Sapa: Mountains, rice, and a touch of colonialism
Restless in Hanoi, we debated where we should head next. When planning our trip, we had decided that we would skip Ha Long Bay. Magnificent as it may be, the cruises are expensive, their quality is hit or miss, and our idea of hell is being trapped on a small boat with strangers and overly enthusiastic tour guides. However, the Australian we met the night before raved about it and convinced us to at least consider our options.
We shopped around at a few of the tour operators in Old Town Hanoi, and we nearly booked an overnight cruise the next day, but in the end we couldn’t overcome the idea of spending over $100 USD per person just to say we did the thing.
So long, Ha Long.
Maybe we’ll see you on another trip, but probably not. You, your waters swarming with rickety old junks, and the treasures (and bed bugs) they offer will remain forever a mystery. Instead, we booked the Sapa Express Bus for the next day and headed due north to the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, somewhere somewhat south of China.
The highway ended in Lao Cai, a city from which you could enter China if you were inclined to do so. This marked 80 per cent of the distance but accounted for only 50 per cent of the time we would ride. The road from Lao Cai to Sapa is a winding, two lane stretch of highway where tour busses and semi trucks take turns passing motorbikes and gravel haulers rounding blind corners. Years ago, this was a dirt road and one of the more dangerous roads you could travel. Now, it is paved and far safer, but it is still narrow and barely accommodates the heavy daily traffic heading to and from this tourist hotspot.
We arrived in Sapa and began the hunt for our hotel. A city of about 140,000, Sapa developed rapidly after the Vietnamese government began encouraging tourism there about a decade ago. Now, the mountain town is full of knock-off North Face gear, cafe-lined boulevards, and scores of hotels, each trying to outmatch the other with their names.
We hadn’t a clue where to find our hotel. The tourist area of town is small—limited, it seems, to the area where real estate affords views of the valley below—so we decided it would be easy to walk to the Unique Hotel. But having neither WiFi nor a data plan, we were leaving a lot to chance. The bus driver pointed us down the road when we asked where the hotel was, and then he returned to his duties of bus driving. Upon disembarking, all the tourists are met with an equal—if not greater—number of local people. Not Vietnamese, but the ethnic minority hill tribes of the Muong Hoa valley, primarily Hmong, who each chose a person or two to follow around, asking where they are from and where they are going and if they’s like to buy a bag or a bracelet. We felt immediately put-off—conditioned to say “no” to all street vendors after only a few days in Vietnam—and just wanted to orient ourselves in our new city before entering into such a relationship.
As we walked down the hill, in the direction indicated by our disinterested bus driver, we had two Hmong women in tow. We casually chatted, the way we would to vendors in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh selling sunglasses or motorbike rides, a way that was as polite as we could muster while still imparting the message “fuck off, please” as clearly as we could. But these women weren’t like the sellers of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. They spoke excellent English. They talked about our lives and answered when we asked about theirs. They were polite, but persistent—a different sort of persistent from that of the Xe Om motorbike-taxis in Hanoi who try to physically stop you while repeating the only English words they know: “Bike ride? Where you going? Bike ride?” and then look at you as if to spit on the ground with their eyes as you walk away without taking up their offer.
We told the women where we were staying, one asked another, and it turned out were headed in the opposite direction. The women, after we made it clear we weren’t interested in any shopping, led us all the way to out hotel doorstep. They once again tried to sell us a bag, and when we said “maybe later” instead of “no” they made us pinky swear that we would find them another day. We did, thinking there was no way they’d ever spot us again.
Hmong sellers are everywhere in Sapa, dressed in their traditional clothing, following tourists around, asking, “buy something from me?” They live in the valley below town in small villages. They help on the farm, and when there is no work that needs doing they head to town to sell hand made bags, scarfs and bracelets. They always ask you where you are from and always engage in personable English conversations. They learn functional English from talking with tourists, even though many cannot read or write in their own languages.
Official signs in the town centre advise against purchasing or booking tours from them, so we treated them—like many tourists do—with suspicion at first, but we weren’t sure why. We had been conditioned over the past weeks to say no to all street vendors—especially if they were pushy—even if were interested in what they were selling.
