Wednesday 14 January 2015

Days 235-6: Sapa - Four feet back in the clouds

When we left the hotel in Sapa, a group of women accompanied us, dressed in black wraparound jackets with green embroidery down to their knees and a layer of black velvet from knee to ankle (the Sapa leg-warmer?).  They neither asked us to buy from them nor showed any other profit motive, which should have been suspicious, but we soon yielded to their friendliness.

As our guide lead us out of the village onto a path above tiered rice paddies, they asked my name and whether I am married.

Buffalo graze the hillside above the rice paddies
"Yes, I am."

"How long?"

"One year."

"You have child?"


They commiserated:

"Child soon."

As in most parts of the world (including Britain, I increasingly think), it doesn't seem worth suggesting that perhaps not everyone wants a child, so I just smiled and moved to another line of questioning.

"Where did you learn to speak English?  At school?"

"No, just from tourists."

Not just a guide...
This was impressive.  Our guide, a young woman of perhaps twenty, not only spoke English fluently but with some of the best pronunciation we have encountered on our travels.  Her husband, she told us, works in the fields during the agricultural season but stays at home the rest of the time, while she works as a guide.  The same applies to many other families.  This potentially signals a major shift in economic roles between men and women in this area as the tourist industry grows comparative to the agricultural sector.

As we looked down the valley and along the web of pathways, the size of this shift was striking.  Within a few hundred metres of us, several large groups of tourists followed their guides between the paddy fields, all surrounded by groups of local woman.  Our guide tried to find us a tougher, uphill path to escape from the hordes.

When we paused to rest, the local women crafted heart-shapes from the grasses, to give to us, then they started weaving hats.  Once each hat was complete, we could not really reject it, but the question of the profit motive reared its head again.  Surely these ladies could not be giving up their whole morning to walk alongside a group of tourists just to practice their English?

Of course not.  At lunch time we stopped in their village and they all brought out their goods: purses, silver bangles, bags, earrings, and other handicrafts.  We bought one item for the sake of simplicity, then cowered before the cries of:

"Now you buy from me."

Each family operates as a lone unit; if you buy from one, you must buy from all.  We got away lightly with the purchase of a bangle and a purse, only to continue to another village after lunch where a new troop of companions proceeded to accompany us.  Uh oh.

Before continuing past more paddy fields, our guide took us to a factory where they make clothing out of the stems of cannabis.  Yes, really.  You can wear pure weed every day here.

"But isn't the weed illegal?" Guy asked.

... but accompanied by a horde of local women!
"No, no.  We only wear it; we don't smoke it."

She showed us how to weave the threads, then how to dye them and how to shine clothing for special occasions.

"Right now, everyone is making their clothes for new year," she told us, "but not me; I am very lazy."

New year isn't the only occasion for wearing new clothes.  There is also an annual festival where the villagers seek husbands and wives.

"If you are a woman, you must wear many sets of clothes in a few days, to show you are industrious and good at making them," she told us.

"But do you wear this costume normally?" we asked her, looking again at her embroidered black jacket and velvet legs.

"No, no.  This is just for tourists.  Normally, we wear jeans."

There is something uncomfortable about this kind of self-parody.  Do these villages still have such customs or do they just mimic former customs to please tourists?  It's a frightening line of reasoning: I look like this because I think that you think that this is what a H'Mong tribeswoman should look like.  But at home, I'm someone else.

Being shown by our guide (complete with baby!)
how to prepare the local sugar cane to chew/drink
I suppose we all tap into our national / regional stereotypes a little when we're with other people.  I'm an English girl in Vietnam; I'd like a cup of tea, of course.  But there are degrees of fiction; where does the line lie?

Next we visited a factory for the local brew - a rice wine.

"When a man chooses a girl to marry, she comes to stay with his family for a few days.  She must get up early to cook the meals and look after the home.  Then the family can decide if she is good enough."

But where does the rice wine come into this?  Our guide explained:

"Then the man proposes to the woman.  He brings wine to share with her family.  If she says no then he will have to go home alone with his wine."

"To console him?"


Refreshed by a stick of fresh sugar cane each, we continued for the afternoon through the rice paddies with our flock of travelling retailers, from whom Guy bought an embroidered hat.  This gave him the status of customer-in-chief.  Every craftswoman in the throng now had their sights set on him.  They only yielded, after an hour and a half's siege at our night's homestay, when he bought two bags from them.  Meanwhile the French - Swiss couple (Romain and Morgane) with whom we were travelling looked on and laughed at our weakness.

"Tomorrow, you must tell them 'no', if you don't want to buy anything; don't tell them 'maybe later'," our guide prompted us.  "Otherwise, they don't hear 'maybe', they just hear 'later'."

Girls love dressing up! Susan and Morgane as Hmong tribe women.
Yes, tomorrow we must be firm.  And we were.  We didn't buy a thing!

But first Morgane and I had the chance to try on local costumes at the homestay before watching our hosts cook around a fire in the centre of their kitchen and serving a delicious meal.  We were not quite prepared for the level of luxury that followed: after months in the Himalayas, Guy and I were carrying head torches and preparing to wash in cold water.  Instead, we were offered hot showers and electric lights for reading, while our hosts' children watched a Chinese version of the classic book "Journey to the West" (known to us as "Monkey Magic") on television. Clearly, this wasn't going to be quite the rustic experience we thought!

Susan and Romain balance with sticks on the dyke
and try not to slip into the rice paddy!
The next morning, thick pea soup enveloped the valley as we watched our hosts gather and stack wood outside their house, then set out into the paddy fields.  It was eerie but atmospheric; in this visibility, there was no danger of seeing other tourists unless they walked right into us.  Our path choice also helped; we balanced along beam-width tussocks between knee-deep pools of water in the paddy fields.  I was certain I would fall in, but with the help of a stick apiece, we all crossed safely.  Our guide meanwhile hopped nimbly between quagmires as though walking along a metalled pavement.

She had been carrying her baby on her back throughout the trip but I never heard it let out a cry.

"How long will you keep bringing your baby with you on guided trips?" I asked her.

"Until he is two," she said.  I hope not all of her groups choose the uphill paths, like we did, when she has to carry a two-year-old.

At last we said good bye to her in the growing drizzle, ready for our overnight train ride back to Hanoi.  Meanwhile, she would get a lift on the back of a motorbike (the Vietnamese taxi!) to her home, two hours away.

For us, Sapa had been an experience but after the Rolwaling valley in Nepal, with its remote villages and quiet life, it was hard to adapt to buying our way out of villages, surrounded by throngs of sellers, and clustering with dozens of other tourists on the same few pathways.  It is the usual conundrum: tourists complaining about the presence of tourists.  Still, I think we'll head for a less well-beaten track next time.

Trek day 1: rice paddies in the sunshine

The outskirts of the first village

Dinner at the homestay 

Our guide heads off along the muddy dyke, baby on back as we waver along with our sticks

Rural scenes like something from a children's book.

Crossing one of the better bridges

A water-powered rice cleaner

At the end of the trek (covered in mud!).

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