The journey down to the valley bottom
Having first visited Sapa in November last year when it pissed down continuously and we waded through mud-baths we thought that mid-June would be a far drier experience…but this time was no different…ah well, you can’t have it all I suppose…
I think my mother found it an exhilarating experience(that’s the word being used now – I think other words might have been used while half way down a mountain slope) , and a welcome change to the heat and humidity of Hanoi.
Mum visited our house and we caught a taxi in front of the Galaxy Hotel round the corner from home. Interestingly, the taxi driver recognised us and said that he knew we’d been in Hanoi for almost a year and even knew which house we lived in! The bush telegraph is definitely functioning in this part of town. As we are considered semi-locals we got the short route to the train station, meaning we saved about twenty minutes travelling time and a handful of Dong.
The carriages in soft sleeper that we previously took had been pretty good, and to be honest the upgrade we got this time was only a marginal improvement. The main difference being a wood panelled compartment and nicer bedding (including hand embroidered pillow cases). There was the same chewy bread and dull bottled water as previously.
The next morning we arrived in Lao Cai. The main difference to our previous visit being the completion of some of the major road works that seemed to have managed to cake the entire town in mud during our visit in November. It still remains a pretty dull and uninspiring place to spend any time in.
I began to fear the worst about the weather as our bus wended its way up the hairpin bends on the mountain side, as much of the landscape lay hidden by mist and rain. Sure enough Mount Fanzipan remained unseen behind a wall of cloud. The Green Bamboo was just as we left it. Really nice rooms, yet lacking the all important heating (trying to try my suede trainers overnight with a hair dryer proved spectacularly unsuccessful). After having breakfast we met our tour guide Toan who shares a flat with Chien who Kris had used when she had taken her dad to Sapa a few months previously. Toan was an absolute star, though he was suitably vague about some of the challenges that lay ahead.
Our journey started with a short walk along a tarmac road overlooking the valley below the Green Bamboo hotel. After about twenty minutes we stopped at a way station on the side of the road and Toan asked us what we would like to do as there were two options.
Option one included an 8 kilometre walk along the tarmac road above the valley, with a short walk down the mountain to the three ethnic minority villages we intended to visit.
Option two was the walk down the mountain track which Toan thought would take about an hour to reach the bottom of the valley. He thought the second option would be both more interesting and picturesque. We had a short exchange and decided it would be more fun to take option two, after all it would only be an hour.
It turns out that a day later we met an English woman who had been doing Vietnam with Intrepid Tours, they were not so intrepid and decided to take the road…
I suppose the warning signals should have begun flashing when three tiny H’mong girls offered to sell us some bamboo walking sticks. After a quick round of bargaining – Toan thought they should have cost 2,000 VND, but that turned out to be the price for Vietnamese and they would only sell it to westerners for 4,000VND – we began to make our descent.
The plan was to visit three villages Y Linh Ho, Lao Chai and Ta Van. The first village was home to the Black H’mong who wear very dark clothing in blacks and navy dyed with indigo (often seen on the hands of older H’mong women). The second village was populated by members of the Zay people, who unlike the incredibly outgoing and business savvy H’mong, pretty much ignore tourists, and the third village was another Black H’mong village where we would meet our jeep. According to Toan’s schedule we would be eating lunch at the Zay village…
I won’t bore you too much with the details, but Toan was rather optimistic with his timings.
All of us wore pretty much unsuitable footwear, and soon we were completely splattered with mud as we proceeded down the track, precariously balancing on slippery stones with a steep drop to our right.
At one point my mother decided that perhaps she would prefer to go back, but it was a little late in the day as we were about three quarters of the way down the slope. Another joyful experience included balancing oneself as you walked along a narrow path dividing the terraced rice paddies, the H’mong are famous for.
Eventually we hit the bottom of the valley with the first village in sight. It had taken three hours to manage a descent that on a good day should have taken an hour.
Despite us now being on the valley floor, we then had to proceed along the edge of the now swollen river, picking our way over rocks until finally we arrived at the suspension bridge that marked the entrance to the village. A couple of H’mong girls decided that they had taken a liking to us and from that point onwards kept us company.
A bruised and sweaty party sat down for our lunch of bread and Laughing Cow cheese (we had missed our appointment for lunch – it’s probably why the Zay can’t be arsed with foreigners as they always promise to come over for dinner but never turn up!). My mother experienced the thrills of twenty H’mong trying to sell her brocade for the first time, which was a bit overwhelming at first. Along with the Black H’mong a group of Red Dao (pronounced Zao) women were also present and they used the time honoured selling line of: ‘you’ve brought something from the Black H’mong now buy something from the Dao’. This very mild emotional blackmail, is of course very successful!
After lunch the weather and the terrain improved and we began to really appreciate our surroundings. Mists swept over the valley, writhing over the green terraced rice fields that swept down from the mountain sides. Brooks bubbled alongside us and our new H’mong girl guides kept us company as they monitored the strange Tay (westerner) behaviour. Water played an important role in the life of the village. It was used to power an electrical generatorand a rice pounder (a giant pestle and mortar smashing kilos of rice husks off the crop). Boys could be seen paddling in streams, and one particularly happy toddler was up to his knees in his own mud bath, squelching his feet contentedly in the mud. Giant butterflies and dragon flies whirred by.
