In looking at pictures of the former French colonial hill station of Sa Pa/Sapa (formerly called Chapa by French colonizers), Shangri-La comes to mind. But James Hilton’s 1933 novel of that name likely took place in the Nepalian Himalayas, not in the highlands of northern Vietnam.
A little taste of paradise, that’s what Sa Pa might have represented to French colonizers longing for the cool breezes of Normandy or the crisp fall days in Burgundy. Sa Pa also meant, though, a place where the temperate-climate vegetables and fruits of France could be grown.
Many writers have wrestled with the question of just how much French cuisine influenced that of Vietnam. Recall the work of Luke Nguyen and David Burton, as well as that of Erica Peters.* After all, the French were there for 100 years. When it comes to food, habits change slowly and that’s why Vietnamese cuisine leans more toward China, since China dominated the country for centuries, beginning in 111BC and ending in 936 AD.
But still, French flavor persists in Chapa/Sa Pa, if not solely in food, then at least in small cultural touches like architecture. Like Da Lat/ Dalat, Sa Pa came into being at first as a military garrison and a place for the French military’s top brass to convalesce in the sanatorium built there in 1913.
The French won a concession from China to build a railroad through the area. Later, the local French elites traveled through spectacular terrain to get away from Hanoi’s extreme heat and disease. Trekking trails also became a big draw and by 1925 hikers could enjoy up to 80 kilometers of trails. A number of hotels provided lodging and food for the increasing crush of visitors. Feeding all these people became a problem. At the local market, according to the Livret Guide de Chapa, residents could buy beef and pork every day, mutton on Sundays, and in season all sorts of fruits and vegetables – peaches in particular – appeared, as did apples. In Sa Pa, winter turns bitter cold and snow often coats the mountains, creating a perfect climate for growing apples.
Another intriguing question crops up: What about the native Cat Apples (Tao Meo) that go into making the apple wine/cider (Son Tra) so loved of the Hmong people in Sa Pa? I must assume that they were making this cider long before the French ever appeared, but it would be interesting to find out whether or not the French taste for cider impacted the demand for apples.
When speaking of their Cat Apples, the Hmong virtually recite poetry, saying these apples taste of the wind, the sun, the earth. French poet Paul Harel captured this feeling of connectedness to the earth in “Le vieux Pommier” in 1854:
Le vieux Pommier**
Le pommier décrépit se penche vers le sol,
Sous le fardeau des fruits et le poids des années;
Il prodigue son ombre aux frêles graminées,
Et couvre le fossé d’un large parasol.
Les oiseaux picoreurs, arrêtés dans leur vol,
L’emplissent de tapage aux claires matinées;
Concert et gazouillis de notes mutinées,
Où chaque moineau-franc se croit un rossignol.
Mousses d’argent, pierrot, pommes d’or et mésanges,
Vie, abondance, espoir, amour, joyeux mélanges!
Dans ton écrasement, pommier, ne te plains pas.
L’honneur est assez grand, si la charge est trop forte.
J’entends le vent d’aval qui murmure tout bas;
<< Courage, vieux lutteur, la vigne est bientôt morte!>>
Certainly, because of French culinary heritage, the desire for apples couldn’t be satisfied by substituting green mangoes, although that’s what many ex-pats in the tropics did (and still do. I did, making “apple pies” for major holidays if green mangoes showed up in the local markets). So the French and local Vietnamese planted apple orchards in the area, seeking that little taste of home. For example, in June 1942 a group of Cistercian nuns exiled from their monastery in Japan settled in SaPa; by December of that year they were making and selling various products including apple jelly. According to Philippe Cao-Van and Nguyen Minh Chau in “Deciduous Fruits in Vietnam,”
During the French colonial occupation, some of the native cultivars were studied and described by Mieville (1921) and Chevalier (1923). Several European cultivars were introduced during that time but disappeared later. [Note: So far I have not been able to locate these citations, since for some reasons they are not listed in the references at the end of the article.]
By 1948, due to the increased activity of the Viêt Minh forces, the hill station of Sa Pa began to fade away, becoming a chimera as the French and the local people – perceived as collaborating with the French – fled.
And thus Sa Pa became a phantom town for nearly twenty years. Some traces of France linger, although of the almost 200 colonial buildings standing when the French left in 1954, very few still exist.
To make your own hard apple cider, this recipe from Cornell’s horticulture department is the easiest and probably best mimics the one used by the Hmongs to make Cat Apple wine.
*For more on French food in Vietnam, see the short list:
Burton, David. French Colonial Cookery: A Cook’s Tour of the French-Speaking World (2000)
Nguyen, Luke. Indochine (2011)
_____. Songs of Sapa (2009)
Peters, Erica J. Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century (2011)
**Apologies for no English translation, but you can use Google translate if you wish, which actually came up with a fairly decent English rendition.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen