Monday, April 4, 2016

The Enduring Attraction of Sapa

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

Sapa as the morning fog lifts
        By 1918, the French had been in control of northern Vietnam for three decades.  That year a French missionary, wandering around in the mountains along the Chinese border, discovered Sapa.  He believed this was a good place to spread the Word of God and several years later oversaw the construction of a church in the Hmông village there. 
       His compatriots, upon learning about Sapa, had more secular ambitions.  They viewed the mountain town, 1640 meters above sea level, as a great place to escape the heat of the plains in summer and soon developed it as a health resort.  The French promptly expelled the Hmông residents, who subsequently resettled in Sinchai, several km north, built villas, tennis courts and parks, even a small hydroelectric complex next to the Cát Cát waterfall near Sinchai, and by the 1930s Sapa was a popular French tourist site. 
Sapa in 1930
       After 1945 the French ceased coming.  Their unpaid corvée labor demands on the local minorities had turned all these people into Vit Minh sympathizers and Sapa became a guerrilla stronghold throughout the anti-colonialist struggle.  
       Afterwards Party officials took over the abandoned French villas for their occasional vacation use, but the Chinese invasion in 1979 destroyed nearly all of them, as well as the church. The government paid for the church’s reconstruction, but otherwise Sapa didn’t recover until it became touted as a tourist destination in the early 90s.
Sapa Catholic Church
       By then villas had been restored and turned into guesthouses.  Shops and restaurants lined the main street, some offering unusual choices like venison, antelope, apple wine and the far stronger snake wine.  When fog was absent a visitor had a magnificent view of Phansipan from the end of the town.  A picturesque pond at the town entrance, fountain in the square just inside the city, a mini-stone forest on Hàm Rng Hill behind the church, with an array of small caverns and weirdly shaped boulders jutting up from the ground, and a grove above the town full of birds in the mornings completed the list of Sapa’s physical attractions.
Red Dao in Sapa for market day
       The great majority of Sapa’s residents are ethnic Vietnamese, but they only constitute 15% of the district’s population.  More than half, 52%, are Hmông, 25% are Dao, with a few Giáy and Xa Phô as well.  For travelers this was a very different kind of Vietnam, full of colorful minorities and mountain scenery.  Very few Hmông and Dao lived in Sapa, but they were always around, for their villages are not far away.
Lừ woman visiting Sapa 
       Saturday is market day in Sapa and ethnic minorities swarmed into town.  Not only Hmông and Dao, some Giáy and Xa Phô, and even Lfrom Bình Lư west of Sapa, would turn up as sellers, buyers or both.  It was a great day to mingle with the natives, even if you didn’t have a camera.  The streets were jammed with color, for Sapa’s minorities, male and female, still preferred their ethnic clothing.
       The most numerous in attendance are the Hmông from the nearest villages like Sinchai and Lao Chi, members of the sub-group the Black Hmông, who dominate the district.  The women dress in long-sleeved black jackets of indigo-dyed hemp or cotton, embellished with embroidered collars and cuffs, knee-length black pants, leg-wrappers, a round black cap, big round, filigreed earrings and silver neck rings.  Men wear full-length black trousers and a side-fastened jacket and also like to don neck rings.
Black Hmông women, 1930
       More colorful are the Red Dao  (pronounced Zao and known as Yao in neighboring countries), whose women wear long-tailed jackets and shin-length trousers, both heavily embroidered, and bright red, tasseled turbans.  They keep their heads shaved under those turbans, wear silver earrings and neck rings and have silver buckles on the jacket.  The men dress more sedately, mainly in black, but may have heavily embroidered jacket cuffs.  Dao women run shops in the main market center that sell ethnic Dao clothing and embroidered pieces to other Dao as well as tourists and Vietnamese merchants.
Black Hmông today, same basic clothing
       Throughout the 90s visitors to Sapa could observe one particularly charming custom called the Love Market.  Actually it was just a gathering of Hmông and Dao youths after market day, characterized by music and dance.  Some romances may have developed in this context, but it was not the principal motivation for those involved.  It was more like a public party.  By the end of the decade, tourist groups outnumbered the locals and the custom fell into abeyance. 
       It was in these years that Sapa’s people first began interacting with foreigners.  They were rather shy and reserved in the beginning, but so were the visitors, for the most part.  Then the foreigners started buying things from them for souvenirs and that encouraged a more forward attitude.  But it wasn’t always driven by the prospects of economic gain.  Some of them, especially the youth, were just plain curious about the foreigners.  They even learned foreign languages to be able to converse.
young Red Dao woman
Dao men also favor traditional clothing
       The most delightful encounters then were with Hmông girls aged 10-15.  Usually in small groups, but sometimes solo, they approached foreigners offering to sell them the little brass mouth-harps (đàn m
i) they were playing.  If they didn’t get a sale, and generally they didn’t, it didn’t matter.  They put them away, asked what country the foreigner was from and spouted off a few phrases they’d learned in the foreigner’s language.  If it was a country they hadn’t met anyone from yet they responded with something along the lines of  “How do I say ‘hello, how are you?’ in your country’s language?  How do I say ‘where are you going?’ and ‘do you like’?”
Phansipan, tallest mountain in Vietnam
       Besides encounters in the town, foreigners could also meet the minority people by visiting them in their villages.  A few were within walking distance.  Motorbikes could be rented for settlements further away, while tour companies offered organized treks of 2-5 days where customers stayed overnight in Hmông, Dao and Giáy villages. 
       The companies also took hardy travelers to the top of Phansipan, the towering mountain several km above Sinchai, where they camped overnight.  Rising to 3141 meters, Phansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam, at the lower end of the range here called Hoàng Liên Sơn.  Flanking the right bank of the Red River, this range begins in the center of Yunnan, where it is known as Ailaoshan and its highest peak, Mt. Ailao, at the upper end of the range, is just 25 meters higher than Phansipan.
