Trip Start Jan 07, 2009
20Trip End Ongoing
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Sapa is a touristy mountain town about 10 hours north of Hanoi. We were told that it's one of the highlights of Vietnam by this older guy from Washington who occasionally leaves his wife and job to ride a motorbike around in Asia for a few months. As it turned out the advice proved sound for once. This same man, I should note, also recomended dried and salted squid on a stick. His words were something like " It's good it tastes like salty squid flavored gum that gets stuck in your teeth"
The area is populated by a few different bands of hill tribe folks and the Vietnamese who live in the town of Sapa. Everyday the hill peeps put on traditional clothing (costumes) and trudge (drive motorbikes) up the rice paddy hillsides into town and try to sell you Chinese-made trinkets and clothes. They were very persistent but friendly and they spoke the best English we've seen in Vietnam so far so they were fun to hang around town with. We got to know some of them over the four or five days we were there and they sort of stopped trying to sell us stuff. It turns out that the Vietnamese hate the hill people and basically tax them into poverty so they can exploit the tourist angles of their culture. You see them push the Hmong people out of the way as if they are cattle or dogs maybe. This information we gleaned from the rants of two 15 year old Hmong girls whom we befriended. They were mostly full of shit but they were entertaining. For instance their names were both "Ha". As in "Ha, there's no way I'm going to drop this character and lose the chance that maybe you'll by some Chinese-made juice harps." Sometimes we would invite one of the Ha's into a restaurant for breakfast and you could just see how uncomfortable it made the Vietnamese proprietor
We actually let one of the Ha's take us on a trek around the valley and we would have lunch at her parents place. Remember trekking is like hiking but not as difficult. I had my doubts about hiring a 15 year old girl for a guide but it turned out really well. I would have never been comfortable walking through people's rice paddies and yards. There were three you Hmong dudes carrying bundles of long fresh-cut bamboo poles on their shoulders. We were determined to show them up at least a little so when they took a break Kirby and I picked the bundles up and carried them as far as we thought it would be worth. They got a kick out of it and picked them back up and sprinted up a hill like it wasn't a big deal at all. OK so maybe they're good at that.
Anyway we stayed around for a few days, bought some stuff, rode some bikes around the mountains, and decided to make our way back to the ocean for a while. Just look at the pictures...
A note on train travel here for those of you who maybe using this site for research for your own trip. There are different classes of seats. Hard Seats, Soft Seats, Hard Sleeper, Soft Sleeper, and VIP. On the way up to Sapa we opted for Hard Sleeper which turned out not to be hard beds at all. The hard part was find a place to hang out when one of your five bunk-mates decided to go to bed at 7:30 when the Train left. They over-sell the hard seats so people fill any space in the other cars they can find. Whole families were laying around in the aisles. The AC wasn't exactly on either. It was sort of blowing moisture around the whole train until the windows were foggy. All this made you feel like you were sleeping in some sort of moderately or may I say "luke" warm foot soup. MMMmm! On the way back to Hanoi the only ticket available were the VIP seats so I bought a bottle of Couvosier and prepared myself for a night of hanging out with Puff-Daddy (is that hyphenated?). As it turns out VIP just means normal because that was all it was. Normal, clean, and air-conditioned sleeper cars. There wasn't even a complimentary champagne bottle to pass around while listening to Mel Torme. I talked to some people who took the hard seat and they didn't even have their own seat
The hardest part about all this is that the tour agencies buy up all the good seats weeks in advance so when you contact the train station they say that they're full. Even if they aren't full they don't like to sell tickets over the counter. The train station in Hanoi is something like if there was a trainstation in a prison. I paid a guy with a big knife to watch our bags at desk that said "luggage storage" and he seemed to just make up a price on the spot. This same guy sat at his desk cutting up fruit of which he had a couple bites and then threw the rest on the floor in front of the desk. The guy had a police uniform jacket (or something like the police) draped over the back of his chair while he sat there in a wife-beater scratching himself and chucking fruit around while trying to get children to come over and play with him. Eventually he told us that he was going home and we had to take our bags. Good thing we happened to be there. Some people even seem to live in the train station.For a couple extra bucks just plan ahead and get a nicer rail car through a tour agency. It's worth it.