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.

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 – Huế

Madame Hà’s Garden of Tranquility

In October 2006 I started this blog (I had a previous one when I worked for the Warsaw Business Journal – the WBJ, at 10 zloty the cheapest BJ in Warsaw*) in October of 2016 with the aim of recording our trip to Vietnam. It was coming up to my 60th birthday and I wanted to celebrate in someplace a little different. We had been to Cambodia and Thailand the year before and I loved South East Asia. And having grown up in the 70s during the American War (known here as the Vietnam War) I had seen endless reports on the country. None of those reports prepared me for the fascinating three weeks we spent visiting the country from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Hoang Lien Son mountains at the Chinese border. Back in 2006 Vietnam was still off the normal tourist map and I understand that now it has become very popular. It is one place I would love to visit again – for now I’ll just revisit it from the comfort of my armchair.

Cruising Halong Bay on December 10th 2006.

I wish I could remember the name of the tour company I booked with as their service was nothing short of miraculous. Accommodations were deluxe, travel first class, and nothing was ever a problem for our guides. We had indicated that cooking would be one of our chief interests and we were booked in to several cooking schools turning our travels. All of them were great fun and a good introduction to the varied regional cuisines of the country. But none were as intriguing as Madame Hà’s Garden of Tranquility in the last Imperial capital of Vietnam: Huế.

Looking towards Thế Miếu Temple in the Imperial City in Huế – built in 1833-23 by the Emperor Minh Mạng for the purpose of ancestor worship.

Madame Hà’s forte is the elaborate cuisine favoured by Tự Đức, the fourth emperor (1847-1883) of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam. To classify Tự Đức as a gourmand would be no exaggeration – it is said that he demanded that his daily morning tea be brewed using only the dew collected overnight from lily pads on the ponds of his palace. His feasts included 50 dishes prepared by 50 cooks with the finest ingredients the country could provide. It was an elaborate cuisine that demanded novelty and presentation of the highest order. Perhaps it is churlish to note that Tự Đức insisted on these elaborate feasts during times of famine and pestilence or that his cooks stole what they wanted from vendors in the local markets.

The much lauded and awarded Madame Tôn Nữ Thị Hà – the leading authority on the cuisine of the Imperial Court at Huế.

Madame Tôn Nữ Thị Hà, who I understand is still going strong at 77, is regarded as Vietnam’s leading authority in the art of the Imperial cuisine of Huế. She also claims descent from the Nguyễn dynasty and has been given the title of “National Treasure”. Set in a traditional landscaped garden and surrounded by over 400 bonzais – a passion of Monsieur Hà we were told – Tịnh Gia Viên is a restaurant/cooking school housed in an old French villa. It is a mere 500 metres away from the grounds of the Citadel and Imperial enclave. Yes it is “touristy” but also a great deal of fun. We were the only two people in the class that day and Madame Hà and her daughter were genial and easy-going. And I’m sure that Madame tells everyone that their duck egg omelettes are the thinnest and most perfect she’s seen in all her years of cooking!

And what was on the menu – oh nothing fancey. Just three of the fifty dishes you needed to please Emperor Tự Đức.

A few of the ingredients that would go into creating (left to right) a peacock bearing spring rolls, the elaborate Dance of the Phoenix, and a pineapple lantern studded with won ton and beef wrapped in grape leaves.

In the next few days I’ll be putting together a few photos of some of the work that went into creating these elaborate dishes.

The word for September 24th is:
Imperial /imˈpirēəl/: [1. adjective 2. noun]
1.1 Relating to an empire.
1.2 Relating to or denoting the system of non-metric weights and measures (the ounce, pound, stone, inch, foot, yard, mile, acre, pint, gallon, etc.)
2. A small pointed beard growing below the lower lip (associated with Napoleon III of France).
From Middle English imperial, from Old French imperial, from Latin imperiālis (“of the empire or emperor, imperial”).

Bon Voyage

By the time this has been posted my friend Jeff and myself should be on our way to Montreal on the train – the first leg of our trip down the St Lawrence River.  Later today we’ll board the Crystal Symphony, settle into our cabin and prepare for seven days of cruising the maritime gateway from Central Canada to Europe.  We’re heading to St Pierre-Miquelon with stops along the way at Sept-Îles , Îles de la Madeleine and on the return to Montreal la Ville de Québec.  However this is not the first trip I have done on the River except the last time we continued on past the Gulf of St Lawrence and across the Atlantic to Belfast and I was only two and a half at the time.

Transatlantic-with-Cunard

In 1949 my mother decided that she and I would make a trip to Belfast to visit my recently widowed Grandmother.  The war had been over for three years at that point and maritime travel and commerce had returned to normal.  Many of the troop ships had been converted back into passenger liners include the Cunard White Star HMS Ascania which took us from Montreal to Belfast and back.  The Ascania was christened after a German Royal House that dates back to 1036 and included amongst it’s members  Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg better known by her Russian title Catherine the Great.   She was 4,013 gross tons – the ship not Catherine – with one funnel, two masts, twin screw and a speed of 15 knots,  Being a Cunard Class A her configuration as 200 First class and 500 tourist class passengers. Prior to her service as a troop ship in the Second World War she had served primarily as an Immigrant ship and carried considerably more passengers – 500 cabin class and 1200 third class. She served the Liverpool – Montreal route (with stops in Greenock an Belfast) until 1956 when she returned briefly to war service as a troop ship during the Suez Crisis.  She was scrapped in January of 1957.

Cunard-again.I was hoping to find some specifics of the voyage but other than that it occurred sometime between April 25, 1949 when my mother’s passport was issued and October 7 of that same year when Canadian Immigration stamped our return at Quebec I have no dates. I do recall my mother saying we were gone for almost six months so that could put our departure from Canada sometime in May. What I do have are some pictures that were in a box brimming over with memories of times past.  Unfortunately many of them are of people that I do not recall, and anyone who could recall them is long gone.  However there is not mistaking either my mother or myself in these photos take at some point on our journey.

96ca9-ascania-1
And this would be little BillyJohn Hobbs, 2 1/2 years old, on his first Transatlantic voyage. I’m not sure who the gentleman in the uniform is – possibly the purser.

ST-Lawrence-1946-2
Master BillyJohn enjoys the sun on the deck holding one of his prize toys (not all that clearly visible) – a blue leather horse with a red tail and mane. There was a strap attached to make sure Freddy (the horsie had a name of course) did not fall overboard.

St-Lawrence-1948-1
That’s my mother on the left but I have no idea who the other lady is. Again Master BillyJohn poses cute with Freddy and the two ladies. My mother made the coat I was wearing and I would dare say the pants too. I was a very well dressed little boy.

I would dare say those photos were taken with an old Brownie Box camera of my mother’s that was used to capture every family event.  I have not found many photos once we reached out destination but that may because Ulster was still under Wartime rations at that point – and would be well into the 50s – and film would have been scarce and developing expensive.  On the trip I’m starting today no doubt too many photos will be taken and I say a better attempt will be made to immortalize the where, what and who but we shall see.  In the meantime next stop – the Saguenay River.

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