Changing Views in Sapa

by Steven K. Bailey, Dec 31, 2007 | Destinations: Vietnam / Sapa
Milepost on Lao Cai to Sapa road.

Milepost on Lao Cai to Sapa road.

Milepost on Lao Cai to Sapa road.
The Ta Van River Valley, near Sapa, Vietnam.

After a good meal, I groped my way through the dark, fog-choked streets of Sapa to my hotel.  I opened the door to my room and found the entire chamber filled with grey-blue smoke that stung my eyes.  The hotel restaurant sat one floor below and the smoke from its fireplace had seeped into my room with the stealth of a cat burglar.  While I had plenty of smoke, however, I didn’t have any heat.  My room, in fact, appeared to be the same chilly temperature as the damp mountain air out on my balcony.  

I knew that complaining downstairs wouldn’t solve the problem, so I shrugged and threw open all the windows in the corner room, letting the cross-breeze air things out.  I felt like a student conducting some strange science experiment as I watched the bluish smoke roll out the upper half of the windows and the mist of the clouds roll back through the lower half.  Soon wet but blissfully smoke-free air filled the room, though to keep the air clear I knew that I would have to leave the windows open all night.  

I shucked my boots, jeans and jacket, then climbed into bed clad in long underwear, socks, two shirts, a sweater, a fleece pullover, and a hat with earflaps.  I rolled myself up in several blankets like a giant spring roll and, despite the 45-degree temperature of my room, quickly fell fast asleep.   

I woke just before sunrise to the sound of excited voices calling out in the street below my open windows.  The clouds had fled in the night like disgraced party guests, leaving the air clear, cold and crisp.  My wide-open windows had turned into giant picture frames displaying an artful tableau of deep-blue dawn sky, white stars, and black mountain silhouettes.  I lay cocooned in my blankets and watched the rising daylight reveal mountain peaks covered in a light dusting of white powder.  I rubbed my eyes, wondering if the smoke from the previous evening had affected my vision.  A second later I put together the excited voices in the street with the white coating the mountains.  

Snow.  I had woken up to snow in Vietnam.

Sapa never fails to offer surprises like this, which is one reason why I keep going back -- four times in the last three years, in fact.  I’ve never had an easy journey to Sapa, as the trip involves an all-night sleeper train from Hanoi, an early morning arrival in Lao Cai, and a slow bus ride up twisty mountain roads.  I usually make this journey with students enrolled in one of my university study tours to Vietnam, which makes the trip to Sapa even more of an adventure.  Many of my students have never left the Midwest, and for them, Sapa comes as the biggest challenge of a trip that strings challenges together into one long jetlagged blur.

Though I’ve visited Sapa on my own in the summer, my academic schedule always dictates that I take my students to Sapa in the winter.  At that time of year the entire town is freezing, for the damp air loiters in the 40s or 50s, with occasional plunges into the 30s.  The unheated buildings are so cold inside that nobody bothers shutting the door when they go in and out.  The locals huddle over foul-smelling charcoal braziers, since burning wood remains too expensive, and wear all the clothes they own.  Simple tasks like taking a shower become grueling undertakings.  “To shower in Sapa is to freeze,” said one of my well-scrubbed but deeply chilled students.  Predictably, everyone in Sapa has a cold and is exhausted from the effort of staying warm.  

Nonetheless foreigners and locals alike generally remain in good spirits, invigorated by the bracing mountain air, the unbelievable views, and the knowledge that they have reached one of the most amazing places in Vietnam -- and by extension, the world.  On that memorably snowy morning everyone’s spirits soared like Tet bottle rockets.  The ecstatic locals gathered up as much of the wet snow as they could and made little snowmen, which stood sentinel outside hotel lobbies and restaurant front doors long after the half-inch of snow cover had melted.  

