Sapa, mythical Sapa. Since we first came to Vietnam, people have been talking about Sapa. “Oh you have to go! It’s beautiful! But very cold!” “The mountains are stunning! But very cold this time of year!” “The food is amazing! But the weather will be cold!” “The hill tribe people are incredible… but the weather? Brrrrrrrr!” So we jam every stitch of vaguely warm clothing we have into our day packs and get ready for another grand adventure. First an 8-hour overnight train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai, very close to the Chinese border to the north. Then an hour-long, 35 km bus ride southwest on windy, hilly roads (someone behind the driver pukes) to Sapa Town. A former French colonial military foothold, missionary station and holiday spot, Sapa has received renewed attention from international “eco-tourists” over the past two decades thanks to its proximity to trekking trails and the villages of some of Vietnam’s most colorful ethnic minorities.
The bus drops us off at a friendly little family-run hotel and after a quick tasty breakfast while the dawn breaks outside, it’s time to explore a bit before meeting our guide. In the misty morning, Sapa reminds me of any number of generic ski villages: pubs advertising ales and mulled wine, shops selling boots and puffy jackets, signs for accommodations/spas/special tours. There are also a few things you won’t find at Whistler or Mammoth, namely a market selling Cobra-Eating-A-Scorpion wine and a butcher hawking dog by the pound. But it is “The Montagnards” who make the biggest and most immediate impression. Women, old ladies and girls with vibrant head scarves and beautiful woven baskets on their backs literally swarm every bus that burps its load of dazed-looking tourists into the street and immediately latch on to each group or couple while repeating one endless mantra: You buy from me! You buy from me! You buy from me!
“No, thanks” rarely works; these ladies with the winning smiles are tenacious! And trying to fob them off with a vague “Maybe later…” only results in a demand to pinkie-swear you’ll make a date to meet in the afternoon or the following day. After 45 minutes of this, we’re miraculously trinket free but also completely exhausted. Time to trek!
Our guide is Elise, 18 years old with a sweet smile, a long dark ponytail, a bright blue backpack and lovely embroidered indigo clothing. Elise is from the H’Mong tribe and has been leading tours in the area for the past year and a half. Our trek-mates are Jo (English) and David (Lithuanian), a friendly, uber-fit looking couple who nearing the end of a five weeks in Southeast Asia. Off we go!
Friends had told us that the “trekking” was more like a walk around the park and at first it does resemble a kindergarten field trip as we amble along beside the road, taking our place at the end of a long string of other tourists accompanied by guides and various hangers-on (You buy from me!). Then we turn off the road, the sun breaks through the clouds, the air warms up and we get our first glimpse of the mountains and their breathtaking pattern of terraced rice paddies: absolutely glorious.
Elise points out baby pigs, shows us how to extract color from indigo leaves and fills us in on the rice-growing season (most tourists come in late summer, when the paddies are a lush, bright green). We’ve left the other tourists behind and there are just four ladies walking along with, all very friendly and relaxed… A grandmotherly type chats me up. She makes me a little horse out of bamboo. “Where are you from?” “What’s your name?” “How many babies do you have?” We assume they’re carrying our lunch in those big baskets. But after we cross a swaying suspension bridge and Elise stops at a restaurant in the H’Mong Village of Lao Chai, the gig is up. You buy from me! We’ve been sucked in! What can we do? We shell out, paying too much for generic handicrafts that we don’t want or need that may or may not have been made in the area, that may or may not ease some of the local economic hardship of one of Vietnam’s poorest regions, that may or may not assuage that ever-present tourist guilt that hangs heavy in the air in places like this. Sigh.
After lunch, Elise lets a new crop of ladies know that we definitely aren’t in a buying mood and we spend the next couple of hours passing through tiny villages where women are smoking sausages, making incense, weaving, washing clothes, and building roads. Except for whizzing along the dirt paths on motorbikes, men are virtually nowhere to be seen.
At three o’clock, the mist begins to descend from the mountains and we arrive at the Dzay village of Ta Van. One of the local rules is No Kissing In Public! Our home stay is a huge wooden house with mattresses and mosquito nets around the inside perimeter with a place in the middle for eating and watching TV. After a delicious meal, the “happy water” comes out but the family makes it plain they’d rather stay in the kitchen and play cards or watch Vietnamese soap operas than hang with the foreigners. Time to call it a night!