Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sapa - Those Little Old Ladies Are Being Friendly For A Reason

One of the tours that we booked in Hanoi was a 2 day trip to visit Sapa, a town located up in the mountains near the North Western border of Vietnam to China. The tour involved taking an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a small town on the border, then a bus from Lao Cai to Sapa where we would go on 2 one day treks to the local villages, while staying overnight at a hotel in Sapa, returning back to Hanoi via the overnight train.

Because this was described as a trekking trip, we thought we would not be able to bring along our large backpacks, so we organised to leave them at a hostel back in Hanoi. Once we set off on the tour bus to get to the train station in Hanoi, we noticed that other members of the tour had brought along their own big backpacks. It was then we realised that we made a huge mistake in parting with the majority of our possessions and thus worried about getting them all back safe and sound for the entire duration of our trip. Fortunately, upon our return, we found all of our possessions safe and sound, but we have vowed not to part with them again.

On the way up to Lao Cai, we shared a cabin with a friendly Vietnamese business woman and businessman. There was no voice over the PA system that told you which station you were stopping at, so when we woke up in the morning and someone yelled into the cabin that we were at Lao Cai, a mad dash ensued to get us as well as the few belongings we brought with us in our daypacks off the train, before it set off again.

The bus from Lao Cai to Sapa took about 1 hour to snake it's way up the windy mountain road and gave the tour group and excellent preview of the beautiful landscape that we would be trekking through over the next 2 days. We could see beautiful clear blue skies, the first clear blue skies that we have seen since leaving Perth, with clear white clouds, flowing very quickly over the mountain tops. Along the hillsides, there were rice fields and corn fields, planted on the slopes as far as the eye could see. It really was spectacular. 

After checking into our hotel and grabbing a quick bite for breakfast, we met our tour group outside the front of our hotel. Here we were divvied up into groups of 6. Our group included a Spanish couple and a Dutch couple. I later found out during our trek on the second day, that the Danish fellow was an ex-professional football player who played in some of the top German football leagues, so he and I ended up getting on like a house on fire. Each group was introduced to their tour guide who was a female villager from the neighbouring villages. Our guide's name was Sun, a 24 year old girl who lived in Ta Van village, one of the villages we were due to visit on our second trek. Accompanying the guides were a horde of other female villagers, ages ranging from young girls that looked about 10 years old, all the way to elderly ladies who were over 50. 

When we set off, some of the old ladies, joined our group to follow us on our 3 hour trek, down to the bottom of the valley to see Cat Cat village, home to the people of the Black H'mong Tribe. At first we all figured that the extra villagers were there as assistants to the guide and thus the entire group all conversed with them, exchanging conversations about their families, where they were from, etc. The penny dropped when the group went to turn down a narrow pathway that lead down into the village when the ladies exclaimed that they were not allowed to go any further, even though our guide had already entered. At this point, out came the bags, jewellery and souvenirs with them all pleading to us to buy off them, since we are now all friends. Even though we didn't really want to buy anything, feeling really uncomfortable, Jenni and I agreed to buy a couple of small purses from 2 of the ladies for a few dollars. A third lady pleaded us to buy one from her, but eventually stamped her feet in disgust and loudly cursed in her native tongue, when we apologised and walked down into the village. The following day, everyone in the group wasn't so chatty with the accompanying villagers during the trek.

Cat Cat village was located on a high sloping hill with rice terraces built all of the way from the top to bottom. A set of steps wound its way down through the rice terraces, among some small houses to the bottom of the valley to a waterfall. Small village children approached us to sell us small bobbles, but would not offer us one for the small amount of change we had left in our wallets. They instead, settled for taking a photo with us in exchange for the money (although as the photos show, they looked rather reluctant to do so). Some of the other tourists were a bit too much in the villager's faces with their cameras, so we decided to limit our photos.

On the way back up, the group felt a bit adventurous, so we all took a 'shortcut' which lead directly up the steep hill through small, poorly marked dirts trails. Along the way we had a very close encounter with one of the local water buffalos who was taking a break from his rice paddock ploughing duties, eating some shrubbery on the hill. When we reached Sapa at the top, we had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves, so we spent it walking around the town square and enjoying the spectacular mountain backdrop to the town. Aside from a brief power cut which left us in the pitch dark in our hotel room, Jenni and I spent the night watching B grade movies on the tv, while at one point, cautiously peering outside the room door as we could hear what sounded like loud shrieks of terror from one of the other female guests (we soon figured out that she was just a bit over excited).

