Wednesday, March 21, 2012

short-lived adventures in sapa

I recently returned from a quite a pleasant and refreshing trip through northern Vietnam. We had to go to Hanoi   for the SE Asian Fulbright conference, but there were some hot spots that An and I had been dying to visit while we were in the north. Our first stop was Sapa--a tiny town in the province near the Chinese border (sounds sketch, I know). It is supposedly a super ethnic town tucked away in the mountains where you can view a number of ethnic minorities doing ethnic minority things, hike around, motorbike through the moutains, vân vân. Needless to say, our expectations were quite high since it has been hyped up by so many tourists. And although it was an adventure of a lifetime, it was hardly what we expected.

Because we were short on time before the conference and because our two destinations (Sapa and Ha Long Bay) were nowhere near each other, it required skillful planning by An and I. The only way to get to Sapa is by the overnight train from Hanoi (about 8 hours). Our plan was to arrive in Hanoi, take the overnight train to Sapa, spend the day in Sapa, and then peace out again on the overnight train back to Hanoi (hey, it is a clever way to save on hotels). Usually when you hear about other travelers' experiences to Sapa, they talk about how the train is a pleasant, tranquil experience, as you can book a sleeper car and just sleep in a bed the entire way. However, An and I ran into the unexpected pitfall of not booking our ticket early enough. So no, there were not any sleeper cars available. That meant the back of the train for seats that are translated as "the hard seats". Yeah, so I am sure you can imagine it. As skeptical as we were of having to spend 8 hours overnight on the equivalent of an oversized, extremely filthy park bench, we tried to make the best of it. We even bought pillows.

Upon entering (please note I am the only foreigner--as it is HIGHLY suggested in the Lonely Planet not to take the hard seats), we notice that we are not the only ones who come prepared. You can tell these ladies (stolen from An's blog)  have done this before:
Also, please note that as more people boarded the train, the ladies did not budge an inch. First come, first serve I suppose.

Now, I know I have built up the "hard seats" as being a dreadful awful experience, but don't let me fool you. Let me put it this way...if you have been dying to know the answer to the question: WHERE DA PARTY AT??!?! The answer for you my friends, is in the "hard seats" cabin of the train to Sapa. Just imagine an extremely overcrowded dirty train (as some people didn't even have tickets? (some even brought their own stools to prop up in the aisle)) filled with joyous, absurdly crazy Vietnamese, eating anything and everything from the little shop ladies that walk by and adorned with the attitude of "take one down, pass it around" in regards to rice wine. The best way to explain it is that scene from Titanic when Rose goes down to 3rd class and has the time of her life.
So if you are up for the absurdity, the "hard seats" are not really bad (much, much cheaper too). Would I really have traded a night of partying down with random Vietnamese with a solid night of sleep? NEVER!

Okay, we finally arrive in Sapa. You have to take a bus from the train station to Sapa (which takes about an hour) and there are a million people hounding you to take their sketch bus. An and I seemed to have been the only people who had a clue about how to deal with this situation and were quickly frustrated with the number of idiotic, ignorant backpackers that have such an embarrassingly bad attitude towards local people.

Okay now we OFFICIALLY arrive in Sapa. By this time, it is finally light outside. The main attraction of Sapa is the exquisite scenery of the mountains and rolling green rice terraces. This is what we were told Sapa looked like:
This is what Sapa actually looked like:
We couldn't even see 5 feet in front of us. So...I think Sapa is beautiful, but I really couldn't tell you. Not to mention it was absolutely FREEZING and I was forced to buy an unnecessary fake North Face and a pair of gloves. It was unbearably cold.

However, An and I were still determined to explore around so we rented a motorbike and took it up a road that led to the highest peak in all of Vietnam. Although driving a motorbike in the foggy windy roads of the highest beaks in VN was probably not the safest thing I have ever done, it really was worth the torturous cold. When you got near the top, you kind of rose above all of the clouds. Even though you couldn't see ANY scenery below, the tops of the mountains were pretty!!
i'm pretty much as vietnamese  as they come now

 The coolest thing about the mountain top is that as soon as you cross to the other side, the weather  dramatically changes--it is really warm and sunny. IT IS SO WEIRD!! but soo cool. Just those few seconds were worth all of the effort.

After a long decent down, the only thing on our mind was HEAT. So we immediately located the nearest foot massage location and planted ourselves there. One day was more than enough. Before we knew it, it was back for another night train party. 

