This weekend, I took a trip to Sa Pa. It’s a touristy places, but it’s B – E – A – UTIFUL.
I was actually hesitant to take a day off from working at the NGO to go on a weekend trip, but I learned a lot, a lot that is related to the work that I do with CECAD.
So, I finished work early on Thursday to head onto a bus that would take me and 6 other of my friends, who I’ve met through VPV, to Sa Pa. The bus ride was supposed to take 12 hours, but it ended up taking 20. Crazy. 12 was already a lot!
Anyway, we arrived in Sa Pa on Friday, but we had lost a full day of trekking. We had lunch / dinner and we were introduced to a local villager, who became our tour guide. Then, we drove down the mountain where we were greeted by Hmong women and children. They walked us to our home stay, which was an hour away by foot. We were able to walk through one of the villages in Sa Pa (there are many), and see the landscape.
The Hmong women and children were very nice. They speak Hmong, so I couldn’t understand them if they were speaking to each other, but they also spoke English. What is your name? That is a very pretty name. Where are you from? How old are you? Do you have any brothers and sisters? They have an easy conversation with you as they escort you to the home stay.
When you’re almost there, they pull out their merchandise and try to sell it to you!
The trip altogether was supposed to be 3 days and 2 nights. So, the first home stay was pretty nice. It was owned by a Vietnamese family, so I could understand them. The house was big and the upstairs was entirely dedicated to tourists and trekkers staying for the night. They had mosquito nets, a nice shower, WiFi (which was more than I was asking for). Before we had dinner, the father poured everyone a shot of rice wine and we drank to the nice company. The family was super nice and accommodating.
The second day was full of just trekking through the mountains. But, it had rained a few days before, and the road was muddy and slippery. It was terrible. The Hmong women and children came with us again, and I was sooooo thankful that they were there because they caught me from falling several times by holding my hands (both hands) and telling me where to step. But, because I wasn’t wearing the right shoes and I am naturally clumsy, I easily fell 3 times, even with their help.
The trek was very strenuous and tiring, but that’s probably because I am not very fit to begin with. Some of my friends agreed with me, while some of them enjoyed it a lot.
Towards the end of the trek, the Hmong pulled out their merchandise again. I bought a pouch and a bag from the two women that were helping me through the trek because they had saved my life (literally) multiple times. 100,000 VND each.
But, once the other women saw that I bought from these women, they swarmed around me, holding out their things, hoping I would buy from them too. I was even separated from my friends because I couldn’t get away fast enough.
I felt bad because I couldn’t buy from them. There was this one little girl that followed me a long way until I found my friends, trying to selling me bracelets. I felt terrible.
It turned out that what I had paid was too expensive. Apparently, I am bad at bargaining. When I asked for the price, they said 400,000 VND. I bargained to 100,000, which I thought was pretty good. But, when I reached my friends, they said that the women could have easily sold me those things for 40,000 VND. The women are hustlers!
But, honestly, I don’t feel too bad about losing that money. One, because it is not too much in USD. And second, because I understand that a lot of the income that these families generate is from tourism.
However, before I go into that, I just want to say three things:
- The second home stay was not as good as the first one. It was owned by local villagers, who were still nice and tried to accommodate as much as they could. But, water from the faucets came out in drips, so it was hard too take a shower and the beds were dirty. Nevertheless, it was only one night, so I didn’t mind too much. I am much more appreciative of the showers and clean beds that I am able to have. It’s the little things that I take for granted; I see that I am completely privileged.
- We had a set menu throughout the time. In morning we would have banana crepe-like pancakes with a sweet sauce. There was always coffee or tea to accompany it. Then, at lunch we ate ramen. It was dressed up with some eggs and cabbage, but you knew that it was ramen. So, I had ramen for lunch for two days. Then, in the evening, there was spring rolls, tofu, some kinds of veggies, steamed rice, and probably some other stuff I am forgetting. Food was generally good, even though it didn’t change much.
- On the third day of the trip, we added some swimming into the mix. For me, this is what made the trip worth it. We walked to a nearby waterfall; the water was relatively calm, and it was sooo nice. I didn’t swim because I didn’t want to, but I stuck my feet in the water, and it felt so good. The weather was warm, but the water was cool. My friend and I tried skipping stones. Some others swam and enjoyed climbing some boulders. It was just a good time.
But, after lunch, we had this horrible trek complete up the mountain. Took us 2 hours, and I was dying by the end. So embarrassed because I was holding everyone back, but I am proud that I kept going and didn’t want to cry. Well, I wanted to cry a little bit. :P
I wish I had a picture to show the actual depth that I climbed.
So, going back to tourism.
One of things that I have learned with CECAD and experienced in Sa Pa is the dependency on tourism that some communities have taken up. Sa Pa and its surrounding villages are one of them. The men work on the farms, while the women entertain the tourists. The tour guides that led us around are no more than 18 years old. The kids were selling me merchandise. Everyone was dressed in traditional / cultural clothing that they make and color with indigo dye. A lot of tourists stay in home stays, where families let strangers into their house.
The communities that CECAD work with do “community-based tourism”, which means that profits are shared among the families in the village, equitably. That’s the idea.
But, I don’t see this in Sa Pa, not that I know for sure because I don’t know how community-based tourism should look like. Anyway, the women were fighting with one another to take my money. Some were trying to convince me that I should buy from them versus someone else. I felt bad.
Is this what it means to have an income based on tourism? What happens when there aren’t many tourists? Do they like doing this? How does it feel to constantly let strangers into their homes? And cook for them? And clean up after them? Is it so integrated into their lifestyle that they enjoy it? Do they have any other choice?
As someone raised in America, it is hard for me to understand why people would choose to have this constant instability in their lives. Their income is based on the exogenous factor of tourism. I understand that tourism in Sa Pa is already established, so that eases the worry a little, but what about other locations that rely on tourism? Tourism is probably not enough to become rich. But, are they worried about becoming rich or are they already comfortable with how they live now? I can understand that it is definitely a different culture. People here are definitely more welcoming than people in America, so maybe tourists coming in and out isn’t a big deal. Meeting new people all the time may be fun.
I hope to learn more about this later because Vietnam’s growing economy can be attributed to its growing tourism sector. Maybe not entirely, but I feel like Vietnam is welcoming to foreigners for this reason. Spend money in Vietnam, and with the inflated Dong, foreigners could potentially spend a lot.
This is something I am still learning and experiencing.
Overall, the trip was tough, but good. I feel that for most of the time I was busy looking at my feet, and I couldn’t enjoy the scenery that much, but I am glad I went and was able to meet the Hmong women. Sa Pa was incredible. I came back to Ha Noi with a lot of bug bites, a lot of bruises, a gnarly scape on my leg, but a great experience.
Over and out.
PS. One of my tour guides, her name is La, had a red mark on her forehead on one of the days. She said that it was something that cured her headache. My memory fails me on exactly the procedure, but it was something like lighting the inside of a buffalo horn on fire and pressing it to her forehead.
PPS. These villages are very quiet. There are a lot of kids and animals around. Chicken, duck, buffalo, pigs. The oldest person in the village is about 90 years old. Plus, the weather in Sa Pa, as I heard, is generally the same throughout the year.
PPPS. I can’t bargain. It hurts too much.