Riding Vietnam Day 184: The Famous, Yet Overrated Sapa

I planned on sleeping in a bit but some loud over-the-loudspeaker propaganda rang into my ears at six in the morning. Bloody hell! With another bowl of pho down the pipes and a bag of lychees as a snack for the road, I was just about ready to leave Mu Cang Chai when I noticed a square shaped and banana leaf wrapped parcel that I had seen several times before but never seemed to budge at the opportunity. The mystery of what lay within was half the fun. Within the banana leaf wrapped exterior I found rice (duh) dyed to a green hue from earthy banana leaves and packed firm in its most glutinous state; beyond the thick initial layer my teeth dug into what I can only surmise was roasted corn, mung bean paste, and possibly some meaty flesh strands. Would I buy it in a market again? Probably not, but it was worth opening up Pandora’s box for peak and taste. I left Mu Cang Chain once and for all (but then again who knows? If given the chance to come back to Vietnam I will most definitely stick it high on the priority list) pleased beyond belief with my time here. The road past the outskirts of town had its share of rice terraces but none to the epic size and artistic value as those residing on the south side of town. The road winded like any good mountain road before giving me free rein over some straight aways that cut through a few cities along the way to Sapa further north. The countryside here tried its best forming a scattered display of rice fields but struggling to keep pace with the what was occurring in the confines of Mu Cang Chai (and away from the tourist route for that matter). However, I could see the land was beginning to lend itself more to the dramatic with open views of the mountains that were dusted over with strained white clouds capping the bald summits. At one resting point to savor the views of the mountains that never seem to get old with me, a Vietnamese from Hanoi stopped by to chat, allowing me to speak the most English with someone (other than myself of course) in a few days time. When we got onto our planned motorbike routes, I told him how I was destined for the unvisited Ha Giang province to explore some unchartered waters. He warned me like another before that the roads get less stable there so I should keep in mind that it will take longer to travel through. As much as I would like to pass on the risk of what may lurk in the province as far as sketchy roads are concerned, the endless possibilities awaiting for me including the adrenaline packed sense of adventure doing what few others do is to much to be ignored. The road continued to climb upwards with its whiplashed switchbacks as I drew in closer to Sapa and the Tram Ton Pass, which is a viewpoint and breaking point on the ridge of the mountains. Although I couldn’t spot it due to the thick cloud coverage, I knew Mount Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Vietnam at 3100 plus meters, stood near but its neighboring peaks were none too shy to creep out and brave the steep cliff bound panoramas. The Hai Van Pass gets so much acclaim and recognition as a must to drive thanks to BBC’s ‘Top Gear’ but it is a joke compared to this gem. The road itself is more pristine and well laid out and the views of mountains scratching the surface of the upper ozone layer and the cloudy ceiling up above treading as a constant storm warning beat ocean views any day for me. At its tipping point where I would divert to the other side of the mountainous stretch, I paused to observe these rocky cliff teetering giants on either side of me almost glaring at one another with only gray streamed puffs of air and the valley below with its now ant-size villages barely giving notice keeping the peace between these colossal mounds. On the other side, I rode down barely touching the gas as I lassoed the turns bypassing the touristy, overblown waterfall spots that I was content with not paying for. Soon enough I was in Sapa and found a place to stay in a hotel rather than a packed hostel room for just a couple dollars (I will gladly take that arrangement with two beds spread out in my room just in case I want to rotate spots mid-night). I got into Sapa early as I had wanted with enough time to do some exploration of the town and the Sapa valley. On the way by motorbike, I picked up some necessary supplies from the pharmacy to touch up my burn skin from that blessed exhaust pipe as well as dine on some tomato infused chicken and tofu. I rode in the direction of a road that led to a lodge with supposedly grand views of the lower Sapa valley but when I found out they charged a fee no matter the smaller price I was turned off by the sight of that. Instead, I turned to another ride that began climbing to a destination I knew nothing about. The road marched upwards into the mountains as each turn and further inclined stretch began to quivering gears into a tremble. I was taken across viewpoint upon viewpoint of the valley with its many rice terraces but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. After Mu Cang Chai it just didn’t stack up to all the expectations through word of mouth and many, many ‘Before you die…’ photographs. Sure the valley was a marvel in itself stretching wide with two opposing mountain stretches but the rice terraces were not as pronounced as if burdened by the expansion of the valley. It would be like taking some finely aged barrel Kentucky whisky and mixing it with some Coca Cola. Sure you can still taste the whisky but it has lost it potency and purity that it once contained. Mu Cang Chai doesn’t have the wide full breadth valley and the tallest mountains in Vietnam but it felt special, concentrated with its rice terraces that swept itself over the land by Mother Nature’s and hard working people’s deft hands. It didn’t help matters that whenever I ran across some kids walking along and playing that the initial words they spoke were ‘hello’ and ‘money’. God only knows they need the money but it sure can kill a moment. Hell most of the kids in the uppermost parts of mountains of Mu Cang Chai probably don’t even know the word ‘hello’. As the rain began to slowly come down and as the storm began to gain some steam, I rode down through the many turns closing in on Sapa. As I was getting into the city, I began turning around each elongated turn as I had always done but when I saw a car peek out from around a parked van I was forced to shift rapidly to the right. As you might expect on a slick wet surface such as the road I was driving on, any sudden movements could prove disastrous. In a moment that happened all too quickly, I slipped and fell and began sliding towards the underbelly of the car driving in my direction. Luckily I was going uphill with little speed and the one rare Asian who actually paid attention as a defensive driver stood at the wheel of that car and braked suddenly in time. I stood at the grill of the car’s frontal in dismay and shock at what occurred. A local nearby watching this by chance occur helped me up and pulled my bike off to the side of the road. Beyond the fact that the car didn’t entrench me into the pavement, my raincoat prevented deeper, further cuts and bruises that I uncovered once I brought my mind to terms with the situation. I gave the car and the concerned people within it a thumbs up and a wave to let them know I was okay and allow them to continue on. Once comfortable enough to ride, I hopped onto the bike wondering how many lives I have left. This situation goes along with a series of quotes from one of my favorite movies ‘A Curious Case of Benjamin Button’:

Mr. Daws: Did I ever tell you I been struck by lightning seven times? Once when I was repairing a leak on the roof.

Mr. Daws: Blinded in one eye; can’t hardly hear. I get twitches and shakes out of nowhere; always losing my line of thought. But you know what? God keeps reminding me I’m lucky to be alive. 

And you know what I am lucky to be alive. Sometimes you need those reminders to bring you back to the core truth that despite feeling you struck the worst lot in life, you wouldn’t have it any other way. The peaks in life just wouldn’t feel the same. After cleaning the cuts and using the supplies I got from the pharmacy in more ways than I had expected upon purchase, I took a much needed nap in the solitude of my room. After waking up, I went in search for food. I couldn’t believe how little street food could found which is an automatic strike in my eyes on a place. Instead many of the hill tribe women were selling their textiles and clothing all brightly colored similar to those found in Mu Cang Chai. The presence of the crowds of technicolor-dressed women and girls felt like an over put charade. In Mu Cang Chai it felt natural, like it was always done in this matter, while in Sapa it felt contrived and forced upon us. I am sure years ago it was like Mu Cang Chai and it would have been a sight to be seen with the denser and more diverse tribe population around Sapa but those times are long ago. These tribeswomen know some basic English (to sell their goods of course to the “rich” tourists). Who knows maybe I will buy some of their handwoven fabrics but possibly the moment has already died for me. Already I am looking forward to leaving Sapa and get back off to the non-beaten track that I had previously been on. Who knows maybe I would have liked Sapa if it were not for me already seeing what the Sapa of the past had been like. I ate some bun bo hue soup and went back to the hotel tired and content with avoiding the many throngs of tourists descended upon the city. 

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