Over time, we slowly gathered more information about the complex tourism ecosystem here, and our more complete picture of things left us both feeling conflicted about the role we played in coming here and the roles these women need to play to see any benefit from the massive amounts of money being spent here.
After dinner, we bought a bottle of cheap wine and took in the view from the balcony. Our room shared a balcony with our neighbour, a woman from Northern Ireland living in Australia and travelling through Asia alone. She mentioned that she had heard of a traditional spa deep in the mountains that was supposed to be incredible—but the cab ride was $25 USD and she could only go if she could split the fare. We thought why the hell not and booked a day at the Red Dao spa for the next morning.
The cab took us to the village of Tả Phìn, north of Sapa, over rutted dirt roads. Typically, the cab could drive all the way to the spa, but today he hit an impasse. We were stopped by a landslide that had slid metre-deep red mud over the road the week prior. Immediately, Red Dao women arrived, asking us where we were from and trying to sell us bags.
A phone call later, some teens from the Spa arrived to take us the rest of the way on motor bikes. After heavy rains the past month, we learned, much of the area’s already poor roads had been affected by landslides. Covered in red mud, we arrived for our spa day.
Over tea, our Red Dao host explained that the spa was a community-owned co-op that sold traditional herbal bath soaks and other remedies. They offered tourists hour-long soaks in traditional herbal baths consisting of herbs that they collect in the area and process on site.
We spent about an hour soaking in an herby, grassy-smelling infusion crumpled up in small wooden tubs overlooking the terraced mountains, and thought that a business model like this could make a fortune in Banff.
The spa had a hard time attracting clientele all the way out to the village, and they were unable to get space in town to promote themselves. While we were there, they were filming a short promotional commercial in which we were asked to appear as “interested tourists.”
The next day, we booked a trekking tour. “Trekking” is the thing to do in Sapa. It is a tough-sounding word that means to walk down rutted mud paths or motorbike roads deep into the valley, explore some villages, maybe spend the night in a homestay, and then get a ride back to town.
We booked our trek through Indigo Cat, a small shop down the road from our hotel that sold bags and other items made by Hmong villagers. We didn’t know it then, but Indigo Cat was the only Hmong owned establishment in town—all the others, even those purporting to sell Hmong wares, were owned by Vietnamese. Before our trek, we were advised to buy rubber boots for the journey—which proved to be absolutely essential—and then we met our guide, Pang, outside the shop that she owns with her Swiss husband.
Happy to have a local to ask questions of for the next 5-7 hours, we got started quickly. We asked what she thought about buying things from the women who follow tourists around, and she said they were a little rude—it was better to buy from the women who follow you trekking. Follow us trekking? Yes, women would follow you on a 6-7 hour hike just for the hopes of selling a bag or two.
As we set off, sure enough two older Hmong women followed, asking us where we were from.
Pang grew up in the village of Lao Chai (not to be confused with Lao Cai) and until about 10 years ago that was where she lived. She owns and operates the only business in Sapa owned by a local ethnic minority person—not by the Vietnamese who flooded the town when tourist dollars arrived. She struggled to get her business off the ground as she wrestled with a tax system designed to discourage locals from setting up businesses, and she watched as one by one other Hmong-owned shops closed their doors until hers was and remains the only one left standing. Today, she sells goods made by the village women and she enjoys leading treks when people ask for them. “When I am trekking,” she says, “I feel free!” For overnight treks, patrons stay the night at her father’s house in the valley.
We asked her about the signs in town asking visitors not to buy from the local women, and she said it was to ensure business went to the Vietnamese shops instead.
Eventually we made it to Lao Chai, a traditional village that, like Sapa, has also changed along with the rise in tourism. Now, children throng around trekkers offering woven bracelets for 5,000₫, and even here many of the shops are now owned by Vietnamese. Families here, Pang told us, are commonly offered a small monthly sum by a businessman in exchange for letting him set up their house as an “authentic homestay.” Pang’s father was offered this three times, each time refusing.
Up the road, Cat Cat Village, the closest Hmong village to Sapa, is now a Vietnamese owned and operated approximation of its former self. Local residents moved away years ago.
