As the train slowly ground to a halt, I knew that my destination was soon coming up. The train had slowly pulled into small border town known as Lao Cai a town that is within a spitting distance from China, “Another restless night, train rides never seem to get easier,” I thought to myself, as I stepped off the train into a dimly lit train station. I’m not sure what it is about night train rides the beds, the constant rocking, or even the terrible accessibility to the bathrooms which were mainly a hole with a toilet seat on it. As I stretched my tired legs around the Lao Cai train station Nick and Kyle (my friends) and I began searching for a viable was up to the mountainous village known as Sapa.
Sapa is better known as the Tonkinese Alps among travelers and various tour groups that are based out of Hanoi. The city itself is built on top of a plateau; both valleys and mountains respectively surround and almost stash away a hidden gem of a city. Rice paddies are dug into the side of the steep terrain, make for a beautiful addition in an already beautiful landscape. Clouds pass through the city like a thick fog, giving the sensation of a city wafting amongst the clouds.
After a quick search through the train station, we stumbled on up a reasonable price for a micro bus to drive us up the mountain side to Sapa which was easy enough. (Though 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 and we were off, all of us jammed into the back seat. The bus rocketed up the side of the mountain like a deranged mountain goat, and taking all the inside corners as if we were in an F1 race. (If there was a record for getting up to Sapa, we were possibly setting it). I naturally made the mistake of sitting as far in the back as I could, my weak stomach bouncing around at every single sharp jerk of the wheel. Every turn I was a bit closer to loosing my lunch (for lack of a better phrase), and this was only the first five minutes of driving.
An hour of gut wrenching driving and dodging around buffalo on the roads the terrain leveled out, as did my stomach. I looked outside of my window with my eyes spinning and saw the city of Sapa pass into my line of sight. What I briefly saw of the city through squinted eyes was gorgeous, buildings lined narrow streets as if it were an old European city, not to mention in the background emerald colored rice terraces dotted amongst the surrounding hills with of course the occasional puffy white cloud passing through the area. I nearly jumped out of the bus and kissed the ground as we came to an abrupt stop in the cities main square, sure footing couldn’t be more welcomed. To my surprise as I looked around the square where we were dropped off I saw more than a couple full sized over night buses, “How the hell did they get those all the way up here?” thinking to myself in utter bewilderment, as we continued on to our hostel.
The hostel itself was an amazing piece of architecture, built into the side of the mountain (such as many places were in Sapa) rather than walking up to the rooms we headed downwards into the heart of the mountain. The views that this created were spectacular and couldn’t be compared to anything else, it was view that people would pay thousands of dollars a night in other countries for, a majestic view though here only cost $25 for four nights.
Despite all the breath taking views, I still didn’t feel quite right, whether it was the lack of eating, bad night rests, or the hellish bus ride I did not feel my healthiest. Regardless we embarked on a walk through town to get our bearings of the surrounding areas. Walking down steep slopes and narrow main streets the city of Sapa was incredibly welcoming to travelers, as expensive fancy mountainside hotels, various restaurants and clothing stores opened by local hill tribe people were dotted throughout the main part of the city.
Continuing onwards through our walk through the town our feet from walking a daily ten miles so naturally we decided to get foot messages at a street side message parlor. I noticed that they also offered herbal baths as we entered, and I still wasn’t feeling my best so I thought a nice warm herbal bath would help me feel healthier. I read somewhere on a travel blog that these were famous in Sapa, which was a big mistake because this wasn’t one of them. The correct baths have amazing health benefits and I would still like to partake in if I ever go back to Sapa. (I’m going to preface my shame here, because I wont be able to look my relatives in the face next thanksgiving if they see this, so if your related to me skip this section!!)
I was asked, “You just want a bath?” I nodded like it was no big deal, I was led down into a seedy basement with an eerie wood paneling that looked like it came from 1980’s America. Four different stalls I passed by, all with increasingly lewd photographs inside of them, until I was shown to my bathtub, which was already filled with bubbles. The attendant smiled 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 10 minutes fearing at the fact someone was going to come in, and what I was going to if they did. Just then as I was kind of relaxing someone upstairs shut the lights off, which for me was the last straw. I threw my clothes on at super human speed and ran up the stairs, and right out of the parlor. Passing my friends I said in a flurry of words, “I’ll be waiting outside, come get me when you’re done.” After the whole ordeal, I didn’t feel relaxed or anymore healthy. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend the rest of the day exploring instead I sat out on our balcony in our hostel, soaking up the majestic scenery, reading, meditating, and listening to epic rock ballads of Led Zepplin II.
Morning broke the next day, and I caught up with my friends who were planning on going on a hike through the mountainous hills of Sapa. I was definitely feeling almost completely better that day, but still not completely healthy, and I was still kind of reeling from yesterdays “adventure.” Heading off to the beginning of the trail we put the little hamlet behind us as we headed out towards the rice paddied countryside. After hiking for a little while our group came across a valley tucked away, untouched modern society. Little thatch-roofed farmhouse were dotted among the background, surrounded entirely by endless fields of rice paddies, as wisps of clouds passed through as a vessel of cool mist throughout the valley. The view was absolutely striking; I never in my life knew a landscape this beautiful existed, I thought of tearing up then, and I am almost tearing up now!
The cool morning sun soon turned into harsh midday beams of heat, as beads of sweat came pouring down my face, possibly because I was still sick, but then again I looked at Nick and he was sweating just as much as me. Continuing to walk through the picturesque scenery I starting taking as many photos as I could to try to capture the exact moment that I felt when I first viewed the valley, none however seem to do it any justice. We walked on the edge of rice terraces and through muddied pathways at an almost breakneck speed, until we came at another abrupt clearing when we reached our final stop on the tour. A giant cascading rock waterfall that almost seemed to being from the heavens and a view of all of Sapa and it’s surrounding areas. I sat back and relaxed to the sound of the waterfall crashing down and took 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 if snapping out of a daze the tour group of people that I was on the hike with was already headed down back into the forests below and back to the tour van.
We were dropped off back in the main square of the city and we began exploring the city again. The signs for the Ham Rong flower garden caught our eyes, as we followed the signposts scaling up what seemed like thousands of unending steps we final reached the gardens. We spent most of our time in the gardens relaxing in the warm summer sun, kicking about the shuttlecock desperately trying to get the hang of it, and stopping every so often to take in the majesty that was Sapa. After one view of the city from a view on high I instantly knew why it was it was so closely compared to the European Alps, the little city tucked away in between giant mountains, thriving with commerce and bustling with people.
The sun went low in the sky and the day was ending, walking back down the steps from the gardens we once again found ourselves in the town’s main square, which had grown 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 tried desperately tried to get the hang of kicking around the shuttle cock with a couple of Vietnamese teenagers. I couldn’t help but reflect on this leg of the trip that was so ingrained in my memories, it was unearthly beautiful and so unlike any other place I visited in South East Asia. It was a needed break from heat and the industrial cities of of Hanoi and Bangkok, this felt more like home, but with more rice paddies.