Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam
After several days of riding and one day of relaxing Mark and I thought it would be a good idea to give the bikes one more day of rest while we hiked around scenic Sapa, which meant I would be cheating on Delilah…with a nice, bamboo hiking stick. We’d heard a lot from backpackers that had traveled to the notoriously romantic (at least for the locals) mountain town and it did not disappoint. Sapa turned out to be a city that I respected less for its urban center and more for its astounding natural beauty. For backpackers, the highlight of the city is the option to trek along the trails that weave down mountainsides between terraced rice paddies and small villages still inhabited by ethnic minorities.
Normally I’m not the biggest fan of tours but the option to be guided by a local, one of the Black H’mong ethnic group, from the touristy mountain town of Sapa to her rural village of Lo Chai where we would have lunch sounded like a worthwhile comprise. We paid our $17.50 to the hotel staff and they arranged everything for us. The following morning Bee, our guide, was waiting for us in the lobby bright eyed and in traditional dress. The plan for the day was to walk out of the hotel, down through the city center, through a local market, and right onto the trail for our 7.5 mile hike through the hills surrounding Sapa.
A stroll through downtown Sapa
As we walked through downtown Sapa it was clear why the two main types of people came here. The first group huddled around the square that morning was mostly Vietnamese couples aiming for Sapa as a romantic getaway and for the (hopefully) accompanying nookie. The second group consisted mostly of western travelers that were either dirtbag backpackers and flashpackers (like this guy and Delilah) or older, more adventurous tourists, both of which were here for the beautiful trekking. As we walked through the town, the hoards of would be hikers lingering outside of the church waiting for their guides reminded me how popular Sapa really is. After a few days moto-trekking in the boonies of Vietnam, we were definitely back on the beaten track. In hopes of not getting stuck in the cattle train, our guide Bee quickly and smartly shuffled us off.
We passed through the steep, narrow streets as we made our way to the local morning market. It always amazes me how similar basic things within communities can be, even if they exist on opposite sides of the globe. The sights and smells of the local market reminded me of similar street markets all over South America. Individual stalls consisting of a rickety table and a tarp overhead, each specializing in one genre of deliciousness, filled the length of the narrow street. Pork butchered on the spot. Beef, pre-cut but waiting next to an old school meat scale. Fish, still alive and swimming. Corn, carrots, and greens. Other veggies. All fresh. I’ve said it plenty of times before, but I love buying food more from these markets than in any groceries stores back home. It’s very clear from the look and smell of the meat that it was slaughtered this morning. On top of that…there’s no need to worry about organic, free range, or any of that nonsense. I probably saw the cow walking up and down the hills two days ago eating and sleeping as it pleased. Up until this morning, it probably lived a comfier life than I had (up until 6 months ago anyways). Long live the local market.
Rover…it’s what’s for dinner…
On the final stretch of the urban part of our hike, we walked down a dusty dirt road flanked by small houses that clearly belonged to the poorer portion of Sapa’s population. As we passed one house in particular a mid-sized, tan dog that looked a lot like an Akita mix popped out and began barking at us furiously. It was kind of odd. Normally here the dogs didn’t bark at anything. Also, they weren’t chained up…usually…but this pup was.
“That’s the most protective dog I’ve seen here,” I joked to Mark.
At that point I heard our guide saying, “…yes, but only in the winter. Eating the meat warms you up.”
I hesitated then tried to figure out what I missed. And then I decided to just ask Bee to repeat herself. Come to find out, it’s common in this area to eat dog but mostly in the winter because eating the meat supposedly warms up the body temperature. And that pup was on tonight’s menu…hence being chained up. On the bright side, eating dog meat in the latter half of the month brings good luck in Vietnamese culture.
“Damn,” I said to Mark “that guy was just yelling for help.” Ok…it’s not funny…but it’s kind of funny.
Our guide heard the joke I was making and remarked with a few good points. In the west, we see eating dog as disgusting, but that is only because we have them as pets. Here, dogs are seen more how pigs are seen in rural communities in the US. They’re free to roam the land, they’re generally treated well, but at the end of the day they’re just livestock…not pets. Very interesting perspective. I still felt bad for Rover.
Kids selling to tourists? Good or bad?
As we passed Rover and bid him farewell I realized…we were being followed. We had a pack of 4 little girls, about 7 years old and wearing makeshift backpacks, on our tails since downtown Sapa. One in particular started walking next to me and innocently asking the Vietnamese standard questions that foreshadow a sales pitch
“Where you from?” said the little girl.
“From California. And you?” I replied.
“I’m from Li Chau.”
“The city that we’re hiking to?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“Carlos. And you? What’s your name?”
“Chi. Are you having a good day?”
“Yes I am. Are you?”
And then Chi smiled and ran off. That was weird. I was expecting a sales pitch for bracelets or purses, but none came. After a few minutes I asked our guide if the girls were her daughters, just to figure out why exactly the girls were hanging on our tails. Bee told me that the girls weren’t hers, they were local children carrying crafts that were handmade by their families in the city, Lo Chai, that we would stop in towards the end of the hike for lunch. The girls normally join groups in the morning, trailing them 6 miles from downtown Sapa to their home in Lo Chai before making the sales pitch. Given the low wages here for most families, it is considered the responsibility of the older children to bring in additional income to support the family, and this is one of the ways they do it. Our guide insisted that this only happens when school is not in session.
