Sunday 26 April 2015
Since leaving Hanoi, I actually slept rather well on my top bunk bed and got up at 4:45am to admire the view out of the window as I pulled into Lao Cai station at 5:30am. I guess it’s the constant rocking movement and the beauty of having noise cancelling headphones that helps. Mind you, I can usually sleep instantly on any mode of transport if I wanted to. I crossed paths with a fellow English passenger in my carriage who unfortunately didn’t get a wink of sleep describing it as “hell on earth”. Amazing what different outlook people take when having the same experience.
As I exited the station I saw a girl holding a “Craig Cszeto” sign. Ok, I guess that was me and she was going to be my guide for the next few days. Sar, 20 and married, was part of the Black H’Mong tribe. She could have been no taller than 4 foot and looked about 12 years old. My transfer from Lao Cai to Sapa took 1 hour by road in a Ford Transit Van. I’ve noticed that they seem to favour Ford over here. Perhaps the parts are cheap. Only about 40 km away, it appeared that from the moment we set off, we were constantly climbing an incline. Ascending 1,400 m, I arrived at the Sapa Lodge at around 6:30am.
After having a shower and breakfast here, I set off on my trek with Sar leading the way. We had joined a few tour groups, as Sapa Lodge had bulk arranged the entrance tickets to the villages we’d be visiting. As we all started to descend on paved roads, I thought to myself that this isn’t so bad or hardcore. There was drama as we arrived at the ticket office as a bike zoomed straight past the group without stopping and showing they had a valid ticket. A lot of angry arm waving, pointing and shouting, a couple of Vietnamese patrol men, one brandishing a red flag, hopped on a motorbike and gave pursuit.
Sooner had I thought that this trek was going to be easy, we turned right and descended down a mud and clay track. This was more like it! I was flanked by an elderly lady and young girl. I wasn’t quite sure why they decided to tag along but I would find out much later at lunchtime. The elderly lady was 58 years old but looked at least double that. As we all climbed up and down hills of clay and mud, the group slowly filtered out. Some took the high road whilst others took the low. It seemed Sar was intent on testing me to my limits as all we ever seemed to do was climb up.
However, I was rewarded with beautiful landscapes of rice terraces and greenery, occasionally passing a water buffalo grazing on grass.
We started to wind down the hill eventually stopping at a river crossing of stepping stones. Sar and I had managed to now lose the rest of the hikers but we still had the old lady and young girl following. As we hopped over the river, I was invited into Sar’s home. I’m not sure why I was there as she seemed to have disappeared into the darkness of what I can only describe as a black hut. 5 minutes later, she appeared with a change of shoes as her white Reebok trainers where not suitable footwear for the muddy terrain.
We eventually arrived at Lao Chai village where all the trekking groups would meet and have lunch. Having built up a healthy appetite, I went for the vegetable fried rice and spring rolls. I thought that this would be a safer option from a hygiene point of view. With a can of Fanta, it came to 140,000 VND (£5.04). I guess they raised the prices as all the tourists where brought here with no other option.
Now this was where the elderly lady and young girl stepped in. As I was trying to eat, they were constantly badgering me to buy a handbag or scarf from them. I’d not heard a peep out of them all morning and then suddenly they find their voice. I declined to purchase anything as I was not a handbag kind of guy. However, if it was not the old lady, it was little girls with woefully cute faces asking me to “buy one, buy one” of the bracelets.
After lunch, it was just Sar and I since the elderly lady and young girl knew I was lost cause. More gruelling ascending and descending muddy paths, we eventually arrived at the homestay in Ta Van village after trekking 12 km. I was joined by a German couple and Dutch sisters.
After having a brief nap, I was asked to help prepare dinner. We all mucked in preparing vegetables and rolling fresh noodle spring rolls. Once all the food was prepared and cooked, both the guests and homestay owners sat together at one table to enjoy the meal. I thought this was very nice, especially when they brought out two large bowls of “happy water”. The villager’s sure like to drink as one shot glass after another it was “một, hai, ba, vô (1, 2, 3, cheers) and down the hatch, before they would fill the our glasses again.
Monday 27 April 2015
Woken by the sound of the family Rooster at 5am, I managed to lie in until about 7:30am before taking a shower. Breakfast of pancakes, honey and bananas was served. I could only manage one as I seemed to have contracted the German guy’s flu. It was quite bright outside which hurt my eyes. Feeling a bit lightheaded, I convinced Sar to take me the easy route today, sticking to paved roads.
Waving goodbye to my fellow trekkers, we did walk on paved roads but the 6km trek had some serious inclines. The harder trek was 7km but that involved muddy tracks which I was glad I opted out of that.
I arrived at a local restaurant for lunch and again opted for the vegetarian option of fried noodles. Sar was convinced I was a veggie at that point. This came to a more reasonable price of 60,000 VND (£2.16)
After lunch, a private Ford 4×4 arrived and took us back to Sapa town which was 12km away. This gave me a chance to have a quick wander around the town and freshen up at the Sapa Lodge. The town itself seemed to offer the same things I have seen all over Vietnam such as North Face clothing, coffee, pizza, pasta and massages.
At 5pm, I was driven to Lao Cai where I then said my goodbyes to Sar who left me in the restaurant. I’d have an hour to eat some Pork fried rice and morning glory. The restaurant seemed decent enough so I braved the meat dish. At around 6:30pm, the heavens opened leaving me with the impending soaking I was going to receive when I would walk to catch my night train back to Hanoi at 7pm. When it rains in Vietnam, it certainly pours!!
The night train promptly left at 7:30pm as I settled into my 4 berth cabin. This time however, I was lucky enough to get the bottom bunk as I shared the cabin with a French couple and Aussie. I was definitely appreciating the extra head room as my cabin mates killed the lights at 8pm. I know I have been trekking but even that was early. Settling back, I put my headphones on and allowed the train to rock me to sleep back to Hanoi…….