After an 8-hour night train from Hanoi, we arrived at Lao Cai train station and headed to Sapa– Vietnam’s mountain trekking hub. I’d heard that foreigners get completely ripped off by a so-called “van mafia,” so we walked with a group of Vietnamese girls looking for a ride and ended up paying half the price of what the other foreigners paid, after being sworn to secrecy… We got in the van and snaked our way up through gorgeous tiered rice patties and small houses nestled in the mountains.
The town of Sapa was a lot busier than I expected. Overpriced, touristy restaurants serving Vietnamese and Western fare, along with hiking and souvenir shops, lined the streets. As soon as we stepped out of the van a group of five Hmong women, some with babies strapped to their backs, welcomed us to town and asked where we were staying. And as soon as we stepped out of the restaurant where we got breakfast, another group approached selling bracelets and other woven handicrafts, yelling, “Buy from me! Buy from me!” I heard this plea hundreds of times over the next three days.
Sapa was like a Vietnamese ethnic minority amusement park. As an anthropology nerd, I was fascinated by all the cultures represented. But at the same time, the town seemed to totally commercialize and exploit the people living nearby. Whenever I walked outside, women would swarm around me giving sales pitches. As much as I enjoyed the scenery, I felt pretty guilty contributing to the industry that had completely disrupted their way of life. You could make the argument that tourism has stimulated the economy or given these people a new way to feed their families, but I wondered if that at all justified the situation.
But, we had come to see the scenery and the people, so that’s what we did.
We had gotten the name and phone number of a local Black Hmong guide from a friend who visited the town earlier. So only two hours after we’d gotten off the night train, we met her at the local cathedral in the center of town and set off on a four-hour hike to her village.
Our guide spoke surprisingly good English, which she said she learned from tourists over the years. It was really nice to be able to understand what we were seeing and to learn more about the Black Hmong culture. We hiked with two other women who I am forever indebted to for literally holding me up as a slipped and slid down muddy paths. We also hiked with her adorable 8-year-old niece from her village.
The day started off a little cloudy, making it hard to fully see the scenery, but it got clearer as we hiked down the mountains and into the valley of villages. The views of houses tucked away in mountains and tiers of rice paddies were incredible.
We made the downhill climb and arrived at our first village in the valley. We saw schools, a few restaurants, and handicraft shops.
We finally arrived at her house– a nice wood two-story building that was visibly nicer than the other houses nearby. We met her father and mother-in-law, and watched her cook us a delicious lunch of tomato tofu, cabbage, instant noodles doctored with some spices, and rice.
After lunch came the inevitable sales pitch, but the guides had shown us such a good time that we didn’t mind buying some purses and jewelry.
Finally, two older men pulled up on motorbikes, we put on our helmets, and took off. Calling it exhilarating sounds really cheesy, but it’s the only appropriate way to describe our journey up through the mountains back to Sapa. The sun had finally come out, and the views were incredible.
Our next day was spent hiking the Cat Cat Trail, which you can do easily without a guide. The weather was perfect, and the views were amazing. The following day we did a guided tour through Sapa O’chau to see two waterfalls and the highest peak in Vietnam. The highlight of the trip, though, was trekking with the village women through the incredible scenery and getting to see how they lived outside Sapa town.