Sunday, April 27, 2014

Scratching Sapa's shiny surface.

Most travelers roll into Sapa early one morning, check out local sights for a day, then do an overnight trek and/or rent a motorbike to explore and/or hike Phan Xi Păng (the tallest mountain in Vietnam), and then they roll back out again. Dozens of overnight tours run from Hanoi to Sapa each day and it's a popular stop before crossing into Laos or China, or when entering Vietnam from those countries.

We had the luxury of staying for about 10 days with plenty of time to just sit and absorb our surroundings.

the lake downtown

the chicken stands at the market
(Patrick hated walking through here,
especially on the way to breakfast)

the church lit in neon at night
where everyone takes a picture
(we're still not sure why)

the vegetable stands outside the market

sunsets at the lake

This beautiful mountain resort town is located high in the Hoàng Liên Son range of mountains near four ethnic villages. (Or five, or eight, depending on who you ask.) The villages rank as some of the poorest in Vietnam.

As with other areas in the country, the women of the family go into the city to earn money while the men tend the fields. In places like Saigon and Hanoi this means women walk the streets for hours selling fruits or vegetables, flowers, sunglasses, Lonely Planet tour books... In many cases they start before dawn and don't stop until their baskets are empty - or nightfall, whichever comes first. Many of these women sleep in shared rooms and don't see their families for weeks at a time.

In Sapa, the women come to town from their ethnic villages, often with baby (or babies) in tow and always dressed head to toe in beautiful traditional clothing, to sell handicrafts and trekking tours. Although plenty of Vietnamese folks vacation in Sapa, the village women seem to primarily target foreign tourists. From the moment you step off the bus to the moment you leave, village women approach you to ask the same questions over and over again: "where you from? what's your name? you go trekking? you shopping?" No, thank you.

Children from the villages also wander the streets selling trinkets to tourists - a highly discouraged practice. These kids who should be in school walk miles to town and back each day to ask the same questions: "where you from? what's your name? you shopping?" No, thank you.

(And just when you think your patience has recovered from these barrages, the motorbike guys start in: "hello! motorbike!" "you want motorbike?" "yo! motorbike!" No, thank you.)

Sitting for 10 days we noticed an interesting avoidance between the ethnic folks and the Vietnamese tourists. The latter show up in fancy business clothes and stiletto heels; drop hundreds of dong on dinners, rice wine, and fancy hotels; mercilessly snap photos of ethnic folks in town; and don't seem to do much trekking to see where and how the ethnic folks live.

we benefited from tourist rice wine one night
simply by sitting at the next table

they offered us shots, videotaped it
and took pictures of us and with us

it was amusing, yet
awkward and weird

The villagers seem to view the Vietnamese tourists as "wealthy". It's true that excess money may be one definition of "wealth", and without going down a westernized privileged rabbit hole rant about how excess money can't buy happiness we'll say that it does enable food on the table, a roof over a family's head, and less hard work in the fields. There's also a TON of history between the groups and some complicated politics that we haven't even begun to comb through and will never fully understand... But we couldn't help but notice the obvious disdain (or was it envy?) directed at tourist women with Gucci purses wearing five-inch heels teetering down cobblestone streets. (To be fair, the local Vietnamese women may have had the same reactions to these tourists and we just didn't see their faces.)

Villagers marry young and many families have several kids by the time the parents are 20 years old. The pre-teen girls at our hostel rolled their eyes and tsk-tsk'd at us when they found out that we weren't married and had no children. Luckily, Patrick got an eye infection and we distracted them from commenting on our living in sin by telling them stories of how I punched him in the eye because he wouldn't buy me [flowers/bananas/jewelry] from the market. "You go buy your girlfriend flowers!", they would tease every time they saw us. We liked those girls a lot.

goofy Gia and silly Sang

sweet Son Mai

We did get out of our little backpacker/market bubble now and then too. Sapa is a shopper's dream - you just can't escape it. One day we visited nearby Cat Cat Village where the big draws were handmade clothing and cold drinks. Instead of shopping we kept to ourselves and visited the waterfall and a nice stream side trail.

the falls before the falls

appropriately named Cat Cat waterfall

"you shall not pass!!"

