An introduction to Sapa
Our overnight train terminates in the town of Lao Cai on the Chinese border. From there backpackers will get on one of the many minibuses waiting outside. It is about an hour's journey through the mountains to Sapa. There is the usual chaos of drivers touting for hire and tourists attempting to navigate their way through. It is 05:00 am and our 'scam antenna' is turned off. We are led by one agent to an empty coach and after some negotiation, overcharged for the journey. Shortly after, he transfers us to a packed minibus that 'is leaving now'. It turns out nobody on this bus has paid, and the fee is much more reasonable. We don't pay a second time. The sums involved are not significant by Western standards but the experience leaves a sad taste in the mouth. As an affluent tourist in a poor country I'm entitled to be ripped off, but some ways are more acceptable than others. I've noticed my Panama hat encourages this sort of thing.
In Sapa our minibus deposits its fresh load of tourists in the main square. We have to find our own way to the hotel surrounded by a host of cheerful H'mong tribeswomen in traditional dress trying to sell us handmade items and postcards. This is going to be the way things are for the next three days. Our rooms are not ready so we make the 3 kilometre trip (allegedly) to the Black H'mong village of Cat Cat. It is all down hill. Sapa is at the top of a mountain, Cat Cat on the valley floor. All trekking in the region is licensed. You have to be accompanied by a local guide and pay an entry fee. The trip to Cat Cat is an exception; you pay to go but do not require a guide.
The mountains around us are heavily terraced for rice growing, the results of thousands of years' efforts to scratch a living from the landscape. The winding path to the village is beset with numerous open-fronted huts where village women sell crafts. "Hello. What's your name? Where you from? How old are you? You have brothers and sisters? You buy something from me?" It is a litany we are going to learn well, especially the last phrase. We are passed by farm labourers, men and women ascending and descending the hill making their way to the rice terraces. Some carry wicker baskets on their backs filled with building rubble. Life is hard here. Pigs and dogs forage and children play on the path. On our way down we pass several primitive bamboo mills, water-driven tools for grinding rice.
At the valley floor we cross Cai Si footbridge to what is signposted as the "Mong's house of culture performance", a one hundred-years-old hydroelectric hall built by the French and still operational. It is doubles as a theatre for traditional dances: performances every hour, every day. While we wait, we watch people photograph each other by the nearby Tien Sa waterfall.
The performances are naive and charming. The performers are young, the girls smiling, the boys reluctant, moody and awckward. Their expressions say, "this is no work for the sons of H'mong farmers".
The walk back to the hotel is killing. It's like climbing Snowdon. Monica clambers ahead like a mountain goat, pausing occasionally for me to catch up. Is this medically wise for a man of my years? I must check my medical insurance. The hotel, including our room, which has a verandah, provides spectacular views of the Hoang Lien Mountains with Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in Vietnam, prominent.
After lunch, we walk around the lake in the centre of Sapa, one of the few things not balanced on a hillside. Revived, we head for gardens in the Hamrong Mountain resort. The clue is in the name, it is all uphill - just what I need, more mountain climbing. The formal gardens are divided into different aspects: the European, the Chinese, the Rock, the Childrens' Garden, and so on. There is a fine view of Sapa from this height. In the centre there is entertainment provided by more traditional dancers. This troupe execute the same dances we witnessed earlier in the day but with more polish. These boys don't seem so reluctant to be there.
As we leave the Gardens, I purchase an embroidered Vietnamese cap from a sad looking ten-year-old with a collection laid out on a carpet before her. Few of the caps fit my big head, and trying them on amuses a group of locals who think I'm part of the entertainment. Their laughter, and Monica's, shakes my confidence and I wonder if I'll ever wear the cap in Cardiff.
We retire early after an evening meal in the Sapa Gardens Boutique Hotel - ranked first on Trip Advisor. In true Vietnamese fashion, several nearby restaurants have adopted this name or variants of it in an attempt to siphon off some its custom. A scam of sorts, but an acceptable one.