As you travel through Vietnam you can pick out your fellow travellers by the souvenirs they collect along the way. It may be a trashy t-shirt or sampan, or a woven bracelet of the kind you find at markets and in Oxfam shops. You get chatting and ask where they’ve been. If it’s someone who is travelling north to south they will tell you ‘Sa Pa’ hold you their wrists and waggle their woven bracelets at you in a strange sign language you don’t yet understand. But you will, they tell you. Oh you will.
Sa Pa is a small town in the mountainous northern regions of Vietnam near the border with China. Capital of the Lao Cai province, it has for a long time been a market town and administrative centre.
Now the town survives on the tourists that flood in from Ha Noi to experience the mountains for a few nights before heading out to Ha Long Bay. To get to Sa Pa, one catches on overnight train to Lao Cai, waits for a seemingly interminable time for your hostel bus to find you and then it’s a 45 minute drive up through the mountains.
Sa Pa valley
I got quite excited on the bus ride up. Looking out of the rain-splattered window, the view slowly changed from concrete and grime to red clay, rice terraces and water buffalo. Farmers shacks and yellow painted schools lined the road.
Sa Pa looked same-same-but-different to every other town but we were in for a rude shock. As we stopped at the first hotel drop off, the bus was mobbed by a score of traditionally dressed women waiting to pounce on the new arrivals. The bus literally rocked from the force as they hit the side. The look of panic in the eyes of the couple who got off was genuine fear at what they’d got themselves in to. The performance was repeated at every hotel until we finally disembarked and shoved our way through the waiting crowd.We were in Sa Pa for only one night, arriving 9am one day, leaving 6pm the next day. Considering this, I had taken an executive decision to splash out the extra $2 a night each on a room at the top of our hostel, which promised magnificent views. It did not disappoint.
We were told that ours was the ‘honeymoon suite’, even though it had 2 single beds and questionable linen. The view was certainly glorious.
Taking the advice of a couple we’d met in Hue, we had hired a guide for the duration of our visit. Danny appeared shortly after we’d checked in, wearing a bright orange t-shirt, safari helmet and a huge grin. He looked like a lanky Vietnamese bear. Today he would be taking us down to Cat Cat Falls and tomorrow we would go on a walk down into Sa Pa valley and through the fields.
The track to Cat Cat village.
On the path to Cat Cat.
Locally dyed and woven linens.
The walk to Cat Cat falls was the easy must-do in Sa Pa. The trail was properly marked out and spotted with stalls selling distinctive Sa Pa linens and carvings. Easy to do without a guide but Danny was entertaining and informative, taking us into huts and telling us about traditional farming methods, life in Sa Pa and the Vietnamese tourist trade.
Drying corn harvest.
Local black pigs.
Cat Cat Falls when we got there was delightful, though not as delightful as our two new friends who were interested in our roasted sweet potatoes.
Making new friends, who were really only interested in our roasted sweet potato.
Cat Cat falls
Heading back up the mountain, we were given a choice; walk, or pay 30,000VND each ($1.50) to be taken by bike. The ride up that twisty, pot-holed mountain road was a highlight of the whole trip.
Me and our guide, Danny.
Sa Pa is famous among tourists not for the magnificent views but for the commercial persistence of the local woman. As soon as you arrive in town or step out onto the street you are mobbed by women in traditional garb selling you rugs, cloth, earrings, hats, carvings and of course, bracelets. Sure enough when we stepped out of the hostel for our one afternoon of shopping we were surrounded by eight chatty, pushy women.
We were told very firmly by Danny and the hostel; do not talk to them. To talk is to encourage. I had no problem with this. Having had similar experiences in other countries, I have no problem being ‘mean’ and ignoring commercial pests completely. As far as I am concerned, this sort of bullying persistence should never be encouraged.
Typical Sa Pa high street scene, pressure-selling at its most unwelcome.
Jane, on the other hand, was made of … nicer stuff. The resolve to not speak lasted some 3 minutes and that was it. We walked around town for 2 hours, visited every store, every street and not for one moment did these women let off. After a while they gave me up as a lost cause. Jane, however, was surrounded non-stop. This left me free to hang back and take photos.
Jane and half of our crowd in the streets of Sa Pa.
To her credit, Jane bought nothing. Almost nothing. At the end of the trip, at our door, after 2 hours of holding out, she bought … bracelets. We were branded forever with the mark of Sa Pa.
That night, the benefits of having a guide paid off and we met up with Danny and taken to the best pub in town. A cart selling 20,000VND ($1) jugs of Bia Hoi on a corner of a street looking down over the town and out along the valley.
Jane, Danny and the Bia Hoi.
Our second day in Sa Pa was one of my favourite days in the whole holiday. Danny collected us and fellow traveller Pietr (Swedish guy we’d met the night before. For the full story invite us out for a drink.) from our hotel nice and early and we headed off for a day trek through Sa Pa valley.
Rice fields on the valley floor.
Finishing the rice harvest.
We spent the day walking through rice fields and down dirt roads, talking about life and travel and the state of Vietnam. We were accompanied by four young girls who caught us at the edge of town and stayed with us until a communal shopping stop for local women that we reached many hours later. Unlike our rent-a-crowd yesterday, these girls barely spoke to us. It was as if they were in training for the big gig of high-street nagging.
Our local ‘guides’ who should have been in school but are encouraged to tag along with tourists for the money they receive. We did not want to encourage this behaviour, so took Danny’s advice and gave them no money or encouragement to be with us.
Local H’Mong women.
We had lunch in a community eating joint in the middle of the fields. Though we had been in sight of no other people since leaving Sa Pa, here guided groups of three and four tourists congregated with their guides and the local dog population for a delicious meal.
We left Sa Pa that night for Ha Noi. I had loved our brief time in the mountains and I’d love to stay longer next time. Unfortunately the only problem was the locals. This would be the one and only time I would complain about the locals for our entire visit to Vietnam. Being mobbed by people who will not leave you alone is not fun. It makes you turn indoors and seek out your hotel room just for some shelter and peace and quiet. In a place where you want to be enjoying the big outdoors it’s a real issue. But as Sa Pa attracts increasing tourist numbers, the problem is only going to get worse as the number of gullible purses increases.
Traditional dress and cloth made into bags at a road side stall for tourists.