When our bus pulled into Sapa, the sun had still not begun to peak above the horizon. Gradually the other tourists on board stirred, woke up, and climbed off the bus. I slowly became aware of a constant, low-pitched hubbub outside that made no sense at all at that time of the morning.
When I stumbled off the bus, I found no less than a dozen Vietnamese hill tribe women who had come to meet our tourist bus. They vied with one another to invite us to come to their homes for ‘home stay’ and a trek through the mountains. If I had not already booked a tour with an agency in Hanoi, I would certainly have gone with any one of them.
The women were striking for several reasons – the first was their faces. They were deeply etched and lined with a character I had never seen in any other people. The second was the sense of palpable joy I felt from all of them. They loved what they were doing and were not shy at all. They were there to catch a tourist and they would be happy whether they did or not. The third was their clothing. They wore headdresses and coats – some were colorful and some were black. Some women carried woven baskets on their backs; some carried their young children; some carried nothing. They all carried small purses with colorful inlaid beads and all the purses held cell phones. This was National Geographic in front of my very eyes.
It was clear they were poor but none were in poverty. This was quite jarring because I have been trained to equate lack of money with hopelessness and even crime. Nothing could have been further from the truth with these women. (Interestingly, I only saw women catering to tourists.)
Several taxis picked us up, took us through the town and delivered us to several hotels. Our driver dropped us off at one of the hotels and told us to go inside. We did as we were told. Like me, the other tourists in my group had the uncomfortable feeling that no one was in charge. When a waitress asked us to sit down and have breakfast, we did. Our breakfast was nondescript but at least it filled the empty space in our stomachs after our seven-hour overnight bus ride from Hanoi.
After breakfast, a woman with a take-charge demeanor showed up and started reading names from a list, which thankfully mine was on. She told us to follow her and, again, we did as we were told. The woman led our straggling group of some 20 tourists through the streets of Sapa. Later I had a chance to chat with our guide and learned her name was Yo. I was beside myself when I learned that she was only 18 years old because she had none of the self-consciousness or awkwardness that is so characteristic of North Americans her age. She spoke English quite well so I was certain she had studied our language from an early age. “No,” Yo told me, “I learned English from tourists during the last year and a half.” I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of inadequacy over my own failed attempts to learn even more than a few words of the language of the countries I had visited.
About 2 kilometres out of town a hill tribe girl who could not have been more than 8 years old joined our group. Although she was not as accomplished in English, she clearly understood everything and enjoyed the tourists immensely. I had never before seen a girl her age display such resolute self-confidence.
These women were H’Mong. Excluding the Kinh people or ethnic Vietnamese, there are eight different ethnic minority groups in and around Sapa. They are the H’mong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa (ethnic Chinese) and Xa Pho (a denomination of the Phu La minority group).
Sapa is at roughly the same altitude as Denver (about 1,500 metres above sea level) but the similarity ends there. This city is remote; it is in the far northwest of Vietnam in the Hoang Lien Son mountains, also known as the ‘Tonkinese Alps’, and borders China. But remote does not mean undeveloped. Sapa is a compact, bustling tourist town. The streets are lined with cafes and hotels.
The geography outside Sapa was as stunning as the people I had already met. Even though the mountains were high and the valleys broad, everything looked quite accessible. The mountain people carved rice terraces into the mountainsides to grow their rice, the universal staple of Asia. I could never tell where property lines were supposed to fall. Instead, I could see that the people let the lay of the land dictate rather than surveyors when it came to the boundaries of their homes and farms.
After strenuous trekking for a few hours, our group was relieved to find the home that would serve as our base for the night. Our guide pointed us to a ladder leading up to a second floor that was little more than a sleeping platform. Each of us chose a pallet on the floor that would be our bed.
The dinner preparation that evening was unforgettable. The oversized kitchen had a concrete floor with a recess measuring about one metre by two. The recess was no deeper than 15 cm below the rest of the floor. This is where our hosts built a wood fire to cook our dinner. Since the kitchen was not blessed with a chimney, there was no escape for the smoke. In fact, our hosts took advantage of this by hanging meat from the ceiling over the fire to smoke it while preparing our meal. Meanwhile, I fought hard to repress my fear of cancer from breathing this smoke.
Late the next morning our guide rounded up her flock and led us on another trek for a couple hours that ended at a small restaurant at the side of the road. After our lunch, we climbed onto our bus to head back to our hotel. I felt a genuine sense of sadness on this bus trip back because I realized that one of the most remarkable experiences in my life had just come to a close.
If I ever have the good fortune to go back to Sapa, I will not take a tour. Instead, I will meet one of the women at the bus station and let her lead me to her home. She will introduce me to all the members of her extended family. She will not ask me what I want to eat; she will decide for me. She will make me feel like an honoured guest. She will guide me through the mountains and I will stay for a memorable week at a bargain-basement price.
Photos by Jan Wall – all rights reserved