Sapa, Vietnam, Part 4

Vi, My and Chu masterminded the plan for my third day in Sapa:  buy food at the local market, hike to a village called Ta Phin for a picnic lunch, then hire motorbikes to take us back to Sapa.  We wanted to include Ya and Chang but they were away leading tourist treks.

Early Wednesday morning I met the girls at the market, gave them some money, and let them run the show.  If I’d tried to do the shopping the prices would have been five times higher, and the girls knew exactly what they wanted to buy for lunch, so I just stayed out of the way.

For such a tiny person, Chu can put away some food.  Before we’d walked 20 minutes she’d finished off two little anime-covered strawberry juice drinks, some strange purple gel-candy, four fruits I didn’t recognize, and half a box of Oreo cookies.


Vi, Chu and My on the Way to Ta Phin


Vi in a Rice Field


My, Chu and Vi


My Laughing


Hmong Woman with Blue Umbrella


About an hour into our hike Vi stopped me and pointed to a nearby hut.  Sure enough, there she was!  During my first visit to Sapa I photographed an elderly Hmong woman who was so memorable that I brought prints of those photos in case I ran into her again.  Vi had spotted the old woman curled up in some kind of wooden box next to a house by the trail.  I approached her, handed over the photos and asked Vi to tell her they were taken four years ago.  The woman broke out in a big smile but didn’t seem particularly interested in the prints.  I asked if I could take some new photos and she nodded, then when I finished she insisted that I pay her.  The girls felt sorry for the woman and even Vi thought I should give her a little money.  “She really old,” they said.


Elderly Hmong Woman in 2006


Elderly Hmong Woman in 2010


We made it to Ta Va around lunchtime and stopped at a little store with a patio.  The girls vanished into a room in the back where they broke out the food we bought that morning (bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, dragon fruit, apples, and an entire bag of uncooked eggs that somehow survived the hike without a crack), and after a flurry of cutting, chopping, and cooking they produced an incredible feast for us to eat on the patio.


Making Lunch (Video)


Portrait of Rob by Chu


Terraced Landscape


All kind of local kids – both Hmong and Red Dzao – stopped by to hang out while we ate, and a few of them lingered long enough for me to photograph.


Red Dzao Child


Smiling Hmong Girl


Back in Sapa that night we had our biggest group yet for dinner – Ya, back from trekking, joined me, Vi, My and Chu.  As we ate, Vi, in her subtle, low-key way, guided the group towards what seemed like the perfect plan for the next day.  Of the six girls, only My had been to a nearby city called Lai Chau, about 150km away from Sapa, over the highest mountain pass in Vietnam.  The girls had always wanted to go to the market there, and they thought it would be a good way for me to see more of the surrounding area.  For just $25 I could hire a driver to take all of us there in a minivan, leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon.  Done and done!

Little did I know I just lit the fuse on a powder keg of teenage girl drama…

The morning started out innocently enough.  Vi had arranged the minivan and it showed up around 7:15am.  Ge’s husband didn’t think it was a good idea for her to join us because their baby was still so young, but she decided to join us anyway, along with her baby and her younger sister Chu (who I’ll call Little Chu to avoid confusion with the original Chu).  So we had nine people in our group:  the driver, me, Vi, Ge, Ge’s baby, My, Little Chu, Ya, and Chu.  (Chang was still leading a trek and couldn’t join us.)  The girls talked about how excited they were to see Lai Chau for the first time, and off we went.


Minivan Ride (Video)


Just 30 minutes into the ride, Ge asked if we could stop on the road a little way up because her half-sister lived there. “Oh, do you see your half-sister often?” I asked.

“I never meet her,” Ge said.

“Wait, you’ve never met your half-sister?”

“No, never meet. This first time,” Ge confirmed.

Wow! Apparently they’d never been very far along this particular road before. Ge spoke to her half-sister on the phone sometimes, but that was it. So we stopped next to a row of houses and Ge, My, and Little Chu saw their half-sister for the first time. They didn’t hug, and My and Little Chu hardly made eye contact. Ge’s half-sister spent about a minute making goo-goo noises at Ge’s baby, and then Ge said they were ready to go.

