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9/9/10 - 9/13/10 (sapa)


It was going to be hard to top our experience in Halong Bay but we might just have done it during our five day visit to Sapa. Sapa is located twenty minutes south of the Chinese border and resides in the Northwestern corner of Vietnam. It is at the highest elevation in the country and enjoys the coolest climate. The climate is what enticed us to extend our time in this beautiful mountain town. I wouldn’t categorize Vietnam as overly hot but the humidity is off the charts in Ha Noi. After a few stationary minutes outdoors, your perspiration builds to the equivalent of a thirty minute workout in most of the United States. 

In a valley surrounded by mountain peaks is the town center that very much reminds me of a North American ski village. The main streets are lined with a multitude of restaurants and guest stays. We arrived on the night train to Lo Cai and coordinated via the Pinnochio guest stay for transport to Sapa. The assent took an hour as we wound through the rice terrace hillside. We arrived at the Pinnochio at 8:30am and were promptly greeted by five, overly friendly H’mong tribal women as we exited the van. Their famous last line from our time in Sapa was, “you buy from me later, okay?” After checking in, we settled into our room and got some additional sleep. The overnight train never seems to allow for enough. Later that day we explored the quaint town which was bursting with hill tribe people in traditional clothing. We had worked hard in Thailand and Laos to see this traditional dress and if we would have known it was this easy in Sapa it would have altered our efforts. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon taking in the breathtaking views as the clouds descended along with the sun to cover the surrounding mountain peaks in eventual darkness. 

The next day we woke up early and decided to make a change in accommodation. The Pinnochio was located on the main strip in this ever expanding tourist stop. The dark side of the Lonely Planet effect is that once a town is “on the map”, there is no going back as these destinations eventually over expand with more restaurants, tour operators, and accommodations. Travel homogenization occurs as bus load after bus load of Westerner gets pumped into what the Thai’s like to call “same, same but different.” The irony is the charm that originally put this place on the map is stripped away in the name of modernization as these remote towns are transformed from a self sufficient ecosystem to one dependent on tourism. Sapa isn’t quite there yet but well on its way and the Pinnochio is surrounded by construction of new hotels in a constant battle to build higher for a better mountain top views. The jack hammering construction was amplified by the narrow streets and Annie and I decided for our sanity that it would be a good idea to relocate to a more tranquil part of town. We moved to the Fansipan View based on a recommendation from a friend and it turned out to be wonderfully quiet and modern.

Over the next two days we took advantage of the wonderful trekking in the Sapa area. The trekking leads you through limitless rice terraces down into the valley of the winding river. The scene was spectacular as the rice fields were golden brown and ready to be harvested. Along the trail you can visit many of the local tribal villages. We were able to get up close to the various H’mong and Red Zhao and many of them were more than willing to guide us along our journey given the fact that we buy some of their goods. We were able to explore several villages, waterfalls, and a bamboo forest. The trekking was some of the best we have done on our travels and we enjoyed wonderful weather for those two days.

The next day Annie went on a tour to visit a local market that was run by the flower H’mong tribes people as I laid low to work on a handful of projects. On our final day, the town was without power. I woke up early to photograph some of the villagers and then Annie and I spent the rest of the day buying some souviners and relaxing at local bakeries awaiting our departure on the overnight train to Ha Noi.  

Sapa was a wonderful and relaxing experience where we enjoyed some of the most spectacular sights from all of our travels, met many interesting locals, and added to an already amazing time in Vietnam. It was tough to leave the cool climate and beautiful scenery that we had enjoyed so much from our extended stay in this mountain side village. 

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