Sapa-Sheer magnificence

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Lao Cai » Sapa
November 19th 2009
Published: January 12th 2010
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4pm saw us back from Halong Bay and in Hanoi leaving just enough time for us time for a quick warm up, freshen up and repack before heading for the train station to catch the somewhat rickety yet comfy over night train to Sapa, way up north nearing the Chinese boarder.

Once we’d prized our way through the barrage of helmeted scooter taxi drivers congesting the station exit we hopped on a bus that would wind us all the way up the mountains to the quaint town of Sapa.

“Hello, Where you from?, What’s your name?, You buy from me?”…..welcome to Sapa.

As if being greeted by a barrage of scooter taxi hustlers wasn’t enough we had to deal with an onslaught of local Sapa ladies, all dressed in traditional attire, eagerly trying to peddle their wares and get us to part with our monopoly money they call Dong. We couldn’t have been more grateful to have a glass door between us, the freezing cold and the entourage of peddling ladies!

Admittedly we had one again been overly optimistic in our temperature prediction and we were having to quickly rethink what we were going to wear to
On Roat to Sapa from Lao CaiOn Roat to Sapa from Lao CaiOn Roat to Sapa from Lao Cai

The start of the stunning scenery
combat the freezing cold, all this while trying to thaw our feet under the hot bathroom tap. There was only one option, given that between us we only had Jeans, takkies and a thin long sleeve T-shirts and that was to quickly grab a bite to eat, get some hot tea in us and then brave the cold air in order to bargain with the market vendors on a good price for one of their 100’s of knock off North Face jackets.

After failing to negotiate a cheap enough price on a big waterproof, fleece lined jacket that would only be warn for three days we rather opted for a less expensive grudge purchase namely a thinner yet waterproof jacket to tide us over and with that we headed back to meet our guide, Key so that we could begin our two days of fun in the stunning land of the Vietnamese Ethnic Minorities.

Day one began with a motorbike trip so we gingerly hopped on the back of the bikes, donned a very attractive helmet and huddled behind our respective drivers as we began our rather wet journey through the Sapa villages. Our first meander took us to see the smaller wooden houses of the “Black People” in Cat Cat village. The H'Mong ethnic group more commonly known as the Black People who are of Chinese origin and get their name from the traditional black clothing they wear. Once out of Cat Cat village we headed up to see the Yao ethnic minority of Sin Chai, I think their dress is by far the most distinctive with their vibrantly big red headdresses. The people of Sin Chai have larger wooden, barn style houses one of which we stopped in to take a break from the cold and attempt to warm our extremities over a tiny fire in the centre of the massive, concrete floored barn house. I suspect we encountered more smoke inhalation than warmth but the brief escape from the drizzle and icy temperature was welcome. Incidentally, on entering at the village we stopping to take pictures and one of the Sin Chai tribal ladies who had clearly been trailing us since we left town stopped the motorbike alongside us and did the Sapa Rap “Hello, Where you from?, What’s your name?, You buy from me?”…..not wanting to buy anything yet not wanting to be rude
On Roat to Sapa from Lao CaiOn Roat to Sapa from Lao CaiOn Roat to Sapa from Lao Cai

The start of the stunning scenery
we responded with “Maybe later”, which to us implied no thank you. Needless to say the little lady opted to continue to trail us all the way through Sin Chai only to be disappointed when we refused to buy anything from her, I think her exact words were “you say maybe you buy from me, I follow you now you no buy! You bad” First close encounter with a disgruntled traditional goods porn, check .

Marginally warmer we headed on to Macha village. Macha village is buried deep in the valley bellow the Hoang Lien Mountains and is home to yet another Thai ethnic minority. The Hong Lien Mountains form a geographic boarder between Vietnam and China and at the moment there is a huge project on the go to create a road that will link the mountain water sauce with Sapa so that Northern Vietnam can generate hydro electricity rather than buy their electricity from China. If the truth be known they are presently doing a better job at eroding their mountain side than anything else. This aside, the valley is stunning and the village, coupled with being warmer than further up the mountain, is home to the lovely Yao people. We stopped in Macha for a good while to first and foremost warm up at the hearth before eating some lunch and then heading out to mingle among the locals. Kenny narrowly managed to win round two against yet another, persistent, local goods porn making the tally westerners 2 - locals 0.

Warm and super full we boarded the bikes once again, said goodbye to the Viet-Thai and wound our way back up the mountain headed for Sapa Town. The difference in temperature and general weather conditions between the top and the bottom of the mountain is astounding and we spent a good deal of our last few kilometers, before entering Sapa, in a blanket of fog where the visibility couldn’t have been more than 20 meters, it made for a very magical ride.

Frozen to the bone Kenny and I convinced Key that we needed some time out from the bike riding so that we could stop in at one of the quaint Sapa coffee shops for a quick hot chocolate, a guise to get out of the cold and warm ourselves at the nice big open fireplace. Key obliged but since Sapa was
All abourd to SapaAll abourd to SapaAll abourd to Sapa

It may not be the blue train but the green train sufficed.
only supposed to be a quick stop to collect a couple of dinner supplies Key was eager to get going so we slugged down our welcome hot drink got back on the bikes ready to wind our way back down the mountain via Lao Chai village before heading to Ta Van, Key’s village, where we would be spend the night. My driver and I narrowly escaped a very healthy mud bath on the way down to Lao Chai when we encountered a very very muddy patch of dirt road where only the very far right side of the road was traversable and about three bikes in a line, coming in both directions, were attempting to pass each other all at once. Somehow my stealthily driver managed to maintain his composure and kept us upright while passing the poor, nicely dressed girls on the bike next to us who were unluckily not quite as skilled and managed to tip over as we passed them resulting in some very very muddy high heel shoes and jeans and much laughter! I have to be honest I’m not so sure I would have been quite as humored had I ended up caked in orange clay mud.

