Saturday, May 15, 2010

The hills are alive

These hill tribe women fascinate me. They’re ever-present here in Sa Pa, forever traipsing up and down the main streets as they attempt to sell trinkets, postcards and embroidered bags to tourists. They’re very friendly, often funny and usually good for a bit of banter. And because they’re women, and ethnic minority women at that, I don’t have the heart to tell them to piss off when they corner me and try out their hard-sell tactics.

This happened recently when I was drifting around town, waiting for the weather to improve. It was the day of my previous blog entry and the morning rain and mist had cleared for a couple of hours, only to return for half an hour and then vanish again within minutes.

I’d had the same conversation about half a dozen times already that day.

“Hello! You want to buy my things?”

“No thank you.”

“Where you from?”


“Ah, England… What’s your name?”


“How old are you?”


“You married?”


“When you see me later David you buy my things, yes?”

“Er, no. Sorry.”

While some are content just to follow me down the street for a couple of minutes, the more quick-witted ones manage to strike up a lively rapport with a mixture of jokes, flattery and sometimes mild flirtation. I have some footage of me surrounded by four of them - each one wearing the traditional female headgear for their particular tribe - having a good laugh as I say to my camcorder: “Ooh, I’m popular with the ladies today.”

Once they’d dispersed I turned into a sidestreet to look around the market, only to find that one had followed me and was trying to force brocaded bags and moneybelts into my hands. “Buy something from me and I can go home,” she said. “Do you have a baby? I have two, they’re ten and eight. You can come to my house and see.” (She looked about 55 to me; I guess she‘d had a hard life.)

The fact remained, though, that I didn’t want any of it and the emotional blackmail was making me feel queasy. So I stood there saying: “No. I’m sorry, no,” for about five minutes.

Oh, the questions this raises. What did they do before Vietnam started letting in tourists about a decade ago? Do they make a good living from it or are they fighting for scraps, as it were? It’s got to be more profitable than working in the fields with the menfolk, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, right?

Every morning they’re gathered outside my hotel, waiting for the day’s tour parties to emerge. Presumably they come here on some kind of motorised transport but what I didn’t realise until I did my trek was that they walk with the tourists all the way back to the Muong Hoa valley, about 12km away. It takes about four hours and when you stop for lunch, they pounce.

The day I went trekking it had rained all night, leaving some of the dirt trails slippery, and I was grateful for the women who looked out for me and occasionally held my hand to guide me. One in particular latched on to me and as we approached the restaurants overlooking the village of Lao Chai she started to drop heavy hints. “I help you, now you help me, yes?”

In the end, with a little haggling, I bought a bag off her. I wish I hadn’t been so churlish about it now, as it’s compact, light, was relatively inexpensive and will make a unique gift for someone back home. I suppose I’m always offended when someone acts friendly with me in a transparent ploy to sell me something. But then I have to remind myself that I’m much richer then her through an accident of birth and geography and that she’s just trying to provide for her family.

A little way past the restaurants we stopped at a school, where a group of girls came out and danced for us next to a wooden box with a label on it asking for donations. One of the tunes they performed to was a cheesy ditty - I’d call it Europop but it was probably Asiapop - with a chorus that went: “Kiss me, kiss me, make me happy.” This all reminded me of Minipops, a profoundly ill-judged Channel 4 show from the 1980s that featured children performing the hits of the day, suggestive lyrics and all.

In the neighbouring village, Ta Van, I had to wave goodbye to the rest of my tour group as I’d booked a place in a homestay for the night. It was owned by the brother of the woman I’d booked the tour with in Hanoi and he phoned shortly after I’d arrived to say he was a couple of hours away and I’d be eating with him and his family that night.

All of a sudden I felt socially phobic and wished I’d stayed in Sa Pa. What was I going to say? I know I used to feign charm with all sorts of people when I was a newspaper reporter, but that was years ago! Still, I needn’t have worried. To my great relief, the guy didn’t make it home and his family didn’t speak conversational English.

That afternoon and the following morning, I went walking on my own in the sunshine, breathing in lungfuls of pure clean air and marvelling at the exquisite landscape of soaring hills and rice paddies. I could have stayed longer but I was missing my laptop, stored in a safe deposit box at my hotel, and was fretting about the mosquito bites I’d received while I’d been asleep in my very spartan, basic room (under a mosquito net).

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