Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sapa, Sapa, Sapa

Anyone who is a Simpsons fan will remember the season 11 episode "Last Tap Dance in Springfield", where Lisa learns to tap dance. Her teacher, 'lil Vicki - a play on Shirley Temple, taught them to dance by repeating the words 'tapa, tapa, tapa' (have to add that in the episode, Ralph kills me in his unitard). Listen to it here. I couldn't stop saying it then, and now I say Sapa, Sapa, Sapa every time I think of my time there. Ridiculous? Yeah, no doubt, but I've been wanting to insert anything Simpsons-related into this blog for ages, and now I have get the chance - hooray!! I know there are too many quotes to use from that show, but this one works, trust me. Ok don't trust me, just go with it!

Right then, so we're back on message about the beautiful mountain region of Sapa. How was it? Well, it was foggy the first few days so I couldn't really get a good impression, but then suddenly the clouds lifted, the fog dissipated, and the sun came out - and there it was. My jaw dropped. So THIS is what they were talking about!! I honestly can't put into words the beauty, the magnificence, the sheer size of what I was looking at. Not to confuse, but I'm referring too the mountains of Sapa 'ahem'. Suffice to say that shock and awe was worth the journey.

Sapa Cha Pa Boutique Hotel

Ah, the journey. The journey. To repeat, the journey. To get to Sapa I took the overnight train from Ha Noi to Sapa (via Lai Cao) which was, to be blunt, f*cking awful. I mean I had a private berth on the train all to myself. It had bunk beds, a table, blankets and pillows, and even Vodka! It was very comfortable so quit your whining, I know I know how it sounds. But despite the comforts, I just couldn't sleep the entire eight-hour trip. Eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling as the train rocked it's way to Sapa. Glad the vodka was available.

When I arrived to Lai Cao, Son (he was the one who invited me to dinner at his house with his family for Vietnamese Tet - check out the earlier posts back to remember who I'm talking about) was there to meet me. I looked, and felt like shit, plus I arrived very early to my hotel (after a very eye-opening, VERY alert trip up the mountains in fog), which didn't have the room ready. 'Sigh', 'tis ok though. I just pulled out the laptop which the staff kindly hooked up for me with local internet service. Didn't stop there. They fed me a very, very tasty breakfast of homemade bread, fresh raspberry preserves and scrambled eggs, along with freshly squeezed OJ and cup of tea. All was VERY good.

I stayed at The Cha Pa Boutique Hotel – good memories. It's a unique little B&B run by Soren and Chris - two very brave men for opening a business in a foreign county. Their tales of how the hotel idea got started aren't pretty. They shared their construction and opening day nightmares, the trials and tribulations of trying to open a business in Viet Nam as foreigners...yes, the stories are definitely not for the faint of heart, nor the quick to anger or people who give up easily!). Originally from Norway and Sweden respectively, the two men and their families opened the place about five years ago. I talked them (although it felt like an interview)because I was very curious to know how these two guys managed to get through the endless bureaucratic, not to mention communist (Vietnam is a communist country FYI) red tape to build the place. Judging from their faces as they told me the stories, let alone their words, it must have been a hellish nightmare. The result of the madness is an absolutely stunning hotel - highly recommended should you decide to visit Sapa. The kitchen staff make a mean scrambled egg breakfast – so GOOD!! Oh, and they had to collect my passport and pass it on to the local police. Turns out they have to give all of the passports of foreign guests. I had forgotten, again, where I was (foreign tourist, plus communist country, plus close to Chinese border, equals suspicion) but I didn't sweat it – they (government) just want to know where you are at all times. Fine, no problem, he says shakily haha

On my first night in Sapa, everything and I mean EVERYTHING, was shut down tight, including the hotel restaurant for Vietnamese New Year, or 'Tet'. So there wasn't much to do but drink and chill out, but that was totally fine with me!! The next morning I went on a half day, 8 km trek with my guide Son. What a crazy, muddy walk that was, but I did it! We even had children following us ALL the way down the mountain (wanting me to buy something of course, but hey, the extra company was nice). I noticed other tourists with the same issues which made me laugh, although some looked seriously agitated. The trick is to say no firmly and keep walking so they don't/can't engage you - if you do you'll just get into trouble. Oh, and promise them NOTHING - if you do, they'll remember you and come for you. Sound ominous? Good, it's supposed to scare you.

