Vietnam is widely known for its dense jungles, drenching humidity, and its bustling metropolitan cities. Though this type of scenery and climate do not hold true for one of its northernmost towns, called Sapa. The city was built on top of a plateau. Both valleys and mountains stash away this hidden gem of northern Vietnam.
Rice terraces dug into the side of the steep terrain creating grassy steps among the hillside, which make for a wonderful addition to an already beautiful landscape. The white clouds glided over the town like a thick fog, giving the sensation of a city wafting through the heavens. Sapa’s architecture was strongly influenced by the French colonialists, creating the effect of a small city tucked in the midst of the French Alps.
The train slowly pulled into a small border town known as Lao Cai, a spitting distance away from the southern tip of mainland China. “Another restless night, train rides never seem to get easier,” I thought to myself, as I stepped off into the early morning dew on the platform of the dimly lit train station. I’m not sure what it is about the night train rides that merit terrible night sleeps for me. The beds, the constant rocking of the train, or the fact that the toilets were just holes on the floor. After stretching my tired legs around the Lao Cai’s train station, my friends Nick and Kyle and I began our search for a viable way up to the city in the clouds.
A few seconds of us getting into the town Lao Cai, a hawker offered a competitive price for a microbus drive to Sapa. I don’t think that any of us were ready for the perilous journey we were about to embark on. The minibus skidded its way out of the parking lot as the speakers blared some sort of hypnotic and strange European dubstep. Sadly I was squished all the way into the back seat. The bus rocketed up the side of the mountain like some sort of a deranged mountain goat, all the while taking up every corner as if we were in an F1 race. Sitting in the back I could feel, my weak stomach bouncing around at every single sharp jerk of the wheel. With every turn, I was a bit closer to losing my breakfast. Then I looked at my watch and came to a horrific realization that only five minutes had passed by since the bus pulled away.
After about an hour of gut-wrenching driving, while dodging around buffalos on the roads, the terrain leveled out, as did my stomach. I looked out of my window with my eyes still spinning from the hectic drive and captured Sapa as we passed it by. What I briefly saw of the city through squinted eyes was gorgeous, buildings lined narrow streets as if it were an old European city. In the background, emerald-colored stepped rice paddies dotted the surrounding hills, as giant misty clouds moved graciously bounced through the scenery.
I nearly jumped out of the bus and kissed the ground as we came to a screeching halt in the city’s main square — sure footing couldn’t be more welcomed. The hot humid air had dissipated and was now replaced with a cool dry breeze which shockingly reminded me of spring in New England. Surprisingly there were more than a couple full sized overnight buses filling up the square. “How the hell did they get them all the way up here?” I pondered in utter bewilderment, as we made our way to our accommodations.
The hostel itself was an architectural marvel, built into the side of a mountain. Though rather than walking upstairs to the rooms, we headed downwards into the heart of the mountain. The views from our balcony were spectacular — the kind of view that people would pay thousands of dollars a night in other countries for; though something this incredible only cost $25 for four nights. Despite enjoying the breathtaking views, it did not help me cope with a niggling sickness, whether it was due to the lack of food, a couple of restless nights, or that hellish bus ride — I still did not feel my healthiest.
Heading back into the town, we explored its sloped streets and narrow alleyways. Though soon we all agreed that walking an average of ten miles a day was beginning to take a toll on our feet. Without question, we decided to get foot massages at a streetside parlor. After walking through the storefront I noticed that they also offered herbal baths. Since I still wasn’t feeling my best I thought a nice warm bath definitely would help me feel a lot better. I read online on one of the highest-rated google travel posts, that said these spas were famous in Sapa. The problem though, was that this wasn’t one of those famous herbal baths. The proper baths should have amazing health benefits, and I would still like to experience one if I ever go back to Sapa.