Mr. Cuong, the guide traveling with my small group of students, had never seen snow before.  “First time for me,” he said, a huge grin on his face.  I told him that snow in Vietnam counted as a first for me as well.  After all, in Southeast Asia snow only falls in the northernmost mountains of Vietnam, and even then occurs so rarely that it makes national news when it happens.  My students and I appreciated the irony of the situation -- we had come to Southeast Asia to escape the snow back in the Midwest, and yet to our amazement found ourselves looking at white-capped peaks in a region of the world known for steamy jungles and tropical beaches.  Best of all, we had a front-row seat from our balconies at the Cat-Cat Hotel.

I always stay at the Cat-Cat, which like Sapa itself, clings to the upper slopes of the Ta Van river valley.  I know the hotel’s owner, Ms. Loan, so I always get the topmost corner room, which offers the best view in a hotel that doesn’t really have any bad views.  In the summer I can stand on my balcony and look out over the roofs of Sapa and across the valley to the mountains of Hoang Lien National Park, where the clouds spill over the peaks like whipped cream flowing out of a canister.  The mountain slopes glow a wet, vivid green and the cool air offers a much-needed respite from the sweltering streets of Hanoi.

One recent summer night, in fact, I was standing on my balcony with my mobile phone, gabbing to friends in the United States and looking down into the darkness of the valley below.  That deep cleft in the mountains held hundreds of scattered homes, each built of hand-hewn wood beams and planks.  A Black Hmong family lived in each home, eking out an existence as rice farmers, hunters and woodcutters.  I could clearly see all these homesteads by day, but as I talked on my mobile phone that night I realized that I could only see one dim light in the entire valley -- one forlorn electric bulb, most likely powered by a handmade hydroelectric generator fashioned out of ingenuity, bamboo and secondhand wire.  All the other homes lacked electric light and had disappeared into the darkness as if they had never existed.  The Hmong living down in the valley still followed a pre-industrial rhythm of going to sleep when it got dark and rising when it got light, and yet here I was on the lip of that same valley direct-dialing to the other side of the world.  

I doubted I would ever see a more glaring contrast between the low-tech and high-tech sides of Vietnam, and yet the very next day I found Xo and Xu, a pair of precocious Hmong teenagers who work as hiking guides for guests at the Cat-Cat, clustered around a computer in the hotel lobby.  They wore an eclectic mix of Western-style apparel --T-shirts, running shoes, baseball hats and digital watches -- along with more traditional Hmong clothing -- metal bracelets and bangles, leggings, indigo tunics and skirts.  What really amazed me, however, was that Xo and Xu were chatting online to an internet boyfriend in Australia -- and doing it in colloquial English sprinkled with phrases like “No way, Jose” and “See you later, alligator.”  The two of them had learned their English by talking to foreigners like myself, who came for the balcony views and the chance to experience traditional Black Hmong and Red Dzao culture before it changes beyond recognition.

Change remains the operative verb in Sapa.  The town continues to hurtle forward with the speed of an accelerating locomotive -- the faster it goes the harder it will be to stop, and the more damage it will do if it hits something at the crossing.  In just the few years I have known Sapa I have seen dramatic and permanent changes.  When I first visited the town in early 2001, for example, the internet was nearly impossible to access and Xo and Xu wore outfits that were 100-percent Hmong, right down to the wicker baskets they used as backpacks.  

The most obvious changes revolve around construction, however, for like all of Vietnam Sapa is undergoing a building boom.  I could observe this construction frenzy from my hotel balcony last summer, in fact.  Like a general reviewing his troops, I stood with my binoculars watching the action below.  Across the road from the Cat-Cat, a crew of laborers were erecting an annex building to house additional guests.  Aside from a small gasoline-powered cement mixer, the men worked entirely by hand.  With the steady rhythm of a chain gang, four men hoisted buckets of wet concrete up to the third floor on a crude hoist and pulley mounted on a log A-frame.  A pair of wiry laborers then carried the concrete-filled bucket on a shoulder pole to an open patch of floor crisscrossed with rebar.  They unceremoniously dumped the concrete onto the rebar, and even from a distance I could see their muscles relax as the bucket emptied.  Other men further up the construction hierarchy tackled the relatively easier job of smoothing out the concrete.  The crew worked everyday, dawn to dusk, and had the building finished by the time I returned to Sapa six months later.