Eventually we passed through to the next village of Lao Chai, home of the Zay. Zay women predominately wear bright tartan like headscarves in almost fluorescent greens and pinks. Their blouses are in a brilliant rich blue, often worn with white trousers. As Toan had said, they exhibited no interest whatsoever in our passage. Finally we reached Ta Van and the end of our trek. The only chatty people we met were a large group of Red Dao who wanted to do more bargaining.
We had apparently walked around 13 kilometres so we were looking forward to our trip back to Sapa in the jeep.
As we were so late, the jeep had not bothered to wait around at the bottom of the hill, after a short walk up the slopping tarmac road we eventually found it. At last, some respite for our poor feet and knees! Sapa was only fifteen minutes drive away so soon we would be luxuriating in a nice warm bath…
the jeep cabin begins filling with smoke and an electrical burning smell, I immediately grab the door and bail out, Felicity exclaims ‘quick! Get out it’s gonna blow!’ (I’m of the opinion that she’s been saving up that line for years until the right moment), and we dropped out of the jeep, scampering a few yards away. The unconcerned jeep driver, slowly gets out and then comes over and asks me for my lighter. A minute later he returns with it and says all’s well and we can proceed. By now our nerves are slightly on edge, particularly as we are about to hit a rough patch of road, with nearby evidence of rock slides. As we leave the tarmac and begin to negotiate the gravel section of the road, the engine cuts out, restarts and cuts out. Once again we descend from the jeep, but are convinced minutes later to get back in and start again. What began to concern us with each of the stops was the driver insisting on putting rocks behind the rear wheels to stop us careering off the edge of the precipice next to the road. Once more we began to traverse the rocky section, and this time the gear box seemed to fall apart and the jeep began rolling backwards! Enough was enough by now and we started the long plod back to Sapa on foot, vowing never to set foot in the jeep ever again.
After about fifteen minutes walk, the jeep came trundling behind us and the driver gave us a cheery grin, gesturing us to get in. Toan, Felicity and myself decided that we’d had enough excitements for one day and carried on walking, but my mother decided she’d risk what now looked like a death trap!
Again we carried on walking up the incline wondering when the torture would come to an end. Toan eventually managed to flag down two motorcyclists and a weary group at last found ourselves outside of the Green Bamboo.
Later that night we went for dinner in the ‘Posh’ restaurant, which although friendly and warm, lacked a little flair in it’s cooking. I did enjoy my very western style goose stew though. We also caught the ethnic dancing in the Bamboo Bar which was on the bottom floor of our hotel (how on earth we managed to miss it the last time we were in Sapa is a complete mystery).
Saturday was a much milder affair, beginning with a walk down to Cat-Cat village just below Sapa, once again home of the Black H’mong.
This time the whole route was paved with stones and it felt quite leisurely in comparison to the previous day’s excitement. My mother’s knee however wasn’t up to the task and so she took a break at a café in the upper reaches of the village, while we walked to the bottom of the valley to see the early 20th century French built hydro electric station.
Toan again offered us two options. A short jaunt up the rice terraces (through mud), or back up the steps, the same way we had come down. We decided to choose the easy option. Mainly because we had run out of dry non-muddy clothes by that point.
We picked up mother along the way, but with her knee still troubling her, we decided to take advantage of the Black H’mong Xe Om team who got us back up the hill without further mishap. The rest of the afternoon was spent touring the market and town. While in Cat-Cat, my camera had given up the ghost due to the extremely high humidity, so I made a quick dash back to the hotel to collect my backup. Along the way I was accosted by a teenage Black H’mong girl who asked me where I was from, what was my name, who I was with and how old I was. She then asked me to wait for a second while she nipped over to her friends, returning with three ‘friendship bracelets’, one of which she tied around my wrist and the other two were for Felicity and my mother. It turns out was her name was Vu and eventually I was brow beaten into meeting her at the hotel before we left to buy something from her. Amusingly enough we found out that Luke our New Zealand friend, while touring Sapa a few months ago had met Vu (who also uses the name Mimi) playing pool in a bar wearing a sun visor and trainers! She also spanked him on the bottom at one point and after having whipped him at pool, branded him a loser! I found it really hard working out how old Vu was as she seemed very naïve but it turned out she was nearly 17 (veritable early middle age for the H’mong), but she was still capable of sulking and minor tantrums as I found out when she tried to sell a lovely blanket for twenty dollars when really it should have cost around 100,000 VND ($6). I ended up paying 150,000 but it was good fun chatting with her. The H’mong are also much more tactile than the Vietnamese. It is extremely rare to touch somebody of the opposite sex (though my male friends are often seen hugging or resting random limbs on each other), so it’s quite a shock when you’re given a huge hug by a H’mong teenager. My mother also got the same treatment, which was quite a surprise to her!
Eventually it was time to leave and so we boarded the bus back to Lao Cai. Thankfully the weather had cleared and we had amazing views as we dropped to the plains below. Once again we had three hours to kill in Lao Cai and having seen the ‘sights’ of the town on our previous visit we decided to remain in a café until it was time to get the train.
I was lucky enough to spend a few dong on one of the travelling weighing machines that are a common sight throughout Vietnamese cities. My previous experience during Rachel and Andy’s stay had said I was 88.8 kg and 7 kg overweight, this time I hit 74.5 kg. Get in!
We entered Hanoi over the railbridge just a dawn was breaking, and as is always the way with Hanoi when returning from the countryside, it’s a welcome site. Joggers could be seen running along the side of the railway track, old women doing fan dancing in the cool of the early morning, the rich mustard of the buildings glowing in the morning light, a market place packed with the most vivid of greens…