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A bustling and crowded town, Sapa attacks all your senses

Buzzing and busy . . . the weekly market in Sapa. Story and photos: Morty Liebowitz

Sapa is an incredibly picturesque town that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam. The region is home to many hill tribes and contains diverse villages, rice terraces and lush vegetation. An excursion to Sapa is a must if you are planning a visit to Vietnam.

Sapa is 362.2 km northwest of Hanoi, the closest city with a major airport, and your excursion to Sapa starts with an overnight sleeper train. Just boarding the train is an experience. You leave your luggage in Hanoi as the sleeper compartment will not accommodate 2 travelers and 2 suitcases. You make do with what you can fit into your carryon bag. You approach the train station on foot dragging your carryon and dodging motor bikes, porters pushing baggage carts, and the many passengers who travel second and third class. You arrive at the train station to find it closed. They will only open it when the arriving train's passengers have disembarked; clearly no nicely appointed waiting rooms and last minute shopping in this station.

You push through the crowds, reach the appointed sleeper car, show your ticket to the conductor and are allowed onboard. You find your compartment. You're grateful; you can fit in with the 2 carryon suitcases and even, if you coordinate with your partner, both of you can move at the same time. You have booked the compartment for 2 but it contains 4 sleeping berths and, as you will later ascertain, there are indeed, compartments of the same size accommodating four younger, slighter and much more flexible Vietnamese travelers. 

Marriage material . . . girls in dresses they’ve embroidered themselves

The compartment is freezing and the air being blown in is even colder. You squeeze through to the harried conductor and try by grimace and gesture to communicate the problem. Probably assuming that this westerner has some disabling seizure disorder, the conductor ignores you and continues checking increasing numbers of travelers into the car. Sadly you accept your fate and turn to return to your compartment when you notice a metal door adjacent to the solitary toilet at the far end of the car. Hesitantly you open the metal door and find the control panel for the car including carefully marked Vietnamese labels for every switch. But, a box with an English label catches your eye! "Climate control" reads the label and it has a switch and a dial. The dial is turned completely to the left. You look around quickly, you are alone, and you furtively turn the dial to the right, close the door and return to your compartment. To your amazement and satisfaction there is now hot air being blown into your compartment!

Having succeeded in boarding, having regulated your air blower, you now confront the reality of that lone toilet at the end of the car. With 11 compartments each having 4 berths, you are sharing that utility with 40 other passengers. You resolve to drink as little as possible. As you depart the station in Hanoi and as you wend your way through the city you come to the quick realization that the proximity of the train tracks to the adjacent residencies affords you intimate insight into the nocturnal customs of the natives. Cultural anthropology is not boring.

The trip is memorable for thin hard mattresses, uncovered pillows, frequent jerky stops and starts and the intolerable banging on the door of your compartment at 5 am of some enterprising Vietnamese macher who has the coffee concession for this run. The next two hours of your night are marked by his constant shouts of "coffee – coffee".

We arrive in Lao Cai the closest train station, depart the train, and board our waiting van for transfer to Sapa. We soon appreciate why we made the trip. The scenery is breathtaking; winding mountain roads opening onto broad vistas of vegetation and terraced rice fields. 

What’s cooking . . . a look inside the home of a resident of Sapa

The only housing is primitive thatched huts spread thinly through the countryside; most residents of the area, we will subsequently learn, live in isolated villages. As one enters the large village of Sapa, one's eye is caught by the colorful clothing of the tribal women. They are ubiquitous and having learned that western visitors will buy souvenirs and trinkets, these women will be a constant in our lives for the next three days. Interestingly enough there are no men in native costume, they are all wearing western jeans and shirts. 

Ploughing on . . . irrigating the crops

The highlight of our stay in Sapa was the weekly market. Colorful, crowded, noisy and bustling, it attacked and conquered all your senses. It was cordoned off by the items being sold. Water buffalos, chickens, snakes, even puppies on leashes were all for sale; whether for work, food or pets is left to the imagination. One area was filled with vendors of the local alcoholic brew, in another area haircuts were being given, and in the center was a large area with seating for eating. The variety of foodstuffs was amazing and the noise and smells overwhelming. Most striking, however, were the numbers of young attractive girls walking around in pairs who were dressed in elegant and colorful, embroidered dresses. In Sapa girls usually marry between the ages of 13 and 16. They announce their availability by appearing in the market in dresses which they have themselves embroidered. They are clearly marketing both their personal beauty and their skills. All of the dresses and all of the girls are exotic and gorgeous.  

Snake for sale in the market

Leaving the market our local guide arranged (for a modest payment) for us to visit the home of one of the locals. The hut consisted of one large room divided into areas for cooking, sleeping and storage. The largest space was occupied by a large still which was working when we visited. The wood fire was being stoked by the lady of the house and the children were collecting the drops of distillate; getting ready for next week's market.

After leaving the village, we gamely boarded the van in preparation for our return overnight train ride to Hanoi. The return trip was easier – we knew what we were getting into – and we had the great recollections of Sapa to speed us on our way. 

 

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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

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