Can you really pay to be a guest?

Picture of rice terraces.

Rice terraces near Sapa.

Mar 3 - 4, 2015
Days 229 - 230

I left Hanoi well-rested and looking forward to the next few weeks. My plan was to travel to the small town of Sapa, where I hoped to spend a few days with a local family. From there I would cross the border into China and travel to Beijing by train. Along the way I wanted to see a national park and the famous Terracotta Army, but who knew what other adventures might happen between here and there?

There were no cockroaches on my overnight train ride to Lau Cai, on the Chinese border. As soon as I stepped off the train, I, along with every other passenger, was hounded by bus drivers looking to take us to Sapa. I bargained one driver from 100,000 dong to 50,000. He put his index finger over his lips and said, “Shh” as I paid him. Apparently he didn't want me to tell any of the other passengers that they had gotten ripped off. Or maybe they had paid even less than I had, and the driver didn't want me to find out. In Vietnam, one never knows.

The minibus took us from sea level to a mile above, where the climate was cooler. The road skirted the edge of a deep canyon, the walls of which were covered in terraced green rice fields. An eerie fog blanketed the riverbed, far below.

Picture of village.

A village near Sapa.

It took an hour to reach Sapa. Before the bus had even stopped, five women jockeyed for position at the door, ready to whisk tourists to their homes in exchange for cash. I hadn't done much research on Sapa, but someone had told me that you can stay with a local Hmong family there. I was looking forward to the cultural exchange. But I wasn't prepared for a cluster of women to grab my arms, pleading with me to pick them.

I tried asking the women some basic questions, like where they lived and what their ethnicity was. All of them were dressed in different traditional clothing, and by their overt animosity toward one another, I figured they came from different villages with distinct cultural makeups. But the clearest answer I got was “Come with me, you'll meet my whole family!”

I wasn't sure who, if anyone, I wanted to go with. But it was only eight in the morning; I was in no hurry. I politely told them all that I wasn't interested and walked away, hoping to think about it over breakfast. Some of the women bothered other passengers, others followed me. I asked the least aggressive one if I could buy bananas nearby, and she said, “Yes, I'll show you.”

Her name was Maiv and she was probably in her early twenties. She lived in a nearby village with her husband and children. She explained that the men were busy working in the rice fields at this time of year, so only the women came to Sapa to “greet” the tourists. She led me down a steep hill, where I bought a few bananas from an outdoor stall. Then we walked up to an empty amphitheater, where I dug out my camp stove. I offered to cook her breakfast, which she declined.

Maiv seemed a little shy, at least compared to her competition at the bus stop. But as I was priming my stove, she finally said, “Do you want to meet my family?”

I put a pot of water on the burner and thought: I came all this way, why not.

We negotiated a price to stay at her mom's house for the night. Then she left me alone, stating that her brother would pick me up in a little while. The cultural exchange really was going to happen. I was happy that my money would go directly to Maiv and her family, and not to some distant travel agency.

When the water was boiling, I made a cup of coffee. Then I chopped up a banana and added it to the remaining water, along with two handfuls of oatmeal. I was sitting on the empty stairs of the amphitheater – it must have been used occasionally for public performances. Tall pine trees were at the edge of the square, and there was a Christian church across the road. Foggy hills surrounded the town. Foreigners occasionally walked passed me, always accompanied by local women in traditional dress. Many people stared at me, a common occurrence when you're cooking in public.

Maiv returned a while later, this time riding on the back of a motorcycle. She said the driver was her brother and he would take me to their village. She also warned me that nobody else in her family spoke English, but not to worry – she would be there shortly.

Picture of road.

The road to the village.

I climbed on the back of the motorcycle and Maiv's brother drove me out of town and into the hills. We passed several tour groups, walking along the edge of the road that overlooked the foggy canyon. We left the main road and went up a long dirt track. The road got narrower and bumpier as we continued, until my body was so shaken, I was about to suggest that I walk the rest of the way. But soon we reached a village of wood plank houses with tin roofs. Banana palms and giant bamboo stalks lined the roads and flooded rice terraces extended into the valley below. An old lady sat outside of one building, staring as we passed.

We pulled up to one of the larger houses and Maiv's brother led me inside. Their mother, a petite middle-aged woman, smiled and appeared to welcome me to her home, using her native tongue. She led me to the corner of the house's only room, where there was a bed consisting of a thick blanket on top of a row of cinder blocks. At least there was a mosquito net and a curtain for privacy. I unpacked and took in the rest of the house. The wooden walls provided no insulation, not that any was needed in the tropics. A couple of bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling and a small TV was playing a soap opera. There was also a kitchen, with a stainless steel sink and a rice cooker.

Picture of village.

The village.

Maiv's mother cooked me a plate of rice, scrambled eggs, spinach and pork fat that tasted like bacon. I ate and indicated with grunts and belly pats that the meal was delicious. Then I thought about what to do next. Maiv had told me to wait for her, but I didn't really know when she would arrive. I indicated to Maiv's mother that I was going for a walk. Her only reaction was to return to her soap opera.

