Sapa - April 2008
I am sitting on
Ham Rong mountain and enjoying a great view of
Sapa city below, as well Fansipan mountain far away.I travelled in Sapa for the first time in April 1998, ie exactly 10 years ago. At that time, I travelled by bus, 12 hours from Hanoi to Sapa (Never again!). Last weekend, I returned to Sapa, but this time I travelled with my parents and their friends. We travelled by night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (approx. 350km, 8 hours by train), then we got a bus to Sapa (38km, an hour by bus). Things have changed much during the last 10 years since my first visit, but the place is always beautiful with its mountain and rice terrace scenery, as well as colorful costumes of the ethnic minority people (mainly H'mong, Dzao and Tay). They are the typical features of the north west region, which is one of the most beautiful areas in Vietnam.
Sapa (altitude 1500-1800m) had its original name "Sa Pa", which means "sand ground" where the locals used to gather and hold a market. In 1903, the French found the place and built up villas, offices, hydropower plant etc. Sapa is known for its cold and foggy winters (even down to 0°C). Surrounding Sapa are the Hoang Liên moutains, nicknamed the Tonkinese Alps by
Flower garden on Ham Rong mountain the French. These mountains include Fansipan (9km from Sapa) which at 3,143m is Indochina's highest peak.
The first day on my second visit in Sapa (last weekend), we went to trek at Cát Cát village (2-3km from Sapa) and enjoyed a great view of the mountains and rice terraces around the village. We spent next morning climbing up Ham Rong mountain, which is just a short walk from Sapa's center. Lots of orchids and flowers are planted on the mountain. Along the way to the summit of Ham Rong mountain, the view of the whole city as well as mountains (including Fansipan) was just amazing.
My great experience on Ham Rong moutain in Sapa was the meeting with a western photographer. He was accompanied by a Vietnamese guide, who is also a photographer and I heard his Vietnamese with southern accent. I wore a violet Ao Dai (Vietnamese traditional dress) which attracted their attention, since they saw me on the flower garden. As I entered the theater where the traditional musical show was going to be performed, the Vietnamese man approached me and said the western man, who is a famous photographer (according to his words), wanted to Sapa church take some photos of me as my Ao Dai was so beautiful. I agreed and followed them into the forest.
The western man walked along the pathway inside the forest and checked out the place quickly then decided that we would stop next to a rock. I asked the Vietnamese man why we didn't go out under the sun where things were clearer with sunlight. He said "No, this place is better. Under the sun, your face will be too bright." They are professional photographers, so they know where is the best place for the good photos. The western man asked me to take off the sun glasses on my head and moved away some grasses on the rock. I even forgot to comb my hair. Both men started taking photos of me standing by the rock and I changed different positions. The only sound I heard was of the continuous shots from their professional cameras, perhaps one shot every second. I wanted to make a big smile, the western man said "Don't smile!", so I just kept my eyes looking straight into his camera. During 10-15 minutes, I followed their instructions "Look at me!", "Look at the forest!", "A little smile" then "Walk again!" For the first time in my life I worked as a photo model with professional photographers. In other cases, some people only took one or two photos of me because of my Áo Dai. I told them I didn't have a special make-up, so maybe I didn't look good, but they said they prefered a natural style. The photos looked great and both men were happy with the meeting with me. We can hardly find an Áo Dai over there, as the locals are ethnic minority people, who wear their own traditional dress. Although there were not much light inside the forest and I didn't see any flash from their cameras, the photos looked really bright, especially my violet Áo Dai. The Vietnamese man asked me whether I wanted to join with them to some villages in the afternoon, but I said I had to go back to Hanoi by night train.
The work finished and we were back to the theater. The western man put some money into my hand and said "This makes you remember me" and quickly ran away to the theater as the show already started for a while. I walked back my way and didn't see anyone in my group, as they already left. When I opened the money that the western man gave me, it was US$30. I was surprised he gave me so much money, as it was a simple thing to be a photo model for only some minutes and I expected nothing from them. Then, I'm glad that my photos will be published on some magazine or book on Vietnam. I decided to spend that money making a new Áo Dai for another trip and whenever I wear it, I will remember him and this interesting experience. In fact, 10 years ago, I used to have an offer from a French fashion company to work on a one year contract as a model. I didn't take the offer, as I prefered working with my knowledge and I always wanted to go to Japan. I didn't need to be a model and still had many great photos, especially with my Áo Dai (see my first blog "Áo Dai" dated 8 January 2008).
Back to Ham Rong mountain. I didn't find anyone there and was confused by the different directions. Fortunately, I met 3 women and followed them. We climbed up to Cong Troi (Heaven Gate) and Sân Mây (Cloud Ground). Finally, I met my parents and their friends on the way down to the city. Three of us were separated on the different ways. My father didn't want to climb up the mountain, so he stayed at the theater, which is located at the middle level of the mountain and enjoyed the musical show with some other old men, while my mother was in another group and I spent time with the photographers and other people I met along the way.
One of the symbols of Sapa is the old French church at the center of the city, where we can see lots of ethnic minority people gather and sell their products to the tourists. The market is another highlight of the city with all the local specialties. As for the food, barbecue is the most popular food, they even make egg barbecue. We had a farewell party before leaving Sapa with the famous local pork "Lon cap nach". The pigs are not fed, as the locals are poor and they even don't have enough food to eat. The pigs have to find the food by themselves and they eat vegetable and grass. After a year, when the pigs are approx.15-20kg in weight, the owners sell them. We ordered a pig of 11kg in weight and paid VND 1.8 million (US$120). The pigs were grilled and its black skin is very hard, while the pork is very soft and delicious. The grilled pork is eaten with a special sauce.
Leaving Sapa on a sunny afternoon, we again enjoyed a great view of the mountains along the way while hearing the song about Sapa. I loved these words of the song "Sapa - thanh pho trong suong" (Sapa - the city in the mist). I remember how foggy it was, when going up to Sapa from Lao Cai at 8:00am, feeling like I was going by an ocean of fog, when standing at the balcony of my hotel and seeing the mist at the mountains in front of me, or walking along Sapa's streets last Saturday night after visiting the Love Market. The fog appeared so quickly, just a few seconds, it spread out and the street lights became yellow spots. I loved that sight. The locals always have baskets on their backs and bring umbrellas with them, as the weather is changeable, sometimes sun shines, a few minutes later, it becomes foggy, even rains. April and May are the best months to visit Sapa. Another good time is September, when we can view yellow rice terraces during the harvest. At the other time of the year, it may be cold and misty. During the summer time, rain may cause landslide along the way. However, Sapa always is a great destination for the tourists who love trekking. At any time of the year, we can see western tourists over there, some even live at the villages on the home stay tours.
The photos in this blog were taken last weekend Saturday and Sunday 19 and 20 April 2008. This is also the 40th blog in my list. When I joined this website 3 months ago, I didn't think that I could make so many blogs. Now I got them and love this website. I'm looking forward to my next trip at this time next week (Wednesday 30 April). I'll be travelling back to China (the 6th visit). My next destinations will be Guilin and Nanning. Happy