Saturday, 2 March 2013

Sapa - a reminder of the Alps in Vietnam!

Sapa's main street
We spent New Year 2012 in Sapa in northern Vietnam and loved every moment of it, despite the biting cold and the damp, both of which came as a huge shock to the system after a year and a half living in the constant warmth of Binh Duong in the south of the country.  Arriving as we did in the thick fog of early morning, our first impressions of Sapa were not that great!  The promised 'mountain view' from our hotel window was non-existent, but we were grateful for the opportunity to check-in so early after our overnight train journey from Hanoi.

The view from our hotel window
Once we had unpacked and freshened up, the sun had started to break through the fog and the cloud, and we set off to explore the town.  What we found were steep(ish!) streets, tall half-timbered buildings which wouldn't have looked out of place in a Swiss alpine town, and lots of ethnic minority women and girls dressed in their strikingly colourful costumes.  These girls all had something to sell (mainly hand made bags and jewellery) and engaged us in conversation as we wandered around the town.  One, Vy, even waited for us in the cold whilst we had lunch - we rewarded her persistence by buying a bag for one of our nieces!  These sellers were a constant throughout our time in Sapa, but we never felt really hassled by them.  They were just trying to make a living and were happy to answer my questions about their schooling and their home lives.

Black Hmong girls about town
Sapa is a great place if shopping is your thing!  As well as the roaming sellers and the women who set up impromptu stalls on the ground in the town's main square, there are more upmarket (and expensive!) shops and, best of all, a huge undercover market where you can bargain hard for local craftwork and cheap China imports or simply watch the locals buying their fresh produce each day.

Sapa is also a good place for eating out, with a plethora of restaurants offering every cuisine you could want.  The only downside was that, even in these places, the cold was insidious.  The locals seemed ill-prepared for it, even though the temperatures drop every winter and it can be known to snow!  None of the hotels or restaurants we visited had adequate (or sometimes, any!) heating, the staff compensating by wearing coats, scarves and gloves indoors!  Often, our food was cold by the time it reached our table!  The 'dressy' evening outfit I had taken with me for the New Year's Eve Gala Dinner provided no protection against the cold and damp in the hotel restaurant!

Red Dao lady at the market
Fortunately, we did find a couple of solutions to the cold problem - ginger tea and Hmong apple wine!!  The former provided a great way to warm up before 'the sun had gone over the yard arm' and the latter when it had!!  The apple wine tastes like a strongly alcoholic apple juice and is delicious.  It is on the drinks list of every bar and restaurant in Sapa, but we couldn't find it in any supermarket.  So, we asked in a restaurant if they could sell us a bottle - they duly obliged, filling an empty plastic water bottle from a large wooden cask and charging us just a couple of dollars for the service!

We spent a very pleasant few days in Sapa exploring the town and enjoying good, inexpensive food and drink.  We also took a full-day excursion to a minority market, but I'll write about that in a separate post.  We would love to visit the region again, but we would go when the weather was somewhat warmer!! 

You can see more of my photos of Sapa here.

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