Gentle people of SaPa

Tin Bartolome

Posted at Dec 03 2015 11:25 PM

SaPa is a township that is part of Lao Cai Province in Vietnam. It has become a popular tourist destination as it offers breathtaking views, good food, cheap hotels and friendly people. I recently discovered that they are also honest as they are trusting.

SaPa reminds me of Lost Horizon, a movie about a Tibetan utopia called Shangri-La and Burt Bacharach’s lyrics seem so appropriate:

Have you ever dreamed of a place
Far away from it all
Where the air you breathe is soft and clean
And children play in fields of green
And the sound of guns
Doesn’t pound in your ears (anymore)

Many miles from yesterday, before you reach tomorrow
Where the time is always just today
There’s a lost horizon, waiting to be found.


I met a Black H’mong woman named Bao—I am not sure if I spelled it correctly. She sells handmade purses to tourists in SaPa, Vietnam. Like many H’mong women, Bao follows tourists, makes friends with them, gives them a few freebies and then sells her wares: handmade purses, jewelry and other souvenirs. Bao says she has three children and a husband who, like most men in SaPa, either work at home or in construction sites. Lan, another Black H’mong, owned a craft store and with her baby on her back, explained that there are also White, Red and Flower or Floral H’mong. In SaPa, there are also the Red Dao, the Tay, the Xa Pho and the Giay. 
Bao gave me this horse made of grass and a lucky bracelet made of embroidered ribbon. She and her friends were all noisy and giggly—like schoolgirls on their lunch break. Such a happy bunch, they are—as if they did not have to contend with the bitter cold, the long arduous trek to their village— and their lives as women in a world that gives them double burdens—triple even!
At a restaurant behind the Church, we had really good food. The maître d’ added one spring roll as they usually serve 5 per order and we were 6 at the table. After we’d paid our bill, he gave us sweet cakes packed in boxes. We went back for lunch on our way back to Hanoi and when he found out that it was our last day there, he gave us fresh fruit for dessert and the same sweet cakes.

On our last day, we were in a hurry when we checked out because we wanted to walk to the Cat Cat Village nearby and see first-hand how people lived and wove cloth. Thai, the man at the desk, asked “Did you take anything from the refrigerator?” When we said no, he did not even have it checked! Which was why I did not realize that I left my coat in the closet of the room we occupied.
As I looked out the train window that night, I began to see drops of rain gently falling—and then I suddenly realized what I had left behind! I told myself that I’d be lucky if I found a way to get it back. I messaged Thai privately the following morning to let him know—just in case. In less than an hour, he sent back a message with a picture. I got back my coat at 10 pm the next day—the same day I messaged Thai! 

We Filipinos have always taken pride in our hospitality but theirs is different. In SaPa, almost everyone seemed happy, though life was obviously difficult. Women selling handmade purses with babies on their backs, an 18-year-old with nails and fingertips stained blue from handling indigo (the traditional dye they use for their cloth) and schoolchildren selling lucky bracelets—they did not seem to mind the cold or the tourists who came into their houses to observe their daily activities. When they sold their goods, they did so with pride—no appeal to pity at all! Those selling outside the village may hound tourists but when you say no, they stop, smile and say goodbye.
There are lessons to be learned from them. They are proud of their heritage and are eager to explain to visitors their daily chores. They are hardworking but they know how to have fun— their hands are always busy—if not twining hemp, they are sewing, stopping a few times to play or exchange information about the tourists they meet. At night, some of them play ball in the park. The hotel and restaurant staff seem to have been empowered enough to give clients a few perks, adjust portions or even upgrade accommodations.

SaPa has all the amenities of the modern world: wifi, transportation and hot showers, yet it has retained much of what it has always been. It may not be a Lost Horizon, but it truly feels like it’s “many miles from yesterday, before you reach tomorrow, where the time is always just today”!

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.