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Sapa, Vietnam

When we planned our trip to Vietnam and settled our focus on the north, I had not even a hint of a thought that the scenery would be as expansive and wild, that the Indochina region would host mountains to rival the glory of the Alps.

We settled on about half a week in the Sapa region, and after a lot of deliberation, decided to stay about an hour outside the city at the Topas Ecolodge. For $50/person, we were picked up in a luxury bus from our beloved La Siesta Diamond hotel in Hanoi (after a beautiful day in Ninh Binh), and driven the 5-6 hour journey up into the hills.

As we distanced from Hanoi, terraced rice fields slowly appeared, hewn into the sides of the mountains. And the green flowed like water from the moment we left Hanoi, pure and brilliantly new. For hours, we passed a world washed green.

The ascent bumped and yanked us around the bends of mountains, past railroads and dams 

until we looked down and saw the tribal towns grouped far below, mountains deep blue in the afternoon haze, layered into China.

A few more turns and we arrived at the entrance to Topas Ecolodge, our home for the next 4 days. The lodge, happily situated on the crest of a mountain, terraced right below each of the individual stone cottages, was a magical prospect.

As it was remotely situated, we had to walk about 400 meters to the entrance, and it was a bit haphazardly organized, but we eventually settled into our own cottage, tucked into the mountain.

Can you believe the vista?! The air was cooler and richer than in the rest of Vietnam, and we watched farmers with buffalo plowing the terraces for the planting below. 

The fields are terraced since rice like flat, wet beds, so all these rows have been painstakingly created and kept by the local villagers for hundreds of years.

The main lodge on the property served three meals a day and we were pleasantly surprised with how well they avoided MSG (a constant worry for me in the north, where it's an integral part of the cuisine). They made really delicious tamarind fish, if I recall correctly, and I drank many a mango smoothie.

One day, I walked up to the spa late in the afternoon,

where I decided on a local tradition: cupping. The therapists didn't speak English well, but when I asked if it hurt, they kindof smiled and seemed not to understand. Oh well, I thought, do something that scares you ever day (my travel motto), so I shook my head, yes. Since I was face down, I still don't really know what happened, but it entailed about 12-15 small glass cups being filled with a burning ember, and then suctioned onto my back. They pulled it up and down the muscles, and the heat and pressure made me hold onto the massage table for dear life. And I walked out with dark red bruises in perfect circles up and down my back. Someday, I'd love to try cupping in NYC to compare. Here is the view from the spa rooms (pictured above):

I will never tire of arrival in a place unlike anywhere I have been. The more I travel, the greater of a tendency I have to compare. And so while the mountains had an alpine hint and the spa reminded me of the Hawaiian jungle treatments, the joy of discovering Sapa was also its own: humid, scattered, tribal, remote and totally foreign. We felt the freedom of not understanding the language and letting things go and trusting each other.

We watched the sun cast its last light on the thatched roofs of our little hotel village, eating bananas after a long hike, watching the ants swarm for the peel just as they would in Central Park.

We met new friends from the Netherlands and Austria and Switzerland (hi, Barbara and Gernot!) and had time, as the mountains closed up their light for the afternoon, to talk and enjoy the calm after the days of hiking (more on the hiking in the next post).

In the next few posts, I'll share a few of the hikes down into these villages and the tribal women we met, but for now, watch the sun slowly gold the world in these mountains far, far from anywhere with glass or steel or machine sounds. Birds and silence into the night.