Trip Start Nov 18, 2002
157Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Hill Tribe hotel
We took the 'King Express superior sleeper' train to Lao Cai which is the end of the rail track for anyone wanting to go to Sapa. Lao Cai is just 3km from the Chinese border. Sapa itself is a further 38km up the Hoang Lien mountains.
We had booked the transfer (from the station to Sapa) and our first night in the Pumpkin Hotel, Sapa through Pumpkin Travel agent in Hanoi. The hotel looked quite nice on the web site and as they were including free pick up from the train we thought why not?
Our train ride itself was fairly uneventful. Martin could just about fit in his bed. It was clean and comfortable and as we had a 4 bunk cabin we shared it with 2 friendly German girls. It's pot luck who you get to share with. The train left at 9.55pm and got to Lao Cai at about 6.15am.
This is where the adventure begins......loads of different tour companies are there to meet their punters at Lao Cai station. You are greeted by a mass frenzy of flags, signs and pieces of paper with random names scribbled on them.....all except ours!!!
We watched as all the tourists slowly took off with 'their' representatives and we were left like 'Billy no mates.' : (
When in doubt go and have a cup of tea we say. And that is what we did. It was still too early to ring the office in Hanoi to ask what the hell is going on? So after our cup of tea we went across the road to a posh looking hotel to ask if they had the phone number for Pumpkin hotel in Sapa.
The manager there was more than happy to help us and made some phone calls. Eventually we got through and it turned out that they (Pumpkin Hotel) didn't know we were on that train!
So what do we do now? After yet more phone calls and random people trying to suggest that we pay for public mini bus to Sapa and then the hotel will pay us back! Yeah right we heard that one before, this is Vietnam remember things don't always work out as smooth as that.
We ended up telling the woman on the phone that there was no way we were paying up front for the overpriced mini bus and that the driver would have to drop us off outside and then they can pay him
Several conversations later and it was agreed. So we packed ourselves into the public mini bus only to have it drive around the town (stopping/waiting in a couple of places, the usual scene) to try and pick up more passengers. We finally took off after about an hour! There was one other tourist on the bus, a Russian man (we later learnt) who asked us how much we paid. We said we paid nothing and told him our story.
We did tell him that the fare should be no more that 30,000 Dong or (17,000 to the $ currently) just over $2 max. Well he paid 120,000 which is about $9. The cheeky buggers, welcome to Vietnam. He did share with us that their starting price was 400,000!!!!
We took the winding road up the mountain with more and more people loading onto the bus and much less loading off.
Martin and I were initially sitting together but as the bus loaded up so did our back seat with 3 more people from Black H'mong hill tribe now squeezed in between us.
We finally arrived at the Pumpkin Hotel and they paid the driver.
Round 1 over now round 2. We get shown to our room and all is quite nice
Oh here we go....We disagreed and soon the manager appears. We tell him when we booked the room we were told there was heating and now you want us to pay $3 more on top of the $25 we have paid for one night???? It's all a big scam.
What was it I wrote in the Hanoi chapter about capital of scamming??
Well, there was phone calls to his boss and then there were more phone calls to the office in Hanoi who were by this time actually open. He was still insisting that we had to pay. Look we said, first of all you weren't there at the station to pick us up this morning....we pay 25 dollars for a nice room, call this a tourist hotel? How about you give us back the $25 and we go elsewhere. Then miraculously one last phone call was made and 'hey presto' an electric heater appears.
So what did we do next? We went 2 hotels down to Hill Tribe Guest House where they showed us a really nice room with fantastic views of the mountains (when they're not covered in cloud), hot water available all day AND electric heater for $7 a night. Needless to say we put a deposit down straight away
The rest of our first day in Sapa was fairly uneventful. We had a walk about the town. There were many Black H'mong and Red D'zao people trying to sell cushion covers, wall hangings, blankets they have sown, and bracelets etc. Some of the children are really hard sellers. We sat on the steps outside the church further up the hill and caused quite a commotion when we showed a 'hint' of interest in a bracelet someone had. Before you know it there are about 8 different sellers saying 'you buy from me, you buy from me' Ahhh get me out of here! We find all this quite entertaining really. If you deal with them in a joking way they have a laugh with you too.
We bought a couple of bracelets from different girls and got photos of them too. We accidentally met one of the girls later in another street who after chatting with further, offered to take us for a trek to her house if we would like. After talking to her more we arranged to meet her on Tuesday.
