When we were trekking with our guide through the mountains around Sa Pa, before very long we were joined by three or four women, one with a baby on her back - very delightful. Our guide was not too impressed, said nothing, but his body language was negative.
The local women, in traditional dress, made conversation with us - where you from, I be your friend, how old are you, I walk with you...
As we walked the path (which was clay, wet and quite slippery) became quite steep and it took a fair amount of attention to walk it because it was slippery. The friendly walkers suddenly started to grab our hands, to assist us on the slippery path. Without wanting to be rude to them, I tried to say no, no I was fine and could manage. They kept taking my hand, which put me off balance and annoyed me - I like to do things myself and if I get a muddy bum I don't care...! It was tricky because we did not want to be insolent or rude. I asked the guide to tell them to let me walk on my own and he did - but they hung around. he said afterwards they said they didn't know what he meant...
At the end of this first leg, which was probably the first 2km, the guide said they would go, as the path was no longer the slippery clay. But before they went they stridently demanded payment. The Guide was not impressed as he said, we had not asked for their help nor contracted for the service. We did pay them something because they had helped our daughters...but if we'd had some sticks to walk with, no help would have been necessary.
The guide said that some trekkers like to have the locals provide this service and others don't - so I guess it puts him in an awkward place, not knowing whether to tell the women to go or let them stay. He said that it shouldn't be a surprise demand for payment at the end. Well, to be honest it wasn't that much of a surprise to us - we had a fair idea after a short period of time, what the deal was - but it was fairly hard to get a message across that the help was not required or wanted!
Unique Suggestions: Either enjoy the attention, take the assistance and be happy to pay them a small amount - this was in fact what we did because our daughters did in the end appreciate the help.
Let your guide know early and firmly, that you prefer to walk without assistance. And keep backing it up directly with no thank you, no thank you, no thank you - while smiling, smiling, smiling.
Fun Alternatives: Be aware from the start that a good solid trekking stick is pretty helpful in walking on the paths at Sa Pa to give you extra purchase as you walk (not to beat off the helpers!!) - it doesn't have to be anything elaborate but something that will just give some assistance with balance - a bit of extra stability.
Wear good boots.
Enjoy the locals, by all means, but be alert that they aren't coming along for nothing.
The first thing you'll encounter in Sapa will be the numerous Hmong women trying to sell handicrafts. If Vietnamese people are gifted in convincing tourists to buy stuff from them, it's nothing against the Hmong! They will easily follow you half of your trek to present their goods - blankets, bracelets, necklaces and so on...
While this is their only way to profit from the tourists' visit to Sapa, it is highly annoying. The women, especially the younger ones, are fluent in English and they never ever give up until they sold what they intended to sell. I was followed by a girl for 3.5km until she eventually managed to sell me that blanket!
Unique Suggestions: Quick way: Buy something and flee as fast as possible! - Disadvantage: Others who see you buying stuff will attempt to sell you theirs, too.
Slow way: Go on trekking and start haggling! This is quite likely to ruin your trek as you will hardly be able to enjoy nature anymore, but you might manage to get a good price.
Fun Alternatives: There is no real alternative - the only way might be to go where only the elder women go: Their English skills are generally not as good so that they give up earlier...
PS: Read the story of Nghu, the Hmong girl seen on the picture, in my travelogue!
Do not book this tour through the Pinochio hotel. A large group went on this tour from the hotel. On the way to the market, our driver was on the phone a lot. Lots of tourist buses were coming back. When we were 25kms from Bac Ha, he informed us that the road wasn't passable, so we couldn't go to the markets. Another tour group there, were arranging a cruise, ours, did nothing, dropped us back at lao cai at mid day to wait 9hours for the overnight train. I learnt from a tourist with another group, travelling about 10mins behind us, that they Knew the road was impassable when were were at lao cai in the morning. The tour group this person was with, went to another market. Our group didn't see any of the local people because of the disorganization, and we all thought the fact that they took us so far was so they wouldn't have to refund our money.
Unique Suggestions: Do not book with the Pincochio hotel
Fun Alternatives: Use a local travel agent.
Sa Pa is becoming a bit of a mecca for tourists, if it not already this, and the locals certainly make the most of it. Tourists really do stand out. They flock around tourists, with small bracelets and embroidered bits and pieces, even wanting to sell you their old clothes (which are their traditional dress).
They ask your name, they ask where you are from, they ask you to promise that you will buy from them. And they are very very persistent.
Unique Suggestions: If you buy - definitely don't in the first hour you are there.
Have a look around and get a feel for what's about. Look through the Markets area and the stores and have a good look at what is being offered by the vendors. You'll get a relative impression of what's on offer and the quality and prices.
Be aware that these cute and bold children are excellent sales tools...
But most importantly - enjoy the whole thing and take it in your stride. The bracelets are pretty cheap (don't expect them to last) and part of the experience of being there. They're trying to make a living and no one forces you to buy anything you don't want to in the end!!
Fun Alternatives: I thought that there was much better quality materials and workmanship inside the stores - for sure they are a lot more expensive too, but you get what you pay for.
The rugs and items being offered by individuals on the street were pretty thin and roughly put together. The clothes they tried to sell me were none too clean.
Do not book this trip through the Pinochio hotel. A german man booked the tour for himself, the cost $70 for himself & the driver and van. I Joined, so the price should have nearly halved, it didn't, I paid $60. We went to the markets, we were meant to be shown around Bac ha town, we weren't, we were meant to see the Chinese border at Lao Cai, begrudgingly they took us, only because of a phone call complaining about not seeing what we were supposed to.
Unique Suggestions: Book through a travel agent, or go on an organized tour.
Absolutely agree with dawgon, above. That does sound steep. There are many travel agencies or traveler's cafes in Hanoi that offer a 3NIGHT/2DAY trip up to Sapa and you'd save quite a bit with them but you do need to choose wisely which agency you go with because there are quite a few that skimp on services with such things as claiming to deliver a good train berth/sleeping compartment and then claim at the last minute that sleeping berths weren't available, etc.
With regards to Vietnam, sometimes you get what you pay for so if it seems too inexpensive to be true, then . . .
One agency that gets good reviews consistenly is Handspan. They charge more but they've got the infrastructure with their own vans, boats, etc. (not train) and usually deliver on service.