> Anyway, as we trekked, we went to one of the village homes where Son demonstrated with some of local machinery, how to grind corn into cornmeal flour, and how to make the strings of hemp stronger for sewing. Think of it as using a giant rowing or elliptical machine, except much much more strenuous on the body and muscles. That was honestly a very cool lesson, and it looked like very hard work, but what was that on his face while he was doing? Why, it was a big smile! He actually LIKED doing it as he told me afterwards. I just looked back at that very heavy machine and thought, not unkindly, "I have a coffee grinder at home that can do what you just did in five seconds." I kept that to myself. He wins anyway because the serious amount of muscle energy required to work that machine is nuts. Mind you, working that machine to loser tourists like myself might explain why he is able to practically skip up the damn mountain, while I gasp for breath and hold my out of shape body on to the railings, sticks, children for support – show off!!

We also passed a number of 'Homestays', basically a somewhat nice, somewhat comfy place where you can crash for a night. Good for backpackers. Me? Not so much. I make no apologies for liking/loving my hotel life. I'll somewhat happily do the rough hiking work, but afterwards I want the hotel creature comforts thanks very much! Although I have to admit, doing the hike was worth it. Staring at the incredible beauty of the terraces, all constructed by hand to catch the mountain water for rice? Impressive. Towards the end of the walk we sat with a local family who offered me tea, and I watched the grandmother make a rice dish which looked so good but sadly I didn't get to sample. There was a reason why that I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure Son explained at the time. I could have sat there staring at her make the dish for hours, mostly because it was so warm and it was freaking cold outside but also because it was such repetitive work, but yet the look on her face? Happiness. If you love cooking, that look is international, and you recognize and appreciate it no matter where you are.

The last day in Sapa was particularly beautiful weather-wise (apparently the best it's been in two months!). Finally all the stores were open, but I wasn't in the mood to go shopping. The main square was packed with people coming in from the neigbouring villages, all dressed up in their Sunday best (even though it was Saturday) eating or just hanging out. Kinda cool like that. I met, while wandering about the town, some lovely folks from Australia and France, and then later on a United Kingdom foursome at a coffee shop. They, in particular, had me in stitches laughing about their Vietnam tourisim stories, but they also had me smiling at the way they were handling the constant stream of local peddlers asking them to buy their things. The word 'no' just wasn't going to cut out. So they used hand gestures. They used the papers they had in their hand to wave them away. They used chairs to try and block them from gaining access (one of the peddlers did reach over to try to grab some food from the table - hilarious!!). One of the ladies turns to me and goes "it wouldn't bother so me so much if they sold things that were actually worth buying instead of this useless rubbish!" I loved that, a quote for the ages!

I'm giving a very special shout out to the Wild Orchid Restaurant in Sapa (editors update note: I wonder if you're still in operation? I really hope so, I loved you Wild Orchid). Although you aren't on the list of places to eat in Sapa like the Viet Emotion (umm hello overrated, and what's this? Mr. cockroach on my table?) My meal at your place was outstanding. The soup – chicken and mushroom, was exactly what I wanted on that cold night. The Nem Ran spring roll (or should I say Nem Sapa) was tasty, crispy and perfect, and the chicken and rice stir fry made me want to go ask the chef what his secret was but you saved the best for last: the banana crepe with chocolate. And this comes after moaning about the lack of dessert choices in Viet Nam!!! A delicious finale to a meal worth talking about!! I'm so glad you're not on the tourist radar yet, but give it time, you will be. I did like having you all to myself though. Back to Hanoi after four amazing days, but may I offer some advice if you're planning to come to Sapa?

1) Book a private booth on the train. Don't argue, just do it. It is not expensive and it is totally, completely worth it. This is one case where all you budget-conscious people, and God bless you for that, should really say screw the budget in this case. Yeah, eight hours may not seem that long for the cheaper, hard benches, but you'll feel it after an hour, believe me. Plus, you get the added joy of sharing non-functioning washrooms, with people and in particular, babies, all up in your business. Don't argue and get the damn private booth - you won't be sorry!!

2) Don't come here during Tet. Come to the country, but don't come to Sapa - there is nothing to do, trust me!

3) After consultation with Chris and Soren, owners of the beautiful Cha Pa Boutique Hotel where I stayed; the advice? Don't come to Sapa in January or February, period. Not only because of Tet, but because of the weather. I was lucky to see the sun but it's usually foggy and VERY chilly outside. The best times are in May, June or September, October when it's warmer and clear

4) Go to the Wild Orchid Restaurant ? Please? For me? You won't be disappointed!
Enough talk - pictures to show

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