Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Sapa - A Synopsis

My last blog post came to you  from the hill town of Sapa. In it I mentioned briefly that I had arrived and was impressed by the place, not much else. This blog entry will be dedicated almost entrirely to the magnificent town of Sapa.

Mists swirl up the valley
We arrived in Sapa on the morning of the 6th and were instantly blown away by the beauty of the place. Rice paddies are cut into the surrounding hills and mist swirls up the valley in the morning. It is a small town inhabited almost entirely my minority people such as the H'mong and Dzao. The markets buzz and the people always smile. You get hassled almost non-stop, but it is oddly enjoyable.

I will be writing this blog post somewhat like a synopsis of events that transpired in Sapa. In order to do this best I will be writing about each day separately. Let's begin... at the beginning...

Day 1
Duc and I, chilling in Moon
Once we had settled in our hotel which sported a view that few places rivaled we headed into town to orientate ourselves. Orientating oneself in Sapa is not exactly very hard to do. There is one road of significance in the entire town. On this road there are bars, hotels, restaurants and the market. Once we had got our bearings we did the most important thing that every traveler must do. We found a good place to eat and ate. The name of the place was Moon and it is owned by a man named Duc. Duc is without a doubt the coolest guy in Sapa. He played covers of Metallica and Guns 'N Roses on his old acoustic guitar while we ate breakfast. He sat and chatted to us and told us about what to do and where to go in Sapa to get the most out of our experience.
We spent the rest of the day walking around Sapa, stopping regularly to sit and take in the amazing views. We chatted with some of the local H'mong women who gave us wristbands then meandered through the market to see what was on offer.

Day 2

A view down on the rice paddies
Day 2 was our first big day out in Sapa. Or rather out of Sapa. We spent almost the entire day trekking down to a nearby village and back. We set out fairly early and had breakfast at Moon with Duc, bought some provisions for on the trek and headed down the mountain side. We walked along the main road for about an hour until we reached the turnoff we were looking for. We turned off the road and weaved our way down the side of the mountain on a gravel road, passing rice paddies and homes. This was a spectacular walk down and almost every corner we rounded we were greeted by a fantastic view. We stopped often to snap photos and admire the scenery. At the bottom of the track we crossed a wide river on a very wobbly suspension bridge and ended up in a small village. We had wanted to head back to Sapa in the valley, rather than on the main road, but the road we were looking for didn't exist. The map was pretty certain it did and we spent nearly an hour trying to locate it to no avail. A bit disappointed not to be doing the loop we'd planned on doing, we trudged our way back up to the main road and back to Sapa. It was a steep walk back and by the time we reached the local bia hoi joint we were ready to put our feet up.

The river and rice paddies
And put our feet up we did. At just R7 for 1.5 litres of beer we felt happy to put away 3 litres of the stuff. Thankfully bia hoi is weak stuff or we wouldn't have managed to walk the hundred metres back up the hill to our hotel. On the walk back we did have to make a pit stop to empty the tanks, though.

Day 3
We spent our third day in Sapa relaxing. After breakfast at Duc's we headed into the market to get some fruit then back up to the balcony at our hotel where we sat and read for most of the day. I took the opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world a bit and actually watched the news for the first time in Vietnam. It was good to see what was going on in the rest of the world and it felt refreshing to reconnect a loose connection. It came loose the next day again, but it was good while it lasted. After a very relaxed day we headed down to the bia hoi joint, sat with the locals and relaxed some more, this time with a beer in hand.

No such thing as a flat path in Sapa
Day 4
The final day in Sapa. We were catching a night train back to Hanoi on this day and had to catch a bus at 17:30 to get to the Lao Cai train station. Time was limited so we rented motorbikes for the day and headed north, further into the mountains. Jeremy Clarkson said the road between Hoi An and Hue was the ride of a lifetime. The pass out of Sapa is better. The road may not be in the best condition, but the views are magnificent and the switchbacks and curves are incredibly fun to drive on a motorbike. All in all the pass is about 50 kilometres long and winds up and out of Sapa before plummeting down towards the Chinese border. We rode for hours, stopping to take pictures of the many waterfalls which cascade down the mountain side, and eventually ended up in a little village at a crossroads. It was at this little village that we were served the worst coffee in Vietnam, but it didn't matter we were loving being on the bikes. We were a little nervous about missing the bus so we headed back. Driving those roads once more was exhilarating and the bikes came alive on the steep roads. It was a bit of a battle driving up the pass as the bikes seldom managed to get over 40km/h even at full throttle, but the drive was unbelievably good.
The drive of a lifetime
Our paranoia about missing the bus turned out to be completely unfounded as we arrived back at 14:45. As there was not much more to do in Sapa we headed to the bia hoi joint again and waited for the bus to arrive.

We arrived back in Hanoi this morning and headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we saw old Ho's embalmed body. It's a crazy place and no pictures are allowed so I can't share the experience with you, but it was really strange seeing the man this country has deified. It was an almost surreal experience walking through the mausoleum and being able to look at the perfectly preserved body of a man who wanted to be cremated.


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