Sapa looks like any other small town in Vietnam — devoid of any redeeming features except for the uncharacteristically Vietnamese Catholic church in the town square, somewhat commanding in its presence. Flanking it are the numerous stalls that cater to tourists – selling everything from roasted potatoes to fake, China-made Columbia trekking pants.
The evening of my arrival in Sapa brought in an unwelcome visitor — the rain. It rained incessantly throughout the night, and throughout the rest of the next day. Although I was itching to get back on the saddle for a highly anticipated 2nd day of riding in the mountains, I had no choice but to hole up in my room for most of the dreary, wet and cold day. In between, I walked about the town, eating Pho and fried rice, drinking coffee, and the occasional beer.
The real draw of Sapa is not the town itself; it’s the guided treks to the terraced rice-fields of the Hmong tribe, the Hmong markets and the handmade Hmong souvenirs. But like any popular tourist attraction, it can get a little crowded in the padi fields, and that’s not even counting the numerous Hmong peddlers out in their typically black Hmong finery — as expected of them by the tourists who have travelled far to catch a glimpse of native life that has mostly remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
Young and old, these Hmong ladies — some as cute and as young as 10 — have been trained by their seniors to latch on to tourists who have shown even the slightest interest in their wares. It’s not surprising that, with so much ‘training’ and exposure, you hear fluent English being spoken by these street-wise kids. Many a tourist have been taken in by these cutesy creatures and even the steeliest resolve not to give in has melted in the wake of “Buy from something from me, buy something from me?”
Another effective tack by these girls is to ‘act’ as an informal guide, and pretending to want to learn English by speaking with you (well, I guess at some stage they really did do that, but I would think the general flow of conversation would be the same with any tourist). Once they built a certain amount of rapport with you, they just reel you in — hook, line and sinker.