Pictures speak louder than words. So here is a link to our visual memories of Sapa.
I first heard of Sapa in 1994, during my first trip to Hanoi on a project. However, it took 16 years for me to have the opportunity to visit it, after so many friends, knowing my photography interests, all told me to go there and that I will never regret it.
We took the overnight train on a Friday from Hanoi to Lao Cai. The train ride took nine hours. We shared a 4-berth cabin with two young brothers, one of whom is a national boxer and the other, a very friendly tourist guide from Danang who speaks fluent Russian and Korean. So we felt quite safe in their company. They were also visiting Sapa for the first time.
We arrived at Lao Cai train station at 5.30 a.m. From here, it took over one hour to reach Sapa. Unfortunately, Sapa on that Saturday was cold, foggy and soggy.
After checking in to our hotel and breakfast, we joined a trekking tour group. Our guide was a H'mong girl called Cu. She looked like a first year secondary school student. I was surprised to learn that she was already 17. She spoke good English, thanks to the internet.
Cu led us through Cat Cat village and to a landmark waterfall, after one and a half hours. Because of the rain, the paths were muddy and slippery. We went up and down the pathways, some parts were paved with stones but for the most part, were just solid earth or mud. Many of the steps were too narrow and I had to climb with my feet sideways.
At the waterfall, we met again our train cabin-mates and had a reunion photo.
City folks and senior citizens like us soon grew tired from the trekking. We were practically breathless after every 5 minutes. After reaching the waterfall, which was the highlight of the trek, we decided to take a taxi motorbike up to our hotel, saving more than an hour of torturous trek back. We were glad we did not opt for the overnight homestay to visit other villages, as it would have involved much longer trekking.
In the afternoon, we went to the town market in Sapa. The visibility had gotten worse and for the most part, my few shots were disappointing.
Fortunately, we came across a hotpot restaurant near our hotel. We had a super delicious and healthy dinner and the service was very good and up to international restaurant standards.
Will we go back to Sapa?
We didn't enjoy the train ride. Although we took the soft sleeper option, it was really uncomfortable and we could hardly sleep as the cabin was continuously shaking. The dangerous condition of the trek paths in wet weather was also a negative factor.
However, I believe that there is a season during the year when Sapa is dry and the trekking not so dangerous. That's when the scenic Sapa truly comes to life.
The villagers are generally hospitable. I could still realise my dream of photographing them in a posed setting, unlike the all-candid shots I could muster during this first visit to Sapa.
I am a great fan of Steve McCurry, who is best known for his photo of the Afghan Girl. I hope to be able to shoot in his style and I know, deep in my bones, that somewhere in Sapa is a similar girl waiting for me to be photographed.
So, in the words of the late Gen. MacArthur, "I shall return".