Sa Pa- on the one hand, it is undeniably an overpriced tourist town. On the other hand, it has hot showers.
This town is known for its extraordinary views and beautiful opportunities for trekking. All of the hotels boast, “best view in Sa Pa!” and traveler reviews always recommend which side of the hotel to book, so that you have the best photo opportunities from your room.
Hilariously, this week, all the rooms have the same view- fog. Fog everywhere. You can literally only see about 20 feet in front of you, all day long. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Book a guide for a trek up Fansipan mountain? Great, but you will never see the mountain. Staying in the fancy hotel on the edge of town, touting an unspoiled view of the lake and surrounding farmland? Well, too bad, you have the same view as I do in my cheap hotel- fog. Most other foreigners I meet are advising me not to go trekking while the fog is so thick.
So, what to do? My second day here, I decided to take a cooking class taught by a local Hmong chef. I was joined by a lovely Australian couple in the class.
We started with a tour of the local market. Restaurants here, like many places in the world, use incredibly fresh ingredients. Our chef tells us that he always buys his meat early in the morning, because by the afternoon all of the meat is sold out. It seems obvious enough, until an American follows that line of thought- the meat runs out because everyone slaughters early in the morning, carrying to town what they think they can sell, and then they leave when it is gone. Meat is not packaged, preserved, nor promised.
Or take the fish, for example- live fish swim in pools on the ground, still gasping for air and flapping their tails. Our chef tells us that if the fish is dead, few people will buy it. Again, go a step further- this chef doesn’t use anything that wasn’t alive earlier that day.
I think about food-buying habits back home, and how grocery shopping once a week sometimes seems like a burden. People here are buying their food almost every day.
After buying our ingredients, we return to the restaurant and begin to cook. Our menu: ginger, chili, and lemongrass flavored smoked buffalo, pickled greens, ginger-marinaded fried chicken, trout cooked in a banana leaf with garlic and lemon grass, banana flower salad, and fresh tofu made from soybean powder.
It was wonderful to learn alongside the Hmong chef- I learned about smoking meat and preparing banana flowers, things with which I have no experience. I also learned new lessons about familiar ingredients- how he got the most flavor out of ginger and garlic, or how he used different temperatures of oil to fry the chicken.
After the lesson, the Australian couple and I shared what we had helped prepare. It was lovely to share such an extraordinary meal with such interesting people. Both had traveled extensively, providing me with a lot of perspective on my own trip. I couldn’t have found a better way to spend a rainy day.