The road to SaPa was long and rickety. We were put on a Soviet-style overnight train, four to the compartment, with a prison-style toilet at the end of the train car shared by all the passengers. The ride was noisy and wobbly. The train would stop abruptly and then jerk on forward until it came to the next stop. Apparently, there is a new highway from Hanoi to SaPa upon which fast, modern, and comfortable express buses now run making the trip in mere 5 hours. Unfortunately, we were not informed about this new development and had to endure the eight-hour shaky and noisy journey in a cramped sleeping car (myself occupying one of the top shelves).
But here we are in SaPa, half-asleep between the exhausting ride and the brutal jet lag. SaPa is somewhat Alpine with a Vietnamese accent. Our semi-zombie state notwithstanding, we went on a hike to the nearby villages, homes to two local tribes living in the valley between these mountains. We are actually rather in high altitude here in SaPa, 3500-4500 feet above the sea level, and I feel it.
The road down to the valley revealed a spectacular panorama of the mountain range and rice paddies terracing down the slopes. From up above, they looked almost geometrical and architectural. On our hike, we were accompanied by a bevy of Black Hmong women. “Black” – because of the clothes they wear, which are, as you might have guessed, are black. They are quite colorful though despite the black background, with rich embroidery and red kerchiefs skillfully wrapped around their heads. The women were trying to sell us their handicrafts, and they were quite tenacious. They wouldn’t take no for an answer no matter how many times I said that. Those who made a mistake of saying “Maybe later” were doomed. The women took it literally. Sandy and Marla did just that, and two Hmong women stopped bothering us but trailed behind us with their wares. In the end, the kind-hearted Sandy bought something from one of the women who was driving a hard bargain.
The views from the road were truly spectacular – craggy mountain tops hugging the valley below. We went through two local villages, quite primitive, actually, very primitive. A barefoot man was walking on his rice paddy carrying a hoe on his shoulder. At one point, he stopped, put his hoe down, produced a cell phone out of his pocket, and checked his email. That was sureal!
Back in the hotel, we treated ourselves to a massage followed by a soak in a wooden tub filled with dark medicinally scented fluid.