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Published: February 18th 2008
My overnight train arrived in Lao Cai at 5am and I was immediately bombarded by touts wanting to drive me the 1 ½ hours to Sapa. Trying to deal with touts in daylight is annoying enough. Now that I was doing this in the dark and half asleep, I was far from a happy camper. I teamed up with Ildy, a Hungarian girl that I met exiting the train. Together we randomly chose a tout offering a decent price from the herd surrounding us in the parking lot. Ildy and I piled into the back of the van with other tired and disoriented passengers. I laid my head against the window and fell fast asleep for the next 45 minutes.
I groggily looked out the window as the sunshine woke me up and immediately became stunned by my surroundings. We were winding up mountains covered in the most incredible rice terraces I had ever seen, basking in the morning sunrise. It was so different than any of the other places I visited in the country. I didn’t know what to expect in Sapa and actually almost cut it out of my trip in order to get to Laos quicker. It
was a good thing that I didn’t because already, from this overwhelming first impression, I could tell it was going to be my favorite place. Our van drove through town and it really felt like a whole new world. Women and men walked around in local apparel that I had never seen before. I kept saying to myself with the Wizard of Oz in mind “I don’t think we are in Vietnam anymore….”
Once in Sapa Ildy and I stuck together and headed to the Cat Cat Hotel and were helped by Ha. It was one of the cheapest places in town and the owner was such a nice guy. I try to avoid Lonely Planet recommendations in order to find a more unique place (and actually read about this one in the book after choosing it to stay in), but after staying here I can see why the LP gives it a good review. Cat Cat Hotel also offered the cheapest hiking packages in town. We booked an afternoon motorcycle ride to visit some nearby sights and a 2 day/1 night hiking tour from Ta Van to Ban Ho.
Before the motorcycle ride Ildy and I perused
the center of town. Alas, tourism had already invaded and hardened Sapa, just like most places in Vietnam. You have to try really hard to get away from it. The locals constantly asked for money if you tried to take their photos. Their local garments may have been for traditional use once, but now I think they are more like costumes. I tried to block this out of my mind and enjoyed it for what it was. Once I did that, it was magical. I couldn't get over the diversity of all the minorities that converged in this small mountain town. They were Hmong, Dao, Tay, and Giay. You had to be careful taking photos of some of the women and men because in their villages they believed that taking photos ruined their souls. Touristy yes, but I think it is better to take it for what it is and to really have no expectations going in or you will just be disappointed. Hey, ignorance can be bliss.
Women from all different tribes in the surrounding hills lined the streets, courtyards, and filled the markets. The outdoor market in Sapa was similar to others I had seen in Asia,
boasting vegetables far fresher than anywhere in America. You could smell the meat section miles away, especially as morning turned into afternoon and the meat started to rot. It was rumored that Vietnamese ate dog, yet I had never seen it. To my dismay, I saw Fido chopped up and ready for sale in the market. I tried to hold my composure and prevented myself from showing signs of disapproval.
That afternoon Idly and I hopped on the back of motos bound for a waterfall and lookout point. Jeff and I had so much fun riding motos in Dalat that I just had to do it again. Just like anytime I get on the back of one, “stand on the left and throw your right leg over.” I dared not drive one myself after one of my friends almost died doing so in Sapa. It was a great afternoon to head up into the hills. The roads were a bit muddy due to a previous rainstorm, making the dirt road an adventure to go on. The waterfall was beautiful, but we weren’t able to go to the lookout point because of a mudslide. Instead our drivers took us to
the closest minority settlement, the Cat Cat Village. (Hence how our hotel got its name.) For a village there weren’t that many people there. I assumed they must all be in town posing for photos for tourist to give them money. I supported the local tribe by buying friendship bracelets and earrings. At dinner Azi and Noa, the Israelis I met on my Halong Bay Tour, walked by! It is so crazy to see people you “know” in a very foreign land. We did some shopping and some of the local shops, trying on all the Vietnam War paraphernalia. You might have mistaken me as an old war veteran!
Ta Van to Ban Ho
The night before my stomach was grumbling and it continued throughout breakfast. The last thing I wanted was to miss my trek due to a stomach bug. My nightmare was coming true! I mentally told myself I would be fine. When it was time to leave, I felt okay. Silly me, I left all my medicine in Hanoi. A girl from California came in on the night train and Ha persuaded her to join our trip. Ly, a 4 foot tall woman decked out
in the indigo jacket with matching leg warmers, was our intrepid guide for the trip. With Ly at the helm, followed by me, Ildy and Steph, it was definitely a girl-power adventure.
A van drove us to Ta Van Village. As soon as we exited the vehicle a swarm of village children surrounded us, gawking at us as if they had never seen foreigners before. I braced myself for the “Money? Photo? Candy?” accompanied by a whimpering face and outstretched hand. To my surprise, it didn’t come! We started our trek and this entourage of little girls came with us. I still thought there was some sort of catch, but I couldn’t figure it out just yet. Having cute H'mong kids follow me along my path? Was this where I could get away from the tourism? This was too good to be true.
I didn’t realize how bloody hot it was going to be. For some reason I thought it was going to be like Dalat which was freezing cold. I also forgot that it was now August and not December. Silly me. Besides profusely sweating, I couldn’t have been happier. The scenery was like nothing I had
A great little hill town
ever seen or expected. Rice fields wound up the sides of the mountains and little villages were scatter along the valley. The village girls walked beside me and made me wreathes to wear on my head and insisted that I wear them as hard as I tried not to.
