Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sapa: A cool hill station

Eating Vietnamese food every day has been fun—two weeks and I’m not tired of it yet! The meals we’ve had at a couple of fairly upscale restaurants have been very good—delicate flavors, interesting combinations. Our lunches and dinners on the road have been mixed—good flavors, nice vegetables, tough meat. I prefer the vegetables, especially after walking through the markets and seeing the meat laid out on slabs for sale. I don't look too closely at the kitchens in restaurants and cafes—they don’t inspire confidence. 

Hieu has made sure that we know about the local specialties and try them if we want to--bamboo rice (sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked inside bamboo), taro stuffed with ground meat, choko (a green, melon-like vegetable that I'm sure I'm spelling wrong), crickets (no explanation needed). We passed on the grilled birds and the mulberry caterpillars.

Mulberry catepillars. That would be a no.

The drink of choice has been bottled water or Hanoi Beer (Bia Hanoi), a serviceable lager that is really cheap (about 75 cents a bottle in restaurants). We tried a Vietnamese wine, Vang Dalat, one night, but once was more than enough. Alcoholic grape juice! At a couple of places we’ve been served an aperitif of strong rice wine that you’re supposed to down in one gulp; also a plum wine made of plums soaked in rice wine. Too much of that would be a bad idea. Milk is generally sweet condensed milk (I stopped having that in my coffee after day 1). 

We had another little food adventure just before we arrived in Sapa, a former French hill station that clings to the side of a steep mountain, with terraced fields arrayed below and higher mountains in the distance. On top of the pass, before descended into the town, we stopped at a roadside stand where a young woman was grilling eggs in their shells over an open fire. She had about 10 eggs on the grill and kept turning them, one by one, to make sure they were thoroughly cooked. Also ready for grilling was a small stack of small birds, cleaned and splayed open. We took seats on the short-legged plastic stools (like squatting, but with a seat), passed on the birds, and had an egg each (Hieu had three). Grilled eggs! We did as most Vietnamese do when they eat at informal restaurants—dropped the peeled eggshells on the ground beside us.

Grilled eggs (and birds if you want them)

At the pass we also encountered our first rain in Vietnam, which continued for the rest of the day. From our very comfortable room at the Boutique Sapa Hotel we could see only hints of the cultivated rice and vegetable terraces nestled below on the mountain side.

But the rain didn’t change our plans. After lunch at the excellent Little Sapa Restaurant we headed out to hike up the hill above the town. Umbrellas from a vendor protected us somewhat—first time I’ve hiked with an umbrella! From the viewpoint at the top of the hill we saw the town below in the mist but not much else.

Back in the town center we were immediately aware of the multitude of women from different ethnic groups who were walking the streets with one thing in mind: selling their mostly handmade goods to anyone who would buy them. And of course "anyone" meant the many tourists who flock to Sapa, one of the must-see destinations on anyone’s trip to northern Vietnam. Tourists who stepped into the main street from their hotels or a restaurant were suddenly surrounded by girls and women in native dress who pursued them relentlessly—“You buy from me?” … “I have four children at home” … “I walked two hours from my village to get here.”Although many of the ethnic women spoke rudimentary English—enough to enable them to carry out their commerce--they didn’t seem to understand “No thanks.” For some, when it finally became apparent that we really weren’t going to buy anything, their parting words were “You’re mean.”

Waiting to swarm a tourist
Embroidering more goods to sell

I was uncomfortable with some of the ways in which the onslaught of tourism has changed life in Sapa. Yes, the income from handicraft sales has benefited local families and the local economy. On the other hand, women have become almost beggar-like in attempting the sell their wares. It’s the conundrum of tourism – you want to see someplace interesting and authentic, but you change that place in the process, and often not for the better. Not sure if a good balance between the two can be achieved at this point.

That said, Sapa is still very attractive place to visit. The restaurants are good and varied (we especially liked Little Sapa, Viet Emotion, and our hotel’s restaurant, the Bella Vista). There are plenty of good-looking accommodations that so far haven’t overwhelmed the town. Trekking to nearby villages is one of the highlights of the area. And if you get tired of the tourist throngs, you can walk a couple of streets up the hill and find the standard shopping streets that support the people who actually live in Sapa.

