Compared to the crowded and sunny coastal town of Ha Long, Sapa is quite the other extreme; it is a mountain town in the north west of Vietnam, at over 6,000 feet. The day after returning from Ha Long, I took a night train in a sleeper car to the border town of Lao Cai; rode a van up a winding road to the mist-soaked town of Sapa.
The van dropped me off at the hotel; they sent me downstairs for breakfast and told me to come back to the lobby at ten. So after stuffing my face for a half hour, I came back to the lobby and waited – noticing three girls dressed in indigo shirts and trousers covered in intricate needlework. Bit by bit, the tourists trickled in, and so did more tribal women. I deduced by their clothing they were from the Hmong tribe, a group of people scattered all over a mountainous area in south-east Asia anthropologist James C. Scott refers to as Zomia.
The tourists were grouped off in fives and tens with a Hmong woman to guide, and led out onto the road in the drizzle. I had thought the rain was too light for a poncho, so I wore rain pants and my A2 jacket. Ten minutes into the walk, my jacket was running with water; so I eventually broke down and bought an umbrella. Leather is horrible when wet.
Soon, the guide led us off the road and down footpaths of hard slick mud. My hiking boots were OK, but many other people were slipping and sliding on it. The trek was peaceful; no honking horns, just the sound of rain, the river, and people talking. Our guide was 19, and with a baby on her back – she helped people twice her weight. I tried to use Vietnamese with some of the Hmong, but most of them didn’t know Vietnamese – so much for having an edge that the tourists didn’t.
The quiet made people relax and fall into conversation as well as into the mud. One young Columbian woman was a doctor and had come with her sister and godmother for a holiday before she would marry in the fall. There was a South African couple who had lived in a few places, and was on their way to Australia. It was also good to talk to the Hmong, our group had attracted about 8 women to help us.
The walk was slippery and dangerous, but being in the cool air, with the silence only broken by the sound of flowing water in the river valley below. The air was misty, but still the views of the terraced rice fields were a pleasing change from the concrete and soot of Hanoi. The Hmong grow many of the things they need, food crops of course; but also indigo for dying cloth and hemp for making clothes and bags.
We slogged on for what seemed like an eternity. At about noon, we stopped for a break near the river. A crowd of shy children came around us, looking at us with big “puppy eyes” and they were all quietly repeating a line that I couldn’t understand. “They’re all saying, ‘Hello, candy?’ but don’t give them any.” our guide told us, “It’s not good for them.” I understood, but I didn’t have any candy to give them anyways. We finally made it to the river, and ate at a cafeteria shared by a number of the tours. After our meal was done, I saw the purpose of the women who had helped so many of the tourists through the trail. They wanted the chance to sell their intricate needle-point textiles. Given the fact that they had been so helpful, my colleagues thought it only fair to buy a few things. I can see the reason in that – fair enough; but since I hadn’t needed any help on the trail, I decided to save my purchase of highland art for the next day.
Again, we headed out, going up the other side of the valley, this time on a semi-paved road through villages, many of the houses were farmhouses that doubled as home-stays. The afternoon was getting late – yet finally our guide introduced us to the family that we would stay with. It was a wooden house, with an upper floor that was solely dedicated to boarding tourists on mattresses with mosquito nets. The house even had an old billiard table under a breezeway. My feet were killing me, and we were given supper within a few hours – no one stayed up too late.
The next day it was still raining, I woke up to very sore muscles, and was told we had another trek of a few hours ahead of us – lovely. The young Columbiana’s godmother had twisted her ankle the day before, so she was not in good shape for walking. After a few hundred yards, she turned back. This trek seemed worse, I was now sore, it was raining more, and the trail went through bamboo groves that grabbed my umbrella and sloughed water onto me. It was also too warm for any other rain gear. There was not much to see till we reached the waterfall – water cascading down an angled bed of rock. Three hours to get to – 5 minutes to see. It’s about the journey not the destination I suppose.
Finally, we walked down the hard mud to the bottom of the valley. After two days of trekking on such muddy trails, and seeing everyone falling down around me – I had not fallen once. I was 50 feet from the bottom of the trail, when my feet went out from under me and I landed on my hindquarters ingloriously. It had to be that way didn’t it?
We came to a little “café” for a snack, and I finally bought three wristbands from a little girl, and a pillowcase from an older women. The fabric was covered with the typical geometric patterns that are found from all over “zomia” from Bhutan to Laos. A bus took about 30 of us dirty and wet tourists to the hotel for lunch; there was no way I was going to walk the whole way back. By now the entire town was enveloped in cool mist, reminding me of summer in Darjeeling or other mountain towns in the eastern Himalaya. I was too battered to do much shopping or any more walking.
I would say that Sapa was worth the visit. Granted, it was crowded with tourists, but the tribal peoples seemed to handle it differently than the Vietnamese of other places like Hanoi’s own old quarter. Maybe I should come near Christmas, when the temperatures are near freezing – Vietnam isn’t all tropical heat.