Among the many opportunities to sample the local culture on this adventure, Vietnamese Coffee has been a highlight for many folks in our group. It is brewed in a way that resembles espresso more than your classic Starbucks or Folger’s. Let’s just say many were thankful for our morning cup of coffee as we were out the door and on our way to Sa Pa before 7:00am. Thanks to our wonderful hosts at Joseph’s Hotel who went the extra mile to make sure we were feed and out the door on time.
Getting to Sa Pa is not exactly an easy journey, with a drive time of close to six hours. The drive to Sa Pa featured a newly constructed highway built in the last year. The ride was quite smooth in contrast to the small roads through local towns along the way to Ha Long Bay
There is clearly a growing industry based entirely on travel tourism. This could be easily seen by simply looking around at the diverse passengers traveling to Sa Pa. There were different ethnicities from across Vietnam as well as international travelers from France, China, and a few other folks from the United States. There were several other large charter busses that were packed full with tourists traveling to Sa Pa. The construction of the fancy new highway to one of the most sought after destinations shows developing tourism as a priority at the highest levels. Along this fancy new high way are many small rest stops, fully equipped with local markets, that we are required to get off the bus at. These little markets create a micro economy that relies solely on the busses traveling to places like Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay. Most were quite modest, set up along side a gas station. However, the many buildings under construction at the rest stations would seem to indicate that these little markets only plan on growing in the near future. Hopefully the local merchants still have a place when the more modern buildings are finished and a more corporate model sets up shop. We saw a preview of this more corporate model on our stops to ha long bay, trinkets and post cards as far as the eye can see.
One of the big distinguishing factors about these markets was the merchandise. Unlike Hanoi, the items sold at the rest stop areas did not include mass produced brand name items like Nike, Adidas, North Face, and Louie Vuitton; the items were more local to the near by villages. We were much more likely to see hand crafted items the further along we traveled.
Out the windows of our bus we can see a different picture from the bustling city of Hanoi. Farms dominate the landscape around the highway with farmers plowing flooded rice fields with the aid of a water buffalo. Little patches of corn and other crops piece together among the slightly terraced plots resembling a large puzzle. Every now and again we pass a small shrine or perhaps cemetery in the middle of the fields. The shrines are usually on a small hill overlooking the fields, sometimes there are cows grazing within the low walls surrounding the shrine.
A handful of times we spotted a more modern looking tractor but for the most part farmers used hand tools and water buffalo power. It makes one feel a bit out of place observing all of this from the window of an air conditioned bus equipped with reclining seats and wi-fi.
After our long trek up some steep mountainous hillsides we arrived in Sa Pa. Our bus was promptly greeted by a sizeable contingent of Hmong women. If we remember back to our visit to the Museum of Ethnography, we learned about the Hmong as one of the many different tribal groups who live in the region of Vietnam. The women are dressed in distinctive and beautiful clothing with elaborate and colorful patterns. (More on Hmong culture here if you are interested)
We were clearly taken as a group who might want to buy some of the hand made items they were selling. For a few folks in our group this intention was unclear when we were greeted in such a friendly and open manner. Needles to day a few of us walked away from the interactions with some new “friends” who are determined to sell something to us before we leave. The approach that the locals used to draw us in relied heavily on friendship. They asked where we were from, what our name was, if we were married, what our families were like and so on. During this time of “bonding” they were strategic in asking key questions that would increase their odds of selling items. Some of us were caught off guard by one strategy in particular; the pinky promise. Many of the merchants knew the meaning of the pinky promise and asked some people in our group to buy items if they crossed paths again. However, we were unaware that the merchants would wait for us outside of the hotel and follow us around town reminding folks in our group that “You Pinky Promised!”
We enjoyed yet another wonderful Vietnamese meal together in the early afternoon and then went to explore the city. Several of us ventured off to a local market. This was quite the experience or some in our group as we had clearly left the “tourist area” of the city. We stood out like a sore thumb walking down the street, attracting a few stairs. The market itself was quite the sight to see, especially for some of the vegetarians in the group.
During our time visiting the market, we noticed that the amount of traffic in Sa Pa was drastically different than Hanoi. There were far less motor bikes and cars and it was much quieter. When speaking to one of the merchants, she expressed how much more she liked Sa Pa because it was less busy and she did not have to worry about the dangerous traffic.
After some adventures in the city we settled into the Cat Cat View Hotel to rest up for our trek around the smaller villages in the area the next day.
-Seth & Colin