“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.
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.
A little too perfect. In some respects, Sapa is a victim of its own beauty.
A few months back, I went on a 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.
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.
You see, the problem with having so much to see, is that so many people want to see it.
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.
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?