Sapa, a Souvenir Shop in the Clouds
Sapa is one of the more popular places to visit in northern Vietnam. When trying to decide how to spend our time in the country, we looked at the map and some google images and decided it was right up our alley. With limited time in Southeast Asia, it made sense to visit a landscape we hadn’t seen since Nepal.
Nature’s Air Conditioner
The small town of Sapa, high in the mountains near the border with China, was built originally as a French hill station. You can find such hill stations anywhere the European established colonies. Before the time of air conditioning, it was the only way to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of the tropics.
Sapa’s cool climate is only one of the draws, although it’s fantastic. After sweating our way through most of India, Thailand, Cambodia, and the rest of Vietnam, it was our first cool weather since leaving Nepal. It can heat up a little during the day, but if the clouds roll in and swallow the town, the temperature drops. In the evenings it can get really cool, even in summer, requiring a fleece. It was heavenly.
They Grow Stuff Up Here?
Another reason people visit Sapa is for the beautiful green mountains and valleys, cut with thousands and thousands of terraces. For some reason I never tire of looking at them, marveling at the ingenuity and difficulty in building such things. From any vantage in town, or even out your window, you can see misty mountains, lines of terraces growing rice and other crops spilling down toward the flattened valley floor below. It’s quite a sight.
Hello! You Buy From Me?
One of the biggest reasons people visit Sapa, however, is to catch a glimpse of some of the interesting and colorful ethnic minorities living in the area. The area around Sapa primarily supports peoples of the Dzao and H’Mong minorities, whose distinctive dress makes them visible even as your minibus defies physics and sanity on the way up. The Dzao women are easy to pick out because they wear red scarves around their heads. The H’Mongs (subdivided into several different groups) wear navy blue garments and flat-topped cylindrical hats, all woven with plenty of colorful embroidery.
Most of the tourism options in the area center around guided hikes and trips to the surrounding villages, often with a homestay or overnight stop in the village. This sounds like fun, and I’ve heard good reports, but it’s not really our style. Allow me to explain.
From the second you set foot in Sapa, you are hounded by groups of women selling souvenirs. They sell blankets, bracelets, headscarves, bracelets, shirts, pants, etc. It’s all handmade and some of it is quite beautiful. The problem, however, lies with the way they go about it. They stalk tourists around town, peering against restaurant or shop windows, waiting for people to come out or trying to interest them while they are still inside the restaurant. During breakfast alone we had to say no to half a dozen or more women, from age 8 or so up until who knows, all hawking their wares.
It gets really tiresome, especially when they try to pretend to be your friend first. They all have a well-rehearsed script. The first time you hear it, you might be slightly fooled into thinking they have a genuine interest in some sort of cultural exchange. Fifteen times (and usually about fifteen minutes) later, you know it exactly for what it is and it’s frustrating, annoying, and a little sad. Here’s the standard exchange:
“Hello, what country?”
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“How many brothers and sisters you have?”
“Are you the oldest or youngest?”
“I’m the middle.”
“Oh. You buy this from me?”
“OK, you buy from me later. OK?”
At that point you ignore them. This might not sound so bad, but it’s difficult to know what to do. Our last day we wanted to take some pictures of the clouds moving in over the mountains, so we went to the edge of town. A little old lady stood there, obviously lying in wait for us. A car flew past and then she crossed the street, and we could hear her shuffling behind to catch up. We’d been through this countless times before, so we weren’t in the mood. But when they won’t start with the sales pitch, ignoring them completely just comes across as rude. With a big smile on her face, she followed us around to our vantage point, then asked, “Name?” We looked at each other and decided to ignore her. She kept asking over and over again, “Name?” Then I said, “Sorry, no buy. Only picture.” “Yes, picture, picture!” We took our pictures, walked away, and she followed. “Hello, you buy from me?” We continued to ignore her until she disappeared.
Sapa is beautiful. The surrounding mountains are great, and the weather is fantastic. The local peoples are colorful and no doubt interesting.