“HELLO LADY! LADY!”
With a heavy sigh I wrenched my eyes from the gentle valleys and vibrant terraces of Sapa, and turned around to face a beaming woman in an ornate black velvet dress. She’d found me. Again.
The saga had begun several hours earlier, on the bustling streets of Sapa town, as I prepared for a group trek in the enchanting hill country of North Vietnam.
The woman had started by asking me the usual questions regarding my nationality, age and marital status, and flattering me (sort of): “You look so young! Big eyes! Big nose! Like baby!” By the end of the conversation, she’d coerced me into pinky swearing that I would buy something from her when I returned.
Trekking in the enchanting hills of Sapa
To my surprise, my new friend joined me on the five-hour trek, constantly checking that I would make a purchase on my return. We trekked down into the verdant valley, watched local children splashing around amid the fairytale scenery of Cat Cat waterfall, and rambled amid enchanting terraces, weaving through grasses far taller than us.
When we took a break, my companion left to chat to her friends, and – exhausted by her incessant questions – I saw my opportunity for escape.
When we set off again, I speed-walked my way up the steep valley and by the time I reached Sapa town, red-faced and clutching a stitch, I’d lost her. I sat down outside a deserted bar and ordered a Bia Ha Noi, feeling uneasy. Her sudden absence felt too good to be true. But one frosty beer turned into several, and suddenly my stressful day didn’t seem so bad. I floated back to my hostel on a boozy high.
I heard her before I saw her. “LADY! YOU PINKY PROMISED! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” And there she was, lounging on the steps of my hostel, blocking my way. Too exhausted to haggle, I fetched 300,000 Dong (£10), but she shook her head with irritated bemusement. My 300,000 would not be enough to purchase even the smallest of headbands; I’d have to draw out another 300,000.
Now feeling like a hostage, I marched into my hostel, desperately seeking help. The receptionist sympathised until he spoke to the woman, who had followed me. “You pinky promised,” he told me, “there’s nothing I can do now.” Five minutes later I was withdrawing a thick wad of notes from the ATM. Beaming once more, my captor handed me a tiny sliver of black cloth.
On the way back, I bumped into someone I knew. The woman appeared once more, and approached my friend. “Do you want a headband? 20,000 Dong?”. She jabbed her finger at me, as I stood there, emotionally drained and limply clutching a vastly overpriced headband. “She just paid 600,000 Dong,” she shouted incredulously, before laughing at insulting length. Then – at my friend’s single refusal of her wares – my velvet-clad spectre finally disappeared into the dusky evening, never to return.