After tramping along for over an hour my little companions were still with me. I was totally becoming attached to them, and starting to think that they were actually walking with me because they wanted to. I even let my cynical guard down. It was so much fun! I had a bit too much faith. We reached a small village for a break. That’s when the girls whipped out their small bags full of bracelets and other silver trinkets for us to buy. I was heartbroken. I looked at them and said “you just ruined it.” Although they didn’t understand my English, they understood the disappointment on my face. They were only disappointed because I didn’t buy anything. Vietnam, a beautiful country, yet everyone is truly just after your money.
After this village the ladies and I continued on without our little companions. The sun was fierce and my
stomach was starting to grumble again. I really started to feel terrible, but managed to have no emergency pit stops in the rice terraces. We were basically in the middle of no where in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range in the northwest corner of Vietnam. There wasn’t much I could do but continue onward even though the only thing I wanted to do was curl up in a ball. A little coke and some bread at lunch helped. My pain was eased by the beautiful surroundings. There were little villages, big buffalo, old women passing us along the trail, some cheeky and obnoxious kids along the way, random marijuana plants, and rice terraces never stopped.
Ly was an absolute riot and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. She told us Americans were “big like buffalo,” that my shoes looked like snakes, and that she had small chicken feet. She told us her son could never go to America because he would come back fat. Ly didn’t even come up to my shoulders, but she has personality 3 times her size. She put us all to shame only drinking half of a bottle of water during the
entire 10 km trek and barely broke a sweat despite wearing more layers than any of us. She was a rockstar. Steph, my rival Stanfurd Grad student, was a great last minute addition and a nice slice of home. Ildy was a crazy-fun Hungarian girl that probably would not have embarked on this trek if I didn’t tell her it would be the best thing ever. Still, she never complained, just took her time and really enjoyed it. She provided us with laughter when she fell into a rice terrace. I am glad it was her and not me.
We reached our village homestay by 3:30. I collapsed at the table and guzzled water like I hadn’t drank any for days. Our day wasn’t over yet. We wandered through Ban Ho Village and over to a secluded swimming hole. The cold water soothed my overheated body. Back at the homestay we sat at the table and looked out, overwhelmed with just how spectacular everything was around us. The mountain formations resembled photos of Manchu Picchu. We always saw tons of women rigorously tending to the animals, children or fields, but where were all the men? I assumed they were
being lazy bums drinking bia hoi and local spirits while the women worked- typical male behavior.
A Spanish group was also staying at our beautiful village house and I loved talking to them in Spanish about Spain. The homestay family had a map and their guests mark where they came from. Ly was able to locate America and most of the other English-speaking nations (ie most of the visitors). But when Steph asked her where Vietnam was, she had no idea.
Ly gave me special tea for my head and another tea for my stomach. To this day I don’t know what they were (assuming the tummy tea was some ginger concoction), but man did they work. The family we stayed with made the most incredible meal with the freshest ingredients. All I could force down was a few spring rolls and some soup. I never turn down spring rolls no matter how sick I am feeling. Idly even tried to have me drink some of the homemade liquor, claiming that it would kill all the germs. Just smelling it made me want to hurl. We crawled onto our little mats under our mosquito nets and I fell
asleep thinking I might have malaria. I’m definitely a bit of a hypochondriac.
There is no such thing as sleeping in when you are out in the countryside. Just as the sun was peaking over the terraced mountains the roosters started to crow, followed by the pigs in the outside pen, and then I finally got out of bed when I smelled the crepes cooking below us. I felt worlds better in the morning. Ly and her magic tea was my savior. It was so peaceful and tourist-free in Ban Ho. The 4th time I sat in complete awe on my trip, not wanting to leave and realizing that this was one of the most spectacular places in the world. I never wanted to leave. It was the best place in Vietnam, hands down. I sat sipping my ginger tea and admired everything, trying not to forget it.
We dreaded any sort of hike today since we were still exhausted from the 10 km the day before. Still, we had no other choice. Within the first minute I was sweating buckets. It was a steep 2km uphill climb. Even superwoman Ly was having trouble. At the top of
the 2km mark it looked like we had been hiking forever based on our sweat-drenched clothes and rosy cheeks. It felt great to be done! We made it! Our van picked us up and drove us back to Cat Cat Hotel. After some much needed showers we met Ly and treated her to lunch. Having a guide totally made a difference. When I go back to Sapa I am definitely going to request Ly and have her take me wherever she wants to go. Although she can’t read, she told us to email her and write “Ly I LOVE YOU!” She said she would be able to read that. We told her we think we could arrange that.
Ildy and I wandered around Sapa for the rest of the afternoon and took in the fascinating culture one more time. The 3 of us got matching silver bracelets. Geeky yes, but totally fun. Steph stayed one more night in Sapa and was going to go hiking with Ly one more time. Ildy and I said good bye to Ly, and Cat Cat’s Ha and then took the van down to the train station en route to Hanoi.
Back to my normal lodging after luxury in Halong. Our door knob came off!
2 Vietnamese men as our bunkmates. They spoke no English. At first I marveled at the “JET” cigarettes. They thought I was weird. Ildy and I wanted to play cards with them. Shithead is of course the international backpacker
game. We couldn't teach them Shithead without explaining the rules in English. War, I found on this Hanoi-bound train, is the quintessential International card game since it involves no words and has easy-to-follow rules. Ildy and I were victorious in our battles. We then fell asleep with fond memories of Sapa, trying to not think about our sore muscles.
What can I say….I fell in love with Sapa.
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