Sa Pa Travels, Part I

The Four Kiva Fellows: Katie, Jeff, Nate, Bernice

The Four Kiva Fellows: Katie, Jeff, Nate, Bernice

This past weekend I had the pleasure of going on a trip with three other Kiva Fellows to Sa Pa which is in the mountainous north-western part of Vietnam near the border with China. So far I would rank it as my favorite place in Vietnam and the best time I’ve had so far! My traveling companions, Jeff, Bernice, and Katie, are all Kiva Fellows and you’ve met Bernice before (she’s who I went IN the field with). Jeff and Katie are fellows in Phnom Penh, Cambodia whom I will be visiting in just about a week.

Not the kind of transportation that we took, but transportation nonetheless!

Not the kind of transportation that we took, but transportation nonetheless!

To start, we almost didn’t make it! Jeff was flying into Hanoi the night we were leaving after already taking a bus for 6 hours from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (where he had an interview for Berkeley’s business school) followed by a rush to the airport to arrive in Hanoi at 7:30-ish PM. Our train was scheduled to leave at 9:50 PM (and they are surprisingly on time, I’ve never had a late train yet in Vietnam) and it takes an hour to get into Hanoi from the airport. That meant that Jeff at best could be at the train station by 8:30-ish. Not surprisingly, we didn’t hear from Jeff until around 9:15 PM when he called us to say he was at the train station. Since Bernice, Katie and I were already there we went looking for him…and couldn’t find him! It wasn’t until five minutes before the train was to depart did we have Jeff in hand; apparently he had been taken to the other side of the station because there are 9 platforms and our train was on the 7th one. That side of the train station has its own entrance, albeit a much smaller one; however I had Jeff’s ticket so he couldn’t just run across the tracks to our side to meet us and furthermore we had no clue there was the other side!

Because the trip to Sa Pa (actually Lao Cai, Sa Pa is 40 km away from the closest train station) took around 10 hours we purchased sleeper car berths. The cabin had 6 berths and we took up four. The top two berths were reserved by an older French couple. We chatted away for several hours catching up and telling stories. Finally we could tell we were annoying our cabin-mates and we settled into our ‘hard-sleepers.’ I would say that a hard sleeper is like camping; you have a camp pad on a hard surface. I slept fine, except for the fact I felt like a menopausal woman all night: hot flashes suddenly followed by cold flashes.

The cute street scene in Sa Pa

The cute street scene in Sa Pa

After arriving in Lao Cai and catching a bus we finally arrived in Sa Pa. Sa Pa is nestled in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range (the eastern most part of the Himalayas) at 1600 meters (roughly 4800 feet). We had decided to ‘wing-it’ on this trip and had no plans or a fixed itinerary. We had ideas of things that we wanted to do, so the first thing we did was look for a trek to go on. Sa Pa is famous for the trekking from ethnic village to ethnic village amongst amazing hanging gardens of rice paddies surrounded by breathtaking mountains. We went to a few travel agent shops to compare prices (because everyone offered the same trips) and settled on a hike south for $22 which took us through Black Hmong (black b/c of the dark indigo-dyed clothes they were) villages and Red Dzao (Red b/c of the red-dyed headscarves they wear) villages until we stopped at Ban Ho village for a night home-stay.

Our guide was a very gentle and friendly Tay (another ethnic minority) named Minh. Having a guide is essential to travel the numerous paths and gain entrance to many of the villages. With out Minh we would have never made it to our home-stay with day light to spare!

An incredible view from the ridge of the region we were about to hike.

An incredible view from the ridge of the region we were about to hike.

When we started our hike we were let off at the top of a breath-takingly beautiful ridge looking down on terraced field after terraced field and several Black Hmong villages. The problem, however, was this was the drop off point for all hikes in the region including day hikers. We weren’t alone basically. This also meant we would be followed by Hmong women trying to relentlessly sell us their crafts. We had heard stories that these women would follow you for at least a kilometer to make a sale, but we were skeptical of this. Boy were we wrong! We went probably at least six (!) kilometers with the same group of three Black Hmong women following us! At first they kept trying to sell us the bracelets, and small colorful purses they had for sale, but after awhile they gave it up and just followed us. Finally, after reaching a waterfall, they tried to sell us things again and after refusing again they went off on their own. We were amazed that they would follow us for at least four hours just to try and make a sale. That made us believe that they must make HUGE margins on their items or it wouldn’t be worth it to follow someone for so long and not make a sale.

One of the few men we saw working; animals are the most efficient way to plow here because machines can't work on these steep slopes.

One of the few men we saw working; animals are the most efficient way to plow here because machines can't work on these steep slopes.

Anyway, we weren’t quite prepared for how rigorous the hike was. No one warned us that we would be constantly changing elevation by the hundreds of meters at a time up slippery and muddy slopes and through even muddier rice paddies. However, once we were past the distance day trippers trek it was thoroughly enjoyable because we were the only people on the path except for the random Black Hmong or Red Dzao person. (A side note–we saw a lot of women working, but very few men working. There is obviously a gender inequality problem here. Women were the sellers, the farmers, and the manufacturer of the handicrafts, whereas men mostly seemed to be sleeping or drinking when we saw them. A few were plowing fields, but we saw women doing that as well! A prime example of this working disparity was a Red Dzao village we went to: first we saw a group of little boys carving swords out of bamboo and playing with them, then we saw girls of the same age bent over in the fields farming. Why couldn’t the boys be helping?! Even if it is a cultural thing, that is still not acceptable!)

