Unfortunately the rain really didn’t relent during our journey up to or our time in Sapa and the surrounding area. The journey up was mainly on a recently opened highway making the journey ‘only’ 5 hours long rather than the previous 8 – 9hours on the existing roads. Given the journey was on highway it wasn’t the most interesting (with the exception of the odd dead pig lying trotters up on the side of the road until we got to Lao Cai, a developing town right on the border with China. The town itself didn’t have a huge amount to see as we drove through it but we stopped for a lovely lunch and facetimed Nicola before she started her day at work as we ate.
Finishing up Tung took us up to the Chinese border – the border here was physically segregated by a river – one side being China, the other side Vietnam….the river itself ‘no man’s land’. I worked out that I could technically go across into China as the visa I was issued for my travels gave me multiple entry for 2 years…however if I had gone across, I wouldn’t have been able to get back again as I only had a single-entry Vietnam visa!
We went into one of the local temples where a family were holding a worship ceremony to Mother Goddess. They danced, prayed, offered goods to the goddess and gave small amounts of money to all those in the temple….mum and I were even given a bit even though we were clearly there watching the tradition!
Following the ceremony we continued on our drive, now heading up the mountain on much windier roads passed the rice terraces and many places growing orchids. The windy road took its toll on a couple of lorries that found it difficult to pass one another on one corner though which meant we were waiting for a while for them to resolve the issue! Unfortunately the weather really wasn’t on our side which meant we weren’t able to see the views particularly and the rain was continuing to pour.
I was scheduled to do a trek when I arrived in Sapa from one of the villages slightly down the valley, up into the town. I made the decision given the weather and the fact that I really hadn’t been great the couple of days prior that I would leave this one and just go the trek the next day. It was a shame but felt like the right thing to do….I think Tung was actually pretty pleased as it meant he had a bit more of an afternoon off and also meant he also didn’t have to trek in the rain!
Instead mum and I arrived at the hotel at about 3.30pm and had a very lazy late afternoon / evening. The hotel had a bath where I found myself for a good hour of the early evening and then we ate in the hotel (the food wasn’t particularly brilliant but it did the job) before given ourselves an early night before a busy day the next day!
The next day was pretty miserable from a weather perspective… we woke to pouring rain and I don’t think it relented the whole day. It didn’t stop us though. Today was scheduled to be a bit of a walking day, me doing some trekking with the driver taking mum to various points along the way to meet me. It worked out really well! We started by driving down the mountain a bit, Tung knew where the best place would be to get the clearest visibility given the poor weather and do we started our walk about 15m drive down the mountain. It was a nice steady walk, not very strenuous and we took it slowly as there was so much to see on route.
We stopped at the local school where I was able to see children in their daily lessons and went into houses of locals where they were weaving and protecting themselves from the rain before heading back out into the rice terraces.
The first village we visited was Lao Chai, a village of the H’Mong people, the women particularly wore their traditional dress day in, day out, all of which was made by them by hand within their homes. The H’Mong people wore mainly navy clothes, made so by dye from indigo flowers made within their homes – they would weave the clothes and then batik the material with beeswax to make the various, it looked amazing. The whole process took a long time but once a piece of clothing is completed, it lasts an extremely long time.
Seeing how they live their lives, completely self sufficient – buying and selling food, clothes, materials across families – was just amazing. Along with the clothing and food produce they also utilised natural bamboo to prepare produce for sale creating natural rice grinders activated by the rain water to slowly grind down the rice into individual grains, really incredible. They all had their own buffalo to assist with farming, all roaming the streets. I asked our guide how they would know whose was whose – he said the people didn’t necessarily know, but the buffalo knew….they knew who had nurtured them from a young age and the buffalo were loyal to those people.
Once we had met mum at the first stop for a quick break we continued on while mum headed back to a couple of the family homes to have a look around. The weather was getting heavier by this point and so about 20mins into the next section of our walk Tung took us into the home of a family he knew – they greeted me with huge smiles and made me a cup of green tea as we sat around the tiny fire in the corner of the room. It really is a simple life but they seem content. The house we went in to live mainly off farming but also allow tourists to stop by for a homestay if they want to. They don’t advertise anywhere and the stay really would be like the locals live….little electricity, sleeping on a thin ‘matress’ on the floor. The only way to know about the place would be to be with someone like Tung as he knows the family – it wouldn’t be on a ‘Trip Adviser’ review ….so really very authentic.
We continued on our way… unfortunately the weather meant that we weren’t really able to get a sense of the full vista of the area which is meant to be spectacular but the scenery was still beautiful. We walked across rivers and through a few more villages – of both H’Mong and ‘Day’ people whose dress is more brightly coloured and embroidered before meeting back up with mum for some lunch.
Lunch was followed by another walk for me – unfortunately for this bit there wasn’t anywhere for the driver to be able to take mum to meet me as it was a car / motorbike / bike free area so I took lots of photos for mum to be able to get an idea! The village was called Cat Cat village and was down hundreds of steps to get to the centre. A beautiful waterfall and waterwheels at the bottom which historically had been used to generate energy for the area but had latterly stopped working so now were just there for history. I saw a short film on the area, the culture and the customs including a custom that is still in existance now whereby men identify the ’pretty woman’ they want to marry and have their friends kidnap her. The man and the woman then live together for three days at which point the woman can decide if she would like to marry him. If she does, they marry very quickly, if she doesn’t, they drink alcohol together and go of on their merry way….all very strange.
Making our way back up the valley we met back up with mum and Thoang and headed back to the hotel. It truly was miserable so we decided to treat ourselves to (what turned out to be) an ‘ok’ foot massage and found ourselves a nice little restaurant in which to eat dinner, have a glass of wine and enjoy a couple of games of cards. All in all a good day and some nice walking / authentic experiences….just a shame about the rain!
On Thursday we were back on for a long drive again as we were heading back down into Hanoi. One of the things we have learnt from the trip is we should have done more of a circuit rather than going back and forth to Hanoi. It’s not the end of the world but it would have saved us a bit of time in the car and also some of the time in Hanoi as there is really only a limited amount of time you need there given it is slightly crazy!
Before starting the drive Tung took us to the local market which is open 7 days a week, mainly for locals to come and buy / sell their home grown produce. Fruit, veg and meat in huge quantities, along with stalls of offerings, house hold goods and an area in which the local ethnic groups come and sell their homemade clothing / materials and goods to others in the group (and also to visitors if they want it!). Mum and I spent some time up there, talking to the women, learning about their red head pieces they wear (apparently the redder your red piece, the more you love you husband) and I bought myself a wall hanging made by one of the ladies.
The journey back was quite uneventful, between sleeping and listening to a Harry Potter audio book (! Yep, that’s happening) we were soon driving through the ‘luxury wines and spirits’ shop and amongst the thousands of scooters in Hanoi. The staff at the hotel were so lovely when we arrived back and also seemed very excited about our room…. It turns out they had upgraded us to a huge 2 double bed room which was bigger that my flat. Given the weather was pretty awful ourself and we had such a lovely room we decided it called for an evening in so a quick mission to get my eyebrows done and pick up some dollars we enjoyed some food in and a relaxing evening in the hotel.