of the best experiences list

Trip Start Feb 19, 2009
Trip End Aug 02, 2009

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, July 6, 2009

After taking a taxi to to the train station in Hanoi with tickets in hand and bags on our backs we crossed the platforms in search of our train and our sleeping berth. It is a bit confusing and luckily someone who works there grabbed our tickets, took off at a very fast pace and told us to follow... it was a rush to keep up but he lead us right to our waiting carriage (is that the right term.... or is it a car?). Anyways... we had booked into a 4 berth soft sleeping cabin with a/c. Once we had climbed onto the train and found our little cabin.... we stowed our bags and got settled. Our cabin mates joined us and then it wasn't long before the train pulled away from the station. The only thing I didn't like about the train was the AC, it was set on arctic... I was freezing under a heavy blanket with all my warm clothes on including a toque! Luc didn't seem to mind the cold at all....he never seems to get as cold as I do. The train ride was uneventful as we (or at least I did) slept the entire way and were woken by a knock on the door at the Lao Cai station. Once we were off the train we got onto a minibus for the very windy and stomach turning hours drive into Sapa.

Once in Sapa of course the minibus driver wants us to stay somewhere where they will make a commission, but we are in a breathtaking town and want to have a view... so we walk until we find a very good deal on a guest house....Hmmm, I think it was either $6 or $8 per night. We did end up moving to a place that was marginally more expensive but with a nicer view part way through our stay as the Old Chinese battle-axe running our first guest house was terrible. Apparently I used the "free Internet" for too long one day while working on my blog and she angrily pushed me off the computer... but there wasn't even anyone waiting to use it. She was really aggressive and rude about it too... and of course did not speak any english so shouted in Chinese instead. You would think they would have been happy to have the business since we were the only people staying in their guest house. We were happy to leave!

Something I noticed right away about Sapa is that since I was last there 4 or 5 years ago hundreds of new guest houses have flooded the market. With all the competition all you have to do is walk away and guest house owners are bargaining themselves down, desperate for your business. So after settling in... and a bit of a nap we explored the town... and ate. The first couple of days we  spent wandering around the lovely town for the most part. We were lucky and the sun shone for us. The climate up in the mountains is very different so although it was sunny... it was not nearly as hot as it was elsewhere in the country and in the evenings it was actually quite cold... no need for AC at all. Sapa is a hill tribe area... and many hill tribe people have gotten on the tourism bandwagon and come into town from their more remote villages to sell their handicrafts. When I say many... I mean many... probably triple the amount of people selling things from the last time I was there. They basically approach you... try to sell you something, and then follow you until you buy something. Some are quite pushy but most of them are genuinely lovely... and you can't help but want to buy something from them. This is how I ended up with enough pillow covers to outfit an entire house... or three. Many young kids, mostly girls are selling things as well... and they are just so cute... you can't say no. The babies are the cutest though.. strapped on to their moms, grandmas or siblings back for the day at work. The best part is just spending some time with the people though and having a real conversation. I think that we did this for the better part of our time in Sapa.... such lovely people..... and they are as interested in they way we live as we are in the way they live their lives.

On our second day we randomly met a really nice Australian couple and had a drink with them (yes.. in the middle of the day) and they told us how they had met two of the local hill tribe ladies who took them on a trek into their village... and they had an excellent time. There are many organized trekking options but this sounded pretty cool to us. We would rather buy some handicrafts off their family and spend some time with them in their village than spend our money on an organized trek. Luck was with us and within a few minutes of leaving the pub they spotted those same ladies and introduced us. We made plans to meet them the next day for a trek to their village. Unfortunately the next day it completely poured down with rain... so we postponed the trek to the next day and sat in little cafes and drank hot drinks and ate lovely french desserts instead.