One of our descents led us to the Golden Gate Bridge...of Sa Pa

One of our descents led us to the Golden Gate Bridge...of Sa Pa

As it was getting late, we had to abandon our regular path to Ban Ho. Minh said it would be long after dark if we continued on the path through the bamboo forests and the random villages here and there. We then quickly descended to the valley river and then just as quickly ascended out on the other side to the main road. We followed the road for about 6 km until we hit a village and made a bee-line right back down into the valley. Along the road we saw the un-touristy inhabitants. For the most part, where tourists go, everyone was wearing traditional clothing, but here only a few people were wearing traditional clothing and the ones who were, we hypothesized, were either really old and holding onto tradition or workers who went into Sa Pa or followed the day-trippers selling their crafts. Before the dark was really setting in, we descended at least 2000 feet to a village tucked on the river but surrounded by construction scars on the landscape. This was where we were going to spend the night.

The scenery around Ban Ho Village (you can see it barely where the river on the left side disappears)

The scenery around Ban Ho Village (you can see it barely where the river on the left side disappears)

Ban Ho is a popular place for two day trekkers like ourselves to have their home-stay, thus we weren’t the exception. The reason why there was so much construction here is that the government is building a road down to the village from the main ridge road to eventually build a hydroelectric dam. Maybe in the future the red-clay roads and scarred landscape will heal, but for the time being it was ugly but beautiful at the same time. Being thoroughly tired we ate dinner and relaxed sitting on the covered porch watching a massive thunderstorm pass over the valley. (It reminded me a lot of my childhood in VA, when I would sit on our covered porch and watch the storms go by! Oh childhood memories!) At one point a bolt of lighting illuminated the entire sky, struck the nearby mountain and caused all the power in Ban Ho to go out for a few seconds causing the dramatic difference between tons of light and complete blackness! It was simply amazing.

A 'waterfall' draining out of a rice paddy.

A 'waterfall' draining out of a rice paddy.

After a very good nights sleep we woke up early and started trekking around Ban Ho to see a few other ethnic villages and meet some of the villagers. (Unfortunately, and fortunately, we didn’t get to meet any of the villagers our guide knows which was bad that we didn’t see them but good to know that they don’t depend on us; they were in their fields working!) The previous night’s rain was evident everywhere as the paths were even muddier and the paddies were overflowing with water. The day before, we had noticed water draining from paddy to paddy and we were confused by this…it seemed that that would be counter-intuitive to fertilizing the paddies as the fertilizer would just wash away. Today, however, we realized why the draining was there: to quickly get rid of excess water from the storms. Rice grows best in a certain level of water, and if there’s too much or too little your crop yield suffers. Because this region gets storms frequently, they have to be able to have an easy water management system, and the little waterfalls from terrace to terrace are the answer.

A Red Dzao village tucked in amogst the greenery of the mountains.

A Red Dzao village tucked in amogst the greenery of the mountains.

Our trekking was cut short due to an impassable path, which was fine by us because after trekking and visiting the local waterfall we knew we had a visit planned to go to the local hot spring! This meant we could just get to it sooner. However, Minh wanted us to eat lunch first since it was being prepared for us. Jeff and I decided we weren’t quite hungry yet and went for a run up a gravel road towards the main ridge road. This was a tough run for me! I only made it twenty minutes before turning around because it was so tiring and steep. We probably gained almost 1000 feet in only 14 or so minutes. I limped back to the house alone (Jeff kept running) for lunch, and exhaustedly sad down, ate, while impatiently looking forward to the hot spring.

Vietnamese watermelons (look at that mighty find torpedo shape!) and a chicken who has no idea what it's getting into...

Vietnamese watermelons (look at that mighty fine torpedo shape!) and a chicken who has no idea what it's getting into...

The hot spring, unfortunately, was disappointing in scope but very, very nice at the same time. We felt cleansed as we hadn’t showered yet in probably two days and the water was warm and comforting. The ‘spring’ was like a big concrete tub right next to the river, but overlooking the ugly red-clay road being built. Nonetheless we enjoyed ourselves and played with a watermelon that I had bought on the walk to the spring. We pretended that the watermelon was a rugby ball and we were throwing it to each other and tackling each other in the water; next it was a torpedo and being submersed, spun, and pushed towards each other (this was my favorite game!), and finally it was a snack.

After the hot springs, it was time to go back to Sa Pa, yet we still had the rest of the day and the next day to explore. Instead of hiking back, we took a minibus, and our next adventure simply awaited…Stay tuned for Part II!

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One Response to “Sa Pa Travels, Part I”

  1. Kriszta Farkas Says:

    Part II, part II, part II!!.. =) I learn so much every time I read these posts.. Thanks Nate!

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