At the end of a full day of University lectures on the Vietnam culture at the University of Foreign trade, Hanoi, we packed our bags and boarded a sleeper bus for the 9 hour overnight coach journey to the mountains of north Vietnam, based around the town of Sapa. For those of you that have never been on a sleeper bus let me describe the experience. Take a normal sized coach, remove all the standard seats and replace them with three rows of fully reclined seats on two levels leaving a narrow gangway either side of the centre row. Sounds wonderful and relaxing doesn’t it. The reality is quite simple, the seats are fine if you are under 5 feet 8 inches and slim. Most westerners however are over 5 feet 8 inches tall and a bit over weight. Once in the seat there was little room for manoeuvre, and no assortment of pillows, blankets or rolled up jackets could make the seat into a bed. Once you add to this the uneven Vietnam roads and the twists and turns of sharp bends, punctuated by glaring headlamps from approaching vehicles, sleep was a just a dream and cramp a reality. The middle isle lower seat, my location on the journey up was for me very uncomfortable. The seat allows only one reasonable position, flat on your back looking up at the bunk above. Sleeping on your side was impossible, especially as I had two relief drivers sleeping in the isles either side of me, one of which snored. I grabbed a window seat on the way back, marginally better as at least I could use the side of the bus to curl into but with the prospect of banging my head as the bus bounced over the potholes in the road.
The journey’s account would not be complete without a mention of Vietnam’s version of a service station. Imagine a covered picnic area next to a market stall selling overpriced snacks, (in the heat of a sauna). Now imagine a concrete path leading to the rear of the seating area where the smell of the toilets greets you. Grim doesn’t begin to describe it. The hole in the floor toilets stank to a level that made you gag. The urinal hadn’t seen a touch of bleach – ever and the acrid smell of stale urine permeated everywhere. I’m told the ladies loos were just as bad. This was our only official stop. The most nauseated persuaded the driver to stop further up the road, preferring a row of bushes by a field to relieve themselves.
At 5.00am we arrived in Sapa. As the dawn broke a misty, wet and cold place revealed itself. The visible base of mountains gave a teasing hint to the high peaks concealed from our view by the rain clouds.The hotel opened up especially for us, and most of us got our rooms and a real bed. The breakfast was also most welcome, offering a blend of English and Vietnamese dishes. After a light lunch we set out for the first of our treks. Confusion ruled though after 5 minutes when it was obvious the weather was going to be wet and several people had not brought a coat. The whole hike was becoming farcical as we waited for the fashion conscious to pick the right colour and style of waterproof and then try and haggle over the price. The rest of us just purchased plastic bag ponchos to keep us dry.
As we descended down the hill into the valley the clouds parted and more of the stunning landscape was revealed. It can best be described as the Lake District without lakes and with all the lower slopes and foothills covered with terraced rice fields. All to soon the weather closed in and the last part of the hike was in a downpour that lasted nearly an hour.
The town of Sapa was built by the French as an escape from the heat of Hanoi and the more mountain ‘European’ climate gave the malaria stricken soldiers a welcome respite. Today its ‘tourist central’ and offers all kinds of activities from trekking to karaoke. The 54 tribes of Vietnam which makes up its population has created a diverse culture and many of those tribes and their colourful costumes are present in Sapa. All are happy to pose for the camera provided you buy something from them. One such ‘Hmong’ woman in her 80’s persuaded me to part with about £16 for two home made cloth bags and a hat that can only be described as a tea cosy, and of course her portrait. The landscape finally delivered in the afternoon of the second day as the clouds parted and the sun shone. Fantastic views of the Sapa valley rice terraces and farms were gained from view points along the main road as well as a couple of really good waterfalls. Finally I could take some HDR shots but with the hours ticking away exploring to get the best view was out of the question.
The journey back to Hanoi was a reverse of the way up, but the window seat must have helped as the journey seemed to take less time and no more surprises. Sapa is a beautiful part of the country and my only regret is the very little time we got to spend there as I would have loved to have seen more.