“Getting to Sapa in the nothern mountains of Vietnam is part of the experience shall we say”
Getting to Sapa in the northern mountains of Vietnam is part of the experience shall we say. The train trip rattles along overnight for eight hours stopping with a jolt now and then at places where, were it not for the people standing by the tracks, you would have no indication that a stop was required at a makeshift station in an otherwise deserted countryside.
It’s best to eat before you go unless you want to snack on crisps and cookies purchased from train side vendors pushing carts up and down the platform before you clamber on board. We’re travelling aboard the Oriental Express one of the many different carriages coupled together that form the train that will climb the mountains during the night.
With voucher in hand I arrive at the station and follow the directions to the ticket office. Shutters down and lights off. I’m a little early just in case but there’s no need as sure to form the barricades roll up in ample time. I’ve opted to buy the VIP cabin and have forked out for four tickets to guarantee the space. A luxury maybe, a necessity definitely. The two top bunks are neatly folded away and both bottom beds are made ready for a restful sleep, rocked gently as we climb up the mountains to reach Lào Cai the station about 35kms down the hill from Sapa.
For those younger at heart and willing to throw caution to the wind booking one bunk in a four berth cabin is a way to meet new people and travel on a budget as they travel the country from top to tail. This trip that’s not us. Mum and Dad are nestled into the cabin next door as we pour ourselves a stiff scotch (BYO) for a night cap. OK there was more than one as the beds are firmer than futons and the gentle rocking is not so gentle.
The trip passes quickly and after some surprisingly good sleep we’re greeted and shuttled the hour or so up the mountain to Sapa. Arriving at 5:30am the sun is struggling to rise as the mist hangs low though the valleys and the terraced hills pop out of the haze revealing layers of green glistening with dew, dotted with huts.
Sapa is wedged between mountains where clouds drift through and buildings cling to the cliffs and the steep roads fall victim to the rains, potholes challenging even the most seasoned local. It retains a rustic charm and offers a wealth of fabulous coffee shops and restaurants, many oozing eclectic chic. Sapa is an area of contrasts where ethnic minorities live under the path of million dollar cable cars that drift overhead. Children walk bare foot while large hotels are constructed casting shadows on their paths.
It’s the juxtaposition that so often confronts travellers where the spoils of the surges in tourism fail to filter down to the locals at all levels. Markets in the town square display the handiwork of the indigenous tribes. The colours are vibrant and the fabrics are woven with intricate patterns that stamp the local heritage onto every garment, bag and souvenir. Scarves adorn the heads of the women, wrapped and tucked to form bonnets of a sort, each distinctive in design, colours selected as one wouldselect a dress or shirt.
The colour and detail is in the accessories and overlays. The undergarments a basic building block on which to add person flair and individual taste. Elderly women sit crosslegged stitching among the fabric and finished products. As we wander between the slabs covered with thatched roofs the rain pelts down, the only showers we encounter during our stay, huge plastic tarps appear to cover the merchandise straddling the edges to keep it dry. Umbrellas pop open linked side by side providing relief in other spots.
We huddle under the roof and wait it out. The roads quickly turn to muddy rivers. It’s no wonder that most of the streets winding narrowly up the hills resemble mine fields that would swallow careless drivers or at least take out the chassis as the car struggles up the other side of the crater that threatened to relegate the vehicle to the scrap heap. The roads are in desperate need of help and again I’m wondering where the cash goes as tourists flood the area.
Our hotel’s nestled half way up one of the hills high enough to command sweeping views of the town below through perfectly positioned floor to ceiling, wall to wall windows. The mist and clouds roll in and out covering and revealing the city throughout the day and invariably the morning fog hides the buildings until the sun manages to burn though lighting the way.
There are many villages within easy distance that offer a ‘local’ experience and the range of hiking opportunities is endless. We decide on visiting a village close to Sapa which in hindsight is a few hours lost. We’re charged an entrance fee to what is basically a walk down the steps lined with stalls selling most things on offer in the markets in town. A meagre glimpse of authenticity as two buffalos meander up the steps and a litter of piglets scampering by is all that is ‘village’ about it.
There are small ramps bridging each step to allow the little ones to climb up. The buffalo plod up step by step oblivious to them. I find a young man offering handmade leather wallets, phone covers and bags. A small workshop where he and his wife take the time to put fine detail onto individual pieces.
The perfect souvenir for me and different to everything else on offer making the journey out here well worth it. Finding unexpected gems and supporting inventive locals working hard to make a living is one of the pleasures of travel. The locals pride themselves on their ethnicity and it seems to me they distance themselves from the Vietnamese in the lowlands in the rest of the country. There are 54 minorities and all speak different dialects and languages. Our hotel host speaks two plus English. Villages are scattered through the valleys, dotted on hillsides, all distinguished by differing culture, language and dress.
We decide to try out the cable car that promises the longest three point cable car with the highest climb in the world. I’ve got to admit it’s a l…o…n…g way between pillars as we dip precariously towards the valley. The view is incredible. We’re heading towards Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina piercing the fog trusting the cables to guide us to the summit. Giant Buddhas, bell towers and a monastery are linked with giant staircases and a funicular railway.
The trip is part of my parents wedding anniversary week so I’ve prebooked a yummy looking place promising distinctive local food with a flair. The maitre-d insists we booked for two despite being shown our confirmation. Two wine choices unavailable and food overcooked. Google maps offers an escape nearby as we grab our wine and scuttle down the street less than 100 metres. Warm welcome, people lining up outside and incredible food. A hole in the wall with five tables. Three meals and another bottle of wine for the price of the wine we carried in. Amazing.
Sapa offers an opportunity to hike and explore and in hindsight we should have ventured further afield. Next time as I will definitely return. It’s easy to pass the time enjoying great coffee and a book overlooking the square or simply taking in the views from your hotel room.
Vietnam offers so many opportunities from the Mekong Delta in the south to Sapa in the north and it’s worthwhile taking the time to explore it all. Unpack and settle in for a few days wherever you decide to visit and forget the whistlestop tours. It’s easy to plan and put itineraries together yourself. It will fall into place and if not … then that’s one of the unexpected joys of exploring this amazing world.