During a motorcycle ride to a nearby Red Dao village, N’s driver tried to sell her on using him and his buddy for another adventure into the hills. When she tried to explain to him that we wanted to do a trekking tour, he laughed and asked her, “Why walk when you can just drive there?” Good question.
Well mostly because it’s easier to take in the views at a snail’s pace (which is us going up mountains) than on the back of a motorcycle that is careening around the mountains while simultaneously trying to bypass fast-moving cars and semis. The way these Vietnamese drive, it’s a wonder they manage to stay on the road at all sometimes.
So we signed up for a private trek with Sapa O’Chau, a tour organization founded by a Hmong woman, Shu Tan. Part of the cost of the tour goes towards the schooling of Hmong children to give them better opportunities through future employment. Attendance at the Sapa O’Chau school also includes food and lodging for the children. Our guide was a 20-year young Hmong girl who didn’t attend the school but did take English classes at the school. She was going to lead us to her home in Lao Chai, a big Black Hmong village about 10km from Sapa. Not long into the start of our hike through the town to Sapa, two Hmong women sidled up next to us to chat us up. “What your name?”
By this time, we were used to the Hmong women following tourists around town pretty assertively. “You buy something from me?” A no thank you will be quickly countered with a gentle, “Yes thank you.” And telling them that you already bought a lot of things will be answered with, “But not from me.” Surprisingly, the women are civil and friendly to each other even though they all crowd around selling the exact same things: little bags, zippered purses, pillowcases, bracelets, charms. “You buy something small from each of us and make us happy.” It’s a proposal we would consider if not for the dozens of other women who will ask you to do the same thing a minute later. And they’re all so damn nice, which makes it hard to say no. The Hmong learn their English from talking to tourists, and it’s pretty damn impressive. They speak way better English than the Vietnamese vendors we’ve interacted with over the past two months.
We didn’t mind buying from these two women, and they didn’t seem to mind walking all the way to Lao Chai with us. My lady (I say this because she chatted me up first) was cheerful and talkative, while N’s lady was quiet and wove hemp strands into string as she walked. I don’t understand this multitasking business, because our eyes were permanently glued to the uneven pathways as we walked and half-stumbled along. Oh, and I forgot to mention that they wear plastic sandals on these walks.
“You have a boyfriend?” I told Gom that I didn’t have a boyfriend, and she reassured me — a pathetic spinster in her eyes — that being single was good because I had the chance to do anything I wanted. She told us about how she recently married a guy who was a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s. She told us about a Hmong custom where a boy will ask a girl he is interested in to come live in his house for four days. She is expected to go, and she spends time with him and his family to see if she would be happy there as his wife. At the end of the four days, the girl decides if she wants to marry the boy. This is what happened with Gom, and while she wasn’t crazy about her husband, he was nice enough so it was OK. She turned her attention to us. “Everyone thinks you two look like boys,” she giggled. I told her that it happens a lot, and left her to wonder why.
We got up way too early in the morning to take a bumpy, nauseating ride to Bac Ha, where the Flower Hmong gather every Sunday to sell their stuff. There was freshly-harvested honey, bright red chilis, fruits, vegetables, moonshine-like rice wine, farm animals, metal tools and expensive pet birds. A major plus was meeting a great couple from California, and being able to explore the market with them. The tour stopped into a small village where we got a quick glimpse of life there. Another major highlight was stopping at the Chinese border and being given the chance to stare longingly at Mainland China, the land of opportunity. On the way home, a dog (that was probably purchased for food) shat in the box in the back of the van but the driver refused to stop, so we sat marinating in the smell for almost three hours. Good times in Vietnam.
If you really want to explore Sa Pa and the surrounding area, you need to get a motorbike. My first attempt at driving Kanako on the back of a rental motorbike in Phong Nha almost resulted in a couple of scraped knees and an early divorce, so we decided to hire motorbike drivers in Sa Pa to ensure the longevity of our marriage.
Unlike most travelers to Sa Pa, we decided to spend almost a week there. We like to be out of the city as much as possible and it’s not always easy because transportation is less available and less reliable when you’re leaving major cities, so when we have a chance to get out, we try to stay out for awhile. It gives us time to relax, recharge and, most importantly, catch up on Game of Thrones. OH. MY. GOD. THE. VIPER.
Finding a motorbike driver, also known as xe om, is easy in Sa Pa. They’re all hanging out on the corner of the main square waiting for people to come by and there’s a big board with prices to popular sites so ignorant tourists like us won’t get ripped off. The more proactive drivers roam around the town asking tourists if they need a motorbike. We decided to use the services of one of these guys to visit the two main waterfalls in the area, Silver Falls and Love Falls. The ride itself is worth the money. The unobstructed view of the mountainside on the back of a motorbike is stunning and the mountain air is refreshing as long as you’re not unlucky enough to get stuck behind a water buffalo that just dropped off a steaming turd. I’d also pay that money twice over to avoid the vomit-inducing minivan ride on the same road.