Mountain Trekking, Villagers and Gate Crashing

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

We caught the night train from Hanoi to Sapa which was approximately an 8 hour overnight journey. It was a nice enough journey except that we had a Vietnamese guy in our carriage who spent the whole time he was awake hocking up smoky phlegm, which was disgusting. 
Fortunately when he went to sleep the hocking stopped and we could get some sleep in preparation for a day's trekking in the mountains.

From the train station we got a minibus up into the mountain town of Sapa where we were dropped at a hotel to have a shower, some breakfast and leave our bags (Not to mention recovering from a hair-raising minibus ride up into the mountains overtaking buses on blind corners up a hill). The whole time we were in the hotel we could see the mountain village girls looking at us through the doors expectantly, you quickly get the feeling that this trip may get expensive

Sure enough as soon as the tour guide arrived and we left the hotel they all swarmed around us asking the official top 3 questions to ask tourists in English:
1. Where you from?
2. What your name?
3. You married or girlfriend?

I expected them to start asking us to buy their gifts and handicrafts from the baskets on their backs but instead they just followed our small group. Our guide said they would trek with us because they have nothing else to do. Actually it's so that they can become your friend on the way to the village where they will expect you to spend all your money on their delightful gifts there. (The guilt-trip approach)

Our tour guide could speak reasonably good English but he didn't exactly fill us with confidence as one of the first things he said to us was 

"1,2,3,4,5,6,7....I always count my group now because sometimes I lose people!"

It was really cool to have the mountain girls walking with us though, they were all dressed up in their traditional tribal clothes and some of them could speak a little bit of English. Some of the girls who have stronger English become tour guides themselves, but they never have any lessons they just learn English from walking with the tourists every day. Pretty impressive! At certain places when we stopped they would make things for us as gifts, like horses made out of green twigs and they made Katy a heart out of a fern branch. 

The trekking wasn't particularly far (maybe 10km), but a lot of it was pretty treacherous as you walk along the paddy field steps which at the moment are full of water. We had packed small bags with some clothes for our overnight stay at the home-stay and were wearing our walking clothes and boots. I went to climb over a big rock and as I lifted my leg I just heard a loud rip and then felt a cool refreshing breeze up my leg. My trousers had ripped all the way from the knee to the crotch in a somewhat revealing way. "Bugger!" As we were only staying overnight I didn't have any spare trousers or even any proper shorts all I had was some shorts for sleeping in. I decided to duck behind a tree and change into my shorts and nearly jumped out of my skin when a wild pig appeared and snorted walking past me in disgust. Katy waited with me and I rushed to change, but when we stepped out the whole group had disappeared. We quickly ran ahead but came to a fork in the road still with no-one in sight. My mind immediately thought back to our tour guide saying he sometimes loses people and here we were in the middle of the mountains, halfway to some hill tribe village we can't see and we're lost! (Not to mention that I am now trouser-less). Not knowing what else to do we just went back to the point where we lost the group and shouted "Hello!" over and over again. After about 20 minutes we heard "Hello hello!", ran to the voices and found a couple of the mountain village girls who had noticed we weren't there and come back to find us. This could only be good news for them as now we would definitely have to buy a lot of their goods for saving us!

The scenery in the mountains is breath-taking. The Chinese came to northern Vietnam about 300 years ago, chopped down a lot of the rainforest and turned it into paddy fields. Although it's sad that the trees have obviously been affected/killed, the stepped paddy fields look amazing. While we were trekking down the mountain we walked past a lot of water buffalo and also pigs and piglets wandering around in the paddy fields. The people from the area also look quite different to other Vietnamese people we've met, I guess that's because they have much stronger Chinese features and they speak a slightly different dialect of Vietnamese so people from the South actually find it difficult to understand them

I embarrassed myself by asking our guide whether there were ever Panda's in northern Vietnam, I figured that as it's on the border of China and there's loads of Bamboo in the forests it may be possible but he didn't even answer he just laughed at me. He did also say that we had walked 14km's when we definitely hadn't so maybe he doesn't know what he's talking about... yeah, I think I'll go with that.

The mountain girl who attached herself to Katy was called Ngay and she was walking down the mountain with a baby on her back called Hen. She could speak a bit more English than some of the others as she was 23 and had spent a bit more time with the tourists than some of the younger girls. All the way down she was friendly and making little gifts for Katy, but as soon as we arrived in their village the hard saleswomen in her came out and it's such a pressure sell. 

