Sapa Bien

Monday, July 07, 2008

After the three hour bus from Halong Bay back to Hanoi, there was just enough time for me to find some mosquito repellent and dinner before boarding a night train to Lao Cai, a city on the Vietnam-China border. I met a Dutch girl named Laura at the train station and was relieved that I would indeed be with backpackers until we were separated at the train station by the guide. And then I was grouped with a retired Kiwi vet and his wife and their friends. Whom I then was separated from shortly after to take a 'soft sleeper', meaning only four beds instead of the usual six. The rest of my car was Vietnamese but aside from talking loudly they had little bearing on my train ride. It was comfortable, fast, and I was refreshed suitably by the time the train stopped in Sapa that morning. Sapa, my last stop in Vietnam, an old French hill station which, like Dalat - another old French hill station - would prove to be one of the highlights of Vietnam. I was there for three days of trekking through rice paddies, mountains, and minority villages and, unlike the trip to Halong Bay, I was not to be disappointed in any regard.

The first stop was the rather posh (by backpacker standards, especially) Sapa Summit Hotel to drop our bags, have breakfast, and meet our trekking group. The group: Laura, myself, two Belgian girls who had the weekend off from volunteering at a Hanoi orphanage, and an older Montreal couple. We were, in all respects, extremely lucky. Or at least I was. They were a great group and we had a spectacular couple days, but I'm getting ahead of myself. We set off around 9 AM from the hotel, stopping at the market to pick up a snack and some water for the trek. Our group was more than simply those listed above plus Doong, our guide, however. We were also accompanied by several girls and women from the village where we would be lunching, Lau Chai. While this sounds really tacky and fake, and certainly they have ulterior motives in guiding you down, it was actually a great experience to walk down with these sure-footed guides and talk quite easily in English with them about life. In fact, I would go so far as to say that far from being really bad and detracting from the day, their presence made the morning walk all the better. They did not, until the end, ask or even mention us buying anything, they just walked, talked, joked, and helped people less sure-footed than them.

That's twice I've mentioned their sure-footedness and it has to be seen to be believed. While we were covered to our knees (and for some varying patches on butts and arms) in mud their feet were always impeccably clean - and they were wearing sandles! I thought I did pretty well on the track, especially when the locals commented on it, but in comparison to them I was a tripping, clumsy fool. From the market, we walked down the road from Sapa and eventually turned off and plunged headlong into the rice paddies. Sapa is on one side of a valley and mountains framed the opposite side of the valley which were themselves framed and accented in wisps of cloud. It being rainy season, the sky was not blue, but this misty spread set before us was not only refreshingly cool but perfect for adding some mystique to the area. We passed local kids riding water buffalo as they foraged in the mists, villagers making the trek up to the Sapa markets laden with goods or empty, and the endless undulating and weaving path through and above the valley offered heaven-worthy vistas. I had taken over 200 photos by midday (though luckily for you, I have filtered many repetitive views and alternate angles, leaving only what I consider the best).

We made the village in plenty of time and found ourselves sitting around before and after lunch, about the only complaint I could conjure for the trek. It really is set for all types and so I found it neither demanding nor lengthy, finishing as we were quite early in the days. But lunch itself was great as were all our meals, and though I had no use for it, I bought a trinket from Mor, the girl I'd spent the most time talking with. All of us agreed the girls and women (one older one named Sue, I called her 'ba' which means grandma) were worth the price of a few handicrafts and no serious haggling. And then another couple kilometres to the village of Ta Van where we stayed in a village homestay and ate a delicious dinner, chatted around the table, and discussed the extremely large butterflies that are abundant in the hills. We also looked around the town and riverbank a bit until it finally started raining hard and we retreated indoors.

The next day was quite short. We didn't get going until 10:00 or so and were finished by 2:00. This is somewhat impressive as the trails were completely slick and every single person - save for the minority guides - fell at some point in various degrees of severity. Even I had a good slip a couple metres from a high path to a low one, though I managed to surf the mud down in a shaky and low centre-of-gravity surf crouch. It was also raining a lot and my poncho, well, they're really only good for one wear and don't travel well, so let's just say that it was difficult to ascertain which holes were for arms, heads, of due to ripping zippers and stretching backpacks. I enjoyed my shower back in the hotel after a nice lunch and, quite frankly, it's the nicest room I've had to myself since leaving home. I suppose the apartments in Manly would beat it, but I was sharing. The hike had been somewhere between 12-16km and while it wasn't much, the clean up was well overdue and appreciated.

Finally, the third day of the trek. It started a bit randomly as there was no guide around in the morning, but soon Doong was leading Laura, myself, and some Chinese tourists down to Cat Cat (or is it Cat Ba?) village, a tourist trap in comparison to our last two days. It was a nice walk though, in weather that made me want to walk all the way to Fanxipan mountain, the tallest in SE Asia. An almost perfect blue sky, bright sun, and an amiable breeze made it a pleasant though warm walk into the valley. Laura and I also had another chance to chat with the girls we'd walked with a couple days ago before leaving and soon we were at a three-waterfall junction at the bottom of the gorge. Then I wandered off at the guide's suggestion that I "go up and take a look" and it just kept getting better and better so I kept going up. Not to mention I wasn't sure if the group would be coming back this way so I didn't want to backtrack down and then back up again. Eventually I came across three boys sitting under a tree beside a mudhole dug into the mountain and filled to the brim with water buffalo. I took some photos and it was here, at a corner in the path, I decided reluctantly to go and see what had become of my group.

I made it all the way to the waterfall without seeing anyone, which left me with two options. They had either taken my path but turned off on a dirt track I'd noticed running along the rice terraces, or taken another path. I ran into another guide and asked about Doong at which point he let me know that Doong had left a message for me to catch up with them along the dirt path. This may sound worrying, but it was not even lunch, a beautiful day, and I knew exactly where I was and how to get back so it wasn't in the least. I contemplated exploring on my own but then decided I'd better let the group know where I was so I caught up with them just as they were boarding motorcycles to drive back up to Sapa. Doong waited for me and I went back with him, had lunch, and then my Sapa experience was over. I wanted to rent a motorbike and explore until the bus arrived at 5:30 to return to Lao Cai but discovered that I could get an earlier bus and - maybe - make it to the Chinese border with enough time to catch an overnight bus to Kunming. It was 30 days to my flight home on August 5th and I wanted as much time as possible for China, so I chanced the 3:30 bus back, waving bye to Vietnam and some great times in this beautiful country and, I felt, to the end of a saga: my adventures backpacking Southeast Asia. China awaited and it was an adventure all its own. I had no idea just how much of one it would prove to be...

Sapa Photos


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

comment from BELGIUM.
I'm allready home for 3 days now. I'll try to read your adventures.

And you just liked the little girls from sapa because they said you were 'bacardi' (or something like that) :-D.

lot's of luck and love on your trip.

Jelene from belgium.

Dean said...

Hey Jelene, hope you enjoyed the rest of your volunteering... Sapa is still a highlight of my trip (largely due to the 'rum' association, hahaha).

Don't worry about being home, I'm heading there myself in 4 days. Four!


Glad to hear you've made it home safely and you survived 'nam. :)


Anonymous said...

I surely enjoyed the rest of my volunteering.
Ooh, so quick you're going home.. but yeah that's life :-).
I'm okay being home because my grandfather died a few days ago.. And moments like this, you need your family the most.
Tomorrow i'm leaving for the netherlands to do my vacation job (with two children with autism).
I hope you get home save and well!
And if you want to visit belgium one day, just let me know! :D!

xx bye bye!