Trek day dawns and luck is with us again as the rain has passed. We met up with our ladies (Sy, Ma, Ma's baby Shon and Ma's mother). We head over to the market and give Sy some money.... which she makes go a very long way and comes out with bags and bags of food to make our lunch/feast with. All is packed into the basket on Sy's back... and we are off. What a amazingly beautful trek it was. We went high up into the misty clouds for probably 3 hours or so. It was a tough hike.... but just really gorgeous. Well... it was tougher for us as we didn't have the practice.... amazing how fit these ladies are with babies on their back and big packs as well....put us to shame for sure.  Amazing views down into the valley, lush rice paddies, corn growing on the steep hill sides, water buffalo, piggies, messy children... and everything was so green. There was so much moisture in the air and it kept getting cooler as we hiked higher. We passed by some ladies working on the indigo die  that they use to color their hand weaved fabrics and also saw the fabric being woven as well as the grass used for weaving. Many of the local women have blue hands from working with their hand woven fabrics once they are dyed. The dye is made from plants and is not set... so it rubs onto your skin easily... I often found myself with blue hands after handling the fabric briefly.  We passed through villages with kids, chickens and pigs all staring at us. It was so nice going the complete opposite way of all the organized trekkers... and just being totally alone on our adventure. I guess it is a bit selfish.... but I don't think I would have wanted to share this special experience with anyone other than Luc. After quite a few hours of trekking into the hillside across streams and along rice paddies... we arrived at their house. There house is a fairly large wooden structure with three rooms, all with a dirt floor. (No electricity or running water, no bathroom). One room had the cooking fire, one room had an alter and I think was also used for sleeping,  the other room is where they prepared the food. There was no furniture to speak of other then a small table in the food preparation room where they also ate at. Inside the house it was very dark as the only light filtered in from the doorway. The smell inside was damp, earthy and smoky...a good smell though. Once inside we were offered their two red plastic chairs that they must save for just such occasions. This was when we started to meet the children. The children were fascinated by us (and really fascinated by Luc's hairy arms and legs as the local men are virtually as hairless as the women there). We had brought stickers and a balloon with us which was very entertaining for them. Word started to get around and in small groups kids started to arrive from all over the village to see the foreigners... and if they were brave enough to come close.... they could have a sticker. It was very cute, by the end of it kids from all over the village were tattooed with mickey mouse and winnie the pooh stickers. The kids seemed relatively healthy, none were too skinny but they all had very snotty noses and were pretty filthy. I expect that without running water and with them playing outdoors everyday all day....this is the norm. The kids were loving the stickers... and I think the novelty of having white visitors was pretty exciting for them too. The household was multi generational, kids, mom, dad, grandparents and great grandparents all co-habitating. They are almost completely self sufficient in their village. Each family grows enough rice to feed their own, and will trade some if they have extra. They also keep some small livestock and grow corn and other cucumber like vegetables. The only outside income for things like medicine and any food they don't grow comes from selling their handicrafts in Sapa town. It does not seem like an easy life, but they are happy and have enough of what they need to get by. They do not have any material items for the most part... there certainly weren't any toys and it is unlikely that any of them had more than one change of clothes. What a special family though, they shared what they had with us and were so proud to show us their home. They made us the most delicious lunch... probably the best we have eaten in Vietnam. Many dishes... none we had had before... all good. There was a lot of food and many other people... extended family joined in  for this feast....there was at least 20 of us altogether. It felt good to know that with the little bit of money we had given them we had fed so many people. And then the rice wine came out.............brewed locally and poured from re-used water bottles this is strong stuff. Tastes like a cross between sake, tequila and something you shouldn't consume..... they poured shot after shot. This local delicacy is drank by both the women and the men... and they do know how to knock it back. After 7 or 8 rounds I had to insist on stopping... and Luc had actually bowed out earlier than me. (Can you believe that I could stomach more than him!!!). After all the drinking they brought out their handicrafts (I think this was their plan all along... get them drunk so they'll spend all their money). We did buy quite a few things from them... not so much because we needed any of it.... but it was the only way really that we could support them short of just giving them cash. We started the hike back... on slightly less steady feet... and quite tired after a long day. Luc had also developed some blisters on the bottom of his feet... so it was a pretty painful down hike for him. On the hike down we met Ma's older sister Mu who lives in the same village.  We were able to get a ride back partway on motorcycle which was a great relief.

Other than our trek we did get up to some other things of note in Sapa. One was a wonderful foot/leg massage the day after our hike... where I think the ladies were gossiping away the whole time in Vietnamese... and giggling about Luc's legs. It was pretty funny. We also ate at a really nice restaurant that is part of a program that teaches at risk youth skills to work in the hospitality industry. We ate almost every night at a local bbq stand... with the locals... and this was delicious. We were often able to convince hesitant tourist passer byers to do the same... so the bbq lady was sad to see us leave. We spent a day with Ma's sister Mu... which was really lovely. She is 25 and has 3 children. We spent severl hours chatting by a little lake near town.... she has never been any further than Sapa...which is normal for the local hill tribe residents. She told us that using birth control is common once you have had two or three kids (yay modern medicine!!). It was just a real treat to get to know her... very special. She came back to our hotel with us... we wanted to hang out on our balcony because it had such a nice view and was so sunny... but she was very shy to enter the hotel.. she said the Vietnamese don't like the local hill tribe people to enter their establishments. I made sure it was ok to put her at ease (which it was) and we headed upstairs. She had never been inside a hotel before. She had also never been inside a modern bathroom....I painted her toe nails (which she had also never had done before) and when she went in to wash her feet she had no idea how to work the taps or anything and it was just the cutest thing ever. We had lot's of odds and ends like an extra pair of shoes we didn't want to carry, some moisturizer etc. Just things we really didn't need anymore and she was so happy to take it back to her family. The next day she brought back a gift for me... one of her own pairs of leg wraps which they all wear. I was so touched and they smelled very strongly of woodsmoke so she had obviously washed them the night before and dried them over their cooking fire. I was really very touched. We had also given some gifts to Sy and Ma as well as the baby Shon... just little things. They were insistent on giving us each a bracelet and other small things which we didn't want to take from them as they could have sold them, but they insisted and we didn't want to seem ungrateful. It was just all so touching, Luc had to try really hard not to cry (and I cry at anything anyways so it was hard to keep composure at all). These were the kindest people we had met on our travels and it truly was sad to leave, they welcomed us into their family, taught us about their way of life, taught us their language, shared their food and treated us as real friends. It was very special and I know both Luc and I will treasure our time there.

On our last day we boarded another  minibus and made our winding way back to Lau Cai... this time my stomach was not quite iron enough and I was pretty sick by the end of it. Our train ride back was not quite as good as on the way there, we were stuck in a much older car... the beds and everything were fine but the car was very noisy. The AC wasn't on arctic however so I was happy to not freeze the night away.

All in all though... Sapa is one of those places that we would have a hard time describing in a way that would really get across how special it was. I would recommend to anyone to go there... and not do the touristy thing but to meet the people. It really was an experience that both Luc and I will never forget.
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