Our stay in SaPa was fairly uneventful, because of the foggy weather, we took the opportunity to relax, sleep, watch some movies and write while we waited for the clouds to part.
SaPa is a fairly quite mountain town with the hustle and bustle mainly coming from tourist activity. There are quite a few very fancy looking hotels and even more over priced restaurants claiming to serve authentic western food. The draw of the town comes from not only the amazing green mountains scattered with hundreds of tiered rice patty fields but also for its bright colors of mountain tribes.
The biggest tribe are called H’mong people, with the women selling crafts and accompanying people on their mountain treks to their villages. The H’mong women wear bright neon plaid scarves on their heads. Black jackets with brightly embroidered sleeves, huge silver hoop earrings and leg warmers. They are the original hipster.
The H’mong women can’t be missed as they will follow you from the moment you get off the bus to the second you walk out of your guest house. As they follow you from behind or approach you from the front they’ll quickly offer every item of clothing or craft on their person. These items range from bracelets to purses, musical instruments to little key chains. All this with the constant, “Where you from? You buy from meee?!” With the “meeee” stressed and high pitched like a little kid begging his mother for one more cookie or just maybe one more new toy. Everyone asked the same thing in the same way making us less and less interested in what they were selling and what they were asking. For us this was a real shame because we did want to talk to them, we did want to buy something, but you are forced to shut down as you know answering one question leads to another that leads to, “You buy from me.” Everyone we spoke with that went on a trek said the women that followed and gave a helping hand demanded and stayed on them about buying something after all their help. And maybe we should buy something, but no one wants to be tricked into buying something, even if we experience this everyday in our western lives from the advertising world. For me it goes back to a saying on “you don’t do to get…”
We hope all this talk of the H’mong women trying to sell you things doesn’t give you a negative idea of the villagers. They do work very hard, the women ware giant wicker baskets as backpacks and can be seen all day hiking up and down the mountains carrying produce and other goods to and from their villages and the market. They simply see the tourists as another market to tap to make money for their people, so really we are partly to blame for their actions as well.
It was on a Saturday that we got our big break in the weather and decided to take a trek down to the villages, sans guide and H’mong women. We trekked down further and further in hopes of finding a destination, some place to stop and rest. A place free of fog. But as we walked down the mountain further the fog seemed to get more and more dense and knowing each step down would be twice as hard back up, we decided it was time to turn around. In all we probably trekked close to 10 miles that day, and my feet could tell.
While in SaPa, the two of us stayed at the Green Valley Hotel. And as we said in our last story, difficult to find. One full day to explore and yeah, sure, no problem finding the place. It’s not that Green Valley Hotel is on a back alley or in a dark corner, (like most of the backpacker hot spots.) It’s just when we showed up we were burred in rain and fog with those H’mong women and motor bike guys with everyone else handing you a business card, “nice place for you…” We know how crazy it seems off a train or off the bus, but stick to your gut! Just keep looking around, ask for prices, even look at a room here and there, and most of all be ready for an adventure right from the beginning. We had a completely different plan before we got to SaPa. Originally we were looking for Queen SaPa Hotel, only because Lonely Planet and HostelWorld claimed it to be the cheapest, but as we’ve learned over and over, this is not always true. The books are good to look over the layout of the villages, especially when you have no idea what to expect. Queen SaPa was asking way more than advertised and even though we were tired wet and frustrated we keep on. At one of the last stops on the same street we were greeted by a group hanging out in a dark reception area. “The powers out for a bit,” said the man we would later know as Glenn. “Ahh a good bargaining chip for us then,” we responded. (Not knowing he was a partner in the hotel) Walking up the stairs to check out the rooms we told a short story of how much everyone was asking. We then expressed that we wanted to stay longer but at everyone else’s rate it just wouldn’t be possible. Being a fair man Glenn cut us a deal instead of $10 (which is what everyone else asked) he cut it down to the dorm prices of $4 each. It was one of the nicest hotels we have stayed in so far, not so much in the quality but in the atmosphere. Though our room did have the softest mattress we’ve slept on in Vietnam, and not just soft but heated. A luxury that proved useful in the cold nights we’d soon experience. The room would also include a semi private balcony on the 5th floor that looked out onto the mountains, when they could be seen.
The atmosphere of Green Valley can be pin pointed to that Aussie named Glenn. He had the party spirit and always wanted to drink, or rather I think he was always already drunk. When he became one of the owners, he had a little mini pub/restaurant put in with a free pool table. The bar was also on the honor system, so you were always free to grab a drink. David particularly liked this, because when a new backpacker would wonder in he would crack them a beer and play bartender.
We met a lot of cool travelers while staying at the hotel. There was a group of guys from San Francisco/Santa Rosa who had bought moto bikes and were exploring the north themselves. They had cool stories to tell of their adventures in small villages where people had barely seen a westerner before. Many people welcomed them into their homes, giving them shelter and food in exchange for some company.
In the sharing of stories every night at our location or down the street, we decided after 5 days it was about time to move on. Glenn was an excellent host and the SaPa people were beautiful. Our views, though sometimes obstructed, made the hard travel north worth it. SaPa was said to not be missed, but like any tourist destination, it was a city and for us not the best. The areas outside of SaPa offer the same views and probably a better experience, but just be ready to sleep anywhere someone can roll out a bamboo mat.