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Slipping and sliding in Sa Pa (Northern Vietnam)

Monique Jansen
'We would spend the night with a local farmer, who was seemingly high on rice wine when we arrived

Last year I spent about 6 weeks travelling in Vietnam, from Ho Chi Minh to Ha Noi in the North. One week I spent in the mountains of the Northern Vietnam, around Sa Pa.
From Hanoi you can take a a sleeper train to Lao Cai, smack on the Chinese border.
This region is otherwise fairly remote and sparsely populated by a fascinating mosaic of ethnic minorities. Near Sa Pa you can also climb Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan Mountain. Sa Pa itself is a former French hill station, now famous for its weekly market which attracts minorities from miles around and for its superb scenery with opportunities for trekking to isolated hamlets and villages.

We arrived by train on a Wednesday at 7.30 AM. A bus was waiting to take us up the mountainous, curvy road to Sa Pa, a road which offers panoramic views over terraced rice fields, villages, buffaloes, Hmong people in traditional dress going up and down the mountains. Unfortunately, a dense fog came in over the mountains and soon our views were restricted to about one foot outside the bus.

Around 9 AM we arrived in the hotel and immediately we were surrounded by Hmong women trying to sell us bracelets, earrings, embroidered pillows, blankets and more. For the moment, I declined their offers, as the trek was about to start in a couple of hours.

However, the weather was not promising at all, not only fog, but it started to rain, first a few drops, but then it is pouring down on the town. After lunch we departed with our guide. The first couple of hours were no problem, we were on the main path which hugs the mountainside and from which you normally can see the valleys below. After a while though, our guide pointed out a slippery slope downhill. Disbelief showed on our faces. Were we supposed to go down there? Apparently so. This was no longer hiking, but ski-ing on walking shoes. Normally not a person who is afraid of heights, now I feared to land any second in a lower ricefield of just sliding all the way down to the bottom of the valley. In the meantime it kept pouring down on us.

After about 5 hours of this, we arrived in the first hamlet where we would spend the night with a local farmer, who was seemingly high on rice wine when we arrived. We were dirty, wet and cold when we arrived, but a hot shower (!) soon took care of that. Our guide, who was doubling as cook, in the meantime prepared a fantastic dinner and we tried to take a few pictures in between the rain. We did manage to see a few of the rice terracesand the villages dotting the valley.

Our meal consisted of several dishes, sweet and sour tofu, beef with green vegetables, chicken, rice and noodle dishes. I decided to try the rice wine and now completely understand that it has the reputation of making a person blind. It is very strong and tastes nothing like wine at all, more like a shot of pure alcohol.

The next day I got up with the chickens and the pigs at around 6 AM, and immediately realised that neither my clothes nor my shoes were dry and it was still drizzling. After a breakfast of pho (noodle soup), the slipping and sliding started all over, up and down the valley, through rice fields, over steep and scary paths. We encountered a few very happy drunk farmers, on their way home after a night of revelry in a neighbouring village. I decided that being drunk was probably preferable whilst wandering between the rice fields. You walk on a small ledge between two rice fields, muddy and slippery, and your options are to fall to the right in a rice field or 3 feet down in a lower muddy ricefield. Neither option appealed much to me.

Physically the trek is not hard at all, only because of the bad weather, it was difficult. Annoyingly enough though, the local people run up and down the track as if it were a nice paved sidewalk – in the meantime taking time to make fun of the western tourists.

After a practically vertical path downhill we had lunch in a small village where several minorities came by to check us out and sell us bracelets Later, after crossing a bridge and climbing back up to the main "road", the worst was behind us. Despite the fact that the trekking was supposed to go on for another day. I decided I had enough of slipping and sliding in the pouring rain and managed to find a guy with a motorbike to take me back to Sa Pa. It was a hair raising experience, sitting on the back of a motorbike, at night, in the dark, in pouring rain, racing over a small mountain road, which is slippery and dangerous as hell (at least, so I thought to myself). Luckily the locals are experienced and we arrived back at the hotel without any accidents in record-time.

On Friday people start arriving there for the Saturday weekly market, an experience not to be missed when visiting Vietnam. All minorities from the valleys surrounding Sa Pa come in their traditional dress to visit each other, shop for the next week, exchange gossip and sell their handicrafts to tourists. I bought several hand-embroidered blankets for $10 each, the asking price. They were so beautifully made I did not even have the heart to bargain with the old ladies selling them. I felt that would be a disgrace, since the price was already so cheap for something so beautiful. One of the ladies was so happy she managed to sell me some blankets, she kept hugging me every time she saw me for the next few days and perfumed me with that typical smell of people living in huts, cooking on open fires, the small of woodsmoke, slightly herbal, tangy, sharp and flavourful, not unpleasant at all.

all photos © Monique Jansen

Apart from the area where the minorities sell their handicraft, the main part of the market is for and by the locals: dried mushrooms, vegetables, live chickens, snakes, frogs (once bought,all slaughtered on the spot), medicine, clothes, all manner of things.

The main minorities in this area consists of Tay, Thai, Hmong, Dao and Giay. They are all dressed differently in splendid colours and headgear, wearing large earrings and jangling bracelets.
On Monday morning I took the normal day train back to HaNoi, which takes about 12-14 hours and well worth it because you come down from the mountains parallel to the Red River into the capital of Vietnam.

© Monique Jansen April 2002
Monique Jansen
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