Saturday, October 22, 2011


SATURDAY, 22nd October

We woke to a knock on the door of our cabin at 4am, got dressed and packed up our belongings and sat back to watch out the window for the station. Just as the train pulled into Lao Cai Station our carriage had a blackout. We were very glad that we weren't still asleep like some of the other passengers... it would have been very easy to leave something behind in the darkness. This time we had no trouble locating our tour group (even though it was only 4:30am) and boarded a minibus that took us to Sapa. Sapa is in the far north of Vietnam, not far from the Chinese border. It is at the tail end of the Himalayan Mountain Range (although it rarely snows here). It is, of course, much cooler than lowland Vietnam and has mist 160 days of the year. It was misty during our visit.

The bus ride took over an hour and a half, slowly making our way up a winding road, but as the sun came up we could see the valleys through the morning mist.

This was the first house we saw... quite large and prosperous looking.

When we got to Sapa township we were expecting to be able to check in and freshen up, but we were not taken to our hotel - Chau Long Hotel, but to a different hotel –  the Papillon - along with others in the group. We could use the WC, and had a lovely buffet breakfast and left our luggage there. Then began our 14km trek. The Papillon is located at the bottom end of town, so to begin, we had to trudge up the steep streets of Sapa. The picturesque town clings to the side of the mountain, so every step you take is either up or downhill. Nevertheless, these delightful Black H'mong ladies joined our party even as we were assembling outside the hotel.

 Their colourful costumes are not just for show. Most of them dress this way all the time. The fabric is hemp so it wears really well, and the embroidery is all hand done.

Now Katie is not tall, so you can see how tiny these locals are!

This is the town square, where there were lots of other locals lingering, waiting for trekking parties to come by. They just come up and start chatting pleasantly, walking alongside the foreigners as they set out.

This is looking back at Sapa as we began the downhill trek.
Imagine the views from every room in this modern house.

This prosperous looking village surrounded rose farms.

Each rose bud is wrapped in wet paper or net before shipping so they don't open too soon... very labour intensive.

About an hour into our trek the sun came out and I was wishing I hadn't left my hat behind, when one of the ladies we were walking with produced an umbrella from the basket on her back and insisted I use it... bless her!

The views continued to stretch on forever as we followed the road down.

This building is one of the local schools. Many of the children here have to miss school during the rice harvest. They only grow one crop a year up here (compared to three crops a year down in the Mekong delta), so the success of the harvest is much more critical. We came just after the harvest, so the fields are all brown stubble.

After a while we came to a rest-stop where there were toilets and a little shop. Our tour group of eight was only one of many making the walk that day. As we walked over to the lookout these little children came over, asking plaintively "You buy from me?" in gentle voices

They were selling woven wrist bands. They were all grubby... some looked like they hadn't had a bath in a long while.

This little girl looked like she was only about five years old, yet she had a baby strapped to her back. She looked so tired and hopeless as she almost whispered their mantra: "You buy from me?"  I didn't want a wrist band, but I gave her some money anyway. She didn't even smile when I gave her the money, just looked blankly ahead and turned to the next group of tourists to ask again, "You buy from me?" Small change for us goes a long way in a village, so I can ony pray it helped a little bit. 

Closer to the villages we passed thriving market gardens

and pigs roaming free

The locals all looked bemused when the foreigners all Ooo'd and Ahh'd over the piglets. To us they are so cute... to them they are just dinner.

A couple of hours into the trek our guide asked us if we wanted to leave the road and take the short-cut and we all chose the rough way... a dirt track that would be quite treacherous if it was wet. From then on, every place where it became very steep there was always one of these ladies on either side of us, holding our hands and warning us to be careful and go slowly.

This is Hoi and her daughter Chi. They walked with me the whole way. Her English was amazing, considering she had learned to speak it by talking to tourists! These ladies did not learn English at school... that's probably why their accents were so good - they were much easier to understand than any others we met on our travels. She told me she has three other children, who were at home with her husband. About once a week she walks up the mountain to trek back down again with the tourists. They befriend one or two on the trek with the hope of selling their embroidered bags at the lunch stop.

These two walked with Katie.

As you can see, in places the track was quite steep. One girl from our group slipped into a puddle down there where we had to cross over the rice paddy... so glad it wasn't me!

Finally we reached the valley floor

Over there is Hoi's home
They own one buffalo - worth the equivalent of a year's wages.

