Tuesday, December 15, 2009

These Hills Were Made for Walking

We left Ocean Tours in a Taxi provided by them and saying goodbye they told us three times that the taxi had been paid for. This seemed like overkill to us as we’d heard him the first time. When we got to the station our taxi driver asked for cash. With our extensive knowledge of the dodginess of some Vietnamese people we smiled at him and laughingly told him that it was a nice try. He smiled a little and let us grab our bags and head into the station. We were pointed across a train yard and to our surprise we had to walk across the tracks to find our train. After crossing about 5 lines past parked and shunting trains we found our platform 9 and พ’s. We climbed on the train into a nice compartment with some locals and made ourselves at home. The bed was hard but the blankets were lovely and clean so we chilled out and read until the train headed off and then relaxed for a nice sleep.

We arrived into Sapa at 5:30am, after being woken up only about 10 minutes before we arrived we stumbled off the train expecting it to be freezing. But the station at the bottom of the mountain isn’t that cold so we were lulled into a false sense of security and decided that we’d think about warm clothes when we got to the hotel where we were to meet our guide. We walked out of the station and found a man holding our names and followed him to the bus that was to take us to the mountain. We headed up a long winding mountain road as the morning finally started breaking. We were thinking about taking photo’s and had decided we’d take them when we reached Sa Pa and weren’t on a moving bus.

Just after this conversation we headed into the cloud line and the temperature started to plummet. Mmm…maybe not changing wasn’t such a good idea after all. When we reached what we assumed was Sapa (as we hadn’t seen anything in the fog for about an hour) the door was finally opened to allow passengers out and we got our first taste of the freezing temperatures on the mountain. It was at this point that we also saw the colourful Sapa ladies who follow you around trying to got you to buy some of their handmade materials. We had been warned that they were like Hyenas and would follow anyone, but if you show you’re weak or wounded they would pounce on mass.

We were the last stop on the bus and we got off out our hotel and walked into reception. We weren’t staying at the hotel, but because our tour company also has the hotel stay there, they would store some of our luggage. When we got there tired from the train they surprised us with the use of one of their rooms for a hot shower and to rearrange our bags so we only needed our day trip bags and not our big backpacks. After cleaning up and organising everything we headed down for our free breakfast and to wait to meet our guide. There had been a girl in reception when we got there who was dressed in local traditional clothes. I had suggested to Drew that she might be our guide. Drew didn’t think so and I began to agree thinking that it was more likely it would be a normal guide like all our other tours.

After a great breakfast we waited in reception and were greeted by a bubbly, colourful local who said ‘hi, my name’s So, but if it helps you can just call me So So’. With a grin and a happy moment of her saying ‘and you’re short like me’ (So was actually about 3 inches shorter than me, I was a GIANT!! First time for everything), we headed off. We walked out of the hotel into the foggy day and were immediately set upon by about 5 local Sapa girls in all their lovely clothes. They didn’t seem to want to sell us anything, they just walked with us and chatted to us, in mostly perfect English, about where they were from and their names etc. We walked through town past the human like screams of a pig being slaughtered and down a steep foggy road with loads of people heading off for trekking just like us.

The thick fog created an image in our head that we were the only ones in the whole town heading off trekking. But when we stopped early at a toilet stop and saw the milling hikers and their entourage of locals following them down the mountain. After a quick break we headed off the road and down a muddy path straight down the mountain. The lower we got on the mountain the more the landscape opened up. We were about 5kms into the trek when you could really start to see the amazing impact that man has had on this environment. The hills were cut into stepped fields that went from the bottom to the top of mountains.

Walking down between them we saw water races, water buffalo and many other animals. It was winter though and there didn’t seem to be too much in the fields at this point. We were still with some people at this point, but mainly it was just So, who kept us moving at a blistering paces so that we were overtaking hikers left and right while the Sapa girls followed behind weaving horses and love hearts out of foliage to gain our affection. We’d walked about 9kms downhill when we reached the valley floor and So found us a beautiful route through the fields and along the river. Sadly this tactic, though beautiful, allowed me to both slip down a small hill and then further on I had the remarkable idea that I should take a dip in a creek. Luckily I only got one booted foot in before some of the Sapa girls came to my rescue. With a bunch of giggles from So we linked arms and made for the Lunch break at a village called Lao Chai village which was So’s home village.