The following day, we set off with our guide, along with a couple of other villagers on our long trek that would take us through Muong Hoa Valley. Aside from our 'shortcut', the previous day's trek was fairly easy going as the majority of it was spent walking down bitumen roads to get to the village and then once in the village, walking on well built pathways. The trek on this day was very hard going as the majority of it was spent walking down steep, small trails, along the side of very slippery and muddy rice terraces and crossing fairly large streams atop of small, slippery stepping stones. The mountain area that we were in was much cooler than Hanoi, but the constant exposure to the sun made us very sweaty and sticky and sapped the energy from us. 

Although the conditions were really tough, we still enjoyed the speculator views that were on offer. The photos just do not do it justice. Along the trek we passed through Ylinhho Village of the people of the Black H'mong Tribe and through Lao Chi Village where we stopped by the Muong Hoa river at a small 'restaurant' for lunch. By the time we reached here, Jenni was really struggling due to exhaustion and finding it very difficult to navigate the slippery stepping stones along the long, muddy rice terrace that lead to the restaurant. We would typically not eat at a place like this, but because we needed food so badly, we didn't really have much of a choice. As mentioned in a previous post, we fell sick the day after this trek, when we returned from Sapa to Hanoi, so this restaurant is one of our number one suspects to where we got sick from.

After lunch, we continued the trek to Ta Van village, home to Zay minorities. This was the same village that our guide was from. As it turned out, one of the little old ladies that had trekked the entire way from Sapa with us was our guide's grandmother and she graciously invited the group to come in and see her house within the village. Her house was very simple and divided into 3 main rooms with a compacted dirt floor. One room was for cooking and the others for sleeping. Hanging up on one of the walls were wedding photos of our guide. Inside we met some other members of the family including our guide's husband and young baby boy. Surrounding the house were many different kinds of animals such as cats, dogs, pigs, ducks and chickens. A single power chord had been run from the nearest road to the house to provide limited electricity. Although we did not see it often, we did catch some of the villagers embracing the joys of modern technology, the most notable was when we caught our guide using her mobile phone to get updates of the progress of other tour groups. 

After allowing us to see her house as well as walking the whole way with us (the other villagers had peeled off earlier on), everyone in the group was more than happy to buy something off the little old lady as as well as from her granddaughter in law. We bade the family farewell and headed to the front of the village where our bus was waiting to take us back along the main road to Sapa. All up it took from 9am through to 3pm to traverse about 5km through the tough terrain, so we were all very glad to eventually make it back to the hotel for a shower. 

Before jumping on the bus to head back to the train station, we ate some dinner in the restaurant (those prawns served to Jenni were the second suspect for making us sick). When we arrived at the train station, the heat was sweltering again, so we grabbed a fresh coconut from one of the street restaurants (this is the third and final suspect). When we jumped on the train, aside from feeling hot and exhausted, we both felt fine, but it was a completely different story for Jenni when we arrived in Hanoi.

Feeling VERY green, Jenni managed to drag her sorry carcass off the train and into a taxi. When we arrived at our new hostel in the Old Quarter it was about 5am in the morning and the roller shutters where closed. Jenni groaned and placed her head between her knees while I panicked. A bunch of very drunk guys stumbled past and I heard one of them mention the word 'toilet'. I asked them where it was, but they claimed that they were just going to go in one of the back alleyways. I explained our situation to the inebriated fellows and they insisted on helping our cause by all four, VERY LOUDLY banging on the shutter of our hostel and yelling at the top of their lungs. It worked a treat and they quickly retreated when a very sleepy and not too impressed Vietnamese bloke opened up the roller shutters to let us both in, while I apologised profusely.

Our new accommodation was not exactly the Taj Mahal and, realising that Jenni was not going to get better anytime soon, I contacted our original hotel a few hours later and got us booked in there for a few nights to let Jenni recover. During that morning, while Jenni stayed in the room, moving at speed between the bed and the toilet, I was busy running around, cancelling pre-booked accommodation in other cities, cancelling train tickets and visiting our travel agent to push back our Halong Bay trip until a time I thought Jenni would be better. Due to a combination of the long exposure to the heat from the day before, lack of sleep on the train, lack of food and water and stress caused from running around organising things to get Jenni better, I in turn fell sick and found myself lying beside Jenni with a fever, splitting headache and mild upset tummy over the next day or two. We were a pretty sorry sight!

Thanks to the medicine given to us from my Dad and the medical advice given to us from both Jenni's mum and my dad via a series of text messages and brief phone calls we managed to recover after 3 days. We decided to stay put in Hanoi for an additional 2 nights after we started to feel that we were on the road to recovery as we wanted to make sure that we were 100% before setting off to Halong Bay. During the time we were sick, the hotel staff at the Atlantic Hotel in Hanoi were fantastic in tending to our every need. If you are ever planning on staying in Hanoi, I would highly recommend staying there as the rooms are very good and the staff are the best we have encountered during our travels.

We are now fighting fit and continuing on with our travels, so stay tuned for Halong Bay!

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