Where have I reached in this world? I feel like I have made it to ‘that place’ one of the worlds travel charms… ‘That place’ you will always remember. ‘That place’ that is the baseline comparision for every other destination I will visit in the future. Sapa, the treasure of Vietnam is nestled in the far Northwest of the country, 380 km north-west of Hanoi and close to the Chinese border. Awaking from a deep stupor (Exhausted from a boozy night and early morning arrival after an overnight sleeper train), I opened the rustic balcony door to uncover Vietnam’s secret. Before me is a 180 degree view of the Hoang Lien Mountains peaking above the cushioning clouds. The fresh crisp air awakened my senses. I stand in awe. Complete silence engulfs my concentration. The panorama before me is breath-taking. Below, a very Italian/swiss looking town humbly sits amidst the ghostly valley. In the distance the ostentatious Himalayas shimmer amongst the mist, shadowing the quaint town. I just know I have made it somewhere special.
Choosing to sleep-in rather than take an early morning guided hike, we had the time explore the hilly town. Each road or staircase around Sapa leads to the central market square. Each day the local tribes gather in this square to sell their homegrown produce, fabrics or knick-knacks. Saturdays however, bring more ethnic minorities from the surrounding mountains who are eager to sell their own local treasures. Not only is the Saturday market bigger, but the influx of energetic colour and culture is a must see. Embrace their weirdness and persistence. The women are keen to interact and from my experience it was worth it.
Leaving the market square by road, accompanied by a few of the friendlier locals, we walk down into the basin of the Hoang Lien Mountains. Sapa is dominated by this mountain range which actually the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. Following the signs to Cat Cat village (the hotel maps recommendation) we were soon encapsulated by the beauty of the countryside. Winter is a fantastic time to go as the morning fog latches onto Fansipan, the highest peak within the country (3143m), throughout the midmorning. Give it time and when it does show it head beneath the gloomy clouds, you will not be disappointed. The rice terraces here are dryer than others terraces seen previously but can be seen from every direction. They seem to sprawl out into the endless horizon.
Along this road we were picked up by a passing local upon motorbike who gladly became our tour guide for the day
for a small fee. Through the mud villages we went. Stopping and meeting the locals and peering inside their basic homes. Dark plum purple, freshly dyed silk lay drying in the sun. Piglets scurry between their hefty parents. Puppies and chickens roam free just the like local children and if a 4 year girl was not carrying her new born sister on her back, they would be playing upon the red, sinewy buffalo skin drying in the sun.
If you have extra days, hire motorbikes and make your way north, towards the Chinese border. Along the drive you will see vineyards, waterfalls and really stunning mountainous scenery. Really stunning countryside. Definitely worth losing a few extra days of your travels up there…. The rest of Vietnam can wait. No really, IT CAN WAIT.
To this day, Sapa has been the milestone for every place I visit. I compare the bizarre culture, the scenery and my experience to any new destination, and honestly, Sapa remains one of my world travel charms.
Transport to and from Sapa – Sleeper train. Easy to organise from the Hanoi Train station.
Accommodation – Sapa Starlight Hostel – $5 a night each
Breakfast (french) – Baguette and Chocolate. Delicious yogurt with Sapa honey, fresh baguette with butter and jam, croissantand a fat juicy omelet.
Freshen up at – Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel. Enjoy a lemon and cinnamon tea or a coconut/pineapple/yogurt shake