Sa Pa Vietnam

Notes from Vietnam — Part 4

We have just spent the last two nights in Sa Pa. It is a place that I imagine in the summer is beautiful and relatively warm. Unfortunately for us, December has flown in fog, the cold and rain…lots of rain. We did the typical tourist stuff. A day’s walk to the local waterfall and dancehall. Tomorrow we have our 13km trek along the sloping terraces.

No matter where we go, we can’t escape the local tribe’s women. They are selling the bright handmade scarves the locals wear. We say “no thank you”. Maybe we will shop tomorrow. They follow us, get our names and make us promise that we will purchase from them.

Our guide from Sa Pa says we should shop in her village along our trek. We don’t question her and we don’t worry about our most recent promises.

On the way to the waterfall, all the local huts have been converted into little shops. Our local guide lets us know that the silver is not real and that most of it is from China. There is a lot of trash along the route. Plastic bags and bottles in the river, trapped by the rocks just at the crest of the waterfall. We had no sleep after our overnight train. We are ready to walk back up the “hill” to have a nap.

On the way, we stop by our guides home. She is only 18 years old, typical age for marriage in Sa Pa. Her baby is 4 months old. To us, she still looks like a child herself. We wait with her father on some benches. The home is vast but with no furniture. Her father-in-law is making a basket that the local women use for carrying things. It serves the same purpose as the knockoff North Face backpack we got in town. I’m pretty sure his basket will last a lot longer than the five minutes our knockoff backpack did.

He doesn’t say anything to us. Our guide chops us up some sugar cane to chew on while she breastfeeds.

The next day, we have our 13km trek. It seems easy on paper, but in reality, it is harder than it looks as we try not to break a leg hiking up and down steps constructed of mud. It’s raining, too. Four other locals have come for our journey. We are naïve to know why.

We ask a lot of questions during our hike. The reality is that Sa Pa was most likely beautiful at some point in time. The region holds the honor of the tallest peak in Vietnam and boasts five major tribes, each with their own language. The hillside has been terraced to capture rain so that the rice will grow. A fire seems to be crackling in every hut, either for cooking dinner, keeping warm or both. The locals have many skills and are very resourceful.

However, all of Sa Pa’s draw-cards have been completely toppled by tourism. We should have realized this after our guide’s comment upon our arrival in Sa Pa.

“Too many people in Sa Pa, too many tourists”.

Initially, my thoughts to that comment were, “You mean tourists, like us? Like the people you have to tromp around in the rain with for 6 hours the next day.” I keep my thoughts to myself.

We soon found out that she was right. Sa Pa is now a giant traffic jam, a rubbish dump and full of ant lines of tourist tromping around mud fields. Although the local women, some twice our ages, are trying to help, we are still covered in mud. Agility doesn’t seem to be the master of Western culture. There are some hotels that have been abandoned even though new mega ones are in the midst of being constructed. The shell must be a constant reminder to the locals that their home is no longer theirs.

We learn not to buy from the children. They would normally be in school but the tourists are suckers for their sad faces as they try and sell handmade bracelets. Our guide lets us know this was her 10 years ago. The lure of the short-term money a young child could make is too great.

The tourism has also affected the adults. The women that joined us at the beginning of the trip — our “friends” who helped us along the road; well, they have no shame in turning from Dr. Jekyll to Mr Hyde as soon as we break for lunch in their village. Buy, buy, buy.

“Buy from me, not from her.”
“You promised.”
“I helped you.”

Even when we return to Sa Pa, one of the women we saw the day before remembers our promises and follows us around town. The harassment is bordering on taking out a restraining order. We wonder if the competition to sell has created animosity among the locals. We bought from her friend and not her. What will that mean when she returns home? We don’t know.

We eat our meal at the “homestay” and pray for no rain tomorrow. It’s not really a homestay. We didn’t spend the night chatting or learning from a local family. It’s more of Sa Pa’s version of a backpackers hostel. We ignore that the owner threw some plastic bags into the fire with our meat cooking above it.

We just need to kill time and keep praying for no rain tomorrow. We have a packet of cards, “happy water”, and funny enough — WiFi. Although we can’t weave a basket, we find that we are resourceful in keeping our minds busy with those three things at our disposal.

No surprise, the next day there is rain. We do the smart thing and skip the hike. There is no point. You can’t enjoy the view if it is covered in a cloud, if you can only look down to prevent a fall and if you have to say no to every “sale” along the way.

“Too many people in Sa Pa.”

Yep, too many people in Sa Pa.

Kate, Mel and I on our train “outta of Sa Pa”. That’s why we are smiling.

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Originally published at artofbeingcivil.com on January 8, 2016.

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