Although my trip through Vietnam wasn't blowing my socks off I had hopes for my last stop, the only iconic thing that I was looking forward to, a trek through the rice terraces of Sapa. I skipped a visit to Halong Bay to give myself enough time, money and energy to devote to Sapa, the rice terraces, and minority villages. Instead of joining a pre arranged trip from Hanoi I decided to do the visit on my own, I booked my overnight sleeper train after only one full day in Hanoi and was soon on my way. Everything about the train ride was straightforward and easy, as far as night travel goes, but the second we arrived the negotiations started. I heard from multiple sources, including fellow travelers that the minibus from Lao Cai to Sapa should be a flat 50,000 dong, no problem. Not sure where these people got off the train but the guys were starting with offers of 100,000, had one down to 80k when I ran into a group of 3 other women negotiating with a group of drivers. They were adamant not to go above 60k, so I decided to join ranks. Eventually, we settled on a fair, but not really, 70,000 dong so we packed in for the 45-minute ride through the winding hills up to Sapa.
The fun continued when I arrived and boys were literally fighting over me, trying to get me to come stay at their guesthouse. A group of hill tribe women stood by laughing and telling me to "Be careful, you will soon have Vietnam boyfriend" but also were sure to include the "You come shopping later". I had the helmet of one on my head while another was pulling off my bag and the last was ushering me to his bike, honestly, I wish I had gotten a video or at least a picture of the scene. I finally agreed to an order of "just looking" and was taken away on bike #3, unfortunately, his room didn't have the view I was hoping for so I continued on to #2, who was waiting outside for me. Here I found the perfect room at Khack San Phuong Nam Hostel; big bed, great view, en suite bathroom and a friendly host, settled.
To make a long story short my first two days in the city were pretty uneventful, I napped for a good majority of the first one and spent the second doing yoga, skyping family and friends and relaxing (thanks to the rain). By day three it was time for me to get out and do some hiking so I called Su ['shoo'], one of the village women I met on the first day and arranged a day trip.
When you visit Sapa there's literally 100 ways to go about hiking into the villages; you could rent a bike and try to do it on your own, organize a trip through your guesthouse or one of the other 10,000 in the city, or meet one of the very eager and very friendly women along the streets and go with them. I chose the latter option 1) because I can't say no to a smiling friendly woman and 2) because I knew my money was going directly to her pocket.
I met Su just after 10am and we were quickly on our way only after making a brief stop at the market to buy food for lunch. I was a bit wary as we started to walk down the road amidst a hoard of other tourists but thankfully, we soon separated ourselves from them and had the road to ourselves. Su's friend Mae came along with us which created a nice threesome for the day, despite the fact that it was mostly the two of them chatting while I followed along. This may have bothered some people but I was perfectly content with the silence and they were more than happy to answer any questions I did have.
We walked for nearly 3 hours before arriving at the Lao Chai village where Su lives with her family; husband, two daughters (Ju, 8 and Juh, 3.5) and son (Koh, 5). The time actually flew by mostly thanks to the gorgeous scenery and perfect weather that surrounded me. One of the best things about visiting Sapa (in the summer) is that it's a good 10-20 degrees cooler than the rest of Vietnam, great for a weekend get away. Once we were settled at her house Su showed me pictures of her previous travelers while she prepared lunch with her husband.
We were soon seated to a feast of vegetables, rice and noodles; despite the heaping piles of rice I thoroughly enjoyed this meal. I kept reading about how "Vietnamese really love their vegetables" but for the most part all I had been served at my meals was a plate of garnish. The food was followed up with multiple shots of rice wine which is probably one of the most potent alcohols I've ever tasted, worse than Soju, basically ethanol. Mae and Su were pleased that I joined them in 'Chaka' (cheers) after cheers despite the faces we were all making after doing so.
A day in the village wouldn't be complete with a round of shopping so of course, Mae whipped out her bag of goods before leaving. Turns out she doesn't live in this village, but another two hours away. I wondered how the two of them had become friends but learned they grew up in the same village only Mae had to move away after marrying. I bought a few items, spending more money than I had planned, but hopefully made her happy.
By the end of the day, I was much poorer than expected, tired and had a tiny buzz going. Su walked me back out of the rice fields to the main road where I climbed on the back of her husband's motorbike for a ride back to town. Here was where the last surprise came in, I had to pay her husband another 50,000 dong for the ride, something that was supposed to be included. Su could sense I wasn't happy but had this goofy sympathetic/grateful smile on her face as she asked me if I was upset which made me care 0% about the money like I said at least I knew where it was going.
Overall my visit to Sapa was an enjoyable one and a great note to end on, after some ups and downs throughout the country. I contemplated delaying my departure and spending one more day admiring its beauty but ultimately decided it was time to move on. Although I had a great time sitting on my balcony sipping coffee and staring off into the rice fields, walking through the city was just too much. While waiting for Su I sat and watched the people of Sapa, including the hoards of tourists walking around, and couldn't help to feel bad. It was almost like sitting on the streets of New York and watching homeless people beg for money. I really wonder what the minority villages would be doing for money had the tourists never invaded, I'm sure they would have found a way without us. This is one of those examples of tourism where you're not sure if it's doing good or bad. Yes, the tourists are bringing money into the economy but is it really helping these women; making them trek into town and turn into beggars every day, often times bringing their young daughters with them. I can't help but think they might have been better off without us.
I was warned that I'd either love it or hate it. For some Vietnam is a food and adventure paradise while others just can't seem to find their grove. With a turbulent history and remains of division between north and south, it's an interesting place to say the least.