Frozen & Festive in Sapa

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December 15th 2011
Published: December 15th 2011
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Oh the regret! As Amy indicated in our previous post, we had a rather amusing bus journey from Bac Ha to Lao Cai, and it just so happened that I slept through the majority of it! I’m still not quite sure how, since I spent the better part of three hours with my knees propping up my chin, but doze off I did, only to wake up to Ste bemusedly surveying the bus and Amy huddled in her corner, covering her face for reasons I only discovered later. It was only when we emerged from the bus that I was told of what had been happening, with some (almost all) of the locals vomiting into bags along our route and then tossing them out of the window! As revolting as that sounds (and smelled), local buses are possibly my favourite way of travelling around. Sure trains are more comfortable, allowing you to stretch your limbs until your body is content – and if I never see another sleeper bus again, it will be much too soon! But you cannot replicate the experience you get on the local bus, nothing comes close. From women bounding on our bus in Laos at every available opportunity to sell chicken, produce and God knows what else, to twenty or so tribal H’Mong women diving for cover at the sight of a local police vehicle for fear of being thrown off the bus, since it was so obviously over-crowded. The seeming monotony of a simple bus journey can unravel before your eye, changing into a vibrant social gathering – It’s annoying then that I missed this one!

From Lao Cai, our connecting bus to Sapa was a little lighter on the ‘local drama’ – granted I had my knees pressed into my chin again, but this particular journey sluggishly ambled up the winding road, clinging to mountainsides as we made for our destination, with locals on this occasion ostensibly more concerned with the impressive views passing by the window.

Arriving into Sapa, we were deposited at the northern tip of the town, walking somewhat aimlessly in the direction which we thought most likely to be where the guesthouses would be situated when we stumbled across ‘Sa,’ a female member of the Black H’Mong tribe. She graciously helped us find the hotel we were looking for, in addition to giving us some handy advice about
Misty SapaMisty SapaMisty Sapa

The view from our balcony!
the area along the way. It was pleasant company for us, a break from what we had experienced for the majority of our stay in Vietnam, where ‘the sale’ is everything. Delightfully, Sa appeared to be interested in having an actual conversation and indeed, for the duration of our stay in Sapa, we would happen across each other (Sapa is a very small town) and stop for a little chat, before going about our days, with Sa and some of the other H’Mong women taking a shine to Amy, in particular questions about marriage! Either Sa knew we weren’t interested in a guided tour or she is ahead of the sales curve, revolutionising ‘the sale’ into a more passive approach! Either way, her pleasant smile and apparent lack of motive where indeed a refreshing change.

It’s not that we weren’t interested in a guided tour as such – I would have loved nothing better than a genuinely informative and ‘non-tourist’ trek to a remote tribal village. However, after our experience of this in Chiang Mai, where the guides were terrible and we felt more like intruders in villages which were sick of the sight of group tours, it left a bitter taste in the mouth. Instead, like Halong Bay, we opted to do things for ourselves, preferring to respectfully walk by whatever village we came across with minimum fuss – if some of the villagers wanted to talk, then great and if not, then the picturesque views of would more than make up for any lack of interaction.

Luckily, our first few days in Sapa evidently coincided with some of the best weather the town had experienced recently. Indeed, on a crisp but sunny afternoon, we checked into our hotel and chose a room on the top floor, thus affording us some breathtaking views. Whilst viewing the room, from the balcony we could see in the afternoon sunshine silhouetted mountain peaks soaring high above low-lying clouds. Needless to say, we were sold on the room. The first day, Amy felt a little unwell, so decided to catch up on some writing, while Ste and I headed off into the hills. After a good few hours walking, dodging buffalo and a tutorial on how to properly use a compass (I’d say I’m now almost an expert!), we had completed a loop around the east side of Sapa, passing by the tribal villages and taking in some splendid views along the way.