“That’s it!?” I asked. “Don’t you want more time?” Nope, they were ready to move on. I insisted on a quick photo and then we hit the road again.


Ge and Her Half-Sister


Kids on the Road to Lai Chau


Boy on the Road to Lai Chau


At about that point things started turning ugly.  Most of the girls weren’t used to riding in a car, and even some who were (like Vi and Ya) weren’t used to taking long drives on steep, curvy roads like the one we were on.  Chu threw up a little when we stopped to see Ge’s sister, and now Vi lost her breakfast out the window.  Ya and My curled up in the fetal position.  Little Chu looked like she was about to go into a coma.  “Are you OK?” I asked Little Chu.

Little Chu doesn’t speak much English so she answered in Hmong and Ge translated:  “She say she OK.”

Ge, Ge’s baby, the driver and I were the only ones who weren’t miserable when we arrived at the Lai Chau market.  (Ge’s son hardly even cried the entire way.)  Gradually the prospect of shopping started bringing the girls back around again.  I gave them each the equivalent of about $5 so they could buy a gift for themselves at the market, and after some wrangling all of them accepted the money except for Vi, who initially refused and only agreed later when I pointed out that all the others had taken it, that it meant a lot to me, and that she could use the money to buy a gift for her mother or sister.  I worried about whether or not it was appropriate to just give them money like that, but for all of them except My it was the first time they’d been to this market in their life, it was was significantly bigger than the market in Sapa, and I wanted to make sure they were able to get themselves something.


The Nauseous Gang in Front of the Lai Chau Market


Wandering around the Lai Chau market were several ethnic minorities in outfits I’d never seen before, including Black Dzao.


Black Dzao Woman in Lai Chau


Black Dzao Woman Laughing


Lai Chau Street Portrait – Market Vendor


After the girls were shopped out they braced themselves for more torture and filed back into the vomitmobile for the ride back to Sapa.


Ya at Lunch


Ge with Her Son


The real drama didn’t kick in until later that night when we met again for dinner.  Chu showed up first and immediately announced, “Chang mad because you no see her at 4:00 and you no give her gift.”

Chang and I planned to meet when she got back from trekking, which was supposed to be around 4pm that afternoon.  But when we returned from Lai Chau around 3pm, Ya – Chang’s best friend and roommate – told me that Chang was still trekking and wouldn’t be back in Sapa at all that day.  So I thought our plans were off, but either Ya was wrong or I misunderstood.

By this time most of the others had joined us, too – Vi, Ge, My and Little Chu, in addition to Chu.  Ya still felt sick from the car ride and decided not to have dinner.  Chu started repeating, “I hungry!” and demanded to leave for dinner right away.  She said she wanted to go to a restaurant she knew that served pancakes, and the rest of the girls advised me to do whatever Chu wanted because she’s the pickiest.

I told Chu I wanted to call Chang first, which inadvertently dug me in deeper.  Chu started to pout – why did I care more about Chang when Chu had been hanging out with me for four straight days and Chang had hardly even seen me?  I told Chu I felt bad about the misunderstanding with Chang and just wanted to try to talk her into joining us for dinner.

Vi called Chang on her cell phone and handed it to me.  I explained my mistake to Chang and she said no problem, but she was tired and didn’t want to meet us for dinner.  Vi, knowing that Chang’s feelings were still hurt, took the phone from me and somehow talked Chang into joining us, but it took a while and Chu’s pout intensified every minute.

As we waited for Chang we made plans to hike up a nearby mountain the next day.  Ge said her husband could join us if we waited until 2:30pm to leave, which sounded good to me.  Eventually Chang walked up and we were finally ready for dinner.  By this time Chu was genuinely upset and refused to pick a restaurant.  So Ge made a quick call on her cell phone and found someone who knew of a restaurant nearby that served pancakes.  I thought I was in the home stretch…

On the way to the restaurant I tried to give Chang the same $5 I’d given everyone else earlier, but Chang refused, saying she shouldn’t get it because she didn’t go to Lai Chau.  I said it was important to me for everyone to have the same thing, regardless of who went to Lai Chau, and that it would make me happy if she’d take it.  Still no luck, but once again Vi stepped in and seemed to smooth things over.  But suddenly, right after most of the girls had walked in the restaurant, Vi looked upset and told me, “I go now.”

