Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sapa Vietnam Day 1: Beginning the cultural discovery

I eagerly boarded the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa.  Unlike some of the other Vietnam destinations on this trip, I had never been to Sapa before.  Still, my best travel experiences (including prior trips to Vietnam) have been in little villages or towns where I learned something about the indigenous culture and interacted with people whose perspectives are so different from mine.  In fact, the best trip I have taken in the last decade was my trip in 2012 to Myanmar, particularly for this reason.

Sapa is best known for its scenic terraced rice paddies.  Of course, I wanted to see these picturesque man-made farming wonders.   More than that, I was hoping to learn more about the minority tribes who live in the hillside villages.  The largest of these, the Hmongs, have a sad history as many of them in Vietnam and Laos sided with the U.S. during the war, only to suffer disproportionately after the war ended.  I knew almost nothing about the other minority tribes.  I looked forward to expanding my knowledge and experience.

I booked on the Orient Express sleeper train.  The journey took nine and half hours, an hour longer than normal due to track maintenance.  I slept well through most of it.  The rails are rickety, and so there is a lot of bumpy jostling, but to me it felt more like being rocked in a crib.  I chatted briefly with my cabin mates, an English couple who were bicycling across Vietnam, and an Aussie hippie who was just hiking across Asia.  I enjoy biking, but didn’t envy the couple's 8 hours per day pedaling across rather primitive road conditions.  Soon enough, I put on my eye mask, settled into my bunk, and slept like a log.

The train does not go to Sapa, but to Lao Cai, the closest major town with a rail connection.  Chaos ensued at the Lao Cai station as minibus drivers tried to hustle passengers into their shuttle to Sapa.  The smarter tourists had arranged a pick up directly with their hotel.  Of course, I was not one of them.  I did know, however, that the standard fare was about $2.50 for the 50 minute journey, and was able to quickly negotiate that fare with one of the drivers.

My minibus waited in the parking lot for about 10 minutes while the driver tried to corral more passengers.  Some of the less informed passengers paid $10 for the same journey, and I was tempted to say something.  Ultimately, I decided to let the free market rule.  The driver quoted an upfront price and the passengers accepted.  Who was I to intervene on one side or the other in this negotiation?

The ride was quite scenic, as the views of the rice terraces dominated the journey around the mountain side.  I tried taking some photos, but then gave up as the jostling within the van and the speed of travel hindered any decent shots.  When I sat down, I noticed that a bunch of plastic bags were in the seat pocket in front of me.  Half way through the trip, I understood their significance as two of the passengers started getting car sick.  Oh great.  At least the plastic bags could be sealed as to not stink up the rest of the minivan.

I booked at the Sapa Hotel for $43 per night, and it was quite close to Sapa’s “bus station.”  There is no real bus station; the minibuses and cabs simply congregate, no pun intended, around the main church in Sapa’s square.   Light rain greeted me, so I quickly walked to the hotel and was lucky enough to find my room ready even at this early morning hour.

After settling in, I decided to explore Sapa town, including the local market.

Many tribes people roamed around, trying to sell handicrafts and other goods.  Some of them live in Sapa, but many of them walk for hours into the town to peddle their wares.  Other tribes people attempted to find trekkers who needed local guides.  Their English was generally quite good.  I politely declined their advances, and just walked about the town snooping around.  The most scenic part of the town was the lake, where I would return several times.  To me, it looked more like Switzerland than Vietnam.

Central Sapa town is quite small, and I easily covered most of it in a short amount of time.  To be frank, I was a bit disappointed as the town seemed extremely touristy, and even the tribes people in town seemed a little too hard edged about commerce.  I felt like I was visiting a Disneyfied introduction to the local culture, if that makes any sense.   You know, where people put on local costumes during the day to make money from the audience, rather than presenting an authentic version of themselves.  This comment is a bit exaggerated, but conveys my (perhaps unjustified) deflated feeling.