almost empty trail

with a few guest appearances

We skipped the Phan Xi Păng climb, we didn't rent a motorbike and run wild through the foggy mountain roads, and we declined an invite to a village wedding since we didn't know the bride, the groom, or anyone remotely involved with the wedding and felt it would be intrusive. But we did sign up for an overnight trek/home stay at a local village. Basically, you go with a villager who speaks some amount of English and can explain the terrain, the plants, the villages, a little history. We trekked about 15km the first day and about 10km the second, and slept in a loft at a local villager's home the first night.

the mountains were beautiful even with the haze

and the terraced fields were stunning

Our homestay was a modest but comfortable wooden house in the middle of a farming village. It was home to a three-generation family of about 10 (people kept coming and going, it was hard to tell who lived there and who was just visiting). They welcomed us warmly but otherwise went about their usual activities, leaving us to observe.

the kitchen

the stove

the lunch spread

the village kids
(they loved seeing their photos on the camera)

the village ladies

the morning view

the guard dog

In our eyes their lack of material wealth was more than compensated by their hearty meals, their lively conversations, and the loving way they treated their kids. I doubt they would see it that way, but that's how we saw it.

As with any place, the longer we stayed in Sapa the more the glitter wore off and true colors started to show.

In Cat Cat Village kids were everywhere; most waved or said "hello" but one little boy hit me on the leg for not giving him candy. (We don't do that, ever.)

One afternoon while we were lunching at the market a village man who was either drunk, mentally ill, or both sat right next to me and continued to rant loudly while manically waving his arms around. (We moved to an empty table - there were tons of empty tables so why he had to sit right next to me is still a mystery.)

The wholesome, authentic appearances of the ethnic villagers started to wear away as we saw them eating packaged ice cream cones and drinking Red Bull around town. (Like Happy Meals and Slurpees in America, these things were easy to find and fairly cheap. But look where Happy Meals and Slurpees have gotten America...  And yet as I'm writing this, I've just finished half a pack of Ritz cheese-filled crackers and a sugary soy milk - so who am I to say anything at all?)

And eventually we learned that the five villages don't really talk to each other. (The tribal languages are different so that kind of makes sense, but enough people in the villages know enough English to lead treks and one would think they might try to work together as a united community instead of competing for tourist dollars. But there goes that pesky western perspective again.)

As with most of our other visits, ten days was probably just the right amount of time - we were ready to move on but a bit melancholy about leaving.  We liked Sapa.

Food notes:
  • Sapa's downtown is all overpriced tourist cafes, bars, and "handicraft" and imitation North Face shops.
such as this bar
where we celebrated one year of FUNemployment
    We generally avoided the madness and spent most of our food budget at the market. We tried a few different stalls and ended up eating at the same stall so often that the older woman who prepared our meals slowly and with such care would smile when she saw us coming; she even added extra meat to our dishes near the end of our trip.
not pictured: nice lady

bun cha is the new pho ga

our daily habit
  • We paid too much for fresh fruit and street food, but since we got a lot of free dinners from our volunteer gig we didn't care too much.
pork buns with quail eggs, $0.50 each -
cheap by American standards but...

street bbq made while you wait
  • And we drank a lot of delicious coffee.
of course

Lodging notes: Sapa Backpackers was one of those "you get what you pay for" places. It wasn't the cleanest or most comfortable hostel we've stayed at but for $3/person/night, with all profits going into Sapa Hope Center instead of general hostel upkeep, we certainly couldn't complain.

We got really used to our Sapa routine of breakfast and volunteering, and a lot of goofing around with the pre-teen girls at the hostel every day.

Gia was the photographer of the group

we have many more shots like this

A friend predicted that Sapa would be our favorite part of the country. So far she's right, but a big part of it is due to our volunteer experience and interaction with the local kids. We continue to struggle with this whole tourism thing and its impact on the local communities, though. There's a lot of gray and there doesn't seem to be a good answer. I guess we'll just keep doing what we feel is right and see what happens...


  1. This is one of the most interesting post to date, love it! Virginia and Gene

    1. Thank you! It was a really interesting place. And beautiful too. Glad we were able to visit and help out a little at Sapa Hope Center.