Cooling off in the mountains of Vietnam

Trip Start Nov 30, 2009
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Trip End Jun 01, 2011


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Flag of Vietnam  , Quảng Trị,
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Our final stop in Vietnam was to be Sapa in the very far north of the country. To reach here we had to make our way back from Cat Ba Island by boat, then a bus from Haiphong to Hanoi before then taking an overnight train to Lau Cai, the gateway to the mountain region in the North.  We'd booked our train in advance to make sure we had a sleeper berth, even opting for a bit of an upgrade so we had nice wood panelling and better beds.  Quite a lot of confusion at the train station, but eventually got our tickets sorted (turned out we had to exchange our travel agents tickets for proper train tickets at the hotel next to the station – something the travel agent had neglected to tell us)  Once on board and in our little four bed room the guard came along and offered to upgrade us to a VIP cabin for $40.  We asked what we got for the money and he informed us we would get a beer or coke, plus we would just have the room to ourselves.  Didn’t really sound worth $40 to me, especially as it turned out no-one else got on board and so we had our cabin to ourselves anyway.  Glad we didn’t fall for the upgrade.  Pretty good nights sleep, if a little dull and boring compared to the sleeper train journeys we got used to in India.  Kind of missed people coming on selling all sorts of things and the old ladies sleeping on the floor and men playing card games. 

Arrived in Lau Cai at 5.30am.  Not ideal, especially as it was then another hour by mini bus to get to Sapa itself.  Got chatting to a nice young lad from England on the bus and he ended up joining us  for breakfast while we sat out a torrential down pour (the wet season is definitely here).  Within 10 minutes of the rain starting it was running like a river down the road and pouring like a waterfall down the steps leading to the market square across the road.  After an hour the boys finally decided to brave it and go and find a hotel while I watched the backpacks.  Ended up in a great hotel, big room, WiFi, satellite TV, cosy blankets, all for just $6 a night.  Perfect for holing up for the day and catching up with some sleep and some admin.  It’s the first time in months that’s its actually felt a little bit cold.  Sapa is pretty high up in the mountains and the temperature is much cooler there than the rest of Vietnam.  Actually put on socks, long trousers and a long sleeve t-shirt for the first time in months. Pleased I’ve not been lugging them around for nothing.

Our original plan for Sapa had been to find ourselves a guide and do a couple of days of trekking, with perhaps a stay in a hill tribe village in between.  However, with rain showing no sign of stopping and having learnt from our Thailand leaky roof experience we were a bit reluctant to spend out on a tour only to end up cold and wet for two days.  We therefore resorted to plan B and decided to just play it by ear each day an do our own exploring by motorbike  and on foot if the weather perked up enough.

Typically having made this decision the weather cheered up and it didn’t rain for the next two days, however I think we made the right decision anyway as getting around on our own proved really easy and was a far cheaper option that booking a 2 night trek for $60 each.  Kev’s biking skills have come on leaps and bounds since we hired our first bike in Thailand a couple of months ago.  The mountain roads were a pretty challenging mix of bends, potholes and even some water crossings.  For those of you who remember Junior Kickstart from the TV in the 80’s– I think he’d have at least got through to the second round!

Our first day saw us exploring waterfalls and visiting a hill tribe village inhabited by the Red Doa tribe.  In Northern Vietnam there are dozens of different hill tribe minorities.  Most can be distinguished by their traditional costumes, all kind of variations on a theme with lots of embroidery, some fantastic hats and headscarfs and some with some very fetching velvet leg warmers!.  Sapa town is full of them, all roaming the streets selling embroidered handicrafts to passing tourists.  They seem to hunt in packs and you really need to keep alert if you want o avoid being sold 25 embroidered handbags by sweet faced old ladies.

The village we visited was great, we stopped for some tea in the local tea shack before being befriended by a small group of local ladies and their children, who offered to show us around and take us to one of their houses.  Quite a trek up the hill, through the rice paddies and eventually up to the house in question.  Having become accustomed to having to take off my shoes when entering buildings in much of Asia I offered to remove them but was told it was OK.  It was only once I stepped over the threshold that I realised it was a slightly silly question as the floor inside the house was exactly the same as the floor outside, just bare dirt!  Our host found us a couple of plastic chairs and presented us with 2 bowls of cold tea, which we drank politely not wanting to offend, but all the time worrying about the potential consequences to our bowels.  Very interesting to be surrounded by half a dozen women and children, most of whom spoke very little English, but somehow managing to make ourselves  understood and feel completely comfortable.  Watching the kids tank around was great fun, and it was amazing to recognise exactly the same patterns of behaviour  and see them laugh at the same types of things as all the kids we know at home.  The two boys who lived in the house we were visiting were brilliant, real little cheeky faced lads with bags of personality who were happy to play up for the camera.  Of course at the end of our visit there was the moment where we needed to show our appreciation, which in the village is done by way of purchasing some of their handicrafts.  They each carried a big basket on their back, full of hand embroidered bags, cushion covers, purses etc.  I politely looked through and eventually found something I liked. I asked if they shared the money they made between them, to which they said no and then informed me that the thing I had chosen didn’t belong to the lady whose house we were in so really I should buy from her instead.  Another ten minutes of looking and I finally found something from her basket that I liked, with Kev looking bored to tears while all this was going on!  This obviously left 5 disappointed ladies to have to say goodbye to.  But really, how many embroidered bags or purses can one person need?

Our second day of exploring took us down a spectacular valley, past immaculate gravity defying rice terraces and way up into the hills.  We ended up at a beautiful eco resort called Topaz, with 25 little bungalows perched up on a hill above the rice fields.  Parked our bike there while we went for a short trek, and then went back there to have a drink and some lunch before heading back to town.  Had to rethink the lunch idea when we discovered they only had set lunches, at $12 a head – and most of what was on the menu was on Kev’s 'don’t like’ list.  Did however manage to blag a guided tour of the bungalows with the manager.  Really fantastic rooms, each with their own veranda overlooking the valley below.  Would have loved to stay there for a night and wake up to that view. On the way back we spotted a little boy of no more than 4 blowing on a large blade of grass, and using a huge knife to trim it to change the pitch of the sound!  Loved the way he casually tucked the knife under his arm when he'd finished with it.
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