Vietnam: I should have checked the weather.
Vietnam is a long, thin country experiencing a huge boom in tourism. Because of its geography, there are really only two ways to travel in Vietnam: North to South or South to North. We found a cheap ticket from Bangkok to Hanoi and therefore decided our fate: North to South it would be. One thing I failed to prepare for adequately despite logging in hundreds of highly caffeinated research hours was the cool, wet climate of north Vietnam during the winter. Lucky for me, it seems all outdoor REI type clothing is actually manufactured in Vietnam, though the sizes were way off. (Apparently I’m a Large in Vietnam?)
The first few days spent in Hanoi were rainy and gray, but we made the most of it by gorging ourselves on bahn mi and cheap beer (30 cents a can…). We debated a while if we should do the Sapa trek since we had heard it was extremely touristy. We decided to go ahead and do it, and I’m glad we did.
After my second or third cup of coffee with condensed milk at the hostel our bus driver picked us up and we headed out to Sapa. The town itself is altogether forgettable, completely infested with tourists like us decked out in Columbia and North Face jackets and boots. Our hostel was nice enough and offered us a nice view of Sapa, though the view was probably the best part.
An Element of Mystery
The actual trek was invigorating. The misty air covering the tops of the trees and vegetation was magical; bamboo shooting up into the sky and disappearing into the big, low clouds. The terrain wasn’t as steep or perilous as I had been led to believe, but I was definitely glad to be wearing hiking boots. Although the bamboo was beautiful, I couldn’t see anything past it and I wondered if the weather was just too bad to enjoy the supposed “breathtaking” views I had read so much about. Victor and I walked along with our guide, making small talk and asking her how to say different stuff in her language when the clouds finally started to clear, and we saw this:
In between the airy patches of gray sky that touched down, green carpeted steps led down into puddles of murky water. I had never seen anything like it, and suddenly I was grateful for the foggy gray day. For some reason fog seems to make everything more mysterious and enchanted looking, and this was no exception.
We continued our trek for another hour or two before we stopped into the town of Lao Chai for lunch. This is when the trip went downhill for us. Waiting for us was a mob of small children, probably between the ages of 4-8, poorly dressed, snot smeared across their faces like trails left by slugs. They had bracelets, purses, shirts, anything you could think of. Their persistence made me feel so uncomfortable, so sad, and also so conflicted. Is it our fault that they are out here doing this? If we hadn’t been on this tour, we wouldn’t be supporting this kind of work, right? But then I wondered if the tourism was good for their village. It’s all very convoluted, and I’m not sure if our presence and that of the other travelers was a blessing or a curse for those sweet little bored kids, but we couldn’t possibly buy something from all of them. After a few minutes the guide scattered them away and we ate lunch in silence, contemplating the view and the complicated business of tourism.
The views were amazing and the fresh air was… well, refreshing, but what I really reflect on most about that trip was my participation in a well-oiled tourism machine. It’s the first time I have thought critically about my presence as a tourist in another country and if me being there was potentially putting young kids to work. Am I helping? Am I hurting? I really don’t know, but one thing I know is that I will be very careful from now on about which activities and tours we support and think twice about where our money is going and who it affects along the way.