I came to Sapa to go trekking in Vietnam; I prepared for that trek by eating mocha cake.
That should give you a glimpse into my level of fitness…
Seeing as I haven’t been on a serious hike since…oh, never…I decided I would start small by hiking down to Cat Cat Village which lies about 2 kilometres away from Sapa in the valley below. Surely, that would be enough training for the 2 day trek I was going on later that week.
I put on my brand new running shoes (the ones I’ve had for over a year but still glow white because that’s how often I use them) and we set off down the dirt path.
That’s when Sam and I met them – three women clad in indigo, the colour of the Hmong tribe.
“What’s your name?”
“Where you from?”
“He your boyfriend?”
I was impressed by their level of English, and we soon had a conversation underway.
“Wow, these people are so friendly!” I thought to myself. This is exactly the kind of cultural encounter every traveller hopes for – walking down a mountain en route to a rural village, water buffaloes munching away on shrubs, women from a local hill tribe joining for a walk. Why this is the kind of stuff makes the feature story on the National Geographic! Right?
If you’ve been to Sapa before you’re probably laughing at me and shaking your head at my impending demise. You know what’s coming.
Hidden agenda, you say? Impossible! I don’t fall for this kind of thing. We were talking, we were laughing, they were playing music for us. This was genuine I tell you, genuine!
Except it wasn’t.
Once we began approaching Cat Cat Village, the three women told us they would not be able to go any further because they were from Lao Chai, a village located further away.
Our time together was coming to and end and it was now time for their business pitch, which literally went like this:
“Okay, now you buy from me.”
“I have bracelet, I have purse, I have bag. You buy from me.”
All three of them were looking at me with expectant eyes, each waiting for me to purchase something. I didn’t want to be the foreigner who passes through town and doesn’t give anything back to the local community, plus these women seemed nice and they had been walking with me for a while now, so in spite of having a backpack full of souvenirs and trinkets I have no use for, I gave in and purchased yet another purse .
But it didn’t end there.
“Now you buy from heeeer. Buy from heeeeeer.”
“You buy from meeeee.”
“Yes, you buy from heeeeeeer.”
Oh oh. Despite my refusals, silver bracelets were being displayed in my face, coin purses put in my hands, this was starting to feel like the bamboo train incident, and I needed to get out of there pronto.
I declined their offers, apologized for not being able to buy from all of them, and picked up the pace hoping that would be the end of the conversation.
Except they started walking just as fast behind me. (You’ve got to admire their persistence.)
Crap! Now what? Am I supposed to run?!
How did we go from having a ‘cultural encounter’ to me galloping down the mountain with little ladies chasing after me? A funny scene to behold, yes, but where’s the part where I get invited back to their homes for a cup of tea? Isn’t that how it goes in the travel documentaries?
By now I had reached the entrance to Cat Cat Village and I was safe.
I was feeling kind of bad about the way I had handled things, but then on the hike back from Cat Cat Village to Sapa I changed my mind. As I walked back uphill on the same path I had taken down, I noticed an even larger group of local Hmong ladies were now repeating the same tactics on the group of foreigners who were slowly trickling down to the town for a visit.
I noticed the women who had chased me down only a few hours ago, and they just laughed and smiled my way.
No hard feelings – just another business day on the mountains.
P.S. There weren’t that many cats in Cat Cat Village.