The overnight train from Hanoi deposited us indecently early in Lao Cai. They’re used to accommodating crumpled travellers in this part of northwest Vietnam, and we were soon readily cruising, hustled into a minivan – six of us counting the driver, another Vietnamese guy, and a French couple, Stephanie and Sofie from the train, with whom we’d agreed that the term “soft sleeper” is a bit of a fib, really.
Over a couple of circuits of Lao Cai (a fair-sized town squatting on the Vietnam/China border) the van filled to capacity, collecting a Vietnamese man, two H’mong women, then another young man.
Cosily wedged in our seats, we watched the town slowly wake. Buildings thinned, and we settled in for the hour-long (38km) trip to Sapa, a stunning mountain village perched in the cloud shroud of Vietnam’s Hoàng Liên Mountains. A group of teenage boys waved us past – the bus slowed, and their greeting transformed into a flag fall. Seven, eight, nine pairs of legs, flailing arms, wriggling torsos jiggled around us until the minivan occupant tally hit 18.
I had the good fortune to be next to a window, and the misfortune of sharing the middle seats with nine hyperactive testosterone packages, an older man, and my partner. The lack of feeling in my squashed, anaesthetised legs was easily restored by mountainous scenery: rice paddies, waterfalls, emerald hillsides. Compressed, yes, but enjoying the adventure.
Until one of the kids got a little carsick. Followed by a couple of his playmates.
The filling of plastic bags with bile didn’t last long, and soon our bus was a melange of worn out adolescents, sleeping like a litter of puppies. By the time we reached Sapa, we’d morphed into a facsimile of post-crash pose, the soles of my shoes against the ceiling, a new friend curled asleep on my knees.
In 1992, Sapa boasted two guesthouses. Now, there are more than 80, plus a couple of mainly foreign-owned hotels. For less than $10 a night, we stayed at Morning Star guesthouse, on Fansipan (or PhanSiPang) Street. Our room was dominated by a large window, flanked by mosquito-netted beds, offering a vista of 180° eco-lush valley, mountains, rice terraces, across to Mount Fanzipan, Vietnam’s highest peak.
The eight-room guesthouse is owned by Sapa denizens Hoa and Dien Nguyêŉ, and run by their 21-year-old son, Tam. The Nguyêŉs, ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), opened Morning Star last year, after running a store in the markets and working as schoolteachers. Tam’s grandmother was the first schoolteacher in Sapa.
A farm in the hills, a nearby garden with pigs, chickens, rabbit, and ducks, and a market garden behind the guesthouse supply the adjoining restaurant. Chef Hanh Nguyêŉ creates meals based on an enigmatic combination of guests’ requests and family appetites.
Tourism sustains Sapa, once a languid farming town. “Discovered” by a Jesuit priest in 1918, the town was developed by the French from 1932 as a health resort. The French moved many of the existing minority settlements out of town, built a church, some hotels, an aerodrome, 200-odd villas, and a hydro-electric power station, as well as creating road links with nearby towns Lao Cai and Lao Chai. Since 1945, Sapa has been governed under the Vietnamese political system. A brief (two week) armed assault by the Chinese in 1979 was conquered only after most of Sapa’s buildings (and many others in the region) were razed. The “shabby chic” appeal of the town’s existing buildings owes more to humidity than history!
Ten years ago, travellers started visiting, and their numbers have increased exponentially since. The attendant tourism bits have followed slowly – you’ll find few Western concessions, to palate or for entertainment, except perhaps in the larger hotels. Similarly, if you’re lucky, you won’t find too many Western faces roaming the streets – the narrow majority of Sapa’s visitors are Vietnamese on holidays. Postcard sellers who approach strangers at every corner in Saigon and Hanoi have been slow to reach here, too. One new arrival – fleeing fierce competition in Hanoi three months earlier – was enjoying the relative luxury of being one of only ten postcard boys working Sapa’s tourists.
Earlier to embrace the tourists were the clusters of minority women, dazzling in traditional costume, surrounding each new Sapa arrival to sell embroidery and silver. Mainly H’mong and Dao (pronounced “Zao”) people, their appearance is not unfamiliar to anyone with access to the National Geographic channel, but stunning, nonetheless.
Over 54 ethnic groups inhabit Vietnam, and it is in the north where most reside. Many minorities, like the H’mong and Dao, arrived from southern China over various centuries. Some H’mong fled the Ching Dynasty. Many others immigrated in the late 19th century to augment guerrilla forces opposing French colonists – from 1905-1945, the French faced at least seven minority revolts.
Minorities are Sapa’s mainstream: half of the population is H’mong, and a further 25% are Dao. Other groups, including Tay and Giay, also dwell here. Their hands are dyed indigo from the dyes they use in their clothing. Hands, necks, ears clink silver. The women wear layers of bright embroidered hemp, long waistcoats, patterned belts and sleeves, dark leggings (puttees), and cylindrical hats (H’mong) or shaven eyebrows and heads underneath red turbans with tassels and silver coins (Dao).
