Once settled into the overnight sleeper train, I easily forgot the sweaty hustle of Hanoi and fell asleep to some magazine article and a healthy dose of Sigur Rós on my iPod. I woke up to the sight of early morning Northern Vietnam rolling past my cabin’s window. Bleary-eyed, I scrambled off the train in Lao Cai village, a transit town on the Chinese border. A minivan then took me and a dozen other tourist-types, up the winding roads to Sapa.
An early-twentieth century hill station, Sapa was once a French retreat town (gee, who would have guessed?) offering a cooling reprieve from the hot and humid rest of the country. In the last couple of decades it has re-emerged as a major tourist destination, the perfect spot to meet Montagnards, the minority hill-tribe peoples of this area. I’d been warned not to come here by a jaded French tourist I’d met in Nha Trang; disgustingly touristy, a hassle, not worth it. Thankfully, the next couple of days prove him wrong; well, partly.
The town is indeed littered with tourists, and the locals have more than adapted to their influx. The population of Hmong and Dzao/Dao minorities, long reliant on subsistence farming, have evidently embraced the free market dollars that outsiders bring in by the bus-load.
Having gotten off the train around six, my sleepy morning continued up here in the mountains, where the package tour offered us an hour and a half to get ready for the ensuing day’s hike. A cup of coffee and rudimentary bathroom wash-up later, a group of us started our trek. As we walked down the road and through the town, I quickly came to see what the Frenchman had warned of — in addition to our six hikers and tour guide, we’d gained an entourage of enterprising Black Hmong ladies, each overly friendly and eager to butter us up to sell their wares. Each morning they wake up at half-past four and hike up to the tourist hotels in town wearing traditional garb and plastic sandals, each with a large pack on their back full of handicrafts and garments, some carrying infants to boot. They then accompany hiking-gear-laden tourists down on their half-day trek into the valley and hope to unload some of their goods along the way. Their persistence was impressive, charming and cloying. Nevertheless, as I had come to realize, one cannot allow oneself to get annoyed in this type of situation situation. Between the well-worn tourist track, the package tour, the busy pit stops along the hike and the dozen women trying to make a buck off you, I would normally quickly have been at my wits’ end if it hadn’t been for the scenery.
That spectacular scenery, the valleys dotted with rice paddies and water buffalo, protected from the enshrouding fog by tall, verdant hills; it made it all worth while. You know all those bucolic images you’ve seen of this region, with its otherworldly landscape and people, those familiar-yet-foreign vistas and faces? Well hiking here is like stepping into a postcard. Despite the throngs of tourists in town, a short hike in the valley is all it takes to make the rest of the world melt away. It is quiet here, and the vast expanses of land almost make you feel like you’re the first outsider to visit. Until the guy in the other party half a click behind you falls into the rice paddy, ruining his camera in the mud, anyway.
After a half-day’s walk and several pit stops we settled into a village that has been opened up to the tourist trade. Set amongst fields and near a river, several of the village’s houses take in tourists for overnight house stays. A large, dark barn-like structure, it sleeps ten or so upstairs, with a kitchen and large open living space below. As our tour guide began preparing an impressive multi-course meal, we cracked into well-deserved beers. Somewhere along the way we had lost our morning entourage; one lady who had been trying to get me to buy something eventually gave up with an annoyed huff. Shit. Oh well. Not three minutes into our new digs, and here was a new group of young artisans, selling everything from pillow cases (which I ended up buying) to pants and shirts. Being of a different ethnic group than that of the owners of the house, they were only allowed to peek in from the outside. They would, however, persist until late in the evening, standing at the threshold, trying various sales methods, dispersing only after we promised to buy something in the morning. Unsurprisingly, they came back before any of us were even awake, hocking even as I dragged myself to the outhouse. One lady in particular, Cho, was a total riot; with a giant grin and broken English she bantered with us and we quickly decided she should have her own television show. Guess you had to be there… Anyways. Perhaps I’m not selling the experience very well, focusing on the annoyances that come with the territory. Outweighing them was an excellent evening spent swimming in the river, watching the sun set, its rays peeking beyond the distant fog, an impressive meal followed by beer and local rice wine. We all became quick friends and stayed up late bullshitting, annoying a crabby Frenchman in the house next door who came out to complain, only foddering our amusement. Good times.
The next morning we set off again on another half-day hike and were picked up down the road and taken back to town. My friend Douglas had apparently come here in the off-season and spent the entire time watching the fog from his hotel room. With rains on my last day there, I can see how the weather would quickly foul up any excursion here. The trails washed out, I’d imagine there would be nothing more to do than hit a karaoke bar and drink hooch, slowly going mad Jack Torrance style.
Despite my general dislike of packaged tours, this one turned out to be a lot of fun. After a couple of refreshing, temperate, fun-filled days I sort of dreaded boarding the train back to humid Hanoi; but I was off to see another major North Vietnamese tourist destination, Halong Bay.