Sapa Trek

Sapa’s OK

DSC00682The town of Sapa has a reputation of being annoying and touristy so I wasn’t expecting to like it very much. While it’s true that you get hustled on the street quite a bit by some sad characters and some of the restaurants and shops are overpriced and absurd, I found a lot to like about it. The streets are steep and views are amazing. I liked shopping in the market and found some fabulous hemp, indigo textiles in one of the shops.

Travel Tip: The fine art of ignoring touts. If your going to travel in the developing world you have to learn how to deal with the hustling touts and beggars. You need to find your own comfort level. My strategy is to make as little contact as possible, say no a lot and keep moving. That being said, I do occasionally break that rule when someone is particularly clever and I am in the mood, which sometimes leads to a fun exchange if you can get them to drop the sales pitch. I never buy from children, as they are often being watched and “worked” by others rather than going to school (I do give them food, however).

Sapa Sisters rock!

I had arranged my 3 day trek on line, through Sapa Sisters ( ahead of time. They are the only Black H’mong, woman owned, trekking company in Sapa. Their guides get paid much more than other local guides who are paid very poorly. Most visitors go in groups, but I was able to go one-on-one with my guide. Zao came dressed in her (nearly black) indigo long vest, traditional jewelry  and modern sneakers to get me in the morning and off we went. I had stored my luggage with the hotel and carried just a day pack.

DSC00686 I was 50 years old, so following a 17 year old H’mong girl was like trying to keep up with a smart, cute, young goat. Zao was bright, enthusiastic and spent her days taking people from all over the world up and down the hilly trails of her homeland. Her English was excellent and I thought she was doing a great job of navigating between two extremely different worlds.

We had such a good time trekking up and around rice paddies, she telling me stories of her life and traditions. Early on, she asked if I minded if we went to her cousins wedding, I of course was thrilled. The second day we hiked up a narrow, steep and muddy path to a Black H’mong home where we ate and drank and toasted the newlyweds.

Nights were spent in home-stays where a good meal, shower and clean beds with mosquito netting were provided. Everywhere we walked was beautiful, everywhere we stopped was fascinating. Most of the villages were Black H’mong, but not all. We also saw some Red D’zao and others I’m afraid I didn’t write down. I love the Red D’zao women. They shave their eyebrows and hairline; they wear large, red head wraps and fabulous pants.DSC00734 Sorry, you’ll have to take my word on the pants.

One of my other favorite sites was when we came upon a woman rinsing her hemp, indigo fabric in a stream. The rhythmic sounds of her washing in the stream and the wind through the tree’s mingled with Zao and her friend chatting quietly in their native tongue created a sweet symphony.

Sapa trekking is exhausting

I’d had a sore throat when we started and I probably should have gotten some antibiotics as I likely had strep throat. After keeping up with my young guide my legs were sorer than they have ever been. By the time I got back, I was a wreck. But, I was also exceptionally happy. I had such a great adventure I didn’t care about how much pain I was in. Zao and I got together in the next two days before I left, for a couple of meals and to visit her families market shop. We have kept in touch on facebook and I will be forever grateful for our adventure together.

Side note: During my initial SE Asia travels I had started a children’s book called Elephants Cry and So Do I. Over the next few years I worked on it off and on, but had set it aside for too long. You might not believe this, but my main character (a young elephant) was named Zao. I took meeting my new friend Zao as a serendipitous message from the universe to finish the story and have been working on it ever since. You can check it out here at Thank you Zao!

Bac Ha Sunday market

Loving Bac Ha

The next day was the market in Bac Ha, the little city that I loved even more, the longer I stayed. This market had more for tourists than yesterdays Can Lao market, but was still a simple place with most of the commerce happening between local people. I got rather obsessed with the beauty of the women and girls and their costumes, in particular their leg wrappings. Most of them did not mind my taking photos. (I never take a photo if someone indicates they do not want me to.)

Since I was staying right near the market I could spend the entire day going from one area to the next and back again. I could stop and try some food, bargain for some items and wander about. The smells were rich and pungent the sight varied and exciting.

I had a good time buying items for my store. It is a rewarding challenge to pick out some items you like and then bargain with people who may not share any language. I find a note pad, a calculator and a calm, willing attitude work well.

Travel Tip: A good way to start bargaining is to inquire about the same item from a few people to get the price range for what is being asked and then thinking ahead what you might be willing to pay (often 40-60% less than original asking price). In most cultures it is considered impolite to start bargaining if you do not intend to buy the item. That does not mean you cannot walk away if you don’t get a price you are satisfied with, but it is uncool to talk down multiple vendors and not buy. When bargaining, people can get quite animated and dramatic, which is great, but stay calm and in good humor. Inexperienced shoppers sometimes get flustered and agitated which is unfortunate cause it can be a lot of fun. If a vendor is really aggressive or annoying, just walk away as there is almost always a better deal somewhere else.

I spent the whole day wandering the market and nearby streets. One of my favorite, but very simple meals I had, was multicolored sticky rice served on a leaf with some salty, ground peanuts as a garnish. I loved the gal and her friend that served it to me and sat with them for a while.