Cool Breezes Amid a Highland Town

Trip Start Feb 04, 2010
Trip End Feb 12, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Heading north to the former French hill station of Sapa, we boarded the night train to Lao Cai, sleeping in a comfortable little sleeping berth of four beds, bunk-bed style, sharing these confined quarters with two young women from Germany.  These women were recovering from a recent trip to Halong Bay, relaying their travels of a cockroach-infested junk and reminiscing of more pleasant travels through the northern regions of Laos.  Throughout the night, we rocked and swayed as the train barreled down the train line, sleeping well for most of the journey, however, the 5:30am wake-up call from the train attendant came quicker than expected.  From the Lao Cai train station, we took a one-hour minibus another 38 kilometres up the hillside to the mountain town of Sapa.  Exhausted from the trip, we discretely inquired with the hotel manager if he could allow us to check into a room at this uncivilized hour of 7:30am as we were keen to enjoy a few extra hours of additional sleep.  Most people had pre-arranged trekking tours whereby they were now having breakfast in anticipation of a 9:00 departure, whereas we were lazily slumbering in our hotel room by this time.

After regaining consciousness and feeling quite energetic, we grabbed a few weighty pain au raisins before wandering around the centre of Sapa.  The cool mountain air was refreshing relative to the muggy streets of Hanoi, the Hoang Lien Mountains providing a fantastic backdrop for the town.  Guidebook:  Perched on a steep slope, Sapa overlooks a plunging valley of cascading rice terraces, with mountains towering above the town on all sides. 

There were many locals and a variety of hill-tribe people walking the streets of this small town, all seemingly there to take care of the day's business that included buying or selling fresh produce, offering hand-made wares to foreigners and acting as a guide to their local village.  The Dzao women could be seen with their red head scarves, beckoning to would-be buyers of their handicrafts, their big smiles usually providing a glimpse of a distinctive gold painted tooth.  The Hmong women were also readily seen around Sapa, often in a full sprint in chase of a tourist minibus that had recently arrived, some women looking well into their 70s and capable of outrunning us if provoked.  On more sedate occasions, they were seen displaying hand-made garments that were coloured with indigo dye, their beautiful attire including a melange of skirts and aprons, accented with silver jewelry, leggings and a sophisticated hat.  Many cries of "Buy from me!" could be heard as soon as a foreigner moved within a handicraft seller's vicinity, regardless of whether that person had actually even seen the seller let alone their wares.   

On our second day in Sapa, rain had set over the town early in the morning, thwarting our plans for a four kilometre loop via the nearby Cat Cat village in order to take in the surrounding valleys and get some insight into village life.  However, by noon, the sun began to emerge through the grey clouds so we made the descent from Sapa along a windy, steep road along the hillside, passing terraced fields of rice while local residents made their way up in the opposite direction towards Sapa.  Off of this main road, a stone walkway appeared leading us further down the valley wall, curving gently between handicraft stalls and eventually passing a small village of huts.  Beyond the huts is a bridge the climbs over a small river and onto a viewing platform near a nice waterfall amid the confluence of two rivers.  Water flowed down a man-made bamboo drainage system, dropping into a catchment that once filled, raised a large post before dropping it down again, essentially acting as a mechanized contraption that pounded what we thought to be rice.  The trail curved back along one of the rivers and joined the main road that leads back to Sapa.  After a hot, sweaty climb back up to Sapa, we lingered in a cafe before taking the minibus bus back to Lao Cai later in the day to await our night train back to Hanoi.
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