Our group arrived in Hanoi in the afternoon to be greeted by gloomy and cold weather. The clouds hung low and the land appeared suddenly under the aircrafts wheels. We were met by our guide Khanh and spent a few hours dining and walking around before boarding the Tulico Express train to Lao Cai where we transferred onto a bus for SAPA. The train ride was surprisingly pleasant and with the aid of a sleeping pill, I woke up after a good sleep. We had thought Hanoi cold, but we were not prepared for SAPA. The clouds were low in the mountains and most of the 6 am drive was through mist
heavy roads with very limited visibility. We arrived to check in to a newly built hotel just out of downtown named the SAPA View. They graciously offered us a breakfast to start our day and we appreciated it. The staff was new as was the buffet breakfast, so it was easy to overlook some of the errors made. The rooms were wood filled and very clean. The group
was freezing and we found that the damp wood in the fire place was very slow in igniting. We seemed to be the first to test these new rooms and it was cold! The small fireplaces did not have the output to heat the room, and there was no hot water, so we headed out to start our SAPA tour.
SAPA is a beautiful area with picturesque landscapes and colorful people. The rice patties step up the mountainsides creating a landscape that rivals any other in beauty. (too bad is was in cold, mist covered times) I will let the photo’s speak for themselves. What I found particularly interesting are the hill people. As many people have described in the past, they are very literate speaking many languages. From old wrinkled ladies, to young boys selling canes, they all surprised me with the language skills. Some tourists try to avoid these people almost in fear as it is a non stop barrage of will you buy this and other pleas to try to get the tourist dollars. I was happy to oblige. The local made gifts were beautiful and inexpensive. I was also surprised that they were able to understand me when I spoke in Vietnamese. Not only did they stop the hard sell, but were willing to share openly their thoughts. They spoke of how they would sit with each other in the evenings and entertain themselves with challenging each other in their language skills. The seemed happy and bright eyed. Even the youngest of children had mastered the chants of “buy from me” These tiny little people were a delight and I will return to SAPA again and spend some more time.
We returned to the hotel to find that there was still no hot water and the rooms were still cold even with the small fireplace burning wood. People were grumbling and demands were being made of the hotel staff. I do not really blame them as the room was not cheap and a person should at least have warmth. We went out to drown our sorrows. A couple of us went to have a massage by parka downed people. When we returned, the hot water was working and the hotel had provided radiant electric heaters from China. The heaters were enough to get the chill out of the air and by the next morning we were back in good spirits. Our next adventure took us to a mountain side market where the local tribes people went to trade and some search for husbands and wives. I found a soup stall that served something other than pork innards soup, and surprised them by sitting down for a bowl for lunch. Our guide had warned about eating in these places, but I was fine. The others dined at a mountain top tourist facility that had excellent food. (so they say) The train broke down on our return trip to Hanoi, so the trip took a total of 14 hours. All in all it was a pleasant experience however, a person should be aware of the nature of SAPA nowadays. It is a very
touristy and heavily visited destination. The local people have become very proficient at getting at tourist dollars and can be very persistent when trying to get to them. The food, drinks, and other services are far more expensive than I expected to se in Vietnam. I overheard some tourists negotiating for a
jacket and end up paying a premium price with the vendor refusing to negotiate very much. I was cold and decided to get the same jacket. I asked in Vietnamese how much and after a hesitant look, I was offered a price that was half of what the foreigner paid. Some short negotiating and I had the item for a quarter of the price. SAPA is beautiful, and the people special. Take it for what it is and do not be disillusioned that it is a place that sucks tourists in and spits them out. It is still very much worth seeing.