I came to Sapa to go trekking; 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.
Omg, do you guys have a invisible-only-seen-by-locals tattoo that says, “Please harass me into buying stuff”? From the looks of it, I guess it was just a wrong time/wrong place kind of thing. Well, at least the scenery looks beautiful, and it makes for a funny story! Hope the mocha-caked hike went well. hehe
Haha, I think I needed more mocha cake in me because the 2 day hike I did later that week was brutal! Stunning scenery, but boy my legs were feeling it.
It’s an interesting situation that occurs when locals and travelers end up in this type of situation. It seems that you did the right thing by buying a single thing. Unfortunately, these types of experiences sometimes makes both locals and travelers a bit weary of each other.
It’s a sticky situation that I’ve encountered on a few occasions across my travels, but this was my first time being chased down a mountain. 😉
Unfortunately, these sort of things happen almost always in SE Asia…and, well, other parts of the world! I think you were extra nice by buying a purse from her…how dare they be so persistant 🙂
ps, love your way of getting ready for a hike, for me, it’s usually chocolate bars.
Hehe, I like your thinking – chocolate bars for a hike sound like a great idea to me. 😉
Ha ha, great story. They were quite clever how they pitched it and made it very difficult for you to say no. You are definitely not alone though. Vendors always swarm around me like flies. Probably because they know I am naturally attracted to bright colors and all things sparkly. I ALWAYS end up buying something!
They were quite persistent, haha, they are sure good at what they do. I’m usually also drawn to bright, sparkly things in terms of souvenirs, but at that point I already had a heavy backpack and wasn’t looking to add anything else to it.
I’ve had this sort of thing happen on Gran Canaria, Audrey. In the more touristy south of the island. Where African women literally grab you before putting a bracelet on your wrist. They then demand payment.
My friend had a similar experience to yours when we were in Paris – a group of women came up to us to chat and before we knew it they were trying to put a red thread bracelet on my friend’s wrist. It wasn’t so easy getting away.
And this shows the ugly side of tourism to the villages. I wouldn’t visit one of the mountain villages in SE Asia purely for this reason – people just trying to sell you shit. Still, you got a funny story out of it!
Same here. I really avoid places if I know I’m probably going to get harassed like that.
It’s a shame and I know I’ll probably miss out of some things, but I just hate it…
It’s a difficult balance to strike. On the one hand, I don’t like being hassled and pressured into buying things, but on the other, I don’t want to miss out on a beautiful part of the country for that reason. It’s difficult to get one without the other…at least in popular destinations like Sapa or the Mekong Delta.
Hahah I can’t believe you even bought a purse!
In Beijing a little guy started talking to us while we were walking to a place to eat. He had to go the same way and he just wanted to practise his english. Ring any scam bells? Not for me! Nick knew right away but he decided to just say nothing and see how I would handle this. So we talked for half an hour and I kept thinking ‘Wow, this is the best experience’. When I told him I studied art he got excited because he was an art student and he said that I should come and see his art (This is a well known Beijing scam). Only then did I realize what was going on and I felt so sad. This whole time I was thinking I really made a connection, only to find out he just wanted to scam me.
My thinking at the time was that if I bought one purse they’d be satisfied and I would be on my merry way. Haha, I guess that one backfired on me. I’ve heard a lot about the Beijing scams, particularly about being invited to tea houses, so I’ll be on scam alert when I get there. 😉
I definitely ended up buying a lot of stuff in Sapa, ha ha. I have the earrings, bracelets, and purse to prove it. You’re not alone!
Glad I’m not alone! I’m keeping everything as souvenirs for family when I go back home. 😉
Oh my God, this has happened to me so many times in Sapa. Whilst my friends ran away at the mere sight of the ladies, I smile and chat and then they won’t leave me alone! I think on my first encounter I came away with 3 bracelets, a headband and a massive blanket. That was fun to carry around!
I learnt quickly to perfect my ‘No thanks’ face now.
Another thing I discovered in Sapa – whenever the ladies would approach me to sell me things, one of the first things they would ask was, “How long you been here?” After a few days in the town I started responding with “a very looooong time” and they stopped trying to sell me things. 😉
In Africa I usually just say ‘Oh I live here’, that usually works too 🙂
When I was in Sapa, I was lucky enough to have witnessed the pestering of tourists by local women from a distance, so when they approached me, I thankfully knew what to do… Didn’t make eye contact and walked away. It’s too bad that it’s like this.
This happened to me a couple weeks ago on the Great Wall of China. I didn’t actually want what the lady was selling, so I just gave her some money. The fact is, she had been SUPER nice and she walked the whole way with me.
I knew her intent, but I went with it anyway. At the end of the day, she’s just trying to make a living.
OMG. Basically the same thing happened to me. I was in Paris at Sacré Cœur. These men were talking to me and my friend and started to make a bracelet. I was extremely naive and hung out to watch. Afterwards they tied the bracelet to my wrist and requested money. We tried to argue with them as best as possible, but they pretended not to understand. Feeling defeated, I coughed up the money to buy something I could have made myself. After, my friend and I who go swindled took a picture with us showing off our new jewelry!
Thanks for your story. It made me remember mine 🙂
Hahaha yep, the same exact thing happened to me too- you’re not the only one who has pretty much broke out into a run from Hmong ladies trying to sell things! And I had the same thoughts as well- “wow, they are so friendly!” Oh well. At least you have a cute new bag…?
I was chased for 5km along the Great Wall of China by a lady convinced I was going to buy something. I didn’t. She was quite vexed.
In the case of the Hmong ladies, can you just tip them at the end of the day without buying anything? Would they still want you to buy something? I clearly understand the econonic situation of these people and know that this is what they do for a living.
