We disembarked from the overnight train in Lao Cai, after a 9 hour overnight, truly Vietnamese, truly bumpy, truly noisy but truly exciting journey. It was nonetheless an incredible experience travelling through the North Vietnamese country in the dead of night. The children slept for 8 of the 9 hours. My wife and I sat mesmerised looking out of the window picking out silhouettes of shacks, hills, trees, rivers and small villages. Ever so often we would pass a tarpaulin propped up with sticks under which people would be sat around a fire at the side of the track. A far cry from downtown Melbourne.
It was 5.30am and wearily in the cold morning air we grabbed our backpacks and found our minibus amongst the hustle and bustle of the melting point of global travellers, hotel operators, taxi drivers, playing card sales ladies, hot chestnut purveyors, Lao Cai locals and government officials. The next part of the journey was a 35km passage to Sapa, along an ever climbing, curvaceous and undulating road, which involved being thrown left, right, up and down for over an hour. We hoped Sapa would be worth it.What seemed like a lifetime soon ended and we were driving through a built up and bustling town literally carved into the side of a mountain.
It is quite amazing to think that this hill station had been built by the French in 1922, but had been inhabited many, many years before by the tribes’ people of Northern Vietnam. Here we were in 2013 parked outside our hotel.
Was Sapa worth it? If I had travelled this journey only for one view of this earthly wonder then it would have been more than worth it. As we dumped our backpacks in our room and then stepped outside, the cold mist had lifted and we were presented with the most breathtaking panorama imaginable, which included on our doorstep mount Fansipan – the highest point in Vietnam.
From our vantage point we could also see the bustling market place only 200 metres away and of course for me the most important aspect of that was the array of fruit, green leaves, herbs, meat, fish and noodles I could see. I was itching just to be let loose in Sapa, to smell, see and consume.
Our hotel, Cat Cat View, overlooked a village, named Cat Cat, 3 km away. We had heard reports before arriving in Sapa that the weather was cold and very misty and therefore visibility was low. On our arrival the mist had lifted the sun had broken through and all of a sudden there was a mass of blue sky. This meant we could clearly see Cat Cat and the incredible giant steps that cascaded down the hill sides; the rice fields. You could also see banana plants, paddocks of lettuce, greens and herbs, and roaming animals such as ducks, roosters, wild pigs and buffalo – a truly self-sufficient environment.
By now it was about 7.30 and with a ravenous family in tow breakfast was beckoning, so we ate breakfast at the hotel with other travellers that were staying there. The first thing that struck me on the menu, which I am afraid to say was very un-Vietnamese, was a full English breakfast. After the journey we had just had I chose this over the Pho. The idea for the ‘English’ breakfast on the menu became apparent when we met an English chap in the restaurant. He was married to the Vietnamese hotel owner and had a great story of how he arrived in Vietnam.
He was a teacher, teaching in Southern England when he came out to Vietnam as a traveller and on arrival in Sapa did some volunteer teaching in the local school. It was here that he met his sweetheart, but after his visa expired he had to return to England. Realising that the long distance relationship could not work, and being tired of the same routine in England, he tried to find a way to move closer to Vietnam. He managed to secure a teaching post in Hong Kong, which although not ideal, meant he could be closer to his loved one. He spent some time commuting between Hong Kong and Sapa, which over time was draining. A decision had to be made as even though they loved each other very much the distance between Honk Kong and Sapa was still too much. His loved one was running the hotel in Sapa, and as it was (and still is) a family business, it was just not possible for her to move. As fortune would have it a teaching post opened up in Hanoi at an international school and so he was able to move to Vietnam, with the commute now an overnight process. And this is where they are right now. He manages to go to Sapa every month or two, which is still not ideal as he now has a young daughter in Sapa who misses him terribly when he’s not there, but I am sure in the very near future the family will all be together permanently.
Back to the breakfast – it was great. Imagine, it consisted of wild pork (bacon) grown and cured in Sapa, duck eggs, locally grown tomato and cucumber, freshly baked French bread, a frankfurter-like sausage which we have seen lots of around Hanoi, and fried potatoes. This was a full ‘Vietnamese’ not ‘English’.