The overnight train to Sapa winds through the darkness of Hanoi and when morning greets the land, outside are endless stretches of flooded, green rice fields. Farmers are hunching over planting seedlings in the pools of water or trudging behind hulking water buffaloes that drag plows through the paddies.
Sapa, which is one hour up in the hills from the final train stop in Lao Cai, had been leveled by the Chinese at the end of the 1970s, but has since rebuilt to cater to throngs of gadabouts and adventurers. The catering, however, is extreme and when you first enter the town, you wonder how you ever entertained thoughts of finding tranquility in Sapa. Hundreds of Hmong women and girls wearing traditional indigo dresses, brightly colored headscarves, circular silver earrings, charge at you once you step from the van, shouting the English phrases they’ve learned–”What’s you name? Where you from? You have brother sister? How old you? You marry?”
It becomes a scramble to gather your bags and race for a hotel room to escape the pestering.
Hiking in Sapa
The thing to do in Sapa is hike. All the trails offer spectacular views of endless rice terraces and lush mountain peaks. However, it’s hard to find a hike that avoids the crowds. (More on this in the next post.)
On our first day, we did the popular 12-kilometer walk through Hmong, Giay, and Dao villages of Lao Chai (different from the train stop) and Ta Van. As we left the hotel with the mandatory guide, ten Hmong ladies walked with us toward the trailhead. At first I thought I would ignore them, aware that their motive was to sell us crafts, but when I realized that they were hiking back with us to their village, which they do daily, I dropped my guard and entertained their curiosities. (See above questions to better understand Hmong curiosities.) They listened to our answers with apparent interest, they held my wife’s hand as we descended hills, they smiled for pictures with the mountains and verdant rice terraces behind them, they even showed us photographs of their children which they had stored on their phones.
Because their English had seemed so good when asking us questions, I asked the Hmong women about their lives. One out of ten understood me because all they really knew were those five questions. They just shrugged and smiled and made us creatures that looked like llamas out of tall grass.
Attack of the Hmong
At the end of the walk, which was less of a hike and more of a tourist conga line through minority villages that have been transformed by exposure, the women surrounded us in a schoolyard. They reached into the wicker backpacks that they had schlepped down the mountain and pulled out knit scarves and purses.
“Buy from me. Buy from me,” they whined as they shoved their crafts in our faces.
We explained that we couldn’t just buy from one, that we didn’t have room in our packs. We did not say that their crafts were unimpressive and dirty. When selling to us failed, a few resorted to begging for money. Most realized that they were wasting time on us and ran over to the next group of Westerners.
“Buy from me. Buy from me,” one of two Hmong women kept repeating as the pair followed us to the taxi. We eventually gave her some dong for an ugly bracelet.
“Buy from me,” was the phrase I heard parroted throughout Sapa. Every Hmong woman and Vietnamese clerk reiterated this exact line. The saddest utterance of this phrase came when Marissa and I were walking down into Cat Cat, another Hmong village. A girl no older than four was carrying an umbrella and humming a song as she climbed the steep steps. I started to hum the same song. She stopped, spun around, and smiled. I waved to her. She wiped the snot from her nose and said “Hello. Buy from me.” But she wasn’t even selling anything. The kids in Sapa hear this phrase so often that they think it’s a salutation.