Sa Pa

Sa Pa

SaPa is home to a walking market. Mainly at weekends but also part of daily life in this remote mountainous village in the north of Vietnam near the Chinese border.

Most of the goods on sale are being worn daily by the ethnic tribes people, in their fields and in their poor huts and then proudly on display for the foreigners who come at weekends.

Their clothes are an art form. Black tunics with blue lining, coloured aprons worn reversed, braid trimmed jackets, rich embroiderd vests, wrap around leggings, extraordinary head gear. Bright red turbans are folded one way when the woman is single and then another, when the man has been got, black caps perched high and held through plaits. And the hair, some of it a reddish blonde, others brownish auburn. None of them have the black ebony hair of the rest of Vietnam's women.

The jewellery is heavy, plentiful and, occasionally quality silver. Some of the more educational guide books ask tourists not to try and buy these vestiges of the tribes' culture. The villagers thrust it upon you. It is their most precious asset. A lot of money changed hands in the few days we were there.

It is, however, quite a battle to get to SaPa. Though less than 500 kilometres from HaNoi it takes ten hours by road or you can take an overnight train. The road is almost impassable for about a third of the way. Heavy duty tyres are needed to cross the huge slabs of rock which was being broken manually as we went. Teams of men and women laboured on the roads with the occasional bulldozer. As we came to the mountains the stone for the roads was marble. The steps up and down the hills of SaPa are all made of this smooth beautiful stone.

Coming into the town was like going back to the wild west. The main street a series of muddy tracks, unfinished hotels and guest houses awaiting the tourist boom and serious work in progress for the new market. A true concrete market with some stalls already in operation selling silk boxer shorts, plastic toys etc. There was even one concrete mixer, elsewhere in the Vietnam countryside, mixing concrete is still the source of lots of manual jobs.

And there's heaps of manual work going on at The Auberge, which since its opening in 1994, has been regarded as the most civilised of SaPa's guest houses. You mount some narrow stairs into the communal living cum dining room which goes out onto a balcony. From the balcony you go up another series of open steps to another balcony with three bedrooms. The rooms are very simple, wooden floors, basic but adequate plumbing and a fireplace with wood brought to you nightly. On the adjoining roof there's frantic activity in building on the extensions to the Auberge, due to open any month now.

The balcony abuts the rich dark green mountains that surround SaPa. It is an extraordinary panorama with a constant mist which has a physical presence, thick clouds which move and the temperature changes up and down 10 degrees in seconds. The mist moves rapidly across the skyline. A living force. The gorgeous sunset happens quickly at 6pm.

The great charm of the Auberge is the sense of a family situation. The owner Dang Trung, seems always to be around, checking on the workmen on the roof, tending his garden (there are six terraces going up the hillside which produce vegetables, herbs and an amazing variety of flowers) and always in a beret. He speaks a little English, quite a lot of French and is very proud of his lending library, several hundred books (mainly English, some French and German and now - the odd Japanese magazine).

It's best to eat when the family are, so you can point to what they are eating. The standard menu is geared to tourists.

The Auberge also offers a primitive map of the area with walking tours sketched out - from one hour strolls to two day expeditions. For example, you can take a couple of hours and go through the tiny and very poor village of Cat Catwith its black pigs, goats and very steep hills.

Before leaving we looked at some of other hotels. Green Bamboo Hotel is most lavish, $US 25 for a double room, but take one overlooking a valley. Best value option seems to be Guest House No. 2, clean, quiet, all facilities at $US 15.

The Office of Lao Cai Provincial People's Committee Guest House No 2 (Sa Pa)
Manager Tran Van Tan
Tel 871270
Dang Trung Auberge (known as The Auberge)
Tel 871243

Mietta O'Donnell

©Mietta's 1997