Day 182-186 – Sapa 15th-19th Mar 2012

15th March 2012

One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rocked awake…. and so the night passed for us as the train rattled along. Five o’clock arrived and there was a loud knock on the door. A few minutes later we pulled into Lao Cai and everyone started to get off. We roused the children, which was hard, they looked so fast asleep and peaceful. Eventually they were up and we were almost ready to leave the train when the lights went out and we scrambled around in the dark to gather the rest of our bags together and then we were off.

As soon as we hit the platform we were besieged by taxi drivers offering their services to Sapa, but we were already sorted thanks very much. We headed for the exit and found our transport. As we were led to the minibus we were followed by a lady who offered us coffee and tea every 20 seconds, even though we had declined. You have to admire their tenacity!

We jumped on the bus, Tania, Luca and Mateo towards the front, and Oskar and I at the back with an Australian guy. As we wound our way through the breaking dawn round precipitous turn after precipitous turn, we chatted with him, much to the entertainment of the rest of the bus!

We arrived in Sapa and were dropped off at our hotel, bizarrely named Pinocchio Hotel. Whether this is a comment on the honesty of the staff or because there was lots of wood, we never determined, but it was pleasant enough. The one complaint was that the heater was an additional cost, and it was blooming’ cold when we arrived!

Settled in and unpacked (what little clothes we had) we then headed out into Sapa town for a walk around, as is customary. Along the way we met an Australian lady called Jenna who was living there and teaching at a school… you can read about them here … She invited us to come and visit that afternoon, and along the way, one of the H’mong ladies petitioned us to come with her on a trek to her village the next day. Jenna helped with the negotiations.

We walked around and then went to Croissants et Chocolat for lunch, where there was a cat on the fire. After which we went to the school to join in some games. The school was set up by a H’mong lady to teach English and Vietnamese literacy in order to prepare the children to enter a mainstream Vietnamese school. Many of the children were deprived of school, made to work instead making or selling traditional arts and crafts.

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The 70 children ranged in age from 6 up to 16 and when we arrived they were in 2 lines in front of the English alphabet painted on the wall. Peter, the teacher called out a word in English and the first child to point to the correct starting letter won, the other had to go to the end of the line. The boys joined in and only Oskar was quicker than the best of the children. There was tremendous energy and joy in the room, and their grasp of English was very good.

Next we were all put into a circle and we had to call out the opposite of the word that Peter said when he pointed to us. The people on either side of the person pointed at had to duck and point at them. Hesitation or wrong word meant elimination. They were very good indeed. When there were only a dozen left the circle was closed and the game continued. I was left in, but I didn’t win – I’d like to think that it was because I didn’t feel it right to win, but it was because they were much better at the game than I was!

After school ended, we went with Jenna to pick up her daughter from a Thai school, walking down past the lake where we chilled out for a while by the waters edge and chatted about life.

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And then we walked back to the hotel, pausing at the municipal square to play some foot-shuttle-cock type game thingy-ma-jig. This involves kicking the shuttlecock in a circle of people and keeping it up as long as possible. The best move was to kick the shuttlecock by letting it come over your shoulder and then back-kicking it back over the shoulder into the circle again. Great fun to watch and to play too.

We went with Jenna for dinner at Little Sapa and we spent a very enjoyable meal together before we headed off to bed, full, happy, and tired.

16th March  2012

The day broke with sunny skies as we walked up the road to Croissants et Chocolat for breakfast. Our H’mong lady was outside the hotel and we said we would be back soon, so she continued to wait with her friend for our return.

Duly fed we returned to gather our things for the trek to the young lady’s village. We set off and chatted with the two ladies along the way, whose command of English was pretty good, as was their French, German, Dutch. I found it quite amazing that these remote hill people had such good language skills.

The first part of the trek was along the road downhill to our first port of call, the ticket office where we had to pay and entrance fee to go further. We continued along the road until at one point a path led away, following a water course heading towards Lao Chai village. The views were breathtaking and one could not help but marvel at the rice paddies cut into the hillside, all carved out by hand with a little help from the buffalo that they used for ploughing.

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The path wound through rice fields, all the time descending into the valley, and we passed a few people working in the fields and the odd buffalo or two.

