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Beyond Sapa

Beyond Sapa

Story & Photos by: Karen Mitchell

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.

MinskI 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.

Dining CarMy 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 darkness.

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.

The Victoria HotelWe 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 hike.

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.

Bridge near Lao ChaiWe walk 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 colorful cloths.

Hmong Woman & ChildAs 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.

Karen Mitchell

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.


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