Saturday, May 10, 2008

Day Six in Vietnam: May 18

Sapa Lao Cai/ Hanoi Train SAPA
Long trek to visit beautiful village named Lao Chai & Ta Van,
get in local house to learn about the life of local people.
Back to Sapa town by bus.
Free for shopping at Sapa market until transfer back to Lao Cai railway station to catch night train back to Hanoi.

Very soggy day! Our long trek to Lao Chai and Ta Van was pretty wet. We were escorted all the way by the omnipresent enterprising Hmong women, always trying to sell us their handicrafts. They have hand-embroidered textiles (purses, wallets, tablecloths) and hand-made jewelry. It's hard to depict just how persistent they are...when a bus of tourists stops, they surround it like wasps...One feels very conflicted: one the one hand I have nothing but sympathy for their plight: they see us (quite rightly) as extremely wealthy and while ten dollars to us is a couple of cafe mochas, to them, it is over half a month's income. On the other hand, their aggressive sales tactics are quite uncomfortable. They seem to follow the same sales manual: first, they ask you your name and where you are from. Then they ask about children, husband, ...and then the sales pitch begins in earnest. If you get to this stage, they assume that a personal relationship exists and that you will buy from them. But if you buy anything from one, this unleashes a flood of indignant entreaties: "You buy from her, you buy from me...YOU BUY FROM ME!!! They can be very unpleasant if you do not buy from them. One of the students was quite shaken when a Hmong woman cursed her out for not buying from her. And so it is best not to respond to their insistent "Madame! Madame!" But nonetheless, I did buy some presents here.

The houses in the Hmong "beautiful villages" are dark and sanitation is minimal. Children are dressed in dirty clothes and covered with insect bites. They mainly grow rice (in long terraces lining the hills) and corn, and keep poultry (chickens, ducks and things that are larger but don't look like turkeys....your guess is as good as mine) and the occasional pigs. What I found most depressing was the small markets we passed (little more than a shed with a table) which sold bottled water and snacks to that I am sure they could never afford to eat themselves. But lest I paint too bleak a picture, I should say that conditions are much better than in previous decades and tourism has a lot to do with this, and wealth does not always equate to happiness. One of our students is Hmong, and she could speak to them in their native language. Here she was, going to college in America: it must have been amazing for them to imagine.

So, Sapa was a blend of good and bad: the tourists that keep the local economy running may be discouraged from a second trip by the off-putting strong-arm sales tactics of the Hmong peoples, but I suspect there will always be more tourists. Nonetheless I was a bit relieved to board the bus back to Lao Cai station.

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