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Trouble On The Mountain

View up the main street in Sapa
View up the main street in Sapa

All the countries I've been to in Southeast Asia seem to have their main ways of making money. In Indonesia it was parking, in Malaysia it was security, in Cambodia it was sex. Vietnam it seems, prefers to extort theirs out of people. On our short trip to Ha Long Bay nearly every person we came in contact with tried to rip us off, they even tried to rip of T when she was alone, confirming that they rip off southern Vietnamese in the north just as bad as they rip off foreigners. Adverse weather and digestive conditions prevented us from taking a boat tour so we left Ha Long Bay to head to the mountain town of Sa Pa.

T was drawn to Sa Pa for the same reason most tourists are: trekking. She had her mind set on climbing Fansipan, Vietnam's highest peak. We spent most of the first day in Sa Pa getting ready for the hike. Several outfitting companies offered overpriced packages including a guide and porter, but we figured we could do without either of those things. I was happy to carry our stuff and we figured the trail would be pretty obvious since it's fairly popular. The problem was that we didn't have the proper gear; no tent or sleeping bags and T was light on warm cloths. We stopped at the tourist information center and said they said there's a law which requires you to go with a guide or porter so we set out to find one.

Unlike other places in Vietnam, Sa Pa has two distinct cultures: the Vietnamese and the Hmong. The Hmong are the indigenous people that live in the villages and come into town to sell their wares (and cheap Chinese products). I'm used to the Hmong; for whatever reason my home state has a lot of them. I found the Hmong in Sa Pa as easy to get along with as those back home. All the porters used by the outfitting companies come from the Hmong villages so we figured we'd cut out the middleman and just ask around and see if we could find someone ourselves. After hitting up the market and looking online we finally found a guy that had a tent and sleeping bags and was willing to take us for a fair price. We made plans and gathered the rest of the supplies we needed and turned in early so we could get up first thing in the morning to start our adventure.

Hmong villagers pushing their wares on some Russians
Hmong villagers pushing their wares on some Russians

Sunrise over the mountains surrounding Sa Pa was beautiful and the air was cool and crisp. I donned my vomit yellow jersey and the straw hat I got at the frisbee tournament in Cambodia. It's an awful combination and I think it gives people a bad impression of me; I've decided never to wear it again. The trail head for Fansipan is about 15k out of Sa Pa and our porter/guide said he'd meet us at our hotel in the morning with his son and take us there on motorbikes. He said he'd have a place for us to stash our stuff.

The man arrived at our hotel on time but alone and with nothing other than two sleeping bags and a tiny backpack. His son couldn't make it, we'd have to rent motorbike taxis he told us. He also bid us leave our stuff at the hotel which we hadn't intended to return to but who was nice enough to hold onto it anyway. There was a misunderstanding about the food situation as well: apparently the price he quoted us—which is the price of a normal meal—was just to cook the food, we'd have to supply the food ourselves. T and I had each packed a day pack but we had a few things for him to carry and it was obvious that that wasn't going to happen so I left the non-essentials like my hiking boots behind.

We all went to hire a motorbike taxi and as soon as we struck a deal another misunderstanding came to light. Our guide still wanted us to pay a transportation fee to cover the gas in his bike. We told him we would pay for the gas but that he'd have to take one of us on his bike so we wouldn't have to rent two taxis. He acquiesced and I got on back.

The road to the trail head was nice but full of switchbacks which our guide was taking very wide and at quite an angle. "Turn the wheel you fool, you'll kill us both!" I wanted to scream, but since he spoke no English I held my tongue. Perhaps it'll just kill me, I thought, he was wearing a helmet but I wasn't since he only brought one having no intention of giving either T or I a ride in the first place.

Sapa before sunset
Sapa before sunset

We made it to the trail head and stopped in the ranger station to pay our fees. The ranger started writing a list. The first five were all things we were expecting but the next fee, which was $20 US was unexpected. "What's this?" we asked. "Insurance" he said. "But one of the other fees is insurance, and we don't want any, what's the difference?" we replied. "It's a fee for not using an outfitting company" the officer said. It had all gone too far and that was the last straw. There was no $20 fee, that was just something the ranger and guide were going to split.

T and I discussed it: we'd had enough. We told the porter we didn't want to do the trek anymore and we'd find our own way home. We offered him the food and a little bit of money. He wanted more money. We didn't want to give him more money so we came to an impasse. He didn't speak any English, I didn't speak any Vietnamese. Communication broke down. After a long period of silence I decided I'd just walk back to town so I got up and started leaving and told T she could join me. I made it about twenty meters to where the driveway met the road without looking back. That was a mistake. That was wrong of me. I shouldn't have left T. She was fallowing close behind but not close enough. The porter ran up behind her and grabbed her and she screamed out to me. I immediately came running and the porter didn't wait for me to get there to let go.

