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Day 124 – For Me, This Sapa (Paradise in Vietnam’s Northwest)

July 5, 2010

Dateline: Sapa, Vietnam – Monday, July 5, 2010

Americans exaggerate. That cake was “the best cake ever.” That was “the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.” Obama is the “first Black president” (ummm. . .he’s half White). Hyperbole is part of American-speak. Unfortunately, all this crying wolf has made it hard to take Americans seriously, at least according to travelers that I’ve met on the road.

I’m an American. I am about to describe something that I believe deserves superlatives. I do, however, want to be taken seriously. With that in mind, I’m going to phrase this carefully so that you understand where I’m coming from: If there is a heaven for me, a good portion of it will look like the countryside around Sapa.

That’s right. No joke. No hyperbole. I’ve found my paradise. Just add a nearby ocean with great beaches and reefs, plus throw in forty maiden virgins and I’d be set for eternity. Actually, come to think of it, eternity is a long time–let’s make it forty million virgins. Sold.

Arriving on the night train at 5 a.m. this morning, however, gave no hints that I’d arrived at my personal Shangri La. The train station at Lao Cai was your standard issue Asian tourist waypoint, complete with touts and dazed travelers. The one hour mini-bus trip from Lao Cai to Sapa winded up a typical Southeast Asia mountain road. Even the view from the Sapa Summit Hotel, which served as base camp for my trekking tour, only hinted at what was to come.

Our guide, Sihn, and her entourage—all from the Black Hmong ethnic minority and all dressed in traditional garb—were our first clue that we might be journeying into someplace special.

My hiking troupe consisted of a Danish couple on holiday, a guy and a girl who were friends from Australia, a British English teacher working in Hanoi, a Danish girl finishing out a six month trip around Asia, and me. All of us would trek down to Lao Chai village to homestay with a family, then hike out the next day.

We started off down the main road through the tourist town that is Sapa. Outside of town, we passed water buffalo, rice paddies, and vegetable sellers. Eventually, we turned off the main road onto a dirt path and started to descend into the valley.

I wouldn’t believe it if I wasn’t there, but we literally rounded a corner and the hillside dropped away, providing a view into the land below. It was gorgeous. A river cut through the valley, winding its way through villages and fields. Rice terraces stacked up the mountainside, seemingly to the sky. The colors came to life. The blue sky blazed against the white clouds. The only things that escaped nature’s green touch were the river and the manmade fences, roads, and buildings. The clouds rolled overhead, providing a respite from the heat and casting deep shadows that crawled up and down the farmland.

The only other place I can compare it to is the farm communities I’ve seen nestled into crevices of the Alps in Austria. Here, though, I knew that it would never snow. For my tropical blood, that’s paradise. We scrambled our way down the hill with our Black Hmong companions. Along with a few other hiking groups, we turned an open terraced area into a natural amphitheater. There we sat, just enjoying the show.

When we’d had our fill, we proceeded down through terraced rice plots and over streams to the river. We passed children tending to baby goats, which I guess means the kids were watching the kids. At the river, we got a closer look at the men and women tending to the fields.

Rice terraces are a funny thing. The terraces are not uniform, which means that it’s hard to understand the scope of the place when viewing from afar. Only when you look for the farmers working the fields do you begin to understand size. You could see the wind traversing the rice grass. The waving plants made it look like the farmers were standing waist deep on the shores of a green ocean. I could have watched the wind for hours.

Eventually we crossed the river to a restaurant for lunch. Our seats overlooked the river, where local kids played in the water. A few tourists joined them.

Full of egg and bread, we walked through villages, looking at local handicrafts and visiting a stream-powered rice mill. Sihn showed us how the Black Hmong make indigo dye by soaking plants in water. She let us smell homemade incense sticks drying in the sun. They smelled like cinnamon and made me yearn for a good cider.

When we arrived at our homestay, we had some free time. Sihn started to cook dinner. A few of us headed to the river for a swim. I hadn’t brought any swim trunks, so I converted my cargos to shorts and just dove in. The river was cold, but refreshing after a long day in the heat. As we swam, village boys fished in the rapids nearby.

For dinner we ate more food than was prudent and afterwards drank more “happy water” than necessary. Luckily, my experience with baijiu prepared me for the perils of rice liquor. Everyone else went to bed, while the three of us guys pounded glass after glass of the rice wine (i.e. rice vodka). I kicked off to bed quite happy and right before the other two boys started down a much steeper slope. Let’s just say it involved a made up drinking game involving pool and resulted in some late night village exploration.

Me, I’m an old man (kinda). I ascended the steep steps to the loft with all the tourist beds, which really were just hard, thin mattresses laid out on wooden floor. I whipped open the mosquito net, pulled out my contacts, and fell into a hard sleep. No electric fan necessary. The cool mountain air was enough.

Heaven indeed.

GALLERY: Click through to see a ton more pictures of Mervyn’s day in paradise including more Black Hmong people and little slices of heaven.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2010 5:13 pm

    Try Merida, Venezuela….’nuff said.

    Of course, Chavez is a disincentive these days, but that’s as close as I’ve been to Shangri La.

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