Trip Start Oct 30, 2005
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Tuesday, April 4, 2006

To fill you in a bit, we had arranged train tickets to Sapa through the travel agent that sold us the Halong Bay tour (at the same time we booked the tour), as we had read that sleeper tickets were hard to come by due to tour agents buying them all up. Normally we get them from the train station ourselves to ensure we have the tickets and avoid paying commission.

So after our trip to Halong Bay, we went to pick up our train tickets... but they weren't ready - pick them up the day we depart! What!?! That sounds dodgy. We weren't happy but with only 2 days until the train left we were worried that the sleeper tickets may have been sold out and we may not be able to get tickets ourselves.

The day we were due to depart - the tickets still weren't there! A story that the other staff member had picked them up, but was out at lunch didn't go down well, so we had to return about 6pm, 4 hours before the train was due to depart. Finally at 6pm we got our tickets and realised why they weren't that keen to give them to us before. For the US $11 we paid each, we got tickets worth about US$5 in hard sleeper cabins. We asked for air-con, but couldn't tell from the ticket what we had.

Arriving that night at the train station we saw the tourist train - a plush sleeper train with comfortable bedding, nice interior lighting and smiling tourists. We realised that this train was the train that was hard to get tickets for and had to be booked by the travel agents. Our train, next to it, was the standard Vietnam Railways train and there was a grave contrast. Entering the carriage, we saw a reasonably clean, but plain carriage with shuttered windows and fans above the three tiers of beds. Yes no air-conditioning. Finding our beds way up the top (the cheapest beds) we confirmed that indeed hard sleeper meant exactly that. The beds were solid wood, lined with a cover, but completely devoid of any cushioning. Even the cheapest hard-sleeper carriages in India had some padding. After our promised Halong Bay adventure was not quite as promised, so too was our train.

Anyway, not all was bad, as we were travelling with the locals rather than with foreign tourists. Hardly any English was spoken in our carriage, so we attempted some communication with our phrasebook - without much luck. A young couple in our carriage did help us out though, for which we were very grateful. They managed to get us blankets for the night, which we used as cushioning underneath us (as it was very hard to get comfortable on the hard bed). With the fan rotating only a few inches from us it was a breezy night, but the fan was welcoming as it was quite hot.

We arrived in Lao Cai, the last stop of the train, close to the Chinese border. We were a bit tired, but still had a reasonable sleep. From the train we caught a minibus for 1.5 hours to Sapa. This passed some beautiful landscapes, but the windy roads made it a little more difficult to appreciate.

Arriving in Sapa, our minibus was swarmed by a group of girls with business cards wanting us to stay at their guesthouses. We hadn't decided on where we wanted to stay and these girls were offering much cheaper rooms than our guidebook quoted, so we gave one a go to have a look at their place. To our surprise it was really nice, and the owners were very friendly. After settling in, we had a wander around Sapa, through the busy local market selling all types of fresh goods, and everything else. Although they did have souveniers, it was more geared towards the locals, so was very interesting.

That afternoon, we had read that the climb up the local mountain to the radio tower offered beautiful views of Sapa, and was well worth the visit. Yet, it was quite a steep climb... up and up and up! We made it to the radio tower, yet the view was a little impeded by fog and a very glary early afternoon sun. Still, a wonderful sight.

The entrance fee to get into the mountain included various places to see, so we wandered around to some of the different sights. We ended up climbing up all the high peaks in the park without realising that they were even higher than the radio tower. The hot sun and all the climbing up stairs payed its toll, and tired and a little dehydrated, we made our way back. Having only a short time to enjoy Sapa, we were keen to see as much as we could, but Glenn's suggestion that we now go to visit a local village (involving a lot more stairs and hiking!) was not that inviting to Christie who was tired from the mountain. So Glenn set off at 5pm to visit the local village of CatCat - supposed to be about 40min hike down, and who knows how long back.

The walk descended quite steeply via firstly a road, and then at the start of the village outskirts via many stairs. Stopping to enjoy the view and take photos, Glenn made it finally to the waterfall at the bottom, but the stairs then continued up. One map said that the village as such was after the waterfall, although scattered minority houses were all along the trail down. So Glenn continued on, now climbing up the stairs. Moving fast, as the light was fading he puffed his way on, aiming to reach the crest to see how far the road continued. But each time there looked like a crest ahead, there was more stairs rising, and at 6pm, and getting dark, it was time to call it a day and head back. No more "just over this next hill". On the way back, the light was dropping quickly and hurrying meant that the climb back up was tough. The sight of the minority village kids playing was as good as any excuse to stop and rest amongst the main cluster of minority houses on the way up. A woman came out of one of the houses and said "Hello, you come in" indicating to go into her house. Worried that this was a proposition, Glenn turned her down and continued to watch the kids while really trying to get his breath back. A few calls of "come in" had Glenn worried about her intentions, but then her husband came out of the house, and after enquiring "husband" and pointing, Glenn thought it safe enough to proceed.

