Armchair Travel: Sa-Pa – Part II

It has taken me a good long time to get to Part II of sharing my pictures of Sa-Pa from our trip to Vietnam in 2006. Perhaps at another time I will go into an explanation of the lethargy and general ennui that has been my lot since the beginning of the new year but for now let’s just revel in the beauty of the foothills of the Himalayas.

I mentioned in the first post that we spent a day hiking in the Muong Hoa valley between the town of Sa-Pa and Fansipan Mountain (Phan Xi Păng). The highest peak in Vietnam (3134 m/10,326ft) Fansipan is part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. We only had one fleeting glimpse or two of the summit through the clouds and mist that came and went over the landscape throughout the day.

Phan Xi Păng – at 3134 m/10,326ft the highest peak in Indo-China.
Photo: Vietnam Coracle

Now lest my faithful reader envisage Laurent and myself in climbing gear scaling rock face, though somehow I’m sure you know us to well to make that mistake, let me assure you that a good pair of walking shoes and several layers of clothing were more than adequate. The trekking paths are well worn by years of valley peoples travelling from their villages to market in Sa-Pa and there were very few steep climbs or descents. And we had a guide who was considerate of the two nonathletic gentlemen of a certain age. It was one of those days where layers were removed, redonned, and removed again as the mists rolled in, the clouds delivered a quick shower or the sun broke through over the terraced rice paddies. And yes that is snow on the rice paddies.

The Hoa Stream (Suoi Hoa), which is fed by numerous small mountain springs, flows through the length of the valley. The five main villages, home to the Black Hmong, Day, Red Dao and Tay peoples, are built along its banks. These “ethnic minorities” are only four of the 55 ethnic groups recognized in Vietnam, however they make up 85% of the population in the Sapa region.

Most of the villagers are farmers who tend their rice terraces and also grow corn and cassava, much of which is fed to their livestock, mainly black pigs, chickens and water buffalo. Some also grow hemp and cotton which is used to make fabric for their clothing. In a future post I’ll have photos of the very hospitable people we met and saw along the trek.

I’ve always wondered if papa had dropped by to take that little pup for an (attempted) outing?

I thought I’d end this post with one of my all-time favourite photos. Not a special breed of cattle just a serendipitous photo op!

The word for April 28th is:
Cattle /ˈkadl/: [noun]
1.1 Large ruminant animals with horns and cloven hoofs, domesticated for meat or milk, or as beasts of burden; cows.
1.2 Similar animals of a group related to domestic cattle, including yak, bison, and water buffalo.
Middle English (also denoting personal property or wealth): from Anglo-Norman French catel, variant of Old French chatel (property).

The Grand Hibernian

A week or so ago I mentioned that a trip on the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express was still an unchecked item on my bucket list. That set me to browsing through the photos from a train journey we took back in 2016. The Grand Hibernian was a new route inaugurated that year by Belmond – the people who operate the VSOE as well The Royal Scotsman, the Eastern & Orient Express, the Hiram Bingham to Machu Pichu, and the Andean Explorer. Hibernia is the classic Latin name for Ireland and true to its name The Grand Hibernian did a tour of Ireland with an optional side trip to Belfast and Waterford. We choose the five day-four night journey which took us to Cork, Killarney, Galway, West Port and back to Dublin. I booked it in April 2015 when Belmond first announced the service. It was to be my 70th birthday celebration combined with our anniversary – I was ever the optimist.

Our tickets and baggage tags
for our journey on
The Grand Hibernian.
September 13-17, 2016

In their literature Belmond referred to it as being more relaxed than the VSOE and Royal Scotsman experience but still with all the elegance, luxury and first class service of their signature trains. And indeed it was.

The train had the quiet comfort of a country home with hints of Georgian Dublin – muted colours picked up from the tartans of the various counties and warm woods. Everything was included: meals, fine wines and premium liquors, entertainment, and tours. And there were always pleasant surprises: Laurent Perrier champagne for our cruise on the Lakes of Killarny, oysters and Guinness on the platform as we waited for our train to be shunted in at West Port, morning coffee at the manor house at Blarney Castle, a jaunting cart ride through the streets of Killarny, and a champagne lunch at Ashford Castle.

We checked in at The Westbury in Dublin and enjoyed a light lunch before making our way to Heusten Station where we were greeted by the Train Manager and a piper who led us to our train. A welcome glass of champagne was offered, we were introduced to the service crew and escorted to our cabins.

There was one hiccup as the journey begin – what we in the airline called a mechanical. After stowing our suitcases we were asked to meet in the lounge car and advised of the delay. We had been scheduled to have a very elaborate afternoon tea as we journeyed to Cork however the train would have to go off-station for an hour or so. But never fear we would still get our afternoon tea. The piper escorted us through the station – to the wondering eyes of commuters – to The Happy Hooker. Now less you fear for our moral safety a “hooker” is a type of fishing vessel – honest! And the Happy Hooker was the pub/restaurant at the station. There to even more wondering eyes we found the entire tea service from the train had been brought over and set up. We were served our oolong, savouries, sandwiches, scones, and sweets along with more bubbles from the champagne region. When it was time to return the piper led us back to the comfort of the Grand Hibernian. Did I mention this was first class all the way.

