09 April 2006

Shopping Overload

Getting out of the shower, I looked in the mirror and saw that I had a hideous tank-top/bra strap tan. It was fortunate that I didn’t have any evening gown functions in the near future, where such tan lines might look a bit white trashy.

I trudged up the short hill to where the girls were supposed to be waiting. Only Bamboo and Ker were there. They said that Zen and Lam had already left, thinking that I wouldn’t show. I checked my watch and it was not yet 4:00, so I actually had made it in time. I had promised to purchase something from all of them and felt badly that I may not be able to do so. Bamboo assured me that they had recently left to go to the market and would return before setting off for their village.

My first purchase was to be a jacket that Bamboo’s mother had made and worn. She had several to sell, and my favorite was simply too small. The one I ended up with was also a little small, but I doubted I would be able to find a larger size from anywhere else. These people are small.

While I was comparing jackets, the other girls came back. It was then time to buy a blanket from Zen, a pillowcase from Lam, and a bracelet from Ker. What I really wanted was one of the woven backpack baskets that they all used. Ker said that her grandfather made them and that she would bring me one from the village the following day.

By this time I was being mobbed by lots of ladies who had seen that I was in buying mode. They had great stuff, and from a different ethnic group. I bought on embroidered sarong-type skirt, and would like to have gotten more, but I could no longer stand the crowd of women saying, “Buy from me, you bought from her, why don’t you buy from me?” I completely understand their need to sell, and I wish I could have bought something from all of them. However, it was all getting too overwhelming and I knew I could not possibly purchase one item from every woman on the streets of Sapa.

Telling the girls I would be back the next day for the basket, I headed off. The temperature at 5:00 was still lovely and I had no desire to go back to the hotel. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t eaten since 7am, save for a few handful of nuts, and eating might be a prudent move. I walked into a restaurant that was upstairs, overlooking one of the small streets.

Being so early in the evening, the large room with low, comfortable tables, was empty. At first I sat at a window seat until I realized the noise from below was not conducive to relaxation. I crossed to the far side of the room and sat at an open window overlooking backs of houses and the mountains.

The restaurant was done in dark woods, with a high, wood ceiling. It had that primitive, jungle look. The tables on the sides were coffee table height, with rattan sofas and pillows instead of chairs. It was lovely and peaceful. I ordered, ate, and relaxed. It wasn’t that I wanted to go back to the hotel, but it was starting to get dark and I had run out of things to do.

Cutting through the food market, I again ran into Zen and Ker buying sweets to take to their families. More hugs, more good-byes, and I was soon on the road- with-no-noise that lead to my hotel. I passed the main hotel and walked on to mine. It was now almost twilight and not a single light was on. I walked in and called out. No answer. I searched around until I found light switches. It was sort of spooky. But when I got to my room and opened the balcony doors, all scary thoughts were vanquished. I could actually see the top of Fan Xi Pan Mountain, the tallest in Indochina! I knew I had been awarded a rare sight.

After I got to my room, I looked at what I had bought. Maybe it wasn’t the most beautiful work that I could have bought in Sapa, but knowing who had done the work, made it special. The blanket will always be from Zen’s mom, and the jacket from Bamboo’s mom, and the pillow from Lam’s mom. And tomorrow I would have a basket that Ker’s grandfather made. When I unpacked these back in HCMC, everything smelled strongly of the wood fires that the stall venders use to cook and heat. Another connecting memory.

The next day was my last and there were no marches scheduled. I was going to walk and buy. Although I live in Vietnam, and always think, oh, I can come back, the reality is that I probably will not, so I had to go out with the attitude that this would be my last chance to get ethnic art from the source.

Central Sapa is small, and I pretty much already knew my way around. I strolled a while, stopped for coffee and water buffalo viewing, then headed back towards the market. On my way, I bought pillow cases from more beautiful young women. The men were also beautiful, but I didn’t feel right snapping their pictures. With the women, I bought first then asked if I could take a photo.

Walking along, I was approached by an elderly woman; she looked ninety, but kept right up with me. I think she was asking for money. I kept walking and she kept saying something to me. Then she did a mime of smoking a cigarette. Could she want money for smokes? I’d yet to see a woman smoke here, so was confused. I kept her in my peripheral vision and nearly stumbled when she brought out a small, clear plastic bag, of something I assume someone could smoke. Granny drug dealer. She finally gave up.

I walked for about an hour before I went to the market where I had been briefly the in the days before. Most of the stall owners were not from the ethnic groups, and I really wanted to maintain my dedication to buying from the people. What I saw inside wasn’t what I wanted anyway, although I did up with two, very small, fishing baskets, and a necklace. As I wandered through, I saw many ethnic group ladies trying to sell their work to the shop owners. I calculated that they must sell them for almost nothing.

At some point, I decided I may not have enough money with me since I had opted to stay for another night. Or rather I had enough for the hotel, but maybe not enough to spend on another jacket or two. It took a lot of walking and misinformation until I was directed to a five-star hotel that was only too happy to give me a cash advance.

A loom was set up in the lobby and a woman from an ethnic group that was new to me, sat weaving blue and pink fabric. Since she spoke no English, I asked the guy who was helping me, which group she was from. (Stupidly, I but didn’t write it down and can’t seem to find the name in the info I have.) Beside her sat a basket of finished scarves of the same colors. I asked if I could buy one. I was told they weren’t finished because they had yet to be washed. I said I didn’t care, so a manager was called over to tell me the price. They again emphasized that I must wash it in order for the fabric to soften.

Since my first day in Sapa, I had seen the same woman, time and again, with a very unique headdress. It looked like black-coiled snakes with a silver top ornament. It didn’t aesthetically appeal to me, but thought it might belong with my growing collection of Vietnamese hats. I had seen her carrying them in a basket and went in search. She had always been at one entrance to the market, but I couldn’t find her. I walked around and up and down the neighboring streets until I finally spotted her. She, and at least ten other women, surrounded a tourist who was either browsing or buying. I hung around for a few minutes debating whether or not to approach her and finally realized I couldn’t deal with it. Time to go back to the hotel.

That’s when I noticed that there was a second floor to the market. I went up, turned left, and entered a large room filled with booths of ethnic clothing, each manned by representatives of at least four different peoples. It was what I had hoped to find, yet I knew it would take all my energy to deal with the onslaught of salespeople.

In particular, I wanted a Red Zao jacket. From what I had seen, their needlework was the smallest and most intricate. Some pieces I would not have believed were
done by hand had I not seen samples of it being made. I went through mental hell in there. Once I started looking at one seller’s, another would grab me and take me to hers, or shove clothing in my face. I stayed calm, and just nodded my head, or spoke softly. At one point, feeling I was going to explode, I walked out. I really would have liked to have been able to buy from everyone. And that was one of the reasons I felt so stressed. Who do I buy from? How can I spend all this time looking at this persons work, then buy from another?

In the end, I bought a jacket from the bossy lady. She explained the stitch work, pointing out the symbols for children and parents and health. When I asked to take she picture, she adjusted all her layers and struck a happy pose. I also got a baby hat from another woman, and a small, fabric neck piece from a third. At that point, I really did have to leave. At least now, if I ever go back, I will know exactly where to go to get what I want.

There were still several hours before my 4:30 bus departure. I went to my room to read, pack, and shower, which would be my last chance to wash for the next 24 hours.