       Ailaoshan is famous for the proliferation of irrigated rice terraces climbing up the mountain slopes.  Streams above the terraces feed water into them all year round.  While not in such profusion as north of the border, and not always irrigated by adjacent streams, the terraces in Sapa district are a definite part of the area’s scenery.  Pictures of them appear on posters advertising Sapa in tourist offices throughout the country.  And every trekking route passes by photogenic sets of them.
terraced fields in Sapa district
       The people who farm them live in villages of 30-60 families.  Their houses are simple, one-story buildings of wood or mud-brick, with roofs of thatch, wooden tiles or, more recently, corrugated iron.  Few villagers are by any measure wealthy, but they are self-sufficient, grow their own food, raise chickens and pigs for their meat and make their own clothes.
       The Hmông weave their own hemp cloth, while the Dao and Giáy purchase the materials in the market and cut and stitch them at home.  Turning hemp plant stalks into thread usable for a loom is a laborious process.  It’s more complicated than spinning cotton thread.  Hmông women often carry loops of hemp string with them to the field or markets, splicing, twining and winding it into satisfactory thread while on the move and carrying a full basket on the back.
Hmông woman twining hemp thread
       After bleaching the thread the women weave it on a narrow loom, producing a long strip of cloth 25-30 cm wide.  They dye this with indigo several times until it is a deep blue-black.  Then they cut it up and sew the pieces together to make the components of their clothing. The last step is to embroider extra pieces for the collars and cuffs, another prime free-time activity.
       For finding time for embroidery no one does this more than the Dao.  Unless everyone is out in the fields for planting or harvesting, whenever visitors come to a Dao village in relatively clement weather, they will see pairs, groups or individual Dao women and girls sitting outside busy with their needles.  Frequently changing the thread colors they embroider cross-stitched designs in floral, geometric and other patterns on black cotton cloth for their next coats and trousers.
       Besides creating the most attractive and exotic clothing ensembles in the area, Dao embroidery skills are considered a personal asset for a young woman’s marriage prospects.  To be a good embroiderer requires paying attention to detail, a sense of balance and proportion, long-term planning and a good measure of patience.  These are also qualities desirable in a good housewife.      
       Trekking companies arrange itineraries to include stops in different ethnic minority villages.  Travelers can also rent a motorbike and turn south out of the south end of Sapa along a road above a long valley backed by high mountains.  In a single day’s drive they can visit Hmông, Dao and Giáy villages.  They can also make a stop at a peculiar set of boulders next to the main road above the Giáy village of Tả Vân.  
inscribed stone
       These feature inscribed lines, straight and squiggly, on the surface of the stones, though nothing that resembles any kind of pictograph.  Local publicists tout these as an ancient Hmông alphabet, but none of these inscriptions, if that’s what they are, are in the shape of a text.  If they were meant to be magical, that knowledge is lost.  The world still waits for the researcher who finally deciphers them and solves the mystery.  Meanwhile, people will believe they must mean something.
       Excursions in other directions out of Sapa are also worthwhile.  Several kilometers out on the road back to Lào Cai a left turn on a branch road takes one to Tả Phìn.  It’s a gradual uphill road for 3 km to the ruins of a French monastery built in the 1930s.  The French eventually abandoned it and then bombed it as a Việt Minh base during the Vietnamese war for independence. From here the road descends for another 3 km, passing jagged hills and Hmông villages to the north, and ends at the large Dao village of Tả Phìn in the valley.  
       A final option is the high road heading west to Lai Châu province.  There are picturesque waterfalls along the way, one near the road, another requiring a long walk down the mountain slope to see.  The road zigzags over the mountains and then descends to a plain and the Lừ village of Bình Lư.  The Lừ live in stilted houses and are ethnically and culturally close to the animist Thái of Vietnam.
the ruined Tả Phìn Monastery
       In the 90s such excursions only appealed to the individual Western tourists.  The tourist industry grew in Sapa because of the town’s popularity with foreign tour groups, who often arrived Friday, stayed for the Saturday market and then left Sunday for the market at Bắc Hà, three hours away, before boarding a train back to Hanoi.
       That’s still the case, well into the next century, with foreign visitors.  On the weekends the town is overrun with tourists and other days practically restricted to the backpackers.  The novelty of foreigners has long worn off for the local people and except for home-stays on the trekking routes the encounters are more strictly commercial.  The Hmông girls who used to hang out with foreigners in town grew up and, thanks to their multi-lingual skills, got jobs with the trekking agencies. 
       On the other hand, the city authorities turned over the small, rarely used stadium in front of the church to minority merchants.  With their own selling venue they no longer pester tourists on the street or surround them flashing their goods as soon as the tourist leaves a restaurant, making for a much more relaxed, hassle-free environment.
ethnic minority marketplace
Love Waterfall (Thác Tình Yêu) nw of Sapa
       The other major change in recent years is the increasing numbers of Vietnamese tourists.  They don’t do much trekking, but enjoy the scenery, the waterfalls, the pond and parks and the special culinary dishes.  Antelope is off the menus now, and venison less common.  But nowadays, thanks to new fish farms in the district, diners can opt for American salmon and Russian sturgeon. 
       Far from being ruined by tourism, the Sapa experience may not be as fresh and exciting as the early 90s, but it is still quite enjoyable.  The ethnic minorities are likely to retain their preference for their traditional style at least another generation or two.  The cuisine and drinks will still be special and the mountains will always tower majestically all around.  These features guarantee Sapa’s permanent appeal to travelers, domestic and foreign.

the valley south of Sapa
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for more on Sapa and Ailaoshan see my e-book The Terrace Builders                     



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