I grabbed a quick lunch in town, but this led to my second disappointment.  During the course of my three days here, I had only one satisfactory food experience.  Again, most of the restaurants seemed set up for tourists’ palates.  I found the food tasteless and flat.  As for the “local” places, grrrr, more on that later.

Many tourists come to Sapa for the hiking, as the hills are ideal for long scenic walks.  The closest village to Sapa is Cat Cat Village, a short 20 minute downhill walk, followed by another trekking route down the village pathway.  Of course, the up hill return walk is much longer.  I took my time walking downhill, snapping photos along the way.

I encountered this girl who was picking wild plants in a field (at least I think they were wild plants).  She didn’t speak a word of English, but waved back hello.  I mimicked that I would like to try on her back basket and she obliged.  It was heavier than I thought.  I later discovered that she would sell her pickings in town for 25 cents per 3 kgs!  Talk about back breaking child labor.  When we parted, she accepted my offer of candy and waved goodbye.  Western culture has put a sordid connotation on grown men offering candy to children.  In other parts of the world, it is regarded as a simple friendly gesture.

Eventually, I arrived at Cat Cat Village.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the village charges an entry fee!  Was I in for more of Disneyland?  At least they appear to be using the proceeds appropriately, as the downhill trek from the entrance was well paved.

Near the entrance way, a group of tourists had scattered candy about to local children, creating a bit of a mini riot.  OK, so perhaps my earlier comment on candy deserves a bit of modification.  Still, I think a smile and a friendly sweet token can go a long way in making an introduction to children and their parents.

Small store fronts dotted the pathway, but in the light rain, few customers had ventured out.

About half way down, I noticed an unpaved trail to the left, and decided to head that way instead.  I had seen enough of the small shops.  This pathway was my first introduction to some of the village life.  I took a long slow meander through the trail, and got my first close up view of the terraced paddies.  The scenery was beautiful, and everyone happily waved back when I waved hi.

Eventually, the dirt trail circled back to the paved hillside store-front main walk way of Cat Cat Village, but it descended sharply.  I went to check it out.

I continued downhill until I reached what I later learned was a famous waterfall.  It was pretty enough, but I would soon discover that the waterfalls in the area are both plentiful, and not as exciting as some of the tour books or guides would like one to think.

I continued along the trail, not sure where it would lead, but two Westerners were in front of me with a tour guide so I thought I would just follow them.  Lots of kids were playing about, and I wondered why they weren't in school.  They were generally left to their own devices, however, presumably because their parents were working in the fields.  Eventually, the pathway circled back uphill until I exited near the main entrance of Cat Cat village where I had started.

The uphill walk back up to Sapa town was a bit more strenuous.  The light rain had been annoying all day, but finally seemed to be letting up a bit, allowing for better photos.

About half way up is a tall restaurant building overlooking the valley.  The building spoils some of the photos from above, but it does provide pretty good views from its rooftop deck.  They even charge a fee to people who want to come up for photos if they don’t order from the menu.  I stopped for coffee and some photos, and just relaxed for a bit.  The scenery was stunning.

When I left the cafe, I encountered a water buffalo munching happily near the restaurant's outdoor menu poster.  The scene was a bit surreal, sort of like a badly made water buffalo sculpture advertisement, but it was in fact alive.

Eventually, I decided to walk back to central town.  I explored a bit more before calling it a day, and did some window shopping as well.  There are a lot of tourist shops, including those selling exquisite European fashion "Made in Phrance."  I decided to pass.

The trek through Cat Cat was interesting, and the view from the rooftop deck was spectacular, but overall, I felt a little let down by my first day.  As I mentioned, central Sapa town seemed like a sanitized introduction to the local people, and I felt there must be more to village life than what I had seen in Cat Cat.

I discussed this with the hotel staff, and they recommended several other villages accessible only by motorbike.  I decided to give that a try the following day in the hopes of learning and experiencing something that felt a bit more genuine.

This would turn out to be a very wise decision.

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