Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sapa: The Alps of Vietnam

To say I was a little discombobulated is an understatement ... after an enervating and stressful 3 week business trip to Brazil, then 25 hours of flying back to Seoul, 1 night rest in my house while fighting jet lag (a 12-hour time jump), then a 5-hour morning flight to Hanoi, I was rather out of sorts. However my crazy business trip had been scheduled just before a major Korean public holiday (Chuseok: the harvest moon festival) and I hadn't seen my girlfriend in 5 weeks so I wasn't about to change my plans. Fortunately my final destination was perhaps the most beautiful place in Vietnam, Sapa.

Flights full of restless Korean tourists, much more so than the experienced business crowd, are always a chore. I thought by booking a window seat of Vietnam Air that I had bought myself the chance for a long nap, but I was sorely mistaken. I was in a loud section full of tour group trailers and my seat neighbor was a Korean man from the countryside who may never have been on a plane before. He was talking to me in Korean, and I think was explaining that he was visiting his newly-married Vietnamese wife in Haiphong. It is common now in Korea for low-status farmers living in the countryside, devoid of domestic options, to marry Vietnamese women. Though I appreciated this man's story, I did not appreciate that he was reaching over my lap every 30 minutes to open the window shade. Dude, let me rest!

Room with a view
On little sleep, walking around central Hanoi was even more overwhelming than when wide awake. Motorbikes everywhere, noise, few sidewalks, street vendors and little plastic chairs to dodge... I just wanted a little place to sit down and relax. My girlfriend and I finally found that at the Cafe Runam coffee shop, which had an elegant, quiet and supremely comfortable set of sofas in the upstairs section. I fell into a deep nap as my girlfriend snapped photos of her sleepy boyfriend.

We took the 10pm overnight train to Lao Cai, the nearest station to Sapa. Unfortunately on the rickety Vietnamese train, perhaps not upgraded since colonial times, I was not going to get any beauty sleep. The train was loud and rode roughly over the tracks. When we arrived at 6:10am at Lao Cai, I was even more of a zombie than when we departed Hanoi. After another 75 minutes by van up winding mountain roads, we arrived at our hotel. Thankfully our hotel, the H'Mong Sapa Hotel, offered us a room for a nap while our room was being cleaned, and when we finally arrived at our room... I was blown away by the views. Wow! The mountain valley outside was majestic and so green. I loved the clean air and wispy clouds grazing the mountain tops and the little bits of morning fog still in the air. This is truly the most beautiful place in Vietnam.

After a little more rest my girlfriend and I were ready for an afternoon exploratory hike of the area. By late September we had just missed the peak of the real attraction, the rice harvest, yet we still saw many yellow rice terraces stacked up on the mountainsides. In full bloom, perhaps late August, these would have been truly spectacular. In the grassy fields nearby you see buffaloes grazing and young children running around while their parents pull the rice plants from the ground and beat the stalks against the edge of a big wooden bin, separating the rice grain from the plant. Unfortunately the harvested fields are brown and barren, so do time your Sapa trip appropriately!

On our first day we hiked downhill from our hotel to Sapa town, then further down to Cat Cat Village, a tourist attraction where ethnic minorities try to sell the clothes they have knitted. There is a nice waterfall and the walk is great for seeing the slower pace of mountain life. We watched a traditional dance performance where bored-looking teenagers went through the motions of courtship dances and the like. Fortunately a motorbike taxi spared us the grueling trek back uphill to the town. My girlfriend found a massage parlor for us, and I fell into another nap as the local woman relaxed my shoulders and neck.

Rice terraces
For our second day in Sapa we took motorbike taxis out of town to see the countryside and pass through the mountain villages. I would recommend taking the motorbike taxis rather than renting a bike yourself ... some of the roads are in treacherous shape and best handled by a professional. The drivers only spoke Vietnamese (and probably also their local language) but they were able to explain some of the attractions to my Vietnamese girlfriend. Again the landscape was beautiful, and we were only nagged by a couple children looking to sell us knick knacks. Back in Sapa town, mostly a tourist village with little ethnic feel, my girlfriend and I were able to enjoy a date night with a steak dinner.

Beating the rice grain from the stalk
For our third and final day, nature gave us a sunny day with clean air and beautiful views yet again. We took another motorbike trip to a different set of villages ... you could spend a week exploring and trekking through all of them ... and had a hike through a large cave. Unfortunately the clean air goes away later in the day as afternoon fires and set to burn the expired rice stalks, so I advise to plan your sightseeing for earlier in the day if you can wake up. Also I advise you to be careful with the "medicinal oils" in the villages ... my girlfriend dumped one on my hand and it inflamed my skin.

It's a beautiful day!
The van ride back down to the Lao Cai train station was a little frightening... the reckless driver careening at high speed down the windy road made my girlfriend feel ill ... but thankfully I sleep better on the overnight train ride back to Hanoi. Definitely pack a pair of ear plugs if you are a light sleeper! An early morning walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and a couple strong cups of ca phe sua da were just the thing to wake me up! There are more attractions to see in Hanoi, of course, but my previous trip there ticked most of those boxes. With my long-distance relationship now firmly established, and only limited time to spend together before my overnight return flight to Seoul, those attractions could wait for another day...

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