31/03/2013 - 04/04/2013 20 °C
From sea to mountains, it was a long day of travelling from Ha Long Bay to Ha Noi by bus and then sleeper train into the heart of northern Vietnam. I was heading for the mountain town of Sapa, a place I had not originally intended to visit but after arriving in the north of Vietnam earlier than expected I had some days to 'use up' before my flight to Hong Kong.
It didn't start too well as upon arrival at the train station I found myself in the standard soft sleeper cabin. This was after the person at the travel agent showed me pictures of the VIP carriages for just 5 dollars more per ticket. This was extremely frustrating as my money is practically zero as I approach the end of my trip and spending any extra dollars becomes a very considered purchase. Also the constant lies and deception from locals looking to scam or overcharge tourists is putting me on the verge of emulating Michael Douglas in Falling Down i.e. psychotic rampage at a society's flaws.
I arrived in a very misty Sapa at about 5am. From the glimpses of tree covered mountain-sides through the window of the minibus on the final leg of my trip here I could tell this is a very special place. Any remaining frustration from the train melted away instantly. In nearly all my blog entries I feel compelled to give a balanced view of a place a temper the good points with the bad. For Sapa that won't be the case as this entry is going to be an absolute love-fest!
Arriving in the town visibility was about 20m. I had some breakfast and then went back to bed for a little sleep with the hope that the weather would clear. When I got up at midday the mist was just as thick but the town no less stunning (what I could see of it anyway). Sapa is well known for it's lingering bouts of mist and visitors wish for them as well as clearer whether. Walking through the town I was lucky to bump into some of the guys I met in Ha Long Bay and we spent the remainder of the day wandering the narrow streets and markets. The following day I joined in with their guided trek of the nearby hillsides.
In Sapa, a great many women from local villages work in the tourism trade either selling handicrafts or their services as a trek guide. All wear the traditional tribal clothing - as seen in the photo above - and whether this is just for show or not, it is great to see the preservation of local cultures. Due to the fact they spend all day talking to tourists the tribeswomen speak amazing Engish, ironically much better than the young city-living generation found in Saigon and Ha Noi. I read that a few years ago they realised women were much better at selling to tourists than their slightly intimidating male counter-parts, which explains their dominance in the Sapa tourist trade. Interestingly, I wonder if this strange arrangement puts women as the more dominant gender in this society as they have the potential to earn more money and receive a better education.
My third day in Sapa was truely amazing as the mist departed and spectacular views were ever-present. It's hard to show just how beautiful it is as the photos never do it justice. Dry roads and good visibility gave me the last opportunity to take part in one of my favourite local past-times, renting a motorbike. With the right conditions it is definitely the best place I've found the drive. Good quality tarmac, little traffic and twisting roads on the edge of mountains....perfect!
Getting out on the bike I managed to visit a number of waterfalls, viewpoints and a village. It's also the worst place to drive as every 50m I had to stop just to take more photos!
My fourth day in Sapa was spent doing a solo trek down to the nearest village. As well as the stunning views, waterfalls and piglets I saw a traditional dance and music show. This included a bizarre performance by a guy playing an L-shaped flute who at the same time rolled around the floor somehow managing not to crush his instrument. It finished with only his head and shoulder in contact with the ground and feet straight up in the air.
Most people spend a few days in Sapa but I had the luxury of 5 days/4 nights. This required a chilled out approach that I was more than happy to enjoy. I walked the streets and spent a while sat in a cafe or park, soaking up the atmosphere.
Before leaving town to catch my train I had time to visit a local school for a spot of English language lessons. Volunteering in Cambodia had wetted my appetite for teaching English and it was great to see what things are the same or different here in Sapa. This was a much smaller school but served the same purpose in the local community - to provide further schooling to children who would otherwise go without. A group of about a dozen performed a song they were rehearsing for an upcoming public performance in town. It was in English and had a solo rap performance by one girl!
While there is a great deal of tourism in Sapa it was the one place where I felt the correct balance had been struck. Local culture was being preserved and tourist money was helping the local people. Visitors are met with warm, smiling faces and from talking to local people it seemed very genuine.
I had a fantastic time in Sapa. The place was great, the people were friendly and I had many great experiences in my 5 days. Looking back I have to say that this is my favourite place in Vietnam, narrowly beating Hoi An. And to think I nearly didn't bother going!