On Monday we woke to brilliant sunshine. It was thick cloud in Sapa all day yesterday and we couldn't see 2 buildings up the road let alone the mountains! Today we could see everywhere. We checked into our new hotel 'Hill Tribe' and enjoyed the view from our ($7 room with heating!) huge open picture window
Later that morning we took ourselves off for a gentle (well we hoped so) trek to near by Cat Cat village waterfalls. After paying the 15,000 Dong ($1) entrance fee, yes you have to pay an entrance fee to walk in the mountains! You get a laminated map of the various routes you can take. The path is very good with paved steps all the way. We met a few little children trying to sell postcards etc but they were good at taking our first 'no' as an answer and left us alone unlike those hard sellers yesterday!
The waterfall and the views all around the mountains were amazing. Steep rice terraces going up the mountains as far as the eye could see, stunning.
We made it back to Sapa in one piece. It was early to bed as we are meeting Chan at 10am tomorrow for a trek to her house in the hills....somewhere!
Chan is waiting as promised outside our hotel at 10am with her cheery smiles. She has bought some noodles already for us to have for lunch at her house somewhere in the middle of nowhere (as it turns out). Again we had to pay the 15,000 Dong/$1 'rip off the tourist' tax and then we were free to walk in the fields of rice paddies. Again we were blessed with another sunny day so the layers of coats and sweatshirts that we started wearing first thing this morning were soon shed and tied round our waists. Like the trek to Cat Cat village the scenery was stunning. We walked for over 2 hours up this mountain over that mountain, down the next mountain, until eventually we got to Chan's simple and remote farm house. There she made us very welcome. Her younger brothers aged 10 and 8 and her sister aged 14 were there to meet us.
Chan made us a delicious meal of noodle soup with fresh vegetables (grown on her families land) and rice. We ate in her kitchen area (see photo). It certainly tasted good after our long trek. Chan told us about the certain flowers used to create the natural indigo dye which they use to dye all their clothes indigo. This dye also has a habit of dying your hands and nails (and anything else that comes in contact with you) and it's a very common sight to see Black H'mong women with greeny blue hands and finger nails. There in Chan's kitchen was a huge plastic tub ready for dying cloth. When the cloth is dried they then embroider their own pattern on their clothing making it unique to them.
After we had eaten it was time to head back to Sapa via a different route. Just as we started stepping over stepping stones strategically placed in the rice paddy.....guess who slipped and fell in? Yep! Caroline. Oh Yuk! the mud went and whatever else they use to fertilize the paddy field (but no doubt you can guess as it comes from a Buffalo's bottom!!) seeped into both my trainers. Was I a bit p***ed off or what? And all Martin could do was laugh!!! After about 10 mins of scraping my trainers against the grass I too could almost see the funny side well maybe.
It took us nearly 2 hours of walking through yet more stunning scenery to get back to the main road to Sapa where conveniently there are guys with motor scooters who offer you a lift back
Safely back in Sapa we thanked Chan for an excellent day. The money we choose to pay her (she told us at the start that it was our choice what we thought the trek was worth after we finished) was well spent especially as it goes directly to her and her family. What made our day even more pleasurable was we didn't see another tourist ALL day. For such a popular trekking country that is rather difficult to achieve. But Chan achieved it and we will never forget her for that.
New Years Eve and the sun is nowhere to be seen. The cloud was thick and drizzly all day all around us. We made it a 'chilling out' day. Besides I (Caroline) needed time to clean up my crappy trainers. Its amazing what you can do when the mud and s***t has dried. Armed with a free hotel toothbrush and numerous wet wipes they were starting to look much better than they did before. Pity the washing machine that got my trousers last night!!
For New Years Eve we hunted down the only English run (Red Dragon) bar in town. It was certainly a very popular choice. With our hotel (and most of the others too) having an 11 o'clock curfew we made sure they would still let us in after midnight
Over a few too many Vietnam Anchor beers we talked away the hours until midnight then there was a big cheer, chinking of glasses and beer bottles with everyone, more chatting of travel stories and then home to bed. Our hotel was by now in pitch darkness but the door was still unlocked and as we helped ourselves to our room key behind the small drinks bar out popped the owner making us jump out of our skin and we burst out laughing the drunken way that you do followed by a load of Shhhhhhh and more giggling!
New Year's day and we slept in until midday. Then like true Brits we went and had bacon and eggs for breakfast. The rest of the day turned into a blur, literally. The cloud and drizzle hasn't lifted all day. We just sat by a cosy fire chatting to friends, drinking coffee and hot chocolate and taking advantaged of the free Wifi.
Tomorrow (2nd Jan) we have decided to head 100kms or so away to another town further down the mountain range (so it should be slightly warmer). But that's another chapter......... "Happy New Year Everyone"