Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sa Pa

The typical way to get to Sa Pa is to take an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Our train departed at 8:15pm. The standard "soft sleeper" cabin sleeps four, and comes with a six foot long pullman-type cot with an approximately 4 inch thick foam pad. Two high bunks and two low bunks. We shared a cabin with a very nice couple from Hamburg ("hello" to Ali and Alison) making their way across Vietnam; boys took the bottom bunks, girls went up top. Arrival in Lao Cai was at 5am. Painful. From there, you take a hour-long bus ride up an impressively twisty road to Sa Pa. The view is out the left window, but you wouldn't know it with the morning clouds and fog.

The elevation of Sa Pa is approximately 5000-ish ft. It is on a highpoint; the valleys below are filled with rice fields, with the highest mountains in the country rising up on the other side (highest is Mt. Fan Si Pan, at 10312 ft). There are markets in the town itself, selling all sorts of stuff from fruits and vegetables, to jewelry, to woven goods from the surrounding villages. Apparently, the town was really rose up around 1930 when Europeans arrived, seeking alpine relief from the heat down below. Then the revolution happened. Later, this area was involved with the Chinese invasion at the end of the 70's. It was not opened up to tourists until 1993.
And it has opened; there are plenty of hotels and small shops in the town itself. You don't need to trek far, however, to escape all this...the anti-city lies below.

The first day was all about a nap, late breakfast, then a short trek to village below Sa Pa. This region is home to many of the ethnic minorities of the north. According to my well-used guide book, 11 million people comprise 52 ethnic minority groups, and those groups break down into further subgroups, some of which only have 100 people (Vietnam total population: 83 million and counting). No one really knows the origin of these groups, as many are older than the Vietnamese themselves. Many of these minority villages surround Sa Pa, and it is a long way down, both literally and figuratively. The descent down involves a lots of stairs, so it is advisable to bring extra water and knees. The villages are pretty small, with around 100 people living there. In Cat Cat Village (a Black Hmong village), we toured a home which was smaller than my apartment and housed 11 people. The village is built on the hillside, surrounded by rice fields, with a stream and waterfall at the valley floor. The lower you go, the warmer it gets, and of course you need hike straight back up to go back. Right before the climb up, you walk through a swarm of moto drivers, all trying to entice you to hire them instead of walking. "It is very warm" says one, while another says "the walk is very steep." They are partially right, but what they didn't know was that Bionica is the Chuck Norris of trekking, with two speeds: walk and kill (any hills). We were done in no time, and spent the late part of the day sitting on a deck overlooking the valley and drinking a beer. It IS a vacation...

Next day was an all day trek through the valley floor, villages, and rice fields. The morning started with a serious downpour, which made the descending trails, usually a reddish clay, into carmel-colored mudslides. Weee! At the trailhead, the Black Hmong women were selling sugar cane that could double as a walking stick; once you got to the bottom, you could eat it. Now that's function. We eventually made it down, sans cane, and it was worth it to see those rice fields. They are engineering feats, historical artifacts, invaluable providers, and works of art. I never lost my sense of awe with these...they are that impressive.

As you walk through the villages, there are plenty of minority women, usually Black Hmong or Red Dao, trying to sell you anything they can. Jewelry, bags, etc. And they are clever about it too; they will strike up a conversation with to learn where you are from, how old you are, about your family...then they will ask you to buy something. It is quite remarkable how well some of these women speak English; they learn it by talking to tourists, and not from school. And school is another interesting thing; we toured one in the village of Ta Van, further down the valley. Our Hmong guide would stress how important education is, but the kids at the school were just running around in and out of class, or jumping rope, or digging in the grass, etc. We saw far more kids up in Sa Pa trying to sell stuff to tourists than in the school. I am not condemning or condoning it; I'm just saying that I don't necessarily get it. At the end of the trek, the moto drivers were once again waiting to whisk everyone back to Sa Pa. Chuck wasn't having it, though, and we walked uphill back 9km on the only road cut into the side of the valley, dodging big trucks, motos, buses and the occasional water buffalo. It sounds like I'm giving her a bad time, but I was all for it; gotta work off that beer from the day before...

The last day was spent in town, checking out the markets, shops, buildings etc. And hanging out with the water buffalo at the tennis courts. Oh, and there may have been an apple tart consumed in there somewhere; so tasty. Come early evening, we bused back to Lao Cai, caught the night train, shared a cabin with our newfound German friends again, and arrived in Hanoi the next morning at 5am.

Writing this, I realize I am glossing over SO much that happened during this trip; this part especially. There was so many things going on, so much to see, so much to learn, and so many people we met that I am really not doing the reality of the trip justice. Ah, such is life.


Water Lion said...
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