I quickly got in between T and the equally tiny porter. Some words were exchanged between us that weren't translated and then the porter picked up a baseball sized rock. I didn't flinch or change in demeanor—I wasn't scared of him, even with a rock. "He wants more money now" T said. "That's crazy, I'm not giving him more than what we offered" I replied. That's when the other porters that had been watching from a distance decided to group up behind our porter. "They want violence" T said. I didn't respond. She repeated: "They want violence". I calmly returned: "I don't want to fight with anyone". That's not to say I wouldn't have fought with them, but I certainly didn't want to. They were all small guys and I reckoned I could have taken any 4 or 5 of them, but not 10+. She said it once more: "They want violence".

It's amazing how many things go through your head both consciously and unconsciously in the blink of an eye. Would they fight fair? Would they use weapons? Would they hurt a woman? Would the park rangers do anything? The park rangers had been standing by idly this whole time and if they got involved I don't think it would have been to help us. The only other bystander was a woman selling drinks on the street who looked as if there were a water trough to dive into or a bar to hide behind, she would have, anticipating a one-sided donnybrook or old fashioned rumble. I noticed that several of the porters had forearm length machetes. I remembered how hard of a time the American soldiers had fighting against the Vietnamese on account of their guerrilla tactics. Then I looked at T and realized that her safety was in my hands and I had promised I'd do everything in my power to get her safely out of the mountains.

The type of machetes the porters had
The type of machetes the porters had

I reached into my back pocket and took out my money. Immediately the wind grabbed a large bill and blew it toward the porters where it caught a rock. No one motioned for it. I walked over calmly and picked it up. Adding another bill of kind to it I started toward our porter. As I approached him all kinds of thoughts went through my head. I would have loved to spit on it, crumple it and drop it in front of him, but that would have been as good as dropping a glove in front of a knight and I expected no chivalry from him. Without saying anything I handed our porter the money, walked over to T and we both began descending the road.

Once we were out of their sight we took a moment to calm ourselves. The experience had shaken both of us. I was angry, embarrassed, frustrated and ashamed. We walked a bit further to a waterfall and ate a bit of chocolate I had brought. After we had collected ourselves we set off down the road and quickly flagged down a passing motorbike. The man on the bike was very nice and offered to give us both a lift back to town. On the way back he pointed out all kinds of things to T and when I tried to give him some money upon arrival he wouldn't accept it. We spent the rest of the day getting massages and watching funny movies.

It was a traumatic experience for both me and T and I dare say the closest I've been to death on this trip. I'm a man of principal, I'm willing to put my own safety in jeopardy to stand up for what I believe in, but I'm also a man of my word. On the ride back to town I began to ponder: Am I willing to stand up for what I believe in at someone else's expense? I believe my actions proved that I'm not, but I let the situation go too far and perhaps that was a question I needed to ponder. As I told a friend a while ago, the best experiences aren't always pleasant.

Soundtrack: Don't Look Back In Anger (Oasis)


March 20th, 2013 at 3:36 PM

Hi Beau,

The story of the Hmong's journey to the US. I first learned this story from my mom who help treat many of the refugees at a local Wisconsin hospital.


Glad you are alive and I would appreciate a picture of a porter "machete"

March 20th, 2013 at 8:01 PM

Good story, Beau. Glad u are safe.

The Bhagwan
March 20th, 2013 at 8:26 PM

Aw Jeez now - A couple of machetes could really put a kink in your trip even if one were to emerge "victorious" - whatever that would eventually mean - from a fight against overwhelming odds. If it was Thao and only Thao that kept you from engaging 10 angry townfolk with machetes, then God Bless Thao. Being principled is one thing, but if you are being extorted/robbed at knife-point, there are times when the best plan of action is to give them the money, learn your lesson, avoid paths leading up to circumstances like that, and move on. $20 or $40 US dollars or even one's sense of pride are not worth dying over. A good lesson to ponder..grasshopper!

Dr. Rhinesteiner
March 21st, 2013 at 8:28 PM

I knew he would be unable to restrain himself from Tonying you on this one

March 22nd, 2013 at 3:30 AM

Thanks for the link Justin, that was very interesting. I've updated the post with a picture of the machetes.

March 22nd, 2013 at 4:53 AM

That is exactly what happened to us! We paid a moto driver to take us somewhere and once delivered he wanted more! Chased us for an hour and physically attacked us. I understand the fear and the anger.

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com