Monday, 2 April 2012


22nd - 24th March 2012

Sa Pa
The town of Sa Pa, originally called Xa Pa by the Chinese, subsequently Chapa by the French, for whom it  was a cool hill station and garrison, and now often Sapa for the benefit of tourists. It is, in a way, Vietnam's equivalent of Cusco in Peru. It is at an altitude of 5250ft, and surrounded by the Hoang Lieu Son mountain range in the north-west of the country near the Chinese border. The highest mountain in the locality, the most south-easterly peak of the Himalayas, is Mt Pham Xi Pang ( Mt Fansipan, or even Mt Fancy Pants ) at 10,310 ft. It is home to several 'ethnic minority' tribes, most of which are descendants of Chinese origin.

You get there by train from Hanoi. Initially to the station of Lao Cai, then onwards up the mountains for an hour by bus. There are several 'private' carriages attached to the trains leaving Hanoi and are all overnight jobs. I booked a berth in the Sapali Express carriage ( left ), which departed Hanoi at 2150hrs and arrived at Lao Cai at 0630hs the next morning.

It was actually very comfortable. Soft mattresses ( unusual in Vietnam ), very new and clean, good aircon/heating and a bar-cum-snack counter at the end of the carriage. No complaints, and the cost was only $33. I shared the compartment with a charming Chinese lady and a couple of Vietnamese. All most civilised.

The only problem with the Sa Pa area, especially at this time of year, is that it is more often than not in cloud ( or fog/mist call it what you like ). The bus left the station at Lao Cai and began a steep climb up a zig-zagging mountain road. The bus very quickly went 'IMC' ( into the clouds ). The views would probably have been magnificent if the vis had been greater than 100yds. On arrival at the town the cloud/fog was wafting over and through the landscape with occasional glimpses of a hill, valley or even the sun. Left:  The view out of my hotel window was down into a dramatically steep valley.

This extraordinary looking 'dog' was guarding the front door. It had rather snaggly teeth and it's fluffy bits had been dyed pink. Poor creature must have been the laughing stock amongst it's mates.

Sa Pa town is a tourist magnet. The place is full of hotels and restaurants, and ladies from the ethnic minority tribes selling things, post-cards and handicrafts mainly. It could have been ghastly but, surprisingly, wasn't. I was expecting the hawkers ( mainly ladies ) to be irritating, but they were actually rather charming and smiley with the constant refrain "you buy me something". The main 'ethnic' group are the Black H'Mong tribe who wear black tunics, black leggings and hats, or coloured scarves, and most carry wicker-work baskets on their backs.

Right: The lake in the town centre. The other 'ethnics' were Red Dao, Dai and a couple of other lesser groups. The Red Dao wear spectacular red hats and I forgot to get a photo of one. They are all 'genuine' tribes and do not just dress up for the tourists. I was told that they really don't wear any other dress; even the children. They have known no other life and live a subsistence existence in mountain villages with the womenfolk doing the housework, cooking, making garments and selling things to tourists. The men-folk work in the terraces growing rice, building the houses and with a few animals to look after. Of course the many tourists have brought them money, and some outlying villages now have electricity and even TV. It was tempting to think that they go skiing in Klosters during the winter and keep their Lamborghini Aventadors in Hanoi; but no, they do genuinely lead a simple and seemingly happy agricultural life. How long this will last with 'mod-cons' being foist upon them remains to be seen.

The next day I went on a walking tour. I was met by my guide ( left ), a local lady of the Dai tribe from a nearby village. Her name was Mai, mother of two, whose husband was working in the fields. The idea was to walk for about 9 kms through the countryside including three villages of differing ethic make up. We were dropped off by car at the ‘start-point’, 3 miles from the town. Just myself and Mai, initially. It was extraordinary how many other western tourists we passed walking down the road from the town; all accompanied by local guides. We got a head’s start. Mai was great company and, of course, a fount of knowledge about the area. Fortunately the weather was also a good deal clearer than the previous day.

