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’.
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.
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.
Telling the stories of the history of the port of Charlottetown and the marine heritage of Northumberland Strait on Canada's East Coast. Winner of the Heritage Award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation and a Heritage Preservation Award from the City of Charlottetown