My companion and I were very zealous in promoting the Ifugao Rice Terraces since we started our Indo-China travel, encouraging people we meet along the way to visit the Philippines, offering help in providing information on places to visit, getting there, accommodations, with my companion even offering free stay at his place in Baguio and I, offering discounts at my parents’ place. Yeah, I know, if I offer my parents’ place for free for every guest then they would be out of business for good. So that is probably the best friendly offer I could give! (“,)
I am proud to be Ifugao and Pinoy. However, I have to be honest that I was muffled (even my companion was) when we made the trip to Sapa. Throughout the 1-hour journey to Sapa Town from Lao Cai, everyone on the bus was twitchy, heads turning from left to right, looking up and down, everyone was busy taking a snap of the scenery. Conifers, rich tributaries and yellow-green rice fields carved on the slopes of the mountains awestruck us.
Arriving town, one can easily notice how tourism encroached the place already. It’s like subdued Sagada, Mt. Province in the Philippines except that the structures were taller, bigger, and there were more shops selling souvenir items, tour packages and trekking stuff (the North Face is the most popular brand), guest houses, bars and restaurants abound. The climate felt more like Baguio City or home in Banaue, Ifugao.
Nice, sunny weather greeted us the next day. Something the mountain gods deprived many tourists before us. Seems like my sun dance upon arriving Lao Cai Train Station the day before appeased the gods.
The hotel designated Tiu (Chu) to our group of four tourists. Tiu is a pretty local tour guide in her early 20’s. Dressed in her traditional Black H’mong garb, she led us down to the main thoroughfare.
All the local guides were women from the same ethnic group. Some of the younger ones carry their babies on their backs as they work. This is because women here are married of at a very young age. The men or I mean their husbands, are either busy tilling the fields or out of the village in search for jobs.
Down at what seemed to be a market, more local women were waiting, some carrying big baskets and all were having green-brown straws in their hands, pulling and winding them around their hands. We were told by our other local guides that they use these straws to weave their clothes.
I said “other” guides because we had two more who tagged along. Xing (Zing), the younger guide and Sung, the older woman, were among the women we saw at the market. When we started moving further off the street, away from town and down to the rugged road to the village nestled at the foot of the terraced mountains and close to the riverbank, they kept us company despite telling them we already have a guide designated by the hotel. When I asked our guide Tiu, she said it is okay. They seem to be assistants of the main guides. That’s how it is here.
Unlike the hotel guides, these assistants speak limited English and they’ll be bugging you with the same questions throughout—how are you, where you from, you married (seriously until here?!), how many children—stuff like that. You are not obliged to pay them at the end of the trek but they are adamant at selling you bags, textiles and bracelets they made. Hard selling is common here. The older woman even tried to play on my conscience saying she has been following me the whole time so I must buy. I was heart-broken to see these little girls, the youngest I believe is aged 3, following tourists, trying to persuade them to buy these tiny handmade bracelets with a pitiful look. Then again, at times like this, patience is the key. Arguing is of no use because you don’t speak the same language. While it is comforting to know that somehow when you buy from them you are leaving something beneficial to a community whose only main source of income is farming, earlier notice from tour organizers or guides on what to expect would have been very much appreciated. It keeps negative vibes at bay. It would have been easier to understand the situation being a member of an indigenous tribe myself.
We reached Catcat Village a quarter before 02:00 in the afternoon. Lunch was served at a restaurant owned and managed by a Kiwi guy named Ian. Holding a bottle of beer, wearing walking shorts and a shirt with “good morning Vietnam” emblazoned on it, he walked barefoot from one table to the other talking to guests. He pulled a chair near our table, puts down the bottle and started talking to us.
Ian shared that he fell in love with the place the first time he visited and been coming back and forth since. The community welcomed him so much so that they call him Papa. A reverence that made him decide to put up the restaurant business. He relates one rainy evening when a lightning lit up the whole valley as it cracked out in the sky and how he wished he had a camera to capture that moment. “Those pictures in postcards were not taken after a single trip to Sapa. These came after several visits and countless attempts,” he quipped.
Thanks for that Ian and hope to see you again next time!
The landscape in Sapa is too enthralling to just be viewed in a quick pace. Its grandeur requires time, a moment to relish it, to understand it. It’s just too beautiful to turn your camera off. Even the villages do not show major signs of tourism encroachment just yet. Except for the school building, the houses here kept its traditional architectural style. I even saw black native pigs loose in the backyard.
What’s quite interesting for me about Sapa’s rice terraces is its similarity to Ifugao’s, my home. I just wished I had more time to learn about their farming system, the inter-relation of nature and the people’s way of life, whether they also have a muyong system like we do, or perform rituals, get to know the issues besetting the terraces, the culture and the people. Who knows this interest might be a way to learn a thing or two that could be beneficial to the Ifugao Rice Terraces restoration and preservation efforts. Sorry I just can’t help thinking big. I should start learning the language now then huh.
From the restaurant, we boarded two Honda oms to where the shuttle was waiting. Because we arrived late for lunch, we missed the opportunity to go to the next village, cross the river and see the waterfalls. Now I have more reasons to still keep Vietnam on my travel bucket list. And next time, I will stay for a couple more days and skip the organized tour. Not that I did not like the service, it’s just that organized tours could be very limiting in finding hidden wonders.
Back at the hotel, I had a chance to catch a late afternoon glimpse of the valley below as I sat on the swing by the garden. Time flies so fast I muttered. A moment there wrapped up my Bac Ha-Sapa tour.