What to eat in Sapa
Perhaps my immediate love for Sapa was cross-contaminated with my relief from finally emancipating myself from a fifteen hour night-bus journey from hell. This sleepy mountain town stole my heart from the moment I stepped off the bus and flooded my lungs with its sweet bright air. And oh, that air – that air! As clean and fresh as washed sheets and dew drops and babies heads. A most welcome change from the adulterated smog that churns through Hanoi. Enchanted as ever, I spent my blissful Sapa days running around like a gleeful toddler, dividing my time carefully between eating crepes, chasing baby pigs and frolicking through those ripe sweeping hills pretending to be a Von Trapp child. Whilst advice on the latter is impossible (some of us are just born to serenade the scenery), I can pass on tidbits of the former.
Here below, is my perfect day of noshing through this perfect little village.
The local honey is superlative. You can watch the prettily dressed ladies sit cross legged in the street and make it. If you stand and linger awkwardly for long enough, you’ll oft be donated a little piece of honeycomb to suckle on. As a tourist, there’s every chance that you’re not quite in the market for one of the enormous bottles in which they are sold. Though fret not, as many a local eatery incorporates this glorious nectar into their morning offerings. My thoughts? Either a warm French crepe drowned in the stuff from almost any local eatery, (Le Gecko has a nice one) or a bowl of the soul-tickling muesli from The Hill Station.
A trip to the daily market is a must. Resist the local women thrusting their achingly gorgeous infants at you to lure you into a bracelet purchase, and walk forward with intent. The market is a mixture of local clothing, trashy souvenirs, your typical Asian wet market (complete with still very much alive fish bouncing about in puddles), fresh produce and snack vendors. Roasted almonds, lightly spiced, a fresh pork bun, and a sweet sugary bun stuffed with sweet bean paste (all sold on the steps leading out of the market) are my fare of choice. Sweet bean steamed inside banana leaves never go astray either.
Fresh water rainbow trout. Though you’ll see it referred to as salmon on most menus. Almost all good restaurants serve it in one way or another, so poke through a few menus until you find one that tickles your fancy. I liked it ash roasted in banana leaves and dusted liberally with herbs. Teaming it with a banana blossom salad is wildly applauded.
The local fruit is unlike the standard tropical fare you’ll find in warmer parts of Vietnam. Whilst watermelon, mango and the like are still abundant here, the local fruits are definitely worth a dabble in. The Sapa peaches and pears are unlike anything I’d ever had in Asia – perhaps anywhere. The Chinese apples yield that gratifying crispy bite that sees trickles of juice practically run down your chin. They are robust little beasts, too. So if you’re going to be trekking up and down mountainous terrain for all hours of the day, they make a terrific picnic fruit.
Without flinching for a moment I nominate Little Sapa, a small blink-and-you’ll-miss-it eatery next to the market on Cau May street. Fancy it is not, (though none of the best restaurants are, really) what Little Sapa offers is unbelievably good food at but a fraction of the cost of that of its substandard neighbors. Whatever you do, be sure to order the five-spiced pork, which will arrive on a sizzling hotplate and leave you shooing off your envious dining companions with your fork. On a warm day, the fresh duck spring rolls are punchy and moreish and on one of those typical Sapa days that greet you with lashings of rain and cold noses a steaming bowl of beef and coriander soup is as cosy as a pair of mittens.
And as for a perfect picnic basket, to take on a little mountain climb?
A corn cob, or two, a banana blossom salad (from anywhere), maybe a few spring rolls, some bread, a little bit of cheese, the aforementioned Chinese apples and to finish, a slice of carrot cake from The Hill Station and a chocolate croissant from the bakery.