Fancypants in Vietnam

Trip Start May 31, 2012
Trip End Aug 08, 2013

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Where I stayed
Fansipan View Hotel Sapa
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of Vietnam  , Lào Cai,
Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sa Pa is a little town in the mountains of Vietnam and it has gained quite a reputation over the past few years for trekkers looking to tackle said mountains (trekkers, not trekkies..... I believe they gather somewhere in San Diego). There are a number of little villages around Sa Pa that are within walking distance and are home to lots of different tribes of indigenous people who sell their handicrafts to tourists. We took the night train, leaving Hanoi at 9:50 pm and arriving at Lao Cai at 6 am (right at the border to China), then it's another hour minibus ride into Sa Pa itself, which the hotel provided for us (which was great!). Let me start this post off by saying that this was my favourite part of our trip so far in Vietnam, everyone was really friendly, and it was just busy enough, with plenty of interesting and affordable food. Our hotel, the Fansipan* View Hotel (or Fancypants, as it is known by me), was really nice with a full balcony and complimentary slippers. The staff there were also incredible, nothing was too much trouble for them.

We had 3 days there and we decided spend our first day wandering around, getting to know the area. First thing, we got some coffees at a little cafe overlooking one of the roads out of town. We proceeded to watch various tours leave town, with members of the Black H'Mong tribe in their traditional garb trailing along with each group. There was a large gathering of the H'Mong people kind of waiting around for a group of people to leave town and then a number of them would glom onto the trekkers, generally at a ratio of one to one. We had heard that this happens from a blog that Kara read prior to our arrival in town. Quite often they'll walk with you all day, getting to know you and giving you a hand when you need it, and then try to sell you something at the end of the trip. We had quite a fun time watching all of these tour groups leaving town with their entourages of H'Mong following along. With this in mind before we even went on a trip, we were sure we would be able to resist any pressures to buy anything. We're no pushovers!

That afternoon we rented a motorbike, which I was slightly hesitant about at first, but eventually figured that this was one of the main reasons we came to the mountains of Northern Vietnam, to ride motorbikes through. I had been on a dirtbike once years ago, as had Kara when she was a kid, so we were both fairly newbies at it. We rented one bike for the two of us for 5 bucks on the side of the road for the rest of the afternoon. The fellow was very helpful in showing us how everything worked (it was a standard!) and then wished us luck. Luckily, the streets in Sa Pa were nowhere near as busy at they are in Hanoi so I was able to gradually get a handle on driving the thing, with Kara perched on the back. We then headed out of town, looking for the Silver Waterfalls and the Tram Ton pass, a ridge that serves as the meeting point (or violent collision) for two separate weather systems. We read that if it's raining on the side of the mountain on the way up, after the pass it could be really sunny. So, on we ventured, until the guy who had rented us the bikes came up behind us and reminded us to check the fuel guage (which was on empty), and led us to the nearest gas station. He stayed with us as we figured out how to fill it with gas, with a growing line of impatient bikers behind us. Then, on we ventured!

We made it to the Silver Waterfalls about half an hour later, and the guy who rented us the bike was already there! I guess just checking up on us to make sure we were ok and not destroying his bike or getting ourselves killed. We spent some time at the waterfalls, which were magnificent, and then headed off for the pass! We didn't quite put it together that if it was bright and sunny on our side of the mountain, then it could quite possibly be wet and rainy on the other side, until we were on the other side and we were wet. So, we turned around and drove back to town, stopping here and there to take photos or switch spots. It turns out we're both quite good bikers, as neither of us were killed nor killed anybody else. That's success in my books!

When we got back into town we stopped off at a local Bia Hoy place, a curbside bar with plastic chairs set up next to the parking lot of what we think was the bus station. Bia Hoy is a local draught beer that is delicious and cheap, and they were also selling streetside BBQ which we decided we'd come back for the next night. We were heading out to a place called Nature's View for dinner that night, with nice big windows and spectacular views of the mountains and valleys. Unfortunately, we were enjoying the Bia Hoy too much and didn't make it to Nature's View until after it was dark. Still good though.

