Friday, December 12, 2008

The highlands of Vietnam: Sapa and Bac Ha


Destination: Sapa and Bac Ha, Vietnam (The northern hill towns of Vietnam)

Number of Days there: 4

One thing unexpected: Holy crap it's cold here at night!!!

Times we took the: Boat: 1; Bus/Minivan: 5; Train/Subway: 2 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorbike: 2 days

Where we stayed: Sapa - Queen Hotel ($10 US) Decent place with a wood fireplace. We stayed on the top floor (7th) and had great views of the valley; Bac Ha - Hoang Vu ($10 US) OK, we ran out of hot water after one shower, but they are spacious rooms complete with an Alice in Wonderland style tea set and chairs (they miniaturize EVERYTHING here :-))

Favorite Restaurant: Highland Bakery - This place had the best bread and other baked goods we have had in all of SEA and rivals some of the best at home - no joke! A super cute puppy running around the place that looked more like a toy than a dog put it over the top in our books.

Best of: Out of this world views of rice terrace covered mountains, colorful Sunday Market in Bac Ha

Worst of: The "love" market, where local tribal youths use to mingle and meet, was so overrun with tourists snapping photos that it is longer relevant.

Special Moments: The lady literally carrying a tree on her back up a hill - trunk and all, Watching arguments at the Bac Ha Market by the colorfully adorned Flower H'mong ladies.

After our wonderfully relaxing cruise around Halong bay, we caught the van - ferry - van - big bus - taxi - back of two motorbikes - overnight train - van to Sapa...bags in tow the whole way. Did I lose you there? Thought so. After finally arriving into Sapa we wandered around town and soaked in the experience for the remainder of the day exhausted from the journey.

The nice couple we met in Hanoi had explained that Sapa had four seasons in one day: Spring in the morning, Summer in the afternoon, Fall in the evening, and Winter at night. This proved to be true as the temperatures and climate changed according to the time of day. We went from wearing shorts and sweating buckets in the afternoon to burning firewood and bundling up at night with the down comforters. Aside from the unique weather, Sapa is filled during the days with all the local villagers coming to town to hawk their wares to all the tourists. Make no mistake about it, Sapa is all about the tourists. Other than the rice trade, they don't have many other sources of income. It could get a little tiresome at times walking down the street and constantly being asked to buy something, take a tour, rent a motorbike, etc. but it comes with the territory. Despite all this Sapa is truly an amazing place. The mountains covered with rice terracing down their slopes is out of this world stunningly beautiful. The people are also about as friendly as they come, regardless if you buy anything from them or not. There was a group of about four women that we kept running across the whole time we were there and we chatted it up with them from time to time. Their English is well polished from talking to foreigners all day and they walk two hours each way just to get to Sapa everyday.

We decided that the next two days we would rent a motorbike and run over to the markets in Bac Ha and Can Cau. Can Cau market runs on Saturday mornings and is only 8km's from the Chinese boarder. The villagers in this area don't recognize the borders of the two countries and freely cross between the two. As a result, apparently they sell Chinese wares duty free. Sadly, we don't know if that is true as we never made it to Can Cau. On our way there early in the morning on Saturday we stopped and asked for directions at an intersection. The guys at the motorcycle repair shop pointed to the road to the left as the right way to go. Two hours later and on the wrong side of the river, we realized that we would have to turn back around and go down the same road we had just come in order to get to Bac Ha. We had ended up in Coc Ly, a tiny village that also has a market on Tuesdays. They are in the process of building a bridge

across the river, but it's not finished. The day was not entirely lost however. Along the dirt road to Coc Ly, we passed a little lady carrying an entire tree - trunk and all on her back up a hill, forded three creeks on our motorbike...twice (each way), and watched a little girl riding on the back of a water buffalo. Sometimes the best memories happen when you are lost!

We eventually made it to Bac Ha and got up early for the Sunday Market. Unlike any market you have ever seen or been in, Bac Ha was truly a unique experience. It starts off with everyone getting set up for the day. The smoke from all the fires going is blinding at times. On top of the fires sit huge pots of Horse, Dog, Pork or Chicken parts stewing in a broth like substance. All the colorful H'mong villagers have gathered and are eating whatever is coming out of the pots served with noodles and chatting the morning away. You then realize that this is as much of a market as it is a social gathering once a week. Getting dressed up in their "Sunday finest" they all come down from the surrounding villages bringing with them all the clothing, yarn, and other wares they wish to sell. The livestock portion of the market was even more interesting. Squealing pigs getting stuffed into feed sacks as they are bartered for fill the air. All the animals are separated into sections. There are pig, horse, buffalo, cow, chicken & duck sections and much to our dismay there was of course the sad faces of the dog section. It was sad in one way, but you realize that to them, this is normal. They have lived this way for hundreds of years and just a part of life. The most entertaining part came from the village women. We saw two different yelling matches between a customer and the shop keeper. We have no idea what they were saying, but it was entertaining to see the one yelling at the other and picking up bundles of yarn and throwing at her. The "security" guard even had to step in one time and a little girl was in tears over the ordeal. The women also provided us with a nose clearing spectacle that was as disgusting as well as entertaining (you can 1 finger on 1 nostril and blow over the street corner...wipe hand and then repeat with alternate nostril). We spent the entire morning just wandering around and watching all the villagers just doing their thing regardless of the tourists that had accumulated by mid morning.

Back on our bike, we headed back to Sapa to make it there before dark. We stopped off in Lao Cai to purchase our train tickets, got a late lunch, and promptly got lost in town trying to find our way back to Sapa. After Jason had finished giving his free tour of Lao Cai...three times...we finally found the road we were supposed to be on and started the climb back up to Sapa. As the sun was setting, the mountains and rice fields came to life set in the bright light shining directly across the hills. We stopped no less than a dozen times just to take in and admire the view.

Our last day in Sapa, we took a little hike down to Cat Cat Village, the closest "village" to Sapa. I would like to say that it was worth it, but it was a way too touristy and all the kids wanted to do was to ask you for money. The waterfall at the bottom was ok, but that was about it. Should you find yourself in Sapa, skip Cat Cat and opt for some of the other villages to hike to and explore or better yet rent a motorbike and get out to the countryside. There are plenty of villages comprised of the 10 Montagnard groups (Flower Hmong, Zhan, Giay, Han, Phula, Thai, Lachi, etc) each with different customs and their own unique colorful apparel. We finished the afternoon before we caught the van back to the train station in our favorite little bakery having a cup of coffee and playing with the puppy. Yes, we know, not very exciting - but we loved it anyways.

Boarding the train, we headed back to Hanoi for the day, then on to Hue on the night train!

To see more pictures of Sapa click here!
To see more pictures of Bac Ha pick here!

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