All-in-all, we didn't really see any of the magic that Sapa is supposedly known to have. All we really ran into were clueless backpackers, unauthentic local people only putting on a show to get some money out of you, and a view that is equivalent to what you can see out of a window mid-17-hour flight. I guess if it was on your list of "places to see before you die", I wouldn't lose a hand and a foot to get there. However, I think if you went at the right time of  year, it would have been a drastically different experience. I really would like to know when all those pictures are taken if you Google Image "Sapa Vietnam"....

Even though it was not an authentic, traditional Sapa getaway, I don't think I would trade the 48 hours of ridiculousness for anything. Onwards to Ha Long Bay.


  1. I am a fulbrighter as Well, and I am actually very offended that you would describe the citizens of sapa as "ethnic minorities who do ethnic minority things," as if they are only the to perform quaint things for the tourists that put them on display, and the Vietnamese train riders as "vagabonds". Surely they think of themselves in very different terms/ ways.

    1. To each his own. Thanks for visiting my blog!

    2. As a Fulbrighter, I find it quite sad and disturbing that your only response to such an important question surrounding your use of the term 'ethnic minorities' is 'To each his own'. Is that the world view of someone who was chosen to represent the US? In fact it is this line of thinking that has gotten us in quite a bit of trouble- Imperialism anyone? Your post is incredible offensive-- to Vietnamese citizens, Americans, and to those of us who don't need to party with 'vagabonds' to have an 'authentic' experience.

    3. As your comment urges a response, allow me to provide you with one. First, the tone used in this post, as well as the rest of my blog (which is directed to my friends and family at home), is meant to be lighthearted with touches of dry humor and attempts to invoke a laugh here and there to my readers. And although I recognize your perspectives as well-intended, I am one to call a spade for a spade. Weekend trips to Sapa to experience "authentic ethnic minority culture" no longer exist. It has become somewhat of a circus, with westerners flooding in and overwhelming the area. The region once filled with rich culture has now been completely transformed into a place tailored to western tourists. The local people have had no choice but to adapt and only seem to be dressed in traditional clothing to give more of an effect when they immediately begin hounding you as soon as you step off the bus. My friends who tried to do a "homestay" with the local people were ridiculously scammed out of their money by the time they left. It's a reality that has developed due to the fact that so many western people visit there with hopes to view a spectacle of ethinic minorities in the raw and yet the locals have reacted in their survival mode. As for the trip on the train, I told the story as it happened. It was a ridiculous party. And to be quite honest, the trip on the train was a much more of an authentic cultural experience than the entire trip to Sapa. Not because of the partying, but because we conversed with people we otherwise would not have met. As opposed to isolating ourselves with the rest of the foreigners in the air-conditioned sleeper cars, we were immersed in another world with people who were sincerely appreciative to talk with us. If anything, partying with Vietnamese who were a little rough-around-the-edges in the hard seats section served our duty as cultural ambassadors exponentially more than doing what every other foreigner on their way to Sapa was doing, keeping their distance from their comfort zone. By sitting there and interacting with them, trying to practice my Vietnamese, we presented ourselves as relatable rather than arrogant. They were just as curious about us as we were about them. And before you combat this argument with "little did they know what you'd be saying about them on your blog," I can guarantee they would be more than thrilled to know that they impacted the life of a westerner in such a way that I felt the need to share my story on my blog. And if you don't agree with me, then I truly feel like you have not personally interacted with Vietnamese people enough to understand. So, I find no need to beat around the bush. The ethic minority cultural immersion in Sapa is a facade. The hard seats section and the people within the hard seats section are grungy. And if you don't approve of my perspective, then I stand by what I said before: "to each his own."

  2. I went to Sapa in Feb 2011 (late days of lunar year 2010) and encountered with worse weather condition as well. It was truly cold and foggy and impossible to take any good pictures as I could not see anything father than three meters from my position. However, it resulted from coming to Sapa in unsuitable time to experience its beauty. I bought 4 beds train-ticket and all everything was fine. I will visit it once more time to see if there will be something different.

    1. Yes, I heard the weather was much better in the summer! Bad timing, I suppose. I hope to go back again one day to be able to take it all in!

  3. Mar through May is the worst period to visit North Vietnam, including Sapa and Hanoi. It is cold, wet and miserable. Even the Vietnamese dislike it. If there is a next time, try Oct through Dec. Lovely. If you don't mind me saying, what you blogged was what you saw and that's true. It is not America, Europe or even like some other parts of developed Asia like Japan or Korea. But isn't exactly that the reason why people from developed world visit such places, to see and understand why the world is not always like what we are used to and know? I lived in Vietnam for many years and I come from a developed part of Asia. I saw what you saw and more and for a number of years. But I also learned to see the beauty and come to understand why they are not, or not yet, like the rest of us. Hope you have a better holiday in Vietnam...or Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, etc. next time.