Cool Sapa

Trip Start Sep 24, 2006
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, April 5, 2007

Made it to Sapa, which is 3 km away from the Chinese border, on the night train safely at 6 a.m. and was promptly bombarded by the same kind of 'assistance' as I encountered at the train station in Hanoi. Women on their own are likely prey for these touts as I think they a) think we need help and/or b) will pay what they ask for due to fear.  Anyway I told the guy I did not want him to carry my bags, I could do it myself. He shepherded me to the outside where many mini buses were waiting to take people to Sapa.  Lonely Planet guidebook said a ticket on the bus to Sapa should be 25,000 dong ($1.70 US) for the 1 hour ride through the Hoang Lien Mountains.  There are lots and lots of tourists all getting off the train so a bit of confusion. Many other touts were lined up all focussed on me, I guess as I was the only single person, apparently.  They all said it would cost 100,000 dong to get to Sapa. I kept saying I just need the 25,000 mini bus. I finally got onto a mini-bus, they are all shouting at me 100,000 then changed to 50,000 as I got on the bus. The driver is sitting there, not saying anything, the bus is full of other tourists and as I got in I asked what the cost was, and the tourists responded '25,000," Good I said and settled in; meanwhile the tout is leaning in after me demanded payment for services. I was shaken up, again, and grabbed my pack as he was leaning over it and I was afraid it would take it. A couple of tourists (in couples) said they were given the same treatment and couldn't figure out why the driver allows harassment of people trying to get into the buses. (they hold about 12 people). Anyway, we commiserated a bit into Sapa but the ride was beautiful, through little villages and going higher and higher into the mountains, passing people dressed in their native clothes, doing their chores, collecting wood, tending the crops, cattle etc. They work very hard and their hands and feet are so rough. The women's hands are dyed blue from the dying of their traditional clothes, using local plants, rice wine and spices.  The women all wear big hooped earrings, stockings, wool pants and jackets, decorative scarves and the different hill tribes have different head coverings.  There are many Montagnards as the French called them when they established Sapa as a Hill Station in 1922. Different tribes are Red H'MOng, Black H'Mong and Dzao for example. There are 152 different tribes in the 85 million Vietnamese..
Anyway the driver dropped people off where they wanted to go in Sapa but first he took us all to a certain guesthouse and those of us interested in what they had to offer, got out to look at the rooms, Very nice double rooms with tv and bath for about $8 US. I had a res for one night at the Summit Hotel for $15 but knew I would change for the next 2 days as heard I could do better. So I said I would come back the next day. Meanwhile as we proceeded along the road, a woman jumped in the front of the mini bus and asked the driver to stop at her guesthouse - the Pinochio Hotel. It was nice too and had the bonus of huge balconies overlooking the mountains and she said she would give me the room I wanted for $5 US for 2 nights so I said I would take that, knowing I would have to let the first one know I wasn't going to take their room.
After that proceeded to drop me off at the Summit which is at the top of a hill and I had a shower then took off to see the sights.  As I was leaving the hotel, I noticed a group of people just ahead of me with a hilltribe guide so I caught up and asked where they were going and they said on a trek. I said I wondered if I could tag along and make arrangements with the guide myself and they said they thought so, in particular an older woman from Australia and a Scottish guy who said he was solo and booked for two on the list. So I tagged along and the trek ended up being 5 hours, 13 km through the mountains and through  2 villages - Lao Chai and Ta Van all the way to Cac xa ha huyen where we got into a mini bus for the trip back. THe walk was very treacherous, on little cow paths on the side of the mountain with nothing to hang onto, and I couldn't look down.  A lot of it was going down little paths with lots of loose dirt and small stones and few larger stones to actually get a footing and going down is harder on one's knees than going up. We, a group of 6 people from Switzerland, Austria, Scotland, US, Australia and me,  was followed constantly by a group of H'mong hilltribe women trying to sell us stuff and an older woman took my hand to help me through the treacherous parts, telling me where to put my foot. They tried to help the Aussie, but she would have none of it, and I am not too proud. I knew in the end I would be charged by this mama but I thought I would gladly pay for her services. And the inevitable came at the end when she said to me 'you buy from now, that I help you?" and I said 'yes, ok' so I bought a little change purse for 60,000 dong about $4. Another woman who helped me for 5 minutes said the same thing to me, "I helped you too, buy from me too!" and this never ends. The Aussie bought something from her. But they are relentless - we stopped for breaks along the way at little water stations (for sale!) and they are surrounded by people trying to sell. Lunch was provided (we had areally great female Black H'Mong guide who spoke good English and she fixed lunch). I don't know who would want to buy a bedspread and have to haul it all the way on foot through the mountains. It was a hot, sunny day and got back about 5 paid the guide some money and had a shower and went for a drink and something to eat at "Baguettes and Chocolate" down the road. THey are part of a group of restaurants that train underprivileged people to be chefs and restaurant staff. They make excellent desserts and do charge more than the ordinary restaurant (I paid 70 cents for an excellent vegetable noodle soup for lunch yesterday) but it is for a good cause.