We were surrounded initially by H’Mong ladies ( right ) but they were happy and smiley and didn’t persist in doing their sales patter “you buy me something” when they realised I was not the buying sort, and following a bit of an explanation by Mai. 
These ladies are responsible for making all the family clothes. Wherever they are they have lots of strands of hemp ( I think ) slung over their shoulders and are continually, as of habit, dextrously joining one piece to another to make long threads. They do it almost subconsciously and without looking. You can see a couple at the front of this pic doing it here.

These threads are then wound onto the very primitive machinery to make garments. I think this contraption ( left ) was used to stretch and dry the basic threads before being dyed and woven on looms

The going started off relatively easy; walking along decent dirt tracks down into the valley. We passed through a Black H’Mong, then a Dai village. Right: All the surrounding land was a mass of terracing used to grow rice. It is this crop which is carefully harvested and stored ( they only get one crop a year ) and is vital to their existance. As I said earlier, the landscape reminds me a bit of the Inca/Quechua terracing in the Andes. All the farming is done by hand with the help of buffaloes to pull plows. I saw no motorised  agricultural machinery.
There is some local industry involving the construction of a projected hydro-electric scheme. One place had several locals busy welding enormous pipe segments together. On the whole it is totally unspoilt countryside with rustic bridges as per this one ( left ). 

Somehow they manage to produce magnificent clothes with incredibly intricate woven designs ( similar to the Andes tribes ). Right: An example of a dress which was on sale for about $80, but could probably be bartered down to $50. This sort of thing would, I was told, take about a year to complete. They do this embroidery instead of watching telly. I wonder how much that would sell for in the King's Road?

Left: Similarly well made were these bags. I think they were on offer for $15 each. If it wasn’t for the logistic problems and, I suspect, exhorbitant import tax imposed by western countries, it would be worthwhile sending a container load home.

Right: At some point in our walk we were joined by an old(ish) H’Mong lady. She was carrying the ubiquitous wicker basket on her back and wearing flip-flops. I’m not sure of her motive for walking with us; maybe to sell me something at the end, or just for company on the way back to her village. The going began to get increasingly rugged with steep and very narrow, slippery paths. At times it meant jumping from rock to rock and with a considerable drop to the side. I began to struggle a bit and on a couple of occasions fell over into the vegetation and was rescued by the old lady following behind. How undignified! She and Mai had absolutely no problems with the going, leaping up and down the steps and footholds in the steep banks....and the old girl with ill-fitting flip-flops on too. They were both considerably fitter and more agile than me. I was beginning to sweat a bit. It felt as if we had been going for much more than 9kms and that was before we stopped for lunch..... 

.........Which we did at the top of this rocky shute ( left ) which, in the wet season, is a raging waterfall. It was steep and a lapse of attention could have resulted in a long and painful  slide. Mai had been carrying our lunch and the old lady just sat and joined together strands of thread. They never stop doing it when static. 

Onwards we marched; at least Mai and the old lady marched. I staggered. At some point we went up and down along a very slippery narrow path through a bamboo forest ( right ). I insisted on stopping on the more level bits to take a photo. In reality it was to get my breath back. For some reason we never came across any other of the many tourists seen first thing in the morning
Left: Looking back up at the dry waterfall. By now back down at the bottom of the valley and only the other side to climb up. Only!

Right: A colourful cockerel which posed for a photo.
We finally ended up in a Red Dao village at the top of the home climb. This, I think,  was the old lady’s home, although I thought she was a H’Mong. Who knows, anyway I bought a woven bracelet from her and she was suitably grateful. There were some other tourists waiting there plus a cafe selling life-saving beer. It had a TV inside; a relative rarity ( on the tourist trail anyway ). For all I know, when the tourists have gone back to their hotels out come the 72 inch plasma screen HD TVs , the computers and all the other hi-tech gizmos. Waiting for our car to pick us up and trying to talk to the locals in my broken Vietnamese ( they speak their own language ) the only two subjects of common interest, and understanding, were inevitably English Premier League football ( this guy was a ‘Man U’ supporter ) and, surprisingly, the Royal Wedding of William and Kate ‘Meederton’. It truly seems that the Royal Family and football are all that Britain is now famous for worldwide, even in the remote depths of the Vietnamese hinterland.

