Such a Sapa


Waking up at 6:00am is bad enough on its own. I always feel a little disoriented. But waking up at 6am on the Vietnam-China border in a city completely enveloped in fog is ten times worse.

Especially when you came there for the view!

Sapa is known for its beautiful mountains, which are covered with terraced rice fields. The fields are tended by the local Hmong population. They look slightly different from ethnic Vietnamese, and wear traditional costumes (which I absolutely love—they mix multiple colorful patterns, like plaids and flowers, and the overall effect is gorgeous).

I knew that the drive to Sapa from the station in Lao Cai would not be that pleasant when the driver started handing out the vomit bags. I never get car sick, but it was not much fun listening to the man behind me fill up his bag (and probably several others) throughout the long, winding drive up into the mountains. Especially since all I could do to distract myself was stare out the window at the pea soup.

After a considerable drive (an hour?), we arrived in Sapa. Because it’s so touristy, and on a mountain, it reminded me a bit of small town Austria or Switzerland—lots of tall, narrow hotels and restaurants. Many shops sold North Face jackets and pants, which they seem obsessed with in Vietnam.

When we arrived at our hotel the power was out. I told everyone that they should watch out—a hotel with no power at a remote mountain resort is a by-the-numbers Agatha Christie.

Our group was mostly made up of young Australians, as well as a Vietnamese couple (the woman, Ang, works in tourism in Hanoi and wanted to see the tour she keeps sending people to take) and a Korean guy my age, Peter, who is switching careers and as such is doing a legal internship in Hanoi.

Our guide met us in the hotel lobby, and urged everyone who wasn’t wearing shoes with treads to rent some boots from the business next door, which was offering rubber boots for $1 a day. They didn’t look terribly comfortable to me, but the Hmong all wear them, so they must be. He then told us that we should not take photos of Hmong people without their permission (which would probably involve giving them $1), and said we should not ask the price of anything they were selling unless we were serious about buying it. He further explained that the men worked in the morning, freeing up the women to help with tourism, then the women worked in the afternoon while the men rested. He didn’t say when the women got to rest.

We made our way to a square at the center of the town, where we were joined by a large group of Hmong women wearing their beautiful embroidered skirts, plaid head scarves, and rubber boots. (I would have taken photos, but $1 a photo seemed pretty steep!) Our guide explained that they would be joining us for the hike. We looked at each other nervously—we had a feeling they would be expecting us to spend a lot of money.

Our first stop was at a scenic overlook. At least I think it was, because we still couldn’t see anything but gray. It seemed to be a private home where the family made money by charging trekkers for using the bathroom. It was worth the price of admission, since two of the tiles were printed with X-rated images of naked women. (Ok, one of them may only have been rated R since she was holding some fruit in strategic places.) One of the Penthouse tiles was directly in front of the toilet; the other beside the mirror—presumably so you never had to entertain yourself!

At the (very) scenic overlook

At the (very) scenic overlook

As we wound our way down the mountain, the Hmong women chatted with us a bit. I told everyone my age and they told me theirs. (Unlike most Vietnamese, they looked much older than they were.) One was carrying a baby on her back, and I tried my darnedest to get the baby to smile without much success.

Eventually we spotted some green through the fog, and I crouched down to take a picture of the sliver of rice paddies that I could see. I needn’t have bothered; soon we were below the fog, and had sweeping vistas of breathtaking mountain fields, complete with water buffalo (how on earth do they get up there?!)

The mountain roads we were walking down were very narrow. The Hmong women had no problem at all walking briskly on the side of a cliff, but the rest of us preferred to stay away from the edge. But large trucks frequently surprised us, sending most of to hug the mountainside. I frequently walked in a foot-wide drainage ditch to save myself from having to pay attention.

Eventually we left the road and started walking down a muddy path in the trees. The Hmong woman nearest me took it upon herself to hold my hand the whole way so I wouldn’t fall. It was slightly embarrassing when I didn’t the help—but when I did I was very grateful! (Her hands were very rough and stained blue—I’m not sure why.)

Then we had to walk across a very tall bridge over a deep gorge—a bridge with no railings. I would not describe myself as afraid of heights—not compared to other people I know—but I did gulp slightly when I saw it. Fortunately, it proved to be wide enough (approximately eight feet if memory serves) that I didn’t feel in danger at all, and since it was concrete, I felt much safer on it than on my lower bamboo bridges I’ve crossed on this trip.