"You MUST buy from me!" " I help you, you must buy from me

 and the prices they ask for are about 5 times the price you pay in the market. This is when you realise you're really not going to be best friends, they're really just in it for the money.

Once we had pushed through the swarm of villagers asking/demanding you give them money we had lunch and then explored the village with our guide. The village is amazing and pretty self-sufficient. They farm vegetables, rice and animals and make clothes for the village people and have a government funded school. There is a bamboo forest a couple of kilometres from the village which we visited and could see the local people chopping down the bamboo to take home. We were told that the forest is for the community so you only take what you need. If anyone is found to be taking too much and selling it, the villagers would kill them. I think it's pretty important to play by the village rules.
In the late afternoon we walked a couple more kilometres to the home-stay village where we were taken to our two-story wooden house with beds lined along the sides of both floors, each with a mosquito net, blanket and pillow. There were probably more than 25 beds but only 9 of us which was nice as for a home-stay you don't really want too many people. We all introduced ourselves and had a couple of beers while dinner was being cooked by the family and were really happy because we had a great bunch of people in our group. We were called into the kitchen for a quick cooking lesson where we were taught how to make spring rolls, unfortunately though it was just how to roll a spring roll as they had already made the mixture. Still, we are now pro's at rolling spring rolls and it's probably for the best that we didn't do the cooking because the food was amazing and who knows how our efforts would have turned out.
After dinner the rice wine was brought out by the family and we had to toast in Vietnamese and drink our shots. The rice wine was so strong, nothing like the sweet rice wine we had in Borneo. It tasted more like a vodka but with a bit of an after-taste of rice. Not the nicest drink although after a few you stop noticing the flavour which is replaced by the burn, they reckon its between 30 and 40%. Just down the road from our home-stay there was a big wedding party and after a few rice wines and beers our group decided we should gate-crash. One of the girls in our group has been working in Saigon for the last year and so had a quick chat with the guys at the door and before we knew it we were inside being greeted by the groom, sat down at the table and force-fed shot after shot of rice wine from every direction. The guys here were absolutely mental, very friendly but smashed off their faces and would force feed you rice wine from a water bottle every few seconds. The groom would disappear for a few minutes and then appear right in front of us shouting "Heeeeeeeeyyyyyyyy!!!" with his arms in the air, give us a massive hug and then push his bottle of rice wine in our faces. It was hilarious! Katy asked where the bride was and he pointed to the kitchen, she was there crouched down doing the washing up. Perhaps Feminism hasn't taken off in Vietnam.
In the morning the family made us pancakes while we watched a chicken and it's chick trying again and again to get into the house by negotiating it's way past all of us at the table. Eventually the chicken got in and jumped up into a basket where it laid an egg. It turns out that's his little home and it goes there every day to deposit it's egg. Less welcome were a number of very big mice which were running around the village. We were told there was one right next to our beds while we were sleeping, by a lady who had been woken up by a mouse rattling around in her bag trying to steal some chocolate.

We set off trekking in the rain at about 10 o-clock and were one of the last groups to leave, which meant that we had the most treacherous walking conditions of everyone. This time we were trekking up the hillside, into a bamboo forest and then down the other side to a waterfall. Again we were followed by some of the mountain village girls but this time genuinely needed their help to negotiate the slippery hillside without falling and potentially dying! (Maybe a bit dramatic but it felt dangerous) 

It was however a little humiliating needing to be helped, especially as I was being helped by an old lady who would hold my hand to help me across the wetter areas. I was wearing proper walking shoes and she was wearing a pair of plastic sandals. I kept telling myself she's at an advantage because she knows the area and she's lighter than me but somehow it didn't lesser the humiliation. Still, she stopped me from falling over at least 3 times so it was worth the shame. Loads of people fell over during the day as it really was very slippery. Katy was being helped by two very young girls (maybe 7 years old) but their help was more of a hindrance as she had one girl on each arm who would not let go and no arm to balance. Then when Katy lost her footing slightly they were too small to help her anyway and all three of them crashed to the floor, Katy taking them down with her.
We did make it in once piece though and it was absolutely brilliant. The scenery was stunning, the people were fascinating and the villages were beautiful. We really had a wonderful few days in the mountains and it was a very unique and different experience.
So back to the night train to head back to Hanoi for our last couple of days in the stunningly beautiful and fascinating Vietnam.
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