Editor’s Note: This is the second installment focusing of Cheryn’s travels in Vietnam. Be sure to read Cheryn’s other blog post about Hanoi’s old quarter.
Sapa field, Vietnam
We arrived at the train station in the city of Lao Cai and boarded a bus to Sapa. An hour later, the landscape changed from flat to mountainous and the views became dramatic, with terraced rice paddies trickling water from one to another and colorful hill tribe people on the side of the road, carrying baskets of leaves on their backs or selling veggies and fruit from roadside stalls.
Sapa, located in the western highlands of North Vietnam, was originally built by the French in 1922 as a hill station to escape the heat of Vietnam climes. Today, it sees a steady stream of tourists who come for its scenic landscape and to visit with the Black Hmong and Zao minority groups that live here. The journey to Sapa is an overnight train ride from Hanoi, approximately 10 hours if there aren’t mud slides clogging the tracks (which turned our train trip into a 20-hour voyage).
We arrived much later than expected and the mist and fog of the mountains had already settled over the town. We were reminded of Darjeeling in India, another hill station town nestled in the mountains and within the embrace of clouds. We took a cheap room, US$4 a night, one without views. We figured we’d be out in the scenery, not inside our hotel looking at it. And besides, with the fog, there were no views anyway. Everything looked as if it had a piece of white tissue paper laid over it.
We were in Sapa to trek and stay overnight in a village. There are many tour operators in Hanoi offering 2-3 day treks with homestays, but we’d left Hanoi intent on doing the trek on our own. However, once in Sapa, we signed up with a group at our hotel. Trekking with a local guide would be much better than going it alone. Plus there are permits to be had, inclement weather, and zillions of trails.
The trek takes us up and down steep rocky trails, over streams and rivers, through mud and fields and rice paddies. Children ride on the backs of water buffalo; clouds of dragon flies linger languidly in the sky; small red bridges like mini “Golden Gates” hang over rushing rivers; women’s hands stained blue from dye proffer local handicrafts; water falls stream over mountainsides; giant bamboo trees rustle in the breeze; white, blue, and gray fills the sky; terrace fields resemble topo maps, the lines of elevation in an architectural model, layered cake; soundless lightening fills the night sky.
It was the wet season in Sapa, with heavy rains in the forecast for our two days. When it rained, the water dumped down, swelling rivers and making dirt trails slick mud obstacles. We passed through several villages along the hike and stopped to stay the night in a rustic home located next to a river and fields of corn. In the distance water spilled over the mountain against a wall of rock. Our home for the night was simple — a construction of concrete, wooden boards, and corrugated metal. After a powerful evening rain storm, the river swelled and raged, making a thunderous noise. The WC, in a precarious position along the riverbank, became too dangerous to use… a shack of woven bamboo, it looked like it could be swept away at any minute, even in the best of weather.
It’s always a desire to pass through such places as if invisible, to see people living their lives as if there was no tourist trail. But it’s not so. Hill tribe women and young girls crowd around to sell souvenirs throughout the day. Along the path and at the homestay, there was a constant group of Hmong and Zao women and girls selling their wares. The Montagnards (the French name for the hill tribe people) used to grow opium, but a crackdown by the government has put a stop to this — many sell souvenirs instead. The tourist dollar is important to these people — and as we come there, invading their villages and homes, gawking (politely or impolitely), it is insensitive to complain about it. And besides, they are friendly people, so the sales pitch was tolerable… and creative.
“You buy from me,” they’d say, all 20 of them gathered ’round with fists full of handicrafts for sale. Embroidered pillowcases and blankets, hats, purses, tin earrings, bracelets, necklaces, musical instruments, toy tops. The little girls put bracelets on our wrists, declaring us to be friends. “We are friends,” they’d say with a smile. A little while later, they’d say, “We are friends, so you buy from me.”
Source: Cheryn Flanagan – viator blog
– Sapa trekking tours: http://www.activetravelvietnam.com/tour.php?op=listByCategoryId&catId=9
– Sapa tours & excursions: http://www.activetravelshop.com/?name=product&op=listProducts&subcat=SapaTours
– Fansipan trekking tours, Sapa: http://www.trekfansipan.com