01 Mar Soothing Our Souls in Sapa
Being up in the mountains empties my mind and soothes my soul in a way that nothing else does. As soon as I catch that first scent of pine needles on the wind, fill my lungs with clean, cold air and look out at the endless peaks on the horizon I feel calm wash over me. My love of the mountains is a discovery I’ve made only recently in life, a gift from my travels. Now, I dream about the mountain towns I’ve loved and left behind and I long to discover new ones.
If you’re heading to Vietnam then you’ll probably need an invitation letter for your Visa On Arrival, we recommend Vietnam Visa as they provide a professional, efficient and transparent service.
After almost six months of teaching in hectic Hanoi, a dose of mountain life was just what I needed. Luckily, the TET (Lunar New Year) holiday afforded us a rare week off and the chance to spend some time exploring the mountains and rice terraces of Sapa. Accompanied by Jo and Bonner, two visiting friends from England, we started our adventure on the Fansipan Express, an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Unfortunately, Andrew and I were both recovering from a nasty stomach bug we’d picked up from school so the journey wasn’t all that pleasant and we emerged bleary-eyed and disorientated in the early-morning darkness.
From Lao Cai we boarded a mini-bus for the final hour-long leg of the journey up snaking roads to Sapa. As the sun began to rise we caught our first glimpses of mountain scenery; buffalos grazing in fields, solitary wooden houses clinging to the road-edge and the hazy staircases of rice ascending towards the clouds. We also spotted dozens of peach blossom trees being transported by motorbikes to Lao Cai; these trees are traditionally displayed inside and decorated with envelopes of lucky money and New Year wishes during TET.
Shivering against the chilly morning breeze, we tackled the final incline to our hotel on foot. Having splashed out on a £20 per night room we were expecting something nice but we were absolutely blown away when we stepped into our room. Firstly, two of the walls were almost entirely glass, giving us a view of the town nestled beneath looming mountains. Secondly, there was a heated bed. Recovering from our recent sickness and overnight journey in a toasty bed with a staggering view of the mountains was just what we needed.
Exploring Sapa Town
It was tempting to spend the rest of our stay in that bed but we hauled ourselves out to explore. Passing the stone Catholic Church, we made our way down the steep main street with its rows of shops, restaurants and massage parlours; the road was full of local H’mong women dressed in brightly-coloured traditional costumes attempting to sell purses and bags to tourists. Yes, Sapa definitely isn’t an off-the-beaten-track destination, but after so long cooped-up in Hanoi, the clean air, traffic-free streets and mountain views felt like balm to our frazzled minds and bodies.
It was a Sunday so we made our way via the lake to the large open-air market where the usual produce, meat and flowers were being sold alongside dozens of peach blossom and orange trees for TET. There was a festive feel in the air and watching locals strap trees to their bikes and load up on supplies for the coming holiday I was reminded of the atmosphere around Christmas-time in England; that last-minute rush to buy gifts and ingredients for holiday meals.
Following a signpost we spiralled our way down a path towards nearby Cat Cat village. Although the views were obscured by fog we could still make out the shape of the rice terraces and the huge peaks of Mount Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest mountain, towering steep and threatening above us. In February the fields are empty of rice and coloured mostly in shades of brown, but we were still awed by the scale of Sapa’s terraces, which rolled off far into the distance in a series of deep valleys and jagged mountain tops.
Tourist Traps and Trekking in Sapa
When researching our trip to Sapa I read many negative accounts about how touristy the town has become and how the local H’mong women hassle tourists relentlessly. On our first wander into town we were shadowed by two women in traditional patterned, brightly-coloured clothes. They chatted to us sporadically and eventually, half an hour later went in for the kill and tried to get us to buy some of their purses and bags. After that, aside from the occasional hopeful call of ‘Shopping?’ as we made our way through town, we were pretty much left alone.
We had limited time in Sapa so we booked a basic trek through our hotel for the next day. We were under no illusions that the trip would be an off-the-beaten track adventure, such as we’d experienced in the Philippines, for example, and we weren’t wrong. We were driven to a starting point the next morning with a group of ten other tourists, accompanied by a local woman who would be our guide for the day. As soon as we disembarked from the bus we were met by a crowd of women all keen to sell us things; each one would casually attach herself to one particular tourist and follow them throughout the first part of the trek before trying to persuade them to buy some handicrafts.
To be honest, since we knew to expect this in Sapa, it didn’t bother us too much. We’ve certainly experienced more aggressive sales techniques in other parts of Asia and the H’mong women were generally so polite, tiny and sweet that it was hard to be annoyed with them for simply trying to make a living. We’ve been in Asia long enough to know that a firm, polite refusal is the best way to deal with persistent sellers so pretty soon they found new targets.
In stark contrast to the toughest trek I’ve ever taken over the rice terraces of Batad, in the Philippines, the first half of our Sapa trek was a piece of cake. We ambled slowly down a well-paved road, stopping regularly to take pictures of the view; we were incredibly lucky weather-wise as the sun shone and the skies cleared while a light breeze cooled us as we walked. After lunch the trek continued and we got a bit of a shock as the difficulty level escalated somewhat; we had now broken off from the other tourist groups and were venturing upwards over rockier, less-stable paths towards a bamboo forest.
As we climbed higher the views became more spectacular and the route became decidedly muddier. Suddenly all notion of photographing the views disappeared as we all struggled to maintain our footing, clutching at storks of bamboo and shrieking as we slid our way along the trail, which had now transformed into a bog. Anxious sweat peppered my forehead as I attempted to keep up with the light-footed guides who flew along in their bathroom slippers with babies strapped to their backs while my trainers got sucked deeper into the mud with every step and I concentrated only on making it down the hill without falling over.
In the end we definitely got a taste of the more adventurous trek we’d been hoping for and we were relieved to get back to town for a massage, delicious hot-pot dinner and one last sleep in our wonderful heated bed. As we bid a sad farewell to our mountain-view the next day we vowed to return at the beginning of June when the terraces are lush, green and full of rice – I can’t wait for another soothing dose of Sapa life.