Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

After traveling most of Southeast Asia a few years ago when I spent a summer based in Singapore, my first week in Vietnam didn’t impress me much. Part of it was my fault because with all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I didn’t have much time to do research beyond familiarizing myself with the typical backpacker route.  Ho Chi Minh City- Nha Trang- Hoi An- Da Nang- Hue- Hanoi- Sapa and/or Halong Bay…. but even after talking to dozens of travelers, that’s all anyone did so it seems like it’s a country where people don’t get off the beaten path.  The cities were crowded and loud, with only a few attractions within walking distance. Most of the things that were worth seeing required a motorbike and luckily, I could ride on the back of a bike with couch surfers braver than myself to explore the attractions of Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi but still it was a lot of temples and wading through Asian tourists armed with selfie sticks. When my trip to Halong Bay got cancelled, I was a bit bummed, especially when the replacement tours felt like something that had to be survived rather than enjoyed. But I was definitely looking forward to Sapa, the land of rice paddies and tribal minorities in the North. This trip also turned into a bit of a debacle, but in the end, quite a pleasant one.
Getting picked up from our hostels was the usual hassle: we expected a sleeping bus but instead we got a crowded van with another non-verbal tour guide, so we sat on each other’s laps wondering whether we’d have to endure the 6-hour journey in a massive mosh pit. The man wordlessly checked a couple tickets, kicked two Russian girls on the street then took us down a dark alley where, thankfully, a sleeping bus awaited our arrival.

The arrival to Sapa
I passed out on the drive and around 4:45 AM, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot. Some fellow travelers confirmed that we arrived in Sapa our final destination. we stopped somewhere which was Sapa according to some people’s GPS but when a brave soul tried to leave the bus, he was blocked by the driver and the assistant. The driver shut the bus doors dramatically and there we sat until 6 AM with no idea when we’d be released from captivity. At 6 AM, they forced us out of the bus into a rainy parking lot where the locals tried to sell us homestays and periodically arrived with signs with names like “Tim Thom” looking for people who didn’t seem to exist. As our group dwindled, about 45 minutes later, a man with a sign with our names on it welcomed us into his van.

Hmong ladies waiting for us outside the hotel

Hmong ladies waiting for us outside the hotel

We drove up to Grand View Hotel, which was positioned to have a great view, but fog obscured our view. To enter the hotel, we had to elbow our way through a mob of Hmong women trying to sell us bracelets and wallets. We piled into a lobby filled with angry tourists trying to change their reservations to switch hotels and alarmingly, the receptionist didn’t even seem the slightest bit surprised. When we asked to brush our teeth in an empty room, we could see why. One of my fellow travelers aptly described the hotel as something out of The Shining. It had it all from exposed pipes, unexplained puddles, punch holes in the door, grimy glassware collecting decades of dust, a funky smell and inadequate lighting. We were invited to breakfast in the next room. A woman “dusted off” our table with a duster that looked like it was designed for breeding dust bunnies and we sat down, exhausted after our night bus ride and asked for coffee. “No coffee,” the waiter abruptly replied, throwing moldly menus like Frisbees at our faces, potentially to distract us from the cockroach running across the checkered tablecloth.  After a bit of squealing, we chose our breakfast based on which food would make us less sick and decided it would be hard to mess up bread with butter and honey. Sure enough, the waiter replied to that request, “no butter”. We meekly munched on our half-roll of bread, avoiding the wilted side of tomato and cucumber, skeptical that it would fuel our 12 km “hike”.

Sapa is gorgeous after the clouds clear

Sapa is gorgeous after the clouds clear

The trek
After finishing breakfast and another hour of waiting and discovering new reasons to be sketched out about the hotel, we were rallied by a young Hmong girl with a baby on her back who introduced herself as our tour guide. We donned our ponchos and rain boots and followed her out of the door of the hotel. To our surprise, the mob of Hmong women joined us. A Scottish girl and I deliberated as to what could be their purpose. She was convinced they’d be trying to sell us their crafts the entire 12 kilometers, convinced that we would eventually cave.
It didn’t take us long into the trek to realize that hiking during monsoon season was code for a mudslide through rice paddies. The women were here as human walking sticks to prevent us from causing a domino reaction as we slipped down unstable hills of dirt and buffalo poop. Most of us started the trek, trying to wave away their helping hands, embarrassed to be held up by women as tall as our belly buttons, many of whom carried babies on their backs. Some of their daughters joined us for the walk, leaping and splashing through puddles “like the spawn of Tarzan” as we tentatively tiptoed at a snail’s pace behind. It just took a couple people wiping out and becoming mud monsters to convince the rest of us to appreciatively grasp onto their slender elbows. I watched mine and tried to emulate her the swing of her speed-skater arms on the straight aways but it didn’t work as well for a klutz like me.

