Sa Pa / Muong Hoa Valley

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Asia » Vietnam
July 17th 2018
Published: July 20th 2018
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1. The New Highway

The sleeper bus departed Hanoi at 7AM. I was inch or two too tall for the beds but it was still better than a regular bus. Tourists once preferred the overnight train, but the new highway to Sa Pa has changed things.

Out the window were endless plains of rice fields, many punctuated with roadside tombstones and shrines.

We arrived a little after noon. A dozen or so guides - all women - waited outside the bus. When I got off, they asked if I had a guide. I earnestly said yes, so they let me be.

2. H'Mong Guide

I'd arranged with my homestay to meet my guide at the town church. Mae introduced herself as I towered over her. The first question she asked is how old I am.

I refused to let a motorbike guy take my bag to the homestay via roads, so Mae exchanged some words with him, he looked frustrated and sped off, and I felt guilty.

She took me to lunch. There were piles of chicken bones discarded on the cement floor as caged parakeets looked on. I ordered a fried rice dish and she ordered an unseasoned piece of chicken, a bowl of rice, and a cup of hot water.

3. "You buy from me."

Touts annoy me and sometimes I'm not nice to them.
"Hello - why you come to India?"
"Not to talk to you."
Often such responses cause escalation.

Being friendly doesn't make it any easier because then they accuse me of leading them on. Once a man who followed me for an hour put a hex on me and said I would break my legs hiking.

But they're almost always men. So when it's a woman and I can no longer fantasize about some gratuitous act of violence that I have to convince myself isn't worth ending up in some horrid prison for the rest of my life, I'm caught a bit off guard.

After lunch we meandered through some side streets and three other women with baskets on their backs began walking behind us. I couldn't see what they were carrying. I asked who they were and my guide only gave vague answers, like "They are walking to their village." Had they been men, I would have threatened to leave. They spoke little English but still knew how to ask how old I am.

It was during the rainy season so the trails were slippery as we descended through a bamboo forest and into the valley of indigo, corn and rice. They fluttered around me like butterflies and held my hands in the difficult sections. We were surrounded by bamboo but Mae ignored me when I explained that I just needed one of a proper length to use as a walking stick.

I figured the walk would take two hours or so, since it was 8km by road, but Mae led us through different towns, along rice paddy dams, and across the river a few times. Most of my photos are from this section of the walk. We took some breaks and I offered the exhausted escorts water, but they refused.

Four hours later they stopped abruptly and said that they live nearby, and then finally presente what ws in their baskets: handicrafts. They pulled a chair from a local restaurant, asked me to sit, and there they had me. "I follow you long time. You buy from me."

4. "What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?"

Once the handicraft ladies left with their money for the day, Mae became more talkative. It was a story I'd heard before. Her tribe (and the four other ethnic groups in the valley) has farmed there for probably thousands of years. Their exquisite sense of geometry made these incredible rice paddies that look so special on (fill in social medium here).

But who wants to wear the conical rice hats and sow the fields when all they get to reap is the rice that sells for 50 cents a kilo, while the people who buy the land and build hotels reap trillions of dong (dong is the currency, and it's pretty inflated... 22,000 dong to the dollar)? To her credit, she conceded that the new hospitals mean that infants don't die anymore and the new schools mean the kids can read and get a good job someday. But it's still pretty shitty.

5. Supply and Demand

Not a demand for minerals or anything else material, but a demand for these unique experiences that we humanists say give life value, and that are reinforced during every commercial break - in credit card, mutual fund, phone, and car commercials, sometimes only breaking up the preaching from the real gurus- on travel shows.

And now we get to post it so that everyone sees that we did this fulfilling thing, which is probably why tourism is booming everywhere. I like to think I'm not a target and that my interest stems from a purer vine, but that's probably naive.

So with this brimming demand, decision-makers build a new road or bridge. Then construction materials and large buses can get there quickly. Eventually it will become somewhere backpackers won't demand any longer, but that's ok - Chinese tour buses leave a lot more cash behind. And then someday far in the future they will be ruins, like Roman roads.

6. Selling Out

Years ago tourism in Sa Pa must have begun with homestays, where you'd stay in a local's home with an added spare room or two. But this word has been stretched over the years to a comedic degree - many of the dozens of "homestays" in Te Van, backpacker central, are 20-room, 2-story hotels, some with tiki bars below that play Jimmy Buffett and John Mellencamp and serve "the best mojitos in town."
Sa Pa Town floodingSa Pa Town floodingSa Pa Town flooding

It's impressive that all this water finds somewhere to go, without much damage.

Mae pointed to all the construction and complained that there are too many homestays already. She offers a true homestay experience at her house if anyone wants to try it (her number is 01676004196). She can't advertise it online because she can't read or write. After hearing her outspokenness on the matter, I was glad that she was leading me to Zizi's homestay, which I'd read is pretty rustic, being on a local family's farm.

Zizi's was certainly authentic, but after a night and morning of kids and dogs everywhere, and a rooster crowing at 5AM, and a very hard bed in a room with only bamboo between me and loud conversation, in the morning I headed into Ta Van, where I switched to Ecological Homestay, which stretches both words to the limit, the former only because the cottages are built on former rice paddies! But boy was it comfy, and the same price.

7. Sa Pa Town Typhoon

I stayed two more days in the valley, hiking and running on roads when I could, since the typhoon made the trails a mess. The hill tribe guides led groups around the same way Mae led me, always with a few local escorts, so they no time to bother me.

As penance for my stay at Ecological Homestay, I decided to keep up my vehicle-less exploration of the valley and to walk the three hours back to Sa Pa. It had rained all night but the morning was just a drizzle. Then an hour in and it was a deluge. I entered the Sa Pa Town tourist center during the peak (see photo) - tourists were huddled in the hipster cafes, hoping for better weather so they could see the valley, maybe from the cable car line that was just built or in a few years from the 15-story hotel currently under construction.

The main street was attractive enough, but I was glad that Mae had chosen another route.

Additional photos below
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20th July 2018

The touts are annoying at times and to have them follow you along the way with expectations would be annoying Thanks for taking us along.
21st July 2018

All the new infrastructure makes travel very convenient but ...
I visited 10 years ago - sounds much the same but with more construction and a cable car -- woo hoo. Unfortunately, it also means that there will be many more tourists as well. To avoid all the tourists we mostly visit in shoulder seasons (if they even exist anymore -- a lot of places seem to be in season all year round), but we don't always get good weather, and in Sapa we couldn't see the rice terraces at all. I guess if we visit again, we will look for a smaller village nearby to stay. We also bought a lot of little purses and bags, etc. In Laos too. We felt it was the least we could do for these people that don't actually benefit from the tourism and with the weather being bad were the best thing there - meeting and talking to them made our stay very enjoyable. Have to mention the Baguette and Chocolat cafe too -- after a month of rice and vegetables I made it my mission to try all the French pastries, we visited every day but we didn't succeed!

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