bill. He said thankyou and started to walk away – we grabbed him and demanded change. Reluctantly he handed me a 50.000d bill and said “ok?” I shook my head and he counted 40.000 more into my hand – I shot him a look saying that wasn’t okay either and he finally handed over the last 10.000. Not a good introduction.
The minibus soon left and, apart from finding out that several fellow passengers paid only 30.000d, it was a gorgeous ride up the side of a mountain, looking out over terraced rice fields and raging rivers and waterfalls. The higher we climbed, the foggier and colder it got; by the time we were dropped in Sapa, you couldn’t see more than three feet in front of you and the temperature was near freezing. Luckily a really friendly lady approached us saying she had a room for $4 a night – we followed her there and were shown a perfectly good room with hot water, right above an internet cafe, and moved in.
Our first order of business, of course, was food. Soup had never sounded better, so we squatted at a street stall and downed a couple bowls of pho before searching the vendors (took all of 30 seconds) to find a pair of gloves. I picked up the most basic pair on offer and was quoted 125.000d (about $9) – it took mere seconds to agree on 30.000d and I made a mental note to bargain everything in this place!
With warm hands I had the patience to browse the “market” which was in fact nothing but hill tribe women trying to sell everything they owned to you, along with the standard spread of souveniors and postcards, every second, at ridiculous prices. This happens, of course, because many people are more than happy to pay for them! It didn’t take long for the calls of “you buy from me!” and old ladies forcing handwoven hats onto our heads in some sort of twisted sales tactic to send us running the opposite direction.
We paid a bit extra to put a space heater in our room (Asia hasn’t discovered insulation yet), and I found out the hard way that there wasn’t enough water pressure to have a hot shower; rather, we had a hot tap and a cup. I won’t go into too many details of the manuevers we had to make in order to bathe, but picture an ice-cold tile bathroom (unsealed windows of course) with a tap in the wall, large plastic bucket underneath and the cup intended for mouth-rinsing. It sucked.
We decided to walk to nearby Cat Cat village and see what there was to see. The main reason that people come to Sapa is for the Hmong minority tribes; everyone joins “treks” and does homestays in the villages. We already had our doubts and had no intention of joining a trek (nothing will ever be as pure as our Cambodia experience was, and there were faaarrr too many indications of gross exploitation here), but figured walking on our own couldn’t hurt.
It was only a couple of miles and there was a ticket booth halfway – red flag number one! The village itself felt like a theme park; “traditional” dance performances every afternoon, paved sidewalks, souvenior stand after souveniour stand and very traditional Heinekin and Cocacola for sale. The only redeeming factor was a gorgeous waterfall – we took a few photos of that and escaped the place.
We decided that we would trek ourselves down to the Lao Chai village the next day – it appeared to be about a five-hour roundrip hike and surely would be fun if we did it independently! We set off and almost immediately had three Hmong girls trailing us, one with an infant on her back. They asked if we were going to the village and wanted to walk with us. We agreed and had a really enjoyable hike down the mountain; the tribe people give off a really good vibe, they laugh a lot and joke with you as best they can given the language barrier. Eventually they motioned us to a turnoff and we followed them down a dirt path – no one had asked us to buy anything yet, so I continued to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The lower we travelled the more beautiful it became; thus far we could only see dense white clouds when we looked down the mountain, but once we were below the cloud line we were treated to postcard-perfect images impossibly steep terraced farmland, rivers and villages.
(Gabe here) – Since most of you know how “graceful” Allison is…let me paint a picture. The hilltribe woman with the child on her back in a sling, wearing plastic sandals, and weaving a crown out of bamboo/reeds that would later be a gift to dear Allison, happily helped her, with her only free hand, through the muddy, rough terrain
(Allison’s back – and I didn’t need help for once!) We soon ran into the back of a small tour group and one of the girls mentioned that we were headed to “many people visit” village – I figured we’d be getting the hard sell soon enough, but enjoyed myself all the same. When we finally reached Lao Chai it was more genuine than the village we’d seen the day before, but still had comfortable restaurants full of white people, soda stands and various crafts being shoved at you every other second. Our companions finally said the magic words, “You shopping now?” and we said no, just walking, and kept walking.
They weren’t too insistent but kept following us, which I didn’t have a problem with. We departed Lao Chai and soon came upon Taveng, another village. This one had less for sale but was big into the homestay business; we immediately had a girl trying to convince us to stay the night, “very cheap for you!” We did our best to ignore them all (a shame since there was a lot I’d like to browse, but it’s next to impossible to glance at anything without an assumption that you’re committed) and asked our girls where a good place to eat was.
They led us to a small shack where we squeezed ourselves in among the locals and were served some soup. We were quoted 20.000d after being asked where we were from -“Oohhh, America. Many dollar!” – we knew it was high for such a place, but not exorbiant and it was good soup. We decided to pay for the two girls who were still with us, as we knew we wouldn’t be buying anything and that they were probably expecting us to. We also knew that thier soup definitely didn’t cost as much as ours – hopefully they could just pocket the extra. They seemed very grateful and happy when we paid, and we left with every intention of jumping onto the main road and heading back to Sapa.
