Sapa is a steep, alpine cluster of shop houses, with one badly paved main street that arcs down through town and out of sight into the sheer, dark valleys below. Crumbling old French mansions line the hill-tops, many almost totally destroyed by the weather and wars that have ravaged the landscape during the past 50 years.
Closer to town, however, some of the villas have had a recent facelift and look like clumsily beautiful European follies built as bright, pastel beacons against the austere mountains and monotony of China’s southern rim.
It is an incongruous setting; a slice of alpine France at the top of the world, made even stranger with its art deco church dominating the top of the town, its spire fashioned from a 1930s Flash Gordon space rocket. The broken graveyard with headstones still bearing the name of the local French worthies was crammed to fever pitch with jostling crowds of Hmong, Black Thai and Dzao women, brilliant in their tribal colours of scarlet, indigo, sky-blue and gold. They had lined up ready to sell to the new influx of lowland Vietnamese and foreigners aboard the mini bus, which stopped conveniently in front of them.
Each young woman (and they were all young women) scrutinised the other’s potential sales with all the seriousness of competing traders at a car boot sale in rural England. Even before I was clear of the bus they fell upon me, laughing and tugging at my shirt like a cheerful throng of imaginatively dressed school girls in the first glorious moments of their summer holidays.
Elsewhere, on the main street older tribal women (the excitable girls’ mothers presumably) squatted in the doorsteps of the shop houses and nearby wedding-cake villas, eyeing the incomers with mild interest as they chatted, shared tiny cups of bitter green tea and spat beetle juice into the road. From a distance all these little figures also seemed to be fresh-faced teenagers, but up close many were desperately haggard, care-worn old women, with a lifetime of unpleasant experiences etched on their faces. The crowd was fairly divided between these aged women and the very young and care-free; there was no middle ground. Up here in the mountains it appeared that even middle aged women resembled sprightly children before growing savagely ancient overnight.
All of them had obviously trekked miles and had waited impatiently since day-break for our bus to pull up. We were encircled and harried, picked off and cajoled by our ruddy-faced assailants. Within moments I was offered a dynamic range of highland souvenirs, from thick tribal hemp cloth, silver bangles and Jews’ harps to silver French piastre coins, cannabis and opium. What with the drama of the landscape and the thick, black clouds hovering just above the chimney stacks of the old villas, Sapa was like some strange way-station in a William Burroughs novel. A forgotten little town inhabited by only very young or the very old women.
Home away from home
As colonial hill stations go, Sapa is a recent construction. The town functioned as a French alpine resort for a little under 10 years. Jesuits were the first Europeans to come across this isolated stretch of Tonkin in the early 20th Century, but it wasn’t until 1932 that the French got around to building a settlement. Hanoi was never an easy posting for a French civil servant, what with the unforgiving lowland climate and the surly Vietnamese always on the verge of revolt. Sapa, consequently, became a perfect panacea for homesick colons bereft of their gallic certainties. The climate was cool, the landscape spectacular and, most importantly, the locals were not Vietnamese.
The noble savage
Tribal people in Tonkin generally gave the French authorities little bother. The noble savages of Indochina (Hmong, Dzao etc in the north, Montagnards or aboriginals in the Central Highlands) were traditionally oral cultures with very little outside contact, even with the Vietnamese lowlanders. Indeed, even today the Vietnamese refer to them with the generic term Meo, which translates as savage. Hmong migrated from China in the 17th century, while Montagnards are the peninsula’s original inhabitants going back thousands of years and first recorded by Cham and Khmer travellers during the Angkorian empire days.
On initial contact with the French, these tribal people were child-like in their faith in all things European and the French treated them with patriarchal affection: studying them, allying with them against the Vietnamese and, above all, ruthlessly exploiting them as indentured labour. Sadly, their almost empty-headed acceptance of the newcomers from the West was to cost them very dearly in the decades ahead.
By the late-1930s out of the forest the French had hacked out a slice of home: several hotels, a Flash Gordon church, an aerodrome, a hydro-electric power station and more than 200 spacious villas. The high street was lined with small French family stores and a year-round French community set about recreating a small slice of Pyraneean mountain life on the rooftop of Indochina. French petit-bourgeois were lured from the safety of provincial France with promises of leaseholds in an exotic land, under the sturdy guidance of France’s beneficent mission civilisatrice.
To build their Tonkinese Shangri La, the French press ganged Hmong, Thai and Dzao labourers into lugging much of the timber and stone miles across the mountains, then after the job was completed all the tribes in the vicinity were re-settled at a respectable distance away from the new town. A blanket ban was also put on any Vietnamese who did not work as a domestic servant for one of the French families or hotels.
