Mountains, mist and H’Mong: the ethereal appeal of Sapa

Sapa town was founded by the French in 1922 as a hill station and colonial holiday spot. This view from the lake is serene. Possibly this is how Sapa looked almost 100 years ago.

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This is how Sapa looks today.

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Like most of Vietnam, growth in Sapa is an unstoppable force, especially with the construction of new hotels. Roads are ripped up to install updated sewers, and every block has some sort of reno or rebuild. Two doors down from our hotel is an old-school construction, complete with workers in flip flops and ball caps.

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We knew Sapa was not a sleepy alpine town, but we were surprised by the number of tourists and the accompanying hubbub.  The main part of town is quite small, very walkable and crammed with hotels, guesthouses, hostels, restaurants and stores selling minority handicrafts and fake North Face products. Restaurants are mainly mediocre and same-same. Someone must have taken a survey about Western preferences and come up with spaghetti, chicken cordon bleu and T-bone steaks; those stalwarts of the ’70s appear on almost every menu in town.

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Ethnic minority tribes, mainly the Hmong and the Red Dao, live in villages around Sapa and walk into town to sell their wares. Their villages are part of the attraction of Sapa – the backbone of the trekking excursions that take tourists out of town and into the countryside.

We booked a one-day, 13-km. hike through our hotel, led by a Hmong woman, Mei. She picked us and a young German couple up at the hotel and we set off, followed by another three Hmong women who joined us along the way. Through town, down a side street and down, down, down, until we were surrounded by fields of vegetables and herbs.
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The massive mountain range, of which Mount Fansipan is the highest in Indochina at over 3000 metres, is almost always at least partially covered by fog this time of year. While we never got clear skies, we were rewarded with tantalizing views through the mist and comfortable walking temperatures.

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Now I don’t want to blame my (almost worn-out) Keens on my struggles to stay upright, but I was having a few challenges finding steady footing on the narrow, slippery red-clay steps and rocks. The young Germans skipped ahead like the nimble gazelles they are and Stephen was doing just fine but I was lagging, so one of the women took it upon herself to rescue me. I grabbed her dry, cracked little hand and safely made it down. All the women kept an eye out for me. At one point Stephen fell down on his backside and they didn’t even look back. It’s a woman’s world out there.

Mei, our guide in green, (who walked 7 km. from her village to Sapa before we began our trek), and her buddies. The lady second from the right was my trekking assistant – have a look at her footwear. These women just walk and walk, sure-footed and uncomplaining.

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The famous and photogenic rice paddies are a marvel of human construction. Mei didn’t know a lot about them, other than to say that the area families built them a long time ago.  It is impossible to fully appreciate what a feat that must have been, as each step looks to be about three to four feet high , and the surrounding terrain is unforgiving.

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The rice paddies are punctuated by stands of massive bamboo, which for some reason inspired Stephen to strike a beefcake pose.

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Strolling along the trail.

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We left the trail and hit a paved road to come to our first village. As we turned the corner, a stonemason’s home was perched right on the edge of the road.

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Further down, a mama and her chicks.

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We met up with some other trekkers on the way to the village.

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A typical village home. The minority tribes are very poor. They grow vegetables and rice and raise animals for food, but for better or worse they have come to depend upon tourism dollars to supplement their incomes. (more on that later).

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One of the shops featured what appeared to be authentic hand-made textiles. The hills are filled with indigo plants – the natural dye used in many of the fabrics. This lady was busy sewing when we walked through and displayed none of the mercenary sales tactics of her fellow Hmong in Sapa. She barely looked up.

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Mei pointed out a marijuana plant as we walked along. There are fields of hemp plants for much of the cloth that is used here for clothing and blankets, and most definitely marijuana plants as well, although we have no idea on what scale they are grown. The woman selling water and coke at our rest stop also had “happy tea”, which we declined. I figured I needed all my wits about me just to keep walking.

Back on the trail and heading for our second village for lunch. See the basket on that woman’s back? Oh yes – you guessed it, the hard-core sales pressure was coming.

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Once we reached our lunch stop, Mei told us the women were leaving and it was “time to shop”. Out of the baskets came pillow covers, small bags, scarves and bracelets and rings.

We suspected all along that these three women were not walking for three hours just to enjoy our company, but the transformation from our laughing trekking pals to hard-sell street vendors was astonishing.  Not buying was not an option.

Nothing in their baskets appealed to us, plus it was all over-priced. The other couple bought two pillow covers and out of desperation we bought a small bag and a little purse. The little lady who had helped me down the hill was now very angry with me for being so cheap and I’m quite sure we were roundly sworn at in Vietnamese. It was upsetting as the whole point of our trip to Sapa was to trek and enjoy the scenery, not be coerced into buying factory-made junk.

Anyway, on our way to the restaurant, our attention was diverted by the strenuous efforts of several men and the frantic squealing of a pig. I thought we were about to witness a slaughter, but Mei told us they were holding the pig down to pierce his nose.

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This was the one trekking day we had but there were a number of options. We could have stayed in a homestay in one of the villages and signed on for 2 or 3-day treks, but we were unsure about what that entailed. We walked by the homestays and saw that  many of them were purpose-built for Westerners. We had imagined living in a rustic home and sleeping in the family’s only bed (which I’m sure is also available), but homestays have turned into a small industry now. Maybe next time.

A final shot of us on the trail.

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While the mountainous countryside around Sapa is its raison d’être for tourists, the town itself is pretty and is worth alloting some  extra time to explore.

One of the attractions is the Ham Rong Mountain Park, which is accessed by a series of stone stairs leading up to several viewpoints along the way.

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Stunning gardens throughout the park.

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One of the shops rented ethnic costumes for photo ops.

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Which brings us to the complicated side of Sapa’s exploding popularity with tourists – the unintended consequences this may have brought to the ethnic minority people.

What happens when people are regarded as a tourist attraction? There is no denying the appeal of the colourful clothing and head dresses, especially when worn by an adorable four-year-old. But that four-year-old is no longer spending her days in her village; she is now carrying her baby sister in a sling on her back while tourists snap photos. She is spending hours squatting down in front of a blanket of trinkets – identical scarves and bags and toys that are being sold by the next vendor and the next and the next. When she is a bit older, she is taught to hassle tourists with toss-off lines,” Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? Buy from me?” She is taught not to take no for an answer and to pursue tourists, even as they try to walk away.

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The Vietnamese children we have seen in the rest of the country are bright and happy and curious; these children are dead-eyed and sad. The older ones are hard-looking and cynical. It might be said that tourist dollars have brought them a revenue stream they didn’t have before, but I don’t buy that. Their lives were poor before but they’re still poor, only now they are captive to the lure of money that only trickles down in a meaningful way to a few.

Government signs are posted throughout the town with “Rules of conduct” for visitors – asking us not to buy from street vendors, but there does not appear to be any enforcement and certainly the tourists aren’t paying attention.

We suspect we are regarded by the Sapa town residents and the ethnic minorities as a necessary evil. We strolled though a number of stores looking for North Face jackets – almost every store carries the identical products, so competition is fierce. One woman called out to me as we entered her store and when I replied I wanted to look, she spit out, “Madam looking. Madam just looking” with such venom it felt like a slap.

The scenery around Sapa is so magnificent that it is worth making the trip. Being on the trails is like no place I’ve ever visited before; it is an essential part of the Vietnamese landscape.  But I do wonder if our interest and curiosity has created a monster.