Hmong girls helping us down the muddy hill

Hmong girls helping us down the muddy hill

By lunchtime, we all had worked up incredible appetites but we were seated at picnic tables just to be swarmed by people trying to sell us their handicrafts. I always try to shake my head and avoid eye contact but ultimately, someone alerted me to the fact that the persistent woman shoving wallets at my elbow was the woman who helped me survive the first 7 km. I bought something that I didn’t need from her, writing it off as a tip but kind of felt cheated because obviously, this was the unarticulated expectation of them providing help and a little forewarning about this unspoken rule would have been nice. After the morning hike, two of the fourteen of us gave up and demanded a taxi back to Sapa. Five others got motorbike rides to the homestay and seven of us followed our tour guide to learn a bit more about the Hmong lifestyle.
She took us into a hut where they turn the hemp into thread to make the colorful handicrafts and nonchalantly mentioned some intense things about the Hmong lifestyle. “Hmong girls learn to cook and clean at the age of 5 or 6 so they can make good brides. For new years, they need to make 7 new outfits because if you don’t change your clothes every day, no man will want you. Hmong ladies get married at 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18. Sometimes marriage is hard if there are economic differences or if one is Christian. So then the girl takes the poison and dies. Some times the couple takes the poison together. It just happened again last month”, she says with a shrug.

In our 7 km trek through the rice terraces, I saw women taking care of babies, women accompanying us on our trek and in charge of local home stays and women making the handicrafts that they sell. I saw two young boys watching buffalo and three men on motorbikes at the lunch location but in general, they seemed entirely invisible from the Hmong lifestyle. I asked our tour guide whether the men help cook when the women are trekking or what they occupy themselves with instead. She replied, “They don’t help cook. They watch the water buffalo. They eat”. I accepted this information dubiously, still wondering where the men where since almost all the farms we passed appeared unmanned.

The rice paddies are beautiful but crossing them is like walking on a decaying mud balance beam

The rice paddies are beautiful but crossing them is like walking on a decaying mud balance beam

The afternoon trek was similar but our lady helpers were replaced by their daughters, some of them who weren’t much older than 5 years old. However, they knew what they were doing and mine pulled me across raging streams with a grip that felt like a presidential candidate. The final stretch to the homestay involved crossing rice terraces on a piece of mud about the width of a balance beam. I was toward the end of the pack for this and the “beam” had already begun to decay and I flopped forward, dragging my little helper into the terrace and creating unsuccessful sucking noises as I tried to remove my submerged boot. “I’m stuck in the mud I yelled”. But my girl bounced up, wiped off her wet hands, calmly pointed to a more stable foothold and off we went.

Our trekking guide accompanied by ladies of all ages that served as "human walking sticks" as we slid through the mud

Our trekking guide accompanied by ladies of all ages that served as “human walking sticks” as we slid through the mud

The Homestay and Overall Impression of the Experience

After arriving to the homestay, life was good.  We slept on mattresses with mosquito nets but they had a modern toilet and a shower which was more than I was expected.  The next day’s trek was only 6 kilometers of more Tough Mudder training and slipping down mountains.  We ended around lunchtime, all a bit disappointed that we couldn’t go further.

Overall, Sapa Vietnam stands out as the undeniable highlight of my trip so far, despite the weather since it was fun to play in the rain and mud.  However, the trip also revealed a lot of sad realities about the Hmong lifestyle.  Wherever we went, there were children beggars trying to sell us bracelets.  The kids were cute, friendly and curious so they were hard to resist but indulging them probably contributes to a cycle of dependence that’s hard to escape.  A tourist wanted to take a picture with them, which she did, but then got so swarmed with the begging kids looking to sell her a bracelet that she got overwhelmed, didn’t buy anything and created a really bad situation.  In the touristy neighborhood of Cat Cat Village, the problem was out of control.  There, some of the shops at the entrance sell candy to give to the kids, so tourists hand out candy like trick or treaters on Halloween, but this happens every day.  On other treks I’ve been on (in Peru and Nepal), there was never this problem with the local children and they discuss appropriate tips for the guides and the porters before the hike.  Even us backpackers booking the cheap tours want to compensate our guides for their help but we have no idea where the money for our tour goes or what’s appropriate.  I guess in a country that can barely article the tour itinerary, this kind of information may be too much to expect but I hope someone helps regulate this situation.  The Hmong  are so sweet, intelligent, hardworking and gifted when it comes to handicrafts that I’d hate to see the authentic aspects of their culture get lost because of a dependence on tourism.

Song of the Moment: Warm Foothills– alt-J (Rice paddies always make me want to listen to alt-j)

If YOU want to go to Sapa: All the tourism agencies in Hanoi will happily sell you a tour. Most of the people in my group wanted to go the one night homestay which involves a couple days of trekking in “real nature” which I would recommend. I booked the one night homestay, one night hotel so I did what they did, spent a night in the aforementioned creepy hotel then had a 3 hour walk through Cat Cat village the next morning, which was one big tourist trap that doesn’t expose you to the real beauty of the area ($75 for three days, two nights, single room). Another slight more expensive option ($85) was a 2-night homestay, which would involve a longer trek. It probably would have been worth it if the weather was better and if all the villages weren’t filled with people who wanted to sell you things but no one in my tour group wanted to do it so I’d feel guilty making the woman walk there just for me. You can also easily come to Sapa by yourself but I’d recommend some kind of trekking tour, since 6 hours on a bus just to stay in the city won’t be too fulfilling.
If you do the trekking tour during the rainy season, I would also highly recommend renting rain boots. A shop next to the hotel rented them for 20,000 VND per day which was basically the most valuable purchase I made in Vietnam since we were wading through rivers and constantly getting stuck in the mud.

 

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