The lady proceeded to show Glenn her house and inside were all of her kids and family, and Glenn soon felt pretty stupid about getting her intentions wrong. They were very kind, especially considering the number of tourists that must trundle past their house each day, and indicating that he must get back soon because it was getting quite dark, they offered that he could stay the night there. With all the stairs to go, it sounded quite inviting, but trying to explain that he had to get back to Christie, he bid them fairwell, and made the climb back up. Reaching the road, there was a motorbike taxi waiting for worn out tourists to take them back up. Being that Glenn was the last tourist still down there and that the motorbike rider had to get back up with or without a paying customer, the motorbike rider was following Glenn and repeating "motobike?".

Glenn had all intentions to keep walking, but as the light was fading and with the advantage over the motorbike that he had to go up anyway, he offered about half the proper amount. The motorbike rider didn't accept of course, but still continued to follow. We soon approached a local minority village lady who the driver spoke to, and he said "ok, we go". Confused, it suddenly became clear that we were all going to get a lift! Glenn jumped on, and the lady jumped on the very back (with a big basket on her back). After a very interesting trip down to the village, it sure was a great way to finish off, and we zipped back to Sapa as night approached.

The next day we took a tour organised by our guesthouse to the Bac Ha market, about 3 hours away. This market is the the biggest gathering of different minority villages which occurs only on Sundays. It is a market for the locals, but for the tourists its a chance to see many different minority villagers all together in the same spot.

For us, it was a chance to try to get some good photos, but it was such a hot day that we became worn out quickly. Having wandered around the market a few times, trying to get a few photos while still trying be sensitive and not trying to shove a camera in their faces, we retired for lunch.

After lunch, the tour involved a walk to a local minority village, called Ban Pho. This was a short walk around, and although interesting, it was not nearly as spectacular as the villages around Sapa. The sun won out, and soon we were back on the minibus for the trip back to Sapa.

That evening, with the help of the guesthouse, we organised a trek to some of the minority villages north of Sapa. We had considered doing one south, which was supposedly beautiful, but after hearing that it was the main tourist trail, we opted for a more unique experience. Our guesthouse organised two girls from the minority village around Ta Phin to take only us on the trek! Our own private tour!

In the morning we met our guides, May & May Pham, who were 15 years old and from the Red Dzao village. Dressed in their minority Red Dzao clothes, the experience was wonderful and we started the 10km hike from Sapa towards their village. After a short hike at first via the road, we then turned off onto a walking track and into a completely different world. The noise of the town disappeared and soon we were passing beautiful terraced rice fields, and past Black Hmong Villages. We then visited a school for the village kids, and with the help of our guides were able to communicate with them. We seem to keep disturbing classrooms where we go, but it sure was fun.

Passing many more rice fields, some being prepared for a new crop with the aid of a buffalo-pulled plough, we continued on towards Ta Phin, a village shared by both Black Hmong and Red Dzao tribes.

Before reaching it, we saw a old lady on the top of a hill climb, sewing her hand bracelets to sell. Of course she offered them to us, but we declined and puffed on. Realising that we would love a photo of her, Glenn returned to buy a hand braclet off her in return for a photograph. She was such a lovely old dear, although probably didn't enjoy posing for Glenn for so long (as you can see from the photos)!

Glenn, with the camera, often lagged behind, stopping many times to take photos. While still in the Black Hmong areas outside of the village, a Red Dzao woman with good English said hello. Christie and the girls had already gone ahead, but this lady's English was really good, so Glenn asked a few questions and chatted a while. She then of course offered to show her wares for sale, and declining, she said maybe later, and thinking that she was heading the opposite direction and that we wouldn't be coming back this way, Glenn said - maybe later. So of course he had the Red Dzao lady follow him the rest of the way to the village.

On arrival at the Red Dzao village in Ta Phin, we were shown around a little before being invited into May's home. Her mother was very hospitable and we met their family and shown their home. We were then invited to eat lunch, and not expecting it, but thinking it a wonderful opportunity we agreed.

While the girls cooked lunch, their mother (Mama) chatted to us for a while, and then brought out her wares to show us. We had a giggle at her when she said to look now before lunch as after lunch many other of the ladies will try to sell their wares at high prices. We think she was trying to get in before the other Red Dzao lady who followed us, who was waiting for us to finish lunch.

Nevertheless, we let Mama show her wares and ended up buying a few things from her (as a thank-you for her hospitality at least). Lunch was served, and we ate with Mama, while the rest of the family ate in another room. Mama made sure we were eating as much as we could and we were dished out many helpings of pork, spinach, egg and rice. The pork we think was actually pork fat, and although a little bit was nice, the whole dish was a little hard to swallow, but the meal was wonderful and their hospitality amazing.

The lady that followed Glenn came in after lunch and showed us her items for sale. We did buy something small off her too, so her walk was worthwhile.

After lunch, we walked through the rest of the village to where we bid May & May Pham farewell and caught motorbikes back to Sapa. It was a wonderful trek, but quite tiring, and finished off our Sapa experience perfectly. That evening we ran off some of the photos we took of the family and left them with our guesthouse to pass on as a token of our thanks.

After a wonderful finish to Vietnam, we have to leave tommorow as our visa expires. Next stop China!
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