Sa Pa is a region renown for its rice terraces. The higher altitude means it’s cooler, with the temperature being in the 70s. It rains often. Lush, green, cool, wet.
Based on advice from other travelers, Dev and I choose to try out a homestay option in Sapa with a woman named Mei Lai (may ligh). Over 2 days, Mei Lai will hike with us through the rice terraces, and have us stay over one night with her family. I anticipate learning a lot about Mei Lai’s family.
At 8:30am, we are greeted by Mei Lai in our hotel lobby. Her husband dropped her off at our hotel, which is about 20 minutes from her home via motorbike. Going back however, we are going to hike through the rice terraces, which should take about 4 hours.
Mei Lai speaks English fairly well, which she picked up from tourists. She makes small talk along our hike, pointing out various vegetables people are growing in front of their homes. She asks if we grow food back home. I suppose growing food around your home is a given to her, but I tell her back in the U.S. many people don’t, though a few do have gardens.
We walk along the trail, some parts very muddy, while enjoying the breathtaking views around us. We pass by people’s humble homes, I give a smile when I pass a child just staring at me.
There’s no warning sign when crossing this bridge. In general, this applies to a lot of what I have seen so far – there’s no warning signs, it’s your responsibility to be aware. I can appreciate this somewhat, but maybe because in the States it’s in the other extreme, with too many warning signs (e.g. “This cup contains hot coffee.”)
We meet 3 women along the trail. Mei Lai explains that they are from different tribes, based on the subtle differences in the colors of their clothes. The women make small talk with as we walk. I’m surprised two of them speak a lot of English, and they ask me about my age, if I’m married, where I’m from. I ask them the same. One woman talks about how she has to work a lot to make money to support her family; another woman tells us how her husband died one month ago, and now she is supporting herself. I’m glad to be having this authentic interaction.
After finishing small talk, the women converse with one another in their native language. I notice that one of them stays closer to Dev, and the other two stay close to me. One of them doesn’t speak English, but nonetheless she’s walking really close to me, but I make nothing of it, thinking it’s a cultural difference in how much personal space we all feel comfortable with.
We stop for lunch, and Mei Lai orders vegetarian pho for Dev and I. One of the women following us says we can buy something from her, now, or later at the homestay. I awkwardly say no. At another table is a family of four, also tourists; there are surrounded by half a dozen women, each one trying to sell something. I hear the mom saying, “No, it’s too expensive, I don’t want it.” I now realize why the three women were following Dev and I – they are going to try to sell us stuff! They are polite, waiting for us to finish our meal. I eat my meal, slowly, realizing that I’m going to be ambushed as soon as i’m done.
(The scene of the ambush)
We finish our meal, and then suddenly, the two women who had been following me start showing me things like purses, shawls, tablecloth, pillow cases. I say no to each item. I repeat myself many times. This goes on for a few minutes, and she keeps cycling through different things. One woman tries to use guilt as a tactic, telling me she followed me for an hour. I didn’t ask to be followed! I realize this isn’t going to end until I buy something. I give in, and buy a purse for 50k dong, $2.5, but she’s unhappy that I didn’t buy something more expensive. The other woman who had been following me motions I need to buy something from her too, but I say no, not wanting to set the precedent of buying something from everyone. Eventually, we manage to leave and resume our journey to Mei Lai’s home.
I’m kind of upset at Mei Lai for not giving us a heads up about this, but I understand it’s beyond her control. This is her community, and she has to have good relationships with these women. But being essentially forced to buy something detracted from the peaceful countryside experience I had imagined. I was hoping to escape consumerism in Sa Pa. And what I initially thought as authentic interaction with the women was actually all part of the sales scheme. It makes me sad. The compassionate side of me realizes they need money, but I don’t think its a good strategy to force tourists to buy products they don’t want.
Mei Lai’s home is spacious. She leads us to a nice patio with an amazing view. At home are her husband, two little boys, her mother, and her sister. Her sister is preoccupied sewing. Apparently after a woman gets engaged, she has a year to make her own wedding dress. The bride is judged by the intricacy of her dress. If it’s not intricate enough, then the woman is seen as lazy. I have noticed a lot of women sewing in the area. These brides-to-be often spend free moments sewing. I realize you may be wondering how the dress looks, but in the moment I didn’t feel comfortable enough to just take a photo.
Mei Lai mentions that tonight 8 other guests will be coming, so it will be a full house. There are 10 total beds, so each guest will have a bed. She asks me if this is ok; I’m thinking, “well, there goes the idea of an intimate homestay”, but what else can I say except, “Yea, it’s ok.”
The rest of the day I spend relaxing by reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, and looking out onto the landscape from the patio. It rains, and I plan to meditate shortly after reading for a bit.
Before I get to meditate, new guests arrive, one after the other. The first group is a mom and her two daughters from Philadelphia, on a two-week vacation; the second group is three guys from London, two of them backpacking for several months, one for two weeks; and the last group is two guys from Spain, on a three-week vacation.
While it is cool to socialize with other travelers around the world, I had anticipated this homestay being more intimate, us having dinner with the family, learning more about their culture and way of life.
Dinner ended up being a big party; our hosts prepared us a home-cooked meal. The grandmother made rice wine, and a shot was poured for each guest.
The next morning as I leave Mei Lai’s home, I reflect on the fact that there is some intimacy when someone has you stay in their home; I’m thankful.
I imagine these homestays are a good source of income for the community. I wonder if Mei Lai’s family is grateful that she is able to speak English, which is a big reason she is able to do homestays and be a tour guide, which ultimately brings the family income. It is interesting that the tour guides, and the garment sellers, have all been women – and speaking English is a competitive edge for them.