The next morning we had signed ourselves up for a guided tour of the some of the surrounding villages with a local Black H'Mong tribe member as a guide. Her name was Chan (sp?), or something to that effect. I feel bad for not knowing but due to her accent and not knowing how it's spelled, I could be way off. Anyway, she was wonderful and the tour turned out to be much better than either Kara and I had hoped for. There were 10 people altogether (plus the obligatory H'Mong members trailing us), including a couple from Scotland that we got along with really well. We started out at about 10 am and the tour lasted the entire day. As soon as we started, the individual H'Mong tribe members picked someone out and kind of mirrored them for the day. Kara and I got these two 9 year old girls who were friends and were extremely cute, but we still weren't going to let ourselves be talked into buying anything we didn't want, dagnabbit!

We toured through the villages of Lai Chau and Ta Van, each home to Black H'Mong, Zay and Red Zao people. We saw lots of chickens, water buffalo, ducks and pigs and actually walked right through the towns, through people's fields and into bamboo forests. It had rained considerably the night before so there were some pretty mucky parts to walk through but man was it ever incredible. It didn't rain all day and stayed quite nice throughout. Kara and I had slathered sunblock on ourselves but some of our other tourmates were quite red by the end of the day. The two 9 year old girls followed us closely. It was pretty funny, Kara and I could get separated very easily, taking pictures, looking at something, but those girls stayed right beside one of us the whole time. We'd go into a shop to check something out and they'd wait outside for us to emerge. I'd stop to get a shot of the group as they walked ahead and one of the girls would stop next to me. They asked us our names, where we were from, if we had brothers and sisters... etc. The weirdest thing though was when they asked me how old I was, I said 33 and the one girl said 'Oh, very young!'. Such a strange sentiment from a little girl so I thought maybe I had misheard. Later on though, another tribe member, an older lady, attached herself to Kara and I and flattered us with the same comment, 'Oh, very young!' in response to our ages. I guess it's a way of supplicating to older tourists and these children were learning the script.

As a sidenote here, we had read in the guidebook (which is about 5 years old) that tourists should respect these indigenous cultures, and one of the things they warn against is taking pictures of them without their permission as some of them feel it steals a part of their soul. Now, a lot of the info in the book is outdated slightly, and it seems like the H'Mong people who hang out in town have no problem having their pictures taken as tourists are snapping away all the time, but we still felt that we shouldn't stick a camera in their faces and take pictures (so we did it behind their backs or as part of a wider scenic shot). Aside from pictures of Chan, who didn't mind having her picture taken at all, we tried not to be too snaphappy. So this is why many of the shots of our guides/entourage/compatriots are from behind. Annnnnyway, back to the thrilling story at hand....

We stopped and had lunch at around noon, and that's when the selling started. a chorus of "You buy something from me?" or "You buy something and I go home." Our little girls weren't as pushy as some of the women who had been doing it their whole lives so that was nice, but I did feel bad. They wouldn't take no for an answer! So every time I said "Noooo" very gently, they'd say back "Yaaaaa" just as gently, but we were both smiling the whole time so I don't think they took it too personally. At one point, Kara responded with 'Maybe later", to which they replied, "Maybe sure?" which was just great. They eventually gave up though and sauntered away but at least there were no tears. We had read about one woman who had a kid following her only to end up faced with a crying child at the end of the tour when she didn't want to buy anything! I don't know if I could have faced that. "Here, take it all, take all my money! Just stop crying!!".

The tour continued on through another village after lunch (with all new Black H'Mong companions!) and on through a bamboo forest which was really muddy and quite treacherous. Our new companions helped us through the muddy parts, taking our hands when we almost lost our balance, saving us from ending up face down in the muck. It was at this point that I realized I had to buy something from the woman helping me through the forest. I bought a little wallet, or man purse, whatever you want to call it. It cost me 50 cents, whatever. You weren't there! You'd have done the same! We finished up around 4 or 5 pm, at which point we caught a bus back into town. We went back to the little plastic chaired streetside palace for beer and bbq, delicious!

The next day we toured ourselves around another small local village, bought a little sculpture from the artist himself (it's awesome!) and tried some Black H'Mong apple wine. Those people know how to party, it is sooooo strong. So I bought a small bottle from some ladies on the street. It's going to make the next few bus/train rides much more interesting!

We left Sa Pa that night, taking a night bus back to Hanoi. It took about 12 hours, but we had seats that reclined into sleeping positions. It wasn't as bad as we thought it was going to be, but it still wasn't luxurious by any means. But for 18 bucks, whatdya' want?! 36 man purses?

*Fansipan Mountain is the highest peak in Vietnam, and is a bastardized English version of the Vietnamese name Phan Xi Pang, further bastardized by yours truly.
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