North of the 17th Parallel- Part 2 (Sapa)

14 Nov

So after a few days in Hanoi and the cruise in beautiful Halong Bay I headed up to Sapa to do a bit of hiking an see the hill tribes. This meant an overnight train trip where a hilarious Vietnamese tour guide (whose group was in another carriage) in our room who coincidentally has a friend who lived a few suburbs over from me in Australia. She also was great fun particularly with her advice to drink beer and take some sleeping tablets to enjoy the train ride. Only following the first half of this advice the train ride up to Lao Cai wasn’t too bad with it being pretty easy to sleep once you got the hang of the rhythm and the sudden stops.IMG_1837 (It should be noted I can sleep anywhere.. except on planes strangely)

Arriving in Lao Cai it was straight into a van to drive up to Sapa. Upon arriving we had some breakfast (pho of course) before having a walk around town. As soon as I walked out the door of the hotel I was mobbed by women from the hill tribes trying to sell things. While the history and lives of the tribes is interesting the constant harassing to try and sell you things gets very frustrating very quickly. They all speak enough English and follow you through the villages and on treks. The good thing is however they speak enough English for you to get a good idea about their lives and families. After a while in town I started speaking Indonesian whenever they approached me which slowed the down a bit. IMG_1879 This soon turned into a spectator sport with watching tourists get off the bus and be surrounded. The best one was when they got really angry at two British guys and started throwing things at them (I laughed and took photos)

In terms of trekking the scenery is spectacular. It was shrouded in mist at times (was there in March so at the end of the winter season) but as the fog cleared there were miles of rice paddies to be seen. Also you wound through farms and villages stopping by schools and stores with some restaurants having little performances.IMG_1865 My favourite village was probably Cat Cat (although it was very commercial) with it’s beautiful waterfall and Ta Phin (I think) which was a bit further out and we were mobbed by Red Zhao. So who are these ethnic minorities? The two main ones you encounter or the Hmong (Flower or Black) who wear dark navy clothes with vibrant colours and the Red Zhao who are distinguishable from their red head dress. The latter will follow you for miles trying to get a sale but at the end of the day it is important to remember that this is their livelihood and many of them walk for miles to get to Sapa in the hope of selling there wares.

What else is there to do in Sapa? Eat! The markets are also fun to look around but there are some fantastic restaurants (funnily enough some of the best ones I visited were Western). We ran into some people from our cruise on Halong Bay who recommended we got to Delta- an Italian restaurant in the centre of town.IMG_1884 This place was incredible- there are some bad reviews on the internet but I thought it was great. Following 2 months living in Indonesia an antipasto plate (with prosciutto) and a bottle of Chianti hit the spot. Another excellent café was Baguettes and Chocolate which had great western style coffee and a chocolate tart which was to die for. It also is a feel good café as all the staff are underprivileged youth and who doesn’t like French pastries really? This said we did eat some Vietnamese food and had steamboat overlooking the valley which was perfect on a freezing day. I also sampled Vietnamese coffee which I didn’t mind. Other people I was travelling with weren’t keen on the local coffee but I really enjoyed the rich nutty flavour, that said I also like kopi luwak which a lot of people I know don’t like.IMG_1813

So it was time to return to the train station and my fantastic trip to Sapa was almost complete, unfortunately I left Sapa far too early and ended up in Lao Cai for far too long. Lao Cai is an incredibly depressing place. On the Chinese border it’s mainly a transit town for border traffic. We went to the border to look at a temple (it was actually quite interesting- typical Vietnamese style) after this I took some obligatory “look that’s China behind me” photos before heading back to a restaurant near the train station and eating oily spring rolls and pineapple pancakes and being constantly approached by people wanting to shine shoes or sell cigarettes. One thing I did find funny was looking across the Chinese border and the first thing you saw was a massive KFC billboard. Globalisation at it’s finest!IMG_1931

Another train ride through the night to Hanoi and another incredibly friendly Vietnamese tour guide later I arrived in Hanoi just short of 4am. Luckily the hotel I was staying at let me sleep on a massage table in their day spa for a few hours and use the awesome showers in there which was more than enough to be refreshed for another day of sightseeing in Hanoi.

Sapa was an adventure. While people might complain about how tourism has taken over and hill tribes are now forced to cater for the tourist market and despite the fact being asked to buy things 27/7 is annoying unfortunately that is what globalisation is doing to the world. I’m pretty keen to return to Sapa one day and visit some more remote villages and possibly tackle Mt Fanispan. All in all though Sapa was truly amazing and featured a rich culture, worlds different from the Vietnamese culture you saw in other parts of the country, and was unlike anything I’d seen before.

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