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 (sapasisters.com) 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 starquestpress.com. Thank you Zao!

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My favorite market, ever!

The town of Lao Cai

The night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai is very pleasant and inexpensive so one can splurge and get a simple, yet comfortable berth to sleep in.  I arrived in the chilly dark, before dawn where the other travelers got onto a bus for Sapa.  I however, was heading the opposite direction to Bac Ha, in hopes of experiencing a couple of lesser known market days that I had researched ahead of time. I finally found the local bus going that way and was one of the first ones aboard. The next two hours were the classic scene of more and more people, wares, livestock, and supplies being loaded in, tied onto and piled on top of the old bus. I was the only westerner, and I was excited to start seeing some of the hill tribe people in their traditional dress. It was a long steep ride, with lots of stops that allowed me to just sit and observe life in that neighborhood.

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Bac Ha is a small city of about 50,000 and is the capital area of the Flower H’mong people.  I found a decent place to stay with friendly staff and really liked everything about the place. There were not very many westerners around so we had the tendency to stop and chat with each other and frequently share meals. There were men on horse drawn, wooden wagons that added a nice touch to the visual appeal of the place.

The market of Can Lao (the favorite one)

One of the staff at the hotel agreed to take me on his motorbike to the Saturday market in Can Lao for a good price. We had to get up early and drive through the chilly morning fog. When we got there it was all I had hoped for and more.

It was a market by the local people for the local people selling and trading of new fabrics, older textiles, bags, herbs, meat and produce. The ground was rough, the smoke of cooking fires wafted through the air and bright colors of the Flower H’mong people were everywhere. The livestock included water buffalo, horses, chickens, pigs and dogs. There was an area above, under the trees where a variety of birds in lovely bamboo cages were being sold, for what purpose I do not know.

The people were either friendly or ignored me, the vibe was very pleasant. I enjoyed myself so very much and there were only a handful of other westerners there. My guide showed me around and explained some things, but also let me wander freely. On the way home we just missed a rock slide and had to wait a couple of hours for the road to be cleared.

Other villages and homes

We stopped at a couple of villages and my guide took me right into a few peoples homes. I was worried about being intrusive, but everyone was very gracious and welcoming.  I drank a little rice whiskey with some very inebriated young people in one village. Don’t worry, I wasn’t drinking with these youngsters below.

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Over all, it was one of my favorite travel days ever. I bought a few things for the store I’d had at the time, tried some new foods (couldn’t tell you what they were tho) and had a peak into another rich and fascinating world.