After a long day on the bikes we were really glad to reach Keys family home and we were even glader to find a spot to park off in front of the tiny fire so that we could at least partially thaw our. It was a rather amusing evening sitting in Keys house, Kenny and I wearing just about every stitch of warm clothing we had and virtually sitting on top of the dog bowl of coals in an attempt to increase our body heat the whole time negotiating the dinginess of skipping our evenings washing routine on account of the less than tepid outdoor shower that was on offer to us.

A good deal of banter later and Keys cousin presented us with the most awesome spread of traditional Vietnamese food, enough to feed half the village I might add. The food was tremendous and let me tell you Water Buffalo is a scrumptious treat! Kenny and I were absolutely stuffed by the time we had finished but even our best attempt failed to make a dent in the mound of food and when the rice wine came out our eyes nearly popped out but
The Global HotelThe Global HotelThe Global Hotel

The global Hotels front door proved to be a great vendor proof shield
you just can’t be rude so we managed to slug down some of the potent home brew before disappointing Key when we turned down the second shot of the potent concoction. In an attempt to win back favour with Key we spent the evening round the coals learning about him, his family and life in Vietnam all while taking in the weather report that told us to expect an evening temperature of 2,8 °C?? that night and a high of 8°C the following morning, madness specially when you had your bikini packed! In anticipation of the following days activity and after the awesome yet exhausting and freezing day we’d just had Kenny and I bade our hosts good night proved that you can roll yourself upstairs and proceeded to make ourselves a bed out of a mound of blankets to prevent exposure cause let me tell you my summer sleeping shorts and strappy sleep shirt were not exactly ideal.

Despite the cold the three blankets that we each commandeered kept us very toasty and we had a brilliant night’s sleep, so good in fact that even the annoying rooster crow at 3am and 4am and again at 6am only
The Global HotelThe Global HotelThe Global Hotel

Even the concierge have to squeeze their way through the barrage.
stirred me momentarily. You know you don’t want to get out of bed though when you yawn and a little cloud of condensation escapes from your mouth while you are still under the blankets.

Sadly lounging in bed wasn’t an option so we donned our only set of warm clothes yet again sat down for an awesome breakfast of pancakes with banana before departing for our half day treck. Our motorbike trip the previous day had been amazing and had allowing us to see four very awesome villages scattered across the Sapa landscape all blanketed in a mythical mist, make the terraced rice paddy contours look like something out of the lord of the rings. I do think riding motorbikes was the colder way to get around we were rather excited to be doing the rest of our trip on foot rather than trying to avoid freezing wings.

Well carbo-loaded from breakfast we set out, making a quick stop over at Key’s friend’s home where we chatted and had yet another Vietnamese cultural lesson before being offered some newly distilled rice wine, still hot I might add. Kenny was brave enough to finish her 10am morning rice wine
Yao ladiesYao ladiesYao ladies

ready to pounce on you with your goods.
cap I, on the other hand, took a tiny sip and decided that rocket fuel at that time of the morning was less than appealing!

Rocket fuel in our ignitions and it was once again time to set out in the fine drizzle to go and check out the river and waterfall before beginning our super fun muddy adventure via lau Chai, once more and then through the bamboo forest all along the rice paddies. The treking was very slippery going and our entourage of 6, purple gumboot clad ladies from the Black tribe was very welcome cause there is no way the Jo’burg dollys in their jeans and Adidas running shoes were going to traverse that mud slide alone. At one point, while navigating the slippery clay path, I noticed what I thought looked like a nice rock to leverage my foot on, as I put my foot down the group erupted in hysterics when Key exclaimed “Water buffalo Chocolate”, my previously white Adidas running shoe can now check close encounter with a water buffalo poo off its list.

Our trek was so amazing I just had the best time ever and I was almost sad that
Ready to RollReady to RollReady to Roll

Kenny and I donned in all our warm kit and our newly purchased North Face....oh ya and a Sapa scarf just for good measure
we hadn’t signed on for an extra day of treking cause the Sapa landscape is some of the most beautiful that I have seen and the whole muddy trek was heaps and heaps of fun that I was still rearing to go when we rounded the last muddy bend to reenter Ta Van village marking the end of the muddy fun. In payment for their help we spent some time haggling with our lovely escorts for a couple of pretty traditional trinkets before getting back onto the motor bikes so that we could head back into Sapa for an afternoon in town.

Two smoky, muddy and freezing drowned travelers AKA Kenny and I entered the doors of the hotel where we were greater with brief yet very warm indoor shower and a hearty Vietnamese lunch after which we headed out with our new acquaintance Carey to see if the vendors at the Sapa market were in the mood to let us bargain for a couple more traditional charms before settling in at the coffee shop, drink hot chocolate and catch up with three more of our travel buddies we’d met along the way. Like all good things there must
Ready to RollReady to RollReady to Roll

Ken sporting the trendy helmet provided to her by Key
be an end so when 5:30pm rolled round we were less than thrilled at the prospect of having to enter the cold again to make the arduous hairy, winding Journey, in the dark, back to Lao Cai to board the overnight train back to Hanoi.

I think I am always a little verbose in my descriptions but Sapa was truly amazing and in fact the cold and the mucky weather added to the charm of the place. I will most definitely head back to Sapa again, particularly if it means a couple more days of sludgy treking amid the picturesque rice paddies.

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