As it turns out, SaPa highlights are kept to a minimum when you can’t see more than two steps in front of you. I’m certain that the (apparently) scenic, yet remote town located 1500 meters above sea-level in Vietnam’s northwest Tonkinese Alps, famed for its lush vegetation, rugged mountains and luxe overnight train is pretty as a picture without the influence of torrential downpour and fog – I just personally didn’t get to experience it. In fact, the most interesting experience during my stay was trying to get a ‘selfie’ at the Chinese border, a mere 10km away. Yeah, I had cabin fever that bad.
The problem is you can’t actually skip the country (they take your passport at your hotel when you arrive to process a ‘holding’ visa of sorts). And you can’t even pay a cab to take you to the border… something about it being illegal. But I digress. It’s not that Sa Pa is utterly boring in the rainy season. It’s just that there really isn’t anything to do. Even if your adventure travel repertoire matches that of Bear Gylls – frostbite and saturation aside – if you’re yearning for breathtaking views over lush, rugged terrain, remote mountain treks or hill-tribe experiences you should probably do the following instead:
A. legally skip the country and take a short flight to Southwest China instead (you’ll actually be able to witness what’s happening in front of you rather than seeing a white fluffy cloud blanket melting into the horizon).
B. don’t go in the rainy season! It’s that simple.
I know what you’re thinking: rookie error! You visited Sa Pa when precipitation was 100%, almost all of the time! Yes, okay. A gamble was made and it didn’t pay off, I get that. I’m sure there would have been millions more things to do if the drench factor wasn’t 100 and visibility zero.
Hmong Twalking Tour (a mixture of trekking and walking OR really, really ridiculously low-impact trekking)…
I did manage a visit to a wonderful series of little villages where the Hmong Tribes hung out. Our fantastic guide, Lan, from Sa Pa Sisters Private Trekking Adventures was friendly, immensely informative and sounded like she had been learning English in Australia… her entire life. Our Trek lasted around 3 hours (but you can trek for up to 1-2 days) and takes you through the traditional villages where you will witness rice making, housing huts, shops, schools and other daily goings on within their culture. The ladies who take the tour belong to the Hmong tribes, and they speak from their own life experiences. Expect interesting and unique conversations.
Stay at the Victoria SaPa Resort
Which brings me to my next point, our hotel, The Victoria SaPa Resort, the town’s only 5-star lodging. For $400 AUD/night in Vietnam it should have been outstanding. It was, how shall I say, somewhere between satisfactory and good. It may be five-star in SaPa but had it been located in Hanoi or HCMC it might have been a different story resulting in one less symbol. The rooms were a bit rundown and the furniture felt a little bit dated. However, they were enormous and the balconies backed onto what would have been a breathtaking view had the visibility not been zero.
The hotel itself is set-up like a Country Club crossed with an Alpine-Chalet and has a warm and lively vibe to it – especially during cocktails and aperitifs at dusk. The overall service is accommodating, if a little impersonal. For example, the hotel receptionists seemed a little disinterested and any problems we had with the room (heating etc) took too long to fix. However, the staff in the restaurant were very lovely, and the food was on average, very good.
After being described as “Vietnam’s answer to the Orient Express”, I was extremely excited to take the luxury Victoria Cabin in the overnight train to the town of Lao Cai (one hour south of SaPa). We booked a 2 birth private cabin and thankfully we did, because I’m not too sure how four people could manoeuvre suitcases in such a small space. The cabin itself was immaculate, as was the restaurant and bathrooms for the entire journey, but don’t expect to sleep too much! A fun little concoction of noise, bounce, temperature (too warm) and mattress (hard as rock) had me up all night conjuring all sorts of rail disasters. Needless to say I arrived at 6am pretty shattered.
SaPa Highlights: Food, Ummmm
SaPa isn’t really known for it’s flagrant street-food like Hanoi, or even for it’s food in general. We learned this very quickly upon leaving the confines of our hotel room with one mission only: to find some grub. After meandering the virtually deserted streets and being accosted with the frosty drizzle what we found was literally a grub (cockroach) having a gay old time trotting around our table like it owned the place. We didn’t really feel like testing our digestive system that night so we promptly left our bravado on the table and escaped with our tail between our legs. Adding to the 28 days later vibe of SaPa town, the tiny assortment of eerily-deserted café’s and restaurants along the market street didn’t fare much better. We decided to eat at the hotel that night. And for the rest of the time also. The food was a tad pricey but at least we found comfort in the fact we weren’t going to end up with e-coli.