Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sapa: A Mountain Town Covered in Thick Fog

In front of Tien Sa waterfall
near Cat Cat Village.
We finally made it into the northwestern mountains of Vietnam near the China border to an area called Sapa, famous for the patterned rice terraces carved out of the side of the mountains.  Once you've seen the view, it's easily recognizable as belonging to Sapa.  

As if the rice terrace landscape wasn't good enough, they are surrounded by sheer granite walls rising from crystal clear river canyons, bamboo forests soaring into the heavens, peppered with villages of Hmong tribes dressed in their colorful attire.  Sapa couldn't be more picture perfect.

Picture perfect, unless surrounded by dense fog with a visibility of about 20 feet...which was our Sapa experience on our first day here.

Here's what we should've been able to see in Sapa: 

Postcards of scenic Sapa area. 
Here's what we actually saw:

The fog gave the landscape a unique, mysterious shroud that was equally beautiful, but we wished we'd seen the dramatic views today.

On this foggy, misty and COLD day, we decided to take a hike down to Cat Cat Village and the surrounding area.  A few things we were expecting about this hike, based on reading other reviews and blogs:
  • The walk is slippery when the trails are wet.  TRUE.  The trails were made of cement and stone and weren't too muddy but all the roads and steps had a layer of this slick red clay and very slippery everywhere.  A pair of good hiking shoes and poles (we didn't have, but could be purchased everywhere in Sapa) is highly recommended.
  • There are hoards of tourists walking on the trails.  Maybe in the summer (July is high season) but this was NOT TRUE for us.  After reading what a tourist trap this place was, we were pleasantly surprised to find very few people hiking with us, especially some of the side trails that led out of the village along the river.  Perhaps it had everything to do with the dreary, foggy day; but we practically had the place to ourselves in November.  
  • Village people badger tourists to buy souvenirs all along the trails, getting aggressive and upset if we don't buy anything.  NOT TRUE.  There were a few who followed us temporarily and plenty of souvenir stores along the way but the sales pitch was very mild in comparison to other places we've been to in the past, such as Cuzco, Peru; Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; beaches of Thailand; beaches of Cabo, Mexico; Angkor Wat in Cambodia, etc. 
  • Hmong people live in Cat Cat Village but it also caters largely to tourists.  TRUE.  The best way to describe this village is a living museum of tribal life in Vietnam.  There's a cultural center offering traditional music and dance shows, houses that show how they dye and make the textiles, and so forth.  Some may be turned off by the lack of pure authenticity, but we thought it was a nice way to learn about the hill tribe culture.  
[Below: Hmong children playing; Use of water power to pound rice; pigs roaming around the village on pig trails, literally; Akiko in front of Hmong textile drying outside.] 

The hike down from Sapa to the village took about 1 hour.  We enjoyed views of the Tien Sa waterfall while we sat down to enjoy some coffee and snacks in the village. [Below: view of the waterfall; store owner heating our snack of sticky rice in bamboo; other foods he was selling include roasted chestnuts, corn, sweet potato, water buffalo jerkey, whole grilled pigeon, kebabs; the grilled bamboo sticky rice served with crushed peanuts and salt.] 

From there, we took a side trail along the Thuy Tien River for another hour.  Other than one local hauling timber, there was not a soul in sight the entire time.  

This trail seems to have eventually led to the tallest peak in Vietnam, Fansipan, so we turned around and went back towards the village to take another trail along the Flower River.  Here, we would've been able to see some of the terraced rice fields had it not been for the fog.  

After about 20 minutes, we crossed the A Lu suspension bridge to head back to Sapa.  Our walk back to Sapa was all uphill and took almost an hour, but it wasn't bad.  There are plenty of motorbikes waiting to take tired hikers back up the mountain for a fee! Cheaters...just kidding.  

Despite the heavy fog, we thoroughly enjoyed being almost alone with nature for about 4 hours.  The crisp clean mountain air and silence was the best contrast to the chaotic city scene we've been in.  

The town of Sapa, on the other hand, is reminiscent of a busy ski resort.  It's got chalet looking hotels, lots of tourists walking around bundled up in their high-performance hiking gear, and lots of souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars.  There's nothing too exciting about the town except that it's home base for all the trekking.  

[Below: this photo of Sapa hotels perched on the side of the mountain was taken on day 2 when the valley cleared of fog; streets of Sapa; Sapa reminiscent of a ski resort town; Red Dao Hmong tribe lady in town; full moon over Sapa on our second night with clear skies.]

Our lodging, Cat Cat Hotel, was a decent 2-star place that ranked #2 on TripAdvisor.  For $30/double, we asked for a room with a view, except that we saw nothing but fog the first day!  The rooms looked like a cozy mountain cabin, complete with a real working fireplace.  [Below: Cat Cat Hotel; foggy view from our room on day 1; we were surprised to see mountains peeking out of the layer of fog on day 2; Sapa was very cold!  Akiko bundled up in winter gear for the first time since we left Argentina in August.] 

One thing unique about the town of Sapa is the sheer number of Northface gear stores!  Some are knock-offs and some are the real thing (how can you tell?  Examine the tags), but all are much cheaper than buying elsewhere for some reason.  This is definitely the place to stock up on all things Northface: hiking shoes, trekking poles, shirts, jackets, fleece, pants, backpacks, hats, you name it...they've got it.

One of the highlights of our stay in Sapa was the discovery of The Lizard Restaurant, serving traditional Vietnamese and Hmong cuisines with a French flair.  We could tell the chef was a professional who went to a French culinary school.  The sauces and presentation was something we've rarely seen in Vietnam.  They also had an extensive wine list, which was a nice break from the Vietnamese Dalat wine we've been subjected to for the past month.  [Below: restaurant information; delicious banana flower salad.] 

At this restaurant, we had lunch with a new friend we made from Holland.  We actually saw her in Bac Ha the other day, trying to get on the same bus going to Sapa.  Then, we ran into her 3 more times in Sapa, and invited her join us for lunch.  Nettie, though Dutch, lives in Vanuatu (Va...where?!  One of the smallest countries in the world, located in the South Pacific).  After hearing her story, we're convinced she is the most well-traveled person we know!  For starters, we've not met anyone else who's been to Skopje and Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.  It was a pleasure to have met her and who knows, we may make a trip to Vanuatu some day!