If you want to experience Viet Nam’s diversity, head out to its north. Sa Pa is home to the proud and hospitable hill communities, their terraced rice paddies, and Mt. Fansipan – the roof of Indochina. Abhijeet Deshpande writes this first of the three part series from an inspiring country.
Sapa, or Sa Pa, in the winters is a misty town curated with sporadic showers. Visibility remains poor and some reckless bus drivers can make your short hilly-ride (< 40 km) from Lao Cai railway station to Sapa, memorable. Just as you climb down and the whirring engine of a solitary bus dies down, Sapa breathes fresh life in to its new arrivals. The sleepy mountains and the greens, rain-fed streets, the early morning chill factor, and views of idyllic cottages; it all makes up for a nerve-soothing welcome.
One of the main attractions in Sapa is to trek upwards of 3000 meters to Mt. Fansipan, often dubbed as the roof of Indochina. Many travelers to Viet Nam had made prior arrangements to hire trek guides and camping gear. But. The rainy weather in late December can play spoil sport and it did during the time. Most, whom we met, chose to cancel their itinerary entirely, while some shortened it from 2-4 nights to a day’s trek. We had decided to observe the weather (it snows sometimes) and local conditions before committing any sums of money. Though disappointed to miss out on the trek, we did not lose a booking fee. To top it, we found this namesake cafe and made quite a many friends to feel better.
Cat Cat Village
A Slovenian couple, an athletic and agile backpacking duo from Ljubljana made for perfect company to hike to the nearby (3-4 km from central Sapa) Hmong Cat Cat village and its valley. The paved route was a long and narrow cobbled staircase crossing few Hmong community settlements or more often, plantations and wilderness.
Few old Hmong women in their traditional attires and jewelry knew the everyday tourist routine and offered to be photographed in exchange for a few thousand Dongs – Vietnamese currency. One even approached us with an offer to sell crack or other drugs and a free photograph with her. We walked right past them. If the old were tired of seeing the tourists, the young were growing up curious. Many kids stopped to say hello or posed for pictures. Sometimes their mothers too.
Hmong people displayed a distinct form of artistry. Be it dyed fabrics or other hand-made crafts. In central Sapa, you are likely to see groups of women with giant merchandise baskets slung on their backs. They had this uncanny ability to start a conversation with tourists that often concluded in a sale. So, if you are on a budget, and not interested in souvenir shopping, beware not to respond to anyone carrying a basket full of crafts or fabrics. It is likely that one of the women from a group will walk with you from central Sapa for hours (in whichever direction you are headed). If along the route you enter a cafe, she will patiently wait outside. And once you resume your walking tour after lunch, follow you again. We have had a lady walk with us for over 5 kilometers. But they are seldom intrusive – they are close enough to be in sight (if and when you turn around) but far enough to not eavesdrop. Sometimes, you will buy something simply to get rid of the tail. Sometimes, their patience might just impress you before you give in. Hmong folks are intuitive sellers – they mark their target and follow them for hours. Mostly, they succeed.
In their Cat Cat village, where you visit them, there’s a marked difference. The shopkeepers displaying the souvenirs do not persist or follow you. In fact, you may walk past a string of outlets without even being spoken to. But, you are likely to stop by to admire their amazing creations.
Once in the valley, we crossed hanging bridges and witnessed Hmong traditional dance forms. The troupe performed on the hour in a community center, irrespective of the number of visitors. This is where we met Rinku Sharma – an Indian backpacker (featured). She was on the way out of the community hall to look for snacks. It was afternoon and we too haven’t had anything to eat since an early breakfast.
More than the dance or music, it was the adjacent eatery (header image) that had piqued our curiosity a tad bit more. Hmong folks seem to enjoy selling most of their food roasted / barbecued. In a rainy, foggy, misty weather, it was ideal. Be it cornsticks, vegetables, fish, chicken, bacon-wrapped mushrooms, frogs, or this.
Later that evening, the Slovenians put on their chef-hats as we borrowed the hotel’s kitchen to cook wine, a European traditional hot drink for the winters. They added peeled oranges and diced apples, spices like cinnamon and cloves, to two portions of red wine and one portion of water. We cooked the mix on a gas stove and then poured through a strainer into a rustic kettle to be kept warm by the wood-fired hearth. The mildly intoxicating, aromatic drink served hot in coffee mugs felt nice and warm in our hands.
Muong Hoa Valley
When the sun finally showed up in Sapa, we hired motorbikes to go to see the famous terraced rice paddies of Muong Hoa valley. Besides the Slovenians, riding along with us that day were this ‘Keep Calm and Keep Traveling’ Swiss duo of Erich and Patricia (featured).
Crossing parts of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range covered by a dense rainforest, six of us went till Nui Xe, an entry point to Hoang Lien National Park (home to Mt. Fansipan). The hilly roads, flanked with some steep-faced mountains offers you a nice flavor of what lies ahead. The popular trek route to Mt. Fansipan however, starts from Heaven’s gate and crisscrosses many communities en route. Few programs may even arrange sleep overs at a Hmong or Red Dzao family home. For us, it was easy hiking at Nui Xe before proceeding to ride along the highway to witness Viet Nam’s famous terraced slopes covered with rice paddies. These seem to come straight out of a landscape designer’s book – as if the people working the land know how to create visually stunning patterns while producing food for themselves.
On the way back to our guesthouse, a sunny Sapa offered clear views of few more places of interest. Such as this lake in the center of the town or the picturesque Năm Đức Tin church. Being a French retreat in an era gone by, the colonizers had built places of worship here. On the day, a Vietnamese couple was about to enter into a wedlock.
The Pinocchio Hotel we slept in was located on Muong Hoa Street in central Sapa, within walking distance of many restaurants and other places of interest. Being in a room on the third floor meant climbing a high-tread staircase and testing the lungs. Spacious rooms came with spacious verandas to gaze at the mist and to hang-dry the laundry (futile to do in such weather). Room rent included a basic breakfast, as with most backpacker’s properties. The dining lobby was on the first floor and sported a classic wood-fuelled fireplace. That Sapa gets cold ensured that hotel guests took to couches next to the fireplace after sun down.
Besides the exotic Hmong food, Sapa has a culinary culture that would delight any traveler and every palate. From an Indian Bombay Restaurant to the continental-style Gecko. Though Viet Nam is known for Phở, a popular savory noodle dish, and Bánh mì sandwiches, based on a variation of French baguette, Sapa lends its own twist to the menus. Food assumes prime significance, if you find yourself caught up in rainy weather. It ensures that you would never have a dull moment in Sapa.
Getting In and Out
The overnight train from Hanoi halts at Lao Cai railway station just past 05:00 am, while a similar overnight ride takes you back. Trains in Vietnam are comfortable but may not always be punctual. Your guesthouse can arrange the last mile bus from Lao Cai station to central Sapa and likewise, for the return.
Have you been to Sa Pa? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).
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