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”.


Armchair Travel – Venice

San Michele – The Isle of the Dead

When I was working on the Stravinsky post last week I knew that I had at least one photo of his grave site in Venice from a trip back in 1999. The problem was finding it – and a real problem it was. It was stored somewhere on a back-up drive that could only be accessed from my old MAC (2009). In my search I ended up doing something that resulted in having to do a system restore from a backup. (Always have a back up!!!!!!) But find that photo I did as well as some wonderful photos from an incredible three day cruise of the lagoon of Venice in a restored fishing boat. But more about that another time.

Before embarking on the cruise we spent several days strolling through Venice and renewing our love affair with La Serenissima. And that included a visit to Isola di San Michele, the cemetery Island. (Note that the photos were taken with one of the first digital cameras I owned and resolution was nowhere near what is is today. Also I was trying to use some of the more artsy effects that were available for a few of the photos.)

A view across the Lagoon to Isola di San Michele – the cemetery island of Venice.
photo: Wikipedia – Source: Current restricted for “sock puppetry”.

Fortunately back in the late 1990s Venice, in general, wasn’t the madhouse that it was to become and very few tourists made the five minute journey on Vaporetto 41/42 from Fondamente Nuove to Cimitero. Most of the passengers disembarking where carrying flowers to honour family or friends buried on the Island. As I have remarked in the past I am an inveterate “tombstone tourist” but always consider that respect must be paid to the deceased and privacy given to their loved ones.

Isola di San Michele is certainly amongst the most peaceful and beautiful cemeteries I have wandered through. Created at the command of Napoleon in 1804, it was designed by Gian Antonio Selva and opened in 1813. Strangely though there has been a Jewish cemetery at San Nicolò on the Lido since 1386 AD until Napoleon’s decree four centuries later there had been no common Christian place of burial. Prior to the inauguration of San Michele burials had been in church floors for the wealthy or under paving stones for the merchant class – not the most sanitary of practices during Acqua alta. What happened to the poor or plague victims doesn’t even bear thinking about.

“The church at the corner of the island is beautifully cool, austere and pallid, and is tended by soft-footed Franciscans … The cemetery itself is wide and calm, a series of huge gardens, studded with cypress trees and awful monuments.

“Not long ago it consisted of two separate islands, San Michele and San Cristoforo, but now they have been artificially joined, and the whole area is cluttered with hundreds of thousands of tombs–some lavishly monumental, with domes and sculptures and wrought-iron gates, some stacked in high modern terraces, like filing systems.”

The World of Venice – Jan Morris


As Jan Morris, wryly but almost affectionately, says some of the monuments are in glorious bad taste and indeed others have almost the air of filing cabinets. One of the most touching sections is the Children’s Cemetery – row after row of small monuments, often topped with cherubs, and niches in columbaria and vaults.


There are two Accatalico or Non-catholic sections: the Reparto Greci (Greek Orthodox) and the Reparto Evangelico (Protestant). Side by side these two burial grounds are separated from the rest of the cemetery by enclosing walls.

As I mentioned earlier in the week Igor and Vera Stravinsky are buried in the Greek Cemetery. A few feet away is the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario.


The Protestant Cemetery has an air of neglect about it – overgrown shrubs, uncut grass, and toppled grave markers. It could be thought of as being either Gothic romantic or just plain rundown.

When we visited many of the graves were recent and the dead that occupied them in 1999 would no longer be there today. Though certain families have vaults and plots the Isola is only 62,000 m2 (670,000 sq ft) and space is at a premium. Remains are exhumed after 12 years and either cremated and moved to a columbarium or the bones are taken to an ossuary.


Towards the end of the 20th century the need for additional space was recognized and in 1998 a competition was held to design two sections adjacent to the existing Isola. Given the vagaries and machinations of local politics work was not begun until 2004 and finally completed in 2017. Pictures suggest that compared to the old cemetery there is a sterility to the design that is at odds with the picture that Jan Morris paints. Once the world is once more open to travel I have every intention of return after all they gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

The word for April 13th is:
Ossuary /ˈäSHəˌwerē/: [noun]
1. A container, room or building in which the bones of dead people are placed.
Mid 17th century: from late Latin ossuarium, formed irregularly from Latin os, oss- ‘bone’.
Though we in North America may find this a strange practice it has been common in Europe since – as witness the Latin ossuarium – early times.

