Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cold Spell and Black Hmong in Sapa, Vietnam

Nine hours on a sparse, overnight government train with little more than a hard bunk and a blanket brings me to Lao Chai, a mountainous region in Northwest Vietnam, close to the Chinese border.
Twenty years ago this area was completely shut off from the rest of the world, tribes living in villages almost exactly as they had for the last several centuries.
As Vietnam opened itself up, trade made it possible to bring in new technologies and materials, slowly transforming this distant region. While many might decry this as “globalization” and bemoan the annihilation of these “beautiful cultures” I disagree. Having seen how impoverished peoples live all over the world, it’s my belief cellular access, internet, and electricity improve life quality, and believe me when I say, they are all individually grateful to have this modern magic. Those groaning about it, what are you hoping for, a quaint cultural zoo?
Certainly the entrepreneurs and those employed to transport us have the possibility of making a living that doesn’t consist solely of subsistence farming.
We traverse a windy, mountain road for the next 40 minutes, climbing to an elevation of 5,000 feet. Feeling nauseous from the sharp curves, I’m grateful to reach our destination, the mountain town of Sapa.
Sapa market
The temperature hovers near freezing, making it the low, low, low season for tourism. I get out and walk to the nearest hotel. My room runs $8, and I'm the only patron in this 3 story structure.
The business is family owned, and the 40 year old wife is clearly the drive behind it. In addition to lodgings they’ll help you book activities, rent you a motorbike, or sell you clothing which I am in dire need of, considering I am actually sick for the first time in three years, and freezing to death. I quickly choose a thick sweatshirt, which, demonstrating extraordinarily poor negotiation skills, I’m already wearing in an effort to stay alive before we’ve agreed upon price.
I inquire about a guided trek through the mountains, which she informs have already departed for the day, then offers to rent me a motorbike so I can investigate the Sapa area on my own. If I want, she says she will go get gas, which will run me an extra three bucks. She hands me a riding helmet which I try on, then tell her I need to go get something to eat, as nothing but water has crossed my lips in the last 14 hours. I’ll return.
Local villagers selling their wares (largely to tourists)- in central Sapa. The blue colors are derived from the indigo plant
The Black Hmong
I venture off and investigate the market, already open and selling fresh local fare. I purchase some almonds which I eagerly wolf down, and am quickly surrounded by ladies of the Black Hmong tribe trying to sell me their wares, little billfolds and bags they’ve colored with indigo and other naturally occurring dyes from local plants.
The local market- dress warm in winter
I really don’t need any of this stuff, nor does anyone I know, and the craftsmanship doesn’t absolutely wow me, so I opt not to buy. One woman in particular is very persistent and hounds me wherever I walk. I duck into a coffee shop, and she’s waiting for me when I re-emerge. She actually gets mad at me when I still don’t purchase from her.
Now, Ms. Persistent is up fed up enough to leave, while those remaining change tactics and offer to take me to their village, 16km (10 miles) away, which is exactly what I wanted to do when I first arrived. I immediately agree at their offer of $10 to guide me there.

Me with the Black Hmong women of Northern Vietnam in Sapa. You'll note I look like a giant next to them. People of Vietnam are far shorter than elsewhere in the world. 

Deal Gone Awry
Now at that moment, I see the owner of the hotel, the same woman I had been dealing with. I get her attention, and politely tell her I won't be needing the motorbike and hand her the helmet she had given me. She starts yelling at me in a combination of Vietnamese and English, refusing to take back the helmet, saying I am breaking our agreement .
I’m shocked by her reaction as she walks up the hill shaking in anger. I excuse myself from my guides to go speak with her.
“You agree to rent motorbike, you owe me $8. Five for bike and three for gas. You want to go with Hmong ladies, you still owe me.”
“I never said definitively I want the bike, besides I can change my mind even so.”
“I go get gas, that cost me $3. Bike has gas in it. You not fair person. You owe me.”
“The gas is there in the bike, I didn’t use it. You can sell it to someone else.”
“You owe me, we family business. You no go Hmong lady.”
“You’re yelling at me, you’re calling a liar and unfair. Do you think that’s going to make me want to rent from you. I have a room here, I bought this sweatshirt from you, you’re yelling at me.”
“I went buy gas.”
I consider her position and take a breath. 
“Okay, I’m a fair person. I tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to give you $3 for the gas, I’m not going to pay you for a bike I’m not going to use. Okay?”
I pull out $3, she simmers down. I’m not a fan of the way she’s behaving, but I think this is more than fair. She’s getting $3 for gas she’ll resell, and that’s a day’s labor here for some in this country. I’d rather err on the side that I got slightly the worse end of the stick then someone going away with the feeling that I screwed them, especially for such a small amount. 
“So, I’m fair person?” I say, only quarter questioning, driving home the point so she might end any thoughts of ill-will towards me.
“Yes, but you don’t do that. You don’t hand me helmet in street and say you don’t need. You come up and talk me private.”
Huh. So maybe the whole reason she reacted that way is because she felt disrespected, that she lost face? I play back the scene in my head, and don’t see that I behaved disrespectfully at all, but nevertheless, that’s how she felt.
I walk back down the hill, thinking to myself that I doubt people would have reacted so elsewhere in SE Asia. The incident leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I find my Hmong guides, and start walking out of town. 

This should give you a general idea of what Sapa looks like as I walk with my Hmong guides


  1. An interesting blog and video clips. I first visited Sapa 20 years ago, in November 1993. It was definitely not cut off from the world then, though it was cold, wet, and miserable, and the guest house had no heating.
    It actually snows in Sapa from time to time in winter, including this winter just past. Google "Sapa snow" to see some interesting images.

    1. Ralph, thanks so much for the kind words. Very glad you found it of interest. Thanks for your input as well :)

  2. Interesting argument recap from a Western standpoint. I find these kind of sociological cultural and interactive observations are so much more intriguing than flowery descriptions of landscapes and tourist sites..
    You seemed to handle it pretty fairly.

    1. Thanks Troy Nguyen, I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know this. Feel free to follow my blog/ send it out to your friends on FB or Google+
      I'm glad to know I handled it fairly.


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