Minority Walk in Sapa

Walking in Sapa with the minority ethnics

Minority Walk in Sapa

by / Saturday, 14 April 2012 / Published in Stories / Tagged , ,

It was 9.30 in the morning, I was walking down the main street of Sapa on my way (with a collection of other white people) to Lao Chai; a village of one of the ethnic minorities that resides around Sapa town, when I was greeted with an eager ‘hello, where you from?‘.

My mental image of ‘ethnic minorities’ is of shy people, living in humble accommodation, peering cautiously up from their farming equipment or from behind a window sill as a procession of fat white people stomp clumsily through their home town – Apparently I was wrong – Culturally the H’mong may be a minority, but they are still among the vast majority of Vietnamese that will hound you for a transaction of some sort.

Walking in Sapa with a minority leader is the best experience there is...
A crowd of giggling girls and ladies dressed in the Black H’mong traditional attire and toting woven baskets on their backs, had joined our tour group and apparently paired themselves up 1H’mong/1White for their pitch. "Hello you come to my village, I show you the way, You buy from me" was the opener to my dialogue with Sun, a late aged woman carrying what I guess was a baby (it was so wrapped up in fabric it could really have been anything, possibly a watermelon) bound tightly to her back. Even though I had a guide that had already been paid for, there was not an inch of doubt that Sun (by her own decision) was to be my escort for the day.

Our bonding began as we walked the local road down through the valley that carves out the hillside on which Sapa town sits. After thoroughly expressing her intention to walk with me in exchange for me buying her handicrafts (to a chorus of hmm maybes, we’ll sees and i dont knows) Sun dashed off the road to pick some ferns, which she weaved into a sort of H shape with the fern tail making one prong of the H. ‘Its a horse‘, was the response to my vacant face of mild appreciation. For a moment I felt quite special, until I looked up and saw every other white person looking confusedly at their fern H’s.

As the roughly sealed road turned to gravel, the great white parade took a rest stop before the gently slope turned into proper downhill. The rest stop afforded me the chance to run around photographing the stepped terrain of rice paddies that contoured the sides of the mountains, and other members of the tribe that followed the tour to their home town. Sun occupied the time by crushing herself some sugar cane into a sweet refreshing drink, with the aid of a mechanical press and a machette. The drink making scene lead to a flurry of SLR’s being whipped out of camera bags, and Sun being attacked by the touring paparazzi. A defensive me suddenly desired to pick up a piece of sugar cane and beat away the shutter happy Euros, shouting ‘get your own ethnic’. I’m clearly not the possessive type, Common sense prevailed.

Sun and her fellow H’mong ladies assisted the group down the rice paddy slope, pointing out slippery sections, with limited success as tourists frequently slipped arse over tit down the muddy bank to the delight of the paid tour guide, who either lingered behind or ran ahead. The valley road flattened out and started to follow the river along to Lao Chai, the planned lunch stop, and the point where Sun would leave me and return to her home. At this point you have the option to play good cop, or bad cop. Bad cop would involve a lot of ignoring, saying no, and as quickly as possible moving into the seated area of the restaurant (Where ladies will follow you and continue the sales pitch at the table). I chose good cop. Although I didn’t really need a woven purse or handbag, and will probably regret it every time I lift my pack or put in on an airport weigh in, I appreciated Sun’s company for the walk and wanted her and the baby (or wrapped melon) to go home with some cash in hand for their fellowship of my walk. So I parted with Sun and a few dollars, holding a very dashing handbag to remember her by.

A white person will never walk alone on the Lao Chai trail. As soon as Sun left, a member of the next village who had spied my weakness for handicrafts and opened wallet happily greeted me with ‘Hello, where you from?‘

I ducked away into the restaurant-shed for lunch, but was greeted like an old friend upon my return to the walking trail. Su was the wife of a farmer, and she had no discretion in telling me that he worked 4 buffalo (quite the healthy herd). Su’s son (Bah) was 15, and he went to the local high school. As we wandered to her village of Tavan we talked about her family, her house, my family, my travel in vietnam. Su was a member of the Red Dao minority, traditionally dressed in a fantastic tassely headpiece in bright red. Not a second after I expressed interest in the head scarf, Su whipped one out of her woven basket and prompted me to put it on. ‘Bright red clashed with my skin tone‘ was my excuse to not look like a ridiculous westerner, and we continued on our walk.

After an hour and a half of wandering through the base of the valley, through carved field after carved field, we approached Su’s son’s school, where she would stop to pick him up and take him back to their bamboo hut higher up in the hills. And so followed another transaction, not wanting to play favorites between my tribes women I purchased a woven hat, of equal value to the purse. without a mirror handy, I took Su’s word that it made me look very handsome. Upon checking back at the hotel I think she may have told me a white lie – I looked like an utter twit wearing it.

I think tourists will have very different attitudes towards the lifestyle and conduct of the minorities here. I imagine a lot of people will expect to wander alone through a village of shy farmers peering over window sills, and the reality is a disappointment. To add insult to injury the shy farmers are actually obnoxious sales women that will walk 15 km beside you to sell a cushion cover.

I chose to frame my attitude in a different light. Across the developing world, farming has become such a cash poor lifestyle that the majority of young farmers and farm children look to move to the cities and take up poorer-quality lifestyles in manufacturing for a meagre boost in cash. Give an ethnic group the opportunity to remain in their home land, and make a better living off their cultural heritage, crafts and lifestyle, and suddenly whatever you spent on woven bags and hats is preserving someones traditions without condemning them to the poorest of living conditions.
Eh. I hate people that go on righteous rants, and I think I may have just had one. Never the less it was 15 dollars that I am glad I parted with. I have fond memories of the day, of my guides, and I will leave Sapa happily knowing that the mixture of modern tourism and traditional culture can happily co exist and support each other in a way that delivers to both sides.

Ed Bourke

Hi. I’m Ed.

After recently finishing my Masters of Architecture and pausing on the edge of falling into the professional world at the age of 22, I decided that 4 weeks leave a year just wasn’t good enough, especially after giving up 5 years of weekends to work a part time job through university. It was time to gather all those weekends back.

I stayed at my part time job over the summer, almost dying of boredom as I tended to the CD and DVD section at Myer Launceston, that was dying in the shadow of the download industry. With one final tidy up of the CD’s I resigned from the job I held for 6 years and started cleaning up and selling bits of the rest of my life. For a month I cancelled gym memberships, moved out of share house, sold stuff on gumtree – and just generally parted ways with one part of my life.

A few days later I was laying 25 kg of stuff out on my parents kitchen table and deciding what I could shed from my pack to cut down on weight. My hairdryer was shoved into a cardboard box, and wasn’t going to see Asia with me.

With a vague plan, 5 nights booked in Saigon, and a Chinese visa pre organised I left Launceston for what I had budgeted as about 6 months of traveling in Asia. After that, the rest is fairly thoroughly documented in my blog.

Have a story to share ?

Send us your Sapa Story too !

  • We went to Vietnam last year but we didn’t have time to visit Sapa. I wish we visited now.
  • Your photos are stunning and you describe the people and the places in a really interesting way. I visited Sapa in December 1997 and it is great to know that some things have not changed. It is a beautiful place.
    Tomorrow Slices
  • “Give an ethnic group the opportunity to remain in their home land".... I absolutely LOVE your attitude! What a great way to see things.