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Sapa – Mountains & Rice Wine Induced Minor Psychosis

It comes to this. The epic conclusion to my epic journey up the epic spine of Vietnam crescendos with Sapa, a relatively small market town located way up north near the Chinese border and many metres above sea level. All throughout my journey I have spoken to people whose eyes glaze over as they recall this amazing little town. Anecdotes of homestays and the most amazing people fan the flames of excitement that I have been harbouring since touchdown in Bangkok. No pressure.

Setting off from Hanoi, we paid 300,000d/£9 for an 11 hour sleeper train to Lao Cai, an hours journey from Sapa. Me, Angus, Ben, Victoria & Julia all booked the same cabin, meaning some poor vietnamese person would have to put up with our western ramblings and attitudes. Arriving in our cabin we found 3 Vietnamese people there. A heated argument ensued, and we tried to point out that they were in the right cabin, wrong carriage but to little avail. The woman in particular wouldn’t even let us touch her ticket (for fear of us stealing it I guess?!?) and jerked away from us whenever we tried to point something out. This I thought to myself is north Vietnam, just go with it. Eventually they were evicted in all possible politeness and we settled down in our bunk beds and own devices. After a surprisingly good nights sleep, we arrive in Lao Cai at roughly 5am and catch a minibus for an hour for 50,000d /£1.50. Everyone was still pretty sleepy from the train and opted to loll their heads as we weaved higher and higher up the mountains. I had a window seat and marvelled at the scenery emerging from the remnants of night and awaited sunrise. Arriving on time our first goal was to find a hotel. We were dropped at one at just gone 6am and we hear cheering/screaming and the sound of running towards us. It’s minority people! These must be what the guide book talks about! They quickly swarm around us, matching us 1:1.5 and interrogating us with the usual questions, where you from? whats your name? how old are you? you want to buy from me? you come to my village? We looked at a few hotels and eventually settled on one with shared rooms for $5/night. All the while being shadowed by the minority girls, who were no older than 16 and fast noting our mannerisms, memorising our scent and learning where we were staying for round two.

Sapa acts as a hub for all the surrounding minority villages and every Sunday a market is held where everyone pedals their wares. There are some differences in the merchandise, but for the most part it’s people coming up to you saying you buy from me? and if you hesitate, them following up with a cheeky smile and ‘maybe later’ to which you can’t help but repeat, locking you into a binding verbal contract. Curse their mind tricks! Everyone else wanted to catch up on some Z’s in the hotel for a few hours. I napped for a little bit but was itching to get out and explore.

We arrived on the Sunday so I decided to go and have a look at the market and catch a glimpse of some of these fabled hills with tiered paddy fields. I was not disappointed. Slowly I waded through the markets, somehow picking up several bags and trinkets along the way, ever conscious of the fact that the more that I bought, the more of a rich westerner I looked to the people. There were two very distinct types of villagers in the markets, the Hmong and the Zhao. Homng wear blue/indigo dyed robes with a checked haedscarf covering their hair, and Zhao have high hairlines with red scarves arranged in a similar way to napkins in some fancy restaurant. I take a few snaps of the hills and the town, sunbeams puncturing the hazy clouds and looking just plain epic. I return to the hotel with a few more bits and bobs and report back to the gang. We head out a little later and get some breakfast out the front of a restaurant. This was a mistake. We were constantly accosted by people selling their goods. A simple no won’t suffice, it has to be a firm No, followed by a mouthful of food or drink. This helps to punctuate your refusal to buy. Still some more tenacious people stayed through the gulps and, in truth, did get a little annoying. We didn’t eat outside again. Showing the guys the views and getting our bearings, we head start heading to Cat Cat village, the closest of all the villages and an easy stop for the less adventurous tourists. We walk several kilometres through the hills and over the rice fields, arriving at a row of shops where I bought a scarf. And a hat. And a wallet. And almost a chess board(???) Cat Cat was charming in its own ways, it didn’t really feel like a functioning village, more of a tourist trail through hills and past a waterfall and shops, but nonetheless a good half day out and some bracing exercise. On the way back we bump into Bao, a Hmong woman and start chatting about a homestay and trek for the next day. To cut a long, long, long story short, we agreed on 150,000d (£5) for a 3 hour trek to some villages, a homestay in a village and lunch the next day, plus 50,000 for a motorbike back. Pretty good! That night we ate at the Sapa Rooms (Recommneded) and got an early night for the next days adventures.

