Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sapa, Back to Nature

From Bamboo Sapa Hotel:

What is the meaning of Sapa? My guide Cong explained it to be an open sandy field where the tribal people living around gather to trade their produce. So this name caught on and became the well known tourist town we are now visiting. I don't know if I overrated Sapa but certainly for anyone to take a long bus or train ride to this isolated outpost near the Chinese border to see terraced rice fields, gaze at mountains and bargain with tribal ladies, surely Sapa has more than these. With this in mind I added Sapa to the list of must visit on this holiday. To be honest I have misgivings. I wasn't used to sleeping uncomfortably and with strangers but a decision was made and I am game to see it through, so I hope I won't be disappointed.

Immediately after we returned from a very memorable Halong cruise and overnight stay in the 'Glory'' junk we were driven to the Nam Hai 2 Hotel to rest, bath and change before we had dinner at Pineapple again. At 1930 we were driven to the Hanoi Railway Station to await the King Express Night train to Lao Cai. We shared the cabin with a middle age Swiss couple. The train chugged out of the station at 2038, rumbling and rocking. I wonder how are we going to get to sleep but we did! We slept 7 out of the 8 hours journey which ended at Lao Cai at 0545 the next morning.

The sleeping cabin while compact was comfortable. We were each provided a clean pillow and blanket as well as a complimentary bottle of drinking water and facial towel. In every coach that is compartmentalized into 6 cabins there is also a WC. A very narrow 2 feet wide walkway makes movement tight, especially for a large size traveler. Our adjacent cabins housed several European tourists who were quite noisy but all quieten down soon after the train started moving out.

A local VietnamTripAdvisor guide by the name of Ngauk took us in a private Toyota Innova to our hotel where we freshened up, have breakfast at the Holiday Sapa Hotel coffee house next door. We enjoyed the majestic view of the Fansipan mountain range in clear and bright morning sun.

This is what I read about Sapa before coming here:

Sapa was originally a hill station settled by the French in 1922. The town itself is nestled in a spectacular valley and there are wonderful and ever changing views in all directions. The local Hmong and Dao people are in the majority here and their smiles are as bright as the colours and designs of their distinctive clothing. In all, there are more than 30 ethnic groups living in and around Sapa. Sapa is 1650 metres (5413 feet) above sea level and enjoys a cooler climate than most of Vietnam. It is only 9 km (5.6 miles) away from Mount Fansipan, Vietnam's highest point at 3143 metres (10311 feet). A visit to Sapa can be as relaxing or as energetic as you choose to make it. Whether your idea of pleasure is climbing to the peak of Fansipan or nestling in front of a roaring fire with a good book, you'll find that Sapa offers the ideal spot to do either.

For 4 hours we walked into the Cat Cat Village and down to see the waterfall which was used to generate hydroelectricity from a power station that has since ceased to operate. We took some time resting at the fall admiring the torrents as well as resting our achy legs. By comparison the Huka Falls we visited in New Zealand was more powerful and magical. An enterprising young man was selling buffalo hide belts hand cut with and without buckles. It was what I was searching for in Malaysia so I bought two for 180,000 dongs (USD 9) which was very cheap indeed. We avoided the handicraft and clothings on sale by the HMong women along the pathways. The native kids were playing and swimming in groups, many naked and with runny nose. But I could see their happy smiley faces.

The rest of the day, and evening, was much on our own, resting and strolling along the few streets of this small village town which landmark is the church at the town centre built by the French catholic missionaries. There are two other churches in this hilly area within the villages. I was looking for souvenir tee shirts but the shops were selling jackets, trekking shoes, knapsacks and mineral water mainly. Motorcycles are available for rent. Many western restaurants exist to serve a growing number of tourists from Europe and Australia. Of late many Asians have discovered Sapa as a great holiday retreat.

This evening we happened to chat with Mr. Huang the hotel manager who was just off duty. Later I learned he is actually the youngest son of the hotel owner who also owned the adjacent Holiday Sapa, formerly named the Green Bamboo, before it changed owner. Both hotels are very strategically located facing the mountains. I was told they ranked the 3rd most popular in Sapa but the best located with good scenic views.

October 12, 2011

I had a great sleep last night. Although the room is older than the Tirant room we stayed in Hanoi the bed and facilities are no poorer. I too have free wifi connectivity in the room that I really appreciate. My body ache is lessened and at 0700 we had our buffet breakfast a floor below.

At 0930 we will be checking out of this small family run hotel to have a 5 hours trek into 2 minority villages occupied by the HMong and DZay tribes called Lao Chai and Ta Van respectively. I am not expecting a walk in the park although our guide assured me most of the time we trek on level ground. As I blog the skies outside my room balcony is both cloudy and misty. But Sapa is known to have a spring-like morning, summer-like afternoon and autumn to winter-like night, so I expect the sun to break out soon.

About 1600 we shall head downhill by car to Lao Cai, having early dinner before boarding the 1930 night train back to Hanoi. I shall miss the serenity and cool and fresh mountain air of Sapa as well as the friendly people who served and helped us. Sapa is a great destination for trekkers and nature lovers. There are several packages including home stays for the keen and adventurous which the hotel can offer. Drop by its website to check out.

1445 Hrs

Blogging from the rest room of VietnamTripAdvisor Sapa office a short walk from Bamboo Sapa and using the unsecured wifi of the Lotus Hotel upstairs, we have just returned from our 4 hours 12km trek to the 2 villages. Boy, am I glad to be back! However it was a once a lifetime experience I will remember. The sun was out and the HMong farmers are very happy. I saw many of them in their rice fields thrashing their grains and drying them. In the hilly slopes I saw many patches of smoke caused by opening burning of the rice stalks to obtain ashes to fertilize the other crops. Many other groups were trekking with us, some using local HMong guides. Some foreigners rented bikes to move unguided.

At 1245 we had picnic lunch at a simple restaurant in Lao Chai village, rested a bit before moving the next 4km to Ta Van. From there we walked under hot sun and shielded by our umbrellas to an agreed spot 300m away where the driver picked us up and drive back to Sapa.

We rested, bathed and at 1630 was driven down to Lao Cai, saying goodbye to Sapa for a pleasant memory of an idyllic holiday.

1830 Hrs

Amazing that even here at the Viet Emotion Restaurant in Lao Cai where we have our dinner, we have complimentary Internet access. So here I'm blogging our next stage is from the train to Hanoi. Hope we have good cabin mates and a good rest.

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