Published: January 20th 2012January 20th 2012
The train arrived in Lao Cai at about 5:30am. Still groggy we shuffled out of the train station and had a person waiting for us to drive us to Sapa.
Shortly after we were driving to Sapa. I slept most of the way. When I woke up it was light out at we were driving through Sapa, a high-altitude hill-side town. It was very foggy so you could't see much of anything. We got to the Pumpkin Hotel and had breakfast, showered and prepared our bags for the upcoming treks. Breakfast was a pineapple crepe. Quite good.
Once everything was settled, we were on our way alongside the road. Our guide, Dom, was great. Like virtually all guides, she was relatively young and female, a bit of an oddity for a guide. Quite the sense of humour, and understood irony (a rarity in Asia). Virtually all guides I've ever had in Asian countries were men. We walked for about 40 minutes along the road. Meanwhile there where 2 women and a young girl following behind us. As I had guessed, they followed us to try to sell us souvenirs at the next village.
Before long, there
was a path leading down into the valley. Thankfully the whole trip was dry (aside from creeks and rivers, and rice terraces), because the ground was clay-based. Fairly good grip when dry but treacherous when wet. We meandered down the side of the valley, walking along paths and sometimes along rice terraces that spotted the landscape.
We made it to the bottom of the valley and crossed over a relatively stable and safe bridge. At least compared with many others I've seen. The bridges here are mainly metal platforms, although some are rusting and have holes punched through. That said, the only real danger was twisting your ankle in one of the holes.
Along the way, the girl would make little horses out of plant material along the way, with the expectation of compensation afterwards of course. The women wore rubber boots and would help some of the tourists through the more tricky parts (particularly the female and elderly tourists). But again, with the expectation of compensation.
We made our way down the hillside to a Red Zhao village called Lao Chai for lunch. They are called Red Zhao because they shave their eyebrows, and
wear red shawls. They served chicken leg with a French baguette and some veggies and we made our own sandwiches. During lunch we were continually pestered by women and girls selling souvenirs, mainly handwoven fabrics. The three that followed us were the most persistant of course. I had refused their help, knowing that it would just lead to them wanting money, but the other couple I was with, were not so travel-savvy.
When we finished lunch we took off, this time with another group of girls and an old woman following us (see pictures). They did not stay with us however. Before heading back up into the hills, we passed a home that had what is essentially a water mill but converted into a grinder of sorts, mortar and pestle style. We also saw what is a common toy for young boys, an entirely wooden toy car that they would sit on and ride down a hill. One boy’s car wouldn’t move down the hill, so the industrious little boy, flipped it over, grabbed a rock and started pounding the nails which apparently started to create drag. Then off he was. He was maybe 6 year s
We walked up through the hillside, again along various paths and sometimes along rice terraces for another couple of hours through a couple of small villages. Eventually we can to one called Ta Van, of the Dzay people, where I stayed the night in a homestay and the other couple took a bus back to Sapa town. With lots of time still left, I wandered up the mountainside as far as I could, passing many homes. There were a number of steep parts through the clay which was tricky. After about an hour of walking, I came to what appeared to be the top, but I noticed there was in fact a road there, as motorcycles whizzed by. It was an incredibly steep climb to the road, as I scrambled up the crumbling and slippery clay, trying to dig my hands and feet in to get some foothold. I made it to the top to the road where , to my dismay, I realized that I was nowhere near the top. I had gone above the clouds, and could see that the next peak was easily another 500 m higher. With no discernable path up, and
getting tired and running out of daylight, I headed back down. The first part I slid down rather ungraciously, but successfully. As I made my way back down, I came across two groups of foreigners going up, with the same idea as me. One group, a Belgium couple, a Brazilian man and a pair of French sistsers ended up being in the same homestay as me. I made it back to the homestay and relaxed for some time, before the afore mentioned group got back. Travelling with them and their guide was another older French couple as well. The Belgiums spoke English well (as well as French of course), but the French tourist’s English was limited (not that I should expect them to be otherwise). They spoke French to each other for most of the night, leaving the Brazilian and I to converse in English. It was rather funny that all of the French people (and I) had a lot of clothing and other goods from Decathalon, which is about the French equivalent of MEC. People that know me in China know that I buy everything there.
The homestay owner made us French fries which were quite
good, and very heavy on the garlic. Then they made dinner which was an assortment of dishes containing beef, chicken, pork and tofu. It was all delicious. It was getting quite cold at night, so we were huddled around the fire for warmth. When we went to bed we had nice thick fleece blankets (along with mosquito nets which I presume are useful more in the summer as it was far too cold to sustain them in winter).
