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Change is coming to idyllic Sapa, Vietnam

  • Sapa's ethnic culture and the of its paddy fields and forested hills make a strong impression
  • But the rumble of cement mixers and cranes is fast drowning out the spirit of this frontier town

A Dao woman on the rice terraces.
A Dao woman on the rice terraces. (Photo: Alamy)

At first I thought it was the sound of distant thunder rolling across the green hills. Then I realized it was the rumble of cement mixers and cranes lifting rubble, constructing yet another hotel on the hillside of Sapa in northern Vietnam.

Sapa was meant to be just a postscript to our northern Vietnam trip. After the muggy summer heat of Hanoi and the wondrous Unesco World Heritage limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay, it seemed like a good place to cool off. I was not expecting much.

Tourists at the Ho Chi Minh Friendship Monument in Sapa town.
Tourists at the Ho Chi Minh Friendship Monument in Sapa town. (Photo: Alamy)

Mount Fan Si Pan, which overlooks Sapa, is Vietnam’s highest peak but it’s no Kanchenjunga. These are green hills but without the heart-stopping awe of a Himalayan sunrise. Once an escape from the summer heat of the plains for the French, Sapa has one famous monument, a stone church, fairly modest and open only on Sundays. The town’s other colonial buildings were largely levelled during World War II and the conflict with the French that followed. Vietnamese friends in Hanoi told us Sapa had been ruined by indiscriminate overdevelopment. You will be harassed by tribeswomen selling trinkets and hikes, they warned.

All of that is true. There are traffic jams in Sapa’s narrow streets because of the humongous cement mixers. You cannot go anywhere without being accosted with a “Hello. Where you from? Souvenir? Buy a bracelet. Only 10,000 dongs. You want to go trekking? Maybe tomorrow?"

Yet, despite all of that, I left my heart in Sapa.

We woke to rain and shrill piped Vietnamese music as the overnight train from Hanoi pulled into Lao Cai station, from where Sapa is a 37km drive. The hills were blotted out by swirling grey mist as the mini-van wound its way up. We trudged groggily to our hotel from the drop-off point, while smiling women in beaded jackets tried to sell us hikes through terraced paddy fields. We are from Bengal; paddy fields are hardly exotic to us.

But then I walked into our hotel room, just one of three rooms perched atop a beautifully designed restaurant specializing in local cuisine, craft beers and rice wine. Through the window, all I could see was green: miles of green terraced hills and cloud-covered mountains. It was beautiful but heartbreaking. In the distance, I could also see a giant white wedding cake of a resort, perched like a gleaming UFO in the middle of the pristine greenery, a sign of things to come.

Sapa is a frontier town close to the border with China. Little is known about its original inhabitants other than the petroglyphs they left behind showing human figures and geometric patterns. Now the hills around Sapa are peopled by agricultural tribes like the Black Hmong and the Dao that are quite poor. But since the opening up of Sapa for tourism in the 1990s, home-stays and handicrafts have become big business. In 2020, the town is gearing up to welcome four million visitors as opposed to some 2.5 million in 2017. The prime minister of Vietnam has warned that development should not “mess it up" and the town must preserve its “green jungle and ethnic culture".

Local green vegetables with the Sapa specialities of bamboo sticky rice and black chicken.
Local green vegetables with the Sapa specialities of bamboo sticky rice and black chicken. (Photo: Alamy)

It’s not going to be easy. Already, local delicacies like silky black-bone chicken and “armpit pork" are harder to find. Instead, there are rows of cookie-cutter Vietnamese hotpot joints. When we tracked down a little eatery highlighted on a Sapa blog, we found a brand new Italian ristorante. We heard the Saturday Love Market—where young people from the neighbouring tribes once came to meet each other, dance, perhaps find romance—had become increasingly commercialized. And many of the “local" handicrafts being hawked by small children were being mass-produced in neighbouring China.

We signed up for a 10km hike which promised paddy fields, a waterfall, a river and lunch. When the guide came to pick us up, we discovered our “little" group was actually 15 people. It felt like a school nature trip as we scrambled awkwardly down the muddy hillside, past thickets of indigo plants, while young Hmong children skipped beside us in plastic sandals, twirling bright umbrellas. When we reached the river, I looked around and realized I had rarely been anywhere so utterly green and beautiful.

Hill tribe women sell their wares in the town market.
Hill tribe women sell their wares in the town market. (Photo: Alamy)

There was row upon row of green hills fading into blue, the terraces as neat as if furrowed by a comb. Cloth stained with indigo dried on clotheslines, the deep blue a startling contrast to the bright green of the paddy fields. Giant butterflies fluttered, buffalos snoozed in muddy water and friendly dogs followed us. Pumpkins grew on rooftops and ducks waddled around. Everywhere I looked it was a different shade of green—the sun-dappled vibrant green of new paddy, the dark mottled green of forests on the hills, the olive green of uncultivated meadows, rich green terraces that looked like brushed velvet. There was no one Kanchenjunga to focus on, no one thundering waterfall perfect for Instagram, no ancient temple to be amazed by. This was a true panorama but no panorama setting on a mobile phone could ever do justice to the sheer extravagance of 360 degrees of greenness.

Sapa is still getting used to its new avatar as a tourist destination. At one restaurant, in search of the elusive local pork, we gave up in frustration, thwarted by the language barrier. My attempts to pronounce Vietnamese fell resoundingly flat. Ga den, I said, trying to order the local black chicken. The staff looked dumbfounded. I found it on the menu and pointed. Aah, ga den, they replied in amused unison. That sorted, the waiter asked what we wanted to drink. Water, I replied. Everyone looked blank. Then he whipped out his phone. I typed water and Google Translate said nuoc. “Aah," he said triumphantly, “water." For the rest of the meal, we communicated via Google Translate. It was exhausting yet endearing.

In the end, that is why I fell in love with Sapa. Despite the garish new hotels, there is still something innocent and fragile about the town. Puppies tumbled around a shop front while their mother happily clambered up on the laps of random tourists. We discovered a bar with happy hour till 9pm and a cheerful waitress. We located a breakfast spot where you could drink your coffee and look out at the hillside and no one rushed you. The trekker guide ladies, once rebuffed, sat down smilingly and started stitching. What more can you ask for to feel at home away from home—a room with a view, a welcoming café, a favourite bar? And it felt all the more precious because I knew I was experiencing a Sapa that was vanishing like mist between my fingers.

On our last evening, we sat in a garden drinking beer while watching shadows lengthen over the hills. In the distance, we could see the rain fall on just one mountain slope, a column of cloud and water moving slowly towards us. Darkness descended and the green hills disappeared into the inky blackness. Against it, where once there was endless soothing green, the neon lights of the hotels of Sapa came to life—yellow, red, blue, as bright as the Las Vegas Strip, glittering with promise, redolent of innocence lost.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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