All of a sudden, I had mixed feelings about this. It seems like these kids are being exploited to suck a few extra dollars out of tourists that pass through. And at what expense? Tourist dollars (or Euros, or Pounds) mean a lot in places like this. From my experience traveling, if a tourist is willing to pay for something in a poor area then there is very little that won’t happen to get that dollar, as long as the price is right. I know this may seem like making a big deal out of a small issue, a summer job for a 7 year old, but stick with me. A story comes to mind which makes this an uneasy concept…
A friend of a friend was recently volunteering as an English teacher in Cambodia and her plan to stay and teach was indefinite. For the first couple of weeks, she loved it. The interaction was wholesome and seeing her young students progress was an excellent reward for her efforts, even if she wasn’t being paid. The issues began to arise around week 3, when parents began pulling their students out of school and the friend’s English classes. The problem wasn’t that the English classes weren’t working, it was quite the opposite. The parents’ realized their children’s English had become good enough to facilitate more western clientele at their restaurants and hotels, so, the parent’s pulled their kids out of school completely to go to work, in exchange for a short term economic gain. When the friend that was teaching found out about this she realized the tool that she was giving the kids (the ability to speak English) was a handicap when it came to their education, and their future. At the one month mark, she left Cambodia because she didn’t want to be part of such a scheme.
That is the story I had in mind. Is tourism, and the almighty dollar, compromising the opportunities in these girls’ futures? I don’t know for certain, but it seems like a good question to ask before supporting such activities.
Immediately after this thought, I realized that I was thinking from the perspective of a privileged American on a really high horse here. I came from a middle class family in a great part of one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. When I graduated high school, I had job opportunities and higher education opportunities right from the start. I’ve had great careers and ample education from world class institutions. I didn’t have to work very hard for any of these opportunities to materialize, if we consider the grand scheme of things and what these little girls would have to go through to receive the same opportunities. I didn’t have to leave my country to find the opportunities. I didn’t need to struggle for a visa. I didn’t have to live through an invasion of my country. I didn’t have to deal with racial/ethnic/classist discrimination standing between me and my opportunities. I just had to show up and perform. That is a HUGE advantage. A huge opportunity. An opportunity that these girls might never have. At that point I got off my high horse and decided to reserve judgment. I’m glad I did.
Later in the hike I realized our guide, who is of the Black H’mong people and has never left her province, had excellent English. She communicated clearly and even understood most of Mark’s jokes, which go over some Europeans heads due to how complicated the verbiage is that he tends to use. So, I asked Bee where she learned her English.
Come to find out…she learned it by selling bracelets, just like the little girls. She worked in her free time following hikers and selling bracelets and handmade goods for two years. After that, when her English improved she led tours through the city when she wasn’t in school. Eventually, she started leading hiking treks through the mountains, with hikers like us. Let me put this in perspective. The guides (as much as I prefer not to be on tours) can be very important in places like this. In places where the natural beauty, and hiking, is the hallmark the guides keep people on the trail, and the right trail. As most hikers know, keeping all of the looky-looers on the same trail preserves the natural beauty for generations. That is partly why the US has an entire park service dedicated to preserving wild lands. With the recent boom in Patagonia, Chile has put significant money and effort into systems that keep tourists on trails in highly trafficked areas and hold tourists accountable for preserving the natural beauty, because they realize how quickly it can degrade if not appreciated. The guides have the chance to directly instill the appreciation and (politely) enforce standards by holding the tourists under their charge accountable. The guides ensure trash goes in the bin, not on the ground and the value of that shouldn’t be underestimated. The guides explain local culture at just the right points. I’ve noticed this isn’t just to make the experience educational – it’s also for combating ignorance. Do you remember how I was schooled on why the local tribes eat dog? Case in point. The guides do a service in a clearly thriving industry. And this guide started out selling bracelets.
One other point I remembered. In a project I’ve been working on, called The Thankfulness project, I’ve been asking people to give me 10 things they’re thankful for. An unexpected item that has popped up several times is “the ability to speak English”. We take it for granted in the US but speaking English opens opportunities around the world. Everywhere I go, English is understood…and if English isn’t, then nothing besides the local language is. There is immense value in learning English. The little girl that I was chatting with didn’t learn it from school. She learned it by selling bracelets. Interesting.
This whole perspective flip is a major reason I love traveling. We all know things, but there a lot of things we don’t know. The new information may not make you right, or wrong but if you’re open to learning a new perspective then you will usually learn a new (and potentially better) way of interacting with the world around you, without judgment. Today, my perspective was changed.
And the hike begins
As we finally left town, the air got cooler and the views opened. Our road narrowed to a well- trodden concrete path that only feet and motorbikes traverse as it meandered between houses too few to amount to a village. As the houses become fewer and fewer, the views become greener and more filled by tower peaks with rice paddies cascading down.
I love to write, but words don’t do these views justice. So I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. The next 6 miles were definitely among the most amazing views I’ve seen. Though the landscapes mimicked those the scenes that Mark and I had been driving through for days, walking within those scenes along this hike was a great experience.
At the end of the day…
Northern Vietnam continues to astound me with its natural beauty and the views today made this a great hike. In the immortal words of the warrior poet Ice Cube:
“Today was a good day”