On the road to Sapa - Travel Blog - PrivateSapaTours.com
On the road to Sapa
We grabbed a bit of shopping and a quick dinner and were back at our pick up spot at the travel agents just on time. We forgot that everybody else in this country works on Vietnamese time and so spent about half an hour chatting to the sweet lady (travel agents wife) while we waited for our lift. Eventually a couple of young guys on scooters pulled up and informed us that they would be taking us to the night bus. We were a little bit sceptical of how they were to transport us and our two huge rucksacks at the same time, but this was all cleared up when they told us to just jump on the back. We wobbled our way through the crazy crowded streets of Hanoi on the back of the scooters. However, our lack of balance was more than made up for by their skill, they had clearly done this before. Arriving at the bus we were shocked that it was the brand spanking new one from the pictures that we had been shown. So much so, that after we stowed our luggage in the cargo hold, we were asked to remove our shoes before getting on the bus . There were crazy red and blue lights to illuminate the interior, the toilet at the back was clean and the bunk beds were large, soft and reclined fully (each came with a fluffy fleece blanket and very effective air blowers). In fact, the only problem was the dodgy Vietnamese music videos that were playing at a far louder than necessary volume. We were very pleased to see that our friends from Ha Long bay (Dee and Kim) were already on the bus. We read for a few hours before settling down to some very broken sleep. 

At five thirty the following morning, I thought that I was experiencing a horrendous nightmare. The lights came back on, accompanied by a thumping rendition of that musical faeces "Gangnam style". Twitching awake with a cold sweat on my brow, I shuddered to the realisation that this was in fact real life. We had arrived in Sapa and this was the driver's way of saying get the hell off my bus. Being in the highlands and on the street before six in the morning, we were slightly chilly and so quickly rummaged through our bags to find some warmer clothes. It was, if possible, even denser fog here than in Ha Long bay. We shivered together in a close group for nearly an hour (watching the kids on their way to school and declining the locals’ offers of a lift to the hotel) before the hotel minibus finally came to get us . After a three minute drive we were at the hotel and unloading our bags, ready to go for a hot shower. Feeling warmer and a bit more human, we were sent down to the dining room where a spectacular buffet breakfast was laid out. Most of the dishes looked more like what you would receive as a main course at an Asian restaurant but it all tasted good (even the strange pink sweet sausages). After multiple refills of coffee, diverse juices and obviously food we all felt very very happy, but not very ready for the planned 3km hike that we were due to begin at 9am.

We met our Hmong guide in the lobby and started off down the hill through the lifting fog, into Sapa town. Immediately we were accosted by hoards of Hmong women (young and old) all trying to sell us the traditional embroidered bags and scarves that the tribes-people weave and dye for a living. 'No’ is not a word that they understand, though not through lack of hearing it. It just has no effect and acts more like an invitation for further conversation such as your name, age, country of origin. Then they raise the other hand to see if they can generate interest (and income) with bracelets, bangles, purses and hats. By this point it was clear that they do have nothing better to do than to follow you with an irrefutable persistence. One Hmong per tourist is difficult, but as they begin to split the group, they start to use tag team tactics, trying to find any weakness . After 500m or so they cut their losses, promising that they recognise you and will see you on the way back. They all know the answers before they escape our mouths (“maybe later”, “maybe tomorrow”) and make us pinky swear before we can escape. With the phrases “buy from me” and “two for 20,000” ringing in our ears, we turn the corner, only to see that we are entering the territory of the next gang.  The 3km took us nearly two hours and by this point we are getting very good at not just dismissing them but talking to and interacting with them, anything to try and distract them from the hard sell. As we near the gate at the entrance to the Hmong village of Cat Cat, we saw a young guy sat on the floor outside his shop, hand-carving intricate ornaments from soapstone. Covered in dust, the scruffy little guy got up, patted himself off and started to show us some of the other pieces from the benches. Seeing a lovely ornate box I made a mental note to pop back later. 

We entered the village and every house was a shop with huge arrays of tourist specific nick-nacks. Now we were a bit closer we could see all the rice paddies that had just been shadows in fog before. Intricate systems of bamboo aqueducts moved water between the paddies through water trough see-saws. These filled up and tipped, spilling the water and allowing the heavy counterweight to slam down with a clunk and scare away any nearby birds . As we neared the bottom of the village, we crossed a swing bridge and stopped for a while by a waterfall. Here we watched a short cultural performance of a boy and girl dancing, before heading back up the hill towards Sapa. We did pop back to the carving shop and managed to talk the price down from 250,000 to 220,000 VNdong ($11US). He did an amazing job of packing it up safely for travel. We then went back to the hotel for lunch. Having removed my waterproof jacket and beany hat, I managed to sneak pass the aggressor that I had been forced to pinky promise earlier. Relief.

