Saturday 15 Jul
Sa Pa, Vietnam
Dogs and Scooters
In the far North-West of Vietnam near the border with China it seems there are almost countless ethnic minorities scattered across the alpine countryside who differentiate themselves by colourful dress and traditions (such as blackening their teeth with lacquer). Sa Pa is an old French Hill station, now a tourist hub for exploring the beautiful hills and valleys and the people which live within them. The streets of the small town swarm with young girls in traditional dress whose main objective appears to be teasing the big white foreigners until they agree to have them as guides around the local villages for a small fee. Their English is excellent and from the first minute you arrive they have remembered your names, nationality and itineraries and shout it to you across the street just in case you've forgotten. They were all called either "Zao" or "Lao" making it difficult to return the greeting as you always got it wrong. The older people spoke very little English and had a habit of "reverse-mugging" you by sticking hats on your head and bracelets around your wrist if you even paused for breath walking down the road. The, "if you don't buy from me, my village will starve" line was a brutal follow-up we sometimes encountered and as a result we now own a Jew's harp, water bottle carrier and knitted scarf. None of which we really wanted.
Having been warned off visiting the local villages as being no more than big gift shops where old women with crooked backs chase you down the street we hired scooters and drivers to take us further a field. The journey was worth it for the scooter ride alone. We climbed high into the clouds, over a pass and down into the next valley. The hills had very few trees but were covered in deep green foliage which looked like felt from a distance. Following a gushing torrent of a river we zoomed down into the bottom of the valley to a mozaic of rice fields and terraces. Water buffalo wallowed up to their heads in deep pools looking as content as anything alive could be. As we hoped, the villages at the bottom of the valley are virtually untouched by the tourist train and it was great to see the locals going about their every day lives. The disadvantage of getting off the beaten track a bit was that, as we explored the muddy tracks between the wood and bamboo houses, the village dogs picked up on our foreign scent and in no time we were cornered 5 or 6 scrany mutts barking and growling very aggressively. Just as we were about to lose our nerve a couple of tiny children appeared and let them know we were welcome. It wasn't just the dogs who didn't like foreigners - on our way back to the scooters a gaggle of angry geese marched out of a hut and came straight for us, which set the dogs off again. We walked as quickly and calmly as we could out of the village trailed by a sentry dog all the way to the suspension bridge over the river. I asked our driver if they ever bit people and he laughed: "yes all the time". Hmmm.