Trip Start Jan 23, 2005
38Trip End Jul 15, 2005
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First to Ha Long Bay, which was as good as you'd expect. The scenery is utterly mindblowing, and a pleasant suprise. A suprise because even the BILLIONS of tourists couldn't spoil it.
We opted for a two day-one night trip aboard a "junk" (all the boats in the bay are made to look like Chinese cargo vessels, though of course none of them really are). The harbour is tiny - it was perfectly adequate untill a few years ago but then the tourists turned up. On the day we left there must have been thirty other boats leaving from this tiny dock. To even get to our boat we had to clamber other two others and even then we were boxed in for a good twenty minutes whilst folk clambered over our boat to get to the one behind.
We were pleased to hear they were building a new harbour. However, judging by Ha Long City, it may turn out to be doing more harm than good. HLC is a building site, more crap concreate hotels are being thrown up (once again, the operative words) all along the shoreline in the most vile manner. The rice paddies that a few miles away stretch down to the sea to become tidal flats have now been bulldozed wholesale. Several square kilometers of seafront now lies barren awaiting development which, judging by the billboards depicting glitzy high rise hotel/casino complexes, seem completely out of step with the serene scenery offshore. Not only that, but behind the city entire hillsides are being razed for - see if you can guess - more luxury high rise hotels!! Once forested hills have been dynamited leaving huge red scars that once can see from miles offshore. I asked the guide on the boat (none too tactfully) when we were coming back into port on the final day why the government felt the need to make such a hash of the area. He said that basically people in Hanoi were becoming richer as the country has opened up and they like to stay in the hotels from which they take organised trips. They like the kareoke, he said, and the reflections tall buildings make on the water. I could see what he meant. Whereas us Westerners were content with being bussed around the bay for a few days, the boats with the Vietnamese were smaller affairs, packed to the rafters (they prefer to travel together, said our guide) and rather boisterous. Each to their own, I suppose.
Even so, there were a BILLION other whities boating around. Ha Long Bay, as I've said, is pretty amazing - basically in the bay there are thousands of tiny islands that rise straight up out of the water like something you'd see depicted on some blue-wash porcelain. It's so easy to get lost and away from any other boat. It's not very deep, but deep enough to jump off the top of the three storey boat straight into the sea (splash!) and much snorkelling was had (saw sod all) as well as kayaking and eating and drinking with our companions. Our guide Ha was a card as well, bless him. Hours were spent with him trying to pronounce his name - Ha means river, but then Ha also means tree, whereas Ha means pigeon, not to be confused with Ha which means banana or Ha which means binoculurs (I may have made up some of ones towards the end).
Back to Hanoi for an afternoon, then the night train to the Chinese border. We'd already done a night train journey in Thailand, so this one wasn't too bad either, despite sharing a four-berth cabin. Our companions for the journey were two VERY horsey girls from Chichester or Chumelry Harvey or somewhere who were both setting out for careers in the fasion industry upon their return. They were nice enough, as it happens, and, despite their daddy-bought-me-a-ponyness I must thank them for giving us a decent tip for where to get our tailoring done in Hoi An (you'll see later).
The train rolled in at 5am to the border town of Lau Cai, the hills of sotuehrn China clearly visable in the dawn light. From there it was another hours drive up and up and up to Sapa, an old French hillstation right up in the cool mountains.
In Ha Long Bay I have never been hotter in my life. It was nudging 40C and humid as hell. Sapa was an almighty shock. 22C is UTTERLY, STAGGERINGLY FREEZING. And as for the nights... 12C may as well be Siberia. No wonder none of the hotels here (and, like Ha Long Bay, there are HUNDREDS of them) don't need AC.
There was little time to rest. We were to go trekking with a guide for two days, just us two this time, staying overnight with some local people. The local people here aren't Vietnamese, rather a blend of several tribes - Black Thai, Red Thai and Red Dzong among others. I confess I didn't realise this - they live in villiages all together in the same valleys. One villiage will be Black Thai, the next (often just a km away) will be Dzong, and never the twain shall meet!!
Anyway, again the scenery is just utterly incredible. Beautiful. Through the misty low clouds that roll over the hill you can see the enormous rice terraces cascadign down the sides of the valleys, interspersed with streams and waterfalls that run down into the rivers that gouge out the valley floors. The steady drizzle didn't matter at all.
The driving rain DID. The weather here changes like nothing else I've ever experienced. Fast forward to the third morning when we woke up in our hotel room, view over the valley below (amazing) - can see the other side, the terraces, the streams. Sit down. A minute ONE MINUTE later it's all white outside. The dingyest pea souper fog comes rolling in and you can't see your hand in frot of your face. Then a burst of light rain. Five minutes later, blue sky.
