The Beautiful Mountains of Sapa
When researching last year’s trip to Thailand, we had read about how “cold” it got in Northern Thailand where we were heading to Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao, and Chiang Rai. For three weeks, I carried around a light-weight hoodie and a Patagonia puffy (one that balls up to the size of a grapefruit) in preparation for this cold we were apparently going to experience. The ONLY time I used those items was as an ass cushion on a slowboat from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. By any normal standards, it never got ‘cool’ let alone remotely ‘cold.’ So this time around in reading about how Sapa “gets so cold,” my natural instinct was to say to myself, “Yeah, I bet it does…” and then not pack anything heavier than a t-shirt.
I spent four days in Sapa absolutely freezing my nips off completely engrossed in the mist of the clouds, too stubborn to break down and buy a knock-off North Face jacket that was for sale at every other store.
Sapa, Vietnam was established as a hill station (refuge for tourists to escape the heat) by the French in 1922. Sitting on the edge of Hoàng Liên National Park and surrounded by the towering Hoang Lien Son mountain range, it’s home to many diverse ethnic minorities (hill tribes) and is currently the one place in Northwestern Vietnam that’s on the regular tourist circuit. Visitors are drawn by the beautiful rice terraces cascading down the 3,000m mountains as well as the chance of obtaining a glimpse into a threatened traditional lifestyle. As the tourism industry has grown, the locals have adapted and sprung on new opportunities to make a living. Donning vibrant traditional dress, the older H’Mong women of the local tribes head into town each day and and turn to strong-armed selling tactics to hawk their handicrafts and souvenirs throughout town, particularly at the local market. Many of the men now lead treks throughout the hills, bringing visitors to nearby villages for a peak into the transforming local culture. And it’s not uncommon for kids, uneducated, but with a firm grasp of English and French languages, to be pulled from school to either sell goods or lead treks as well.
I had taken the overnight train from Hanoi into Lao Cai along the Chinese border and even when disembarking at 5 a.m., it was warm and humid as I climbed into the minibus. I was in desperate need of coffee, but I was actually in pretty good shape for getting little-to-no sleep on a violently swaying train. I was really excited to finally see Sapa, planning on trekking around and spending a bunch of time on a motorbike cruising through the mountains. But my energy was quickly squashed as my expectations of photographing the tall mountains and cascading rice terraces dissipated around each turn as the minibus quickly sped into the thickening clouds during the 38 km ride. As we rolled into town, the thermometer was hovering around 10º (50º f) with low visibility and the moisture of the fog drenching everything.
From what some locals said, Northern Vietnam was trapped in a residual weather pattern from the remains of Typhoon Nari, which had battered the central coast five days prior. There was no end in sight… I spent the next four days trying to make the best of it and see what I could. In between bouts of downpours, I trekked to Cat Cat Village, Lao Chai, and Ta Van. I spent a few hours on a motorbike heading out and back to Love Waterfall, drenched and violently shivering the whole time. But other than that, I worked my way cafe-to-cafe and bar-to-bar throughout town while strolling every road and alley I could find. I never saw one second of anything that could be considered alright weather or a moment of decent light for photography.
But in looking back, my time in Sapa was still a top highlight of my five week journey.