Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 2


I may have killed Francesco. The huge bottle of bathtub-brewed rice wine sits on our shared balcony, half-finished. Last night, we managed to drink a full fifth of potent moonshine in just a few hours. It’s 11:00 AM — I feel like crap and he hasn’t stirred. I’m starting to worry.

We rented scooters early the day before and explored the hill tribe villages near Cat Cat, just a few kilometers from town. This is where Sapa really shines. Forget about the cafes, hotels, and tourist markets — spend a day meandering through the rice fields and tiny villages where people still make their living off the land.

Francesco is the one person I’ve ever met who stops for photos more often than I do, and it was nice to not worry about holding someone up for once. He was fearless in his approach and would stop to take photos of anyone, anywhere — sometimes it made me cringe just to watch him. In the end, I bet he ended up with better photos than I did.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 2

The road was in good shape and wound over hills that were covered from top to bottom with rice terraces. Hmong women worked in the fields, pulling weeds and carrying bundles of leafy greens. Pigs, dogs, and chickens wandered about as we slowly made our way downhill, leap-frogging past each other as one of us stopped to take yet another photo. It was two hours of pure photographic eye-candy and I loved it.

Eventually, the graded road connected to pavement and we climbed higher, finding a ticket booth where we paid fifty cents to enter the village proper. At a bend in the road, we found a dozen tribal women straying into the road and waving us over. They wanted us to walk down a narrow trail with them to their village. I wasn’t really into the idea, suspecting that it would just be another hard sell to buy something.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 2

Francesco, however, was enamored with the thought, so I agreed. “I’ll bet you a beer this is going to suck,” I whined. After a ten minute walk down a muddy trail and across a footbridge, we reached the first ‘village’ with eight women in tow. There were only two buildings and we were led into the largest one, which was dark and mostly empty. A wrinkled old woman was doing embroidery in the doorway, wearing the thickest pair of glasses I’ve ever seen.

The young woman I’d been speaking to on the hike explained that this was her home and the old woman was her mother. Three old men sat in the far back at a low table, drinking rice wine and shouting at each other. One of them yelled a question and someone answered “America”. He roared a few words in response, stood, and began staggering my way. All of the women started waving their hands frantically at me, saying “no problem! no problem!”

This, of course, suggested to me that there was a problem. He was at least seventy, lacking a shirt or teeth, and could hardly walk. I offered up my hand to shake before he reached me, thinking I might have to catch him if he fell. He took my hand, sized me up, then bellowed in my face for a good thirty seconds. His breath was foul beyond description. It literally made my eyes water.

I turned to the ladies for fresh air and a translation — one of them explained, “He say America is good country.” Right…

He wouldn’t let my hand go and continued to rant for another couple of minutes, while I smiled, nodded, and tried to hold my breath. All the while, the ladies to my left continued their chant of “no problem!” He finally got tired or thirsty, and weaved his way back to the table. I caught Francesco’s eye and we both nodded — time to go.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 2

This triggered the feeding frenzy and suddenly we were surrounded by women opening baskets and shoving wall hangings at us. I knew I’d have to buy something when we agreed to visit, so I paid $2 for a couple of small bags that I didn’t need or want. I thought it might buy me some peace, but no — it only motivated the others to try harder for their share.

Pleas of “you buy from her, you buy from me. My baby hungry, buy from meeeee…” followed us all the way back to the bikes. Further up the road at the ‘village center’ –a collection of restaurants and curio shops– we were accosted by another half dozen. The real village was only a kilometer away, they explained, but we’d had enough and climbed back on the bikes after just five minutes. It was a crappy ending to a wonderful day.

On scooters again the next day, we headed up the mountain to check out Silver Falls. I’d love to tell you all the details about the height and history, but I’m writing this from a town with no internet, so let’s just say they’re tall and very pretty.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 2

Steep steps led to a bridge about a quarter of the way to the top of the falls. A Vietnamese tourist asked if I would pose for a photo with him, so I stopped at the nearest stair landing. Then his sister wanted one, and finally the guy manning the camera wanted one as well.

Being a photographer, he had to pose me — I was standing in the wrong spot. To lead me to the correct place –two feet to my right– he grabbed me by the ass and steered me over. And when I say “grabbed”, I mean he had a solid grip on my left cheek with his fingers buried deep in my crack. He could have checked my prostate while he was there. I can only imagine how the photo turned out: one happy tourist standing next to a very wide-eyed Westerner.

Two kilometers up the road, we found the entrance to Love Falls and learned it required a hike of one kilometer. I asked if it was a steep trail and the man behind the counter shook his head and indicated that it was level with his hand. And, it was level… once you descended about 200 steps to the canyon bottom. The hike out would be hot and sweaty.

The hike was beautiful, however, so I didn’t complain. These falls were much lower than the last, but still impressive, pouring into a deep pool. It began to rain as we reached them, so we didn’t dawdle and returned via a trail on the opposite side of the river. At one time, there was a small bridge to cross back to the main trail but it was long gone and we had to navigate our way across on slippery rocks. A group of twenty-somethings hopped lightly to the other side, while Francesco and I inched our way across like arthritic old men.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 2

We were sweaty and panting by the time we reached the scooters and decided to rest under a tarp where a young woman was grilling barbecue on skewers and selling drinks. I tried to sit on a low plastic stool and managed to fall on my butt, scraping my arm on the muddy rocks. The woman working the grill was polite enough not to laugh.

