We boarded the 22:00 train late in the evening of May 9th for the 10-hour overnight ride north into the highlands close to the China border. In our air conditioned sleeper cabin, we quickly fell into a relaxed aura over wine and snacks to the mellifluous clickity clack and lullaby rocking of the ride. We both liked it as it was just like being on a rocking boat. We shared our cabin with a friendly travelling Dutch couple. The basic cabins consisted of 2 sets of narrow bunk beds with a half metre narrow table in between.
Early dawn light invited us to a splendid scenery of the meandering river through the fertile lowlands with the steep highland hills as the backdrop. A 06:00 knock on our cabin door indicated tea or coffee time before our arrival.
As soon as we disembarked, a small group of us were met by an efficient and pre-arranged driver for a 45-minute mini-bus ride. As we climbed along the winding road, we left the sticky hot and humid air of the lower land and enjoyed scenery of the steep slopes.
The tranquil town of Sapa clings to a mountainous perch and looks down the quilted slopes of the ubiquitous rice paddies speckled with tiny villages and up at misty cloud-shrouded peaks that even see snow in the winter months. As a town, it was first established as a tranquil getaway about a century ago by the French, and on our arrival, it was easy to see why. It was a mostly sunny warm day as we checked into the Summit Hotel that hung on the hillside with a commanding scenic view...
...and wow, what a view!
Right after a buffet breakfast, we started our first trek. Our pleasant, short, young guide Su (pronounced "shoe", you know, what you wear on your feet) was smartly dressed in her attractive, everyday, traditional, handmade and dyed clothing of her H'Mong Village. It was a 6-kilometre, 4-hour descent to the bottom of the valley and back.
Sweet Su showing us the way
When we reached the hundreds of stoned stairs, villagers were set up all along the edges with their wares and several of them were a bit pushy in trying to sell, but they are only trying to earn extra money from the "rich" tourists. They do have excellent items of homemade silver jewellery, limestone carvings, and exquisitely embroidered bags, wall hangings, blankets, etc. We also watched the H'Mong people of the Sin Chai Village make hemp clothing and use indigo dye.
Down, down we went, now along the meandering paths snaking through the terraced rice paddies and through the Cat Cat Village.
What's a view like this worth?
Our descent culminated at a suspension bridge over the small river in the "V" of the valley. The dulcet cascades over boulders and through vegetative fringed pools made this a delightful respite.
Peaceful halfway point
After an arduous climb back, we freshened up for our late lunch at the hotel then sauntered down to the center of town to explore the local market and wares. On display were the creations and crafts of the people from the surrounding villages.
What first caught our eye was the unique and attractive textiles and dress of these slight but industrious people. Each village signature can be seen by its distinct style of outfit and jewellery.
Oxen herding through town
The first English words that all most likely learn was the introductory "Where are you from?" which everyone would begin with. Once for fun, Jordan tested their response and said something like "From Yaklovac." But with a nod as though they knew such a place, the next inevitable words were "You buy from me?" Yep, sounds like they really were interested in where we were from!