Nestled high up in the northern mountains of Vietnam is the tiny hamlet of Sa Pa, a land that time forgot and which does not try to remember time. The surrounding landscape is truly breathtaking and incredibly diverse, from the terraced rice paddies which hug the slopes to the thriving biodiversity of the varying forest types. And sitting in the lap of it all is the charming village itself – Sa Pa.
Due to its proximity to the Chinese border, Sa Pa had traditionally been a place of turmoil. However, conflict between the nations settled down as far back as the 1960s, though the town was not officially opened to tourism until 1993. Since then it has steadily grown in popularity, due to its rustic charm, beautiful surroundings and utter remoteness. Even so, the locals retain their extreme poverty and often rely heavily upon tourism to fill their bellies. A lack of an educational system in the area often means that other than in hotels and restaurants, English is scarcely spoken.
The town itself can be reached on a nine-hour sleeper train (Vietnam Railways Systems +84 904 619 926) from Hanoi, which in itself is an experience, if not for the dubiously comfortable cabin beds then for the hectic scramble to get aboard and get a berth. Once in the town, the village itself is very diminutive and as such easily navigable on foot; and there are lengthy treks available for the intrepid hiker. However, for those wishing to go further afield, a motorbike is really the only way to travel.
Before endorsing transport on two wheels, however, I should make the disclaimer that road and weather conditions in northern Vietnam leave much to be desired, especially if visiting during the four wintry months of November to February. During this period, a heavy fog and mist descends on the mountains and visibility becomes significantly reduced; furthermore, frequent showers make for slippery and treacherous roads. Always drive slowly and cautiously, since help might not be immediately to hand; use the horn when turning corners and whatever you do, wear a helmet.
Also be aware that whilst the actual rental of the bike may be incredibly cheap, many agencies will ask for some form of insurance in case of accident. This normally takes the form of either a lump sum of cash, or your passport. Though it might be tempting to take the easier option of leaving your passport, you do so at your own peril; should disaster strike and result in damage to yourself or the bike, you might find yourself paying through the nose. With your passport in their possession, they will essentially have you over a barrel and often charge exorbitant amounts.
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Having said that, if you take precautions and are sensible, driving a motorbike along the windy mountain roads around Sa Pa might just be one the most pleasant experiences you ever have. Nearby to the town is the trickling cascade of Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall), worth the ride for the unblemished tranquility and antiquity of its remoteness. The lush and bio-diverse National Park of Hoàng Liên is within easy reach by bike, and other nearby villages can also offer touching points for those wishing to prolong their visit.
En route to the waterfall, Park or other villages, it is not uncommon to pass stalls set up by the side of the road, where wrinkled locals sell handcrafted scarves, shawls, hats, ornaments, purses, bags and jewellery. Not only are these goods incredibly cheap and generally well made, they are also genuinely unique. If you’re lucky, the wizened stall owner may invite you to join her for a cup of traditional tea and partake of some unspecified skewered meat… which though delicious, may be too daunting for some by its anonymity.
Though there will be a wider range of souvenirs and trinkets in the town markets (of which there are many in Sa Pa), buying there often leads to a sales frenzy, as artisans clamour for your custom. Bear in mind that these people are incredibly poor and rely almost entirely on the trade of tourism to survive; though they will certainly try to sell things for a higher price than they are prepared to accept.
Use your judgement when conducting sales; though a keepsake from Sa Pa is likely to invoke a thousand rain-stained memories of idyllic mountain charm to last a lifetime.