Unfortunately this cocooned existence came to an abrupt and (for the French) brutal end with the Japanese occupation of Indochina in 1940. Tonkin became a hotly contested theatre of war, with American agents parachuting into the northern jungles to help the Vietnamese partisans led by Ho Chi Minh. Road and rail links to the north were destroyed and the new hotels and villas abandoned by their wealthy patrons. The Hmong, preferring wattle and daub huts to airy mansions, stripped the colonial buildings of their finery using pieces of stucco and marble to decorate their village squares. Calendars and portraits were also spirited away to add a splash of colour to the otherwise bleak Hmong interiors. The aerodrome disappeared without trace, its concrete runway metamorphosing into numerous Hmong buffalo corrals.
After the war, the French regained sovereignty of Indochina until 1954, but most of this northern territory was lost to Ho’s guerrilla army, the Viet Minh. Ironically, Sapa was left relatively unscathed during the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War, but was reduced to rubble during the brief Chinese invasion of 1979, when a huge Chinese force swept across Tonkin and destroyed everything in its path. Thousands of people, Vietnamese and tribal, were killed and any sizeable settlement in the north was razed. The Chinese army torched Hmong villages, spreading fear and panic in the isolated valleys. Tonkin became a frightened, deserted wasteland and only a handful of Sapa’s villas and hotels escaped destruction. For years the town had no inhabitants and was left to rot. Vietnamese officials filtered back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until French tourists rediscovered it in the early 1990s that Sapa once again blossomed as a resort town.
Fall of Saigon
I first arrived in Sapa on a very auspicious date: the 20th anniversary of the capture of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. I soon found out that almost all the town’s hotels were booked up for the occasion – with rising panic setting in. Desperate to perk myself up, I squatted in a tiny pavement café and drank some thick, bowel-loosening coffee and then tried every hotel in town. First off was the newly renovated Auberge Hotel, a wonderful colonial building with magnificent vistas of the brooding mountains overhead.
Predictably, it was fully booked with elderly French tourists who had come to see what remained of the town they had once called home. Over a late morning beer, several of the old men told me they had been to Dien Bien Phu for the anniversary of that battle (when the French had effectively lost Indochina as a colony) the previous year. I couldn’t picture these polite, chain-smoking old men as battle hardened veterans of jungle warfare. Given that thousands of the French and Algerian forces died as POWs, they were lucky to be here. I admired their determination to once again walk the streets of Sapa with their wives given the 11-hour train journey and 3-hour slog up the sheer mountain passes in a clapped out mini bus.
I bade farewell and trudged on down the main street until I arrived at the last hotel in town, a low slung colonial chateau with frontal colonnades and arched, shuttered turrets. Again this was also booked up, but seeing my dismay the hotel manager – who was Vietnamese – told me to wait a minute. He had an idea.
Finding a room
“Tomorrow is liberation day and many people from Hanoi come to Sapa to celebrate,” he said. “But I have some very nice rooms for foreigners with good views of Fansipan. Follow me.”
“But what about the people who have pre-booked?” I asked, unconcerned about their welfare (I was so exhausted I’d have unashamedly squatted in any room and seen the occupants made homeless), but interested to see how he would resolve this. In essence, he knew I had dollars and he wanted them – and he knew I knew.
“Oh, they are Vietnamese. There is no problem. Vietnamese can sleep anywhere,” he smiled. So he turfed out some younger Vietnamese couples who were sharing a room and told me this was now mine. The former residents all trooped out, smiling and speaking their broken English sentences through excited giggles, with no malice or anger whatsoever. I knew he’d paid them off, so everyone was a winner.
Within moments, I was in a room with shuttered windows that looked out over a scene of lush gardens, half hidden by swirling bougainvillea and a Vietnamese man relieving himself up against a pine tree. As Vietnamese men generally urinate whenever and wherever they like, it’s a common sight across the country and I didn’t let this lack of local hygiene spoil my enthusiasm for the view.
For high above this brilliant green calm with its sole urinating occupant, was the spectacular Fansipan peak circled in a halo of turquoise clouds. Tiny figures doggedly marched up the sheer inclines in the far distance. They were Hmong and Dzao men clothed in their distinctive tribal colours, planting the year’s crop of rice or maize on the enormous mountain terraces.
“This’ll do nicely,” I smiled, handing the hotel manager a $5 tip. He smiled back, nodding his head vigorously: “Yes, will do nicely sir,” he said.