Sapa, 4th - 9th April 09
04.04.2009 - 09.04.2009 -50 °C
Arrive in Lao Cai at 5am after an overnight train journey, deluxe class. We take a minivan the remaining 38km to Sapa. The sky is brewing up a storm, complete with fork lightening and thunder directly on its tail. Flooded roads, swollen rivers, landslips and drowned steeply terraced rice paddies. The closer we get to Sapa, the worse the carnage that ensues. And this is the dry season! We arrive amid torrential rain which floods the square and pours over the stairs at this steep French hill station location. Power is out so we seek refuge at the closest hotel and have hot pancakes by candlelight for brekky.
We settle in and resume sleep until the sun is beaming and the power resumes. A change of night and day. Hill tribe minorities from nearby villages are heading through town en-route to the Saturday market, carrying baskets full of handicrafts and dressed in colourful traditional garb, their different costumes representing the different tribes.
The instant we step out of the cafe we are accosted by a throng of H'mong women who accompany us on our walk and try to entice us into a sale with their impeccable English and friendly dispositions. You will not see a lone traveler in Sapa - the local minorities attach themselves to foreigners like flies on meat. They pounce on you when you leave the resto's - not missing any opportunity to commence a sale. That said, it's a real pleasure!
The main street is surrounded by hotels dotting the periphery of the misty mountains, with views of the terraced rice paddies stepping down into the valleys below. At the local market the Montagnards all trade with one another - the largest ethnic groups being the H'mong and the Dzao people with their billowing red headdresses.
We appreciate the cool air and are drawn to the activity at the town square where we engage with a couple of young H'mong girls. The talkative one is 20yrs old and is married with two children. It takes us a while to notice the little babies strapped to their backs hidden from the elements by blankets. These girls walk for 2hrs every morning to come to Sapa to sell their handicrafts (luckily their husbands pick them up to return home but many others walk). We're amazed at how low maintenance the babies are here - they just hang out on their mother's backs all day. Girls marry at around 13-15yrs old. The parents of both families have to approve the match. Potential husbands are chosen based on their assets e.g. how many water buffalo they possess.
We head up to the 'microwave station' to receive intermittently spectacular views of the valley (in between engulfment by mist). The mist chases us through the valley where we explore through a maze of caves, karst, rock gardens, and the best views of Sapa town from "cloud yard". Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam and we freeze up here once the sun sets.
"Smile Resto" for dinner where we order exotic fare such as goose and deer, whilst sampling the cheap Sapa wines on offer; fruit, cherry, and plain rice wine for less than $1 each! A free traditional hill-tribe cultural performance provides a good excuse to sample the plum and apple wines at a local bar. We befriend some local teens who give us lucky trinkets and before we know it we get pulled up to dance and participate in the show with a bamboo stick game which is like elastics but using bamboo poles instead (ouch).
We embark on a two day trek through minority villages, complete with tour guide, Lauren from the states, Linda from Canada, and an ethnic minority entourage. We start from the rural Cavan village of the Dzay minority, sloshing along the muddy paths past ox, chickens, pigs, children and bamboo shacks.
First stop is to visit some families along the way where cute grubby kiddies play in the dirt with spare bike parts for toys. As we leave the villages to walk through the terraced rice paddies, our entourage of women and children hold our hands to prevent us from sliding over when it gets steep and muddy. Every time we lose our balance little hands appear to support us - so sweet!
We emerge from the bamboo forests to a cascading waterfall. This is the end of the line for our entourage who live in the nearby village. Our new 'friends' try guilt us into buying trinkets - poor Lauren gets H'mong cursed for not buying anything. We cross the river and head through the Giang Ta Chai village - home to the red Dzao. Quyen our 23yr old guide, who walks in jeans and a leather jacket, takes us on a shortcut towards our destination of Ban Ho, through a construction site for the dam that's in the pipeline - a total eyesore to the otherwise picturesque valley. Yet, this valley is supposedly under National Park protection. What do they actually protect?
Ban Ho is home to the Tay minority, who we'll be staying with tonight in a traditional stilted house. We soon realise that this experience will be just as 'authentic' as the Mai Chau homestays as every house in this village has been converted to a homestay. We are left to entertain ourselves so we drink beers and play cards (not exactly the minority experience we'd envisaged). Although the seasoned hot chips go down a treat! Quyen, who isn't too enthused about trekking is in his element as he cooks us dinner (he wants to own a resto someday). Servings of many tasty meat and vege dishes, with copious shots of "happy water" (rice wine) to wash it down.
Quyen admits to being a few rice wines ahead of us and an emotional outburst follows - he dramatically throws his promise ring onto the table and tells us his girlfriend woes - poor boy. He's cheered up somewhat by breakfast and after lots of banana and honey pancakes we head to "The Lavie" waterfall, now signposted as "The Deathtrap" since a tourist drowned here last year. We're soon joined by a German couple, their guide, and an entourage of Dzao women. The German guy takes instant develop photo's of the Dzao and gives them pics of themselves to keep. The rapture they gain from these "magic pictures" is priceless - a technology that we don't even use anymore. The irony does not escape us. After lunch we head back up the hill to the road, as Quyen doesn't want to walk the 9km road (not quite the 15km per day of trekking we'd been promised yet Vietnam and false advertising goes hand in hand), where we wait for our old army jeep to pick us up. Our trusty dog 'Mic' who follows us everywhere, entertains us and pisses on the Thit Cho (dog meat) sign of the local resto.
Back in Sapa we indulge in divine apple tarts and chocolate tarts at the local bakery, then it's back to "Smile" for dinner and wine with Lauren. We are soon joined by Beka, then Brady, and make the most of having a drinking crew. We end up at a bar - feel like we've been transported to Texas (the fact that we are with 2 Texans may have something to do with that!) as this is where all the tourists drink (too expensive for the locals). We have a curfew at our hotel but want to carry on drinking so Lauren and Beka 'borrow' some expensive looking Italian wine and we carry on back home on our balcony, making good use of the teapot set. Good times until our neighbor comes out in her undies and complains. We proceed to whisper (about her undies), yet this seems to anger her further "I can hear everything you're saying" she whines. Sigh...
We meet up with Lauren and Beka for brekky at Smile, then say bye to Lauren who leaves today. Later on the power in the whole of Sapa dies - right when we're in the middle of writing online and Beka is online to her boyfriend.
We admit defeat and drink fruit wine at Smile... a good excuse. Then it's time to celebrate again - our neighbor moved out so now we can drink and be loud in peace. Red wine and chocolate tarts on the balcony while looking out over the misty mountains around us. Special times in Sapa!