When we evoke luxuriant vegetation, we tend to imagine endless fields, mountaintops and ravines full of green leaves, dense with color and full of chlorophyll, and somehow this is always in the wilderness, far away from cities or even villages. Houses or settlements would ruin this mental image, since these would come along with the brownish wood or greyish cement and would thus disrupt the green fields of luxuriant vegetation.
Vietnam is full of green, even in towns and villages, on beaches and in hotel rooms, restaurants, cafeterias or plain bathrooms, because tropical rains can fall at any given moment during the season and I suspect people don´t ever have to water any plants, not even the ones they seem to have planted or kept in pots around their houses. Rains can last from a couple of minutes to hours and can cover showers to floods and all that´s in between. Green is everywhere, it comes in different shades and nuances, but one of the places where you can see only green, all around, and so strong and enhanced for that matter it seems computer generated is the mountains around Sa Pa, down from the highest mountain peak in the area, Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng) and back down to the hmong village of Cat Cat.
Those days had been a rollercoaster of airs, impressions, sights, smells, foods, from the highest mountain peak to the lowest watermills and riverbeds. It had been chilly and cold, it had been hot and damp, it had been searing and brisk. Those days in Sa Pa were unforgettable because of the amazing array of different landscapes, places, and latitudes.
It was mid August, so when we landed in Hanoi at night already, the capital welcomed us as ever, with dampness and heat, with contamination and citydwellers´ smells, with hectic traffic and people not wearing their helmets when riding a motorbike. Close to the airport, we spent half an hour waiting for the night bus, after landing from the white beaches and beach bars in Da Nang and a whole week of seas and sand, sun and warmth, albeit with the occasional thunderstorm or isle-stranding due to the monsoon.
Once on the night bus, which in Vietnam are fully equipped with lounge-type reclining couches, so sleep is very welcomed and cosy, I for one first woke up when we were already there, early on time, in rainy and chilly Sa Pa at 5 am. We were received by half a dozen English fluent hmong travel agents who were offering accommodation, transport, and mountain routes guidance to Fansipan. The day was still very young, the sun had not even got up, so we took a cab and set off to Cat Cat village dependant of the Sa Pa municipality, where we had booked rooms in a traditional inn.
This was hmong county and this was also a typical village, the countryside on any given place on Earth. The air was stark, cold, sometimes snappy and icy, and it smelled of mountain, rain, smoke, and bonfire. Our rooms were also typical for the region: all wooden doors and walls, creaking and crunching, oak-scented, and equipped with nothing more than a simple thin mattress and a very thick and big wool blanket. I said nothing at the visible austerity, but in the end that night, after wandering through the streets of the city, looking for setting up the plans for taking on the highest mountain peak in the region next day, I came to appreciate it. Its warmth and smallness made sure I slept like a baby and by some curious twist of inner rhythm, I actually got up before 9 am.
We got to the cable car station, which could not have been newer, more modern or better equipped to function round the clock and move thousands of people up and down every day. It looked like a Victorian train station: the dark brown lacquered walls and window frames, the marble passageways, the doors and barriers that carefully and orderly set up waiting room on different sections. First, you have to take a short ride on a funicular on a pretty steep slope and then get into another station and from there to the cabin of the cable car. After a twenty-minute ride up to the next stop, during which you can peak down to a sea of green of the deepest shade, you are almost there. Only a couple of hundred meters of stairs, many temples, and a huge statue of Buddha separate you from the peak: Fansipan, 3.147,3 meters high.
It’s called the roof of Indochina not because it is the highest peak in the region, but because if you are lucky enough to get a sunny day, you can see the sky and all the mountains, on and on, as far as eyesight takes you, endlessly tilm China. I didn’t have this chance, so I guess I´ll have to stop by again sometime soon. It was a rainy day, sometimes chilly and drizzly, but the sun was there, beyond the layer of thick clouds, because at times I actually felt heat on my cheeks.
And the heat kept us company for the remainder of the day. Downtown so to say, or down in the village, it was sweltering. A searing hot and damp day even in the last hours of it, as the sun appeared to be slowly dying behind the hills, and I was having my third freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
On this backdrop of darkest green – trees, bushes, ravines, mountains, house roofs, benches full of plants – I was under the impression that all of it was alive, and providing me with the freshest of airs to breathe, despite the scorching heat. As the sun set, almost reluctantly as it seemed, we felt a light breeze of rough crude mountain air setting down on us. As we made our way out of the village and towards our inn, it was dark again and with it, the green all around turned black. The sole reminder was a flimsy scent, the promise of the green to be next day in the light of day, strangely mixed with the traces and hints of bonfire smoke and mountain gust.