Picture of cow.

Cattle grazed near the path.

I followed the road up the hill, past the village and around the edge of the canyon. Soon I reached a small waterfall and sat on a rock, admiring the view. A large group of foreigners, with several local guides, came walking down the hill toward me. One of the guides asked if I was alone and where I was going. I confirmed that I was alone, but I didn't know where I was going, so I just said, “Up.” They continued down the hill, seeming content with my response.

Resuming my walk, I passed group after group of foreigners, all with guides. The guides inevitably asked where I was going and who I was with. I responded politely, but I wondered why they were so nosy. The foreigners marched down the hill, looking bored out of their minds.

Eventually I reached a pass of sorts, with a stone tower marking the trail's highest point. I climbed to the top and took in the sprawling valley. It was one of those places where you could both see and hear for miles. With daylight running low, I headed back down to the village.

Picture of feet.

The view from the top.

Maiv was at her mother's house. Now I felt bad for having gone on my walk, but she told me not to worry – she had only arrived five minutes earlier. The implication of her words seemed to pass her by: I easily could have sat inside the house all afternoon, waiting for her.

Two of Maiv's brothers were there, along with their children. A few other members of the extended family stopped by as well. The kids played outside while the adults chatted. I loved that the kids had so much freedom here, a relic of the past in much of the developed world. It was also great to see how tight-knit Maiv's family was. The only problem was that all attempts I made to join the fun were met with a cold shoulder. To be fair, there were serious language and cultural barriers. But the real problem was that I wasn't part of the family. I was an outsider. A paying customer.

Dinner was almost the same as lunch. I sat down with the family to eat, and Maiv explained a bit about her culture. They're called Black Hmong because their traditional clothing is black. The women never cut their hair, so it hangs down to their knees. For convenience, they twist their jet-black locks and wrap them multiple times around their heads, causing their hair to flop around like a wig. Maiv also explained that the pork fat we were eating was from the family's pig, which they had killed for the new year. The hooves were still hanging in the kitchen, drying. I felt honored for the chance to eat this special meal.

After dinner everyone sat around the TV and continued their lively chatter. I asked Maiv some more questions, but she didn't have much else to say, and none of the others spoke English. I didn't require constant attention. In fact, sometimes I liked to be left alone. But I had come here to meet the family, not to be served and ignored. I went to bed at 8:30, while everyone else was still talking.

I woke the next morning at 6:30 and had a plate of rice and cabbage for breakfast. While I was eating, Maiv's mother showed me some colorful coin purses. I felt flattered that she was giving me a trinket, despite barely knowing me. But then she held up a 100,000 dong note and I realized the truth: she was trying to sell the purses, at several times their market value. The stitching was clearly done with a sewing machine, so they were likely created in a factory, by someone she had never met. This sickened me. Not long ago, the people of this village probably had little contact with the outside world. But now the place was overrun with tourists, and the locals viewed us as a means to make far more money than they could ever earn by growing rice. I was part of the problem. I had to get out of there.

Maiv's brother drove me back to Sapa on his motorcycle. Maiv was walking around, trying to snag another tourist for the night. We exchanged a cordial goodbye, and indeed I had learned a little bit about Maiv's culture, but this visit still left me feeling empty. In many other places, I had used Couchsurfing to create strong connections with people whose backgrounds were far different from mine. What was different about my time with Maiv? Money. As soon as you introduce money to the equation, you are no longer a guest. You are a customer.

I walked back to the amphitheater and read my guidebook to figure out how to get to China. Immediately a local woman approached me with an armful of souvenirs for sale. I shooed her away and more people approached, asking if I was alone and where I was going. They made no attempt at a genuine interaction. As in many other places in Vietnam, I wasn't treated as human being. I was a walking ATM. I decided that the best thing I could do for the people of Sapa was to leave. Mass tourism was destroying this place. How long until the people stopped farming altogether and only donned their traditional costumes to entertain their customers? Maybe this was happening already. I shuddered at the thought.

I walked a few blocks in search of the yellow bus that would take me back to Lao Cai. I found it, but before I got on, a man told me that the bus wasn't going to Lao Cai, but he could take me there in his minivan. The van was empty, so I expressed my skepticism. The driver assured me that he was about to leave. I decided to trust him and took a seat. Bad idea. The bus pulled away and soon I figured out that the driver had lied. Was there one genuine person in this town? I left the van and after asking a few passersby, I found out that the next bus wouldn't leave for two hours.

In this town of liars, scam artists and opportunists, I decided to have a cheeseburger and fries as a fitting last meal in Vietnam. As I was walking out of the restaurant, the next yellow bus was already pulling away, one hour early. Luckily, I was able to flag it down. I climbed aboard and paid 23,000 dong, less than half of my “bargain” fare to Sapa. On my way out of town, I grew sad with the realization that one of my best experiences in Vietnam would be leaving the country.

More photos from Sapa

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