Armchair Travel – Lisbon

The Pomp of Portugal – III

It can only be imagined what the appearance of the next coach had on the spectators both papal courtier and Roman commoner. Though we have no way of known what the two lost coaches looked like the sight of the gilded Ocean Carriage glistening in the sun of a Roman afternoon would surely have been the highlight of the procession.

The Quirinale Palace in 1754.
From Guiseppe Vasi’s book on the finest palaces in Rome – courtesy of Roberto Piperno at Rome in the Footsteps of an XVIIIth Century Traveller – a truly remarkable website.

The procession began at the Ambassador’s residence at Piazza Colonna proceeded down the Corso and on to the Quirinale Palace, the residence of the Pope and seat of the Papal Court until 1870. The Palace was to serve as the residence of the King after the Risorgimento and with the declaration of the Republic in 1946 became the official home of the President.

Though we don’t know the exact path it was probably a circuitous route that gave much of Rome the chance to watch in admiration and wonder. The entire procession was meant as an allegorical depiction of the place in Europe that João V felt he was entitled to as “Master of Conquests, Navigation, Commerce and Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.” And nowhere is that more apparent than in this carriage celebrating a major achievement of Portuguese maritime history: the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope.

The ocean carriage

Again designed in the open “Roman” style the body is gilded wood and iron embellished with silk velvet, silk brocade, and gold and silver thread.

On the front drophead the images of Autumn and Winter flank the coachman’s seat and a cluster of acanthus leaves forms the foot-board.


Unfortunately the photos I took of the Ocean carriage did not turn out all that well and a few ended up in digital limbo somewhere. Where I could I used the photos I had taken but in several cases I have raided the Museo


The coach was restored in 1998 and old skills and techniques were revived to duplicated the rich working in gold thread on the red silk velvet. The straw stuffed seats are covered in cloth of gold silk brocade. Unexpectedly the thick leather straps that suspend the coach body on the carriage works are wrapped in silk velvet embroidered with gold thread. Even without the allegorical statues and carving the body of the carriage proclaims wealth and importance.

The rear drophead celebrates the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias. Though Herodotus claims that a Phoenician expedition accomplished the task around 600 BC the Portuguese triumph is lauded as the first in modern history. It opened the sea route to Africa and Asia for the Portuguese traders. Other European nations were to soon follow.


Continuing the theme on the front of the carriage Autumn and Spring flank the god Apollo. The sun good strikes his lyre, no doubt singing the glory of Portuguese mariners and their achievements. And perhaps the odd word of praise to João himself.


Across a globe that rests at the feet of the god two old men clasp hands: the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.

Needless to say the formal entry of the Marquis of Fontes created the desired effect. As did the news he gave Pope Clement after kneeling to kiss his slippers and present his letter of credence. He announced the birth of the new Infante and gave full details on the rescue forces that João was sending to defend the Vatican States against the threat of an Ottoman invasion. It was reported that the Pope gave “great demonstrations of benevolence and joy” and elevated the Archdiocese of Lisbon to the title of Patriarchate. An honour only previously granted to Venice. And Portugal was recognized as a major player on the world stage. João’s 5000 cruzados had been well spent.

The idiom for January 26th is:
Cutting corners
To undertake something in what appears to be the easiest, quickest, or cheapest way, especially by omitting to do something important or ignoring rules.
The idiom appeared in the mid-1800s and appears to be a quick way of plowing several fields by omitting the corners. However there is no advantage and it is often detrimental if part of the crop hasn’t been sown or treat.
João and Don Rodrigo certainly didn’t cut any corners in their efforts to impress the Papal court!

A Beijinger living in Provincetown

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Moving with Mitchell

Jerry and I get around. In 2011, we moved from the USA to Spain. We now live near Málaga. Jerry y yo nos movemos. En 2011, nos mudamos de EEUU a España. Ahora vivimos cerca de Málaga.

Writing – Gregory Josephs

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