Arising at 8, we strolled down into the town to get breakfast and was greeted by an eager Bao. Finishing our ‘continental’ (any breakfast + museli and/or baked beans) breakfasts we set off down the roads to Lao Chai village (sp) slowly but surely along the roads, we gained Hmong women who chatted with us and charmed us with information and little horses made from grass. It dawned on me that each Hmong had singled out on one person and stuck to them like glue. Over roads and dirt tracks we trekked, past mountains and mountains for over 3 hours, with our designated followers stoic in their temporary friendship with the westerners. Passing through Lao Chai, we moved on to Ta Van, where we would stay for the night. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. People told me of how the kids went wild whenever a tourist showed up and laughed and played. None of this really happened. I guessed it was because this route was one plied by tourists daily. We arrived at the homestay, Bao leaves us and the echoes of disenchantment continued, it had a pool table out front and an upper floor for guests such as ourselves. Lunch was served, and that was when the Hmong pounced. They waited 3 and a half hours for this point. “You buy from me? No?!? But I come so far…” relentless were their sales efforts and they did succeed in offloading some of their handicraft.

We settled, somewhat flustered and played some cards and pool. Passing the day away walking around the village we return back for tea where the housewife was busy prepping on the fire in the corner of the main room. Shortly after, the husband arrives and we greet him with expected awkwardness. Tea was served and the husband cracks open the rice wine. Horrible stuff. I’m not sure of the proof but it tasted bloody strong. Since they were a minority community, they didn’t speak Vietnamese or English so conversing was always a struggle. After more and more rice wine I had the bright idea of getting down Point It, a great leaving present from my sister, a small book containing pictures of everything a traveller may need, from fruit to anatomy. After that, dinner was a blast, they both chuckled and opened up as we swapped words for everything, tomato to massage. We went to bed happy and tired from the hike, which was scheduled to be repeated the next morning.

Bang on time Bao arrives via motorbike with her husband and we have breakfast. He breaks open a tiger beer and starts insistently pouring us rice wine to go with our breakfast. I always found it hard to distinguish between customs and borderline alcoholism and not wanting to offend/estrange myself from the locals, I oblige (and a fair bit more than the others) I draw the line at shot number 7, and we wave goodbye to Baos husband as he hops on his motorbike and speeds off some measure over the UK legal limit. He was an odd chap, very happy but also somewhat spaced out, like he was high with a constant expression similar to Bob Marley mid exhale in that print on nearly every students bedroom wall. Cutting along rivers, rice fields and bamboo forests and via a rather nice waterfall we trek for 4 hours to Baos village, the name of which fails me. On that trek I managed to plunge both feet past the ankle into the deep mud of rice fields, soiling my only pair of shoes. Baos house was the more authentic homestay that I envisaged, solid earth floors and just one bed. She had 4 kids who all greeted us eagerly, but not half as eager as her husband. Rather tired from the constant uphills we pull up on benches no higher than 6inches off the uneven floor, he beckons us outside to his garden, particularly keen on Angus seeing his big red bush. He motions me to take a photo of him and Angus next to it and holds him close with a noticeably firm grip on his wrist and the same high as a kite smile on his face.

Bao starts making us lunch and the husband starts talking to us in his own language as we nod enthusiastically, I think this man is beyond Point It. We all sit down and he starts on the rice wine. I manage 4 large shots before I have to refuse, but he’s happy and shakes my hand several times. Constantly talking throughout the meal, hubby seems refreshingly happy, pointing at family pictures and various curios he owns. He talks about Xi Phan Don, the highest mountain in the region, mentions a woman and then suddnely breaks down and starts crying. Bao puts an arm around him, and looks at him with empathy, as if this is not an unusual occurrence for her. After a few minutes he’s fine and we’re back to our usual level of weird, stunted conversation with him. We say our goodbyes shortly after and catch motorbikes back to Sapa. The train to Hanoi was booked for the next day so with regret I left this wonderful place. To top it off, whilst waiting for the train I had my mud caked shoes cleaned for 60p! Everything worked out just fine.

Sapa was the first real place in Vietnam that I wish I’d stayed for another week at least. I wish I could have hired motorbikes and gone exploring myself, done a homestay with some zhao people and had many more stories to tell about the wonderful people up here.

The BEST holidays

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