17 February 2010

OMG: Sapa is Just Sooooooooooooo AMAZING!!!

SAPA is a small town located on a highland and mountainous district that’s bordering China in the northwest part of Vietnam. I had only known about it quite recently from the segment for kids in an in-flight magazine and decided to put it in the list of my travelling destinations to Vietnam. While any other mean of transportation might take you days to reach Sapa, it is most convenient to get there by train.

Well, just a little bit of personal encounter here, buying a train ticket to Sapa can be quite confusing. Not only most of the websites on the internet look dodgy and unreliable(at least to me), there are just so many carriages run by different companies although I had come to find out later that they are actually parts of the same train. Well, fret not. You can always buy your ticket through your hotel OR from any of the tourist info booths in Hanoi. Thanks to the eye-catching 10%, I actually bought my ticket from here.
USD40 for a 4-berth cabin with SOFT-SLEEPER. Believe me, you wouldn’t even get any ticket of that price from any of the websites in the internet.
While USD40 (RM140) seems to be quite expensive, you gotta bear in mind that it is an overnight train ride (8 hours!)– you are actually saving some of your money on at least two nights of accommodation.
Train to Sapa is nothing like the Eurostar but I would say it is actually OK. It can be tormenting or fun, depending on how adventurous you are. It’s like riding on a rollercoaster where you gotta be sleepy enough to get asleep. LOL!
If you’re into toilet paper (and not water), it is just advisable to bring a roll for your need. A guy from London whom I shared a cabin with kept asking around if anybody had brought a toilet paper and nobody did. I tried to convince him that it was OK to use water but he said,”No no. I’m from London. We don’t use water there”. Well, OK. Whatever you London people. Thanks to the beer I had had with Duan earlier on, I fell asleep almost instantly upon laying down on the mattress. The first time I woke up, I was already in Lao Cai!
Reaching the city of Lao Chai in the wee hours of the day, I promptly jumped into a bus (400,000 dongs/RM8) where I was asked to take off my shoes and took an hour ride off to Sapa.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of Sapa. Sapa is just so beautiful I felt like crying when I got there.
I didn’t research much about it so I was there almost expecting the unexpected. I didn’t even book a hotel room. But things just fell into places once I stepped off the bus and out into the cold air of Sapa.
YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN SAPA when you get instantly swamped by hordes of people with motorbikes offering you a room at hotels they each represent for.
Believe me, they wouldn’t stop following you until you have decided where to stay. Hotel rooms in Sapa can be quite pleasantly cheap though. I mean, where else can you get a hotel room like this for USD7 per night?
And a view like this right through the window?
And this from the veranda?
Ohhh, unless you’re not planning to take a single shower during your days in Sapa, you gotta make sure that the water heater is functional. It’s BURRRRRRR there especially in the morning.
Being in Sapa in a misty morning is like being in some mountainous town in the middle of Europe but later when it gets warm and actually hot in the afternoon, I felt like I was thrown to some outback little town in Mexico or probably Sicily – it is pleasantly windy and dusty. There were times when I felt like being in the movie set of The Godfather where Michael Corleone was sent into the hiding after killing the police chief at the restaurant. Ok, pardon me. I just lurrrrrvvvv that movie quite too much. :=P
The beauty of Sapa doesn’t lay solely on its majestic mountains and beautiful town and terraced rice fields but also very much on its native people – the Vietnamese tribal group of H'mong.
While most native people in many parts of the worlds DO wear traditional costumes during a local festival, the H'mong people wear their traditional Hmong costumes EVERYDAY as their daily outfits.
And believe me, with the unique tribal outfits that they have on everywhere they go, they are simply some of the most photogenic people in the world.
First up: breakfast. While it is quite difficult to find a decent restaurant with decent meals in Sapa, I found this place quite outstanding.
Not only its location allows you to see the whole Sapa Market through the window, it actually offers quite a good variety of (European?) foods.
This triple-layered Mocha Latte is a must- taste there! Seriously, it was soooooooooooooooooo good to my tongue it made me wonder if the likes of Coffee Bean and Starbucks would ever make any business here in Sapa AT ALL. I had always been a big fan of anything with coffee and this one that they’ve got here is just so electrifyingly umppppphhh!
Even the chocolate-stuffed tart was so richly flavored it was actually beginning to make me a little dizzy when I started taking a spoonful. No joke. I’d never tasted such a strong flavor of chocolate before.
This one here was just as good. I wasn’t really a foodie but the foods they had were just so irresistible.
Ohhhh, and they have a fire stove placed in the middle of the cafe to keep you warm! 
Done with the breakfast, I was all set to hit into the Sapa Market. Located right in the middle of Sapa town, Sapa Open Market is just so interesting to explore.
It is the place where the Hmong women spend most of their time knitting clothes.
And also a place where you tend to buy things almost AGAINST your will.
Not only because they smile a lot, but some of them are just too cute to ignore..
Ohhh, and I should have known that the ideas of the nanny-like Dutch traditional costumes had originated from the Hmong. LOL!
My idea of experiencing the culture of H'mong people in the best way possible was…… To turn myself into one!
Being a Hmong now, I was ready to explore what Sapa had to offer for me. Mind to tell you that while Sapa is full of mountainous countryside, one has to expect a lot of uphill trekking. In this case, your level of fitness is right in the bag. It is also the reason why the ability of riding a motorbike is such a BIG advantage for any traveler to Sapa. :-)
Despite the little incident with a motorbike in Phuket, I refused to be traumatized by it by renting a bike AGAIN. But my main reason was more of my being not quite good at saying NO to poor people. Believe me, the poverty-stricken Hmong people are very good in pulling the strings of sympathy out of people like me. I didn’t want to turn my trip to Sapa into some kind of charity spree and end up returning to Malaysia as a damn broke man.
