Story & Photos by: Karen
ist, opaque yet light as cotton candy, is all that fills the
world. I am aware in some primordial way that my thighs are
involuntarily lock-jawed around the soaking wet trunk of a strange man.
I am riding (and clinging) on the rear of a Russian
Minsk motorbike as dawn decides whether to break over Ta Van village
home to the Black Hmong, the Red Dao, the Giay. The driver's mission: to
deposit me ¾ dead or alive it seems ¾ at the Victoria Hotel in Sapa.
From there I'm to return by van to the station at Lao Cai to catch the
morning train back to Hanoi.
The narrow mountainous path from Ta Van to Sapa is an oozing mud
field that forces the Minsk to ride its waves like a hell-bent surfer.
Far below the unprotected cliff-like edge is dense foliage; enough to
camouflage our demise should we tumble into oblivion. My driver greets
each bend in the road with accelerated speed and a shocking familiarity.
Drops of condensation, an almost-snow, sail toward my face. I consider
crying out, or rapping on the back of his white mushroom of a helmet.
Instead I say nothing, let the wind blow through me, throat to heart. I
am awed by my own fear, immobilized with wonder at the superior beauty
of what I see.
Indigo apparitions momentarily appear and are gone; ghost dancers
flirting with the precipice. They are Black Hmong making their way on
foot in small clusters to the villages and the terraced, fallow rice
paddies we've left behind.
I am a reluctant traveler, with no wish to leave Sapa and its magical
environs. My Minsk jaunt is the denouement of a three-day adventure that
spans the red-swathed upholstery of the exclusive Victoria Express
train, the four-star elegance of the Victoria Sapa Hotel, and the tent
flaps of a riverside campsite in Ta Van village.
adventure began three nights ago in Ga Ha Noi, the rambling city railway
station, where ticket holders for the evening Victoria Express (who must
also be Victoria Hotel guests) await departure in the VIP section. An
escort accompanies Victoria passengers to the Express cars, crossing
several tracks in the train yard.
The Victoria Express boasts two newly refurbished, air-conditioned
sleeping cars, several Western-style restrooms, and Le Tonkin, a dining
car with a sparkling stainless steel kitchen and a menu from the
Victoria Sapa Hotel's French chef.
Passengers can nibble Croque Sa Pa (toast, cheese and spinach topped
with a fried egg) or Chicken in Basil Sauce. Sipping a Pastis, it's easy
to imagine myself aboard the Orient Express. Several of my fellow
passengers write postcards by the light of small table lamps as the
train departs the station for the 10-hour, 380 km journey into
Soft beds are made up in sleep-inducing, luxurious, monogrammed
Victoria linens. Over-sized windows are ample temptation for watching
the provinces roll by all night. Under the covers, my eyes peeled to the
window, I capture prize vignettes. A catch a fleeting glimpse of two
young boys, three hours out of Hanoi, playing a billiards-like game
under a single light bulb, framed by a palapa-style thatched roof, their
bodies bend intently over the table ¾ then quickly fade once more into
dark nothingness. Or maybe it was a dream.
Lao Cai station is bustling when we pull in just after 7 a.m.
Colorful, Gypsy-like wooden wagons drawn by small horses await
passengers and goods headed for the nearby border crossing to China.
Backpackers and diehards who have braved the train's ordinary cars
negotiate transportation to Sapa, some 35 km up steep and winding
Highway 4. I gratefully join the other Victoria passengers in the
hotel's courtesy Mercedes vans.
arrive at the Victoria Sapa Hotel an hour later, with its commanding
hilltop vista of Fan Si Pan, Vietnam's highest peak. The resort is pure
Indochine, a low-rise chalet that retains the subtlety of French
colonial grandeur while sitting amiably next to the one-room homes of
local neighbors. A baby pot-bellied pig quickly disappears around one
side of the hotel as we disembark the vans.
I spend the morning in Sa Pa. In the village marketplace tiny Black
Hmong girls ply their aluminum necklaces like marketing pros, while
cabbages large as watermelons balance on scales nearby. The bell tower
of the nearby French-built cathedral is bordered by a karaoke café. I
lunch on fried fish and rice at the Camellia, then walk to Cat Cat, a
Hmong enclave 3 km below the market in the Muong Hoa Valley. With its
picturesque waterfall and bamboo pipes, it is the perfect first day
I dine at the Victoria. The menu this evening includes a Home Grown
Salade with edible flowers, and a perfectly formed Raclette, a specialty
of resident chef Remy Faubel. I sleep hard and fast in the mountain air.
In the morning, I depart with my guides, Nguyen Duc Sang and Vu Quang
Toyen, for an overnight trek to Ta Van village.
southeast, first to Lao Chai, a small Black Hmong village where we rest
momentarily, munching on the Vietnamese equivalent of creme-filled
wafers. Continuing to the river, we descend a slick hillside to an
outcropping of rocks where we picnic on rice noodles and pork, boiled
with water from the river. Above, Black Hmong women and children perch
like figures in a still life, watching. From the rope bridge nearby,
someone tosses a homemade "bomb" into the water. Boys scramble into the
shallow river to catch the stunned fish.
We continue on toward Ta Van, stopping at a stone-floored Giay house
to take afternoon tea with the resident grandmother. The house is
surprisingly large and clean, its alter filled with incense sticks ready
to burn in honor of Giay ancestors, it's bedrooms curtained off by large
afternoon gives way to dusk we trek along paths that come up close and
personal to homes and farms. I feel that I am walking within a large,
primitive painting in which each shrub and flower, each water buffalo
and banana tree are spirits. The canvas includes a small Hmong child, no
more than six, carrying his baby brother lovingly on his back, two old
women with indigo-stained fingers gossiping in the sun.
We pitch our tents by the river in Ta Van. The bamboo-forested
hillside is a mysterious and lush backdrop. A Giay woman appears,
pressing my young male guides about our sleeping arrangements. She is
assured that I have my own tent, a reply that garners a nod of approval,
evidently satisfying her moral code.
A Black Hmong man hovers nearby, hardly moving at all, the tails of
his tribal waistcoat like fixed points. Summoning courage, he bends
down, stroking a piece of tent pole to see of what it's made. We dine on
sizzling meatballs as the sun goes down fast and the evening smoke rises
from the fires of Giay and Hmong homes on the surrounding hills.
The night is cloudy, a foreboding of the morning mist. But a single
star, so bright I know it can't be real appears above the moon. The Giay
neighbor has returned to say goodnight. "Sao," she tells me, pointing
upwards. Star. "Sao" I tell myself the next night, disembarking the
train back in Hanoi. Next time, I'll go further.
About the Author
Karen Mitchell is a Boulder-based writer (former journalist) who
frequently writes about the professional audio industry, food and
lifestyles. She has won several journalism awards for humor and food
writing. Her career began when she wrote about consumer electronics for
Rolling Stone Magazine at the end of the same decade in which she was a
charter member of the legendary Studio 54.
Having fallen in love with Hanoi during a short visit in 1998 to
write about the gloriously restored Hanoi Opera House, she revisited
Vietnam in 1999 and moved there in October 2000. She is currently at
work on a novel.