They followed us right out, however, and while the baby-lady didn’t say much and seemed content, the other girl immediately jumped into her “I follow you long time, now you shopping!” script. We insisted that we weren’t shopping, she insisted that we were, and so on for a good fifteen minutes. These people know persistence! I’m sure that many people would give in and follow her to her home for some shopping, but we’ve been here long enough and know how to hold out.
Eventually they gave up and we were able to head in the direction of Sapa on our own. After hours of walking we returned, treated ourselves to some hot drinks and discussed the effect of tourism on these native cultures – not a good one! We decided the next day would be devoted to renting a motorbike and striking out alone.
Sunday dawned fairly clear and noticably warmer – perfect! After a breakfast full of fighting off the 10-year old Hmong salespeople, we bundled up and took off for what we though was the Muong Hum market, a place with little to no tourists, about 30km away. The road was narrow, gravelly and wound its way up and down mountains; within 30 minutes we’d escaped the fog of Sapa and were gawking at some of the most incredible scenery I’ve ever witnessed! We had more than a few scares in the form of buses/construction trucks barrelling at us headon (Mom, not to worry), but Gabe is a pro at driving like an Asian by now and everything was just fine.
We never found the Muong Hum market, but we found a sleepy little town called Tuong Duong with a market that was just winding down. We parked and ate some lunch – no one was interested in charging us anything beyond what it cost – then bought some fruit off the street (again, no hint of gouging, just smiles) before settling next to a river to write some postcards. We’d crossed a mountain pass on the way that serves as a weather line – it was now warm and sunny with spectacular views of the surrounding mountain range. We very easily could have been in Switzerland, and were reminded of how we loved Vietnam before hitting all of the “highlights.”
The trip back to Sapa was breathtaking as well, though the closer we got, the colder and foggier it became. We were ready to leave the place, and didn’t do much beyond dinner and bus ticket-buying before huddling in front of our tiny space heater. The north is unbelievable, but I dont think I could ever encourage anyone to visit Sapa of all places! There is real life, real hilltribes all around it, far more fulfilling…
Yesterday we boarded a minibus bound for Dien Bien Phu, our base for crossing over to Laos. It was an interesting trip with an interesting assortment of characters – there were about 11 Vietmanese including our daredevil driver, the flirtatious teenage couple who incessantly shoved their bags under their seat and onto our feet, the lady with the baby who incredibly didn’t make a single sound the entire time and the skinny guy next to me who kept blasting Asian pop music and looking at girlie pictures on his cellphone. There were also six foreigners – aside from Gabe and I, there was the older German couple who somehow squeezed their long legs into the back row and took photos of everything and two Brazilian girls who were far from shy and demanded multiple toilet stops on the side of road (luckily Gabe saved the day with his knowledge of the word “toilet” in Vietmanese!). Ten hours, one food stop, one roadblock, one towing incident and one government opium search later, we arrived in Dien Bien Phu, a town where not a single moto driver approached us.
We quickly found a room then beelined it for a bia hoi place, where the moto drivers out front welcomed us instead of harassing us for rides. We were served a plastic liter bottle full of fresh (?) beer and quickly downed two of them. Feeling much more relaxed, we enjoyed being in a small town where no one is all too interested in us – everything is business as usual, no matter who you are.
We cannot go to Laos until Wednesday, so we’re spending today in Dien Bien, taking care of a few last-minute errands. We just had one of the most memorable lunches in recent memory, and it had nothing to do with the food! We stepped inside a little place (someone’s living room, as per usual) and were warmly greeted by an older woman and her daughter. They gestured at us to sit down and started to cook up a feast. The husband got up from his spot in front of the football game and, with the biggest grin I’ve every seen, came over to greet us, shake hands and pat Gabe on the back. He gestured that he’d be right back and rushed for a backroom, quickly returning with a bottle of beer. We hadn’t really been interested in beer, but you can’t turn it down! Still smiling and laughing, he poured us each a glass then proceeded to take a teacup full of some brown liquid, pour us each a portion and then we all clinked glasses – one of the most memorable whisky shots I’ll ever have! He rambled a bit in Vietmanese, still grinning and repeatedly patting Gabe on the back, then left us to start on the food that his wife and daughter had enthusiastically been piling in front of us.
It was a large spread of soup, rice, stirfried beef, tofu and veggies – every few minutes the man would say something to us, excited beyond belief at our presence, and show us the latest on the television screen. Soon he returned with another whiskey shot for all three of us, then after another minutes in front of the game got back up and brought over a half-empty Aquafina bottle. We assumed it was water and let him pour it into our teacups, but of course it was vodka – all three of us clinked once more and the smiles grew! He was evidently once a high-ranking officer in the military, judging by the photos all over the walls, and he was proud to show them to us, his enthusiasm never waning.
Eventually we were stuffed and paid before being given any more alcohol or any more offers of hits from whatever he and his son were smoking out of a big bamboo pipe. There’d been no more than four or five communicable words spoken between all of us in that hour, but I felt like we’d communicated with them better than any of the clever english-speaking tourist-industry “professionals “that we’ve encountered over the past few weeks. It’s nice to depart the country with a highlight!