Their children have the ability of smiling the first minute and crying the second. I wouldn’t say they are good actors because they really are poor but they really know how to melt your heart. Take my words for this, but they are too lovable to say NO to.
Getting to Saigon and later Hanoi had made me so grateful that it was the British who colonized us and not the French. I mean, OK seemed to be the only proper English word that is said by most people in Hanoi and Saigon. I even cursed the hotel that I stayed in Hanoi for putting in a receptionist who could not even say a single word in English. He kept staring and winking at me when I asked for the bag that I had left under their care to be returned to me. I was expecting the worse in Sapa but how wrong I was. Many of Hmong people can speak English VERY WELL!
My real journey began by taking a downhill road through the town of Sapa.
And later out to the countryside. I was instantly mesmerized.
Every now and then I’d stop to take in the heart-stopping breath-taking views.
And of course to take pictures of this Hmong guy WITH the scenic terraced rice fields in the background..
I was expecting a super smooth ride. Instead, problem came in the form of……… water.
I tried my best to stay off the water but still…
I should have worn a pair of sandals. It didn’t deter my enthusiasm in exploring further into the scenic countryside though. The sun would dry it out eventually. A little bit of discomfort but it was OK. It was nothing compared to more things that I came upon later.
And these kids shouted out ‘Hey. One dollar for one picture!’ when I took this picture of them here. You see, blame it on the excessive tourism exposure; they really know how to make money nowadays.
One thing I’ve gotta tell you is the fact that Hmong kids are not afraid of strangers at all. I think they’ve never been taught to stay away from strangers like us here in Malaysia.
There are just so fearless, almost oblivious to strangers around.
I guess the hardship in life has toughened them up somehow.
After a long ride along the zig-zagging road across hills and mountains, I finally arrived in a Hmong village.
Well, there’s no way you can get away from the peddlers. After all, you are in their territory.
We shouldn’t underestimate the Hmong people though. They might be stricken with poverty but they’ve actually got…………….. Astro!
Yes, they do. Don’t play play ohh. I wonder if they even watch the likes of American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, or even Glee perhaps.
And I just lurrrrrvvvvvvvvvvv this flower tree here. It is a natural landscape maker.
It’s like the plants they put at the front door of each house comes the New Lunar Year.
The countryside of Sapa is just so picturesque I couldn’t stop taking photos. With so many photos taken I actually had some difficulty in choosing which ones to post in.
Seriously, even a lame photographer like me can make not-so-bad photo out of anything here in Sapa. With the scenic beautiful view in the background, you can take picture of anything and it would still be good. You see, I took a photo of a chick and it wasn’t bad.
I took a photo of a buffalo, and it turned out OK.
A dog.
A pig.
A cow.
Not bad AT ALL. And even when I took a piece of shit, it was still OK!
Hehe. Ohhh, and I was just so impressed by the abundance of energy drained out of people to erect these.
They are all hand-made. I mean, HAND-MADE.
I was actually trying to find the best spot where I could see the whole valley of Sapa from a high standing point. For that reason, I ventured taking this junction.
I was glad I did. I came to the right spot.
Goshh. I had only seen anything like this in movies.
With the wind blowing up from the valley, I was soothed down to a nap.
I must have been asleep for quite awhile before the sun and the rustling sound of the wind-blown bushes woke me up. I really wished I could stay there for long but it was located within a private compound and I didn’t want to get charged for trespassing.
I was returning to my rented bike when a group of Hmong kids suddenly came out of nowhere and ran towards me.
To tell you the truth, the traditional costume that I had on wasn’t actually the right outfit for men and I was too late to realize. The right one is this.
I was so positive nobody was going to take notice of it. How wrong I was. Even the H'mong kids were fully aware of it they were giving me a big laugh. And there I was, being the laughing object of a group of Hmong kids. I felt so much like a clown.
All I had wanted to do was being one of them and I screwed it all up by picking the wrong outfits.
They must have been finally got tired of laughing at me they began to leave me alone after quite awhile. Watching them playing around was such a beautiful experience. I mean, it really is a reminder of some kind that you don’t have to be rich to be happy.
The sight of them playing around would linger in me for a very long time. I can’t even explain it in words but it was just BEAUTIFUL. I returned to the Sapa town to have this for lunch.
Errrr, it didn’t really taste as good as it had looked. Craving for some hot chili, I ventured taking some of the pieces out of this. Oh man…. How I regretted it later.
Seriously, we do eat some stinky fermented stuff back in Sabah but this one they’ve got here in Vietnam is just so piercing and smothering! It was like the smell that I got from the back- alley streets all over Hanoi.
My appetite was instantly killed I had to put the ‘infected’ noodle soup aside and ordered these to go on with my lunch.
They were both grilled. They were actually good.
There goes my lunch of the day.
After taking some rest back at the hotel room, I took a little ride off to the higher areas of Sapa. It was a road that would lead me to another district called Lai Chau (pronounced 'Lan Chau'?).
Of course there were more interesting things to see.
But I was actually there for the sunset.
It really was amazing to watch the sun diminishing behind the wall of mountains.
I had to get back to the hotel when it was beginning to get too dark and cold.
The hotel had been so kind to prepare a special dinner for us. Goshhh. It was a spread of wonderful dishes we had on the table!
In fact, they turned out to be the best dishes I’ve had in my entire trip to Vietnam. And just as I asked for water, they served me with this.
Rice wine! Rice wine in Sapa is nothing like our rice wine back in Sabah. Believe me, it was the strongest alcoholic drink I had ever tasted in my entire life! It was just so strong it felt like a burning sensation through my throat. And they wouldn’t even let me drink water!

