Embracing the Cold in Sapa, Vietnam

When I learned that the weather in Sapa dips to 10 degrees in winter, I was scared. Since I was 11 years old, I’ve nurtured a love-hate (but really, more hate) relationship with the cold.

That was when I self-diagnosed myself on the internet and discovered that I have cold urticaria, a kind of allergy that causes my skin to erupt in hives when exposed to cold temperature. Hence my proclivity for sweaters and jeans and cardigans even during the summer: I just never know when I’d get an allergy attack. A cold blast of air-conditioning or a strong gust of wind could trigger it. The hives are really unsightly when they’re at their worst, like little pink islands scattered all over my limbs, my back, and my neck. Also, they itch like hell.

For the longest time, I’ve tempered my allergy by avoiding the cold whenever possible. (I did not think of going to the doctor to get properly diagnosed, when simple avoidance proved to be already effective. Heh, logic.) I didn’t, and still don’t, think of snow as anything remotely exciting. This is strange, because if you’re from a tropical country, snow is as spectacular as penguins or blue-eyed Hollywood stars. Snow denotes prosperity, for it encapsulates the Filipino idea of abroad. But what interests me about snow are fabulous coats, cabin porn, direwolves, and wintry mountains—in short, its aesthetic appeal. Screw the rest, including you Disney’s Frozen.

Faced with the opportunity to go to North Vietnam in early winter, I finally decided to see a doctor about my condition. Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country, but it experiences four distinct seasons in its northern regions. Since I was offered a chance to travel, I simply had to go. Get treatment or die of hypothermia, I thought. The doctor told me that my allergy was, in fact, painfully common. For a while, I felt deflated: Don’t hypochondriacs get disappointed when they learn that they’re not as fragile and special as they initially thought? I was prescribed antihistamines, and an anti-allergy lotion that is probably just regular lotion, but icky-smelling and more expensive. It hasn’t done anything to make my hives go away. Doctors, they can trick ya.

But I’m glad I went to one and got my allergy problem sorted out. If I didn’t, then I would have said no to Sapa, and I would have completely ruled out cold places as future travel destinations. How sad is that?

Mr. Cuong drove my parents and me to Sapa in Lao Cai province, where one of the three Vietnam-China border crossings can be found. The French colonists developed Sapa in the 1880s as a military base, and eventually, as a summer vacation spot for wealthy families. Today, it is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations. Sapa is to Vietnam as Sagada is to the Philippines, a place that attracts local and foreign tourists alike.

We stayed at a lakefront hotel that doubles as a bank during the day. In the mornings, happily hive-proof, I strolled by the lake, admiring the buildings, mountains, and trees reflected on the water. It was exactly the kind of view I’d like to wake up to every morning: a true-to-life, no-filter-needed postcard.

Thank goodness, it didn’t snow in Sapa when I was there. I’m not ready to channel Queen Elsa, okay JON SNOW, as of yet.

If you ask me if I’d go back to Sapa again, I’d say yes, as long as I’m promised bowls of pho, hot showers, and electric blankets, should the antihistamines fail. Maybe, I’d even wear a fabulous coat the second time around.





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