Sapa is one of the most naturally spectacular places we’ve ever been. The drive up the mountains from the train station in Lao Cai is astonishing, comparable to the Great Ocean Road in Australia, but with the added adrenaline of hurtling up a skinny mountain road while a truck careers toward you (at one point we hit a traffic jam because a ‘truck fell over.’) The mountains are already astonishing, but the ever-present striped baldness of rice paddies cascading down near vertical mountain faces adds a level of awe at the something of humanity: the willpower? The temerity? The insanity?
Beyond witnessing the greener-than-green landscapes, the point of Sapa seems to be to do a trek with a guide out to one or more of the villages and to stay there for a night. While most people book this from Hanoi we figured we’d easily find something in Sapa itself, and boy were we right. Every woman in local garb, every man and his motorcycle can sell you a trek and village stay. Walking around the town of Sapa a chorus of ‘you buy from meeee?’ and ‘you stay in my village?’ follows you. While eating breakfast outside a restaurant a semi-circle of women form around you pleading in a voice three octaves higher than a grown person should be capable of, a manner so imploring we couldn’t help feel that each time we denied them an orphanage somewhere exploded.
I completely understand the appeal for people who do the treks and tours, and I also get the irony of complaining about somewhere being too touristy when Brad and I went there as tourists, and of course it makes perfect sense that the local men and women sell tours to their villages because that’s what tourists are interested in seeing. However, because Brad and I are fast becoming travel wankers, in the end we spent a bit of time grappling with the ethics of tourism in a place like Sapa and decided against doing a tour ourselves. Also, it rained while we were there, and we’re a bit precious about walking around in the rain.