Armchair Travel: Sa Pa – Part I

A trip to the foothills of the Himalayas.

One of the reasons I started this blog over on BlogSpot back in 2006 was to share pictures of our vacation in Vietnam. Though Vietnam had expanded its tourism industry in a remarkable way there were still problems with bandwidths and connections in what was, after all, a new technology. This meant that many photos were taken, filed away and, if not forgotten, left on the shelf to gather dust. I began revisiting some of those photos during the past few months and memories of a very special travel experience came flooding back. It introduced us to a people, place and history that were fascinating, welcoming and remarkable in so many ways. Our three week itinerary took us from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south to Sa Pa almost at the border with China in the North.

On our two day cruise of Halong Bay – December 2006 – another adventure on our three weeks visit to Vietnam.

Sa Pa is nestled in the highest valley (4,921 ft/1500 m) of the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains in the foothills of the Himalayas. The border with China at Lai Cai is about an hour away. During the days of French occupation and the “Tonkin pacification” it became a military and diplomatic refuge from the heat of Hanoi and the lowlands during the summer. In the early 1900s wealthy professions (both French and Vietnamese) also sought the more temperate climate and built summer villas, and hotels sprung up in the little town. That was all to end during the 1950s when the French bombed the area in retaliation against the Việt Minh. Many of the colonial buildings were destroyed during that period and until the country opened to international travel in 1993 Sa Pa was a sleepy rural backwater. It has now become a major tourist destination: between 1996 and 2006 the yearly tourist traffic grew from a total of 4,860 to 259,070 . On average, 69% of the visitors were Vietnamese and 31% were foreigners. It has since increased to a reported 2.5 million in 2018. Projections prior to COVID suggested by 2030 it would be 8 million. I’m glad we went when we did.

The town of Sa Pa is built around the valley basin created by the Ho Sa Pa (Lake Sa Pa) with homes, shops, hotels, churches and temples climbing up the foothills that surround it. It’s the major market town in the district and the ethnic Hmong, Dao (Yao), Tay, and Gláy people from the surrounding area still bring their wares to sell in the market square. A billboard in Sapa states proudly of its weather: “Four seasons in one day.” Chilly winter in the early morning, spring time after sunrise, summer in afternoon and and a return to cold winter at night. During our stay much of our time was spend amongst the clouds by day and in the fog at night.

Our journey to Sa Pa began at the Tran Quy Cap Railway Station in Hanoi. The Vietnam State Railway operates overnight expresses to Lao Cai and various hotels in Sa Pa attach their private cars to the scheduled trains. It leaves Hanoi at 2200 and arrives at Lao Cai at 0630 the next morning. Vans await at the station to take you on the remaining portion of the trip. Our hotel, the Victoria, had both a private train carriage and a dedicated van service. The ride is approximately an hour and I’m told the views as you ascend the 1000m to Sa Pa are stunning. Unfortunately the fog that blankets the region for 140 days a year made it both a mysterious and dangerous ride. The mountainous road has some wild curves and it was probably just as well I couldn’t see if our driver was just following the road or swerving to miss a water buffalo.

The private carriage on the Victoria Express was a rather elegant affair in the style of the Orient Express. The beds were comfortable and the dining car served a very good lunch on the return.

As luxurious as this all was, we had come not for the train, hotel or restaurants but to explore the renowned trekking trails between and around the near-by Dao villages of Ta Van and Ta Phin. Yes you read that right – himself and I spent a day trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas. Stay turned for pictures at eleven!

The word for October 15th is:
Pacification /pasɪfɪˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/: [noun]
Bring peace to (a country or warring factions), especially by the use or threat of military force.
Late 15th century (earlier (late Middle English) as pacification): from Old French pacefier, from Latin pacificare, based on pax, pac– ‘peace’.
As with most colonial overlords around the globe, the French acts of “pacification” was extremely brutal.

Odds and Sods Around Our House

Well these two items definitely qualify as “odds” but useful “odds” none the less.

Back in the day excitement would mount around our house this time of year. It was mid-October when the Christmas book’s from Neiman-Marcus and Howchow would show up in the post. As well as my traditional silver ball (will you ever grow up, dear reader?) there would be all sorts of things you never really knew you needed but ended up wanting. I know that these two goodies came from Horchow but I can’t be sure that it was from their Christmas offerings as we received catalogues from them fairly regularly.

The Horchow Collection Christmas Catalogue – 1978.

The Horchow Collection was the brain child of Roger Horchow, a former N-M buyer, who started his own catalogue company selling unusual high-end but not necessarily high-priced chachkas, table ware, household items, etc. The U.S. dollar was pretty much at par, the duties were low, and shipping cheap so many things found their way from the pages of Roger’s beautifully crafted catalogues to our home.

This eye-glass cradle has graced the bedside table in all our homes. Over 40 years of prescription lenses – attesting to my fading eyesight – have nestled safely and scratch free in the brown suede cradle. I couldn’t tell you how much I paid for it but it has earned its keep over the years.

