Letters from Sapa (or Vampires in the Mountains)
Hello from the faraway Sapa!
Sapa is a mountainous town located in the North-West of Vietnam, near the Chinese border. It is nestled among rice terraces and surrounded by villages of ethnic minorities. Everywhere you look you are engulfed by vibrant luscious greenery and vivid colors and unfortunately for us, at the time of our visit, lots of rain….
It reminded me a lot of Guatemala with its colorful ethnic tribes in their traditional clothes. I was really looking forward to Sapa despite the 10-hour overnight trip in less-than-perfect conditions on the train.
The first memorable thing (on the way to Sapa) was the train station in Hanoi. I’ve been to less modern places than Vietnam but I’ve never seen a train station quite like this one. Just rails…. nothing else…and lots of shady characters trying to “help” you find the right train. When we entered, all we could see was a cargo train blocking our view, and then walked in a smiling fellow reaching his hand towards us, about to grab the tickets (which reminds me of the helpful fellow who was chasing me across the street in Hanoi with super-glue in his hand, trying to help me with my (NOT) torn sandal). Luckily, well-traveled-tourists that we are, I jumped in front of Daphna, blocking him while she was hiding the tickets in her bra, giving him her “Let’s see you try anything foolish mister and I’ll break your arm with my KRAV MAGA technique” (Daphna lives in the big city and they are tough as nails there). Well, to make a long story short, after walking for miles in search of our coach we finally found it!
The first thing you notice when you arrive to Sapa is Western couples strolling around the town’s streets accompanied by 3-5 local women. “Wow [we thought] how considerate of them, escorting everyone, showing them their town, letting them take pictures” and then the minute we stepped out of the hotel, an endless hymn of “w’ere yu fram?” “Wat’s yur name?” “How ol ar yu?” that wouldn’t stop for the next 3 days, accompanied by the famous “You buy” “Picture, one dollar” BUY BUY BUY…. We were the fresh meat and they were the hunters-vampires smelling the fresh drops of blood and reaching for our necks (Hi Lady is that a $ sign in your eyes, or are you just happy to see me?).
The next day we went for a hike with a local guide. Two women (one who was 15 and the second who looked like she was 70 and turned out to be 50!!!!) followed us from the beginning. Myself, the know-it-all traveler that I am, told Daphna that this is what they do here and that she should ignore them, and so we refused their kind offers to help us. However, it began raining….and it wouldn’t stop….and the path got slippery and slippery… I must confess… it was not a pretty sight…. especially when one of us (you guess which one- there might be a nice shiny prize for you at the end) fell, on her quite shapely behind, on a single-log bridge… Well those young girl and old lady (just in appearance.. we all know 50 is the new 35) saved our asses. With their rubber sandals they were half jumping- half flying all over, with ease and gracefulness (another sign of the vampires’ blood in their ancestry bloodline) while we were holding them for dear life.
By the time we got to their village we were soaking wet, had to cross a small river (because of the pouring rain but at least we got to clean our shoes from the mud and maybe other-we-don’t-want-to-think-about-it-stuff) and fight the thousands (well, more like dozens) of suckling vampires with their endless hymn and $ signs in their eyes.
In all honesty, this area is so MAGICAL that you have a hard time believing that such vibrant colors exist in nature (and not just in Photoshop). I am not a fan of the chorus of voices asking for money but once you start talking with some of the women in broken English or sign language you get to learn about their lives and tribes (which is very interesting and always makes me appreciate my own life a little bit more). Most of the locals would ask me for money when I wanted to take their picture but after I had refused (with a smile) they called after me to take the photo anyways. Also once you learn a few words in their language (not Vietnamese but their tribal dialect) like NO or THANKS, it is much easier. Just prepare yourself to the constant chorus of questions and money requests and be prepared to be followed by groups of locals wherever you go.
Hope you wake up without any bite marks on your neck…