You'll Never Walk Alone

Trip Start Jun 25, 2011
Trip End Dec 24, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  , Lào Cai,
Sunday, September 25, 2011


At breakfast, we feel like fat kids in a sweet shop. It is, as you would imagine, amazing and we stuff as much into our face as humanly possible.
The rest of the day in Hanoi is spent with a mundane trip to the post office, and then a look around the Hoa Lo prison. (once jokingly reffered to by the US army as the 'Hanoi Hilton'.) It was where those Vietnamese who supported the country's liberation fom the French were imprisoned and sometimes executed, and where American pilots shot down by the Vietnamese (including John McCain) were held. The museum seems somewhat uneven in its representation of the American and the Vietnamese expreience of imprisonment there. There are pictures and articles (that look very propaganderish to us. that's not a word) showing American troups having a jolly in the prison, being allowed to celebrate christmas, having all amenities and home comforts and having banter with the staff. hmm.
Later on we make our way to the train station. We have an overnight train leaving at 9:40pm called the 'Victoria Express' that is complete with dining carriage (where the cocktails are $9) - a little different from the locals trains Claire and Jo have gotton slightly used to! At the sight of the restaurant cart, Claire and Jo get very excited, until a black out brings us back down to reality. The lights do come back on after a little while.
After a drink we head to our bunks, but with the (impromptu) stops in the middle of the night and an unrecognisable and unexplainable banging noise that seems to be coming from underneath the train, no-one sleeps brilliantly. 


The train arrives at 6:15am at a city 1km from the chinese border. We get driven the 30km to Sapa, winding up through cloud soaked valleys with amazing views of neat rice paddies etched in the surrounding mountains. As we arrive in Sappa, we emerge from the car into a cloud that surrounds the hill top town. The temerature drops and we get out our jumpers and check into the hotel. 
The closest tribe to Sappa, making up 60% of the minorities in the region, are the H'Mong who don't speak much Vietnamese. They are a huge presence in Sappa, the women walk around in herds with their distinctive colourful clothes, scarves and baskets tied to their backs full of their good to sell. When walking around the misty town, dozens of H'Mong women follow behind, around, beside and infront of you as you walk, asking you questions about where you are from and if you are married and have kids. They are very sweet and friendly, but also extremely patient, and even if you make it clear from the start that you won't buy anything, they will follow you for hours out of their way. They are very friendly, kind natured and always smiling and its a nice change from pushy selling we had experienced in other parts of Vietnam. One lady, who says her name is Mong, latches onto Claire. She follows us around town and laughs at everything we say in funny quick giggles, and when we depart without buying anything she lets out a fake childish cry. Claire promises her that she'll find her the next day.


In the morning we walk for 3km to reach the nearby Cat Cat Village. It is a steep slope down to it and we find ourselves out of the cloud and back in the heat. As we approach the entrance to the walk down to the village, we see a sign that reads (in Vinglish) 'Entry: 30,000 Dong, Opening Hours 6am to 9pm.'
We walk through tiny stone pathways looking up at the other side of the mountain, passing waterfalls, homemade irrigation systems (a hollow log balanced and swaying to move the water) and wobbly bridges. Claire is a little freaked out at just how wobbly one bridge is, so she waits for everyone to cross before doing so herself. Later we see a man bringing a water buffallo across a similar bridge and Claire feels better. (or worse? she can't decide.)
We are followed all the way by a H'mong lady called Lilly, who has a sweet face and two gold teeth. She is 26 (looks more like 40) and tells us that she has, 'no family, no babies.' She even stops nearby and talks to locals when we stop for a break, only to follow us again. On one occasion, Jo see's her crying with a local, when we ask her if she's ok she says, 'yes' but her puffy face and red eyes say otherwise. This reminds us how difficult it is to break barriers with the local people;,just like they assume certain things of us as tourists, they assume a certain role themselves when with us. Although we tell her from the start that we don't want to buy anything, she doesn't ask again and before she leaves us after a couple of hours, she makes a little hoarse figure out of grass and gives it to us.
We later learn that the H'mong people have a festival called 'Love Shove' where the young people of the nearby villages come together to find spouses. Like the name suggests, to let a lady know you like her, the man gives her a shove. And that's all we learnt of it. We think that this idea is simple and effective, and make plans to bring it back to the UK upon our return.

Back in Sappa for lunch and Claire spots her friend 'Mong' from the previous day. As promised, she buys a couple of things and after some gentle haggling, Mong says, "you happy?" Claire says, "yes" and she says, "you happy, I happy." The task of buying and selling here is so refreshing compared to the big cities we have visited.

In the afternoon Claire decides to go for a walk in the rain by herself. After strolling around for a while, she wonders what the hell she is doing walking in the rain, so turns back towards the hotel. On the way she hears a very German sounding, "Claire! Claire!" coming from a restaurant. Its only bloody Fabian!! He is beaming as he has met up with two Columbian girls and seems to be having the time of his life!


Claire has been ill all night with a bad case of food poisening, so Jo and Ma and Pa go for a 2 hour hike through the Black H'mong villages nearby with a tour guide and Claire stayes in bed feeling sorry for herself. Jo notices that some of the H'mong ladies have perfect circular bruises on their foreheads, the guide tells her that this is caused by the treatment for headaches, prescribed by the village medicine man. A water Buffallo's hollow horn is filled with a particular herb, heated up then pressed against the forehead. It is called, 'cupping'.
In the afternoon we drive to another area to walk through villages of different tribes. When we arrive and the minivan door slides open, we are greeted by about 20 H'mong women and girlswith things to sell and the noise they make is almost deafening. For an hour and a half, we have company. Jo walks between two ladies who loudly chat to eachother for most of that time. Nevertheless, the valley is very beautiful and stretches for miles and miles.

Claire joins for dinner at the hotel in the evening. There is entertainment going on while we eat, an older man (definitely gay) leading the traditional dancing, with four young girls all in traditional dress. It is really sweet, after each performance the man says "thankyou, thankyou, thankyou... <something intelligable> thankyou thankyou..." etc. 
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