The cultural group was the Black Hmong, So had married to a Black Hmong man at another village though. As soon as we sat down and waited for lunch the Sapa girls descended. We were kind of happy to get the hard sell out of the way early though and boy could they hard sell. They made my old candle shop forced selling look like kindergarten. After about 15 minutes of the hard sell So bought us lunch and the girls fell back. Drew and I discussed tactics and seeing as I wanted one of the bags that they made but nothing else we agreed that I’d buy a few friendship bracelets that looked a bit dodgy but we figure they would then have not walk 14kms for nothing. I picked my bag and a few bracelets and paid about $5 all up before sadly saying I couldn’t get anything else.

After lunch the girls didn’t follow us and we were left to wander the extra 3kms to our homestay. We passed through several small villages dropping past a school before we reached the village we were staying in. The village was called Ta Van which belonged to the Green Zai cultural group. The house was cute and clean and unlike what we feared (which was separate guest rooms) it appeared we got a curtained off area in their lounge room to sleep in. It had a lovely thick blanket and seeing as it was so cold they gave us an extra one just in case.

As it was only about 2pm I abandoned my wet sock and shoes to So to put by the fire and Drew and I headed off to walk around the village. We walked for hours, but sadly as it started to get really cold, my thongs weren’t doing the job so we headed back. We met another couple from Munich where we are headed before heading to Laura and Headley’s wedding and we had a great time chatting with them about places to go in Munich. The guy was really tall and helped the ladies pick some fruit from the tree just next to the house.

We chatted with So and she told us about her husband and her daughter. She also showed us some photo’s of her family that she had got from travellers who come before us. Her daughter had just turned 3 and was off to school already. As it started to get dark all the ladies in the family, some of the guys and both us and the other couple made our way into the kitchen and sat on tiny little stools around the cooking fire. So and the other guide Sinh cooked us an amazing meal as we watched. So and Sinh told us stories and myths from their different cultural groups and explained which traditions had been dropped with time and which traditions were still practiced today as well as many other insights into their cultural groups.

The mum in the house had just had a little girl 3 weeks before we were there and the baby sat in mums arms with all of us. It felt like a family dinner and we were invited. That’s what you hope for when you do a homestay and we were so excited that it seemed we’d been allowed in to their private lives with them. So double checked that we were ok with eating with the family as she’d told us that some tourists had chucked tantrums and didn’t want to have to eat with the family. We were happy to be invited and they seemed very happy to share the experience with us. After an amazing meal So brought out some homemade rice wine which she wanted us to try. I only had a little bit and I think it burned a hole in my tummy. Drew and the German guy had a few shots, but even they called it quits after that. With full bellies we all went back to our sleeping areas and after such a big walk slept like logs.

We woke early and So and Sinh had both made us a huge pile of pancakes and had some bananas to have with them on the side. It was lovely. After saying goodbye to the family and giving them our heartfelt thanks we headed off, me arm in arm with So and Drew bringing up the rear. Drew turned around early on and told some girls who started to follow us, that they were welcome to follow, but we wouldn’t be buying anything today. The girls melted away and we powered on passing other groups again and making for a bamboo forest that we had to walk through to get to a water fall and today was to be mainly up hill.

Sadly it was still pretty foggy and though beautiful we still couldn’t see the amazing views that we knew we were passing. After slipping and sliding our way to the waterfall we grabbed a photo with So and headed down for a bit to the village of Giang Ta Cha (Zan Te Cha) which is a village that has both Green Zai and Red Zai cultural groups. So made us a beautiful lunch again and then we headed across a local suspension bridge and up a hill to the road. This took us to our total of 25kms hiking and So organised our transport in an old army jeep back up to Sapa. The fog was so bad now that we could literally only see about 1m in front of the bonet of the car. We kept our fingers crossed as our driver flew around the corners only just missing trucks and busses coming the other way.

We got back to the hotel and dropped off our stuff and So said she’d show us through the local markets before we headed off. We wandered up through the markets and So showed us some items and told us the price we should pay for some of the things. She then finally said goodbye and after many hugs with me she left us to explore on our own. I ended up buying one of the scarfs that are traditional among the Black Hmong (So’s cultural group) and Drew and I bought some more friendship bracelets, though these one were actually made in Sapa and not China like we found out the ones we bought the day before at lunch were.

We headed back to the hotel and were again surprised to learn that we had access to a room again. After another hot shower and a change of clothes we headed down to the mini van and down the mountain to the train. We chatted with another Australian and American couple and then found our train car and basically crashed after a huge two days. We got back to Hanoi at 4:30am and seeing as we were on the same tour we shared a taxi with the Australian couple and rang the bell to be let back into the Ocean Tours office. We made our way to the top floor and relaxed for a few hours drinking free tea and coffee and interneting while waiting for the local cafes to open for breakfast.