Back Down to Earth….and Sinister Tidings
Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
17Trip End Jan 24, 2011
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After finishing my 2 day junk cruise in Ha Long Bay, I took the tour van to the station in Hanoi in order to catch the all night sleeper train to Sapa…. This is "the Vietnamese Alps" where the trendy folks go to get away from the heat of summer. It's about 9,000 ft. high and is a quaint, charming village where most all hiking treks begin. The views and waterfalls and charm are 2nd to none, I’m told.
What I am/wasn’t told is that these views are visible only during the summer months because during the winter months, the village has the densest fog I’ve seen, literally 24 hrs
Oh, and it is bitterly cold…everywhere. Not quite sure why, but it was about 34 degrees out, but I have rarely felt as cold. Everywhere, indoors and out, people wear winter jackets…the waiters in restaurants, the hotel receptionists, the bartender, and even the masseuse all wear heavy jackets. Portable room heaters are inadequate, and when I wasn’t in a hot shower or a Jacuzzi or steam room, I was most often under the blankets in my room just chattering away, sleeping fully clothed with sweater and pants.
I did make a few short walks thru the town streets to shop… and values are exceptional. Bought a bunch of North Face jackets for myself & the kids & Beth for, on average about $40 each. Also, like many Vietnamese villages, most often an individual tribe, perhaps two are the predominant inhabitants. The Hmoung tribe calls Sapa home and they are real craftsmen. Tapestries, shirts, jewelry…no junk here, only very well crafted works.
But then there are the notorious Hmoung women and their daughters. While they speak fairly good English and are charming and warm, they are relentless with the sales pitch…always hawking their wares
But for me, Sapa can be easily skipped during the winter months and I decided to bite the bullet and leave a day early… really there was little to do since sightseeing in the fog was out and shivering constantly is not a real physical activity. Really, other than eating Italian, shopping the local market shops, and the everyday Jacuzzi/ steam room & massage by a physically strong Hmoung woman, Sapa was a disappointment for all the time & effort and expense it took to get here.
Just to back up for a second to talk about the Hmoung and Vietnamese massage. I had three while here in Sapa
Ahh, but you can’t beat a massage from an attractive Hmoung lady…the best. Unfortunately, they are clothed in coats & jackets and resemble Eskimos with scarfs and gloves on most all the time. They lead me into an ice cold room, point 2 area heaters toward my table… I get down to my Fruit of the Looms, and they cover me in the warmest of blanket quilts…perhaps 3 or 4 of them. Only when a body part is worked on, does it dare come out from under the quilts… often the masseuse must go under the quilt to work on the body part in question….no further comment.
Anyway, their massage also consists of leverage and torque positions, but they also give a ‘body chop’ massage where they put their two hands together and pound on the body… honestly, during the 90 minutes, I must have received about 3,000 hits…hits of ecstasy
And really that was all there was to do in Sapa…the three ‘M’s…massage, meals and markets.
As I said, I decided to leave Sapa a day early and take the sleeper train back to Hanoi where I was to be met at the station by my driver who was then supposed to drive me to Tam Dao. At Tam Dao, I booked a very nice resort hotel called the Belvedere. The hotel is on Tay Thien Mountain and really I knew very little about either Tam Dao or Tay Thien.
All I knew was what I read in the travel books and what a fellow Toto at VPV had mentioned he knew. I told him of my desire to go to a Buddhist Zen Monastery that wasn’t for tourists so much, and perhaps dine and meditate with the monks… Toto has been here for I believe about 4 months & he told me of the only one he knew of and had actually gone to… it was Tay Thien and he worked, dined and meditated with the monks for the entire day.
That was just what I was looking for, tho not a full day, and thus decided to do… however, nobody else seemed to know anything about this monastery, so who knows… it may be an incredible experience or it may be a total waste of time and money.
So, I arrived at the Sapa sleeper train after perhaps one of the scariest taxi rides I have ever been on… 45 minutes down the mountain from Sapa, hairpin turn after hairpin turn, in total fog as dusk set in. It was an experience and a half and I gave my kudos and thanks to the driver.
My place on the train was in a 4-berth, perhaps 7’ x 5’ tiny room… lucky me got a top berth sleeper bed that I had to climb up into…ycch. A nice 35ish year old couple from Norway were my bunk mates and they spoke perfect English and were really so interesting and enjoyable… especially considering I had an 8 hr. ride ahead of me.
Well, when we arrived, they were intrigued by what I had told them about Tay Thien and nearly joined me sharing the driver & car. At the last moment, they thought better of it
…. and that’s when the next adventure began.
We arrived at this remotish Hanoi train station just after 4:00am… but where is my driver to meet me? Two young men took my luggage. They spoke some English, took my luggage and offered to help me get it to the area where I was to meet my driver… I paid them each 50,000VND (about $2.50 to each) and a real bargain. But still after 15 minutes I can’t locate my driver and the two guys realized I had a problem. They again were very helpful walking me around and helping me search, especially since they spoke Vietnamese & could ask others.
Against my better judgment, one of the guys said he would stay with my luggage while I walked with the other fellow to search. I had all my very important stuff (laptop, hearing stuff etc.) in my knapsack as I always do, so I decided to take the chance of leaving my other luggage… these fellows seemed to be helpful & honest and everyone I met since being here has been, so…..
After 15 minutes of further looking & not finding, this is where you probably expect me to tell you how when I went back, my bags were nowhere to be found
So, no I said… please get me a taxi to take me back to the VPV volunteer house in Hanoi where I can call my agent Phuong at a more reasonable hour than the now 4:30am hour. And so these 2 fellows got me a taxi and joined me to VPV in the cold drizzle and fog…and I was glad they did. We arrived at VPV at almost 5am and they walked me thru my long dark alley to where I was going…
This dark alley…the dark night…the drizzle…the cold and the heavy fog… and me walking perhaps a block alone with these 2 fellows who spoke some, but not much English. Wow, this is how I always pictured mysterious, Asian back streets and life… right out of Charley Chan. Unfortunately, I was to be the central character and sinister was the only way to describe the atmosphere.
This is where you might expect me to explain how I was ‘rolled’ by these two men who met me at the train station at 4am… and they did somewhat ‘roll’ me
It is now 5:30am and I’m waiting in the alley outside VPV, deciding to wait for about 1 hour before pounding on the gate to wake everyone to allow me in. This alley is dark, I’m cold and I’m wet and absolutely no one is around. At 5:30am, I see down the alley that the local mom & pop instant outdoor restaurants arrive to set up for the morning…bringing the small stacking stools and kettles to cook in… perhaps only about 5 of them I can see. Suddenly, all electricity goes out and I can see nothing but fog in front of me…this is beginning to just drip with the atmosphere and mystique of an Asian mystery thriller…
But soon the daylight appears and at 7:15 I see a volunteer inside come down the steps and I knock and she lets me in
About 15 minutes later, I realize I’m the only one here and the 2 remaining volunteers had just left for their work placement... after locking the padlock on the way out & taking the key. So there is absolutely no way to get out…none. And Phuong & I am Skyping each other, there is no phone at the house & Phuong would have to call Chau to explain what is going on and that a driver is waiting…
No Chau says Phuong… she finally reaches someone on staff at VPV and they will have the cook come in early to open the door…but the earliest will be 10:00am that she can get here…. boy, that’s going to really please the driver having to wait another 90 minutes.
….and I’m going to leave it right there for now, the fingers are weary.