Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 1

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Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 1

I was excited to visit Sapa. Everyone I met who’d been there just loved it. The described it as beautiful, relaxed, and incredibly charming. And, they were right.

I met Francesco on the train from Hanoi. We shared a 4-berth sleeper with two Vietnamese businessmen and the train left at 10:00 PM, so we all turned in quickly. Arriving in Lao Cai the following morning, we both followed a tout to his minibus, where we waited twenty minutes to gather the full complement of ten passengers. There were too many buses (or not enough tourists), so my fellow travelers and I roamed about, trying to steal small groups from other buses. “We only need three more people and we’re ready to go!”

Francesco had only been studying English for six months or so, but we managed to communicate pretty well.

Arriving in Sapa, he suggested we get a coffee before finding a room, to give the touts time to calm down. Over a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee, I learned that he was in his fifties and taught architecture at a university in Palermo, Italy. We hit it off immediately, despite the fact that we only understood each other about half the time. Or, maybe it was because of that fact…

Most of the hotels listed in Lonely Planet were down in the heart of the tourist zone and I wasn’t terribly excited to stay there — it seemed noisy and claustrophobic. A tout told us of his hotel on the hill above the town, only a “five minute walk” from the restaurants and cafes. Rooms went for $10 a night and had balconies with a “great view”. He gave us each a motorcycle ride to his hotel and it was way up the hill — nose-bleed territory. A five-minute walk for a triathlete, perhaps, but not for this fat boy.

The rooms were okay, but the balconies were maybe two feet deep — you could enjoy the view for as long as you felt like standing. The rooftop patio was so crammed full of junk and drying clothes that there was only about three square feet of available floor space. Francesco and I looked at each other, nodded, said our apologies, and then headed down the hill.

About a hundred feet down the street, a woman came chasing after us, telling us of her hotel that we’d just passed. The rooms were only $8 a night ($10 on weekends) and had great views. As promised, the view was spectacular, the rooms large and clean, and the two rooms shared a balcony, with plenty of space for chairs. We were sold.

Our new home sat across the street from the Summit Hotel, one of the largest buildings in town. It serviced large tour groups and we would watch from our balcony as they rolled in, minibuses disgorging groups of twenty tourists at a time. A pack of thirty or more hill tribe women in traditional dress prowled the parking lot, waiting for the tourists to begin their hike down the hill.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 1

We watched the feeding frenzy that first morning, then steeled ourselves and headed out. Once you touched pavement, you were surrounded by three or more women who would pepper you with questions as you headed into town. “Where are you from? How old are you? How many babies do you have?” They all had the exact same routine.

They were dressed in beautiful, traditional attire and most had at least one gold tooth. They were either young and stunningly beautiful, or old and charmingly weathered.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 1

Soon, the sales pitch would come, with pleas to buy their handmade bags, wall hangings, and bracelets. All of their goods looked exactly like the stuff you found in the town market, but at three times the cost. “My sister made this,” was the usual story. It was endearing the first time, but soon became extremely annoying.

Buying something from one, even just a cheap trinket, would condemn you to countless, aggressive comments from the other women. “Why you no buy from me?!” “You buy from her, you buy from me. I see you first!” “Buy from me tomorrow, okay?”

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 1

And, for some reason, they loved Francesco. I guess it’s that Italian charm gene. They would swarm around him, ignoring me, and being the bastard that I am, I’d sneak off and leave him to fend for himself. By the end of the first day, I think he’d promised a dozen or more that’d he buy from them the next day. There would be hell to pay tomorrow, I warned him.

Sapa proved to be a mellow, lovely town — once you got away from the tribal women. It’s built on very hilly ground and my legs got a good workout as we navigated the steep steps and sidewalks. The town sits on the side of a steep valley and you can look out on terraced rice fields and thick forests far below. Across the valley looms Fanispan Mountain, which at over 9,000 feet, is Vietnam’s highest peak. It’s so high that it’s constantly cloud-hidden — I saw the peak once in seven days.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 1

We found a street packed with barbecue stalls and decided to stop and sample the goods. Women from at least a half-dozen stalls were shouting for our business and I felt guilty for having to choose just one. The specialty here is roasted black chicken and it has nothing to do with the cooking process — it’s a black chicken. When plucked, the skin has a dark, bluish tint. After being stuffed with herbs and roasted on a spit, the chicken turns pitch black. It looked pretty damned scary, to be honest.

