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).

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 – Musings

On travel pictures and Cap Sounion

Two things have been keeping me from posting this past week. The first was a problem with my left eye that made looking at a computer screen difficult for any length of time. I was a bit concerned that it was the result of my cataract surgery but a visit to my optometrist and things were cleared up. Turns out my tear ducts are producing butter when they should be making olive oil! Don’t ask!

My 2009 BIG MAC – photo taken with my equally as old Canon IXUS 870IS. Both old but much like myself still working after a fashion.

Second I fired up my old Big Mac! A 27” iMac I bought back in 2009 in Italy and used until I bought a Mac Book sometime in 2012 then the iPad in 2013. Yes there is a trend here but I find Laurent’s charge that I have too many electronics a gross exaggeration. Oh did I mention the iPhone and my trusty old iPod? But I, as usual, digress. Upon entering the password (I remembered it!!!!) I suddenly had access to the three external hard drives that are linked to it and more photos/videos/goodies than you can imagine. And that includes photos that I took on floppy discs (remember floppy discs?) with my first digital camera of our trip down the Danube and on our three day cruise of the Venetian lagoon in a fishing boat.

My floppy disc digital camera. It was awkward but it was State of the Art in 1999 – and frankly no more awkward than trying to take a photo with an iPad.

There was a succession of digital cameras after that, each one a little better than the last. Those was replaced by the iPhone camera – and honestly when I compare the quality of the images I find that in many cases the old Canon took better pictures. I’m not talking from an artistic point of view – I’ve never been good at framing etc – but for clarity and detail.

I wasn’t big on taking pictures when I started travelling back in 1966. I didn’t own a camera and people spent too much time taking pictures to really enjoy what was happening around them. I’m not sure when that changed – perhaps with the advent of digital cameras though a look through actual Kodachrome photo albums suggest that there were a goodly number of pictures take in Mexico, Egypt and Chicago pre-digital.

However back in the days of film and processing we were a little more parsimonious with our photo taking. It cost money so you wanted to make sure that shot was a good and, hopefully, memorable one. With digital we (I say we assuming that many other people are on the same wave-length) tend to take multiple pictures of the same thing, just in case. Which means you end up with three, four or more identical shots. Then when you look at them in PhotoShop you face the dilemma of deciding which is the best – or what is worst you end up keeping them all. Another dilemma is looking at them 20 years on and trying to remember just where the hell you were when you took that church interior in 2000 – was it Durstein or Regensburg?

Hmmm… perhaps I shouldn’t have powered up that old Mac!

In the subtitle I mention Cap Suonion at the southern most tip of the Attica peninsula. While looking through one of the many folders entitled Athens I came across a series of very short videos I had taken of sunset looking out over the Aegean at 20:40 on the 14th of March 2008. I’m planning to put together a video of the sequence I took from the steps of the Temple of Poseidon but in the meantime thought I’d share this brief view of the sun setting over Patroklos Island. I do suggest turning the sound down as the microphone on the Canon was very sensitive.

The word for September 6th is:
Dilemma /diˈlemə,dīˈlemə/: [noun]
1.1 A situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.
1.2 A difficult situation or problem.
1.3 An argument in logic forcing an opponent to choose either of two unfavourable alternatives.
Early 16th century (denoting a form of argument involving a choice between equally unfavorable alternatives): via Latin from Greek dilēmma, from di- ‘twice’ + lēmma ‘premise’.


Looking back I realized it has been a long, long while since I’ve shared anything other than my thoughts with both my faithful readers. Back in the day I’d link up to posts on other blogs and scatter random pictures around. Well Christmastide is a time of sharing and there has been much in Blog Land that’s caught my often unfocused interest.

As to the random photos they are of a visit we made to the Rembrandt House Museum during our stay in Amsterdam in September.

My blog buddy Mitchell’s spouse was complaining about the cold in Málaga when they did a tour of the Christmas lights this past week. Apparently it was a frigid 15c (59f) and poor San Geraldo was freezing. As the temperature here was -15c I had little sympathy for them and even less when I saw Mitchell’s photos of the magnificent light displays.

A left lick on Mitchell’s lead shot on his beautiful photo essay will take you to the full display plus a video. It’s magical.

This brought back memories of our New Year’s in Madrid back in 2010. They certainly know spectacular illumination in Spain.

A few times in the past month or so the Mainland has been cut off from the Island when the winds have been high and the Confederation Bridge has been closed. It can cause problems but nothing like what early Islanders encountered back in the days before the “fixed link” when winters pretty much froze the Northumberland Straits. Over at SailStait historian Harry Holman posted a report from 1876 when a crossing of the nine mile gap took from Sunday to Wednesday with the odd dunking in the process.

A left click on this ice boat pictured in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly August 1887 to read the tale of Going With The Floe 1876.

This happens to coincide with the announcement of an increase on the toll to cross to the Mainland. It’s going up by .75¢ for a two-axled vehicle, .25¢ for motorcycles and bicycles, and should you wish to walk across the 12.9 km (8 mile) span there is no increase. It remains a mere $4.50.

A student’s cubicle – Rembrandt taught upwards of 50 young painters during his career. He charged his pupils a hefty premium of 100 guilders per year, and sold their works for his benefit. Terms were anywhere from two to seven years depending on the teacher and the abilities of the student.

In a break with a forty-year tradition I did not polish my balls this year. I let Laurent do it! (Oh grow up! Honestly are you still in grade school?) Laurent wrote all about the preparations for Christmastide at the Beaulieu-Hobbs manse.

A left click will take you to Larry Muffin’s account of, amongst other things, ball polishing.

December 13th is Christmas Jumper Day – for those not familiar with the word “jumper” means “sweater” in the United Kingdom. It actually derives from the French jupe – which the French may want back come the new year.

Lunedi Lunacy

I thought for a bit of Monday morning lunacy I’d post a few photos from the trip that really don’t fit into any particular category except perhaps a touch of the lunatic.

First let’s start the morning off with a scattering of clouds. Not those beastly ones that followed us on the cruise but the way we wanted them to be: fluffy, light, and cheerful.

The hierarchy of the streets in Amsterdam are: first – bikes, second – pedestrians, and finally cars. And one thing that became apparent were the very creative parking spots for bikes in Amsterdam and Utrecht. And we can’t even manage a bike lane in Charlottetown – it would be too disruptive!

Oh come on we’re talking Amsterdam here! Of course there was going to be a photo like this. Though I was happy to hear that the Mayor is working to get rid of the “window shopping” aspect of the Red Light District.

And this monument in Bergen was a tribute to the enterprising seafaring men and merchants of Norway. Perhaps I’m just imagining it but I think I know what the young sailor’s enterprise is! And what commodity the older entrepreneur was seeking. Tom of Norway anyone?

You ever been blow ashore Billy?

I’d recognize an image of Josephine Baker from 100 feet away – I just didn’t expect to see one on a canal barge AirBnB in Amsterdam!!!!!

Even muttering “pigeon pie” didn’t make this kit of the feathered rats move!

And to close the post an inscription on a bench in the Italian Garden that Prince Albert had created as a tribute to his wife Victoria. It brought a smile to my face. A left click will enlarge it.

September 23 is Celebrate Bisexuality Day and I’ll just let each of you celebrate in your own way!

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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.

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