Lunch was also very good, with a choice of 16 set, five part menus (soup, spring rolls or chips, some type of meat and veg stir fry, rice and fruit). For the less adventurous, there were also sandwiches and burgers or a variety of noodle soup or fried rice dishes. Drinks were served at a surcharge but were not extortionate (£1 for a large tiger beer). In the afternoon we decided to rent scooters ($5US each )and go for a drive over the hills into the next valley. The automatic scooters were surprisingly easy to drive. With helmets and glasses on, we revved up to 40km/hr and hit the road, beeping our little horns at pedestrians like true Vietnamese. We drove past some waterfalls but chose not to pay to see them, partly because we have many photos of waterfalls already and partly because there was not very much water coming down them . We drove about 20km away from Sapa towards Lai Chau before turning round and driving back. We found a small bar and each sampled a glass of the local Hmong apple rice wine. T’was potent stuff. We returned to the hotel for dinner (same as lunch menu) and then popped back down to the same bar for more of the local tipple and some cards. An early night was in order and I think we all slept pretty damn well.

The following morning we were up at seven for a nice hot shower before another enormous buffet breakfast. We packed up our rooms and checked out by 9am in order to meet our Hmong guide from the day before for starting our next trek. Today she accompanied by six other women (some carrying babies) and a few young girls, this time not trying to sell anything, just walking with us and chatting. The fog was the heaviest we had seen it and there was also a faint drizzle falling. We walked down through Sapa town and continued along the main road for a couple of kilometres, heading down into the valley. Turning off the road, onto a dirt track, the downward gradient increased greatly and the surface water was forming a thick slimy mud. It was now clear why we had so many guides. They were so sure-footed, that they could help those with less instinctive balance (I mention no names). ZoŽ found herself holding hands with a young lady called “Bah” (or something similar) for the majority of this part of the walk and joking about how she may have to marry her instead . Bah did a wonderful job of keeping ZoŽ upright, many thanks. Unbeknownst to us we were actually walking through beautifully terraced rice paddies, paddocked with woven bamboo fences, to us it looked more like the inside of a cloud. Walking along brick canal (to channel the running water) we headed further down into the Muong Hoa valley and past a small Hmong village called Y Linh Ho. Here we climbed across some bamboo ladders and bridges and descended further into dense bamboo forests, with huge orb spiders sitting in their webs. We stopped for lunch by a suspension bridge crossing the Muong Hoa river. This is what the guides had been waiting for, with us seated in the restaurant, we were prime targets. ZoŽ decided that because of all the help, she would buy a small bag from Bah, I told her that 50,000 VNdong was the highest price permitted but her conscience won out and we paid 80,000 (£2.5). We ate our lunch of chicken, cabbage and rice before the second wave of attack arrived in the form of three very cute young girls, pleading in their sing-song voices, “one for 5,000, two for 10,000” while thrusting an array of brightly coloured bracelets in our direction. Dee informed the kids that she had “no money”, to which one of the girls replied, “no money, no honey”. Maybe she heard it from an older sister.  Whenever someone pointed a camera at them, they covered their faces and shouted, “you take photo, you buy from me”. Obviously very well trained .

After lunch we fought our way past the Hmong guides, looking for the last quick sell and carried on through the village of Lao Chai. We crossed another suspension bridge into the Dzay minority village of Ta Van (the Dzay people have a heavily Chinese influenced culture). Here we saw some beautifully carved boulders lying on the floor outside a stone shop, with intricate reliefs carved into the flat surfaces. A few more kilometres walk and we hopped onto a waiting minibus to take us back to the Summit Hotel. We washed the mud from our shoes, had a shower and changed clothes before going to the restaurant for the last supper before the night bus back to Hanoi. This time ZoŽ and I managed to get the triple bed at the back of the bus, score. Another bumpy night’s sleep.

Loud and offensive the wake-up call was, but at least it was not “Gangnam Style”. We were ejected on to the streets of Hanoi at 5am and quickly got our bearings before heading off to the lake. We saw a few rats running about and the first few Tai Chi enthusiasts beginning their morning routines. At this time, nowhere was open, so we had to wait an hour in the cold before creeping into a cafe for a hot drink. We spent the next few hours shifting around early morning coffee shops until we could find a place with cheap tea/coffee, free wi-fi and power plugs . At just after 10am we stopped back at the travel agent we had used a few days earlier. He greeted us warmly, enquired about our trips and ushered us to sit down, at the same time relieving us of our rucksacks and storing them at the back of his shop. We told him our new travel plans and he sorted us out a good price for a five stop, open-bus ticket for the rest of our time in Vietnam. It came to under $50US pp and will take us to all the places we are interested in visiting. We have bus times, locations and durations, beginning with another over-nighter tonight. Upon sealing the deal, he fetched us a mango and banana smoothie from his friend next door and offered us a room in his friends hotel around the corner, to dump our luggage, shower and sleep if we want (free of charge). For the rest of the day we will relax, maybe visit the temple in the lake and perhaps pop to a water puppet show. Vietnam is awesome.