“Also, being a photographer gives you a license to steal experiences that you ordinarily wouldn’t have. You enter into other people’s worlds who are usually very highly specialized, very rare.” - Jay Maisel
I love and loathe Sapa, Vietnam.
Loathing maybe too harsh of a term.
Let’s just say I found some aspects of traveling in Sapa irritating.
Sapa is located in northwest Vietnam and is known for its stunning scenery, treks, homestays, the colorful dresses of the local hill tribe ethnic minorities and the pestering sales tactics of local hill tribe ethnic minorities who wear colorful dresses.
As a photographer I found Sapa frustrating because every time I would ask a local if I could take their photo they would either demand money or I had to buy one of their souvenirs. In addition, whether I was walking down the street in downtown Sapa or trekking through the beautiful rice terraces, I was accompanied (i.e. stalked) by members of the Black H’mong tribe (i.e. Sapa’s #1 aggressive sales team) who were relentless with their standardized sales pitch.
After a couple of days of this I reached my boiling point.
I was hiking in the Black H’mong village of Cat Cat and started to descend a steep staircase when I saw the perfect candid moment of a group H’mong children who were approaching me. I took a photo and when I lowered my camera they extended their hand and said, “One dollar!”
“I’ll give you five!” I replied.
They all jumped for joy and then I extended my hand in the air and gave them all a high “five.”
I don’t think they were expecting that type of five.
While the Black H’mong are well represented in Sapa, The Red Dzao (also known as Yao or Dao) tribe are also another colorful hill tribe you will encounter, whether you want to or not. They are noted for their bright red head dress and shaved foreheads and eyebrows.
After a couple of days in Sapa, I really wanted to know the people behind the constant sales chatter of, “You buy from me!”
So one day I rented a motorbike and drove twelve kilometers from downtown Sapa to the Red Dzao village of Ta Phin. It was here I met Tami and before she could employ her crafty sales tactics I stated that I wanted to buy something from her. Not one of her handicrafts, but her time. I asked her to tell me about her family, the history of the Red Dzao people, her daily activities and how tourism has affected her village.
She extended an invitation to me to visit her home which was a mile away. On the way we passed by the local school which was recently built by the Vietnamese government. I asked why it was painted a bright yellow color and she said that government buildings in Vietnam are painted yellow. Our visit coincided with recess so she introduced me to her daughter and son who were playing in the school yard. Afterwards, we walked by some picturesque rice fields where I asked Tami why it was mainly the women who were employed in the tourism industry.
“The men work in the fields,” as she pointed to the farmers, “their English is not good so it’s hard for them to talk to the tourists.”
At her home she offered me a drink and gave me a quick tour around her home. I asked her how tourism affected her village.
“I like the tourists because it provides money for us,” she replied, “I like it because I get to practice my English.”
The whole time I had my Canon 5D Mark II at my side and she looked at it and asked, “Do you want to take a photo?”
I asked her to move to the open doorway where some nice, diffused light was coming in. Again, the low light capabilities of the Canon 5D Mark II came through as I shot this at a clean 3200 ISO.
We both enjoyed our time together. She wasn’t pressured to make a sale and I didn’t need to engage in any “run and gun” travel photography.
Even though I took only three photos of Tami, my camera gave me “a license to steal an experience” that morning.
I think I’ll be returning to Sapa soon.
Stay tuned for more of my adventures in Southeast Asia.
Text and photo copyright by ©Sam Antonio Photography