I digress. On our first day we got a drenching. Our ponchos were useless. We walked for seven hours through the most miserable weather, but even up close (the views became lost in the mist) this place is amazing. This statement is so patronising,I'm sorry - it's EXACTLY like the Shire in Lord of the Rings. It's like stepping back in time to some bizarre fantasy world where the people are strange and small and the fields are tiny and green and the oxen (water buffalo here) wander free when not ploughing the fields and the little cobbly lanes with the dry stone walls.... it felt like we were the only whities for hundreds of miles. Our guide, to his credit, took us right off the beaten track. Literally!! We were walking where we had no right to go, often along the most precarious ledges of the paddy dams, up slippery sloped, through quagmires of mud, down riverbeds. Sods law - we came across a paticularly large group of tribespeople tending the fields on the most slippery part of all, a ledge all of six inches wide made of pure mud which, in this weather, may as well have been margarine. They laughed heartily as all three of us buggered over simultaneously into the soggy paddy bog. We already had mud up to our knees anyway, so it almost didn't matter, but we didn't half feel like idiots.
Must hurry. We stayed the night in a wooden house with a family of Dzong, a husband and wife, a miscellaneous (sister?? never established that one), three young boys and a dog. To be honest I'd been dreading this - a guaranteed embarrassment for all concerned, them thinking we're made of money, us looking at them like animals in a zoo. Mercifully it wasn't like that at all, though their hospitality was still rather overwhelming. The food was amazing and more than I've ever been served anywhere ever. It was stupid, frankly!! There mustv've been ten dishes for the two of us and despite our protest they refused to join us, happy with their lot. We couldn't possibly finish it, but it was no problem. The rice wine that followed made everything happy.
As did the Cartoon Network. Yes, you read that right, folks. In this verdant valley people worked the fields, tended their animals, lived in their wooden/bamboo villiages, dressed in their elaborate, stunningly beautiful traditional attire (just wait for the pics of the Red Dzong costume!!) and watch Thai satellite telly. And what does the family sit and watch into the night (and again from the crack of dawn, as we were to discover)?? Cartoon Network. It isn't even dubbed!! So as part of our authentic tribesfolk experience we had a Johnny Bravo triple bill followed by Scooby Doo. Over breakfast we wached THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE!! and Bob the Builder. All in English. And yet not one of them could speak a word......
The next day was sunny and cool and equally brill. Blah blah blah.
Not many men where their traditional clothes these days, but all the women do. It's not just for the tourists either - every woman in the fields wore traditional garb. However, as in Ha Long Bay (though in a very different way) Sapa and the surrounding area is very much on the tourist trail, and don't the local girls know it. Be it in the middle of Sapa market of out in the boonies, they spy whities coming from miles off, circle like vultures (OK, that's unkind, they're lovely!! but you think of a better analogy) and then dive bomb you with merchandise. Unlike Hanoi, this isn't made-in-China type junk - I honestly reckon they've made this stuff themselves, lord knows we saw enough looms on our hike. But nevertheless, these girls are relentless. Thankfully after a few months travelling we had a decent patter of "no thanks", a few smiles, a brief chat. Often it would work, though sometimes not i must confess. However, I pitied the countless newbies who STUPIDLY showed an intrest in something when there were other sellers around. If you're going to buy something from someone (and we did, some of the weaving/jewelry etc. isso beautiful) for heavens sake scan the area for other sellers, or prepare for a long battle with an increasing crowd of little ladies.
From Ha Long Bay and more so Sapa I learned again that there is a tourist trail and that we were firmly on it. I also learned lessons for next time - that it's so easy to jump off the trail. Sapa for all it's beauty is overrun by the tourist dollar. This money brings the paradox of how it reacts with the traditional lifestyle of people here. Cash brings changes - obvious ones like satellite TV but also subtle ones like turning subsistance farmers into wage workers. This on the one hand erodes tradition but then by dressing up in the local garb and turning traditional skills into merchandise for tourists you're in some way keeping heritage alive.
I left Sapa confused and bufuddled - it's beautiful and more people want to visit, yet to facilitate the experience the Vietnamese sees fit to rip up half a valley for a new access road. The local population is being irrevocably changed by tourism, yet it seems to be the only thing keeping them as they are.
That said, I'm sure there's a whole world out there over the next hill that isn't like this, that really IS like stepping back in time, that doesn't have the concrete rubbish hotels or the new roads. We glimpsed it the further we got from Sapa town and next time I'm off there. I've had it with the backpacker trail!! :)
PS it was so cold I GOT one. Took me a week to shake it. :(