Saturday, July 08, 2006

It's off to Sapa for some trekking in the countryside - or not!

July 8th. Back in Hanoi for a night before i headed off on the sleeper train to Sapa, touted as the premier destination of northwestern Vietnam. But before i go into that let me fill you in on my exciting overnight journey... and yes i was ripped off again (why do i still love Vietnam so much? But i do!).

Had stayed the night in a somewhat mini-skanky hotel, but the people were very nice so that balanced it out, or so i thought! Was going to buy my overnight ticket when the guy at the front desk said, "dont be daft (ok not those exact words!) but i'll get your ticket for you and i'll only charge you the moto fee to go to the train station to pick it up". I said "no thanks, i can get it, no probs" being quite happy to buzz around town myself, and thinking, "i will be strong. I won't get ripped off again." "No, no its easier - i'll get it for you, quicker and cheaper" he replied. Later that night when i realised the 170,000 dong i gave him was for the 118,000 ticket ("oh, thats my commission" he said) i thought, oh well, you knew it would happen!

And strangely enough, i also had a sinking feeling about the train itself. Everyone i knew had taken the 9pm overnight train and said, just take the hard sleeper, its comfy enough... Of course my train was the 10:10pm! As my moto taxi weaved me in and out of the crazy evening traffic to the train station (we got "nudged" shall we say, twice, once i nearly lost a flip flop for goodness sake - no harm done and totally safe, just bumps really, but no-one ever wants to give way on these streets!)....i had been thinking, hey look at me, who needs to take a tour up to Sapa, so easy! Just buy your ticket (for inflated price!) and get yourself to the station for your 4 bunk, air conditioned carriage. No problems right! Oh yes, my carriage. Six bunks - essentially 6 pieces of plywood with a scabby bamboo mat on top of them and a pillow that looked like it hadnt been washed in - years!!!! And the air con, oh yes that was a teeny tiny fan that barely made a whisper of wind flow through the "carriage". I stood there thinking "what!!". Wonder who my overnight companions would be? My bunk was #42, in carriage 9 on train LC1 (i wont forget that info for a while!) so of course this meant i had one of the top bunks. How would i get my massive pack up there?

Ahh - to the rescue came Nhat and her dad, lovely lovely people. Nhat was from Hanoi studying in China and thankfully, she also spoke some English so we had a great old time chatting away. Two brothers, one studying in London, one in America, she loved Coldplay, Queen and Travis. Her father, who has 14 brothers and sisters,(still married to her mother who had a restaurant in Halong Bay and lived there in the summers cos she got fed up of all of her dads affairs cos he loved the women - he was an attractive older man i have to say!)... anyway he asked me a ton of questions, as did the other gentlemen in our carriage.. about traveling alone, how brave i was, how Vietnamese people would never do such a thing, way too scared. I said but thats how i get to meet lovely people like yourselves! They were all so sweet, and we had a fine trip, with everyone being so protective of me (typical Vietnam i have to say!), even tho' they too were appalled by how awful the train was (apparantly the 9pm train is the new one, we got the dodgy ancient one of course!). Did i mention that my "bunk" was so close to the ceiling that i couldnt lift my water bottle up to get a drink, had to lie sideways.. AND that we were right next to the bathroom - oh - my - god the smell!!! But hey, good stories for the blog, right!

July 9th. We arrived in the town of Lao Cai (only 38km away from the Chinese border -so annoying, wish now i'd gotten my Chinese visa as it is so close - oh well!) at around 5:30am. Nhat and her dad took me under their wing yet again; bought me breakfast while we waited for their relatives to arrive, then we hopped on a mini- bus to Sapa, a mere 1 1/2 hours away. One of Nhat's aunts kept touching my arm saying "same, same" about our skin. The women here are much darker than in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, where they use whitening moisturisers to keep their skin as light as possible. Anyway, not only did Nhat's dad buy me breakfast, he also paid for my bus ticket and wouldnt take any money from me! I was mortified then of course very grateful.. so incredibly lovely of these new found friends! Would like to think i would be as nice to some dodgy tourist i find walking about Boston!!! Said my farewells then headed to my guest house where i was going to meet up with Pat and Carolien later that day.. yup, my lovely Dutch friends are here too!

Once i had checked in, i headed out to see what was what. Sapa itself is pretty tiny (surpringly, it has a population of about 36,000 - you wouldn't think it to see it!). A French hill station built in 1922, the whole area really is spectacular and lush and green -and many times shrouded in mist from the frequent rains here. There are many hill tribe people from the surrounding villages who visit the market on Saturdays in their most colourful, traditional clothing, selling everything from fruit and veg, to jewellry, clothes and later on in the evening, the old ladies go by whispering "you need marijuana, you want marijuana" - quite a surprise the first time i heard it!

I really wanted to climb Fansipan, at 3,143m high is Vietnam's highest peak. Unfortunately, due to the fact im a loser on my own, everyone said, no, no we dont go with just one person, plus it was the rainy season so even less chance of getting to go. Bummer, but oh, well. Tons of other things to do here! Wow - there are so many different tribes people here.. and all so beautiful. Their clothes, colours, some with hair shaved at the front of their heads but long, long ponytails, others all in black with tons of silver jewellry; boys wearing blue kimono jackets and floppy trousers, little girls asking you to buy something, anything from them. Loved seeing everyone looking so vibrant in the marketplace.. not dampened at all by the constant rain! Such a fine line cos as a "tourist" these people are so different and beautiful and you'd love to take tons of pics, but they are still people and its a bit rude to treat them like a tourist attraction (so any pics i took, i took a mile away and then zoomed in later.. hence they may look a bit fuzzy.. not sure if this is acceptable behaviour either so feel free to critique if you think so!). Met up with Pat and Carolien AND PanPan again and we had a wonderful evening together.

Headed to a local bar for some pool action; quite surreal as many of the younger hill tribe girls hang out here and are sharp pool players. I had a game or two and was absolute rubbish. We had a discussion on whether they were just playing pool or was there something more - sad to say i did see a girl tiptoeing out of my hotel the next morning so alas, my idealist and naive idea that they just liked to play pool was a little misled.. well, maybe just for one or two!

Anyway, met two fab boys in the bar - Mike and Geoff, brothers from Canada - who were planning a 3 day trip to Dien Bien Phu in the far north of Vietnam which had a rich history regarding the French capitulation to the Vietnamese.. not many people other than French tourists go there but the boys were interested in the historical perspective, and after chatting away i decided hey, why not. Another part of Vietnam to see, i was doing a bit of my new-found "going with the flow" mentality, the boys were lovely, and didn't seem too serial-killer-like so i signed up. After they left, i said to Pat and Carolien "do you think they are ok?" - they laughed and said "well, you idiot, you said you'd go, what do you think?". Of course i can write this here now because a) i have shared this story with the boys, and they didn't seem too offended by it, b) they obviously did not kill me on our travels together, c) in fact, we had a brillo time and shared many crazy adventures which i will get into in a mo' and d) therefore my positive, happy and altogether "these are safe people to travel with" vibe was right. They were two lovely young gentlemen who were a pleasure to hang around .. what else can i say without sounding any more grannyish!!!

Last note here - watched the World Cup Final in the bar - unbelievable! Zidane what were you thinking!! But you must have been provoked. That's not like you!! AAhh off to bed at 4am - soooooooooo tired and have to get up at 7am to meet the boys for our trip!!!


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