We had a very relaxing five days here. Incredibly refreshing to be in the cool mountain air after the extreme humidity of summer in Hanoi. Sapa is at 1650m and is an extremely beautiful place surrounded in the highest mountains of Indochina. The highest being Fansipan just sitting above us at 3143m. The clouds cleared from Fansipan just the once to give us a great view of the mountain not far from our hotel. We were also blessed with great weather the whole time we were here. Apparently it rained all of last week non stop, but we had only one small shower, although there was the usual thunder in the hills on most nights. But every day was very bright and clear. Great for trekking which we managed to get out and do properly one day, but also did a couple of other short hikes on the outskirts of town. When you get above Sapa, it looks just like a Swiss village in the summer months, which is probably why the french created a hill station here. The colonial buildings give it even more of a European feel. But you would be kidding yourself to think you are in Europe, when you have all the hilltribe people coming to Sapa market wearing beautiful coloured clothing.
Our main trek was for 15kms down from Sapa into valleys filled with terraced rice fields. Stunning scenery, and really lush green colours at this time of year. We visited the Black H'mong villages - called that because the colours they predominantly wear are black. This is the main hilltribe group in the area. Then we visited the Zay people, and lastly the Red Dzao. All of them are amazing looking people. The H'mong are really little, but very very sturdy from all the years of climbing through the terrain, especially to get up to the market in Sapa loaded down with goods! The Red Dzao shave their hair on their heads right back and wear bright red hats. We really did get our exercise climbing up and down (mostly down!) through hills, valleys, across rivers and rice fields. Good taste of life here, although we are always a bit weary of these 'village' visits. Basically the hilltribe people do not benefit anywhere near the amount that the Vietnamese tour organisers do. It's the same in Thailand and Laos. There is a small amount that trickles through to those where you stop for drinks or for lunch, and the rest try to make their money by persistently selling goods to you - mostly stuff that looks good here, but is useless back home. So there is a moral dilemma about going to the villages or even to Sapa. Having said that, the observation of life from a distance is really easy to do here as well, and you can donate to schools along the way which really need the help. And at least here in northern Vietnam, you are seeing a lot more of the traditional life than what you see in Thailand. The hilltribe people are everywhere, as I said even in town proudly wearing their traditional outfits. And the kids are disarmingly cute all dressed up and big smiles. They generally know a lot more english/french than their folks. Not sure how long it will stay this way, which is of course, the other dilemma of travelling here, with the constant influence of tourism on local life.
We got a jeep back up to town thank heavens - it was a very long way back up. Also got a jeep one afternoon up above Sapa to the Tram Ton Pass, which is the highest pass in Vietnam. It also separates two very different weather patterns. The Sapa side is the coldest part of Vietnam and the Lai Chau side is the hottest! The views were amazing. On the way there, we also visited the Silver Waterfall, which drops down from 100m above us. Good walk up for a better view. But we also discovered that this is where a lot of the local tourists go. There were a lot of them here with the usual array of stalls set up to try to sell to them!
And we also did a lovely walk to the radio mast on top of the hill above Sapa. There were splendid botanical gardens up there in the even cooler air, and fine views over nearby Ham Rong Mountain, and of course Sapa.
There are a couple of decent french restaurants in Sapa as well, although we kept going back to just one, Baguette & Chocolat, which did the best coffee and hot chocolate in Vietnam!
Finally, talking about the crowds here. It is crazy here on the weekends, which almost ruined a couple of our days here. The crowds come in from Hanoi to cool off, and to visit the Saturday market. The market is open every day, but Saturday is the biggest day, and runs late into the night, as we discovered walking home one evening, as the hill tribe people had taken over the pavements that night. But worst of all, the Hanoi 'Karoeke" crowds invaded the peace and quiet of our hotel (which was just on the outskirts above Sapa) and it became quite painful at times. One of the reasons for why we did our long trek on the Saturday was to get away from it all! That aside, the rest of the time was great. Sapa during the week is a really peaceful place to literally chill out for a few days.
And we also heard our first major crash here and saw the unfortunate results. After hundreds of incredibly close calls where they seemed to have their distances between vehicles amazingly worked out, one finally came a cropper, and it was spectacular. We were actually on the internet in town, when we heard a large crash and saw people running to the scene, and where we had just come from, a motorcylist had come down the hill, at a rapid rate (probably without his engine on to save petrol!)and had missed the corner and gone down the hill and straight through the front doors of a hotel. The wooden/glass doors were smashed through where he and his bike had gone. With incredible luck, he did not hit anyone else. Needless to say he was in a very bad way, and was being attended to by a foreign doctor when we left.
So we are now leaving Vietnam and heading into China. And we have absolutely loved it here, but after nearly seven weeks, we are starting to tire of the constant noise (even occasionally in Sapa) and the traffic - where the hooting, tooting and near misses wear down your nerves. And we were perhaps unlucky that it was summer holidays for the whole time we were here in Vietnam. Hard to avoid, in that the school holidays last from June to mid-August. We only really noticed this in northern Vietnam with the large increase in local tourists. This also made it difficult getting rooms a couple of times. But, of course, all we have heard of China, is that it is all this and more as far as the noise and driving is concerned, and it is summer holidays there as well! We may be coming home quivering wrecks!! No, still loving it overall, but we are now starting to look forward to home.
But we could not leave SE Asia without a review of our wonderful time here overall. You will firstly be pleased to know that there were no lowlights -apart from the occasional bit of bad driving, and persistent honking of horns.
4 countries, 9391kms
Top 5 highlights: 1. Halong Bay,Vietnam 2. Motorbike tour of central highlands,Vietnam 3.Temples of Angkor, Cambodia 4. Luang Prabang, Laos 5. Jungle Beach, Vietnam.
Other highlights; Tam Coc - Vietnam, Bangkok - Thailand, Vang Vieng - Laos, Hoi An - Vietnam, Sapa - Vietnam
Top Restaurants: 1. The Apsara (Luang Prabang), 2. Mermaid (Hoi An), 3. Bar69 Restaurant (Hanoi), 4. Organic Farm Cafe (Vang Vieng), 5. Floating Restaurant (River Kwai, Thailand)
Also special mention for; Friends (Phnom Penh), FCC (Phnom Penh), Dream Cafe (Sukhotai), Montien (Bangkok), Baguette & Chocolat (Sapa), Koto (Hanoi) and Lemongrass (Saigon).
Lot more special restaurants than we found in Africa. Same for hotels.
Top Hotels: 1. Sayo Riverside Guesthouse (Luang Prabang), 2. Montien Riverside Hotel (Bangkok), 3. Blue Ocean Resort (Mui Ne), 4. Orchid Guesthouse (Vang Vieng), 5. Vayokorn Guesthouse (Vientiane).
Also special mention for; Giant Dragon Hotel (Saigon), Cocoon (Sukhotai), Bamboo Guesthouse (Chiang Khong) and The Atlanta (Bangkok).
Top 5 Beers: 1. Lao Beer, 2. Saigon, 3. Hanoi, 4. Hue, 5. Phoung Penh (Bia Hoi in the Delta). Vietnam wins by far for variety. New town, different beer, and of course bia hoi!
Noted, Luang Prabang wins for top hotel we stayed at and top restaurant we went to, and Laos had the best overall beer brand - no wonder we loved that town and stayed five days without even leaving town.
Only three Nancy panics in SE Asia!!
1. Lightning storm in Phnom Penh when we were caught out on the street.
2. Gunman suddenly appearing on rural road in front of our van in northern Laos
3. Tony falling down waterfall at Jungle Beach (I was alright....)