Sapa is a town way up in the gorgeous Hoang Lien Son Mountains of northern Vietnam very close to the border with China.
Surrounded by lush towering mountains, full of French colonial buildings, and relatively free of the noisy traffic that characterizes the rest of Vietnam, it's got to be one of the most beautiful and peaceful towns in Vietnam (or in SE Asia for that matter!)
typical architecture in Sapa
The mountains surrounding the town of Sapa are full of hundreds of ethnic minority villages. Tourism has no doubt had an effect on these people, but still, they continue to live very traditional life styles. They still wear colorful traditional clothing and live off of the land by farming rice in the huge network of rice terraces that blanket the mountains. The town itself is full of beautifully dressed villagers hawking their wares to tourists and offering their services as local tour guides.
Local girls hanging out in town in their traditional garb
On the advice of fellow travelers, we decided to take the sleeper train to Sapa, foregoing the bus this time. It was a good decision, too. The train is much more comfortable. The beds are big enough for us to stretch out fully and there is room to get up and walk around if you get antsy.
Despite the relatively comfortable beds, none of us got any sleep. The ride was wobbly and the train was squeaky and I was cursing myself for not buying ear plugs when I had the chance in Thailand.
When we finally arrived in Sapa at around 7am things were looking pretty bleak. The weather was very cold and rainy and none of us were in a good mood. The ride from the train station up the Sapa valley and into town was beautiful, but winding roads and reckless driving made it difficult to enjoy the views and we were all feeling a bit nauseous when we arrived in Sapa. When finally reached the top, a heavy fog was blanketing the entire town and surrounding mountains.
Short on sleep, cold, and cranky, I began second guessing the decision to come up to Sapa. At breakfast, Nick even suggested we might buy a return ticket for that evening!
Nick trying to stay warm with a cup of coffee
We decided to retreat into our hotel room and take a nap. With the weather so cold and rainy, we resigned ourselves to spending the day hibernating inside. At about 3:00 though, Aimee and I decided to get a massage ($6 for an hour) and left Nick to wander the town on his own for a bit. By the time we met up an hour later, Nick had inadvertently planned the rest of our stay in Sapa! In addition to booking a cooking class for that evening, he found us a tour guide for the following day.
Zee made Nick take this picture so we wouldn't forget who our tour guide was
She was from the Black H'mong ethnic group, and her name was Zee. Nick introduced her to us by saying, “I think I found us a tour guide for tomorrow. She doesn’t speak a lick of English, but she’s cute as a button, isn’t she!?” And he had a point, she sure was cute! She gave each of us a bracelet to signify our promise that we would spend the next day with her and we agreed we’d meet up with her the following morning at 9am.
A brief stop at the hotel room for a shower and we were off to our cooking class at the Boutique Hotel. The fun had just begun!