Originally published on facebook – October 1, 2010 at 6:24am ·

HANOI to SA PA, day 3 cont.


I haggle my taxi driver down to $35,000 dong from $50,000 and get in. He delivers me safely in the rain from the hostel to the train and I wander in feeling a little lost. Where to go? What to do? And does anyone speak English? The usual feelings. A man approaches me and snatches my ticket from my hand, I’m startled but he waves for me to follow him and leads me to the right pace where my large ticket is exchanged for a small one, I don’t know why. They wave me in some general direction and say platform 6, ok. I find Platform 6, the right car, the right room and finally the right bed. A soft sleeper, it actually isn’t that soft but adequate, top bunk again, figures. I go to climb up to my bed and put my hand on the handle to help pull me up which promptly pulls out of the wall, leaving holes and the very short screws scrape down the flimsy wood leaving marks, sturdy I think. I’m standing there holding the handle and feeling guilty quickly put it out of the way in an upper cubbyhole when I am joined by my roommates for the evening. 3 others, Beckie and Andy from England and Len from New Brunswick. We sit around for a couple hours swapping travel stories and information and then it’s lights out for the 9 hour night train ride.


SA PA, day 4.


We are awoken by loud music and shouts of “COFF-EY” around 5 am, we have arrived in Lo Cai where we will transfer onto a minibus for a 1 hour ride up into the mountains to Sa Pa. I am sitting next to a guy and girl from the Netherlands (just friends they are quick to tell me) and we get to chatting. She is Manon, he is Jan Willem.  We are treated to views of winding mountain roads and breathtakingly green scenery and my first view of terraced rice paddy mountainside. As well as lots of fog, mist and rain. We arrive at the top of Sa Pa, far from the center of town. We suspect the driver has delivered us to this hotel because he gets a kickback, typical, and inconvenient for us. My new Dutch friends and I naturally gravitate towards each other and decide to search out a hotel closer to the center of town together. We start walking, in the rain.


Almost immediately we are beset by a variety of women ranging in age from 11 to 50. They are from the Black Hmong tribe, distinctive in their black or very dark indigo clothing with embroidered white details. They want to know your name, where you are from, how old are you, are you married, do you have brothers and sisters, and oh, will you only buy things from me please? They are tenacious and so very sweet it’s impossible to be rude, but it gets tired very, very quickly.


We find a hotel, having to walk up 81 steps to get to our rooms. The views are fantastic when we are lucky to catch a glimpse through the pervasive mist and fog. We drop our bags and go in search of coffee and breakfast. We are all feeling fairly spacey after the train and early morning, I decide to spend the day in town checking it out and finding out about guides and treks for the next day, catching up on journaling and even getting on FB. Jan Willem and Manon go off to see the Silver Waterfalls which is apparently heavily touristed so another reason I decide to pass. We meet up later in the day, have dinner and book a guide for the trek I found. Early night to bed, I am freezing under my thin comforter and sleep in layers of clothing.


SA PA, day 5.


$14usd to pay for our trek. Most guide companies seem to offer the same trek to 3 towns, meaning that it would be overrun and overdone. The one I found seemed a little different, We were to trek 17km through mostly countryside, visiting a typical home on the way and ending up in a small village. It sounded off the beaten path a bit and proved quite good. We are picked up at our hotel at 9am. Our guides name is Trui (pronounced tree) and he is lovely and speaks English very well. We are driven about 5km down the road towards Lo Cai and then dropped at the side of the road.


We set off across fields of grass and through rice paddies and started up a hill towards a small cluster of buildings that turned out to be a couple of houses and a small school. Lots of little kids around being shy and none of the adults seemed the least bit interested in us even though we were all smiling and doing our best to be friendly, oh well, not everyone can love us. We take a few pictures and I fall in love with a couple water buffalo, I adore their faces and the way their mouths move side to side with the slow chewing they are constantly doing.


We walked along through the river valley, amazing views of mountains with scattered rice paddy terraces, a river runs through the bottom of the valley alongside us and the mist and fog hung low making everything seem soft and diffused. We go picture crazy. It would have been insanely hot if the skies were clear so we are happy with the fog and only get a little spitting of rain throughout the whole day. Even so we’re roasting and dripping sweat in no time, at least Jan Willem and I are, Manon seems to be one of those beautiful women who just glows gracefully, and Trui is used to it so it barely fazes him. I very much resemble a pig, being slowly roasted.


We keep walking and a group of about 8 or 9 small children come running up behind us and then past. As we come around the next corner they are waiting for us, posed perfectly. We oblige and take tons of pictures, showing them the ones of themselves. They seem to get great pleasure out of seeing themselves and scream and laugh enormously when we show them on the camera display. Who could resist this cuteness? Finally we move on and are serenaded by shouts of good-bye as long as we are in sight.


Soon we reach the point where we are to start going uphill. The trail narrows, becomes steeper, rockier, muddier and oh so slippery. It’s super hard work but I keep thinking about how American GI’s did this and much, much harder stuff while carrying an average of about 90 pounds in their packs, plus the added weight of fear so, ok I’ve got it pretty good here. I am only wearing running shoes as I left my hiking shoes at home thinking that they would be too warm to wear in these climates, I was right they would be very hot but my pristine white shoes are now turned a permanent orangey-brown colour from the mud, besides this they did a fine job. We all are covered in mud up to our knees, except for Trui, he had knee high rubber boots on, clever man stayed lovely and clean all day.