I have three pocket watches, which I really must write about one of these days, but back when I purchased this plexiglass cube I had only one: a souvenir of the days of the Ottoman Railway. It is a beauty and well worth displaying – wouldn’t you know that Horchow just happen to have something to display it on.

Both are certainly odd items to have around the house but damn have they come in handy over the years.

The word for October 12th is:
Tchotchke /ˈtʃɒtʃkə/: [noun]
1. A small object that is decorative rather than strictly functional; a trinket – often inexpensive.
2. A pretty girl or woman (slang)
A North American Yiddish word (c. 1960) deriving from a Slavic word for “trinket” which has many variations depending on the country e.g. Ukrainian tsjats’ka; Russian tsatski; Slovak čačka etc.
Yes I know I used the chachka but as I discovered the variations are as numerous as there are tsotchke in Aunt Zelda’s china cabinet.

Thanksgiving 2021

Last year I wrote that “at this traditional time to consider what we have been given and to express our thanks I have had to dig a little deeper in counting my blessings.” This past year has required much less digging. I find that in spite of anything that has passed in the last 12 months my good fortune has been as bountiful as in times past.

I have my small family – Laurent, Nicky and Nora – around me in the comfort of a lovely home. I am surround by people – near and far – whose friendship and love have made life rich in laughter and love. Though we let our guard down during the shortened “tourist” season Provincially we are still being guided in a thoughtful and caring manner and are the safest place to be in Canada. Yes I’ve had some medical problems but they are being seen to and I live in a country where it was decided long ago that Universal Health Care was a right not a privilege. A country that, despite Media attempts to paint it otherwise, is stable and prosperous.

Looking back over that list I see very little that has changed. And perhaps that is what I should be most thankful for: a life of continued bounty.

The word for October 10th is:
Thanks /THaNGks/: [noun]
1. An expression of gratitude.
2. A colloquial way of expressing gratitude
Old English thancas, plural of thanc ‘(kindly) thought, gratitude’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch dank and German Dank, also to think.

Memes for a Monday

So I got a complaint for a close friend that a recent Memes for a Monday was all about dogs and I had neglected cats. Now as my faithful reader know that is not true. Several weeks ago I did an exclusively – save one – MforM about creatures of the feline persuasion. However so there will be no further caterwauling* Here are Cat Memes for a Monday – 100% exclusively Felis catus.

So let’s get the religious post out of the way now.

As we have discovered with at least one of the Hounds from Hell the old spary bottle doesn’t always work.


Because I always like to bring a little culture into every Memes for A Monday:


And all this time we’ve been vilifying (while patronizing his business) Jeff Bezos.


Not everyone in Egypt worshipped them as gods!

Any port (post?) in a storm.

My darling Cathleen doesn’t visit here that often but today I’m going to make a special effort to get her to look in. She is the rescue foster kitty mom par excellence.


Now tell me you are not going to leave this post with a smile?

*Did you see what I did there. Clever or what?

The word for October 4th is:
Catastrophe /kəˈtastrəfē/: [noun]
1. The final event of the dramatic action in a play especially of a tragedy.
2. A momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin.
From the Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe
from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophē ‘overturning, sudden turn’, from kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’ (from strephein ‘to turn’).

Lunedi Lunacy

I’ve been MIB (Missing In Bloging) for the past few weeks – suddenly the dance card filled up this last two weeks, I’ve been enjoying a spate of poor health, and the old muses decided to take a holiday. But more of all that at a later date.

Last week I posted the following meme on a “humour” site I belong to:

It caused an ungodly firestorm. Over 600 people viewed it, 120 shared it and there were 580 comments. And therein doth lie the rub! It was taken down after six hours for breaking two of the rules of the group. It was not considered humour and it bullied a race, gender, nationality, culture or religion. Now I’m not sure which of those five was being bullied as I have never thought of diet choice as being any one of them. Though from the looks of some of the comments I would say a CULTure.

But I digress! Wouldn’t you know that something about vegetables by my friends over at Foil, Arms and Hog would pop up on this weeks feed.

Who knew that rhubarb was considered a vegetable? Certainly not me.

And while we’re speaking – well okay they were speaking – of vegetables, a pet peeve of mine (ANOTHER PET PEEVE! gasps my faithful reader) is the use of the word “organic”* for everything in the grocery store these days. And I won’t even start on “curated”, “hand-crafted”, or “artisanal”, I’ll save those for another day.

*The word for September 27th is:
Organic /ôrˈɡanik/: [adjective]
1. Relating to or derived from living matter.
2. Of food or farming methods: produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents.
3. Of a disease: affecting the structure of an organ.
4. Denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of a whole.
Late Middle English: via Latin from Greek organikos ‘relating to an organ or instrument’.
You will notice that first definition – even a bloody TV dinner (if they still exist) could be called “organic”. Apparently the second definition popped up for the first time in 1942 and has now become ubiquitous as an advertising buzz word.