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We arrived in Lao Chai, a very touristy village. There were flocks of traditionally dressed ladies milling around, restaurants and shops and ladies selling all manner of refreshments, including sugar cane. Our guides bought some for us and we then left the melée behind and continued through the village. There were pigs roaming free, wallowing in the mud, ladies sewing, and souvenir shops every now and again.

We crossed another bridge at the end of the village and then began to climb again. The guides told us we still had another 2 hours trek ahead of us, unless we sped up – we’d already been walking for 2!! We were back on the road again now, passing wooden houses lining the street, winding up and up the mountain. It was hot and hard going, but the views were magnificent. We trekked on until we just 5km from Ban Ho.

Eventually we arrived at the village shop where we bought some pork and noodles to carry back to the ladies’ home for our late lunch. On arrival we were welcomed by all of the family and friends and were offered green tea. Then Tania and the boys jumped into the kitchen to help prepare lunch. All of the locals were very friendly and smiled and smiled.

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The food was simple and delicious, and we all squashed around the table and ate and ate until we could eat no more! We chatted and asked them questions about their life. After lunch was over, we headed outside to admire the view, and for the buying and negotiations to begin – it is true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free guide for that matter. We did know that we would have to buy some things from them, and their clothes were colourful and attractive.

Five or six ladies pressed around us offering clothes and jewellery, all anxious for us to buy from them, They were still smiling and happy, and were laughing when we tried on the clothes. Negotiations were sincere but firm, and we were mindful that we had to be fair when arriving at a price, both to us and to them,

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Suitably stocked up with ethnic attire we were driven back to Sapa by husband and friend on two motorbikes arriving just before the sun set over the mountains.

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A light dinner and then to bed. We were rather tired after our 25km trek!!! It had been a wonderful day, and a real pleasure to spend it in the company of the H’mong ladies.

17th March 2012

We slept in this morning. At least we tried to, at one point the cacophony of horns coming from the street below drove me out of bed and armed with the camera took some photos of the scene below.

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It was Saturday and here was an indication that the town was going to get pretty busy as the buses full of tourists met the lorries going down and clogged up the street. The mist rolled in and out; when it was in, it was cool but as it receded again, we were bathed in warm sunshine. We had breakfast in the hotel, which was quite tasty and cheaper than the French café and then set off into town for a look around.

We met Jenna in the street and she suggested a trek to a remote part of the countryside, which she had visited the day before with Peter, a fellow teacher. We set off and within a couple of minutes we had left the hurly burly of Sapa behind and were in picturesque tranquility.

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We arrived at a flat area where we played some games with the children, and then took turns to leap off into the void…

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Again the scenery was beautiful, if a little hazy, and we encountered a group of children playing on a rice terrace whilst their parents worked in the fields below.

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Jenna, ever the professional, was armed with her school books and set about teaching the kids who were interested in learning. This turned out to be the girls, the boys were more interested in throwing buffalo poo at each other. Perhaps this is why it is the ladies of the ethnic tribes that speak English and sell their wares in Sapa, whilst the men work in the fields and look after the very young children. Who knows?

It was 3 o’clock when we set off back to Sapa and we were all pretty hungry by then, the younger children suffering the most. It was a steep climb to get back to the main path and then retrace our steps to Sapa. Luca led the way, navigating beautifully and steering us perfectly back to town.

Jenna wanted to take us to a little restaurant that served good food and was cheap, but when we arrived, it was closing time. So we returned to Little Sapa for some more tuna sandwiches before parting company with a fond farewell.

We returned to the hotel to pack our things as we were leaving tomorrow to go to Bac Ha to see its famous Sunday market before returning to Lao Cai for the evening.

For dinner, we tried the little restaurant that Jenna had wanted to take us to, but again it was closing. So we walked on into Sapa village and found a nice restaurant not far from the lake where we indulged in some excellent food before retiring to bed.

18th March 2012

We were up very early but by the time breakfast arrived we were getting a little worried as the bus was due very shortly. I cleaned out the room and brought the bags down and we hastily scoffed our food just in time. Jumping on the bus we encountered our Aussie friend from the journey in, along with two girls that we had met in Dong Hoi. The other occupants were an Australian family with two kids.

