Published: June 27th 2011June 27th 2011
Surroundings of Cat Cat village
Now, finally I made it! Sapa, Sapa, Sapa, its since my first visit to Vietnam 1 year ago that this name echoes in my brain and more I was thinking about it, more people seemed to be speaking about the wonderful trips they have had in the rough northwest of the country.
I have to confess that besides the annoying redundance of the name in my ears I have not been particularly eager to visit Sapa, partly because I am born and have spent 20 years of my life in the Italian Alps and partly because the fact that everybody speaks about the place made it seem like an already sold-out destination. All these problems aside, the application process for my Indian Visa has forced me once more to return to the capital Hanoi (which is a 12 hour bus ride from the city of Hue where I currently stay) and the 4 days of waiting gave me the chance to finally get to the Vietnamese moutains.
First thing to say, Sapa itself is not as accessible as it is famous. The most common way of arrival is to take a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a north
Red Dzao women near Ta Phin minority village
Vietnamese city directly bordering China. This takes about 12 hours and when Vietnamese say 'hard seat' they actually mean HARD! A whole night on a parkbench inside a train is not a great pleasure. From Lao Cai there are several minibusses (which price varies notably according to your insistance and skin color) bringing you directly to the town in about 1 hour. Now, the first impression was like expected.. the landscape looked familiar with the difference of rice terraces replacing the wineyards of Italy and even people, believe it or not, dress the same way and behave the same way as in other mountain towns I have seen around the world. Cultural background aside, it seems that a certain altitude is able to influence the looks, behavios and even haircuts of the locals. My Vietnamese is still very poor but as everybody knows, the first words one learns are the dirty ones and I am pretty sure I heared them much more than in the center of Vietnam (which again is similar to my hometown...). About Sapa itselft there is not much to say, the town is small and bears heavy scars due to exagerated tourism development. On the southern
Laundry day in Sapa
end of town most places are targeted to Western tourists, which has given birth to a high number of Alfredo's Pizza, La Petit France and so forth. In the North the town is certainly more Vietnamese with plenty of options for local food and some suspicious looking karaoke bars for domestic tourists.
Well, first thing to do for me as soon as I reach a new destination is diving into the local food possibilities and Sapa gave me plenty of opportunities for it. I am not a very picky person when it comes to food and soon me and THH (my partner in crime) went to try a local horse-meat hotpot. Great stuff, I have to admit! The restaurants speciality 'horse gun' (a horse penis) was anyway a little bit too much also for our taste and we decided against this without much of an objection. My passion for food aside, I can just not get used to the thought to put a penis in my mouth (with no offense for those who do..).
Next day we got a motorbike for rent in order to explore the surroundings and here the beauty of the northwest really came to
Sapa's main (tourist) street
the surface. First we went all the way up to Tram Ton, Vietnam's highest moutain pass dramatically bordering Fansipan, the countries highest moutain. The landscape and the bright green of the rice terraces seemed to become more beautiful every meter we advanced and this kept on going for the rest of the day. Next, we went to visit a couple of minority villages (the area surrouding Sapa bears the most diverse ethnic mosaic of Vietnam), the first one being a Black H'mong and the second a Red Dzao village. While the villages itself were not that special in my eyes, the surrounding landscape was simply a dream of bright green and misty clouds surrounding towering moutain peaks.
After a couple of days we had to leave Sapa for going back to Hanoi and from there back to Hue... My initial disinterest and disappointment about the northwest have finally given place to a sublime surrender to the beauty of this area and I am sure that I will be back as soon as I have the possibility... without trying the horse gun!
There are more photos below