Of the places I visited during the winter break one of the most touching locations I had the pleasure of witnessing was the Sapa district in northern Vietnam. Although weather wise the coldest of all my destinations, I was pleasantly warmed by the scenes throughout Sapa town and the surrounding villages.
People here are poor, and although I have witnessed poverty before I’d never seen people living off log fires and mainly consuming food they’d produced themselves. Various ethnic minorities inhabit the area including the Black Hmong, Dao and Phu Lo people. Many of these speak languages other than Vietnamese. The changes brought by tourism are noticeable, but no so prominent to ruin the area’s authenticity. Many families have converted from farming to selling souvenirs with examples including, indigo scarves and various carved stone objects. It was refreshing to see the majority of what was being sold out of houses and on the street, were products produced by the people themselves.
Exceedingly obvious is the ethnic minorities cheekily ripping tourists off, our guide gave us an indication of what we should be paying. Unfortunately I found it difficult to stop the woman selling me an indigo scarf, purchased as a gift, from overcharging me by two pounds while she was sat smiling bleakly underneath a tin roof, without heating in the middle of winter. I didn’t have it in me to refuse, especially when I thought about how little two pounds is to me, compared to what this woman could use it for.
If you plan to visit be wary not to buy from the local village kids, as although they’ll give you cheaper prices than the adults, this encourages them to skip school and continue attempting to make money from western tourists doing no good for their future. Besides any money lost whilst buying gifts I definitely made back on the food, where else can you get 73p beer? Apart from the eerily lit church located centrally in Sapa town it seems due to the French’s presence in Vietnam they left some cultural characteristics such as aspects of religion behind, our guide told us that many of the villagers refused to use contraception as they were supposedly catholic, yet still maintained some Buddhist beliefs.
Breathtaking scenery in the nearby mountains means the majority of our trip was hiking and admiring the views, with the occasional stop at some of the local villagers’ homes where our guide allowed us to ask questions, try some local tobacco and test our skill of using various farming utensils. I’d like to return to Sapa, 2 days wasn’t enough. If returning I would visit again in September during the harvest season, where apparently all the rice fields evolve into a glowing gradient of yellow. The trip ended with a farewell to our guide and boarding the night train (which one day I’m sure will become my permanent type of accommodation) back to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.