Sapa & Bac Ha, Vietnam

Next on my travel itinerary was Sapa, which is way up in northern Vietnam, near the Chinese border.  It’s a not-so-quick overnight train ride from Hanoi.  It’s home to many ethnic minorities and tribes, but the main part of town looks kind of like a Swiss skiing village, with all the hotels lined up along the mountainside.

It’s a pretty touristy town, and the local Black Hmong villagers take complete advantage of that, trying to sell you “handmade” wares and trinkets, following you around for hours at a time to make a dollar off of you.  Literally, one dollar.  Most travelers (myself included) end up buying the cheapest thing they have so that they finally leave you alone. But then once other hawkers see you buying something from someone, they all run to you and start following you around for another hour.  It sounds more annoying than it is though… you just kind of get used to it and accept it for what it is.  Riding a moto quickly begins to sound like a fantastic idea in this neck of the woods.

It’s weird, in the States, a dollar is like nothing… but in Vietnam, a dollar goes such a long way that you end up feeling bad if you waste a mere 50 cents!  It seems silly, but I found myself feeling ripped off if I thought I was being overcharged by half a dollar.  “Two dollars for a beer?  No way, how about $1.50?” Silly, right?  But it happens to everyone when they visit Vietnam.

All in all though, I loved Sapa.  The moto tour I took overlooking the rice terraces was one of my favorite experiences in my travel through SE Asia.  I don’t really get too excited about nature and scenery, but I found myself so in awe of the vastness of the region and the absolute beauty of the mountainside.  The images of the rice terraces below don’t do it justice in the least bit, unfortunately.  It was for me, a truly breathtaking experience.

Once you make eye contact with a hawker… it’s game over.  Sunglasses are useful in these instances.Quite possibly the cutest little girl in the world.  A fellow American traveler (who I met on the train ride up to Sapa) and I stopped by this little shop for some ice cream while walking Cat Cat Village and she wouldn’t stop laughing and wanting to play with us.  This was the only time she was standing still.A local artist we met, smoking some fresh tobacco with his water pipe.  His paintings were pretty amazing.  Which gets me to think it wasn’t just tobacco in his pipe.The following images were taken at the Sunday Market in Bac Ha, a few hours away from Sapa, where the locals all go to sell their products, whether it’s their crafts, souvenirs, freshly butchered meats, clothes, hardware, what have you.

This was probably the most disappointing part of my trip.  I think there were more tourists than locals at this market, completely saturated by foreigners all up in the locals’ faces.  It really upset me to see people taking photos of the locals as if they were exhibits in a zoo or something.  I began to wonder what, if anything, makes me different from everyone else snapping away with their slr’s and expensive lenses, pretending to be some National Geographic photographer documenting something exotic and native.  Sure, I’m a bit (a lot) more discreet about taking photos than most, but was that it?

I had to eventually put my camera away, because at that point, I felt really exploitative, as if I was adding to the zoo exhibit mentality.  And for me, it gets tiresome when you’re simply capturing images that everyone else is also photographing.

I ultimately decided to turn the camera around and started taking photos of tourists, most of whom gave me strange looks and stares, obviously lacking any self awareness and irony of the matter.  After a couple of hours, I couldn’t wait to get back to Sapa.  As touristy as Sapa may be, it was no where near the assembly line of cameras that Bac Ha Market had.

Back to Sapa and its beautiful sunsets…And sunrises…And its spectacular rice terraces that go on for miles and miles and miles.  Mental note to come back here in September during harvesting season, where everything is more plush, green and alive.My moto guide and I stopped on a mountaintop, looking over the entire region, and he murmured “Harmony.”  It was the perfect word to capture the magnificence of the scenery.  There’s no crime, neighbors help each other out, money doesn’t rule their world, the weather is spectacular, the views never get old, and no Justin Bieber on their radios. Harmony.Don’t ask me how they got there, but there are eels that live in the waters that seep through the rice terraces.  Local kids spend their afternoons fishing for them and sell them to passers by on the roadside.  Probably for a dollar a bottle.My cab ride to Lao Cai train station for my overnight trip back to Hanoi, I encountered the thickest fog I’ve ever seen with my own eyes.  I literally couldn’t see five feet ahead of me, and I don’t use the term “literally” in a figurative sense.  It was quite a scary experience, since the roads in Sapa are pretty narrow to begin with and also hug the mountainside with nary a rail guard that wouldn’t even be able to save a bicyclist, let along a two ton SUV.  Add the fact that most people in Vietnam don’t really follow traffic laws, and you’ve got the formula for something tragic.

But out of the fog in the oncoming lane, there appeared a herd of water buffalo with a little Hmong girl riding atop one of them, guiding them up the hill.  I wanted desperately to ask the cabbie to pull over so I could jump out and take a photo of that.  It was truly a magical looking scene, as long as you could see it in the thick fog.  But I think caution and common sense got the better of me, as I didn’t think it was the safest thing in the world for a car to pull over in those conditions, let alone me running around the narrow road to get the shot.

But I knew it would bother me for the rest of my life (I’m not being melodramatic at all!) because that could’ve been THE SHOT of my trip.  Every photographer has a tale of the shot they didn’t take.  Well, that’s mine.  I could still picture it in my head.  Ugh.

Anyways, it would’ve been a pretty sweet shot.  But I can only tell about it, rather than showing it, unfortunately.  You live and learn, I suppose.  “Live” being the keyword.

Next up, some final images from Hanoi along with my written takeaway of the amazing country and then finally some images from my time in sleepy yet stormy Luang Prabang, Laos.

So until next time, I’ll be thinking of the shot that could’ve been.  =(


About jase

New York City based wedding, beloved, street photographer.
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