Food, Photos and Travel

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Vietnam- Sapa

My trip to Vietnam started out just as any first time trip to SE Asia should. I arrived at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi late Tuesday evening. My backpack, however, did not. After being assured that it might, or might not, come the following afternoon, I left for my hotel room with only the clothes on my back and my camera. It's almost too cliched to even write.

Hanoi is a city that attacks your every sense. My hotel, the Hong Ngoc 1, is part of a small chain located in the Old Quarter section of the city. It's a bustling part of town, full of small streets filled with good such as shoes, backpacks, air conditioners, mattresses, and the ever popular com pho shops. A full day tour of Hanoi generally includes a visit to see Uncle Ho himself, in the flesh, at his mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh is everywhere in Vietnam. The tour also includes a stop at Hoam Kiem Lake where a beautiful temple resides, and is said to be the home of a species of giant turtles. I was very interested to learn how the Vietnamese people pay hommage to their ancestors through the use of alters in their homes and worshipping at temples.

The best way to get to Sapa is with a soft sleeper cabin on the night train to Lao Cai. It is a 10 hour train ride which leaves from Hanoi at 10pm, and another 1 hour by car. Sapa is an old French hill station located in the Tonkin Alps on the Chinese border. The highlight of this area is the expansive valley carved with exquisitely sculpted terraced rice paddies and hillsides tucked with small villages home to several different ethnic minority groups. The rice paddies were lush with vibrant shades of chartruese and gold, waiting to be harvested in several weeks. The people, and their clothing, were equally as vibrant following a lifestyle they have employed for centuries, yet also adapting to the newly developed tourist industry flooding the valley.

I came to Sapa to go trekking in the mountains and visit the villages, and that's what I did. It's the best way to see the area, and the people are very welcoming. I mostly interacted with the H'mong women of the area, who do everything. I'm not really sure what the men did, actually. The young H'mong girls were always eager to talk with me, and ask me questions about myself and my family. They always had something to sell me, from intricately stiched blankets and purses to "silver" earrings and bracelets. In Sapa town, every western tourist would be surrounded by a group of the women. It was a little tiring at times, but they were all very endearing and they work very hard.

The first day was shrouded in mist and rain. We trekked to the nearby Cat Cat village and waterfall, which is about 1.5km downhill from Sapa. It was wet and slippery, but it gave me my first glimpse into the area. I went to bed hoping that the weather the following day would be nicer, since we were to set off on our long trek that morning. The rain gods must have heard me, because the weather was beautiful the rest of my time there.

The trek that day was to take us to Ta Van village located approximately 14km (about 8 miles) from Sapa. It was just me, my guide and a cook, so we went a little off the beaten path (which was very steep and muddy in parts), but we were rewarded with magnificent views around every corner. We walked through the rice paddies, and past homes filled with families who would often come out to greet us. My guide, Houng, was also a photographer so he was happy to let me stop often for shooting.

We arrived at our destination village at around 3 in the afternoon, where we relaxed at the home of a local Zay woman. It was a simple home, with basic board walls and cement floors. The kitchen consisted of a hole in the cement for an open fire. The bathroom was a toilet room in the back of the house (an outhouse, of sorts), and the wash room was a small cement room with a bucket and some cold running water. They owned a buffalo (an ox, to us) and chickens and a dog. The house had a loft area which slept up to 10 people. It was simple... matresses on the floor with a blanket, pillow and mosquito net. This was where I was going to sleep that evening. I didn't take many pictures, because I didn't want to treat them like tourist attractions, but the owner of the house let me take her picture before I left...

All of the young girls and women that I met along the way were so amzing, and open to being photographed, as long as I was respectful of them. I left the area with many new friends, and people who I will never forget.


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