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.

Arm Chair Travel – Huế

Dishes fit for a Emperor

After the formality of a cup of tea we set to work with Madame Hà, her daughter and six assistants. Our job was to create dishes for an Imperial meal for lunch time guests at Tịnh Gia Viên without harming the restaurants reputation!

Fortunately the assistants had already done the elaborate carving that included hollowing out a pineapple to create a lantern, turning pineapples into peacocks, tomatoes into swans and carrots into flowers. Our job was to cook paper-thin duck egg omelettes*, wrap the various force meats we had made in the omelettes, won ton pockets, spring roll wrappers and grape leaves. Deep fry them without burning ourselves and cut various shapes with razor sharp knives without drawing blood.

Again with this particularly arrangement it is not possible to caption the various photos but a left click will take you to a slideshow for a closer look.

Of course you couldn’t serve Emperor Tự Đức plain old springs rolls – they had to be cut into bite size pieces and arranged on the back of a peacock. Fortunately Madame Hà’s assistants provided the dazzle and we the sizzle.

The same applied to the Lantern – beggar’s purses of vegetables, won tons, stuffed grape leaves and French cheeses (!) required artful arrangement before the candle could be lit.

The Dance of the Phoenix – okay that was a bit of work. Omelettes were sliced to form a necklace of feathers on a bed of noddles, pigeon eggs were nestled around the white radish head, fried rolled omelettes stuffed with pork, mushrooms, red pepper and asparagus were cut into pinwheels, and then artfully arranged. Anyone for a dance?

Well that was three down and only forty-seven more to complete the menu for Emperor Tự Đức’s evening meal. And all it took was one master chef, six assistants and two bumbling tourists.

The two Chefs (??) with Madame Hà and their (???) creations.

*Did I mention that Madame Hà said mine were the thinnest and most perfect she’d ever seen in all her years of cooking? Just saying!

The word for September 29th is:
Phoenix /ˈfēniks/: [noun]
A unique bird in classical mythology that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.
Old French fenix, via Latin from Greek phoinix ‘Phoenician, reddish purple, or phoenix’. The relationship between the Greek senses is obscure: it could not be ‘the Phoenician bird’ because the legend centres on the temple at Heliopolis in Egypt, where the phoenix is said to have burnt itself on the altar. Perhaps the basic sense is ‘purple’, symbolic of fire and possibly the primary sense of Phoenicia as the purple land (or land of the sunrise).
Isn’t it also the name of a city in the Southwestern US where old people go to burn in the sun?

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”).

Stuff 2 – Recently Acquired – Though Not Really Needed

Last week I said that I had posted the George Carlin “Stuff” routine for a reason that would become clear “tomorrow.” Despite what that horrid little Annie and those kids at the Orphanage keep singing, sometimes Tomorrow is more than a day away!

Zho Hanging from SapaThing is I’m becoming obsessed with “stuff.” Mostly because I realized I have so damn much of it and I have to start going through it the next few weeks. Inventory – what goes with us, what goes into storage, what do we try and sell, what do we flog at the Great Glebe Garage Sale? There’s nothing like a move to move you to divest yourself of your worldly goods.

Knowing that a move was in the air months ago has not stopped me from buying more stuff. On our trip to Vietnam there were a few things I just had to have as souvenirs. Particularly as we hiked through the minority villages around Sapa (which reminds me I don’t think I ever shared the photos of Sapa – so by clicking here you can see a few – well actually 104 – of them.) The Red and Black Zho women were forever stopping us to offer embroidery, indigo-dyed shirts and colorful blankets and material. It was a game – a rather gentle amusing one – but they were persistent. I finally caved in and bought a wall hanging (?) a festive dress adornment for around a lady’s neck? – not really sure. But the colors are vibrant and the design attractive. Of course where to hanging it becomes the issue – not much room what with the Venetian masks, the African masks, the Mexican masks, the Polish carvings, the Roberts prints of Egypt – anyone for a jumble sale?

Bamboo in MarbleThen, of course, our guide Tung just happened to take us to his Aunt’s shop – a wooden lean-to on one of the paths. It may surprise you to know that the lovely box to the right is carved from marble. I know very touristy and probably machine made but I really liked it so …. now where to put it and what to put in it?

My Vietnamese BuddhaThe final Chaska is my favorite: I found this benign little Buddha at a stall in the market in Hoi An. Our guide offered only one piece of advice when I mentioned I wanted to buy a Buddha from Vietnam: Always look at the Buddha’s face – the face will tell you if this is the Buddha you should have. It will tell you if it wants you to have it. This peaceful little figure just cried out to be taken off the shelf. He will not be going to the Great Glebe Garage Sale.

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