Although this sleeper train was much better than the soviet-era train we took in Russia, I still didn’t sleep very well due to the stuffiness and constant rocking and jerking. However, I was still grateful for the two days of agonizing driving it saved us. With a swipe of the complimentary moist towelette as substitute for a shower, we were ready to start the day. It was hectic when we stepped off the train into the foggy early morning air. Families were trying to reunite, travelers struggled under the weight of their massive suitcases, and taxi drivers shouted at us for our business. The most insistent taxi driver ushered us to his van and tried to rip us off by demanding double his original price, but we held our ground.
The road from the train station in Lao Cai to the mountainous town of Sapa was winding, steep, and ridden with buses and taxis going way too fast and attempting to overtake each other at every turn. I tried to ignore the chaos on the road and instead admire the misty mountains, terraced rice paddy fields, and the traditionally-dressed ethnic minority villagers walking along the side of the road past tiny shacks built out of wooden planks and cement.
Miraculously, we made it to the top and were immediately swarmed by village women as we disembarked the van.
“Where you from??”
“What’s your name?”
“How long you stay in Sapa?”
“You boyfriend girlfriend?”
“You buy from me?”
We were bombarded with questions, from all the ladies speaking over each other, following us and trying to win us over and make us feel guilty enough to buy something from them. It was quite an assault on the senses after having not slept much and I was happy when we found our hotel and walked inside the safety zone of no street selling.
The five flights of stairs up to our room was made well worth it by the incredible view from our window. The sun was now rising and casting a warm light on the colorful buildings in the narrow streets and illuminating the massive mountains in the distance. It was breathtaking. I felt like I was in a sleepy little mountain village in the Alps or something, yet it was warm and sunny. We were hungry and needed a shower, but decided to take advantage of the spectacular lighting and explore the narrow hilly roads and take some photos of the mountains. I got quite scared by a pack of dogs that started barking viciously and following me until a local woman threw a rock at them–Byron was laughing and still insists I was in no real harm.
Soon the mist and fog started rolling in, swallowing the mountains and replacing them with a thick white blanket. After some pho and Vietnamese coffee for breakfast, we looked forward to the prospect of a nice warm shower. Our hotel manager informed us that all of Sapa lost power and a shower was certainly out out of the question until it was fixed.
Slightly disappointed, but determined not to sit around and wait for the power to come back, we went out for a stroll around town. It seemed quaint and cozy with many narrow three story buildings crammed tightly together along small roads, occupied by western restaurants (so many “pizza” places!), fake North Face gear stores, hotels, massage parlors, and shops selling handmade goods from the surrounding villages. The sidewalks were dominated by groups of the village ladies trying to entice people to buy their embroidered purses, blankets, scarves, and bangle bracelets.
We continued down the road, past a stone arena with the stage still set up from the New Years celebration and the most humble Christian church I’ve seen on our travels (a remnant from France’s occupation of Vietnam). The lake was by far the highlight of the town’s beauty with the sun glittering on the water while happy tourists paddled around in swan boats and the village children kicked around a type of hackysack to each other. It felt like the most stereotypical summer day, not mid-winter.
In Sapa, they say you can experience four seasons in one day with a calm spring morning, a blazing hot summer midday, a crisp fall afternoon and a chilly winter night. I laughed to myself as I took off every layer of clothing I could to stay cool. We almost didn’t come to Sapa because many people told us we would be unprepared for the snowy, frigid, unbearable, freezing cold. We were debating about buying heavy winter jackets and gloves or just forgoing the trip altogether. Apparently Sapa was in a heatwave, and has experienced abnormally hotter weather each winter. I’m extremely happy we didn’t listen to the naysayers and came here after all.
We decided the best way to take in the hilly scenery was to rent a motorbike for $4 (for the entire day, no signature, no deposit) and cruise around the windy roads. Byron drove while I was on back snapping photos of the sprawling farms, terraces of land, steep roads clinging to mountain peaks, and plunging valleys with rocky rivers deep below.
One random steep hill took us past a group village ladies selling vegetables in the middle of the street and then it climbed higher and higher until we were no longer looking at the rice paddies from afar, but we were actually driving next to the carved landscape. It was breathtaking with the sun warming the lush green fields and the rays shining off of the water contained in each step of the terraces and the farm animals and the children running around the limestone cliffs. The photos just didn’t do justice to what we saw.
We had the bike until 6pm, so we continued our ride down into the valley to get a close up look at the other farms. We passed many villagers dressed in their ethnic clothing while they raced around the roads on their motorcycles, which was a funny image of the merging modern and traditional theme. This road was much bumpier and we had to cross a few streams and constantly avoid the buffalo, cows, and chickens in the road.
After more amazing views of the landscape, we climbed back up through the valley back to Sapa. Thankfully, the power was back on and we could enjoy a nice hot shower and a good dinner before bed.