A Weekend in Sapa, Vietnam
March 16, 2015
Duncan Forgan cycles, snacks and stumbles his way through this Vietnamese frontier region.
Published on Mar 16, 2015
My head is pounding, my legs are weak and my face is a lurid shade of scarlet.
This is not the first time I've been in a sorry state while exploring the mountainous backcountry of northwestern Vietnam. Usually the malady occurs when goaded into chugging rice wine by the men and women of the region's notoriously hard-drinking hill-tribe minorities.
View on the mountains from downtown Sapa. Courtesy of Sapa Sisters.
It isn't the demon booze that ails me this time. It's that I've just pedaled 36 kilometers on some of the most beautiful but sadistically graded roads in the country. "One more push, OK?" Eric Eriksen, the Danish manager at Topas Ecolodge, yells over his shoulder. A former policeman with an enviably healthy Scandinavian constitution, Eriksen continues his effortless progress towards the crest. I, on the other hand, am stretching every sinew in my legs, ignoring both the cheerful Hmong children and the tableaux of vivid green rice terraces climbing up the slopes.
Mustering my last bit of strength, I reach the summit. Laid out before me in widescreen splendor is the epic outlook of the countryside around Sapa, the region's premier tourist town. In the foreground, gathered around the cap of a hill like a Roman encampment, are the bungalows of Topas Ecolodge (topasecolodge.com). Beyond lies the towering mass of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. Christened the Tonkinese Alps by the French, the range includes Fansipan, which at a vertiginous 3,143 meters is the highest peak in Indochina.
Topas Ecolodge and its somnolent surrounds. Courtesy of Topas Ecolodge.
Sapa's popularity as a base for trekking and cultural experiences and as a temperate retreat for Vietnamese visitors has sparked a tourist boom with these hotels, such as the Sapa House Hotel (sapahouse.com) and the Hmong Sapa Hotel (hmongsapahotel.com), opening with the regularity of a metronome. Work has already begun on the world's longest and highest cable car, a US$197-million project that will connect Sapa to the top of Mount Fansipan, cutting the arduous three-day trek to the summit to just 15 minutes.
Part of the charm of any visit here is the ever-romantic overnight train ride—the evening express from Hanoi arrives in Lao Cai in time for breakfast. But with completion of the Hanoi-Lao Cai highway cutting the eight-hour land journey to Sapa from the capital in half, the popularity of the one-time French hill-station is only going to increase. The impact this speedy development will have on Hmong and Red Dao communities who have eked out a living in these highlands for centuries is still unclear—all the more reason to visit soon.
For now, these remote hinterlands remain largely somnolent. From Topas Ecolodge you can arrange treks and bike trips, but doing very little is equally acceptable. The bungalows are simple and secluded and their private balconies are ideal vantage points from which to survey the scenery. Dining takes place in a lovingly restored stilt house, with the menu covering basic but delicious Vietnamese dishes such as banana flower salad and chicken with ginger.
The bungalows of Topas Ecolodge.
Nobody could call Sapa frenetic, but it is a step up in pace from the isolation of Topas. The town rose to fame as an airy mountain refuge for the colonial French. Nowadays it is a melting pot of visitors mingling with local Vietnamese and hilltribes. The town is compact, the atmosphere vibrant, especially at the lively central market where textiles are sold a stone's throw from a slightly stomachchurning wet-market. Tourists in hiking gear mill around, many trying to evade the entreaties of women peddling hill-tribe merchandise.
More sophisticated enterprises include Sapa Sisters (sapasisters.com), owned and run entirely by women. The trekking business was set up in 2009 by Sapa-based European artists Radek Stypczynski and Ylva Landoff Lindberg, and four of their Hmong friends: Lang Yan, Lang Do, Cho and Zao. Having experienced the difficulties encountered by young Hmong women at finding decent jobs and wages, the six created this self-sustaining and independent venture.
The guides all grew up in the area and have intimate knowledge of the obscure trails that link the villages, valleys and mountains. On our trek we skirt rice fields, spear through bamboo forests and traverse surging rivers on rickety rope bridges. The hike takes us through a number of Hmong villages where black-clad youngsters flash us curious looks and doughty women carry hefty baskets of rice on their backs.
Sapa Sister Lang Yang treks with her son.
As we end the hike, the sun sags in the sky and I'm ravenous. Luckily there's the Hill Station Signature Restaurant (thehillstation.com). Owned by two young Danes, Tommy Eggen and Soeren Pindstrup, and wholly staffed by members of area communities, it specializes in imaginative takes on hill-tribe cuisine. Thanks to the Hmong tradition of slaughtering whole animals and wasting nothing, smoked and cured meats are a significant presence on the menu. So too is local rainbow trout, farmed in Sapa, and served sashimi style with hill herbs. I'm all mountain man as I tear into the fleshy feast.
After dinner, the dishes are cleared and replaced with bottles of ruou, the local firewater. There's a tasting set of the potent rice-based elixir. I'm not sure if it's the stars burning in the clear mountain night, or the houses of the villages in the valley twinkling below or just the steady parade of ruou that has my head dancing. Whichever way, I'm thoroughly intoxicated.
Sticky rice at The Hill Station Signature Restaurant. Courtesy of Hill Station Signature.