The two small boys joined the Aussie kids and Oskar was with me and Tania at the back with the other Australian guy. We passed a very pleasant time all together in the bus through the twisty mountain roads heading for Bac Ha; although most of the passengers had missed breakfast and were desperate for a coffee!

After a few hours we arrived at Bac Ha to witness the craziness of the Sunday Market. Here you could get everything from engine parts to pigs and buffalo to handcrafts and everything in between – even a kitchen sink if you wanted to!! We had several hours to take in the sights, sounds and smells and to grab some lunch as well.

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It was at once overwhelming, especially the offal food stalls, and very touristy. This is said to be the biggest and best market in the area and it was a spectacle to behold, but somehow it lacked the charm of Sapa and the friendliness.

After lunch we rejoined the bus and we all were taken to a village nearby of the Flower H’mong people. There was a wedding celebration in full swing and quite a few men staggering and indeed collapsing around the marquee – too much rice wine! We walked up through the village, which was very picturesque, to a traditional home where we were all led through and the layout of the house was explained to us. It felt slightly intrusive for us all to traipse through the house, particularly as we had not been explicitly invited by the owner, so we stayed outside.

Regrouping, we went back to the bus where we were transported to the Chinese border for a quick visit. Just across the river was China – the friendship bridge spanning the water. It felt a bit odd being so close. We only stopped for 10 minutes before we set off for Lao Cai. Most of us got off here as we were either catching the evening train, or the one the next morning (that was us). The only people left on the bus back to Sapa were the two girls from Dong Hoi – at least they had space to spread out!

We settled into a hotel near to the bus stop and then with our Australian friends checked out the local bars for the cheapest long necks. Finding one a few doors up, we grabbed some tables and started to sink a few beers whilst the kids played in the back garden of the hotel, making a den for the kittens that they found there.

Before long it was time for food and the kids wolfed down their burgers and disappeared to the garden again, continuing their den-building by torchlight. The Aussies departed to catch their train, and we gathered the children and went off to bed.

19th March 2012

We passed an uneventful and restful night. The hotel was clean and comfortable enough for us for one night. After a hearty breakfast we headed to the station to catch the 09:15 train back arriving in Hanoi at 20:15. Had we really thought about this we would have chosen another train, but we were now destined to spend 11 hours on a train in seats in an air conditioned cabin.

I have to say that this was probably the worst journey that we have ever undertaken during our 6 months of travel. The train was pretty empty to begin with and so we all sat together. As the train filled, we were bumped out of our seats and went to sit in our designated ones, except for Mat/Me who sat side by side, only one of our seats actually belonging to us. The other was in front, and was taken by a group of ladies. When the occupant of Mateo’s seat arrived we attempted to get our seat, but they wouldn’t budge and instead offered Mat the chance to sit on their lap instead.

So we spent several hours sitting 5 of us on 4 seats. Eventually the ladies left the train and we leapt into our proper seat – but the train was emptying anyway now, and as we drew closer to Hanoi we ended up sitting altogether again, more or less.

The boredom factor was high, despite having electronic games, card games, I spy, What am I? and a host of other diversions. Tania and I were pretty fed up, so I can imagine just how bad it was for the kids to endure.

We pulled into Hanoi station a little late and then walked to find a taxi to take us to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel – the boys’ choice. We had booked two double beds in a mixed dorm of 8 double beds. This is definitely the place to come if you are a young backpacker visiting Hanoi, and it is geared up to entertain the young singleton. Our presence there raised a few eyebrows but we managed to skirt most of the mayhem and drinking games as we left the hotel to find some food.

We walked in no particular direction but the restaurants were all closing. We doubled back, and we were accosted by a man in the street who took us to his restaurant a few doors down. We were very well looked after, and the food was actually very good.

Sated, we went back to the hostel and got ready for bed. The dorm was empty and most of us were asleep by the time the other residents returned from their revelry. In fact, some of them didn’t get back till the following morning.

I think Sapa did an awful lot to raise our enjoyment of Vietnam. Although we had visited some great places, Vietnam hadn’t quite done it for us in the same way that Thailand had until we went to Sapa. To experience the joy and happiness and the friendliness of the hill tribes was a real pleasure. The countryside was picturesque and the good weather certainly helped!  We met some wonderful people, both ex-pats and locals and we will certainly have fond memories of Sapa for years to come.

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