Sunday, October 9, 2011

Northern Vietnam trip, part 1: the hill tribes of Sapa

            This past weekend was not particularly exciting for me, the exception being yet another insightful grocery store excursion (which seem to fascinate me), but what was really exciting was that on Sunday night I left with my classmates on our first trip of the year; a week long trip all across northern Vietnam - visiting hill tribes up in the northern mountains, and spending time on the waters of Ha Long bay.

We try our hand at rice harvesting, in a village near Sapa, Vietnam
            We departed for our trip late Sunday evening, at around 8:30 or so, from the Ha Noi train station. But before that, in the morning, I went with my mom and sister to the Metro Store, to get some snacks for the trip. The Metro Store is basically a Costco in disguise; everything about it just reminded me of Costco....from the giant shopping carts, to the giant shelves with boxes of stuff. It is a wholesale store, and it is massive. One side has non-food, and has everything imaginable, and the other side is devoted to food, drinks, and other consumable items. Also you have to be a card member to get into the store, like Costco, and there are people at the doors on the way out who check the carts and stamp the receipts. So after loading up on snacks, we headed home, where I finished my packing, ate dinner, and got a cab over to the station. Once we got through the station, and out to the tracks, it was really eerie. The backside of the station is tall, and very old and rundown. The other buildings surrounding the tracks are in the same condition. The tracks seem very old, and the trains sitting on them seem older still. To get to the different platforms, we had to cross the active tracks by walking over them, as there were no tunnels or bridges. The lighting was very creepy - the lamps gave off an old, yellowish light, and the whole scene just screamed European train station in WWII. We were all glad to be leaving that station as our train departed. The train itself was not too bad, actually it was quite nice. It wasn’t a typical local Vietnamese passenger train; it was a tourist train, and it took us up into the mountains to Sapa, which is something of a resort town. Our overnight train was a sleeper train, and the beds were comfortable. We arrived at 5:30am or so at a town on the Chinese boarder, about an hour or so by bus to Sapa. Before we went to bed, we talked for a while in our rooms, and played music, but we soon realized that we would have to wake up in around 6 hours, and so we went to bed.

A waterfall near Sapa

Our Sapa guide, Viet, shows us the leave used to make Indigo

            The next morning, around 5 o’clock, I was woken up by one of the most annoying sounds I think I have ever heard. Blaring out of an old crackling speaker, conveniently located right next to my face, was music, but it was no ordinary music;  instead there was a loud high-pitched guitar and vocals that, in too large of doses, could drive a deaf person insane. It continued for at least 8 minutes, until we finally figured out how to make it shut up. Soon afterwards we arrived in the city of Lao Cai which is a mid-sized city right on the boarder with China - only a river separates the two countries. We didn’t spend much time in the city, only the time it took to exit the station and board our bus, which took us up into the mountains, and to the town of Sapa. It took around an hour or so to get there as, even though the distance wasn't too far, it was a very windy and narrow road. It was a very pretty drive; there were lots of rice paddy terraces, and steep cliffs. When we arrived in Sapa, it was about 7:30am, and not too many people were out and about yet. It was very strange being there, because it was just so different from anywhere else I have been in Vietnam. First of all, it was COLD, in the 50’s or so, and the town looked like a ski village, with tons of tourist restaurants and coffee shops, and fake clothing stores like The North Face. But the actual clothes in these stores were not fake, as a lot of the clothing we buy in the US is manufactured in Vietnam, so somehow the local shops can get a hold of the brand-name clothing and sell it for super cheap, like 1/3 the price for the same exact jacket in the US. Unfortunately I was not aware of this when I bought my North Face jacket a few months ago. Later when we went out, we saw just how many tourists there were in Sapa, as they easily outnumbered the locals on the streets. After breakfast at our hotel, we headed up a hill, where we saw a cultural show, and got a great view of Sapa from above. It was raining lightly, so the path we hiked on was a little slippery.  I didn’t slip and fall on the hike, but I did slide quite a bit as I struggled to stay upright. When we got down from the hill, it was a quick walk to our hotel, where we took a short rest, and then went on another hike to a village that specializes in cloth and indigo. The villagers there also make sculptures out of limestone and sell them there. I bought a little dragon sculpture and using my incredible negotiation skills, got it for a price of 70000 dong, or about $3.50, which I think was a fair price. We continued our walk, and saw a place where the villagers manufacture indigo cloth. We also saw a big waterfall, which was pretty cool too. We soon returned to our hotel, and had a “do-it-yourself” kind of dinner at a restaurant where there was a hot pot at the table in which we cooked different types of meat. After dinner I went to sleep, ready for a busy day of harvesting rice the next day.

