Holy Sh*t! I took more than 2700 pics in 4 hours!

Trip Start Oct 31, 2012
Trip End Dec 12, 2012

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Shortly before the train arrives, a porter walks up and down the car of the train, knocking on doors and telling us we are arriving in Lao Cai.  Another circus is about to happen at that hour (5.15 am) of the morning. 

The main draw to Lao Cai is its proximity to Sapa, an hour away.  The region is home to many small ethnic villages, where you can trek through them for a number of days, and Sapa is the home base.  During the French occupation, Sapa, like Luang Prabang, was a hill station for the French to retreat to to beat the heat.  Located high in the mountains, the cool weather turns to cold at night, but the views are said to be beautiful.  

Even before we get off the train, taxi touts have boarded and are selling their services.  There will be many more waiting for us outside the station.  Since it is Sunday, that means market day at Bac Ha, two hours away.  The people from the surrounding villages will make their way to sell their goods, and the women will be dressed in the local style of clothing.  To get to Bac Ha, you have three options: (1) Chance it on public transportation, (2) Join an organized tour for about $15 and visit the market for two hours, but the vans don't leave Sapa and Lao Cai until later in the morning, or (3) Book a car/driver for $100, which will take you to Bac Ha immediately after pickup.  Since the travel boards say the setting up of the market is the best time to be there, and the tourist groups won't arrive for another few hours, you have the place to yourself to wander and observe.  I opt for option #3, mainly because of having the place to myself for picture taking, and I have all my luggage with me.

Since I had pre-arranged my car/driver, who I am assurred speaks some English, I look for the sign with my name as I exit the station.  I see one marked ENN DA VID.  I ask him if he is my driver, but he doesn't understand a word I say.  I wait and wait.  Finally, someone speaking limited English comes to me and tells me the sign holder is indeed the one for me.  As we drive to Bac Ha, I try to catch up on my sleep.  It starts to rain hard at times, then drops to a drizzile.  When we finally get to Bac Ha, he drops me off in front of a hotel that serves as the meeting point for all public and private buses.  The driver says something to a guy who works there, the guy tells me that I am to be back at the hotel by 9 am so that we can return to Sapa.  WTF?  It's only 7.30, and I didn't pay $100 for a trip that was to be even shorter than what the tour groups offer.  I tell him I'll be back at noon, then decide at that time if I am ready, or want to spend more time in the marketplace.  (I was told by the booking agent that a trip to see the Vietnam/China border is also included in the tour,)

It rains off and on, but the sky is very dark in the early morning, which doesn't bode well for picture taking, but I try anyway; I use my telephoto lens so that I am not obnoxious or intrusive.  Just as it is everywhere else in the developing world, it is the women who are lugging the heavy packages, setting up their tents, laying out the merchandise, and working hard, while their men wait at the restaurants, or are off shopping or doing who knows what.  The sky starts to clear a bit, still overcast, but more light is available.  I start to do more picture taking.  Before I know it, several hours pass and the tour buses have arrived, making it almost impossible to get around due to the crowds of people.  

There are actually several markets in the small town, all located next to one another.  There's the produce market, the tourist souvenir market, the market selling ethnic clothing to the locals, the meat market (never a good place to visit), the livestock fair (not a good place to visit if you are against animal cruelty), and a section made up of makeshift restaurants.  It always gets me mad when I see how the tourists shake down the locals, wanting to get everything for just about free.  The locals, in need of money, are then forced to sell well below the asking price because they need money.  If you can afford to make the trip, you can afford to pay an extra few dollars, as those dollars can make a big difference in the lives of these people, at least that is my philosophy.  

Around noon, I head back to the hotel, wait for my driver and grab a quick bite to eat.  When I enter the restroom, I notice that the tea pot is being brewed next to the toilets, and the dishes are being placed in the same sink that people use after using the restroom.  I'm glad I didn't see any of this before I had my breakfast.  This restaurant is packed with tourists, and this is considered the best of the places to eat locally.

My driver finally arrives, and I am ready to leave.  I don't think it was worth the extra money for the car/driver, as the tour groups got to see pretty much all that I did.  Oh well, better safe than sorry. I never get to see the Vietnam/China border, which doesn't disappoint me, I've seen many borders, this one couldn't be any different.  After about three hours, we arrive in Sapa, but the area is completely blanketed in fog.  If it's the same way tomorrow, I won't be able to do my trekking.  My only worry is that later that evening, the hotel won't give me back my passport, saying that all passports have to be turned over to the local authorities.  I don't like being separated from it for long periods of time, which causes me great anxiety.    

As the night wears on, my passport gone, and the power gets cut on a regular basis, I am shocked to see that I took more than 2700 pictures at the marketplace.  It takes forever for the pictures to upload to my computer. 

When they said it gets cold at night, they weren't kidding.  I wake up in the middle of the night freezing.  With more layers of clothes, I am able to fall back to sleep, wondering if the fog will lift in the morning.  I don't have much time to do the trekking, as I am being picked up at 5.15 pm to be taken back to Lao Cai for the 7.30 pm train back to Hanoi.                 

FYI: I'm uploading some of the pictures from today's market visit; I've been able to look at only have of them so far.  I'll post the rest of them with tomorrow's blogging.   

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