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I’m in Vietnam since mid-January. After a few days around Hanoi (I have a plane ticket Paris-Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh back Paris;! As I write this, I am in the south, the sun), I am part to Sapa, a northern city that serves as the starting point for many hikes. I’ll start with some practical information for busy and then go to the story.
Sapa: Practical Information
Good to know about the roadmap:
Go to Sapa is simple and difficult at once. I bought my train ticket in one of the many agencies of Hanoi. The commission is tiny and I had read that it was difficult to get a ticket at the station for a tourist (I did not want to check this information I left a few hours later and found it easier to stay in center- city and having to deal with an English-speaking).
The train goes to Lao Cai. There are several every evening at different times, and it’s actually different companies wagons attached to each other. In fact, it is quite complicated to navigate. Personally, I simply asked for a berth in a 4 compartment (we choke a little in those six, me-it was said), with a mattress (yes, big mattress), and it was very well (well, the Vietnamese group next door listened to music all night …)
The train leaves from the second Hanoi Railway Station, located right behind the first.
In return, the agency gave me a voucher which did not inspire me frankly. A piece of paper with a few instructions and a phone number. I had to find a Mr. Minh one hour before the departure of my train … In fact, it is relatively simple once you know the system. Just outside the station, there are guys sitting on the ground with tickets in hand and lists of names. You just find the right, and exchange the voucher …
To go from Lao Cai to Sapa, climb one of the many minibuses found in the parking lot, a few tens of meters on the left of the station leaving (follow the stream of people). You will approach, and it will negotiate. To go, I have not managed to go below 100,000 VND (and I wanted to leave quickly, away from taxi drivers). In return, I received 50,000 without really discussing.
In return, the minibus will take next to the Church of Sapa. Allow the margin, because he will circle the city for an hour or two to be complete …
Find a Hotel
I had nothing booked so I toured arriving until landing in Pinocchio, for $ 10. At that price, I had my bath, a nice view, but no heat. And in January, it is a little hard, without heating (in a large room without insulation …). It’s not dramatic but if I had known I would have paid attention to this detail. However, it was worse in homestays where I stayed during my trek: plaited bamboo walls and hard covers in which we really can not bundle up. I regret leaving my sleeping bag in Hanoi …
Where to eat
Make fun but the day before my departure trek, I want to eat hot, something that takes the body and is not Vietnamese (I expected to eat rice morning, noon and night for three days) . I landed at the Delta (the main street), an absolutely divine Italian restaurant. I wanted pasta. I thought I find myself with a mean thing, a little box in sauce, and hop. And no, it was delicious, with fresh pasta, real parmesan, whatever it takes.
So, for those who want to gain strength before going to work, it is a very good address.
Otherwise, one can easily buy fruit market (in January, there was a kind of small, very sweet tangerines everywhere, perfect!)
What to do in Sapa
Uh … Sapa has no charm. It is a starting point. some micro markets can go around the city, you can climb to the radio tower (Ham Rong mountain entrance VND 70,000), where there is a nice view and statues of questionable taste (nothing scabrous, c is just ugly).
You read everywhere that Sapa is a tourist factory. That is true. But most are small rides, and above all do the same. Result, it is easy to think outside the box and not meeting anyone. So the first day I passed a group of Canadian and cross twenty people arriving at the restaurant where many eat (on my route, we had a picnic, but we left early and walked fast, my guide took advantage of the place with chairs and toilets!) and finally there were three people in the same homestay as me that night. That’s all. On a day it’s fairly … The following day, it was the complete wilderness, except the three people who were roughly the same path as me and I found the evening (which is no more bad, because the parties could have been longer if not).
In short, we can choose to integrate into a group, pay little expensive, from the day, or go longer, asking other things. Everything is very flexible (especially with money) and it’s just up to you to ask not to big roads.
By cons, who says big tourist area, also said disadvantages. And in Sapa, these are the ethnic minority women who stop you in the street constantly, for you to buy trinkets, bracelets … “Buy someting from me” is the phrase you hear most often. And it is better to say immediately and not ignore them.
The idea of reportage
I get to Sapa with an idea in mind. Instead of telling yet another hike, photograph or ethnic minorities, as they call them, I want you to discover the region through portraits of schoolchildren. Some walk for over an hour every morning, and as the evening. To be honest with you, I also intend this topic in a magazine.
