Sunday, February 9, 2014

Day 30 to 32 - Vietnam: Is the Magic of Sapa lost?

This post may only be interesting to those who have been to Sapa or to travellers who have seen a once precious travel destination change with the influx of tourists. At the very least, you may find my Unique Travel Tid-Bit of the day to be entertaining.


What happened to the magical place called Sapa? Sapa is the outcome of the perennial traveler's dilemma, 'how do I get off the beaten path?' And when I do, will touching the untouched inevitably be the ruin of a place and their pure culture? Or does modernity and technology naturally make places evolve, lessening the culture with time?

"Sapa has changed," our guide said. Tourist sizes have swelled in size (from 30,000 visitors in 1997 to likely 1.5 million in 2014), large hotels haven been erected in town and prices have skyrocketed not only for tourists, but also for locals.

I escaped the tourists with 2 other awesome travelers, taking the 'long route' up and over the mountain with Sapa Sisters tour company. But as we joined the main road, we descended into a swarm of tourists surrounded by locals dressed in tribal costumes, desperately trying to sell their embroidered handicrafts.

The tourists and vendors left as quickly as they came, emptying the streets, but this 'rush hour' lunch break at a tourist restaurant in a 'village' invoked the feeling of a Disneyland showcase for tourists.

Some of the magic is not completely lost...

Even if some tribes only wear their tribal outfits for tourists, it does preserve their decorated tradition. H'mong wear hand-
embroidered shirts of bright colors dyed by indigo plants, black velvet shorts and embroidered leg warmers. They also wear a shiny, purple vest, only for New Years.

Red Dzao wear red hats and shave their head and eyebrows once they are married.


Some of the landscape remains beautiful. A cool,

mountain breeze pushes through the valley, swirling the clouds just below the mountain tops. Methodical rows of terraced rice fields (for village consumption only, not for sale) are dry in Feb, but shine bright green in August.


Houses are surrounded by fresh produce that they pick before each meal.

Pigs run around freely....

...until they become succulent pork belly. (After my first pork belly in Laos, I'm now hooked!)

Pem (late 20s?) and Khu (18) are lovely, joyful women who were our guides from Sapa Sisters. Pem gave knowledgeable insights into the culture that would be hard to discover on your own. There are 2 stories that stood out. Pem recounted how there was arranged marriages by parents and also 'Kidnap Marriages.' A man chooses a girl he likes and brings her to his home for 3 days. They return to the girl's home and decide with her parents if she will marry. Pem pointed to the poisonous plants that woman used to eat if they were not happy with their pending marriages. Women now have the right to refuse to be 'kidnapped' or marry. Progress!

The other interesting cultural insights were around healing practices. They believe that suctioning a buffalo horn to the forehead until a bruised circle appears will cure a headache and pinching the throat, creating intense bruising will cure a cough and cold. (Picture to Come)

And Some of the Magic Has Been Lost...

Modernity and Its Impact

As I sat in the 'homestay' on the first night, listening to the sounds of Mumford and Sons and other western tunes blaring out of the 20 year old Canadians phone next to me, I was conflicted thinking the villagers deserved the modern conveniences, BUT it's not something I necessarily need to go out of my way to see. Modernity makes life easier, but it can be at a cost to nature, beauty and serenity.

The first 'village' that i slept in, Lao Chai, advertised Free WiFi and Western Bars. I could not help but notice the 11yr old girl at our homestay looking at her phone throughout dinner.

Ban Ho, the village in the 2nd valley that I 'hiked' to, looked both naked and overdressed.

The mountains stood partially bare with sections of exposed rock and dirt carved to form main roads that connect the villages by motorbike. The area appeared as a massive construction zone.

The drivers took advantage of these roads and zoomed from the main roads into the village, making even elderly ladies jump aside.

The valley and surrounding mountains are cluttered with electric towers and pole lines, so every angle has an obstructed view. It was as if I was at a Power Plant.

The 'homestays' offered hot showers, flush toilets, soda and beer. Upon arrival, the family at the 2nd 'homestay' was nowhere to be seen, but I was greeted by 8 Dzao women in tribal outfits asking 'what's your name?' 'where are you from?' 'Buy something small.' And this continued while they persistently followed me as I walked through the village.

"This is walking, not trekking," a traveler from Saigon at the 2nd homestay said to me, "I don't want to walk along main roads with an open view of the town I'm walking to. I want to be trekking in nature." Unfortunately, this is no longer possible with the building of main roads and destuction of the small, quaint paths.

If you decide to go to Sapa, I would recommend only doing a 2 day, 1 night tour, and lowering the expectations of experiencing local village life. With that said, the local guides from Sapa Sisters truly are lovely and will make it a better experience.

As Pem was combing my hair to see if she can put it in the hairstyle of H'mong, she not only commented it looked like I had not brushed my hair in awhile - an accurate observation - but she also said I have a gray hair. "You're mistaken." I said. "That must be a blonde hair." "No, she replied. Its gray and I see 2 of them!" She said in perfect English. Sigh, my first 2 gray hairs found on a mountain top outside of Sapa town.

NEXT STOP: Train to Large bus to medium bus to boat to small bus to Cat Ba island.

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