At a small restaurant in Lao Chai (owned by Pang’s cousin), we turned away a small schoolhouse worth of children selling bracelets, and we said goodbye to Mimi after buying a couple bags (she threw in some extra pouches as a package deal to get a few more dong out of us.) I appreciated her company on the journey, and even though I didn’t need a bag I wanted to support her and her family in some way.
Families in the Muong Hoa valley work hard to eek out a subsistence existence in a marginal environment. Even after the beauty of their Hoàng Liên Son Mountains began drawing flocks of tourists, still the tribes-people are denied equal participation in a tourist economy that relies on their presence. Villages charge a small entry fee from tourists coming to explore them, but the money is collected by the government which claims to use it for village infrastructure. Residents aren’t involved in deciding how the money is used, and Pang tells us that the total collected is far greater than the tangible benefits villages receive from that income.
Thousands of trekkers pass through Sapa to explore the picturesque valley and experience a way of life that seems to exist in another century. Still, of all the hotels at which we stay, the restaurants at which we eat, and the shops from which we buy—only one business, Pang’s, is owned by a local tribes-person. The rest fight for what little they can by hoping a few of the tourists they follow around will buy a bag or two.
On our last day in Sapa the unthinkable happend. We heard the familiar shout of, “Buy something from me?,” turned around, and were faced by none other than the two women who showed us to our hotel the first night.
Incredulous, we stared at them in disbelief, not knowing how exactly we would get out of this one. How did they find us again? They absolutely remembered us, and they recounted in detail the story of how they showed us to our hotel and how we promised to buy something from them later. We turned to walk away, and they followed us, telling us they would keep following us until we bought something.
I laughed at their honesty. At least the admitted that was their strategy, I thought.
We ducked into a coffee shop thinking we could evade them. They smiled at us through the window and shouted offers of 2-for-1 deals through the glass. I smiled and they posted up on a curb across the street. We had a bus to catch in 6 hours. We had already checked out of the hotel, and our plan was to kill time in the cafe until we left. Time was on our side.
After 3 hours, they left. I joked that they probably needed lunch, and we quickly picked up our bill so we could move on elsewhere. We walked down one road looking for the 2-for-1 beer deals that were abundant the other night, but none could be found. So we turned around, and sure enough they found us again. Excitedly, they ran to us.
“Buy something from me?” “I’ll follow you forever!”
Out-witted and out-maneuvered, I broke and bought a bag from one. This did not sit well with the other, who demanded equal treatment. “Can’t you just split the money?” I asked. “I don’t need two bags!” They told me they were from two different families, so that wasn’t an option. The one, happy with her sale, took off.
The second, Lilly, a young women in her late twenties maybe, persisted, joking that she would keep following me until I bought something.
I had no intention of doing that, so I tested how committed she was.
First, she said that made no sales because she was waiting for me all day.
I agreed that she was waiting for me all day, and wouldn’t it have been a better use of her time to go find someone else to sell to rather than sit around waiting for two hours.
“Three hours!” she corrected me. “Three hours we waited! Then we got hungry and needed lunch.”
I was right! They did need a lunch break.
“Well wasn’t that a poor use of time, then!” I said. I couldn’t convince her.
“I will follow you forever! I will keep following you until you buy something.”
“But we leave for Hanoi in an hour. Will you come with us?”
“Yes, I will follow you forever!”
“But we are going to Canada eventually. Would you like to come!”
She said she would love to come!
“But I don’t have a passport,” she revealed. “So you need to buy a big suitcase!”
“Big enough for your husband and children?”
“No! They can stay! I will cook and clean for you, but I can’t read so I won’t work. I will be very expensive. You will have to feed me!”
“But you are so small!” I said to the four-foot nothing woman.
“Yes, but I eat alot!”
We kept at this for about twenty minutes, and part of me wished she would keep following me around—maybe not all the way home, but she was a hilarious, charming person and I felt bad that I really just didn’t want any of her things. I took out five-dollar American bill and asked what it would get me.
She lit up and offered me the pick of three of her nicest metal bracelets. She thanked me and told me that now she wouldn’t follow me anymore, and I was a little disappointed to be honest.
“What will you do now?” I asked.
“I’ll find someone else to follow!”