The time is fast approaching for me to leave Vietnam, but before I do, I wanted to take one last trip in Vietnam. Originally I had been planning a motorbike trip through Hà Giang Province. This is considered to be the ‘last frontier’ when it comes to motorbike trips in Vietnam. Two friends and I had it all planned and there was even an anticipatory blog post that I was just waiting to post. However, the week that we had planned to depart, it started to rain. The forecast predicted heavy rain and thunderstorms every day for the next 2 weeks for the whole of Vietnam’s North. I still wanted to go to Hà Giang, but my friends backed out. It was disappointing, but understandable. It’s a dangerous road that we would have been driving on. In heavy rain there was so much that could have gone wrong – mudslides were just the tip of the iceberg.
But I was still determined to do something. I had arranged 5 days off work for that trip. So on 24 hours notice I booked a bus up to Sa Pa for 700,000 VND (32.08 USD) both ways. That’s 16 dollars each way, which isn’t terrible considering how comfortable the bus was. My overnight bus ride through the tiny mountain roads to Mù Cang Chải to visit the H’mong was so terrible that I didn’t mind spending a little extra to be comfortable. I had heard some horror stories about the bus ride to Sa Pa but, luckily, due to the large volume of travelers that have been coming to Sa Pa, a giant highway has just been built that brings you straight there in a quick 6 hours.
What & Where is Sa Pa?
Located in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains in the Northwestern limits of Lào Cai Province, Sa Pa is one of the most famous places in Vietnam. Travelers will fly into Hanoi to go to Ha Long Bay, and then Sa Pa. Sa Pa itself is just a little mountain town, but it is famous because of what it serves as a jumping off point for. Surrounding this little piece of civilization are some of the most beautiful mountains and rice paddies that you’ll ever see. So it wasn’t a terrible compromise for me to come here instead.
Arriving In Sa Pa
The only problem was that it was still going to be raining there. Our bus stopped at a little shelter where Vietnamese snacks were served under a tin roof and a collection of tarps. It was raining so hard when we stopped that I was soaked just from running from the bus to the little bánh mì stand I had spotted.
A few hours later we were rolling into Sa Pa. It was foggy and drizzling rain – my favorite! It took me about 10 minutes to locate the hostel I had booked. Once I was there my first order of business after checking in was to inquire about the tours and treks they offered. I was only going to be there for a few days so I wanted to be sure that I put my time to good use.
I was interested in climbing Mount Fansipan so that was the first thing I asked about. The last major peak of the Himalayas, Mount Fansipan is often referred to as the “roof of Indochina”, and it really is. At 3,143 meters (almost 2 miles) above sea level, Fansipan is the highest mountain not only in Vietnam, but in the whole region. It normally takes 2 days to climb to the summit of Fansipan, but you can do it in a single day if you are physically fit and feel like a challenge. Despite having only just recovered from having worms, I wanted to give it a try. Paying no mind to the rain crashing against the windows, I booked the trip. It cost about 1.4 million VND (about 67 USD) because in order to climb the mountain, permits and passes would need to be acquired.
From there, I deposited my things in my room and headed out into the town of Sa Pa. It was actually a pretty cozy little town. While I was there it was surrounded by swirling white clouds, so it felt a lot less like Vietnam than I had expected. It was white, and cool. At times it felt like I was in a little Swiss skiing town. Still, the streets were as crowded as ever and it maintained the same bustling feel as you can find on the streets of Hanoi. I did my best to stray from the main roads and get a few interesting pictures.
The H’mong were everywhere in Sa Pa, harassing foreigners to buy things from them. Before coming here my only experience with the H’mong was in the remote reaches of Yên Bái Province, a place where tourism is non-existent. The H’mong in the village that I slept in had likely never seen a white person before me, but they were nothing if not welcoming and kind. Since then, whenever the H’mong come up in conversation my reactions have always been a fond “awwww… the H’monggg.” But the H’mong in Sa Pa are no strangers to foreigners, and they will try their best to push you, coerce you, and guilt trip you into buying whatever craft they are selling.
I don’t appreciate having people try to use my white guilt against me so I didn’t buy anything. I was really nice guy when I first showed up in Vietnam, but after a year in the developing world, I have become a lot less nice. I will not be guilt-tripped into spending money, and I will not be ripped off (if I can help it). One of the biggest things I have learned in my time abroad is that sometimes you need to be an asshole. It was tough in Sa Pa though, because those adorable little H’mong kids know exactly what to say.
“You bought from them, it’s not fair if you don’t buy from me too”
“If you don’t buy from me I won’t have money to go to school”
“I need money so that I can eat tonight”
Their parents are never far off when this is happening. They know that the cuteness of their children is a resource that won’t be at their disposal forever, so they do their best to train their kids into ruthless salespeople. The adults take a different approach with their tactics though, and open with a million personal questions so that you feel like you’ve made a friend by the time they make their pitch. When you turn them down they won’t let you off with a simple ‘no’ – they will keep at it until they get you to say “maybe later”. That way, when they spot you again tomorrow, they can throw that in your face.
“You said later! Now is later!”
Who are the H’mong?
The H’mong are the biggest ethnic minority group in Vietnam. They also have sizable populations in China, Laos, and Thailand. To be clear, these people are not Vietnamese, nor are they Chinese, Laotian or Thai. They are a people without a country. Their first language is H’mong. Any other language they speak is a second language to them.