I think that starting three days, I can see several schools and show many facets of the mountains. I explained my project to the Tourist Office, which provides me a great ride and tells me of a serious agency. I stress the importance of having an English speaking guide who can do the translation. He replied that I have someone from minorities, just to be able to talk to the villages. I pay. Expensive.
The next morning, after waiting my guide fifteen minutes, spent a long time in the office of the agency, and watched the shopping guide, we finally leave. The journey from the beginning has frankly no interest: across town to the exit. Then we began the climb with a little muddy and steep path.
It is early when we pass a school first. At the Tourist Office, was told to leave early, just to be able to see. But the guide said we will have more later. I trust him and continue walking. I will understand later but it just will not go where there is no English teacher because she does not speak Vietnamese …
The guide did not speak Vietnamese
This is actually a real problem among minorities. At first I asked him if there was no risk of his tongue off, because it was not taught in school. But in reality, this is far from the case now, it is very clear contrast, and it raises a lot of questions about the integration of minorities.
My guide called Ming, she is Hmong, thirties, she has four children and never left the mountains. The farther she went, it’s Lao Cai. She is adorable, speaks excellent English, although sometimes I have to concentrate to understand his accent that blends the “ch” and “f”, including. She learned English on the job, with the tourists. But never the Vietnamese, and it seems to me incomprehensible. I sense that the subject is sensitive. She evades my questions.
In fact, ethnic groups have never really been integrated and are very despised by the Vietnamese government. So, they have no desire to mingle and to learn the official language. Speaking English helps them earn money, while not speak Vietnamese would be of no use. Some ethnic groups can understand them, others not at all.
Thus, for three days each time we ate or slept somewhere, the place was run by Hmong …
A conscientious official in a Communist dictatorship
After a first day of walking and a cold night, we finally give in first school; even if I had to insist heavily for it. The idea was to arrive at recess, teachers explain the project and to discuss with several students (ideally two girls and two boys of different ages, I explained) and, finally, to take some pictures.
My guide did not seem at all to talk to the teacher first, which monitors the court. She asks me to write in English I want to do, saying he understood the reading. I find it weird. It was at that moment that I understand she does not speak Vietnamese.
A second teacher happens is that which teaches English. I explain, everything goes well, and four students volunteer. I ask them lots of questions, the English teacher and Ming are the translation. They were all 12 years old and are in the same class. There Chang, the introvert, who does not live far away and helps her parents with the animals when it is not in school. He likes to study but is not sure his parents will pay her studies. There Gińh, walking 6km every morning with his brothers and sisters, who like to read, and would become literature teacher. There May, who lives so far away that it is internal and that, like Minh (the fourth child), likes to watch TV, because they do not have at home.
Gińh and Chang
Everything is going well, I fill my notebook, and I began to take pictures. They are struggling to relax but I tell myself that it will be better when they are out and underway. And there, the English teacher who was absent, returns. She asked me some questions, and then ask me to stop taking photos because the director does not agree. I told him that I can maybe talk to him, explain to him. She replies that he just left. In short, I am asked to stop all net. I see the head of a little disappointed kids, and I do not really understand why they left me to spend as much time with them if it is to finally ask to stop everything.
I think that in a French school, it would be even worse, it would take three months to sign each parent but that has actually nothing to do. Starting again, my guide told me that I should not have to ask many questions, not to have noted the names of children either. It arouses suspicion, and we do not like questions. The manager was probably never aware of, and the teacher freaked out and cut all preferred rather than hurt by its view hierarchy.
Corruption and Lies
The schools are not open in the afternoon, I will have to wait the next morning for a review. And let’s not spoil the suspense: it will be closed, which will make many laugh my guide, but me a little less.
Before going, Ming gives me advice. Ask fewer questions, first. Inventing children’s names, mix the stories of the day with the photos that we will take today. I reply that it is still a lie, and I try to respect a certain ethic in my work. So, she suggested that I slip notes to teachers. I told him it is even less ethical, even if it seems not to shock but it seems to be, according to her, the only solution. I do not even have to answer to the dilemma, the subject fell into the water.
After such a dismal failure, I remember a lot of things, including what I would have done differently so that everything goes, perhaps better. I’ll try again on our next trip!