Sapa – or more accurately, the mountainous countryside around Sapa – is the most stunningly beautiful place we have been since leaving the islands of Thailand’s Krabi provence a few months ago. On this point, Asha and I both agree.
To get to Sapa we took an overnight sleeper train (our favourite mode of transportation) from Hanoi to the border town of Lo Cai, however a bone rattling fever made the trip pretty awful and sleep hard to come by for me. Our hotel (Hanoi Guesthouse – probably the best place we have stayed this year, i think they will get their own post on here later) were incredibly helpful, booking our train tickets, calling out next hotel to organise our pickup at the other end, organising a taxi to the train station and even sending someone from the hotel on motorbike behind our taxi to make sure we got on the right train. In a place like Hanoi, where travelling can be a bit of a headache at times, having this kind of service is just fantastic.
From Lo Cai it was only one hour by bus to Sapa, a trip that revealed to us just how mesmerising the scenery in this part of Vietnam is. The region is full of soaring peaks and steep valleys, with terraced fields, rice paddies and thatched roofed villages turning the region (as Asha said) into something out of a National Geographic magazine. Add women in traditional dress (usually chasing you down to sell you their handicrafts), snotty nosed kids and families planting rice across the valley, and yeah, you get the picture.
Sapa is a tourist town high in the mountains, close Fansipan (Vietnam’s highest peak), and it immediately felt very different from everywhere else we had been in south-east asia. The temparatures in Sapa are much lower than everywhere else, with winter temperatures often dropping below freezing and snow even falls from time to time. But its summer now, and we were blessed with some gorgeous sunny afternoons and a cool breeze, allthough at time clouds did sweep in and blanket the town white.
In Sapa it felt like the heat and humidity that had clung to our skin and clothes for the last 3 months had finally dropped away, and the fresh mountain air had our spirits soaring (after my fever had passed).
Our hotel was more akin to a mountain chalet, with open fireplaces in each room and wood paneling. The landing in front of our room overlooked the huge valley and distant peaks, but a box of kittens living in the woodshed behind our room was of far more interest to Asha, who was constantly sneaking out to check on them and win the trust of the mother. “She trusts me, I am one of them now” Asha proclaimed eerily on the third day.
Apart from gazing at the view and watching endless activity going on in the terraced fields and paddies below and above us, the only real activities we did in Sapa were trekking (well, walking really, but trekking sounds way better) to Cat Cat Village, and doing a Vietnamese cooking course.
The trek to Cat Cat took a few hours, and it was great to get out and into the countryside, to walk through villages and fields and see people going about their day to day. The return journey however was a bit more difficult, as it didn’t seem to register on the first leg that the return would be all uphill, and all steep. But some strenuous exercise, lungfuls of cool mountain air and a much needed release of endorphins had us pretty content that afternoon, and watching the hawks win in the late afternoon breeze topped it all off.
The next day we did a cooking course through Sapa Rooms, a boutique guesthouse in Sapa setup by an amazing young Australian guy named Pete. Pete has setup a number of responisbly-minded tourism ventures in Vietnam (for want of a better word), including hotels, homestays, the boutique guesthouse and a guesthouse and restaurant in Hanoi. The business tie in with lots of local development programs, and Pete seems very passionate about supporting people from the poorer communities around Hanoi and Sapa. We saw only glimpses of the work being done, but Pete mentioned that they run a school, provide children with boots and jackets in winter, run ‘soup kitchen sundays’ to feed the village kids that come to town to sell their wares at the local markets. But the kind of sustainable, sensible tourism that is at work here, creating meaningful jobs and empowering local people, is something extremely worthwhile in itself. If you are heading to Sapa, checkout Sapa Rooms – and their ethos here http://www.saparooms.com/
Sapa Rooms was the best restaurant we ate at in Sapa, and all of the chefs are recruited through the KOTO school in Hanoi. KOTO (‘Know One, Teach One’) runs two-year long training courses for disadvantaged youths in Hanoi, and is a well known model of a ‘social enterprise’ – a business that creates social value.
The chef who runs the Sapa Rooms cooking school was trained at KOTO, and it was great to spend a day with him (even if, after asking a few times, we struggled to understand his name. It sounded like Crit.) Starting at 9:30 am, the chef took Asha and I to the local market, to talk us through the produce that we would be preparing, as well as to generally show us how the local market works. We had plenty of questions about things we had seen for sale over the last few months, and this was a great chance to get all the answers. We saw escaping crabs (run buddy run), butchered dogs (didnt make me feel as bad as I thought) and Asha was hit with fish bits (yay).
After the market we were driven 6kms out into the countryside to the place where the cooking school is held. Again, we both agreed this was one of the most beuatiful spots we had seen this year. Set right amongst the rice paddies and corn fields, a small collection of bungalows are arranged around a main, open sided building where the classes are held. There are astonishing views on all sides, comfy swings and cushions to chill out on and cascading ponds with carp, trout and tadpoles.
Along with a group of 6 baby-boomers, we prepared, cooked and ate crispy fried pork spring rolls, green papaya salad, lemongrass and chilli chicken and sweet potato soup for desert. We loved it, and highly recommend doing this course to anyone visiting Sapa, especially if you need to fill a day in before catching the night train back to Hanoi. The classes were done at an extremely leisurely pace, and we didn’t arrive back in Sapa until almost 4pm. Soon enough we were on a bus, then a sleeper train, and then rolling back into old Hanoi before the city had started to stir, and the soon to be chaotic streets seemed eerily empty.
Back at the Hanoi Guesthouse, we were bumped to the honeymoon suite on the top floor, and given no reason why. I think they just like us. We have a balcony overlooking Hanoi old town, a sitting room area, big plasma tv, and a bed that feels like heaven – all for $22 a night. And we thought we weren’t going to like this place!