“What?” I said, confused.  “But Vi, we’re just about to have dinner.  You don’t want to have dinner with us?”  Vi had always been the solid, no-drama rock of the group, and now she looked like she was about to cry.

“I not feel good,” she said.  I told her I was sorry and asked what time she wanted to meet tomorrow, my last day in Sapa.  “I not meet you tomorrow,” she said.

Whoa!  What happened?  I would feel terrible if I’d done something to upset Vi.  So there we were, standing in the doorway of the restaurant while Chu yelled, “I hungry!” from inside and two waiters watched us with strange looks on their faces – amusement mixed with concern that the whole thing might blow up and cost them six customers.

At that point a 30-something tourist who looked American or European walked up to me and asked, “How’s the food here?”  Without making eye contact I told him I hadn’t eaten yet and then went back to trying to convince Vi to stay for dinner (or at least figure out what was going on).  Vi was almost crying and talking so fast I couldn’t understand a word.

From the corner of my eye I noticed that the tourist was still standing there and it finally dawned on me that he must have thought this whole scene looked sketchy.  “What’s going on here?” he asked.  Yep, he was in Good Samaritan mode.

I had to laugh.  “It’s a long story,” was the best answer I could give him.  I respected the fact that this guy was looking out for what he thought was a Hmong girl in distress (despite the fact that the Hmong men, who frequently walk around with machetes and crossbows, seem more than capable of taking care of their own), but I was irritated by his intrusion and briefly considered saying, “I’m the point man for an international sex slavery syndicate and this ungrateful little troublemaker is acting up.”  That probably would have been more believable to him than, “These girls are like my nieces.”

Eventually Vi’s bunched-up half-sentences confused the Good Samaritan as much as they confused me and he wandered away.  But I couldn’t turn things around with Vi.  She said again that she wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to meet me tomorrow, and then she ran off.  Back in the restaurant the other girls seemed entertained by the scene with Vi, except for Chu who whimpered, “I so hungry I die.”

“You don’t have to wait any longer,” I told Chu.  “Pancakes for everyone.”  We started eating and Chu’s cell phone rang.  She handed it to me and said, “Talk to Vi.”

“Vi, are you OK?” I asked.  Vi spoke for several minutes straight but I only caught short phrases like “I sorry” and “I sad.”  She sounded really upset but when she hung up I was no closer to understanding what had happened.  Five minutes later Chu got a text message on her phone and showed it to me:  “Ror I sorry!”

At the end of dinner Chu’s phone rang one more time.  She answered it, talked in Hmong for about a minute, and then said, “Vi meet you tomorrow morning 8:00.”

Ge laughed and said Vi would be back to normal tomorrow.  And sure enough, she was.

During my first visit, Ge was the one who frequently had her feelings hurt and responded with some pretty impressive pouts.  I don’t know what changed – maybe getting married, maybe being a mom, maybe getting older – but this time Ge was happy and good-natured the entire time.  Ge explained that Vi’s stomach was genuinely bothering her and then on top of that she’d butted heads with Chang over the way Chang handled dinner and the gift tonight.  Then she clashed with Ge because she thought Ge shouldn’t have invited her husband to hike to the mountain with us (I had to buy a ticket for everyone who goes on the hike; the tickets are only about $1/each but Vi thought it wasn’t right for me to pay for so many).  So Ge’s theory was that 1) Vi’s stomach really did hurt, 2) Vi thought the other girls were mad at her, and therefore, 3) Vi thought it would be best to remove herself from the whole situation so that everyone else could enjoy themselves.

Talk about being out of my depth.  One female alone is a total mystery to me.  The dynamics of a group of six girls, further complicated by differences in language, culture, and age, are so far beyond my limited comprehension that I might as well have been a cow trying to figure out why a particle accelerator has stopped working.  I’m exhausted again just writing about it.

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