In 2010 Peter Gilbert was just passing through Sapa, a hill town in the north of Vietnam, on the way to Laos when he heard about an organisation dedicating itself to improving the literacy of local children. Initially he volunteered for three months as an English teacher with Sapa O’Chau but after a short visit home to Sheffield, and a winter season working in Japan, he returned to continue helping with the project.
Today, he still spends a lot of time in the classroom, but also helps to manage the volunteering and other aspects of this growing project.
I’m sure you’ve never heard this before: where are you from?
I’m from the Steel City. Sheffield, England.
And what did you do there, then?
I grew up, went to school, and had a few different part-time jobs along the way. Then I went to university, and soon after graduating I started living abroad…
How did you end up in Sapa?
Having finished a teaching job in Japan, I was on holiday in South East Asia. I spent a couple of months in Thailand, a month in Cambodia and another month travelling up the length of Vietnam, from Saigon to Hanoi. Next, I decided to travel overland to Laos and Sapa just happened to be on the way…
Have you lived abroad before?
Yes, in many places, but never for as long as I have been here. I used to do ski seasons and teaching jobs, and was involved in an amazing organization called CISV, which promotes cross-cultural friendship for young people. So far I’ve been “working” abroad in Malta, France, Denmark, Spain, Brazil, Japan and Vietnam.
So what’s so good about Sapa?
I call it Saparadise! It’s visually stunning with its terraced rice paddies reaching from the valley floor right up to the tops of the mountains. It feels like you are standing in a life-sized relief map, with the walls of the terraces acting like contour lines. Moreover, it’s an anthropologists dream come true, with five indigenous ethnic minorities living here. That’s five distinct cultures, languages and costumes. Some live in isolated villages and others are more integrated. It is fascinating how in the space of half an hour I can walk from Sapa town, with its multitude of western style restaurants and hotels, broad band internet and modern plumbing, back to what life must have been like in an iron age village. I love to spend time with the villagers, their strength and ingenuity is awe-inspiring. They are also very kind people, and I think it is this warmth that has kept me here so long.
And what don’t you like?
The winter! I have lived in ski resorts and been up to my eyeballs in snow, but I have never been anywhere as cold as Sapa. People always find this surprising, they think of Vietnam as tropical jungle and palm trees, but Sapa is a mountain town and Indochina’s highest mountain is on our doorstep. The problem is not the temperature, but the humidity. There can be weeks of thick icy fog and it soaks right to your bones. It’s also terrible for the tourists who flock here to see the aforementioned views and are lucky to see much more than the tip of their nose. (Having said all this, you need just one day of Sapa’s beautiful summer climate and you quickly forget the horror of a Sapa winter.)
Do you feel like an insider or outsider?
I feel very much at home here. However, as with most places I have been, you will always be a “foreigner” and the Vietnamese language is a big barrier. It’s a small town and we are only around 10 expats living here. Everybody local knows everybody else, and the tourists just drift past. Here the minority people call any foreigner a “Fanki”, which is a corruption of “françaises” – the French were the first outsiders to reach Sapa in the 1880s.
How do you support yourself?
When I first started living here it was as an extended holiday. I volunteered my time and supported myself with the money I had made in Japan. After one-and-a-half years of this I was pretty broke. Thankfully, Sapa O’Chau, the grass-roots social enterprise I am helping to establish here, has started to gain momentum and is now able to employ me. The salary isn’t high, but it’s enough for a happy life in Sapa and the odd holiday getaway.
Any advice for wannabe Sapans (I’m sure this is wrong. What do you call yourselves?)
It sounds good enough to me. I hope we are sapient homosapans?!
If you are interested in getting involved as a volunteer teacher or intern for Sapa O’Chau then you will be more than welcome here. There are great experiences to be had here and you will discover a lot about yourself too.
Is the move permanent?
I feel very settled here and I am obsessed with developing Sapa O’Chau. Nevertheless, I am still a very footloose person and I know there are still new places and experiences for me to discover. I’ve never been much of a future planner (at least not for my own self) but for now I am living here, and putting every ounce of energy into my work here. Que sera sera.
Finally, tell us about something typically Sapa (or Vietnam)
A typical Sapa Sunday is spent with other Sapans, locals and tourists at the “Bia Hoi Corner,” sharing a jug of fresh beer and a plate of barbecued snacks. Apart from trekking and volunteering with Sapa O’Chau, Sapa has a severe lack of things to do, but it is a great place for chilling out. .
Sapa O’Chau is reliant on volunteers to sustain its teaching requirements and help to transform the lives of others. Though they encourage longer stays where possible, volunteers can join their program for as little as one day. While there are no specific qualifications, volunteers need to be over 18 and are expected to be flexible, patient, and respectful, and possess a passion and love for children and young adults.
Volunteers not interested in teaching can also help out in other ways, such as writing articles, providing administrative support or fundraising.