The Witches of Sapa

On the morning of the trip, we got up early, packed everything and had coffee at the hotel’s lobby. One of the hotel’s workers, a woman with a narrow face, made us sandwiches for the ride and packed them, and then waited with us.
The bus to the North arrived, and we began making our way outside of Hanoi.
I had the chance to say one last goodbye to the streets and houses as the driver gathered more passengers from the Hoàn Kiếm and then drove through the highway, crossed a big river and went outside to the outskirts of the city.

We stopped at a gas station where several people were scattered around and sold strange foods. We got some steamed dumplings filled with pork and quail egg from a skinny wrinkled woman, and I tried some kind of meat rolled in banana leaves. I wanted to ask her which meat it was, but she didn’t know a word in English. After mimicking different animals, and using the few words I learned in Vietnamese, she understood and put her hands by her head like horns and made some low “moo” sound.

The wind that blew from the window got colder as the bus climbed up on steep mountains. There were big hills with terraces of leveled rice fields all around, with different hues of yellow and green.
I saw that image so many times before, in articles about Vietnam, and I couldn’t realize it’s real, that I’m really there.
After a few hours of a ride between forests and clouds, we arrived at Sapa.

It’s a strange city. It’s cold and rainy and once in a while, a big cloud covers everything in heavy fog.
There are many minorities in North Vietnam, many different tribes and villages, and Sapa is some kind of a center for them – since it’s full of tourists. While the men work in the fields, the women walk around the town, wrapped with colorful heavy clothes, full of silver jewelry, some of them carry babies on their back, and sell things for tourists. Most of them sell jewelry, scarves, skirts, small instruments that they make. A weird woman with a harelip approached us several times and whispered “Hash hash, opium, opium”.
Some of them offer to lodge in their homes for a few Dollars, including meals with their families and instructed hikes.

It gave me an odd feeling. How poor are these women, that they need to open their own homes for strangers?

Among them walk around some very old women, like witches, with heavy scarves covering their heads and bony hands, peeking out of their tiny eyes and selling god-knows-what.


The bus stopped at a big parking lot, and right away about 20 women ran towards us. I saw them focusing on each of us as we descended the bus. Two women approached Roni and I as we got out and followed us, probably wanting to offer us lodging at their houses. Eventually, Roni told them we didn’t want to buy anything, and they left.

After we checked-in at a grungy hotel, we went outside to explore the city.
It took me a moment to realize that we are alone, don’t know anyone in the city and not depending on any schedule. Until then Belle from the hotel helped us plan ahead the days and the trips, and this was the first time since Bangkok that we were completely spontaneous.
We looked for something to eat on the main street, but most places were touristic and the food was just pricey and not interesting. Mostly Englishmen and Scots sat there and we saw a group of four Israelis, for the first time since we got to Vietnam.
After eating, we kept traveling around, going out of the main street to smaller ones. Since Sapa is built on mountains, it is very steep and full of narrow staircases made of white rocks.
We sat in a small place and had hot coffee, unlike warmer places in Vietnam where they drink the coffee cold. Aside from us sat there two Scots our age, and after they unsuccessfully tried to haggle on the price the man dived into a book and the woman wrote in her journal with her organized handwriting.


We went uphill from there, passing by a cute lake next to a school where many teenagers stared at us, some construction sites with builders that smiled at me, and eventually, we arrived at a market.
On the outside, they sold mostly fruits and vegetables that they put in boxes on the orange ground, and on an inside part that was covered with a roof they sold meat and by-product. It took a while to get used to the strong smell. In another part, there were tubs full of water with seafood and fish, crabs and oysters, and some silkworms.
We entered a big building, and at the entrance a woman invited us to have soup at her place, but we weren’t hungry yet so we moved on. There were mostly clothes and housewares, big knives and sets of plants and dried lizards, but the place was closing so after a while we returned to the woman with the soup.
We sat on a long bench in a hall where more women sold different foods and had a hot and spicy meat soup while the locals were staring at us.
I was glad to find a less touristic area and began to get used to the fact that we were the strange ones here.


We made our way back to the hotel to take a shower and get some warmer clothes.
The city was covered with a cloud and we could only see a few meters ahead, and the lake was covered in white and looked enchanted.
The shower at the hotel was leaping and creaking and I didn’t feel clean afterward, and while Roni took a shower I noticed that the room was very dirty. We decided to walk around and look for another hotel.
We checked the Lonely Planet book and went outside, and booked a room for the next night at a place that seemed nice and humble, ran by a tall man with yellow teeth.
Afterward, we went to a place that served fried meat, and had pork and vegetables on skewers, chicken wings and sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo stick, and beer. It was an open and big place, under the sky. A kid sat in front of a TV in the corner and watched cartoons.
We sat next to a young couple and a middle-aged witchy woman with black clothes, and they all watched TV together. I was fascinated by the witch in black. She held a fried chicken leg with her bony hand, chewing on it, spitting the bones on the floor.
She then switched a channel from the cartoons to an Indian movie dubbed into Vietnamese When the movie was over the child, that served us the beers, switched back to the cartoons and a loud woman with red clothes got mad and lightly slapped his scruff and turned the TV off. Later on, he climbed on her lap and fell asleep.

The family dynamic was astonishing to me.

We went back to the hotel and went to bed.
There were two single beds, each one on a different side of the room.
As a couple, it was weird sleep like that. It reminded me of sleepover parties we used to have as kids.

In the morning we packed and moved to the other hotel. It was difficult to climb the stairs to our room on the fourth floor, but the room was nice and clean with an okay shower and a porch with a wide view.
We went to get some coffee in some kind of a yard. You to climb some stairs to get there, and there are small buildings here and there. Somebody got a tattoo in one of them.
While we tried to plan ahead the trip, a few lazy dogs walked around with a small puppy that ran around and played.

I’ve felt complete freedom, that we can stay or leave whenever we want, without committing to anything.


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