Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer 2012 - 9th Stop: Sapa

And now for something completely different, here's Sapa! This charming mountain town was certainly a huge change of scenery from, not only Hanoi but, anywhere else we've been on the trip so far. And a welcome change too! After enduring a few long travel days, and then being engulfed by the chaos of Hanoi, it was nice to escape into a world of our own. High above the clouds and reigning over the rolling, green hills below, Sapa was everything we hoped it would be, and certainly three days very well spent.

We arrived in the town of Lao Cai on the Chinese border, after a very pleasant 9 hour night train, before jumping on a minibus to take us the rest of the way. And that 45 minute ride from the station introduced us to the best and the worst that Sapa had to offer - from the breathtaking views and dramatic scenery, to the torrential downpour that greeted us on our arrival. Thankfully, the weather didn't affect us too much in our time here, as I know it can be unpredictable at best. We just had to wait it out, have breakfast and enjoy the views from our balcony until the rain died down.

Not a bad view to pass the time though!

And as soon as we had the all clear, we were out the gap, taking a stroll around the tiny town centre, before trekking downhill to the nearby Cat Cat Village, home of the Black H'Mong tribe. Actually, just to backtrack a bit, when I said earlier that the worst thing about Sapa was the weather - forget that. The worst thing about Sapa were the tribe members who would follow you incessantly trying to sell you things! They just don't leave you alone! In Sapa itself, it's fine, no problems, but as soon as you venture out into the countryside, it's a different story. Three women latched onto us on our walk down to the Cat Cat Village, and we just couldn't shake them. We tried speeding up, slowing down, no use. We even went up to a viewpoint for about 20 minutes and they waited for us at the bottom! (We also made a video diary up there for Phonsavan, Hanoi and Sapa. Have a look!)

We finally got rid of them as we entered the village, (I think they may not be allowed to follow tourists in) but they assured us that they'd be outside waiting when we were finished and even tried to get us to pinky-promise that we'd buy something from them later. We didn't promise them anything, and although we knew we'd have to face them again later, for now we were free!

The village itself was quite nice, with lovely views of the surrounding hills and a little waterfall at the bottom. There were some more people trying to sell you things along the way, but at least they just stayed in their stalls and didn't follow you down the street!

The village just loops around downhill all the way, along by the river and then there's the slow climb back up to Sapa. A few locals on motorbikes hang around at the exit, preying on lazy tourists who don't have the energy or patience to walk back. But where most people would see an easy way out, we saw opportunity! So, we jumped on a moto and made our way back uphill - not to avoid the steep climb, but to bypass the three H'Mong women waiting for us at the entrance! We even saw them calling after us as we zoomed by. Ah well, try following us now, bitches!

We just relaxed for the rest of the evening in our hotel room - Sapa Elegance Hotel, really nice place! 

The next day, our plan was to visit the Tram Ton Pass, the highest road in Vietnam, 15km from Sapa. Much too far to walk of course, so we had to arrange an alternate method of transport. And then, just when you thought I couldn't get any cooler, this happens!

Yup, we rented a motorbike for the day! I had never driven one before, and it was a bit of a baptism of fire having my first experience on these windy (and windy!) mountain roads. I have to admit, I was a bit nervy at first, taking it around the block for a test drive, but I soon got the hang of it, even riding down to the petrol station for a refill. I was feeling pretty good about myself, confidence high as I went back to pick up Aisling, ready to set off when the bike man added, "by the way, that's a woman's bike...". A nice kick in the groin for my confidence there. But we really had a great time, and although I'd never drive one in a built up area, I'd certainly get one if we're ever in a quiet, scenic place like this again.

And even though it was quite misty all day, obscuring most of the views, we still had one of our most enjoyable days of the holiday so far. Riding a motorbike is surprisingly fun! Even a women's one! It's like riding a normal bike but faster and with no effort, who'da thunk it?! The mist did clear slightly every so often too, just enough to give us a brief glimpse of the views below, and a taste of how amazing it would be on a clear day.

On our last day in Sapa, we reverted back to travelling on foot, this time walking to nowhere in particular. We were originally planning on going to another nearby village, but we just didn't want the hassle of being hounded again. But even then, we were followed every so often. We still didn't have the heart to tell them to 'f*ck off', so this time we just pretended not to speak English. It was somewhat successful and maybe the H'Mong picked up a few words of Gaeilge too for themselves! Everyone's a winner!

The scenery here, although less mountainous, was equally as stunning, with lush, green rice terraces flowing across the landscape like an endless, patchwork quilt. And even though we weren't going to see anything in particular, we still had a really lovely day, just enjoying the natural beauty of Sapa.

And sadly, that was the end of our time here. That evening we got a bus back to Lao Cai for our return train to Hanoi. And after another very pleasant night's sleep, we were in Hanoi once more. 

On the bright side, we were only in town for a few hours as we were leaving for Halong Bay at 8am. And on the even brighter side, Tu Linh Palace had told us to come back to the hotel for free breakfast and a free room until the bus arrived to collect us! I know I've said it before, but seriously like! And bear in mind, we had checked out from this place 4 days ago, and had no plans to stay there again. Best hotel ever? I think so!

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