North to Sapa
Before returning to work in Vietnam (after a short sojourn in New York) I took advantage of the four day holiday (National Reunification Day and International Labor Day) to head north to Sapa.
Sapa is home to numerous ethnic communities with colorful garb and traditions, a cooler climate and respite from the heat of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It is highly coveted for its trekking and boasts the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.
Yes, I went to Sapa along with thousands of Vietnamese who occupied every plane berth, train and bus seat and hotels in the small city in the mountains.
Maybe it was jetlag or the scores of tourists that made me ambivalent about Sapa. Its setting is drop dead beautiful; in the mountains, overlooking gorgeous valleys, rivers, small villages and multi-tiered rice paddies. It is very “other worldly” compared to the urban centers of Vietnam.
Yet it was impossible to walk five feet without being accosted by women and children selling goods. They follow you incessantly and line the streets of the small town center. Boutique hotels and restaurants, shops selling knock off North Face jackets and local textiles abound; Wi-Fi, pizza, burgers and more enticing the tourist.
The Vietnamese tourists tended to travel in groups and few of them trekked. One told me “rich man drive car, most men have motorbike, only poor men walk” so except for the walk down to Cat Cat (a Potemkin village of shops, shops, satellite dishes and color televisions) the trails were relatively empty on this, one of the busiest weekends of the year.
On one level I loved Sapa with its natural beauty and ethnic variety. I ate great food, hiked and enjoyed cool nights in the mountains.
On another level Sapa is a tourist trap; having a bit of an ethnic theme park feel to it. In that it reminded of the Pennsylvania Dutch country in the US, home to the black clad, horse and carriage riding Amish people.
As to the incessant sales pitch, in Sapa most of the main businesses appear to be run by Vietnamese so who am I to blame the Red Dao or Black Mong or the other tribes from cashing in on the natural beauty and rich traditions of their communities?
A tourist official told me that the town had changed dramatically in the past decade, but get there soon if you are going. Today’s headlines read “Cable Car planned for Fansipan Mountain”.