While in the area I was reminded of Dien Bien Phu. I have visited this place several times previously and am using this blogsite to record some of my photos and as a reminder of my visits. It is a regular run for the domestic airline from Hanoi with two, or maybe three, flights per day and usually all full up.
Dien Bien ( they seem to miss out the Phu nowadays ) is now a medium sized town about 100 miles south of Sa Pa close to the border with Laos. It is in the centre of a large valley and surrounded, at a distance of about 10 miles, by high rocky hills and mountains. It was here that the French met their denouement in 1955. At that time the town was a tiny village spanning a small river and had several hillocks around it on which were built forts and formed the defensive positions for the large French military base. It is now renowned for the quality of the rice grown around here.
The airstrip then ( 1954 - 55 ) was the vital logistic link with the outside world and for resupply and evacuation of personnel, together with parachute drops into the valley. This airstrip, initially made from perforated steel plates, is now a 1800 metre commercially operated hard runway with supporting navigation aids and airport buildings attached ( left ). The hills in the distance are, as is often the case, shrouded in mist and fog. An important factor in the vicious fighting which took place here.

Right: This is what is left of the semi-submerged HQ of the base commander, Colonel Castris. Access was blocked to modern day visitors. The story of this prolonged  ( 6 month ) battle is fascinating and involved some real heroics by some extraordinary French military personnel including the infamous ‘para’ Major Bigeard and the one-armed artillery commander who, when he realised his hopeless position and after being much criticised, committed suicide by blowing himself up with a hand-grenade. The book ‘The Last Valley’ by Martin Windrow describes this long battle and makes riveting reading.
Like so many of Vietnam’s historic sites and museums, this battlefield is ( or was ) not well preserved although some of the hill forts are being reconstructed and the town does make a bit of a living from visiting tourists ( many French and German of course ).  
Most of the rusting heavy equipment, like this light tank ( left ), is not so much preserved as left undisturbed where it ended up. There were 4 of these tanks airlifted in in pieces and constructed on site, and they are all still there, just where they were destroyed or abandoned in 1955, some with the grass and weeds growing up around them. Actually, this tank is on top of one of the forts which is being reconstructed and cleared of undergrowth.

Right: One of the forts, all of them given French girls’ names, overlooking the now largish town of Dien Bien. Much of the intervisibility between these defended hills has been lost due to the expansion of the town.

Left: Another hilltop fort under reconstruction. This photo was taken a few years ago and maybe they have now produced a battlefield site which is well and accurately reconstructed. After all, the Vietnamese spare no effort in recalling the ‘glory’ of their brave and patriotic victory under Ho Chi Minh and General Giap over the brutal and wicked French colonists.

Right: A Vietnamese military cemetery. There are at least two large Vietnamese cemeteries in the area each containing thousands of concrete graves and headstones. Interestingly, the headstones that I saw had no names on them. I cannot remember the score of dead Vietnamese to dead French, but it was a factor of about 10 to 1, if not greater. Some of the Vietnamese assaults onto the French positions were positively suicidal, but overall numbers, their almost total disregard for taking casualties and their hidden artillery in the hills eventually, inevitably, won the day. 
There is, or was, a rather basic military museum in the town. Outside is some old dilapidated military hardware, and inside are some of the remnants of the French base including this bath in which Colonel Castris soaked himself while he pondered his predicament. There is also a museum dedicated to the local ethnic tribes and which, in my opinion, is rather better put together. 
That is it, from me, from the outlying mountainous territory of NW Vietnam. It is an area still occupied by the many ‘ethnic minority’ tribes. Hopefully they will continue to live a relatively happy and simple life, uncomplicated by modern technology and material greed. With so many tourists taking an interest, in the Sa Pa area at least, one wonders for how long. I suspect the possession of computers, the odd Lamborghini and holidays in Klosters will beckon eventually. 

PS. There has been a bit of a hiatus. I failed to post a couple of blogs in Vietnam and then found the 'blogsite'  blocked in China. I am now in Hong Kong ( more liberal ) and sending a backlog ( b'log ) of blogs. So blog backlog block bloken. Hu is to blame? 

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