The cabin was small but comfortable with twin beds and its own bathroom with shower. It was compact but full provided with fluffy towels and fine toiletries. The sheets were Egyptian cotton and blankets were Irish wool. As much as I enjoy overnight trains I am a light sleeper which can be a problem, however the train remained stationary on a siding each evening so there was no rocking and rolling or click-clack.

Our impromptu afternoon tea had given us an opportunity to meet some of the other passengers and particularly two delightful if slightly eccentric sisters from Dallas, a charming Dutch couple, and several other couples. It also meant that the first evening’s dinner had none of the awkwardness that often accompanies the first night of a cruise or tour.

The dining cars were elegant but relaxed. Yes we all dressed for dinner – ties were not required but jackets were – and the service was impeccable but warm and friendly. The three course meals were prepared in the small galley kitchen and featured regional lamb, fish, poultry and local produce. A range of breakfasts were on offer – continental to full Irish – and in the evening pre-dinner amuse-bouches were constantly being circulated. Only one lunch was served on the train and the others were taken at first class venues at various stops. At lunch in an old (circa 1600) stone quay side house by the Spanish Arch in Galway we had a surprise concert by Nan Tom Teaimin. She is one of the great singers of Sean-nós or “old style” Irish music and it was a privilege to hear her in a private intimate setting.

The lounge car was situated at the rear of the train and the large windows were perfect for watching the green – and I do mean green – countryside go by. Every evening coffee, cognac, and liquors were served in the lounge from the well-stock bar. W e were entertained by a variety of performers: a story teller, a Celtic harpist from Trois Rivières, Quebec, a guitar duo, and the Baileys – a well-known folk trio.

The various stops along the way took us to Blarney Castle, the Lakes of Killarny, the Cliffs of Mohr, Galway town, Ashford Castle, through the lush but often rugged countryside and along the wild Atlantic Coast.

There were so many highlights of that four days but one particular adventure was perhaps the most memorable: the School of Falconry at Ashford Castle. They claim: You will never forget the moment when your hawk first swoops down from a tree and lands on your gloved fist. And they were right!

The Burren – County Clare from the train window September 15th, 2016.

When we left the train in Dublin our next stop was London and then onward to Southampton and a transatlantic journey on the Queen Mary II. After that sort of trip maybe a day on the VSOE would be a bit of a let down??

The word for January 28th is:
Adventure /adˈven(t)SHər,ədˈven(t)SHər/: [1. noun 2. dated verb]
1. An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.
2. To engage in hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory.
Middle English: from Old French aventure (noun), aventurer (verb), based on Latin adventurus ‘about to happen’, from advenire ‘arrive’.

Armchair Travel: Sa Pa Redux

Often sharing a memory can send someone else wandering down their own memory lane. This happened yesterday when Andrew Chilvers, my old friend and colleague from Warsaw Business Journal days, read about my visit to Sa Pa in 2006.

Several years before he was Editor of the WBJ (oh grow up!) Andrew was a journalist and spent some time in Vietnam as the country was opening up to the outside world. Though there was some tourism after Unification in 1976 it was on a very small scale and there was very little infrastructure to support travel. However in 1993 a change of visa restrictions opened the country to the outside world. But even three years later in November of 1996 when Andrew made the trip to Sa Pa it was a journey very different from mine ten years later.

This morning Andrew wrote me that:
“When I was in Sa Pa there were only a couple of hardy backpackers there – (it was) still new to tourists. The journey around the mountains was a shocker – in a soviet era jeep on decaying roads with 100 foot drops. I loved it. Lots of ruined French villas on the roof of the world mainly inhabited by Hmong people.”

He has allowed me to share an article he wrote in 2014 recalling that adventure. A left click on the photo of Sa Pa’s art deco church will take you to Andrew’s memory of the Sapa of 1996.

The word for October 16th is:
Memory /ˈmem(ə)rē/: [noun]
1. The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information
2. Something remembered from the past; a recollection.
3. The part of a computer in which data or program instructions can be stored for retrieval.
Middle English: from Old French memorie, from Latin memoria, from memor ‘mindful, remembering’.

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.

Roma Redux

As I mentioned yesterday, during our time in Rome – I have difficulty believing it was 15 years ago this coming August that we arrived there – we had the good fortune to see many of the wondrous hidden treasures of the city up close. One ancient monument that always intrigued me was the Mausoleum of Augustus that was visible from the glorious Museo dell’Ara Pacis as just a big mound of bricks, dirt, and scrub. There had been talk about restoring the burial place of Caesar Augustus and the project may have even started just before we left in 2011. Well it looks like talk has been replaced by action and the Mausoleum has been restored and opened to the public. Viewing at the moment is restricted in numbers because of COVID-19 restrictions.

The Mausoleum of Augustus as I remember it back in 2007-2011 – bricks, dirt, and scrub.

Our dear friend Larry Litman was fortunate that he and Vincenzo were able to get tickets before they sold out. He wrote about it as a guest entry on a fascinating blog dedicated to Rome the Second Time. You can see photos, and read a bit about the checkered history of the tomb and Larry’s visit by left clicking here or on the image below.

The Mausoleum of Augustus has been restored and opened to the public after 70 years of neglect.

Another item on our bucket list that we can only hope we will be able to see in person rather than from our armchair.

The word for June 18th is:
Redux /ˌrēˈdəks/: [adjective]
To bring back or revive.
Late 19th century – from the Latin reducere “bring back”.

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