That suspension bridge crosses the river to the village where we would stop for lunch
And this glamorous building houses the restaurant where we had lunch. As soon as we stopped outside the resturant we were surrounded by ladies shoving embroidered bags into our faces demanding that we buy. As soon as you try to get a better look at one that took your eye, someone else would shove their bag under your nose and it was extremely frustrating. Katie was surrounded  and bombarded by a mob of clamouring women - even the lovely ladies we walked with were pushed out of the way. She only bought one pretty little embroidered bag and had to escape into the restaurant where our group was ushered over to a couple of benches for our set-menu lunch. I persevered, determined to buy something from the two ladies who walked with me, which was not easy! But I had the advantage of being way taller than them! Nevertheless, I bargained hard and bought several bags that I liked and shrugged off the rest of the hawkers and went over to our table. Several really belligerent women (who weren't among those who did the trek) followed me and kept hounding me. It was very unpleasant, and quite claustrophobic as they crowded around my chair shoving their embroidered clothes in my face. Eventually Katie told them to back off, and they left.

As we ate lunch we compared purchases and Katie was saying how frustrating it was that she only got to buy one bag, when she wanted two so she had one each for Jordan and Bailey. I remembered that Hoi had showed me a yellow one similar to the blue one Katie had, so after lunch I walked over to where Hoi had been feeding her baby and took great delight in buying it from her while shooing the other hawkers away.

At the lunch stop we said goodbye to the Black H'mong ladies who had been walking with us, and were joined by Red Dao (zow) ladies. The biggest difference between their costume and those of the Black H'mong is that they wear a scarlet red headscarf.

Neither Katie nor I took a photo of the Red Dao ladies, so I copied these off the net. Apart from the red headscarf, they wear predominantly black outfits
but this girl still managed to jazz hers up with this fabulous leg wrapping!

Looking back up the way we came you can see the Hydro-electricity Station that's under construction. It will harness the energy from the river, but one can only wonder how dramatically it will change the lives of the villagers in this region, where only a few houses have power now.

This ingenious rice husking device is powered by a water wheel, which drives the shaft and pounds the rice in the bowl to remove the husks.

Terracing maximises the land use for vegetable gardens surrounding this farmhouse.

This one is a much more modern concrete house.

Duck pond... not the white ducks you see down on the coast.

Thankfully, we caught a mini bus back up the mountain. Trekking 14 km was far enough for one day. Some of our party went on to Home stay accommodation for the night, but we were booked in to the Chau Long Hotel. So when we got back to Sapa the minibus stopped at the Papillon and we went in and retrieved our bags only to find that the bus had dropped us off and left us. Our guide told us to shoulder our bags and follow him back up the hill on foot!

Now this is a seriously steep hill, and it was a struggle at the beginning of the day without luggage and by now we were so tired it was an effort to put one foot in front of the other!  So we told him there was no way we were carrying our bags up that hill to get to our hotel. He insisted that the minibus had gone and couldn't be recalled, and that there were no taxis, and on foot was the only way to get there. He made a few phone calls, but eventually the poor man carried our bags himself and we trailed along behind him huffing and puffing (that would be me... not Katie...). Thankfully it wasn't far and ten minutes later we were staggering downhill and into the foyer of the Chau Long Hotel, which is gorgeous.

We checked into our room and stepped straight out onto the balcony to see we were on the edge of the steep mountainside with the evening mist rolling in up the valley. It felt like Shangrila! It was so beautiful. I’m sorry we didn’t have a few days there… maybe next time!

It was so good to have a long hot shower and lie down for a rest. We turned on the TV and were feeling very relaxed when there was a blackout. It was after sunset, and everything was really dark. I'm glad we weren't out on the streets wandering around like those with more energy than us!... What would you do?Just sit down and wait, I suppose...  Katie went out on the balcony and said it was so quiet and eerie, with sounds muffled by the mist and the only lights visible were a couple of motorbikes down in the lanes far below.

But it only lasted half an hour and everything returned to normal. 

A lass from the travel agency picked us up at 7pm and walked us to the Red Gecko restaurant where we had a delicious set menu dinner. Our legs were so stiff and sore as we tottered back to the hotel we were very glad that we were not on a three day trek! On the way back we stopped off and bought a gorgeous pashmina for Sue Knight from a little shop along the way.

And then to top off a wonderful day we returned to our room to find the beds turned down and a red rose on the pillow. Comfortable beds to ease our tired bodies... what a wonderful day!

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