Freezing in Sapa

Trip Start Nov 29, 2008
Trip End Jan 18, 2009

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

So, our train to Sapa was actually New Year's Eve. Several of our Australian tour members purchased beers to take on the train. Alcohol was flowing freely that night as we rang in the new year on the train. Our guide was quite the drinker, which loosened his lips greatly! Some funny stories from that night:

One of the girls caught Hai checking out a young woman on the train, and chided him that he was a married man. He responded, "Hey, you can have rice most nights, but once in awhile, you need to have noodles!" So after that we started referring to women as "noodles" and teasing Hai about it. We also made it our job to teach Hai some American and Australian slang, like "Hey homes!" A good time was had by all, but not much sleep.

Another early arrival followed by yet another bus ride up a windy mountain road to our hotel left some of us feeling not so well, especially since we had slept on a train and a boat respectively the last two nights. And of course, Sapa itself is freezing cold, even with the hat and gloves I bought in Hanoi. I bundled up completely our first morning before jumping in our minibus for a two hour or so trip down the mountain to local hill tribe villages. It's remarkable the difference elevation can make--the villages were warm enough to strip down to my T-shirt.

Our local guide Nam took us through several different villages, farms, and houses. We bought some candy to hand out to the local children, and walked several miles through rice paddies, up and down hills, etc. Definitely more of a physical experience than I had anticipated.

At one point, our mini bus got stuck in the mud, and we all had to push and pull to get it free. As if my pants weren't muddy enough!

Another fun adventure was buying a gift for Hai. He had mentioned several times his interest in the black-and-silver hats produced by one of the tribes. So Pat decided that we should buy one for him as a gift. It took a little time, but with Nam helping and interpreting, we eventually got one, which made for a wonderful presentation at our farewell dinner a few days later in Hanoi.

We made it back late afternoon, but not without difficulty! There was major road construction on the one lane mountain road heading back to Sapa, which meant waiting for five or ten minutes for the bulldozers and backhoes to clear the debris so that we could pass.

That night was dinner at a street barbecue--more meat than I could handle for under three dollars! And, our introduction to Vietnamese rice wine, which is more like saki than wine. Not to my liking, but most of the guys on the tour imbibed prodigiously!

The next morning began the trek to the hill tribe village. We started walking from our hotel, where we were immediately joined by a gaggle of informal women guides. It's a bit of a cottage industry in Sapa--the hill tribe women hang out in front of the tourist hotels in the morning and wait for a group to depart for a trek. They then follow them, with each woman latching on to a particular individual to help escort down the muddy path to their village. In exchange, you're expected to either tip them or buy some goods. I bought a silver bracelet for my mom from my guide.

The hike itself isn't particularly arduous (we took the medium difficulty one), but it is muddy and slippery as can be. The guides are quite useful!

We arrived at our homestay in early afternoon. Of course, the saleswomen are still ubiquitous. A very funny anecodte: one of the women was demonstrating a spin-top like toy. I negotiated her down to 20,000 dong, and then opened my wallet to pay. One of the other women was looking over my shoulder, and upon seeing my recently refilled wallet, shouted "You have lots of money!" to everyone in earshot. I started cracking up so hard I could barely breathe.

We enjoyed a homemade dinner that night before retiring to our cots in the upstairs loft to sleep. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a cold these days so I didn't enjoy this as much as I could have, but it was still a wonderful experience.

We took the bus back to our hotel early the next day. Due to my cold and the cold weather, I just huddled around the fire reading for the rest of the morning and afternoon before catching our bus down the mountain to the train station. On the way down the mountain, I realized I had left my camera battery charger in Sapa! But this is another perk of being on a tour--our guide called the hotel, and had them send down the charger on the next bus. Rest of the trip saved!

And so, after a very mediocre dinner at a trainside restaurant, it's our fourth and final overnight train ride of the trip back to Hanoi.
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