I was annoyed with some of them in the tourist center of Sa Pa, but that will happen to any white person in any developing world tourist area. The truth is that I find them to be utterly fascinating. Their history is blurry, but it is widely accepted that their heritage can be traced back to a town in northern China called Zhuolu. Since then however, they have migrated south to inhabit the mountainous highlands that span the northern Chinese borders of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It is here that they have lived for the past few centuries. Involved in almost all of the many conflicts that the region has seen over the years, subjected to military actions bordering on genocidal at the hand of multiple governments, the H’mong are now an obscure, dying culture. The H’mong language is spoken only by a relative few now. They were actually responsible for a plot to overthrow the Laotian government in 2007… allegedly. Interesting stuff.
In Vietnam people often laugh when you mention the H’mong. This is because the word “H’mong” sounds a lot like the words “show ass” in Vietnamese. They insist that there is no racial prejudice involved here though. I’m suspicious, but you can be the judge.
It was raining that afternoon and it would be dark soon so there was nothing to be done but hang out at the hostel. So here’s my hostel review, which I wouldn’t bother writing unless I had some strong opinions…
Hostel Review: Mountain View Hostel
Address: 54 Cau May, Sapa, Lao Cai Province, Vietnam
This place is amazing – one of the best experiences I have ever had at a hostel. It is the only place you should stay if you come to Sa Pa. During my time here it was raining and the power was out about 40% of the time. This is no fault of the hostel, but they did a great job keeping us happy and comfortable despite the terrible weather and unreliable power grid. They were quick to light candles whenever the power went out, which gave the place a very cozy feel. They can book you pretty much anything you need, including bus tickets back to Hanoi, and tours to any/ every part of Sa Pa.
The real story here though is a little bit less tangible. It was just a great atmosphere. I had so much fun here. Both the staff and the people that were staying with me at the hostel were great. Seriously, I met so many great people during my time here; it reminded me how fun traveling can be.
To be fair, the food was a bit pricey for how average it was. Also, they are the ‘new kids on the block’ for hostels in Sa Pa, so it doesn’t take much going wrong to get them stressed out, but they are good people and they do their best. It is a bit of party hostel, but the layout allows for a noisy bar, and quiet rooms, so don’t worry about being able to sleep.
The power outages meant that the kitchen was closed down pretty often so a few of us were forced to venture out into the cold rain on the streets for food. The roads are so steep in Sa Pa that there were rivers running down the street – like, actual rivers. We were hell bent on finding pizza, so on our 3rd try we found a restaurant whose ability to make pizza had not been hindered by Sa Pa’s rolling black outs. It was the giant “FREE BEER” sign that hooked us.
The Restaurant: La Roma Pizza
Address: 30 Cau May, Sapa, Lao Cai Province, Vietnam
We sat down at the table and the owner, who introduced himself as Luan, walked over and asked, “Do you have good handwriting?”
“Uh…” we all looked at each other. “I can (have good handwriting)...” I replied.
“I have a job for you – it will take you 2 minutes. One moment,” he said, as he ran off to the back.
It turned out that this job was creating 2 more copies of the giant “FREE BEER” sign that had lured us in to begin with. It was actually a really big sign. He brought us a pair of huge black boards and a set of heavy duty, brightly colored markers. After dinner, which Luan had promised would be free if we didn’t like it (it was actually really good), we sat for an additional 2 hours, working on his signs, being paid in free beer, garlic bread, and desserts. Other restaurant patrons stared at us drinking, laughing, and coloring at our table in the middle of the restaurant.
In the end we showed our sign to a waitress, asking if she liked it. "No, I don't like... I love!" she squeaked. We laughed and she said "I said 'I don't like, I love!'", as if proud of her budding English skills. "Okay, we got it" we said with a laugh.
The owner, Luan, was quite happy with our results also and gave us a bottle of Vietnamese wine on the way out. The whole experience was pretty absurd. He must have given each of us an extra 300,000 VND (13.75 USD – a big chunk of change in Vietnam) in food. Anyway – La Roma Pizza – if you are ever in Sa Pa, give it a try.
Complications With Mount Fansipan
While many of my fellow hostel guests were going out to Sa Pa’s bars (apparently Sa Pa has bars) on my first night, I chose to go to bed early in anticipation of the 25 km trek up Mount Fansipan I had signed up for the next day. Honestly, I was a bit nervous for it. Multiple people had told me “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Like, ever. In my whole life.” One of them showed me the medal he had been given for completing the trek. “You’ll get one too, and it will be the proudest damn moment of your life” he said gravely. I’d imagine it would be fine in good weather, but climbing this mountain in the rain must have been a harrowing experience for these guys. They described hanging off of ropes over cliffs and giant bamboo splinters in their hands. This was all weighing on my mind as a feel asleep that night.
When I woke up the next morning it was raining even harder than it had the previous day. I arrived at breakfast to find out that the Fansipan trek had been canceled by the Vietnamese company for safety reasons. I was secretly very relieved. I had paid a high price to go on this trek, and at first it was unclear if we would be receiving a refund. Apparently the hostel’s CEO spent the day arguing with Vietnamese companies about this, but eventually we got our refund.
In the meantime, I geared up and went on the only trip that hadn’t been canceled… which turned out to be quite an ordeal in it’s own rite. Hold onto your hats folks.
To Be Continued…