After that we arrived at the outskirts of the Hmong women’s village. I hope it doesn’t sound disrespectful if I say it was adorable. It was the closest thing I have ever seen to the Shire. We crossed a wobbly bamboo bridge over a river (later I saw water buffalo casually crossing the same bridge, apparently of their own accord). The bottoms of several of the terraces were level with us, and we saw ducks swimming in the flooded parts. The village was full of baby animals—chicks, piglets, puppies. Cute Overload should establish their headquarters there. Yes, the ground was a bit muddy and nobody seemed rich, but the vibe was a very happy one.

We ate lunch, and were indeed bombarded by requests to buy anything and everything. I knew that I was going to the Sunday market the next day, though, so I decided to wait.

Most of the Australians were staying in the village for home stays (which, once again, I hadn’t known were an option), so only Peter, Ang, her husband, and I were driven back to the hotel.

After long naps Peter and I met up again for dinner, which was included in the price of our trip—and therefore completely forgettable. Afterwards we decided to brave the fog to see a bit more of the town.

The town turned out to be much larger than either of us had expected—I might even call it a city. We went back to the central square, where our guide had told us a “love market” happened on Saturday nights (teenagers from the villages came to meet that special someone). Alas, we saw no love or even any market. (We did, however, go into a number of stores in search of Lunar New Year gifts for Peter’s parents. It’s the gift-giving holiday in Korea, and he wanted to get them something nice. He was looking for pants for his mother, whom he described as “very tall.” I asked if she were as tall as me (5’5”) but of course she wasn’t.

We ended up going for drinks in a bar full of westerners smoking hookahs and playing pool. We had fun guessing who was Australian and who was American. (Depressingly, Peter is much better at this game than I am.)

When we left the fog had somehow become even thicker—visibility was maybe 20 feet in front of us. And we were unsure how to find our way back to our hotel, so we ended up wandering up and down deserted streets. All the stores were closed, but many families lived in their stores, so Peter knocked on the door of a bakery where we could see a family watching TV and asked them where we could find our hotel.

Eventually we made it back—only to find that the front door was padlocked shut! At 11:00pm! After we rang the bell a few times with no result, Peter found a way in through the shop next door.

Our rooms were off the roof, where they was a little garden, and we ended up standing out there for a while, listening to water running in what we could only assume was a very big (and yet invisible to us) river. He said it was the first time he had heard silence since he came to Vietnam a month before.

And, of course, at that very moment someone honked their horn.

The next morning I woke up at 7:30am, eagerly anticipating a hot shower before my 9am tour. But almost as soon as I was out of bed I got a call from the front desk informing me that my tour actually left at 7:30! I rushed downstairs and hopped in a minibus headed for the Sunday market—3 hours away. My legs were killing me after the hiking the day before and being squished into the van didn’t help matters much, but at least the scenery (once we were below the fog) was nice.

My friend on the trip, since Peter had stayed behind to go on another hike, was a retired Australian named Mark whom I liked very much–while very much hoping that the Vietnamese wife whom he often referred to wasn’t my age. As we drove Mark and I pointed out “Chinese mountains” to each other (curved mountains that looked straight out of Chinese paintings, totally different from anything you’d find in Australia or the United States.)

The market turned out to be very, very large, with hundreds of stalls selling food and crafts, as well as a section selling farm animals. (I gave the water buffalo a wide berth after my experience in Hue!) Most of the sellers, as well as the patrons, were Hmong, which was nice because it wasn’t as touristy as I had feared. And since it was so crowded, there wasn’t that much pressure to buy.

After lunch we went to a different Hmong village—and I have to say, I wish we hadn’t. It was very poor and sad feeling. We went into a house and it was freezing cold and extremely spare, with a kitchen with a fire, a virtually empty living room with a dirt floor, and low-ceilinged bedrooms below a storage space for their rice. Ang gave some candy to the barefoot toddler who lived there; I wished I had something to give him. (Heat? Electricity? Options?)

Then we drove back to Lao Cai, where we had our pictures taken across the river from China, with the red flag waving in the background. I knew that I was about to be left at the train station five hours early(!), so I considered crossing into China for a  few hours, but I was afraid that something might go wrong and I might not make it back in time, so I decided to sit in a restaurant and work on my blog. A French couple who had been on the market trip, Jean-Baptiste and Yeter, sat down beside me, and we chatted a bit until Peter and the Aussies showed up a couple of hours later and I went out to say hello to them.


The Vietnamese couple reappeared just in time to get on the train, but, alas, I was not in their car this time. This time it was me and three Vietnamese men I had never seen before, who proceeded to ignore me (which was probably just as well).

In the morning a car was waiting to take me back to my hostel, and back to big city life.