Getting to Sapa, 315km from Hanoi does not prove to be an easy or a comfortable journey. Sure, the trip should only take about 4 hours, but Vietnam is NOT America. Roads here weren’t built for speed or safety. What should be a 4 hour ride typically takes 6-8 hours. So what were our options for getting to Sapa? We could have taken a day bus, taking “6” hours, a night sleeper bus, taking 10+ hours, or the overnight sleeper train taking about 7 hours. We opted for what we heard was the most efficent, most comfortable option and booked tickets on the overnight train. In turn, this meant checking out of our hotel earlier in the day and killing time around Hanoi before we were taken to the train station for our 11pm departure train. Fingers crossed, we boarded the train and settled into our little 4 person sleeper cabin for what we hoped would be a good nights sleep. Aside from the blaring Vietnamese music that we barely managed to figure out how to turn off, and the sub artic temperatures everytime the air-con kicked on, the experience wasn’t as bad as we had thought. The trains in Vietnam aren’t known for being smooth or fast or comfortable and don’t even get me started on the bathroom hygiene (it’s non existent). Mike barely fit in his bed once his legs were outstretched (short people: REJOICE!).
There are over 50 distinct ethnic minority groups, totaling over 5 million people living in the highlands of Vietnam. The ethnic minorities, while different, share many similarities. Many are farmers, who practice slash and burn agriculture, they live in stilt homes for protection against wildlife and drink homemade rice wine from communal jars. The tribes are visibly distinguished by their dress, especially women’s dress. We trekked through the village of the Red Dao minority group, who’s red ornate headdresses are elaborately decorated with long strings of gold coins. We spent most of our time with the Hmong women, who helped guide us along the trek, making sure we didn’t fall (but I did, several times) and were there to pick those of up who fell (it was hella slippery and steep in some parts). Before I comment on their orate dress, I would like to point out that these women trek everyday, whether it’s with tour treks or together from one village to the next, sometimes covering up to 10 km in one day. On flat terrain, that walk would be a piece of cake, but we’re talking about trekking along tiered rice paddies, barely there pathways through bamboo forests, and washed out, muddied trails. Some of the women we walked with were well into their 60’s and made me, and everyone else look like amateurs and complainers with our sneakers or trekking boots on while they seemed to float through the hillside in little plastic sandals. While we were all dripping with sweat (temps were in the mid 80’s-warm for this time of year in Sapa, as they do routinely see snow here) the Hmong women, in their traditional dress of black leggings and heavy embroidered tunics didn’t bat an eye as the mercury soared.
Exhausted by the end of day one, we made it to Tay Vin village, where we would be spending the night in a home stay-a definite highlight of our time in Sapa. Our trekking group, John, Haley, Emil, Hassan, Mike and myself, along with our guide Dinh spent a wonderful evening here, sleeping on mattresses laid out in a large loft area above the host family’s home. We had an incredible meal prepared by the homeowner. Somewhere along the way, our group asked Dinh what is favorite Veitnamese dish was, and he said it was a dish prepared with duck. One thing led to another, and before you know it Dinh excitedly told us that for 350,000 dong (about $16) he could get us a duck and would prepare his favorite dish. As quick as the words came out of his mouth, our monies were on the table and Dinh zipped off on his motorbike. Less than 5 minutes later, he returned, a live local duck tucked under his arm. Straight into the chopping block, we were all invited to watch the sacrifice. We politely declined, but were nonetheless excited to get our hands on some of the barbecued duck. John took one for the team and was happy to eat the duck blood pudding that was put in front of all of us. He said he enjoyed it, but it took all I had to not lose my lunch watching him put spoonful after spoonful of it into his mouth. More power to you John! Our meal was barely concluded before it was time to go ‘grasshopper hunting’. Trust me when I say, this is not something to be taken lightly. Separated into two groups and given and empty water bottle, our mission was clear: collect as many grasshopper as you could. Green ones , not black ones! I’m sure Dinh was saddened by our dismal showing of just under half a water bottle full of grasshoppers, so much so that he actually borrowed a huge liter full of grasshoppers from one of the other home stay guides nearby. I didn’t quite know what we were going to do with all those grasshoppers but Dinh got busy in the kitchen. First, he boiled the grasshoppers in water, then boiled again in a mixture of vinegar and water. Then they were fried up in oil with garlic, chili paste, lemongrass and a mix of other powders and spices. A bowl of grasshoppers and more rice wine shots than I think we all care to remember signaled just the beginning (or the end for some of us) of our night at our home stay.
We were up early the next morning to begin our trek to the waterfalls, which did not disappoint. 6 hours later and close to 5 km trek and we were transported back to Sapa town, where we would spend another night. By the next morning, I think we were all pretty exhausted, but got up to spend the morning trekking to the nearby village of Cat Cat, only 3 km from from Sapa. We visited a traditional Hmong house, took in a traditional Hmong dance show (which soon became evident was designed solely to bring tourists into the town) and then against our better judgement, hiked the 2 mile uphill back into town. We had a bit of time to relax and wander around Sapa Town which consists of one main artery street that runs throughout the center lined with more western food restaurants than I could count. Before we knew it, it was time to say good bye to Dinh and the rest of our trekking buddies and we hopped in the mini bus and headed back to the train station. Another overnight train, this one surprisingly more comfortable than the first (or perhaps we were just so exhausted from the past 3 days) and we both slept until the 5 am wake up call. We were greeted again by our buddy from the hotel, and were escorted back there for a shower and breakfast. Barely 2 hours after returning, we were getting ready for our next adventure, that would take us four hours east of Hanoi, to the Gulf of Tonkin and Halong Bay.
For all the beauty that Sapa holds, it has been hi-jacked and corrupted by tourism, ever since 1993 when the authorities opened up these picturesque villages to tourism. Black Hmong women crowd the doors of every hotel and restaurant hawking sales of these ‘handmade’ garments to anyone who will listen. As we found out, many of these ‘handmade’ goods aren’t even produced by these women. To help subsidize living wages, and instead of just giving the tribes monetary hand outs, the government gives these “handmade wares” to the women sell to unsuspecting tourists. In truth, the goods are actually mass produced mainly in China. The women are intent on selling their things, so don’t be surprised when you are bombarded, sometimes aggressively, during your lunch stop following your trek by the same women who graciously helped you up and down the mountain. And, for Vietnam standards, their prices are completly absurd! They’re reluctant to take tips in place of selling their wares, and for whatever reason, can’t understand why you don’t want to purchase their goods. Even with Mike speaking Vietnamese to these women, they refused our tip, and Mike had a few heated exchanges with them in order for them to leave us alone. If you do what to buy their wares, that’s fine, but make sure to NOT BUY from children. Instead of being in school, these children are out day and night with their mothers selling bracelets and little trinkets. It’s important to do your part in stopping child labor, since any money they make is seen as a success and will continue to keep them out of school. Sapa is quite the paradox. Beautiful on the outside, and something all the world should see, but it has become the outside world that has led to its corruption and potential future downfall. If you do visit, which I really think you should, be a conscientious traveler. Support the fair trade shops in town if you just have to have a piece of an clothing, and join tours through organizations that give back to the Hmong community, rather than pocketing the money for themselves.