They say it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. However, it’s not always the case. For anyone who’s travelled by night bus in Vietnam, you’ll know the gut wrenching feeling as the driver attempts a 3 car overtake on a blind corner, hurling you from one side of your coffin-like cabin to the other. For those who haven’t, you’re fortunate. The 6 hour journey began at 10pm in the old quarter of Hanoi and headed north on the typically poor roads that connect the disparate towns throughout Vietnam. Any hope of getting some sleep was soon diminished by the bumps in the road and the reckless actions of the driver. The coach journey to any mountain village is always treacherous, but this was on another level.
We finally arrived just as I had managed to drift off. Half asleep and stiff as a board, I clambered from the coach into the dead of the night. The difference in temperature was remarkable- the humidity of Hanoi was no more, and instead a bitter cold that chilled to the core. The town itself was eerily quiet at this hour with only the faint glow of street lights casting shadows down the main street.
Three hours after our arrival in the town, the first rays of sunshine shine over the mountain peaks to the east and market traders begin to emerge from their dwellings. By day, the bustling market town attracts an increasing number of tourists. The French colonisation of Indochina in the 19th Century is still plain to see and the town has a similar feel to an Alpine ski resort in the Haute Savoie Alps, and at 1500m above sea level, it certainly could be. The surrounding Hoàng Liên Son mountain range is is home to Fansipan, the tallest peak in Vietnam at 3,143m.
Sapa or “Sa Pa” is situated in the Lao Cai province in Northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. The mountainous area is home to a number of ancient tribal groups such as Black Hmong, Red Dao, Pho Lu and Tay, who farm the terraced rice fields and thrive off the emerging tourist trade in the region.
At 8am I meet our guide, Sao- a Black Hmong local who would guide us through the hills for the next couple of days. Instantly I’m taken aback by her stature. Barely reaching my waist, this miniscule lady looks no older than 13 yet carries a baby on her back. The Hmong people originated in Southern China and are believed to have migrated to Vietnam in the late 18th century.
As we depart from the town in pursuit of our pocket sized guide, elder Hmong locals follow on all enquiring of our nationalities in broken English. No sooner than we hit the trail, the sheer beauty of the landscape becomes apparent; the hillside, covered in rice terraces as far as the eye can see comes into view as the early morning fog begins to lift, only to disappear once more into the ethereal mist. The higher peaks to the East tower over us as we enter the village at which we stop for lunch. Children run out energetically to greet us as we approach, pulling on our clothes, incessantly fixated on our presence. Not far behind emerge the village women who try relentlessly to sell all manner of goods: hand woven bags; hemp cloth; bracelets and shawls. The emergence of the tourist trade in these parts has brought rise to a new sales opportunity which the locals take full advantage of.
After a warm bowl of Pho we set off once more. The unmistakable sound of running water is recognisable in the distance as we approach the aptly named ‘Love Falls’- a spectacular cascading waterfall aided by the recent rainfall which looked to return any minute. People congregate to get a picture in front of the falls and locals drive their hard sell once more. Averting the eyes is the best way to avoid being targeted. The sky is ominous now and the dark clouds cast a dangerous looking shadow over the hillside. We quickly head to the homestay in which we will spend the night in the next village, and before we’ve even reached the crooked looking structure, we’re greeted by a young couple and their daughter. Instantly we feel at home. The sleeping quarters are basic to say the least, but the shelter is welcome as the heavens open. We spend the evening playing cards and drinking rice wine before retiring to bed early, having been awake for almost 36 hours.
The following morning we wake early to the sound of unrelenting rain pounding the tin roof. Strong coffee with condensed milk- a personal favourite of Vietnam’s offerings- is served with fruit and cereal for breakfast. Soon after, the rain subsides and we begin to pack up our things before heading out onto the trails which have become treacherously slippery after a night of heavy rainfall. The rice fields have started to overflow and the water is spilling from one terrace to the next. The guidebook images which depicted lush green hillsides couldn’t be further from what lay ahead, and with the poor weather set to continue, we head back towards the town.
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