We’d hoped to try one, but at 200,000 dong ($10 US), it seemed seriously overpriced. Instead, we chose from the tray of skewers, trying to sample as many as we could. The skewers went for 10,000-20,000 dong each ($.50-$1.00) and were cheap enough to experiment with. I had thin beef wrapped around mustard greens, barbecued “hill tribe-style” pork, tofu, and a tiny, whole quail. The quail had more bones than meat and the pork was so fatty, I could barely choke it down. The beef and greens was my favorite.

Going Low and Slow in Sapa, Part 1

Francesco tried the fish — a tiny, 5-inch catfish roasted whole on a bamboo skewer. When asked, he shrugged and said it was “good”. We both passed on the pig intestines, chicken’s feet, and whole sparrows. Overall, everything was rather over-cooked, dry, and tasteless — it looked like more fun than it really was. They didn’t use any kind of sauce or marinade, merely coating the meat in vegetable oil before throwing it on the flames.

Western tourists would pass by and stare, but never join in. At the time, I scoffed at their temerity, but in retrospect, they had the right idea.

That night, we sat on the balcony and drank cold Ha Noi beer we’d purchased from the vendor downstairs.

The bleating of bike horns far below was muted and we could hear the strange calls of frogs — they sounded almost electronically-generated. It was like living in a Phillip Glass soundscape.

For dinner the next evening, we visited a small, local eatery hidden beneath a raised market, sharing a table with a local family and two hill tribe women — each of us receiving a huge bowl of rice loaded with pork, beef, and vegetables. The table was rough-cut Formica and the benches were long slabs of hand-hewn lumber — certainly not 5-star material. From the surprised look on the cook’s face, they didn’t see a lot of foreigners here.

We ordered beers, but the young woman running the shop couldn’t find a bottle-opener, so I popped them open with my plastic lighter and received a startling round of applause from the locals. They thought this was the coolest trick they’d ever seen. For the rest of the evening, I was the designated beer-opener, called into service every time someone ordered a bottled drink.

A wrinkled, smiling grandmother sitting next to me offered us sticky rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. I didn’t really want more rice, with a huge bowl of it already before me, but I forced it down. Everyone was so sweet and good-hearted that I just couldn’t say no. It was a wonderful evening, with all of us communicating through gestures, body language, and honest laughter.

In the end, our total bill for two large dinners and beers was 50,000 dong ($2.50 US). The smiles and shared good humor were priceless. It was one of my favorite nights in Vietnam.

Read: Part 2

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Natalka August 9, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Loved the post and pictures. Sounds wonderful.

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ayngelina August 9, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Soo completely jealous. I had intended to go to Sapa but at the last minute had to cut it out of my trip (getting robbed in Saigon put a crimp in things) but I’m definitely heading back someday so I can go there.

Wonderful photos as always :)
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Sailing from Panama to Colombia =-.

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wes August 10, 2010 at 10:41 am

Thanks! There’s always next time, right?

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Casa De Dripping Springs August 10, 2010 at 1:15 am

Wow….I’d like to see more of the landscape. That top picture is beautiful.

D

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Andi August 11, 2010 at 6:52 am

F sounds like quite a character! Great pics as always!!! So colorful.
.-= Andi´s last blog ..My Beloved Chinese Chestnut =-.

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wes August 11, 2010 at 7:34 am

Thanks, Andi! He was a hoot. And now I’ve got an invite to visit Palermo :)

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Nancy August 19, 2010 at 12:34 am

Great food stories! It always amazed me how cheap it was to eat in Vietnam. I was in Sapa in December, so I missed out on the street barbeques (it was way too cold then), but the native women were still out in full force!
.-= Nancy´s last blog ..Electric Storm =-.

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fred November 21, 2011 at 9:04 am

Great story and great blog – we’re heading to Vietnam soon, thank you for the insights and advice

p.s what’s the name of the hotel you stayed at in Sapa?

thnaks

fred

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Garreth January 2, 2013 at 5:16 am

I’d also love to know the name of the hotel. I’m heading there later this year.

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wes January 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

I never learned the name — it was just opening up and they didn’t have signage, etc. It’s just downhill and across the street from the Summit (I think that’s the name). The Summit is the largest hotel in town and up on the hill — hard to miss. Walk downhill about 100 feet and the hotel will be on your left.

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Garreth January 2, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Thank you for the directions. I’ll certainly add that hotel to my plans. Yet again you are a fountain of knowledge!

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