Color me Sapa

The day gets greyer and greyer as we leave Bac Ha Market. I still have to journey another couple of hours to reach my destination, a reportedly upscale eco paradise/lodge (operated by a Danish hotelier keen on preservation projects around the globe) that relies completely on solar technology for energy and hot water. As we climb the mountain, the clouds knit themselves into a thick blanket overhead. I wonder whether there will be any hot water tonight for a long overdue shower.

It’s now around 4pm and I’m deposited at the lobby of a grand hotel in the middle of downtown Sapa (translation: the two-lane main street that cuts through town). There’s supposed to be a driver from the Lodge waiting for me at this drop-off point, but the shuttle is an hour late so I grab my purse and camera and double back from whence we came. On our way into Sapa I’d spied a bunch of stores and stalls full of curiosities so I’m now definitely happy my ride is late. I want to see the blankets hanging on the walls up close as well.

I get maybe 15 yards out of the hotel lobby when these women appear out of nowhere and swarm around me. They shout “konichiwa” to me, thinking I’m Japanese. When I reply in Vietnamese they break out in a fit of giggles and demand to know how I learned Vietnamese in Japan. After assurances on my part that I’m not Japanese, they proceed to touch my clothes, my hair, my face. I’m starting to feel like a Martian. Personal space doesn’t seem to carry the same meaning in this part of the world. Then they enthusiastically interrogate me about my life in the US. I reply in kind with questions about their daily lives and their traditional dresses. I, too, want to touch their clothes and jewelry but stop myself. There is so much easy laughter here.

When the questioning stops, madcap capitalism kicks in. From the straw baskets on their backs they pull out colorful hemp-dyed blankets and a million other accessories with beautiful embroideries and patterns. I’m overwhelmed. Color me Sapa!

They shout out prices at me, all the while trying to undercut their competitors’ offers. There are two sisters who tell me that if I buy something from one sister, I’d also have to buy something else from the other. Or else they’d be doomed to great disharmony in their family. One young woman keeps showing me her newborn baby. She tells me it was born early and is malnourished. But it looks very chubby and cherubic to me. When I don’t offer to hold the baby, she shows me her other daughter:

I buy. Guilt based marketing works. Gotta love it.

Sadly for me, yours truly who walks around with the word SUCKA tattooed on her forehead, the blanket that I want is in the hands of a very little, old lady. I make the fatal mistake of lingering on her blanket five seconds longer than the others. Worse, we make eye contact. I’ve just violated the number 1 rule in cutthroat haggling: never show you are interested. I am now putty in her hands. She gives me one price and one price only. I cajole and tease her, all in the fun of bargaining, but she sticks to her guns. She walks deliberately slowly behind the other gals who are now drastically reducing their prices and waiving stuff in my face to get my attention. She stays in the background, and each time I look at a new item, she slyly holds up her blanket and flashes me a devious smile. I see her grin every time I look at her blanket that now sits in my home office.

Here’s a clip of the shopping frenzy–push the play button to start the video:

An hour after this impromptu shopping in Sapa, I collapse in the shuttle out of sheer exhaustion from the sensory overload thus far. But 40 minutes later as we arrive at the main gate of the Lodge, I literally jump out of my seat and scramble for my camera. The view that greets me now is too rich to not be captured forever on film:

At the main gate, there is a small waiting room for guests. The stone path from this point to the Lodge is not accessible by car (or anything motorized actually) so my luggage is dropped off here, and the staff, which consists of people from the local tribes, carries the heavy suitcases on their backs or heads. The staff is primarily male. Their female counterparts are these women that I see here at the gate. I find out from the driver that they are allowed to come up to the waiting room to try to sell you their wares, but they may not cross the threshold. It is literally a piece of wood that separates the have from the have not. So they may talk to you through the windows or doors to push their sales but they cannot come inside. I can’t tell you the mixed emotions I feel here in this very moment at the gate…joy troubled by guilt, anger, discrimination, sadness, and compassion. Every paradise has a price. Do I dare cross the threshold?


  1. wai

    This make me miss the northern part of burma.. Believe it or not.. its exactly the same, the tribe, the people, the will you buy from me, the clothes, everything… oh well i think i might just go see northern vietnam when i get back to asia next year.. it looks very very beautiful

  2. pbui

    I’m sorry I didn’t get to see this amazing story in person. Maybe next time.


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