Has anyone been robbed on their trip to these villages since money is what they’re after?
In Bolivia, a local woman who I couldn’t even see because she was so far away starting running towards me and screaming because she thought I was taking a photo of her. She was so far away, I literally could not see her for half a minute but could vaguely hear her until she got closer. Since I couldn’t see her, I was obviously not taking a photo of her, and she probably was not even in the frame of my photo. The tour guide explained to me that some of the indigenous population thinks that it is unlucky to have their photo taken (it steals their soul or something like that). When the lady got close enough for me to actually see her and make out her words, I discovered she actually wanted me to pay her. Fat chance.
Haha, that’s hilarious. Wish I could have seen it first hand. Shame about the lack of cats though.
Love this story and pity your poor soul at the same time. I wouldn’t have had the heart to tell them no. I’m curious, however, what happens if you just flat out refuse these women? Guess you might be dragged back to their village and picked for every dime. Lesson to remember. Thanks for such a great story!
good for u that you were able to escape!!
If I were in that situation I might have given in.
Just like what happened to me in Ben Thanh market.
Found myself laughing many times.
I always love the energy of your posts 🙂
It’s problem in Sapa now. Many visitor not happy with this.
Hahaha… So good! The Black H’mong would make a killing in Europe. Sales people take notice. I had a very similar experience where they, like a pack of wolves, sensed my weakness. It was all worth it! 🙂
Its true and its quite annoying while we are having a trek going to the village.
But you should not entertain them so that they will go away.
Great that we have a Vietnamese friend who can talk and asked them politely that we are not interested to have a guide and we’ll do it by ourselves.
Uhh was “there wasn’t that many cats in cat cat village” suppose to be a racial statement?
But anyways, you non-hmong people are way more luckier. as a hmong woman (from America), whenever I visited any hmong/miao village (Thailand, Laos, vietnam, china), the hmong/miao guys would ask for my last name first and then the ones with different last name would always “hit on” me!!!! At first it’s cute because you hear from old hmong women how their husbands would woo them with songs and the qeej/lusheng and it’s really romantic… After awhile it gets crazy because im aleady seeing someone – my boyfriend is the jealous type…or it could just be a japanese culture – yes! He’s japanese. Overall, I gotta be honest, the most handsome hmong/miao guys are the ones that live in the cities of china – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, etc etc. They are tall, smart/educated, and look like those “flower boys” you see from korean, Taiwanese, japanese tv dramas.
Hmong people in Vietnam are the poorest of all hmongs/miao. Then the ones in Laos are next. The richest are the ones are in America, France, and china.
Funny pun with the village’s name, in Vietnamese the word Cat both means “luck” and “sand”, I guess in this case in means “Double Luck” Village. And I can assure you, everyone faces touting, even local travellers.
Love your blog!
One comment says ” they selling shit” , no it’s not, these are the authentic handcraft work by hmong people. I did buy some of them and when i go back i’ll buy again, i don’t mind spending couple of dollars. And they are persistent of course because they are they Hmong people, understanding their culture is sometimes very difficult but it’s fun and educating/entertaining.
It’s really cheap cheap cheap to go to Sapa, you know what i mean or maybe Vietnam is not for you try Kiribati.
I was dismayed to read the negative, cynical and somewhat cruel comments about the Hmong people in Sapa on this blog. Yours is the only kind thing among them. I encountered the same thing when I went to Sapa last week when I was surrounded by little children selling things on the streets, they were persistent and it hurts to see how tourism brings greed to the simplicity of their souls.
My name is Binh and I’m from Vietnam. I’ve been to Sapa once and I found your story over the Hmong ladies really amusing. I was laughing my way reading down to the part your got called to buy things.
Yes, it was a shame and I feel bad about this.
We had a group of 5 people, and I was the only one Vietnamese. I was so surprised they did that to us after like 1 hours walking together. At first I thought they were just being friendly to us as travellers.
The sadder part is that they were just small kids.
Anyway, I’ve never seen such tactic in any other destinations in Vietnam. So there is just this 1 caution if anyone read this comment before visiting Sapa: Get ready to spend about $10 for each of them, otherwise you should tell them upfront that you won’t buy anything.
Honestly, they are poor people. Hanging around in such a large villages without much trading going. The rice and crops are mostly for local use. Hence, a little spare from traveller is welcomed. Just that they don’t have education, hence their behaviour might be strange and unwanted.
I’m not a rich person, but at the end, I also bought something for them, for 2 reasons: 1. I feel good giving them some money, big for them, small for me. 2. Their souvenirs are not bad, I didn’t see from elsewhere.
Good luck with your travels and keep on the good blogging.
Did your male companion find his sunglasses in a crashed Vietnam war plane, circa 1970?
I’ve been to Sapa on countless occassions, and yes this is true. But must I say, most of the comments here are made by tourists from privileged positions. I am Hmong myself, Hmong Australian. I know for a fact that the Hmong in Asia are one of the poorest and most marginalised of people. What they do is out of necessity, to feed and clothe their families. Imagine what you would have to do if your families lived in dire poverty… haggling tourist is nothing and more than worth it if it is to bring food to the table Most tourists who go to developing countries should expect a bit of discomfort. And selling ‘rubbish’ thats another stupid comment from privileged outsiders, Hmong textiles have a history of significance, sadly they have been adapted for tourism because it is one of the ways of income for them. And for the them being ‘uneducated’ by the Vietnames commentator on here – please check Vietnamese policy towards areas such as Sapa and ethnic minorities – a long history on discrimination and marginalisation may account for this ‘uneducated’ aspect to the Hmong community.
Absolutely commercialised village. 🙁 Quite disappointing actually, but the scenery makes up for it I suppose.