Somewhere in that half-year span of time the wrecking ball had claimed my favorite building in Sapa, a grimy old edifice with peeling mustard paint and green louvered window shutters.  The Chinese Army had leveled most of Sapa when it launched its disastrous invasion of northern Vietnam in 1979, but this building and a few other old French mansions had survived the destruction.  Now the construction crews had finished the job by knocking down the older buildings and replacing them with hotel after generic hotel, none of which had enough guests to turn a profit.  The Cat-Cat, popular with the backpacker crowd, and the Victoria, the town’s only true luxury hotel, were the only places that stood out in a town now jammed with gloomy hotels as devoid of character as they were empty of guests.

But if the building boom had produced too many hotels and restaurants, it had also improved the road to Sapa, once little more than a potholed one-lane track prone to washouts and rockslides.  The road has been almost completely rebuilt, making the ride up to Sapa smoother and quicker and, dare I say it, less rewarding.  After all, one of the things I’ve always loved about Sapa is its very inaccessibility.  I used to have to work harder to get there, which in turn made my arrival all the more exhilarating -- especially in the blissful cool of midsummer.

Midwinter arrivals still involve a bit of suffering, however, as the students on my last study tour quickly discovered.  They endured the damp chill and the constant struggle to keep warm, the symptoms of the inevitable head colds, the harsh charcoal-smoke haze, the garbage-filled puddles and the muddy trails.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much mud in my entire life,” said one of my students as she carefully made her way down the slippery path leading to the Hmong villages sprinkled across the valley floor.  

The valley trails have become such a morass, in fact, that I’ve learned to bring a pair of disposable shoes with me to Sapa.  I wear them during my hikes into the valley, let them get hopelessly stained in orange mud, and then leave them behind.  I figure somebody will get more use out of them.  Some travelers have even taken to buying the same rubber boots so popular with the locals, opting for blisters rather than wet and muddy feet.  

Along with the cold and the mud, my students also had to deal with a constant barrage of sales pitches.  They faced roving bands of Hmong girls who shouted “You buy me tomorrow” whenever a student turned down their offer of bracelets and embroidered pillowcases.  My students warded off toothless old Hmong women with unorthodox sales pitches like “Flashlight?  Tobacco?  Opium?”  They dodged Red Dzao women in their trademark crimson attire, a hallucinatory outfit of pillow-like hats, silver bangles, and elaborately embroidered tunics.  They skirted ethnic Vietnamese women sitting behind heaps of fruit and vegetables in the market, which smelled of wood smoke, butcher’s blood and frying spring rolls.  I’ve grown used to this riotous swirl, but my students found Sapa overwhelming, with too many people crowding them in, demanding they buy, blocking their progress, and invading their space.

“I just want to be left alone to shop in peace,” said one exhausted and exasperated student on our first day in Sapa.

“Sapa is a free for all,” said another student on our last day in Sapa.  She then added with a smile, “I like talking to the [Hmong] kids who follow me around.”

This last comment told me that my students had begun to adapt to Sapa and enjoy themselves.  During their short stay they quickly learned how to fend off the incessant sales pitches with remarkable grace and good humor, given their extreme culture shock.  But if they could learn to fend off the offers to buy Hmong weaving and Red Dzao embroidery, they couldn’t do a thing about the cloudy weather.  

We were socked in for our entire visit, which meant that the view from our balconies resembled some surreal dreamscape.  “The views are spectacular here,” said one of my awestruck students.  “Even with the cloud cover.”  We all learned to appreciate the shifting colors of the clouds, which ranged from a dull and foggy grey to a luminous silver so bright it hurt the eyes.  When I stood on my balcony I literally had my head in the clouds, barring the rare break in the mist.  On these infrequent occasions the clouds would pull back a bit to reveal the streets of Sapa and the fields and terraces sloping down into the Ta Van river valley.  Like a movie trailer to some film my students would never get to see, this was just a tease, for the clouds never once lifted enough to reveal those magnificent mountains for which Sapa has become so famous.  The message was clear to us all even if the view was not: We would have to come back to Sapa again.

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