A Tale of Two Treks

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“Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” – Alexander Pope

You’ve Lost that Frontier Feeling

Perhaps the legions of shops offering fake North Face jackets should have been a sign. A harbinger of what was to come. Several of the stores appeared to cater to folks on luxury family ski packages instead of remote hill tribe treks. They even had ski pants. Just no ski hills. You see, this is Sapa, in Northern Vietnam.

Fake North Face Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa town proper is the former French military outpost in the rugged Hoan Lien mountains. The surrounding countryside is achingly beautiful. Contoured rice paddy fields hug the hills, local tribes toil from dawn to dusk, and mystical clouds envelope them all.

It’s a living, breathing postcard.

Rice paddy fields outside of Sapa Vetnam

It’s perfect.

A little too perfect. In some respects, Sapa is a victim of its own beauty.

Rice paddy hills of Sapa Vietnam

A few months back, I went on a hill tribe trek in northern Thailand.

hill tribe trek in northern Thailand
There were no crowds, no vendors, and only the hint of a trail. Thing is, as wonderful as the experience was, there also wasn’t that much to see. Bamboo forests and mud. Gallons of it. And this was the only gift shop, sans gifts of course. Unless your idea of a souvenir involves dried noodles or tubes of toothpaste. In which case, you’d be like a kid in a Colgate store.

Shop on Hill tribe trek, Northern Thailand

It wasn’t breathtaking, but it was raw.

Even if hordes had traipsed through there before (and I’m sure they have), the lack of travellers, trails and roadside trinkets gave it that frontier feel. It was perfect wilderness. Basic mattress on the floor. Soup made from bamboo our guide had cut that day. Hole-in-the-ground toilet. And leeches. Just as advertised.

The hill tribe trek in Sapa was on a different scale entirely. If Northern Thailand was a raft, then Sapa was the Queen Mary.

Rice paddy fields in Sapa

You see, the problem with having so much to see, is that so many people want to see it.

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And in the rush to accommodate western dollars since the tourism floodgate opened in 1990, the Vietnamese have done a bang-up job in adopting to the needs of the ‘everytraveller’. That accommodating includes easy-to-hike trails, convenience stores, and handicrafts that are all too handy.

There is no gift shop along the trail here – the trail is the gift shop.

Vietnamese hill tribe women outside handicraft store, Sapa, Vietnam

Traditional crafts for sale, Sapa Vietnam

Sapa Handicraft Club sign, Vietnam

Wooden statues of Vietnamese women

Tavan, Vietnam shop sign

Sapa Homestay sign

Maybe my expectations were set high after the rustic experience of the hill trek in Thailand. Maybe I should have searched for a more remote area.  Who knows?

During the Sapa trek our group of 5 stopped for lunch at one of the traditional homestays. Nature, as it so often does, soon called. I was prepared for the traditional squat setup, but was greeted instead with a spic and span American Standard — nicer than the toilet at my hotel. And what’s worse — they had T.P.

I’ve never been so disappointed in seeing toilet paper.

Maybe Alexander Pope had the right idea after all. Expect less, and you’ll always be fulfilled.

Have you had travel experiences that failed to meet your expectations?

I am a travel blogger and freelance travel writer. I left behind my cubicle-shaped cell to see the world. Now I inspire others to shake the shackles and escape through travel. This is my blog.

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