05.06.2011 35 °C
Wow. That little word doesn't even describe the spectacular place it really is. In the Lao Cai province in Northwestern Vietnam, this town of 130,000 people is reached from Hanoi by a 12 hour (overnight) train and a one hour bus ride through the mountains to this little piece of heaven. The French colonized this town in the late 1800's so as you drive through the town, the remnants of French influence remain in the architecture style and some of the restaurants which advertise French foods. It's a very unique mix of European and Vietnamese cultures which works very well together!
The town itself is the gateway to many tribal villages amongst the mountains and thousands of rice terraces. Derek and I decided to do a 3 day trek into the mountains and stay with a local family one night and then back to Sapa for a hostel stay the second night. Little did we know what was ahead... day one constituted of us meeting our trekking 'guides' which were women originally from the villages in the mountains. For a group of 10 foreigners, we had about 7-8 guides... they were all dressed in beautiful tribal outfits which we found out later they only wear when doing treks (like wearing a uniform to work). So with little information about what is expected, we are basically only told to wear sneakers - and thank god for that. We pack a night bag and start walking down the road... then the road turns into the side of a mountain... and then we quickly realize this trek is not a leisurely walk on roads to local villages but a serious and challenging hike through the Hoang Lien Son mountains (which are the eastern section of the Himalayas). Four hours later the first day, we have covered 6-7 kms of ground and had muddy clothes and bruises to prove it! It was hilarious, I was struggling on this hike and the guides that came along with us helped us along the trek... of course I would get the 25 year old woman carrying a baby on her back while holding an umbrella. What a sight... I've got both hands free with a tiny backpack on and can hardly hold my own and here she comes in sandals and is holding me up? Wow. I'm a little pathetic. It just goes to show you how easy our lives are compared to so many others in the world... I'm complaining and she's just bounding along, doesn't even phase her. I've got to grow a pair.
We reached a local family's home where we stayed the first night, had a refreshing swim in a local river and went back for the evening. The family cooked meals for us (rice, tofu dishes, water buffalo, lots of veggies) and then presented the group with 3 water bottles of 'happy water' or rice vodka. Many shots later, we were rejuvenated from the extremely long day. We were so lucky with the group of people we were with - US, Holland, Australia, Turkey, Austria, England - and everyone was all within the same age group.
Later that night we all went to bed with our mosquito netting around us and woke up to a heavy down pouring of rain. But that sure does not stop the people in the villages from working, they were out in the rain working the rice terraces. One thing for certain - the Vietnamese are hard workers! After breakfast, we started on the next leg of our trek which was even more difficult than the day before and thankfully a shorter trip. It was like we were trekking in parts of the mountains no one has been before... add water and you get a slippery mess of foreigners who are definitely not used to this! After another 3-4 hours, we had hiked about 4 kms to another village, had lunch and were pounced on by local artisans to buy everything from hats and belts to purses. From there, we hiked to the main road and a minibus picked us up to take us back to Sapa where we stayed at a hostel that night. Not going to lie, I felt like my legs were going to fall off and was extremely relieved to see that minibus pulling up!
The next day, our main guide, Lee, took 5 of us on a 4 km trek (by road) to another nearby village called Cat Cat. It only took us about 2 hours to do and was easy in comparison to the days before. We got to see the locals weaving the things we had purchased and also all the water mills they had which worked with rain water and waterfalls to pound grain into flour. We got back from the hike and checked out some local food markets which had everything including exotic fruit, mini crabs, tongue (yes I have a disgusting picture of the entire tongue with surrounding mouth parts... ugh), pigs feet, blue chickens (no idea why they were blue), little birds fried on sticks, and I'm sure a lot more but at that point I was about to get sick. That evening we caught a bus back to the train station which turned out to be one of the worst bus rides of my life - and I'm pretty sure everyone in the bus. I get car sick but it's been a long time since I've ever felt like I was actually going to throw up out the window of a moving vehicle. Luckily, I kept it together but it felt like that hour would never end. We made it to the train, found our beds and roomed with a couple from Montreal who were on vacation after university had ended so that was great to meet up with some Canadians!
Back in Hanoi the next morning, our hostel (Bodega hostel) was amazing and gave us a really nice room for free for the day to shower and sleep before we caught the sleeper bus to Hue that night. We slept a little while, went out for lunch and back to get ready for the next part of this trip... we hadn't heard much about sleeper buses but I will encourage anyone doing the same thing - FLY! This was one of the most interesting/worst experiences I've had travelling yet. You walk onto this bus and there are three rows of bunk beds going from the front of the bus to the back. You find your little 'sleeper' unit which is open to everyone around you and try to hide your belongings in this tiny compartment at your feet while attempting to be comfortable. That isn't even the half of it! The driver was crazy and was weaving through traffic all night like he HAD to be in Hue 3 hours earlier, was honking the whole time (which everyone does here) and making random stops to pick up 20 crates of baby chicks... then it gets interesting... they obviously overbook the bus so the driver walks down both isles and puts out these mats which 5 people had to sleep on. So these tiny isles are full with people and I luckily got this grumpy woman on the right of me (I was in the middle bunk so had people on both sides) who would roll over and grip my arm or any other part should could while she was sleeping. Plus she snored and hawked/spit every now and then (which SO many people do here as well... inside, outside, on a bus, doesn't matter but it's gross). Needless to say, I did not sleep well. Derek struggled more than I did because his huge 6'0" frame did not fit in the tiny frame of the 'sleeper' bunks... Also, when you had to go to the bathroom, you literally had to climb through someone else's bunk to get there.
So we made it to Hue yesterday. Our hostel (Valentine Hostel) picked us up on motorbike and we have a great room. The staff is so friendly and literally hover over you when you are in reception - they really want to please you. It's really funny and a tad awkward at times but you get used to it. In restaurants so far in Laos and Vietnam, the waiters literally wait beside you until you are ready to order. Something us Westerners are not used to but you realize it's just part of the culture and you have to pretend they aren't there so you can actually concentrate. We haven't been doing much exploring here because we just finished up a pretty crazy/eventful few days and honestly, am not interested in seeing another memorial site/tomb/temple at this point. There are so many and all I hear is that Angkor Wat is the be all and end all of temples. I'm fine waiting until then!
Last night was so much fun - we went for dinner and then to a bar called 'Brown Eyes' which was obviously the place to be on a Saturday night. Many drinks later (and a few 'buckets') we were breaking out our moves on the dance floor, met some great people, and called several people including Tracy/Mark, mom, Adam, and my cousin Lindsay. I'm sure they really appreciated the calls. Good thing it was only noon for them! Haha.
Tomorrow morning we're heading to Hoi An for a few nights to check out the beach, city and most importantly, take advantage of the infamous service of having custom clothing made in a couple days for very cheap! Then we have decided to fly from there to HCMC (Saigon) and start the trip into Cambodia. We really like Vietnam but are itching to get to some more of the beaches and feel we've seen enough of the country to be happy leaving.
I'm off for now but found out how to access Facebook in Vietnam - if you are here, go to this website for access: www.f3.proxymice.com
Here's a link to Facebook pictures I put up recently from SE Asia! Hopefully the link works!
Hope everyone is doing well at home! I miss all of you!