current location

vancouver, canada

(updated: april 2018)


why sapa wasn't a highlight on my trip

Rice paddies in Sapa
Getting to Sapa by bus from Laos was a total gongshow. The section crossing the border and coming into Dien Bien Phu was a loong day spent cramped in nonexistant spaces on hot, sweaty busses with groups of 5 or 6 Vietnamese men (albeit thin) in two seaters, and sacks of rice piled on my lap. In retrospect, I don't know how I didn't freak out in a bout of claustrophobia. I regained some of my mental health after a night in Dien Bien Phu in a single room, and ploughed on toward Sapa the next day. The internet had warned me about the brutal road ahead, yet I resolutely decided that I would do it anyway.

(skip until after the photo for my experience in Sapa)
The internet doesn't lie.
True to word of mouth (or word of cybertext, rather), the minibus from Dien Bien Phu gave out half an hour into our journey. Stranded on the edge of a winding mountain pass, we waited. I was the only foreigner on the bus and, as nobody spoke any English, I had no idea what was going on. We spent almost two hours pacing around the minibus, crouching in the shade, and playing "photograph the foreigner in the most creepy way possible without her noticing." I didn't participate in the last, and the men in the row before me definitely lost - they sucked at concealing their smartphone cams. By the time I started getting a little creeped out, another bus charging from the opposite direction stopped to pick us up. As it turned out, it was a bus also headed to Sapa that had left an hour or so before ours. It was a great deal bigger, and our small group barely filled the near-empty bus. Awesome. I could stretch my legs.
As soon as I was starting to get comfortable and close my eyes, however, we veered into a lot where a mass of chattering Vietnamese people pushed their way through both doors of our bus like an avalanche. From the noise rose an angry, alien voice bellowed "WHERE IS MY BACKPACK?" several times, as its owner's blonde head towered about the flood of locals. The pissed off farang pushed his way on board, searching desperately, and when he finally found his pack he held it to his chest with a scowl and didn't let go of it (or speak a word to anyone) for the rest of the 5 hour journey. It wasn't until we both got to Sapa that he explained how that morning his bus had suddenly stopped and, without warning, everyone was ushered out. Before he had gotten a chance to grab his backpack (which had in it his passport, money, and all other valuables) from it, it rolled off and he was left without explanation and without any of his things, in a throng of people he couldn't communicate with, for over an hour - it was during this time that the bus picked my group up. By the time the bus returned he was so rattled that he could barely speak.
Once we got off our last bus, half of my face streaked black with grime (the half that poked out the window), we split a room at the dingy and notoriously suspicious Mimosa Hotel for 150,000 and parted ways the next day.
View from Mimosa Hotel
I'm not a big fan of Sapa. Almost everyone I've met who has been there describes it as one of the most memorable places of their trip, but my experience was far from it. Of course, my Hmong guides were lovely, the scenery was great, and the starry skies viewed from the remote Hmong villages even more so, but Sapa itself is more like a full-blown tourist gift shop as opposed to a town. The competition between guided tours based in offices and cheeky old Hmong women offering treks to foreigners made walking through the streets an incredibly unpleasant experience. Wherever you went, you were sure to be plucked out either by eversmiling, persuading Vietnamese or Hmong dressed in traditional attire, charming you into allowing them to take you to their villages, with their toothless grins and friendship bracelets ("my friend, my friend!").
Hmong ladies in Sapa
I succumbed and agreed to meet "my friend" Se, 8 months pregnant, who would take me to sleep in her home, the next morning. We set off in our broken sandals and trekked over 15 km, stopping periodically for Se to clutch her bulging belly as I shat myself worrying that she would go into labor. Laughing, she reassured me that pregnancy doesn't get in her way. Even once we reached her little hut of a home (which, nevertheless, was the only place with a TV set), she rushed out to finish up some work in the fields, after which she proceeded to lift heavy rocks around her home before settling down to prepare dinner. She wouldn't let me so much as lift a finger to help out. I sat on a stone for 5 hours, staring out at the fields while the neighbourhood kids stared into the rusty TV. I won't pretend I wasn't bored out of my mind.
Later in the evening, Se's friend Ju came over to drink rice wine and sell me jewellery. We giggled, drank rice wine till our eyes watered, I dished out 5 dollars for a pair of earrings, and passed out in the foreigner bed.
The next day someone else would be sleeping in it, drunk off their ass, and the day after it would be yet another tourist, over and over and over.
Se explained to me that it's been about 10 years now that tourism in Sapa has been developing so exponentially. She hosts at least one foreigner in her home every day, more often than not travelling in groups, and at 35$ per trekker, I'd say she's doing pretty well. Almost every day, the Hmong women trek out to Sapa from their villages (of populations of approx. 500), wearing their traditional outfits, selling trinkets, and looking for foreigners to bring back to their homes while the men worked the fields.
Se, 8 months pregnant
I guess what I didn't like about Sapa was the general vibe of the place. Like most places I went to in Vietnam, it was choatic and very tourism-driven. Unlike most other places in Vietnam, however, where people wouldn't by shy about being fake-nice with fake-smiles (sometimes overly so) to draw you into a sale, I was surprised to have salespeople be downright angry with me when I wouldn't buy something in Sapa. I actually had a lady chase me a couple stalls through the market because I didn't have 10$ to spend on her bracelets. By the last day in Sapa (and I was only there for 3), I was too shaken (either in fear of sales vultures or of my explosive diarrhea) to go back to the market and ended up spending the day locked up in a room at the Queen Hotel, eating oreos and potato chips, killing time before I left to catch my overnight train to Hanoi.
Not too vegan-friendly at the market
Arriving at Se's home

No comments:

Post a Comment