by Thanh Ha
(VNS) It was the third time I had visited Sa Pa town, surrounded by mountains and rice terraces, but this time I had the most fun.
Play misty for me: Sa Pa is seen from the road leading to Ta Phin Village, a 20-minute drive from the town centre.
|Jerky: Smoked pork is a Sa Pa speciality that many visitors take back home. — File Photo
I tasted specialities, learned handicraft skills and contributed my labour to make Sa Pa more clean and green.
I found myself in the centre of the town after spending a night on a train and an hour on a bus,travelling more than 350km north from Ha Noi.
The bus driver told me it was hot and sunny in Sa Pa two days ago and felt like the middle of summer. How quickly things change. When I stepped off the bus, a cold mist enveloped me. It was 8am but the fog was so thick that all vehicle headlights were on.
A friend told me: "Don't ask for a weather forecast because no-one knows exactly."
Nguyen Thi Su, a woman from Vinh Phuc Province, who has been living in Sa Pa for 14 years, confirmed: "There are four seasons a day in Sa Pa: from summer in the morning to winter in the evening. Sometimes, we are like celebrities, we change clothes every hour."
I asked if the snow would fall but she said the temperature was not cold enough.
Su said I should come between December and February but even then it did not always snow.
In my four days in Sa Pa I set out to discover the local specialities. Mushroom is found in many different dishes from high-end restaurants to food kiosks on the streets.
"There are many kinds but the wild mushrooms that locals pick from the forest and bring to town every day are the best," said Anh Dung, owner of Anh Dung Restaurant on Xuan Vien Street. "The natural products provide better a smell and taste for our meals."
Greens are also Sa Pa's strong point. Vegetables, many of them strange to me, are available at every corner of the town market. They look young and fresh, and the price is reasonable.
Tran Thi Thoa, from Ha Noi, brought 10kg of chayote as a gift to her family and neighbours.
She also was organising to take salmon and sturgeon home.
"Not many cities and provinces in Viet Nam can raise these kinds of fish," the 55-year-old housewife said.
Coming from the cold climates of northern Europe and America, the fish have been raised in Viet Nam for up to 10 years in man-made lakes or huge plastic tanks at 1,700m above sea level.
|Clean up: Students and resort staff work together to build an enviromental-friendly Sa Pa. — VNS Photos Khieu Thanh Ha
As the result many restaurants in Sa Pa have them on their menu.
Following my friend's advice I tried grilled sturgeon and a salmon hot pot, which were perfect in the cold weather.
I then ordered 2kg of iced fish to take home to Ha Noi.
The third day in Sa Pa left the greatest impression.
Companions and I drove to Ta Van Commune to take part in Green Day, a campaign organised by Victoria Sa Pa Resort and Spa.
It was an activity to raise awareness among residents, especially children, of environment protection and to help build a green and clean Sa Pa.
We joined the resort staff and students in picking up rubbish around the area. A couple from Ha Noi and their two children were also involved, despite the dirt and mud.
"Thousands of visitors came to Sa Pa every year for its fresh and beautiful environment," said Nguyen Dinh Hiep, deputy head of Sa Pa District's Resources and Environment Department.
"Keeping the town tidy and clean is the local people's and tourists' duty and responsibility."
In the afternoon we drove to Ta Phin, a picturesque village 20 minutes north of the town centre. Set in a valley with a mountain peak at one end, the village is home to the Kinh, Red Dao and Black Mong people.
The valley is layered with rice paddies and dotted with 20 small home communes. Above them are some smaller communes and a patchwork of maize and vegetable fields.
May Chau, a Dao woman standing in front of her house, smiled at us as we approached and invited us inside, although she admitted the house was nothing special.
The life of the Dao people is simple and easy, though in many cases poor. However it is new and interesting to outsiders.
I stepped into Chau's house and found there was only one-room, divided into different sections for sleeping, cooking and dining.
I was interested in the kitchen area where Chau had smoked pork hanging above the fireplace.
"All meat can be smoked," Chau said. "The difference is in the spices used for each kind, making unique tastes. It takes at least one full day of smoking but the more you smoke it, the better it tastes – of course, not for too long."
In another corner of the house, my friends were talking about embroidery with Chau's neighbours who had seen the guests arrive.
"Here we farm only one crop a year, starting in April, because of the weather. In the other months we do embroidery to sell to tourists," Chau said.
"Embroidery our way is not easy and takes time. It takes us up to one year to make one set of traditional clothes. Now in our village we make different products, mostly scarves, pillow covers and handbags for tourists."
Chau, 31, invites us to spend a night at her house to enjoy activities with her family, but time was limited as we had to catch the bus to the train station. It would have to wait for my fourth visit, which I am looking forward too. — VNS