We arrived in Sapa at 5.30 in the morning after an uncomfortable night in a 4-berth cabin. We had room, some free water and biscuits, but the train’s carriage had been built on a trampoline and we felt every bump. But we made it. Phew.
Sapa was chosen as a hill station, spa-type resort for the wealthy, colonial French to escape to. It has its own lake and nestles in green mountains, with the tallest (3,200 metres and the last big mountain in the Himalayan range), served by a cable car. Nowadays it’s a backpacking magnet, with some inexpensive boutique hotels, more fake North Face shops than you can shake a hiking stick at, and treks through glorious, tiered rice plantations. Which was our plan.
Having made the trip from the station (near the Chinese border) to the town by minibus, our first day (we were tired) was spent wandering around the town, having a nap and then finding a brilliant place to eat with balcony views over precipitous valleys. The next day was trekking day … and we woke to torrential rain.
But, that didn’t stop the trek. Nope. These guides (you’d struggle without one) won’t stop guiding for a bit of torrential rain. So with a couple of lovely east-coast, and very obviously anti-His Orangeness young Americans, we set off for a 12 km hike through the paddy fields. Well, I salute all of us. The route would be treacherous in the dry. In the wet, without proper hiking gear, it was mad. But such fun! Jungle, mud, deluges, streams of cascading water, more rain, cannabis plants, fab views even in the mist and cloud, six local women helpers who held the hands of the more unsteady (and then, after four hours at lunch, proceeded to sell us their wares) and a leach, which the guide pulled expertly off Bex’s leg, summed it up. A fab day.
And then out for a well-deserved happy hour and more chicken and rice, although to be fair, ‘Yummy’s’ restaurant served lovely, multicultural food.
How about a bit of Vietnam’s history? What do you need to know? It’s complicated … even the US Vietnam war is almost beyond telling. In short, it was par-colonised by the Dutch, Portuguese and the Spanish, but eventually was subsumed into French Indo-China. There were uprisings, an invasion by the Japanese and then an agreed split between the north and south after WW2 with the French still kicking around. Another local war (the first Indo-China War) eventually saw the defeat of the French by the northern, local, opium-growing Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu.
Then the second Indo-China war, or the American War, where the US tried hard to prevent the overthrow of a southern, non-communist government in Saigon, followed smartly on with the Us eventually taking on both north and south. Well, you’ve all seen the films and know how that ended. At which point the country remained split in two … but not for long.
And then (takes a deep breath), the third Indo-China war. Where it seems Vietnam had a bash at/with most of its neighbours up until the late 80s, including the Chinese. How the country has managed to shake itself down, brush itself off and be ready for the hordes of unwashed backbackers is a mystery. But, thankfully, they have.
What’s left? Pragmatic communism … and a one-party state. Which, at the mo, seems to be working. There doesn’t seem to be any general discontent, the way we felt in all the countries we’ve visited so far. But we’ve hardly scratched the surface. Who knows?
Anyhow, night train back to Hanoi today and then a bus to the island of Cat Ba, and two days on a boat exploring Haylong Bay. Hopefully the weather will improve?