Whilst visiting Sa Pa, my housemate Ray and I wanted to do a walk to further immerse ourselves in the local culture and surrounding nature.
When we arrived, local Hmong ladies all try to get you to book treks and accommodation with them. I allowed one lady, Giang (pronounced “Jean”) to give me her number. She had been pretty persistent but was friendly and spoke really good English. The English in Sa Pa is so impressive. Two days later and we were going on a trek with Giang. It included a couple of hours of hiking through the mountains, walking through two villages, and ending with a lunch and motorbike drive back to Sa Pa. Although the weather was pretty foggy, we had a great walk, and I learned a lot from Giang about life in the surrounding villages.
I found it particularly fascinating that Giang is fluent in three languages, yet is illeterate.
She cannot read or write, yet she has a cellphone and is on Facebook. Illiteracy is an issue in the local villages, especially as they try to keep up with global developments and make an income through the tourism industry. Luckily their conversational English is fluent.
We had a pretty unique experience at the end of our trek. We were sitting waiting for our lunch on the mountainside when the local guides immediately started flapping about after one ran in and delivered some news. The first thought that popped into my mind was that an animal had been hit or was in labour – the area was very rural and I couldn’t really fathom what else could be going on.
Turns out that the police had come up the mountain and were cracking down on illegal guides. We had no idea that our guide was not official (nor did we know that anybody had to be registered, but I guess it makes sense i.t.o. running a tourist business, paying taxes etc) and we were all suddenly made to run up a nearby hill and into a local lady’s house. Her family was inside around a fire and we all simply arrived and huddled around, not entirely sure what was going on. The lady spoke English and told us to tell the police we did not have our passports on us if they arrived and asked.
Luckily I did not have my passport on me. And luckily the police did not arrive!
It was quite a funny moment, one other traveler commented “imagine if a group of tourists suddenly barged into our living room at home to hide from the police” as essentially we were doing that. Anyways, 20 minutes later the guides returned and said the coast was clear; we could return to our spot and lunch was ready.
I found this diversion quite entertaining actually; I wasn’t really worried as I a) did not have my passport or any form of ID on me, and b) honestly had not intentionally done anything wrong, barring ignorance. It was amazing to actually get inside a local home (almost like a dark and sectioned hut) and see how locals live; their beds, ornaments and decorations,
It sounds invasive but nobody complained. I always have to remind myself that people here are collectively-minded and don’t have much of a conception of personal space. It would not be strange for me to walk into a neighbours living room here and make myself at home.