The height of scamming and the top of the country. Connection?

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Lao Cai » Sapa
April 28th 2012
Published: May 2nd 2012
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A night train in Vietnam is like anything else in Vietnam: crazy. People rushing, pushing, falling, and screaming to get to a train that could very well possibly leave without them. There are no platform numbers, few train "staff" (even fewer who speak English), and the police in green uniforms hardly offer comfort with their austere, unsmiling faces. I was saved by an equally-overwhelmed British couple and we all safely got out to the train...but didn't know which one was ours. Which mass of people do I follow? That mass of Vietnamese or that one? A girl who sat next to me in the waiting room, who also gave me a pitying face when I hoisted my now-too large bag on my back, came back for me and beckoned me to follow her. Once in my cabin I sat down and didn't move again. I was too afraid I'd loose my seat or get jostled off the train.

My trip from Hanoi to Sapa lasted 12 hours, which is 4 hours longer than it should have. The trains are old, loud, the metal screaming to be replaced and the passengers could get even louder. When we left Hanoi, every seat was filled, but that hardly stopped the conductors from adding new seats, these in the form of plastic chairs in the middle of the aisle. And when the beverage cart came around (with instant noodles being their top sell) the newcomers would have to squeeze between the seat in front of them and the legs of the passenger behind them. And somehow, and really it's amazing, it all seemed to work. As for me and my Austrian seat companion, we were left alone, only having to deal with the occasional bump on the head (me) or the jostle of the train (both of us).

In the morning, with the sun shining brightly through the windows, we were awakened by the gleeful laughter of children, excited for the coming holiday, smiling and running about like they hadn't been freed in ages. Grandparents took babies in their laps and covered them with kisses, both generations smiling gap-toothed at one another. Families came alive and joked and blended with one another in a way that made me miss mine. It was the perfect moment to wake up to.

Train tracks end at Lao Cai, a bordering town next to China. From
Around SapaAround SapaAround Sapa

Taken from the bus, so please forgive the quality
here, it is an hour drive to Sapa, taking beautiful, breath-taking switchback turns at around 55 miles an hour. Of all the scenery in this country, I think this is my favorite. The mountains are flush with green and plunge into deep valleys where rivers run down towards the far distant sea. Terraced farmlands, like stepping stones for giants, hug the sides of the mountains and dirt tracks crisscross their way up to the summit, the occaisional motorcycle seen bumping along. There is a breeze too, which floats in with the smell of soil and sunshine.

The town of Sapa and its environs are tourist attractions mostly for the ethnic people who come to the market to sell their goods. It's also a lot cooler wit the mountain breezes. And honestly, it's become a little too touristy with every woman, weighed down with the bags, blankets, and pillowcases she has stitched by hand, asking the three basic questions in English: What's your name? Where you from? How old are you? You see any Westerner in town and they have one or two local women in tow, walking and talking with you, making friends until they throw in their sales
Hills going up to SapaHills going up to SapaHills going up to Sapa

Again, a bus photo

But even with the capitilistic feelings behind the whole affair, these women are incredible. They walk anywere from 7 kilometers to 3 hours away to come to Sapa and sell their ethnic, cultural designs. Many of them are my age or younger, several having married at age 17 and had a baby soon after. Sometimes their children are strapped to their backs at other times holding onto their hands. Yang is 23 with three kids at home and after walking the 7 kilometers up the mountain to Sapa, she returns before the sun sets to cook for her family. Hui is in her late twenties, also with three children but she wants to have more. Both women have hands colored green from dying fabric and gold teeth shine when they smile. Zi is thirty, her English acquired from speaking with tourists so her pronunication is sometimes difficult to place. We sit by the lake and she teaches me phrases in her language; but she can't read or write so what I put down on paper is something completely different than what she says, but she nods enthusiastically and smiles. They all want me to buy something and though my heart breaks, I can't afford everything in their baskets.

Near Sapa is another market town, Bac Ha where the Flower H'mong women sell their designs. Here the ideas are the same, though they haven't quite perfected the Q&A session that occurs in Sapa. And they also charge three times the going rate for anything if you aren't Vietnamese.

The corruption inherent in the Vietnamese culture is sometimes hard to stomach. It's particularly focused against Westerners who, for years, were willing to pay the higher prices since they were cheaper compared to what was demanded back home. Even though now times are changing and tourists are catching on and researching the real prices of things, at times you can still get scammed, knowing full well it's happening but can do nothing about it. I was charged twice as much than agreed upon at my hotel, plus he charged me double again for the bus ticket he booked, taking the extra money for himself and his "commition". I could argue, but what good would that do? He'd just call the equally (if not more) corrupt police and then I'd be stuck defending my side to one of those unsmiling uniformed men.

It's disappointing to have the beauty of places like this tainted with ill feelings and bad memories. But sometimes both the beauty and the ugly of Vietnam have to be swallowed together to get anywhere.

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