“Earrings, bracelets, pillow cover,” she said, waving a gnarled hand over her wares. “Necklaces, marijuana, hat, opium.”

Her deeply wrinkled face looked so innocent. Had I heard her right? She gestured for me to move closer, and I leaned in. Her wink confirmed that I had. Commerce, even the illicit kind, is booming and competitive in Sapa, Vietnam.

Located in the misty mountains ten miles south of the Chinese border, Sapa is the commercial heart of the country’s northern tribal region. Although surrounded by tiny, rustic villages, Sapa itself is a bustling little town that reflects its colonial heritage in its French-inspired architecture and the whiff of chocolate croissants that lingers in the air.

I had woken up itching to see what the guidebooks promised—quaint villages surrounded by stunning rice terraces nestled in the shadow of majestic Mount Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. But, for the moment, I was mesmerized by the buzz of morning activity in Sapa’s two-block long central square.

Women of the Black Hmong and Red Dzao tribes were stalking the dozens of milling tourists. Each dressed in her tribe’s traditional colors, they ruled the square like rival gangs. Watching, I noticed that these four-foot-tall peddlers were quite pushy and quick with a petulant whine of “Why you buy from her and not from me?” Yet they also charmed tourist after tourist as they hocked hand-sewn purses, blankets, jackets, and more—all pulled from giant baskets hauled on their backs, or balanced on their heads if they happened to be toting a wee one. Sales techniques varied from a string of chat-up lines: “Where you from? How old you? How many babies you?” to the direct “You buy this!” accompanied by a stamp of the foot. Sometimes they tried a communal appeal, “Buy one pillow cover from her, one from her, and one from me.”

I inadvertently made eye contact with the old lady selling illegal substances, and instantly she was by my side. Reaching barely to my shoulder, she gently tugged at my shirtsleeve until I bent down. Her face was creviced with wrinkles, her teeth mostly gone, but her eyes were clear and intelligent. Noticing her slight frame, I wondered how she remained upright with a large basket of goods strapped to her back. While I reluctantly turned down the pot and opium, I did touch a green and red handwoven blanket when instructed to and nodded while she made her pitch. “Very soft. Many colors. Good, strong for sleeping.” I offered her 150,000 Dong ($9 dollars), and the deal was sealed.

As I snuck out of the square, it occurred to me that I didn’t feel frazzled and edgy, my usual reaction to in-your-face third-world trade. There was something about the tenor of the interactions with these tiny women that was, well, milder. I mean, old ladies ran the drug trade, for heaven’s sake.

A Jaunt to Cat Cat
Strolling from Sapa to Cat Cat, a small, quiet village three kilometers down the hill, a young Black Hmong woman jogged up to accompany me. She told me her name was Doua and kept up a running commentary on the countryside in broken, yet surprisingly good English. Pointing out the sights, “Bamboo—good material; rice terraces—families work,” and providing insights, “Water buffalo—dumb animal,” she shuffled along in muddy wader boots and refrained from the hard-sell tactics she had no doubt employed while in the market square.

Halfway to Cat Cat, soft rain began to fall, and Doua pulled a sheet of plastic out of her basket and covered her head, which was already wrapped in a bright blue fabric resembling a Scottish tartan. She neatly tucked the plastic around the fabric and wore it like a veil. Notorious for microclimates, the Sapa region keeps its people on their toes, ever ready for downpours on chilly spring days.

She and I stopped to take in the view, and I instantly understood what the guidebooks were talking about. Emerald green and lush, the rice terraces were cast in gently angling light and shadows thrown by fast-moving clouds. A man and a woman worked the fields below, swinging pick axes with a steady rhythm. Flute music floated up to my ears, and I spied a young man perched on the cliffside playing a bamboo instrument.

By the side of the road, a little boy blinked up at us through the raindrops and held out a colorful fabric keychain. Kneeling down, I took in his filthy shirt and dirt-stained cheeks. He stared solemnly back as Doua, chattering in Hmong, seemed to encourage him to smile and “work it.” He simply reached out both hands—one to give me the keychain, the other to grab the money that he clearly anticipated. Doua clucked her disapproval at the large sum (100,000 Dong, $6) I handed over, but the boy merely tucked it in his pocket. He seemed neither grateful nor intimidated.

As we entered Cat Cat, Doua sensed our time together was drawing to a close and whipped out the merchandise. She smiled and held out both hands in a friendlier imitation of the child’s successful tactic. One held a pair of enormous silver hoop earrings, the other was empty and open. I returned her wide smile, purchased the simple tribal jewelry for her asking price of 40,000 Dong ($2.50) and walked off into the village.

A Basic Life
Although tourism is beginning to boom in the region, many locals still live a very basic life toiling in the fields and bending over looms or, if they are lucky, an ancient sewing machine.

Cat Cat reflects this. Homes are shacks of mud, wattle and thatch. Young boys herd water buffalo through town, puppies scamper and play in the streets, and babies toddle around their yards, chasing baby ducks and chickens. Emerging from behind a barrel, a young boy stopped and stood right in front of me. Even dirtier than the child on the road, he didn’t smile or wave but simply gazed into my camera as I snapped a shot. It wasn’t until that evening’s photo review that I noticed his grimy little sweatpants featured the character Jack-Jack from the movie The Incredibles.

Return to Sapa
Leaving Cat Cat, I hired a motorbike taxi for a quick trip back up the hill. After a pleasant ride through the fast-moving fog and gentle mist, I wandered through the Sapa food market reveling in its bustling afternoon atmosphere. Pigs rotated on makeshift spits. Women bickered over the price of a basket of crabs. Merchants chopped plump tuna steaks and poured ice over bucket upon bucket of shrimp and sardines. In the vegetable section, huge zucchini, fat carrots, and greens of all kinds overflowed their stalls.

As I exited the blue tarps of the market and eased back to my hotel, Doua appeared at my elbow, this time with a baby on her back and an older woman at her side. “This, my mom. This, my baby,” she said, then pointing at me, “This, nice lady.”

Yes. Milder indeed. I was sold.