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Sapa; a misty village on Vietnam's rooftop.

VIETNAM | Wednesday, 20 October 2010 | Views [1090]

A Sapa postcard pic courtesy of Lindsay's camera

A Sapa postcard pic courtesy of Lindsay's camera

Sleeper trains are such a good idea I can't believe they aren't used for commuting. You wouldn't get jolted awake every 20 seconds and people could dribble on a pillow instead of their neighbours shoulder. For long distance travel, not only do you save on a night's accommodation, the gentle rocking lulls you to sleep like a baby in a windless tree-top. It's just a shame the beds are only big enough to accommodate one leg, or the average Asian adult. The sleeping area is 6 inches short of comfortable and even further from stretching out like an ascetic on silk sheets. Buses are worse though, and they have barely enough room for midgets or amputees.

Whether fortuitous or intended, we arrived in Lao Cai early enough to be fish in a barrel to the hungry touts. The cost of any service offered that doesn't require a second mortgage sounds good before 6am. $1.40AUS for a minibus to Sapa, sure thing. Take us Westerners directly to your hotel before stopping at the bus station, no worries. Something thousand dong for a room with a big bed, all good as long as we can go straight to bed now and check in after noon.

When we woke up, it was raining. The only thing visible was the near-by hotel monstrosities creeping skyward like concrete weeds. And in doing so, they make the whole Sapa skyline look like a cheap Chinese toy set all hastily erected in the last two weeks. It was a new Vegas complete with Hill Tribe folk as croupiers equally as skilled at wallet hoovering. They patrol the streets like a used car salesmen without a yard. Their relationship marketing is well honed with their excellent English. They ask a few background questions such as name, married, country of origin, etc. and not only do they have your spending capacity sussed out by then, numerous colleagues have swarmed in like vultures around a terminal cow.

It turned out our room was a pretty good deal at $8 a night, even though the carved, ersatz antique furnishing contrasted somewhat with the gold framed picture of a topless woman on the wall. The location was close enough to the main drag to be surrounded by tasty food and shopping bargains within 2 minutes of leaving the hotel. Even when the clouds cleared though, there wasn't much of a view. Unless peering through neighbouring windows was your thing.

We didn't have to go far to see some of the most breath-taking scenery imaginable though. A short walk up Ham Rong to the Cloud Yard look-out rewarded us with a stunning view of the entire town, the cloud covered peaks extending far above and the populated valleys that carved between them. Every slope was terraced with rice paddies like stacks of ever smaller pancakes. Until they design a camera as sharp as human sight, no photo could ever do such scenery favour.

To see the best of what the area had to offer, I had to overlook another previous lesson and hire a scooter. Determined to be in control of my own fate this time, I insisted Lindsay be the ballast and guide as a passenger. That was more of a ceremonial position as I knew we'd be half way to Africa now if I had let her try to decipher a map. Fortunately only 3 roads lead out of Sapa, and none required turning off.

Every direction required turning of sorts as the roads wound round the mountains with stomach churning consistency. Each corner revealed such unrivalled views that white lines and shoulders were being zig-zagged across like a drunk with one shorter leg as it was impossible to just watch the road. Driving on the right hand side meant little, like all of Vietnam, as everyone used whatever part of the road they felt like.

We went to Tram Ton first. At 1,900 metres above sea level, it was the highest mountain pass in the country. A few entrepreneurs in blue tarpaulin shanty's sold warm drinks and eggs cooked any way but the way you wanted. Their rubbish piled near by taking some of the magic out of a pristine area with partially concealed mountain peaks and misty valleys stretching far out beyond the imagination. Suspend disbelief and you could see dragons circling the heights, while Kung-fu Panda's fought shrivelled old Confucian monks in ancient bamboo groves.

If it was the place of dreams, the near-by Golden Stream love waterfall was the place of sexual fantasies. We never found out what sort of warm shower of yellowish colour it offered as more time had been spent paving a cobblestone maze than erecting signs. A lookout tower filled my lungs with the cleanest air to be found in Vietnam while Lindsay celebrated the climb with a cigarette.

Other than taking us back towards Lao Cai, the other road descended into the villages of all the different tribes that inhabited the village. We had walked to Cat Cat village the previous day and seen that tourism had turned simple farming folk into pin-ups for capitalist greed. Perhaps the money brought in by flash-packers constantly excreting money like sweat gave these people a better standard of living than what farming had, but at what cost to their culture and traditions? Guilty through presence alone, the implications of travel is a question I continue to ask of myself, and am yet to find a completely satisfying response to. Ultimately, every individual must find peace with what their travelling footprint is or be prepared to never leave their home.

Tags: hill tribes, scenery, transport

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