Her name was Tam and she was stunningly beautiful, with a bright smile, perfect skin, and the most amazing, melodic voice. She chatted amiably with us and the twenty-somethings who’d joined in. When she laughed, it was a loud, honking braying sound — the one flaw that made her perfect.

Francesco and I were both smitten. I’d have curled up at her feet if she hadn’t been sitting in front of a fire. After eating three skewers of barbecued pork and drinking two cokes, we finally ran out of excuses to stay longer and said our goodbyes.

Back in Sapa, I spotted a store with a large rack of water bottles, all filled with clear liquid and herbs of different kinds. The shopkeeper explained that it was rice wine and that some were for consumption and others were for rubbing on burns or cuts. I opted, of course, for the consumable kind, and walked away with 1.5 liters of potent moonshine for less than three dollars, feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Back at the hotel, we sat on the balcony and watched the light fade on the mountains across the valley. Francesco found a couple of small tea cups in his room and we broke into the rice wine, toasting Italy, then the US, then Vietnam — they were just these tiny little cups, after all.

After an hour or so, I noticed that his English was getting worse and worse.

I tried to convert English to Italian by waving my hands a lot and adding an “o” to the end of every noun, but he just stared at me, uncomprehending. Then I remembered that this trick only works for Spanish — no wonder he was confused.

The wine flowed and the city grew quiet as we mimed dirty jokes and nodded at each other’s tall tales. I won’t bore you with the details, mainly because I can’t remember half of them. I knew the evening was over when I noticed Francesco staring at a distant neon sign while holding a raised hand over one eye. He was saying “quattro, quattro” over and over — he wasn’t seeing double, but quadruple. With a mumbled “buonanotte”, he staggered to his bed.

Ten hours later, I was sitting again at the balcony wondering if he was still alive. Finally, there was a noise at the door and Francesco appeared with a hearty “buongiorno!”, looking a hell of a lot better than I felt.

I’ll never doubt him again.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Akila August 10, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Wes, Great writing, great story. I am totally with you, though, on Asians and their lack of personal space. I really really wanted a bubble suit so that people would stop grabbing me and touching me. Uck.


wes August 11, 2010 at 7:38 am

Haha — I have a vision of touring around Asia, wearing one of those sumo suits. That’d be awesome. Thanks so much for the kudos!


Audrey August 10, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Your description of the women swarming around you for you to buy bags made me laugh. That’s one of my memories from Sapa as well. Despite how touristed it has become in the last few years, I still think it’s a beautiful place. And, your photos do it justice. Just lay off the rice wine next time…
.-= Audrey´s last blog ..Saying Goodbye- Celebrating Life =-.


wes August 11, 2010 at 7:37 am

Thanks, Audrey. I totally agree — it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s a lovely one. And if you can get away from the tourist epicenter, it’s amazing.


Casa De Dripping Springs August 11, 2010 at 2:53 am

great story, well done. The Perseids peaks on the 12th so get outside the next few nights.

look look! look look look look look! :)


pirate63 August 11, 2010 at 4:26 am

awesome tale Wes,it summed up Sapa well,we had some great conversations with the tribe women, when they realised they could’nt get a sale,we did buckle once though!


wes August 11, 2010 at 7:35 am

Thanks. They’re hard to resist, aren’t they?


Andi August 11, 2010 at 4:41 am

Those Italians! ;-) What incredible waterfalls, wow!!!
.-= Andi´s last blog ..My Beloved Chinese Chestnut =-.


Natalka August 11, 2010 at 7:55 am

Another great story. Thanks


DTravelsRound August 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm

What a great story! I have a lot of catching up to do on your site, but love the way you tell your tales of adventure. Makes me feel like I am there (and makes me want to be there).
.-= DTravelsRound´s last blog ..F1 101- Your cheat sheet =-.


Shabl August 11, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Great story telling and i can relate geab a 35 dollar north face jacket uf you can worth it.


ayngelina August 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm

What a great traveling companion. Sometimes the best people to travel with are those who take you out of your comfort zone, just a little bit.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..25 things I learned from traveling in Central America =-.


jamie August 13, 2010 at 1:07 am

Awesome story Wes. I was getting irritated just be reading about the women trying to sell their things. Ugh. I’m glad you handled it well. Mental note to avoid them. Great writing!
.-= jamie´s last blog ..Beer Garden =-.


TheGourmetCoffeeGuy October 12, 2011 at 11:47 am

Great story, enjoyed it very much. Really enjoyed the photos and description of what seems to be a lovely place to visit someday! Thank you for sharing your insights.


Hannah @getting stamped March 18, 2014 at 10:52 pm

I’m in sapa now and can tell you the village women are still the same. I haven’t bought from one yet as I know the swarm will attack! Any restaurants you remember, everything is expensive and tasteless or maybe we were just spoiled in hoi an :-)


wes March 19, 2014 at 1:11 pm

They drove me crazy. Then I rented a scooter and visited the villages down the mountain and found some very nice scenes. And some more of the ravenous hill tribe vendors, too, alas…