Friday Travel: Sapa, Vietnam

Vietnam is an interesting place, to a visitor from a ‘liberal democracy’ like Australia.

It is, strictly speaking, a communist country and yet many of the social welfare things that we have come to expect – like free schooling – don’t appear to be a part of the Vietnamese psyche.

As Al Jazeera pointed out in a 2013 article, “Public schools can’t charge tuition until the secondary level, so they require students to pay fees for sanitation, traffic guards, gardeners, pens, notebooks, and even to have the buildings repainted.”

The same holds true for medical treatment – Government subsidies cover only about 20 percent of health care expenses, with the remaining 80 percent coming out of individuals’ own pockets.

When I explained how Medicare and free schooling worked here, our guide in the Northern Vietnam town of Sapa was astounded.

But why were we discussing such things?

Because he had been pointing out that the ethnic minority people around Sapa got free schools, and free hospitals – whereas the ethnic Vietnamese did not.

He wasn’t sounding bitter about it – but it was obvious that there was a certain amount of racial stereotyping going on in his comments.

sapa mountainWhile Sapa itself was established as a French outpost in 1922, the town doesn’t have a lot going for it – except magnificent views. Apparently. The two days we were there, there was an incredibly thick cloud-bank enveloping us  – it lifted about an hour before we left, and we could finally confirm that there was a mountain out there after all! (It was a bit like the Donovan song – ‘First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is...’

Today Sapa’s main function is as a jumping off point for tourists who trek through the hill-tribe villages below the town.

Eight different ethnic minority groups are found in Sapa. They include Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa and Xa Pho people who live in these villages – and each group lives separate from the other.

We didn’t see many of the Red Dau or Tay people – and it was clear that our guide (who was, of course, Kinh) favoured them over the Hmong – pointing out the educational achievement and industriousness of those groups, in contrast to the Hmong.

The Hmong are an interesting people – they came from China around 400 years ago, and are a distinct ethnic minority in Vietnam.

Essentially subsistence farmers, they eke out a living around Sapa by latching onto the growing number of tourists and selling ‘handicrafts’.

They followed us on our 5km ‘trek’ through their village, and two other ‘ethnic minority’ villages nearby. They were always friendly, always solicitous, always helpful. But also, always with an eye on selling souvenirs at the end of the process.

After a moderate walk down a hill on a concrete path, the ‘three-village’ trek was essentially a relatively flat stroll across fields and around the valley below Sapa. We saw a Hmong home (which has no windows, and a constant fire – apparently the smoke is considered auspicious) as well as ‘home-stay’ facilities run by the other ethnic groups. The afternoon was largely views of locals tilling the paddies, and livestock wandering around at random.

But as part of our stay in Sapa, we made two treks. The second was interesting for the differences it showed us .. and the cultural exhibitions that we saw.

For example, at Cat Cat village there is a theatre where young Hmong performers demonstrate their tribal dances and music – and you can see demonstrations of low-tech sluice-gates and water-powered rice milling apparatus.

But the highlights for me where the genuine interactions we had – for example, at one point we were wandering along a path when we spotted an elderly woman crying disconsolately.

We, of course, had no idea what was wrong but eventually our guide was able to get from her that her daughter had moved to Hanoi with her man – a man, we gathered, that mum didn’t much like – and she hadn’t heard from them for ages.

Which reminded us that no matter where you are in the world, no matter what your station in life, some domestic dynamics just don’t change.

Sapa stairsOne word of warning before I go – if you are going to Sapa, and get the chance to visit Cat Cat village, it is a moderately challenging walk.

There are about two thousand or more rough-hewn steps down to the village – and two of our party didn’t come with us because of the steep descent (and then steep ascent again on the other side.)

Those with a dicky heart or a bad back / knees / hips might be well advised to avoid this.

But as a fat, unfit, late fifties Aussie I had no problems.

And I was glad to do the walk – because it’s always interesting to see how others live.

Even if the experience is just a bit too ‘touristy’ for many travellers’ tastes.

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