|Priest chooses from the fruit & veg stalls in the market, Sapa, northern Vietnam|
Sapa was the coldest place I'd been in a long time. The overnight train from Hanoi pulled into the station at Lo Cai, an hour's drive from Sapa at 4.45am and we exited the train half asleep, where my bag was taken from me, as if matter of course, and delivered to a waiting bus, where the hauler demanded 50,000 vietnamese dong for his services. I said, wha??? Then I said, no way.
The driver of the van left it semi-full and took off again to the station waiting for another train, without telling us why we were sitting there, with the door open, freezing our semi-clad bodies off. Once full he drove like a maniac with his two companions up front having a highly spirited conversation while he sailed blithely around cliff corners, narrowly avoiding plummeting to our deaths over one precipice after the next. By the time we got to Sapa, I was cold and angry. So were the rest of the new arrivals. He dumped us in the middle of the town, refusing to even tell us where our respective hotels were, let alone take us to them. We all stumbled out and were immediately surrounded by a gaggle of brightly clad mountain people - which Mong clan I couldn't tell (there are Black Mong, Red Mong, Flower Mong but they perhaps should be called Multi Mong for the profusion of seriously eye shattering colours they were wearing. I was immediately surrounded and asked three questions, which I would hear repeatedly during my three days there: What's your name? Where you from? and Buy from me? after which they would pull out a selection of their handmade wares one after the other, of course after you have said the first 'no' of the day. I was in no mood for being pestered and was, unfortunately, not very gracious on my first meeting with the Mong people of Sapa.
My hotel was freezing but had an absolutely fantastic view over the staggeringly beautiful mountains surrounding the incredibly picturesque Sapa. I almost had the feeling I'd had in Greece years previously when I woke up in Santorini, went out on the balcony and looked down the tri-coloured cliffs that fell away hundreds of meters into the caldera, it was if a voice comes up in such moments of extreme witnessing of nature's visual wonders that almost warns you not to look, no mortal can survive such beauty... Sapa is like that, even at this time of year when the thousands of terraces the Mong have carved into the steep sides of the mountains have not yet been planted with the green shoots of rice, turning the region into a carved verdigris bowl for seven months of the year.
The Mong women, with their babies strapped to their backs, followed you everywhere, never for one minute desisting from their god-given task of extracting as much money from you as possible. It is insistent and wearing, but they are so incredibly charming, so full of guile and humour, so willing to open themselves, their faces cracking into huge smiles at any opportunity, that I must say I warmed to them, and they warmed me in those cold days in those misty mountains.
Sapa is the highest region of Vietnam, boasting the tallest mountain in South East Asia, Fansipan, at 10,312 feet it's called 'the roof of Indochina'. I hired a guide and we drove on motorbike up through the mist towards it, mountains spiking all around us and the freezing mists making it an unpleasant ride. I kept thinking 'frangipane', a confectioner's almond filling and trying to reconcile that with the black mountains gesticulating at the sky all around us. I tried to keep my fingers warm so that when I jumped off to take a picture (every three minutes like clockwork) I would have more than a frozen claw with which to maneuver my camera, my guide was a mine of information on the region, with it's 2,024 floral varieties and 327 faunal species.
|View from my hotel, rightly named, The Sapa View|
|One of the Black Mong, who wear mainly black with highly coloured accents|
|I was invited to dine here in a market stall for lunch, one which the Mong women frequent. It was my very first taste of market food. A simple rice dish, it was fantastic.|
|A group of Mong on their way back from working in the rice terraces. They are incredibly hard working people, robust and very fit from their daily travail.|
|A Mong woman, eating a stick of raw sugar cane, carries her baby on her back|
|The amazing scenery around Sapa, looking up towards Fansipan, the highest mountain in SE Asia|
|Taken from a moving motorbike, two Mong children start the long walk to Sapa town from their village|
|I couldn't get over the sheer beauty of these people, and their children|
|Although I was initially irritated by the insistent harangue the Mong women put you through in their attempts to sell you things, I was worn down by their beauty and their sheer ebullience|
|Mong Man on his way from the rice terraces, Sapa.|
|The way home|
|A Black Mong woman and her baby|
|Colourful Mong woman against a typical Sapa backdrop|
|Red Mong women with their outrageous red head gear|
|Even the old women have something amazingly childlike about them|
|Tiny, strong and incredibly beautiful, I photographed this old woman a lot|
|View on the way to Cat Ba village, Sapa|
|Valley with river and rice terraces|
|Mong women outside the market, Sapa|
|An invitation to a market stall lunch, who could resist?|
|The clouds roll in over the black mountains, Sapa|
|A gaggle of Mong, Sapa market|
|Black Mong women in the Sapa market|
|A beautiful Mong woman|
|Colourful fruit and veg at the Sapa market|
|At first she wouldn't let me take her photo, but then she suddenly said ok|
|Lunchtime in the market|