Waking Up in Sa Pa, Part I

Exploring Sa Pa district, Northern Vietnam.

An overnight train’s last stop is the first look at Lào Cai Province’s glorious mountain range.

I woke up to the sound of knocking. Fumbling for my glasses, I struggle to sit-up in the already too low bed. It is still dark, but a small woman has slid open the train’s cabin door and seems to be asking a question.

My mind is lingering in the space between dreams and reality and I am not fully grasping the situation. It dawns on me slowly. We must be almost there. The woman is looking around the cabin expectantly, repeating question. What was it?

“Yes, two coffees please,” I hear my husband, Alejandro say. I look at him, my face awash with relief. God yes. All the caffeine this morning. Eagerly I hold my hand out for the cup of goodness while Ale pays. I hold the plastic Dixie cup gingerly and allow the pleasant steam to warm up my hands and face. It is sweet and thick and filled with comfort.

Below us, the lovely Spanish couple we met the night before is beginning to stir. David and his wife, Lorena also ask for coffees. Two teachers from Málaga, Spain, the pair are gifted photographers and avid travel writers. Discover the couple’s work on their blog, El Mundo En Mi Camara (@elmundoenmicamara on Instagram).

While David and Lorena’s English is as limited as my Spanish, the three of us communicated with kindness and smiles. I had drifted off to sleep the night before to the lyrical sound of Spanish conversation while Ale, who is bilingual, regaled the couple with tales of our travels thus far — including a motorbike accident, mugging and getting stranded in Hội An during a typhoon. (As it happened, David and Lorena had also been in the Golden City while Typhoon Damrey made a visit.)

The train began to slowdown. Although we are sitting in separate bunk-beds, I can feel Ale’s energy shift into high gear. We have been travelling through Vietnam for nearly a month and have hauled our luggage — two backpacks and a side-bag a piece — from Ho Chi Minh to the northern capital of Hanoi. The five-hour overnight train to Sa Pa marks the end of our journey.

Methodically, I pack. As I finish cramming my journal and a collection of pens into my satchel the train comes to a halt.

David and Lorena are already prepared to go. I smile at them sleepily from my bunk — they both look as dazed as I feel. Turning my eyes to my husband, I can see that he is itching to get off this train. No surprises there, the journey was less-than comfortable.  I doubt he slept at all.

The door slides open to a hallway swarming with our fellow passengers attempting to disembark. While a few locals are popping their heads out of the adjoining cabins, the narrow hall is mostly packed with other backpackers and, of course, their backpacks.

We bid our farewells to David and Lorena as they take advantage of break in the steady flow of travellers and slip out of the train compartment. They are soon lost in the crowd. Ale helps me and my backpack down from my bunk, placing it onto my tired shoulders as we too try to make a break-for-it towards to exit.

Rice fields in the Sa Pa district, Northern Vietnam.

At the end of the hall a young man holds out his hand to help me off the train. My feet his hard earth as fresh, surprisingly cool air hits my face. It smells crisp — and although it is dark save for the glaring floodlights lining the track and I am surrounded by strangers, for a moment I am reminded of home. Mountain air is the same brand of perfume, no matter where you go in the world.

I feel a gentle push behind me, bringing me back to the present. Ale grabs my hand as he cuts a path towards — what I assume — is the station. I struggle to follow under the weight of my bag. It starts to rain.

He pulls me into a small, fluorescent building, through an open door and down a small set of steps. There is a row of minibuses waiting outside. I have no idea which one is meant to take us to our hotel, if they have our names or if we will even be able to find the correct bus amidst the jostling crowd.

But, we do. Whether he intrinsically knew or made a very good guess, within minutes Ale was taking off my backpack and handing it to a man motioning us aboard.

The bus is quiet. I gratefully plunk myself down in a seat next to my husband. It is still dark out, but the rain has stilled and I suspect the sun will begin to rise soon. Although my body craves sleep I force my eyes to stay open. I don’t want to miss my first look at the supposedly glorious Sa Pa rice fields.

Rice fields in the Sa Pa district, Northern Vietnam.

And they are glorious. As the minibus winds its way up the mountain side, the sky brightens from hushed blue to pale gold. Dark trees make a natural frame for the glowing rice fields that pop in and out of view as we climb ever north. Small children walk along the road, which is filled with vehicles lumbering along to Sa Pa Town.  From time to time a small house is tucked amongst the fields, smoke stacks marking that the inhabitants, too, have begun their morning.

The sun had finally extended over the horizon by the time our minibus pulls into Sa Pa Town. The vehicle begins to drop off its passengers at their various hotels, making the journey into the town centre a slow one. Our gradual pace had two effects. My husband’s impatience to reach our hotel — spurred by the sleepless night experienced by a six-foot-one-inch man crammed into a five-foot by two-foot train bunk— grew steadily with each jolting stop. As for me, the meandering roads into Sa Pa Town enabled me to get a good look at the city.

My first impression is that Sa Pa reminds me of Banff, Alberta, Canada, a city roughly one hour and 15 minutes away from my home town, Calgary. Which was strange, as the two cities truly have very little in common.

Nestled in a national park in the midst of the Rocky Mountains, Banff is filled with quaint shops, log cabins and restaurants lining orderly roads such as Wolf Street and Beaver Street. So far, Sa Pa was an eclectic mix of hotels, hostels and resorts seemingly layered on top of one another — many of which were still under construction. The surrounding mountains — as opposed to being the wild, untamed megaliths found in Banff National Park — had been shaped by human hands to form a staggering array of rice paddies dotted with wood cottages.

The outskirts of Sa Pa Town.

Of course, the aforementioned rice paddies are what draws roughly 970,000 tourists to Sa Pa each year. And it is exactly that — the tourism — that links the two cities in my mind. Banff and Sa Pa may be worlds apart, but the footsteps of millions of travellers eager to fill their eyes with the wonderment of the mountains, and the subsequent industry brought with them, leaves a similar mark on all once-wild places.

It was still quiet in Sa Pa as our minibus reached its final destination in the town centre. While our hotel was still a short journey downhill, we would continue on foot. Outside the air was cool and fresh, a welcome change to the humidity we’d encountered in various cities along the way. The town square was abandoned, save for a man, woman and their small child. From their clothes — died a dark indigo colour — I gathered the family were likely members of the Hmong hill tribe. The Sa Pa district is home to many minorities, including the Hmong, Tay, Red Dao and Giay tribes.  

Beside the bus stop was a large lake, so still and so smooth it sat like a mirror reflecting the colourful, motionless hotels lining the far end of the square. As the morning had become overcast, not even the sparkle of sunlight gave hint that the lake was made of water, as it looked so convincingly like glass.

Travelling through Sa Pa Town in Northern Vietnam.

I had but moments to enjoy the view of the lake before realizing my husband had already trotted off down the hill, hunting for our hotel. Chasing after him, exhaustion hit me. I scarcely remember checking in as we were shown to our room. Suddenly the mountain chill seemed less invigorating and more like a force I had to escape by hiding under bedcovers. As we threw down our bags haphazardly and climbed into bed it began to rain.


Stay tuned for Waking Up in Sa Pa, Part II

Can’t wait for more? Check out CC’s adventures in Streetscapes: Hanoi or Good Morning Hội An.

Photos and text by Sarah Comber.

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