Sapa Town

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Early this morning we returned from Sapa, a mountain town about 7 hours northwest of Hanoi. Tourists visit Sapa to see the hill tribe people. Although you feel a bit like a voyeur, at least they appear to be more prosperous than some of the hill tribe people I've seen in Thailand.

When you're travelling, it seems like you'll do things that you'd never normally do at home. Like take a night train that arrives at 4 am. We did that both ways. Somehow you seem to manage, however sleep-deprived. Perhaps you're simply running on adrenalin (Martin called it a "natural high"), or you're you're doing it for the challenge. (Or it could be simple stupidity!)

The melee while boarding the train was almost overwhelming - a sea of people pushed and pulled you out on to the platform. Then you had to find the right car and the right compartment.

We shared our compartment with two young Koreans on the trip to Sapa. (Koreans generally get quite excited when they meet me because Kim is a common surname in Korea.) Quan has just spent two years working as a supervisor at a Gap factory in Russia. He had no desire to return to Russia as he was harassed continually, expected to pay bribes and also robbed of his computer equipment (which was offered back to him at half the cost). Alcoholism, apathy and absenteeism were rampant. It was an experience he did not care to repeat and was hoping to be able to find work in Korea or Australia. His friend, Jin, was a student in Beijing. (I noted that when we spent a day with Quan back in Hanoi that he had "Russian radar" - whenever he spotted someone he thought might be Russian, he gave them a wide berth!)

It was interesting spending a bit of time with Quan. Because he was Asian, somehow the locals expected him to be able to speak and understand Vietnamese. They would also ignore him if he asked questions in English. Admittedly, he was able to understand the language more than we were, but not a great deal more.

Arriving at Sapa was also an experience second to none. At 4 am, with no warning, the train jerked to a halt at the station at Lao Cai and emptied out, it seemed, in seconds. Half asleep and out of our element, Martin and I were the last to leave the train. Then, in the darkness of a 4 am morning, we had to find the bus and travel the 1 1/2 hours to the top of the mountain.

Sapa is a town of approximately 35,000 that was established by the French in 1922. Much of the architecture is French,though many of the residents of the town and surrounding countryside are hill tribe people. There are 54 minorities in Vietnam, of which we saw three - Black H'mong, Day (prounounced "Zay") and Red Zao in "Sapa Town", as our guide called it. The local hill tribe women come in from the valleys to flog their embroidered clothing, blankets and bracelets. Travellers were literally swarmed by groups of women and, if you made eye contact or paid any attention to them, they haragued you even more. It was a problem to buy from one of them, because, if you did, every last one of them insisted you buy. I even heard of tourists being pushed to the ground by angry hill tribe women.

The countryside around Sapa is absolutely stunning. The steep slopes of the mountainsides are terraced as for growing rice and vegetables as far as the eyes can see. I can only imagine how beautifully green it would be during the rainy season. We went on two treks into the valley, one for about three hours and the following day, for about 5 hours. Hill tribe women and children followed you attempting to catch your attention to sell you their crafts. I took along balloons to try to deflect the children's interest to something else. Although they liked them, they asked for "bom bom" (i.e., bonbons or candy), but guidebooks warn you about what things like candy to do the kids' teeth. The children peppered us with questions: "Where you from? How old are you? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Is that your husband? How old is he? How many brothers and sisters does he have? You like Vietnam?", etc, etc.

Like Halong Bay, we saw no wildlife or even any birds. In talking with our guide he said that most of the animals were in zoos or that people have killed many of them. Deforestation is also a problem. Our guidebook notes that there is some wildlife in the national parks, but little is being done to protect them.

Our guide was quite knowledgeable about local customs, medicines and traditions. Our guide mentioned that the women were much more enterprizing than the men. We saw a number of Black H'mong girls who were acting as guides, the women seemed to do much more of the physical labour and, of course, because of their jobs selling their wares, spoke English much better than the men did.
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