We finally reach the top of the hill where Trui leads us into a farmhouse. If I didn’t know better I would think it was an uninhabited, abandoned place, but apparently 12 people live here and call it home. The adults are all out working but there are 5 children at home, the eldest (about 10 years old) taking care of the younger ones, the youngest is just walking. they are terribly shy and I feel awkward being in their home, like I am intruding so I don’t feel right about wandering about and looking too closely at anything. I suspect Manon and Jan Willem feel the same as neither of them snoop either. Trui shows us an ingenious handmade mousetrap and I made him repeat the demonstration so I can video it. Apparently there are larger versions used for hunting rabbits and the like. He also plays for us a traditional wind instrument which sort of sounds like bagpipes, he admits he doesn’t actually know how to play it properly though so perhaps with skill it sounds better.


We’ve rested a bit and caught our breath, it’s time to move on. We wave bye to the kids and I take a picture of a little cutie standing half hidden in a doorway, I show her the picture and am rewarded by a huge smile, progress!  My legs are creaking but I know it will get better as long as I keep moving, I am the tortoise I think, slow and steady, I’ll get there eventually. We head across country for a while, not much more uphill thank goodness, following a wider dirt road, giant bamboo forests are on each side of us and we pass scattered small houses, a few people and more water buffalo. I want to touch one but Trui tells me not to try because they are quite timid and will just run away so I don’t but now I’m wishing I had. I do admit to being a bit intimidated by them myself, they are quite large and I wouldn’t want to scare it into running me over in it’s quest to escape.


I talk with Trui about education in the countryside. The kids start school at age 6 and can go until they are 18 but most either quit early or don’t go at all. Either because they are needed at home to take care of the younger children or because the family doesn’t see the point of education when everything needed for survival is provided by hard work in the rice fields, family farm etc. Also a lot of the girls and women go into town to try to get tourists to buy from them. These are the Black Hmong women who I wrote about earlier. The rice farms feed the family for a whole year. when the rice is not ready to be worked then the men go hunting with their dogs and the women tend the vegetable garden or make embroidery to sell and then go and try to sell it.


It’s finally time to stop for lunch, Trui leads us up on top of a large rock overlooking the valley, epic views. we have ground chicken cooked with mushrooms in baguettes with tomatoes and cucumber that Trui chops up on the spot, Also small sweet apples and bananas. Yum.


Again we walk, starting downhill now and it’s tricky because of the slippyness of the mud. We start to see a few more people and only one asks us to buy anything, she takes no for an answer on the first go which I am thankful for because often they keep following you and asking again and again. It’s tough because you get to a point where you feel you have to ignore them and that is just so dehumanizing, I hate to have to do it but if I bought something from every person that asks I’d be headed home next week, bank account empty, journey over. Downhill takes us a couple hours and is hard work but I make it without ending up on my ass, only a couple of minor slippages. In the town we end up in we are approached by people trying to sell again, same issues as mentioned before. We all agree that it is difficult to keep saying no and to stay polite even after repeated badgering but you don’t get mad in Vietnam, huge loss of face if you do.


There is a waterfall nearby and Trui asks if we want to visit it while we wait for our bus. We agree and have to cross a very rickety old suspension bridge. As some of you know from my Central America journals I am not a fan of suspension bridges and this one does the same thing to my knees and stomach all the others have done…….shaky, wobbly. Not for me. But I do it as quickly as possible and Trui helps distract me by telling me about marriage rituals in the Vietnam countryside. A man will see a woman (or girl), maybe at a market where a few villages have met up to trade, sell etc. He will ask around about the girl and if he finds out she is single he will gather a group of friends together and they will “kidnap” the girl and keep her captive for 3 days. She’ll often fight and create a ruckus but in the end she really has no choice but to go. After the 3 days is up she is allowed free and given the choice whether to marry the man or not. If she refuses she is considered unlucky (spoiled goods)and will most likely be somewhat shunned from then on, so she usually agrees (what else can she do?). The man’s family will pay something to the woman’s family, a dowry type situation I think, and then she will go live with her new husbands family, leaving behinds hers. I asked about divorce and he said it was extremely rare, families stayed together until death because of the children. I was curious about other types of marriage and asked if  “love marriages” occur. It’s much more common in the cities and more civilized areas but divorce from this type of marriage is most definitely on the rise.


At 3:30pm we pile back on board our bus. We start to discuss our plans for the next day and all come to the conclusion that we have pretty much done what we wanted to do in Sa Pa. Since the only way back to Hanoi is on a night train and we don’t want to hang about all the next day waiting for it we decide to try for that night’s train if possible. We have a mad scramble back at the hotel getting packed and showered in time to catch the 5pm bus into Lo Cai for the train.. We will buy train tickets at the station on arrival, we hope. On the bus to Lo Cai Len and Andy get on as well, they have finished their tour of Sa Pa and have tickets for the 8:05pm train. I make the necessary introductions and when we get to Lo Cai at 6pm Len and Andy wait in a cafe while Manon, Jan Willem and I go to get our tickets. It’s chaotic and confusing at the station as usual but we get on the 8:05 train as well. I am on my own, Len and Andy are in a room next door and Manon and Jan Willem are somewhere further down the train. I am rooming with 3 girls from China, only 1 speaks some English for which I am somewhat thankful as I am shattered and we exhaust our conversational abilities fairly quickly so I climb into my top bunk (again!) and am asleep by 9pm.

This boy loved his little wheel toy, we had fun making truck noises together…..