Rice terraces in northern Vietnam
            Tuesday was yet another long day. We were heading deep into the mountains, in search of a village not frequented much by tourists, but just enough that they have shops open and ready… anyway after about a half hour bus ride from the tourist laden streets of Sapa, we arrived at a village in a valley, of which I know not the name. As we pulled into the center of town, I noticed a suspicious gathering of many ladies in traditional ethnic clothing; heavy black dress with a red cloth hat.  Many of them were carrying large baskets on their backs and some were carrying babies as well. My suspicions were warranted because as soon as they saw us on the the bus, they went into what can only be described as: attack mode. Within seconds at least 20 of them swarmed the bus door and this was before we had even come to a stop. We could see them looking through the windows, fighting amongst themselves and singling out their uh, potential customers. As our group stepped out of the bus, we were picked off one by one, each of us acquiring our own personal lady/guide/salesperson/assistant/etc... The woman who would be my friend and foil for the day began by asking me all sorts of questions like where I was from, where I was staying, and if I liked Sapa. She also told me about her family and village. At first this was kind of interesting, but as we started our hike to a neighboring village, where we would be able to participate in a rice harvest, I noticed that the ladies weren’t turning around. They continued to follow us, and the lady who had been talking 'to me', started to talk 'at me', repeatedly saying, “When you buy something, you buy from me!” Which, of course, was happening to all my classmates at the same time. Our group which had started the hike 18 strong, including two of our teachers and local guide, had now grown into a procession of around 40 people moving across the countryside - complete with its own mobile stores and refreshment stands. After not too long, we arrived at the next village and were greeted by the leader, who invited us to his house which, conveniently, doubled as a restaurant.
The saleswomen staging area beneath our restaurant

A view from the terraces where we were working
         We decided to have lunch at some tables on the upstairs balcony, not so much for the view, which was lovely, but mostly for protection it offered us from the saleswomen, who gathered just outside the house, lying in wait. But alas, we weren’t having lunch until after the rice harvest, so we were soon back down in the thick of it. I told the woman who was following me that, unfortunately, I didn’t have a way to carry her products now, since my backpack had been left back at the village leaders house, and I thought for sure that the women would be leaving us alone now that we had  set off for the harvest, and that finally, we would be able to enjoy some peace and quiet. Was that too much to ask?? Well, apparently it was, because they did not stop following us even as we began to climb an insanely steep and slippery hill up to the rice terrace. They just kept climbing right up with us, baskets of cloth and even some babies in tow. It had been raining for the last few days here, so the already dangerous path was even more treacherous. A few hundred feet up, we reached the terraces that we would be working on. As you can see, or will be able to see soon, on the video, it was quite an impressive view of the valley. I also got to try my hand at rice harvesting, and I wasn’t too bad at it. Cutting the rice was actually a lot easier then I thought it would be, but then again I only did it for about 45 minutes or so. I can’t even imagine what it would be like working on a rice paddy for my entire life. The experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the opportunities in life that I was born with, because I could just as easily been a Vietnamese rice farmer, selling cloth to tourists when I wasn’t working in the fields. After our rice adventure, we descended down the hill to the small village, where we had lunch, and talked to some Australian tourists, who were also visiting the valley from Sapa. 

A mob surrounds one of our guys
            After lunch, the level of intensity was rising with the saleswomen, they were getting more aggressive, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I bought one small little thing from the lady following me, and when she and others swarmed me and demanded I buy more things, I used the old, “I don’t have enough money” line, which seemed to work, because they left me alone after that. Others in the group weren’t so lucky. One of braver ladies grabbed one of our guys (Luke) by the arm, and wouldn’t let go when he said he didn’t have any cash left, and he is a football player, and substantially larger then her. So we could tell they were taking some risks to make their sales. Another guy was literally mobbed, and when he refused to buy something, was called “a no good monkey” and spat at. On our way back to the main village he had about 11 saleswomen in pursuit. The friendly villagers from that morning had now completely left their “curious local” act behind and were now just ugly, aggressive salesperson. After about a 20-minute or so walk, we arrived back to the bus, and drove on out, back to Sapa. Overall I really liked the day, the rice harvesting was definitely the highlight, but the saleswomen weren’t so great. The problem I had with them is that they followed us from the moment we got off the bus to the moment we got on. Sure, they are just trying to make a living, but being tailed for 3 hours isn’t a pleasant experience for most. For the first 15 minutes, it was funny and amusing, they after that it got a little less amusing, and then for the rest of the time was just plain annoying. We came to this village to see what life is like for the rice farmers, and I don’t think that includes being followed by a moving market. But that’s just my POV. After returning to Sapa, we had dinner at a traditional restaurant, and then went to the hotel. Our time in Sapa was coming to a close, because the next day, or night I should say, we would be leaving on the train to Ha Noi, and on to part two of our journey, Ha Long bay.


  1. Thats really a once in a lifetime experience. I love the rice terraces and the views you got from them.

  2. that Is a vary pretty waterfall.