Saturday, Oct 22
We did two hikes through the mountains and villages surrounding Sapa, ending with a homestay in Tavan that night, guided by Ziang. This was considered a moderate hike, but carrying everything for an overnight stay, including computer and cameras, left us with sore knees by the time we arrived at the home we were staying at. The hike could have been enjoyable, except that we were hounded the entire time by Black H’mong (the primary minority of the region) who wanted us to constantly buy trinkets whose only purpose was to extort $1 from every tourist within miles. Every time we pointed a camera anywhere, we heard “One Dolla” or “No mony, no pikta.” The locals have been destroyed by too many tourists to beg from. I fear we were here 10 years too late.
While at the homestay, we met a local guide who spoke good English and struck up a conversation with her. She looked at some of our photographs and said
“oh, I know that woman. She got really lucky a couple years ago. A couple from California had pity on her and bought her a water buffalo and gave her money to build a house. They came back this year, and discovered the woman still begging and with no house.”
We also discovered that the families send out all their girls (not boys) to beg from tourists. The girl that is the best at begging is then taken out of school and required to beg full time.
The homestay itself was pleasant, with a cute little kid that Charlene played with for hours. Charlene was another guest who was on tour for 3 months, and was being treated with a local stinky concoction of banana leaves and herb for a twisted ankle. Unfortunately, the general village experience was such that we could not recommend others follow that particular section of the tour.
Sunday, Oct 23
We woke to a city shrouded in fog. Between the fog and the rice field burning, we were never able to see a sunrise or sunset until the very end of our Vietnam trip. The city was like all of Vietnam in another way too — NOISY! Beep, beep, beep! Constant horn honking as cars and scooters run almost at random in every direction and nobody gives an inch in trying to move forward at the fastest possible speed.
Everyone has a cell phone too, and nobody has heard of the concept of vibrating mode. Phones are ringing constantly, including drivers who are often texting while driving — even when driving scooters one handed through the middle of hordes of pedestrians. Yes, there is no concept of a pedestrian area in Vietnam. Go through crowded markets where you can barely walk for the people on all sides, and you will still see a steady stream of scooters powering right through them…
We went to the Bac Ha market today, which was a cacophony of noise and color. This was the first local market we had seen with numerous live animals for sale, along with the more expected butchered meat and dry goods. There was a section selling pigs, chickens, cats, dogs (young pups sold as pets for kids, older dogs sold as food), water buffalos and goats. Ziang (our guide with minimal English) kept telling us to come to the House Market. We didn’t know why we would want a house market, but we followed. We took a shortcut and found ourselves in an area selling place mats and cups. OK….
“No! Come to House Market!” ??? We followed, and finally found ourselves at a Horse Market… 🙂 We tried to teach him to say ‘horse’, but he kept saying “yes, house…” Ah well, an interesting addition to the market regardless.
We noticed that the women all wore traditional colorful clothes, while the men all wore Western clothes. We also noticed that the women did pretty much all the work, while the men stood around or played cards or drank. One woman told us (through a local interpreter) that she had a “good husband. He doesn’t gamble or come home drunk.” When I asked, it does appear that this is the definition of a “good husband” in this region.
As we were finishing the trek part of this tour, we saw a very old woman coming towards us with a huge basket of wood on her back. As we watched, a flock of tourists came up and started to video her. She turned her back, obviously not wanting to have her picture taken. When we see that, we move on.
This group instead started to mock her, making fun of her burden and acting like monkeys. Meanwhile, other tourists — And Our Guide — started laughing at the old woman. The woman finally put down her basket and these goons picked it up and played “strong man” to their camera. I told our guide he was a crude barbaric moron and walked off. He caught up with me and said “some foreign tourists don’t treat the locals well.” I shouted at him that those were Vietnamese tourists, as I recognized the language, and he agreed. I made it clear that I considered such barbarity completely unacceptable and was an indication of how little Vietnamese respect each other (something I saw over and over in other circumstances too).
Over all, I found this couple of days rather distasteful, and soured my feelings towards much of North Vietnam. Though there were colorful scenes that were certainly different from home, and even some that produced good photographic images, I was very glad to leave the people of this region.