During our 2½ days in the area we took a steep walk down to Cat Cat, a small Hmong village just a few kilometers below Sapa, with houses and cultivated fields tumbling down the hill. Though there are many small Hmong shops along the walk, there’s fortunately no hard selling like there is in Sapa. At the bottom of the trail is a beautiful wide waterfall. We continued on the trail on the other side of the waterfall and walked part way back up the hill, but eventually we were met by our driver who gave us a ride back to Sapa. We had been scheduled to take a longer trek in a different area farther from Sapa, but Mr. Driver’s car had died overnight and he couldn’t get it started for a while, which nixed that option. Disappointing, because we ended up with lots of time back in Sapa that day that could have been used for more interesting pursuits. 

Oh well—it meant I had time for a massage, which was wonderful (head, feet, and everything in between) and inexpensive ($23 for 100 minutes). There are plenty of massage places in Sapa, but I had mine at our hotel. The next morning I realized that one of the doormen had given me the massage. Double duty!

Our final morning in Sapa saw a complete change in the weather – it was brilliant sunshine, and everything, from the fields to the streets to the people in traditional dress, looked better than they had in the rain.

The morning was supposed to be dedicated to shopping, but we had already prowled the streets several times and picked up a few handmade items in the market, so we were ready to leave when Hieu came to pick us up. We had one more walking opportunity: we drove (in a different car since Mr. Driver had left the day before to return to Hanoi) several miles down the mountain and from there did a beautiful though short walk through a Red Dao village and valley. In retrospect we should have made it clear to our travel agent and guide that we wanted and expected to do some more serious trekking while we were in Sapa. What we saw was beautiful, but we felt like we had missed an opportunity to experience something even more fulfilling.

I finally found people shorter than I am

The adventure in the Red Dao village (Ta Phin) was provided by the beautiful women, dressed in their traditional clothing with its red touches and red head coverings, who accompanied us on our walk. Of course they were trying to sell us their embroidered cloth and purses, but they waited til the end of the walk to do their sales pitch. Meantime, they smiled and laughed, and the two women who spoke some surprisingly good English (learned from tourists) filled us in on their way of life. It was actually a nice experience. And naturally we bought a couple of things!

A Red Dao woman near Ta Phin village

Very sweet, 30 years old, speaks English!
We still had to get down the mountain to catch the night train in Lao Cai, in the valley some 40 km away from Sapa, and the new driver took us on a wild ride down, down, down, tires squealing as he took the many hairpin curves too fast. He was the antithesis of slow and undergeared Mr. Driver. Apparently he had to get back to Sapa by 5:00 for another engagement and didn’t want to be late. Hieu finally asked him to slow down, which he did, just a little bit. The views of layers of rice terraces were really stunning, but it was useless trying to take pictures, which would have been just a blur.

Lao Cai was just like most of the other large towns and cities we’ve been in in Vietnam, but we did discover a big local market that had more great produce, household goods, and cheap clothing. After walking through the market we hung out at Le Bordeaux, a restaurant across from the train station, and waited for our train time. We had a 4-berth compartment all to ourselves in a Fanxipan Express car—a nice way to make the reputedly grueling 9-hour overnight ride more palatable. It was dark outside when we boarded so we crawled into the lower berths, locked the door, and tried to sleep. At about 4 a.m. the porter walked through the train car knocking on people’s doors—it was time to get up and get ready for our arrival in Hanoi a half-hour or so later. It wasn’t a great ride, but it was tolerable and even kind of fun.
In our train compartment

A car Hieu had arranged picked us up at the Hanoi station and took us back to the Imperial Hotel for what was supposed to be a 3-hour rest before the next part of our journey began, a trip to Halong Bay. No room had been reserved for us, though, so we just hung out in the lobby and enjoyed a free breakfast when the dining room opened a little later. We also took a nice walk around nearby Turtle Lake, where hundreds of local citizens were walking and exercising by the lake in the cool morning temperatures. Lovely!

We had said good-bye to Hieu when we arrived at the hotel. He was a good guide, really nice, friendly, happy, resourceful, and accommodating. Our only complaint was related to the kind of lackadaisical approach he had to our time in Sapa. Since we rarely do guided trips (the only other one was Walk Japan, our 12-day walking trip on the Nakasendo Highway in Japan, which was fantastic), we weren't used to proactively making our needs known. Normally we do a lot of research on places we're going to be traveling to in order to plan our route and must-dos, but here we have basically just put ourselves in the hands of Tonkin Travel and their guides. It definitely made the logistics of negotiating northern Vietnam easy! A little more work on our part would have allowed us to tailor an even better trip. 

Next: Halong Bay

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