Out of Sapa local customary, rice was the last to be served. And I don’t have to remind you that Vietnamese rice is some of the best in the world. It was just fabulous. I could simply eat a bowl of Vietnamese rice without any other food to come with it.
Somehow it felt so good to be having a conversation with a group of strangers and still could talk about a lot of things. Mr. Owner told how he his wife had left him to marry a French guy. Just so happened he received a phone call from his little son all the way from Nice, France later that night and he became  even happier. And of course, happier means more wine. URghhhh.
And Mr. Greg from England told us how he had bought the ticket to MJ’s supposedly last concert in London. Of course, the concert never got materialized.

It was such a wonderful night. As long as I wanted to stay, I had to ask to be excused when I began to feel like the walls were beginning to fall over me. What a wonderful day it had been for me in Sapa. I couldn’t wait to explore further of Sapa the next day..


aud said...

Wah, you really embraced the culture by wearing their costume ! Even if it's the wrong one :) it's the thought that counts.

Sapa does look very nice, I'd like to go there some day.

Dinner food looks yummy.

kenwooi said...

the place looks very beautiful.. reminds me harewood house when i visited UK 2 months ago.. it's a bad thing malaysia doesnt have such view eh? haha.. =)


chegu carol said...

jipp...those were precious memories. totally different kind of life over there altho i think time kita dulu2 kici or way before, the scene would probably be the same.

but your pictures really brought me there. ..and the kids, doii bah....playground durang yg siring2 bukit bah kan...

btw, why were you asked to take off your shoes as soon as you arrived at Sapa?

JIPP said...

Aud: Yupp, wrong costume. I actually bought the right one. now i can always use it here in Sabah. hehe. 100% recommended you should go there.
Kenwooi: Yupp, we are short of places like Sapa. Cameron Highland is not even close. Hehe.
Carol: Yuppp, exactly. Actually it reminds me very much when i was a kid. I grew up in a very kg, so it all looked so familiar. hehe. I had no idea why the asked me to take off my shoes.Probably to keep the floor clean.


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