Dao legend states that a five-colour canine ancestor once killed an army general, and was rewarded by marriage to a princess. She gave birth to the twelve Dao tribes, and Dao embroidery features the five colours of the sacred dog. Hemp embroidery is locally crafted into bags, belts, cushions, and blankets. The tribes’ silver jewellery is traditionally crafted from old French coins.
Passion for sale
The minority people have walked kilometres from nearby towns to the market in Sapa, and others such as the Sunday market in the nearby town of Bac Hai, for generations. Their journeys are sometimes not just for trade.
Saturday night, Sapa’s love market is open for H’mong and Dao business. Men and women sing to each other in low monotones, or play instruments, simultaneously somersault-tumbling and whirling, flaunting acrobatic prowess. They may be seeking a wife or husband, or may (often with spousal approval) be looking for a bit of fun, according to Tam Ngyuen:
“When they have a family already, both husband and wife may come [to the love markets] anyway!”
Tam tells us that happy couples may be found in each other’s arms around the square in Sapa at dawn on Sunday. We saw none, nor did we hear any low-pitched love songs – tourism possibly driving the minorities to other villages to woo. However, displays of musical prowess surrounded us on Saturday night. The kheň, a long, spidery wood instrument, the tiny keň mo’i flute, and the flute-like sáo, were played by H’mong men to growing congregations (potential lovers?) in Sapa’s streets and main square. These were the same instruments that had accompanied a show of typical minority dances on the portico of Villa #1, a government-run hotel, but more agreeably played on the street.
Tracks that H’mong, Dao, and other villagers walk every day provide tourists’ jaunts from a neat easy wander to longer treks.
Easily hiking through clouds, one trail casually winds from the end of Fansipan Street, broadly spiralling down the valley to an arresting waterfall before rising past the tiny village of Cat Cat. A valley-view walk takes about three hours, and the cruisiest neighbourhood stroll traverses Ham Rong mountain to a disused radio station and through orchid and flower gardens.
The other end of the strolling spectrum includes two-day walks through minority villages, or a 15km trail past Cat Cat and Lao Chai, to Giang Ta Chai – a picturesque route passing streams, waterfalls, and sharp fertile scenery. Cheats can grab a motorbike back to Sapa rather than returning on tired legs.
Once, tigers, leopards, the Asiatic black bear, binturong, and the Western Black Crested Gibbon inhabited this region, which has been protected since 1986 as the Nui Hoàng Liên Nature Reserve. Most are now extinct or extremely endangered. The reserve recently received further funding from the European Union for sustainable development projects. Many resident animals and birds are only found here. Within the reserve area of 30 square kilometres, less than 12km of natural forest remains. This is still used for local livelihood, so it’s unlikely that walkers will see more than a few antelope along the way. More evident are cleared areas for buffalo grazing, ginger plantations, and rice paddies.
Further into the forest of the Hoàng Liên Mountains – the highest range in Indochina – the leaves close in. At between 2,500 and 2,800 metres above sea level, the forest is a misty “elfin forest”, with gnarled trees, mosses, lichens, and orchids.
These orchids surround you all around Sapa, and some of the most enchanting restaurants in town feature stone-slab outdoor tables set in individual orchid and fern garden courtyards. The Bich Nģọc restaurant, at the top of four thick wooden steps across the street from the mini-stadium and next door to the Sapa’s church, offers a chilled respite from the market throngs. Diners sit under an orchid-laden trellis or in individual leafy nooks and peer through plants potted in mossy stone, rusting tins, and hollowed out tree roots, observing the bartering and socialising on the street below. It’s a great place for a late breakfast after a morning of monsoon showers – try fried bread and noodles with wood ear mushrooms, beans, onion, and tomatoes, accompanied by strong, earthy Vietnamese tea to launch a laid-back day. The prices are guilt-inducing, too. A meal, including a couple of drinks, will cost two people less than $10.
Other restaurants take advantage of the extraordinary views afforded many of Sapa’s buildings. The Gerbera, accessed via a stone staircase off Caumay Street, has a top-floor pop-up room with a half a dozen tables, all placed alongside windows to take advantage of panorama on three sides. Depending on the day’s weather, a meal here can begin in misty clouds and end with dappled sunlit views across to Mount Fansipan, with enormous, floppy brown-wing butterflies hogging your line of sight.
The restaurant at the Morning Star guesthouse also delights: we snacked on light, crispy spring rolls, a fulfilling egg and tomato soup, and aromatic stir-fried vegetables and rice. A pig had been killed the morning we arrived, and my partner savoured the crispy, sweet spiced pork dish presented to him later.
Although well acquainted with tourism, the town of Sapa charms without falling into twee cliché. Many of the travellers waiting for the last night train back to Hanoi when we arrived in Lao Cai must have stayed in Sapa; we were mainly unaware of each other’s existence. The region draws us outdoors, providing vast space for all – for the moment, at least.
Morning Star Guesthouse, PhanSiPang Street, Sapa, Lao Cai Province.
ph: (020) 871 738
Overnight trains leave Hanoi station daily. A one-way ticket costs around $12. A much more comfortable way to overnight it is via the five-star Victoria Express, which can be booked through large hotels in Hanoi or your travel agent.