I felt sad to leave Sapa. It’s always a shame leaving new friends and a place you’ve fallen in love with, but I’d been there for 11 days and nobody wants to be the hostel granddad.
It’s the faces that make a place. Ally and Justin at the hostel, the woman who cheerfully sold me dog pho that one time, the man who thought a little too long before naming his price for the ride back to Lau Cai.
The sunburned guy who asked me for directions because he’d entirely lost his hotel, the two poor English girls shaking in the corner of a restaurant because they couldn’t bring themselves to say “no, thank you” to one of the street hawkers.
And who could forget the cheerfully precarious wooden scaffolding, or the large, solemn road signs with some terrifying icon – a man being electrocuted, say – and two or three lines of complex-looking vietnamese instructions.
Communism has no hold here, if it ever really did. As a town it’s at once quaint and frenetic, like your grandma trying to drive a forklift.
Visually it’s somewhere between a European mountaintop ski town, a mid-50s British seaside resort and a crummy post-soviet Mad Max remake; ideologically it’s all East End market town, complete with the hard sell, the guilt trip and the rows of pizza restaurants and massage parlours.
The men of Sapa are a resourceful bunch. There aren’t nearly enough tourists for all the men offering motorcycle rides and yet here they are with their cry of “motorbike, motorbike” and their faces – well, let’s say – if not teeming with optimism then at least with a little hope.
Don’t get me wrong, the place has charm by the bucketload. Once you learn the polite-but-stern “no” – to the local Hmong women, overcharging you for tat they bought at the Chinese border (20 miles North, folks!), to the lads on scooters, the restaurateurs, the massage people – you can’t escape the fact that it’s a beautiful, friendly town in a stunning location. I was here for eleven days and wasn’t bored or unhappy once.
The lake is pretty, the church is elegant if not really ornate – and yet packed to the rafters the surprisingly Catholic locals on Sundays. The local food is cheap and delicious, the weather is – well, it’s still Vietnam.
When you’re done with the town, head out on the road. The views are mind blowing – really, really incredible. Sadly the town fathers have begun a programme of modernisation – an aggregate works here, a 50-foot bright blue hoarding for the local cellphone company there – but that’s all within 20 minutes of the town. Once you’re past that it’s all rolling hills and stepped rice fields.
Head out to Cat Cat Tourist Village, (take a bike; stand facing the tourist information place in the main square and it’s straight down the hill on your left hand. Keep going, further than you think you ought to, past the point where you realise your travel insurance doesn’t cover you given that you’re riding the motorbike illegally) where you can buy all manner of traditional Vietnamese Phillips-head screwdrivers, machetes(?!) and bottles of petrol.
Careful on the roads, now. Use your horn going into corners, coming out of corners, on the straight, when you’re going to take an hour for lunch, and twice before bedtime: truckers don’t so much ignore the rules as flout them for laughs. Overtaking one is half extreme sport, one half zen mindfulness. So sit back and take it easy, there’s no point eating Tarmac over a 40 foot container lorry full of fruit and vegetables, hair straighteners and usb chargers.
When you get back, rely on the fact that there’s a “Why Not” bar in every backpacker town in South East Asia and every one will try to sell you a joint with your beer. The one in Sapa is great. Cheap drinks, a slightly hokey driftwood and tin-roof feel, and a great view over the town. The only real “Why Not?” is the sentimental reggae. The playlist might be called “tunes you haven’t heard and wouldn’t miss”.
At first glance, Sapa is the kind of place you might stop off on a bus trip and think “shit, I’m glad we get to leave tomorrow!”, but the more you get into it, the more the place shows its charming side.
I had whole days doing nothing in my hostel – except confirming the simple truth that people from m inconsequential places know all the facts about their home countries (No, you can’t “throw a rock and hit Finland” from Estonia because it’s 88km away).
I didn’t do a home stay. I didn’t trek in the fields. I didn’t climb Mt Fansipan (“because it looks really hard”). My challenge was to learn how to be happy doing nothing, and Sapa helped.