I had an early night and got up the next morning hardly being able to get out of bed! My legs were so sore from going downhill so much. I am still stiff!  Check out was the ungodly hour of 8 a.m.! so I walked to Pinochio and at a busy intersection, loaded down with 2 packs and a bag, a motorcycle pulls up with 2 touts asking me if I need a guesthouse. I am about to shake my head, as all I want to do is cross the street, and they thrust a card in my face and it is Pinochio's card so I tell them I am already booked for that hotel so they offer to take me and my pack to it!  A godsend. Since I don't like riding bikes I said I would walk if he would take my pack, and the other guy walk with me so they did.  Sometimes I swear there are angels in this world!.  For some reason I trusted them, as they could have easily just swanned off with my pack and how would I know? But they didn't.  That day turned into a soupy, rainy cold day in the mountains, couldn't see a thing from my wonderful balcony overlooking the mountains so just had an early dinner and went to bed with a book.  But on the way back to my room, I stopped into a restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet and saw a bunch of used books, looked at them and saw 'White Teeth" by Zadie Smith!  Well that is the book I tried to find in Italy and in Bangkok and it is always sold out! So I asked if I could buy a book and they said 'no, the Manager only allows those books to be read by guests while they are staying there!"  I went back a few times to see if I could actually talk to the manager but never did. They thought it was quite funny that I was so determined, and I even was carrying around one I had just finished and suggested I would trade it for that one but it didn't work. I did end up trading it at another restaurant that had used books, and they said sure go ahead and I got a good book around a murder mystery in the midst of early stock exchanges (at coffee shops) in England. 
Yesterday I could hear the rain coming down while I was still in bed so knew it was another soupy day - could hardly see across the street, forget about the mountains. It was so cold, could see my breath, and I had no hot water or any heating  and of course had clothes for the heat of Hanoi so was freezing all day again. Ended up at a little cafe which had a sign in the door saying 'we have fireplace' so along with lots of other people I found a chair with a couple, in turns out, from England. I think Newcastle, near Hadrian's Wall, the border with Scotland. He is a professor of American Politics and he and his wife were very interesting to talk to. We ended up running into each other later and went for dinner together at Mimosa restaurant and the bill came to $10 US for 3 which included a beer and a glass of wine!  Today's weather was more of the same. I checked out places for lunch and settled on one where they brought a bucket of coals to my table for heat - I was the only guest. Then while waiting for my mini bus to Lo Cai to catch the overnight train to Hanoi, I stopped into an English Pub which had 'warm' and 'coffee' on the door so I went upstairs to a cute little pub and chatted with a woman from Scotland for a few minutes. Her group was trekking but she has ACL problems with her knee so she had a baked potato and baked beans and a couple of beers instead! I had a vegetable curry at my lunch place and a hot cup of ginger tea (39,000 dong, about $2.50) and I sure could have done with a bit of western food but I always feel quilty thinking like that and opt to eat like the locals while here.  Got my bus and it sure was soupy going through the mountains and luckily I had the seat iwth the driver, so had a seat belt and a great view (advantages to being picked up last!) and got here, The young helper guided me (no charge, I checked first!) to the travel agency (Pole Star Travel) to pick up my train ticket. They gave me an upper bunk and I said I specifically booked a lower when I booked the return ticket about 5 days ago so the guy said he would meet me at the train station at 8:30 and change it for me... we'll see.  Meanwhile I have another 2 hours to wait for the train so can finally update my Sapa trip.  The trip back to Lo Chai was so beautiful, breathtaking that I recommend this be on anyone's itinerary to Vietnam, along with Halong Bay!
Will report from Hanoi - arrive there at 5 a.m.  The Royal guesthouse in Sapa was so helpful today, they called Pole Star travel here to confirm my res and then called Hanoi so I could talk to A-Z Hotel in Hanoi where I stayed last week and they said to bang on the door when I arrive. I think I spoke to Duyen and he said he sleeps there on the floor and he'll let me in! but he says they may be full so maybe I can't get into a room until noon so that means a few hours to be homeless, not the first time. At least I can store my stuff there. 
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