After I inquired about the herbal bath, the receptionist asked: “You just want a bath?” and I nodded like it was no big deal (mistake #1). I was led downstairs into a seedy basement with an eerie wood paneling which looked like it came from the 1980’s America (mistake #2). On the way, I passed by four different stalls, all with increasingly lewd photographs depicted on them. Then I was shown to my bathtub, which was already filling up with bubbles. The attendant smiled and walked away. It wasn’t until I heard her walk up to the top step did I then get into the bathtub. I knew exactly what kind of place this was, but part of me just really wanted a warm bath. I sat there for about ten minutes facing the curtain, bracing for the fact that without notice someone was going to walk in. What I was going to do if they did trounce in on my increasingly awkward bubble bath remained a mystery even to me.
Just as I was beginning to relax, someone upstairs shut all the basement lights off, which for me was the last straw. I threw my clothes on at a superhuman speed and ran up the stairs — right out of the building and onto the street with bubbles still behind my ears. As I passed my friends I shouted a flurry of words: “I’ll be waiting outside, come and get me when you’re done.”
After the whole ordeal, I didn’t feel any better. Sadly the rest of my day was spent sitting on the balcony of the hostel, soaking in the majestic scenery, reading, meditating, and listening to the epic rock ballads of Led Zepplin II. A relaxing breeze slowly cooled me down and reminded me of Springtime in Connecticut in one quick gust.
I caught up with my friends the next morning. They planned on going for a hike through the countryside. My sickness still lingered on, but I didn’t want to miss any more of Sapa so I agreed to go with them. Once we met up with our guide on the outskirts of the village, we put the little hamlet behind us as we headed out towards the wild nature.
After hiking for a little while, our group came across a tucked away valley, untouched by modern society. (I know I’ve used this analogy before). The scenery oozed of James Hilton’s Shangri-la, little thatch-roofed farmhouses were dotted amongst the background, surrounded entirely by endless steps of rice paddies, while a river gently bubbled through the middle of the valley providing an excellent irrigation. The view was absolutely striking; never in my life did I know a landscape this beautiful existed. I thought of tearing up then, and I am almost tearing up now!
The cool morning sun eventually turned into a harsh midday beam of heat. Beads of sweat began pouring down my face, possibly because I was still sick, but then again I looked at Nick and he was drenched in sweat as well. Continuing our walk through the picturesque scenery, I starting furiously snapping as many photos as I could to capture the exact moment that I felt when I first saw the valley. None, however, did it any justice.
We hiked at a breakneck speed, teetering on the edge of rice terraces, along the muddied pathways. We soon came at another abrupt clearing, reaching our final stop on the tour — a giant cascading rock waterfall, that almost seemed to spring from the heavens, with a view of the entire Sapa’s countryside. I sat back and relaxed to the sound of the waterfall crashing down, taking in the view. “Sapa is a truly magical part of the world, I could die here and be a happy man,” I thought to myself. As I quickly snapped out of the trance, I noticed that the tour group was already headed down into the forests below, back to our van.
The tour bus dropped us off back at the main square, and once again we took to exploring every untouched nook of the city. The posters for the Ham Rong flower garden caught our eyes, as we followed scattered signposts scaling up what seemed like thousands of unending steps until we reached the gardens.
We spent the better half of our afternoon in the gardens — relaxing under the warm Summer sun, kicking the shuttlecock while desperately trying to get the hang of it, and stopping every so often to take in the majesty of Sapa. The viewpoint at the top of the park offered a marvelous view of the city from above. I then realized why the city was considered the Tonkinese Alps. The little town tucked away in giant mountains, thriving with commerce, bustling with travelers and locals alike.
As the sky turned a creamsicle orange, we walked down the thousands of steps away from the gardens. Once again, we found ourselves in the town’s main square, which grew quite popular in the waning hours of the day. I sat on the steps with all of our belongings attempting to fix my nearly broken camera, while Nick and Kyle attempted once more to get the hang of kicking around the shuttlecock with a couple of Vietnamese teenagers. I couldn’t help but reflect on this leg of our trip which was so ingrained in my memories. It was unearthly beautiful and so unlike any other place that I visited in Southeast Asia. It was a relaxing break from the heat and the industrial cities of Hanoi and Bangkok. Sapa felt more like home, though one with more rice terraces.