1) Bottled Water
2) Toilet Paper
3) Peanut Butter
Many travelers decided to skip Sapa because it was a little colder than the comfort of the islands in southern Thailand....OK, it was really cold and I had to buy a new jacket there, but I'm glad I went. After about 12 hours on the bus (with the old lady touching my thigh) I was ready to stretch my legs a bit in Sapa, but was immediately confronted by 3 different hotel workers trying to get me to stay at their hotel. I finally settled on Queen Hotel in the center of town and crashed for the night.
North Vietnam's geography is mostly mountainous with the Red River flowing south from China's Yunnan Province. The river was an important trade route to China in the 19th century and is now notorious for fluctuating volumes and violent floods. Overlooking the town is
Vietnam's highest peak (about 10,300 ft) which was barely visible during my stay. I thought about climbing to the top, but it was way too cold for this kind of ascent. During the weekends, tourists flock to Sapa for the big markets or for a weekend vacation, but it was low season, so at night the town seemed almost empty. I met a Portuguese traveler, Vitor, who was fun to hang out with for my 4 days there.
We played a lot of pool with locals, went hiking, and played the Vietnamese version of hacky sack (similar to a shuttlecock with feathers) to keep warm at night. One of the most popular activities for tourists is a home-stay with one of the many ethnic minority groups in the area. The Black H'Mong group, one of the largest, seemed to linger around town selling various items, such as jewelry and you pretty much can't avoid the 70 year old women selling weed on the street.
They can be quite persistent, but friendly at the same time, so it didn't feel overwhelming. The weather for the 4 days was pretty dreary and rainy, but we got 1 gorgeous day for hiking around and exploring the surrounding villages and rice terraces.
I left Sapa just in time for the HUGE Sunday market in Bac Ha, about 3 hours away. Many ethnic minority groups go to this regional market, so it was interesting to see all the different colored outfits and styles.
They also sell everything under the sun there, from clothes to livestock to water-pipes and all kinds of food, such as water buffalo organ and intestine soup. I will usually eat almost anything, but sometimes I have to draw the line...
After a brief stop at the border of China, I took an overnight train to Hanoi, the capital. I chose the cheapest ticket ($5), which was a hard seat in a smoke-filled, dirty, smelly car with all Vietnamese, who were fascinated with the only westerner in the car. I really felt like a zoo animal on display.
It became evident that none òf them had ever seen a westerner before, especially with facial hair! They all seemed to be waiting for me to do something as ìf they were thinking, "What will the strange, bearded creature do next?" I'll give you a brief play-by-play... I unzipped my backpack: 3 Vietnamese turned and stared. I put a hat on and scratched my ass: 3 more Vietnamese turned and stared. I took out a deck of playing cards and started playing solitaire: Half of the train car gathered around to watch me play. I tried to teach them a card game for about an hour with no luck. Eventually, they got bored and started to mind their ơwn business, except for the guy next to me. He loved my beard and kept on reaching over and stroking it without permission of course. He also managed to wedge his cold, bare feet under my legs for warmth at some point during the night. It was certainly an interesting travel experience, but let's just say I was happy to arrive in Hanoi and walk around the city for a couple hours at 4am...
Next Stop: Hanoi