Trekking in Sapa, and a moment everyone who’s done it will remember
“Oh my god, she’s the cutest thing EVER!” cried Megan, one of the two other tourists besides myself following our local guide down the mountainside of Sapa, Vietnam. “I want to take her home!”
She was talking about Su, and I knew how she felt. Something over four feet tall and with a smile that could warm up winter, Su was simultaneously an instant friend and a cultural experience. After rescuing us from the relentless souvenir sales pitches of a scrum of local women, Su led us down from Sapa to her village of Lao Chai.
Along the way she answered all our questions, about the ethnic groups (including her own Black Hmong), life in the valley, and many we hadn’t thought to ask yet. But asking how she learned to speak English so well was obvious.
“We learn from talking to tourists.” That made sense, and the people of Sapa did seem to speak much better English than the lowland Vietnamese I’d met, but given the range of her vocabulary it didn’t do justice to her hard work and initiative. I’d bet Su was particularly fluent, an impression reinforced by the silence of the two other local women who accompanied us down through the terraces where buffalo looked at us without curiosity.
Were they on the path by coincidence, to keep Su company, or were they apprentices? One carried the customary woven basket and the other had a ruthlessly adorable sleeping baby strapped to her back. Halfway to Lao Chai the baby woke up, and was quickly passed to Su.
“He is my son,” she explained. We all cooed over the cute little fellow, who had inherited his mother’s radiant smile, and I added aunts to my list of possible statuses for the two women. We reached the village, saw the traditional rice milling devices and hand loom, and sank with sighs into our seats for lunch. That’s when it all came clear.
Arms full of scarves and shirts, hands holding an array of earrings and bracelets, the two women descended on us with calm intensity, knowing full well that we already saw them as part of our team. It was an awkward mess. On the one hand we wanted to show our respect and friendship for these women and their people, but on the other hand it was a souvenir ambush when we thought we were safe.
As with so much of life, I can’t find a clear feeling about this. I certainly can’t blame them for wanting to make a living off the wealthier visitors who swarm into their homeland every day. And a lot of what they are selling really is superior goods to what you find elsewhere, actually homemade in an age of “homemade” stamps on factory presses.
But what of the implicit deceit? The snake in the grass routine of putting you at your ease, then exploiting what you thought was friendship? But who are we to expect friendship from people for whom we have done absolutely nothing, can’t even talk to, and into whose faces we routinely thrust our foreign cameras?
I had it easier than the other two, since women are subject to a much wider array of articles. Once I had a couple ribbon bracelet thingies they left me alone. Alone, a tourist, a resource milked, a visitor whose entrance price had been settled.
Lunch was good. Su was still incredible. And the rest of the walk only got better.