Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Into the mountains of Sapa, Northwestern Viet Nam

April and I joined the growing line of people filing through the door and along the train platform to our train car. It was 10:30PM and we were about to board an overnight train to Sapa from Hanoi, Viet Nam. We did our best to fight through the crowds that were deboarding our train and another train on the adjacent track. It wasn't just people we were dodging but, also motobikes that were being unloaded from one of the train cars. Once finally through the crowds and settled into our cabin, I tried my best to sleep as the train rumbled along the track. At 6am women began knocking on cabin doors as we rolled into the town of Lao Cai. We stepped off the train under cloudy skies and into a swarm of touts recriting us onto mini-buses bound for Sapa. After a sleepless night on the train my patience was tested but, we negotiated a good price and piled into a mini-bus.

The rain started along our climb on the mountain road. We passed spectaular views of terraced fields and majestic mountains. Clusters of bamboo swayed along the roadside. We raced along the narrow road, taking blind curves at white knuckle speeds. The mini-bus pulled into Sapa at about 7:30am, an old French hill station with remains of colonial architecture. We came to a shuddering stop in front of a guest house and our driver swiftly turned off the ignition, leaving us to the vultures. Women and men were upon us, luring us into their guesthouses with the promise of cheap rooms. At this point we were grateful for Eric, a veteran Sapa traveler, who guided us from the carnage to the central part of town.

We were tired, hungry and I was in desperate need of coffee. Walking along the main road we were vulnerable to more touts but also women from the areas many minority groups that make up a majority of Sapa's population. We quickly had an entorague of five woman hawking jewelry, indigo clothing and purses following us. April and I sought some respite in a coffee shop with friendly proprietors who let us leave our bags while we looked for a guesthouse. The entire time we recharged our tired souls our entourage waited patiently outside. They followed us all the way to our destination. With assurances that we'd consider their goods later we escaped into the welcoming Cat Cat Hotel and the ear-to-ear smile of Mr. Ha, it's manager. The Cat Cat became our second home. We had a room with a view of the mountains (at least we hoped they were behind the clouds and fog), fireplace and internet ready computer.

H'mong, Red Zao, and Dai are some of the minority groups that populated the villages around Sapa. Women walk or take motorbike rides into the town each day to sell their goods. The Black H'mong are the most direct saleswomen who work hard to secure a promise from you to buy from them. They begin socially by asking your name, where your from, how many brothers and sisters you have. They work hard to gain your loyalty singing out, "You buy from me, okay." Ping was a woman that I met our first day who's non-aggressive strategy won me over. I specifically sought her out after lunch. She carried her 2 month old daughter on her back wrapped tightly in the traditional carrying sacks. At the age of twenty-seven she had four other children at home.

Red Zao women take more of a relaxed approach, displaying their goods along the sidewalk and beckoning to passersby to have a look at their handicrafts. Young girls join the ranks at young ages and traveled in packs. The interactions we had with the women and young girls made Sapa a memorable spot on my trip.

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