That evening, and each subsequent evening, was spent in front of a burning fire in what we felt was the best restaurant in Sapa, ‘Buffalo Bell.’ During our stay here, we virtually became locals in this establishment, and while we tried other places, the food and mood at this restaurant was perfect to relax the evenings away; and a nice bowl of pumpkin soup doesn’t hurt either! After dinner, we finished the night in ‘Colour Bar,’ a clay establishment towards the west side of town, where you’ll generally find perhaps one or two other people, a friendly owner, games aplenty and some great country music to set the atmosphere – “Rawhide” even earned a spin at one point!

On our second morning in Sapa, we awoke to views that we may never better anywhere on our travels. Rarely does the mist leave the streets of Sapa, especially at this time of year, but on this particular morning, the sky was a perfect clear blue and we were afforded unobstructed panoramic views of Sapa’s western mountain range, including the peak of Vietnam’s biggest mountain Fansipan, which towers a lofty 3143m above sea level. With child-like excitement, we hurriedly stuffed our gear into our backpacks and headed for breakfast (the ‘Shaksoka’ – eggs, onion and tomatoes served on a sizzling hot plate with bread, at Viet Emotion is awesome), with the hopes of hitting one of the trails in good time to make the most of the weather.

After inhaling our breakfasts, we headed for Cat Cat, one of the touristy tribal villages, complete with waterfall and market stalls about 15 minutes walk from Sapa. From here however, we continued north knifing our way through a roaming valley, walled on either side by mountains, employing the Muong Hoa River as our guide. Along the way, we passed through a number of tribal villages – with some of the people gracious enough to allow for a picture, some simply acknowledged our presence with a simple nod of the head. Of course there was an elderly woman who had perhaps been at some of the local rice wine, who cackled her way towards us, hysterically laughing at the foreigners!

After a few hours of walking and climbing through a forested trail, we finally came upon the “Love waterfall,” deep into the valley and importantly, not where it is indicated on the hiking map of Sapa! In fact, it was about 3km away from where it’s indicated on the map, as we simply happened across it rather than sought it out. We sat lazily in the sun at this tiered waterfall and ate some lunch, marvelling at the views around us.

As the afternoon wore on and the sun descended, we made for Sapa a little weary, but again, the scenery was more than enough to aid our journey. Our return home took us right through the centre of Sapa’s famous tiered rice fields, where we were perused by buffalo and pig alike, cautiously watching us as we passed. Perhaps some of those pigs are destined for the Bac Ha market...God help them!

In the following days I had hoped to rent a motorbike and head up to the Tram Ton Pass, a supposedly epic mountain road north of Sapa! Sadly however, the weather was no longer as kind to us as it was in the early part of our stay and the views would have been marginal at best. Still, grateful for the fine weather we did receive, our final days in Sapa were spent wandering from one cafe to the next, reading and writing and playing games and just generally enjoying each other’s company. The restaurants were putting up their Christmas decorations as the festive period descended on this small town – a timely reminder for Amy and I since it’s far too easy to lose track of time when you are travelling, particularly in countries where it’s so hot that winter is barely discernable. Sipping our hot drinks, by the fire with Christmas trees all around, it was a perfect way to say goodbye to Sapa...

After stepping off the night train at an ungodly hour back in Hanoi, bleary eyed, we found the first available hotel with vacant rooms and caught up on some much needed sleep. It was almost time to say goodbye to Ste and Vietnam as a whole, so after regaining some semblance of energy, we walked around the beautiful chaos that is Hanoi.

Hanoi is unlike any city I have ever experienced. To describe it would give the impression of exactly the kind of place I go out of my way to avoid...hectic, loud, too many people...etc. But for Hanoi, this city has blended these elements together perfectly forming such an interesting and vibrant city, to the point that even something as simple as crossing the road morphs into adventure, as hundreds of mopeds scream past inches away! There’s nothing quite like stepping out onto a Hanoi road with hope as your only companion!

On our final night with Ste, we decided to take him to see a traditional water puppet show followed by a final dinner together. It’s once again been fun having him travel with us, and indeed this isn’t goodbye since he will be joining us again in the New Year in Nepal, along with my Dad, so that’s certainly something to look forward to! For now though, we just want to say a big thank you to Ste and wish you a safe journey home...

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16th December 2011
Hysterical H'Mong!

Love it!!!!

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