When we woke up, the homestay owner cooked crepes for us. And shortly after we headed off. For a short time, we stayed together as a group, with a few old women following us of course. But after about an hour or so, Dom and I took off at a much faster pace (the other group was heading back that day, whereas I had another day of trekking). After some time walking along the trails and terraces, we made our way down the slopes to the river to cross to the other side and up to the main road. There we headed along the road for some time until we got to the village
of Su Pan and stopped for lunch. At the lunchstop, there was another group, which would end up being in the same homestay as us. It was a Kiwi family with 2 parents and a teenage daughter, and a German man. unch was a kind of beef noodle soup. And an orange; oranges here , have a sort of wrinkly look as if they were excessively soggy (even though they were not).
They headed off before us and we headed off as well down the road. We took a branching road that headed down the hillside. The rest of the day was downhill. After about an hour and a bit of the downward traversing road, we took a trail that cut down into the heart of the valley to the large village of Ban Ho below. Along the way there was some serious construction of what was a strange looking dam and power station. Not like any kind of hydro plant I have ever seen, the under construction dam was situated on the side of a steep mountain with a channel going straight down into the plant. There was no water to speak of, and it did
not seem like it was a stable resource of water.
As we headed down the steep and open hillside we would see some kind of large pipes that ran up from the where the dam looked to be and up the other hillside only to go back down to a power grid. The hill itself was quite steep and very much clay based, which I was thankful was dry.
Along the trip the weather got better and hotter, but also we were decreasing the elevation significantly as we were heading downriver the entire trip.
We got to the next homestay and found the other group already there. After a bit of a break, I headed out down into the village proper and across until I came across a bridge and noticed a water fall upstream towards the mountain. Being the intrepid soul that I am, I decided to try and make it to the waterfall, in the flipflops I had borrowed from the homestay . I scrambled over rocks for a good 1-2 kilometres until I reached an impasse. A large rock face was blocking my progress and any real view
of the waterfall. I had 2 choices. Either I try to climb up and over the steep and unsafe looking rockface in nothing more than flipflops. Or I swim in the frigid waters with my waterproof camera. With no one around I went skinnydipping and swam upriver for a short distance to see the waterfall. It ended up being not much of anything, or at lwith relative ast that there was a small 3m water fall that I could see and that it was a multistaged waterfall that was hidden and inaccessible without some serious climbing. I took my picture, and swam back. I walked back for a while to air-dry before putting my quickdry clothes back on. I was racing against time a bit as it was getting dark quickly. I made it back with relative ease.
The New Zealand woman happened to be an art teacher, and was taking a year off with her daughter and husband to go travelling. The German was also a teacher. Suffice to say they were interested in my experiences teaching in China. Dinner was also quite good. Spinach and cabbage, beef and onion, spring rolls, tofu, and chicken which
had been clearly alive hours before.
It was a similar set-up as the other homestay and same warm blankets.
The next morning I was up early. The owner’s husband was slicing apart a banana tree and then grinding it in a giant bowl to make pig food. Some other workers were taking some kind of potato-like tuber plant and peeling them and then they had a manual rotating shredder to shred it into thin strips to feed to pigs, but also the ducks clearly enjoyed. After shredding, they would leave them to dry during the day.
Apparently the homestay owner had come across a baby monkey that was captured and was being sold, either for food or as a pet. So for 2 million dong ($1000) he bought the baby monkey and had had itin a little cage. He released it and it went roaming around the homestay, chasing ducks, climbing trees and the homestay, going through people’s drying laundry, and just generally being mischievous.
We had breakfast and each headed off. I went up
to a nearby village. My guide was getting tired and slow (apparently the long-legged Canadian was a bit too fast). We finally made it to the top where there was another village. There my guide was telling me about a friend of hers that had called her on the way up.
Apparently she is married to this nasty man who had threatened to kill her family if she wouldn’t marry him (so she did apparently). Obviously not being of upstanding quality he was cheating on her with another woman. So this friend decided to leave him (but can’t according to local law without his permission). She is living with my guide and up until this day, he had not known where that was. He had found out, found her and beat her, destroyed the home of my guide in fits of rage. Apparently the husband can do anything short of murder and get away. My guide said that her brother-in-law is in the police and can make him pay for the damages , although not for beating.
We eventually headed back down the mountain back to the homestay for lunch. The other group had
gone up to the water fall. They had a car picking them up but my guide and I had to trek back up the mountain to where a van was waiting for us. We got into the van as it went back to Sapa, stopping and picking up more people along the way – all tourists (and guides).
I made it back into Sapa, checked into the hotel and relaxed for most of the rest of the day. I did a short gander around town into the market. While having dinner, the Saudi Arabian that I shared a train room with arrived as well from his trek up to the top of the highest mountain in Vietnam (at a paltry 3200m).
After a slow morning, I wandered around Sapa town to the edges. I found a well maintained lake to sit down for a while to write this blog. I spent most of the rest of the day relaxing, before catching a 2 hour bus back to Lao Cai and then onto the overnight sleeper train to Hanoi.
There are more photos below