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Published: November 14th 2007
Sapa is a mountain town in the north of Vietnam and a popular tourist spot due to the beautiful scenery and local hilltribe population - much like you find in north Thailand. From Hanoi we decided to book an overnight sleeper train for the 10 hour journey...
Hard or Soft Sleeping..?
There were several options when choosing your sleeper carriage though the two main comfort levels were described as "hard" and "soft". We asked if this had anything to do with the comfort of the berth, but our friendly agent assured us no - it was just that in a soft sleeper the carriage only has 4 berths but in the hard sleeper there are 6. Being skinflints and always willing to sacrifice a little comfort to save beer money we opted for the hard sleeper.
Given what the bloke told us, you can imagine our surprise at arriving on the train to find that the beds were very hard. In fact, there was no bed to speak of - just a sort of shelf with no padding whatsoever. Plus, I'd drawn the short straw and had the top bunk which took some climbing skill to get to and,
Hmong hilltribes women
selling blankets on one of the main streets in Sapa
being only 2 foot from the roof, was much like lying in a coffin. As the communal light was extinguished we realised it was going to be a long night.
Welcome to Sapa! You buy from me, okay?
Surprisingly we did get some sleep and arrived to dawn in the mountains. From the train station we had a 2 hour-ish minibus ride up winding mountain roads into Sapa town. We were immediately deposited at a guesthouse - no doubt owned by a mate of the bus driver - but it's didn't matter. The room was dead nice with a lovely view over the main square and the mountains in the distance. Plus there was a hot shower - much needed as the temperature dropped markedly at the high altitude.
After dumping our stuff a wander round town revealed a beautiful place with lots of restaurants aimed at the tourist crowd. The incredible views across valleys from the side of town was only occasionally broken by a gaggle of hilltribes women selling all manner of things - jewelry, hats, bracelets, bags..etc. All handmade in the traditional style. In fact we read that they aren't hilltribes technically and are better
referred to as ethnic minorities. But that's too long winded for this blog. Anyway, there are several distinct groups living in villages around Sapa - many with difficult to pronounce names like the Hmong and the Dzao as 2 examples. Each of them are distinct in their clothing - like, the Dzao wear big red cloths on their heads for example. They all practice the hard sell on tourists and although they're clearly competing for the same business, I'm glad to say that we saw no gang-related violence between them. The Dzao didn't as much as even say that the Hmong bags were of inferior quality and the Hmong certainly didn't mock the Dzao headgear. Good sports! It was tempting to spread vicious rumours that the Hmong had been dissing the Dzao to other tourists just to see what happened...but we decided not to.
Hiking through Cat Cat
On our second day we took to the hills. There are a load of paved trails around the town so you explore the countryside. We took the one that passed through the nearby Hmong village of Cat Cat. Weirdly, as you leave town you get loads of offers from blokes on
motorbikes to take you there and back. They really don't get the walking thing at all. Probably think we're a bit mad to walk up and down a mountain considering they wouldn't dream of even strolling to the corner shop. We declined a lift and began hiking.
Weirdly it felt very much like going for a walk in the Dales on an English summer day. It wasm't hot and not particularly cold - just pleasant. Though obviously, the occasional appearance of a hilltribe did detract from the Dales-like quality. And there was no pub at the end of it - we'd have to walk back to Sapa for that. Anyway, we passed through Cat Cat and on to a beautiful waterfall and then on into the forest - passing people washing their clothes in the river. It was great to be able to go for a wander outside without dying of dehydration - as you're likely to do any where near Bangkok. We had a good long walk and made it safely back without the need of a man on a motorbike. Us Brits are clearly made with stern stuff...
Kate turns 31!
Kate celebrated her 31st birthday
in Sapa. 1st we sat outside drinking some 6p beers at a street stall. Then we had dinner in a restaurant and then we went to Sapa's one bar and watched hilltribe girls hustle tourists at pool. All in all it was very different from her 30th birthday. ALthough she was meant to spend it riding elephants in Thailand, cos of problems renting our house, she spent it at the Wetherby Whaler fish and chip restaurant in Pudsey. And then the pub. Oh well. We made it in the end. I still reckon the Wetherby Whaler birthday will stand out in memory just as well!
The hard sell
Also for her birthday Kate got a silver bracelet made by a Dzao woman. We bought it in the street and didn't foresee the commotion it would cause. We were immediately surrounded by about 10 other vendors who clamoured for our attention. One of them we had spoken to the day before and she seemed to find it a personal insult that we didn't buy from her. We didn't say we'd buy anything from her - we said hello when she said hello because it'd be rude not to, right? Apparently
this was like a verbal contract to buy everything this woman had to sell. She followed us down the street complaining - "Why you no buy from me?? We talk yesterday!!". It was quite annoying. Bravely we escaped into a bar but she could still see us so stood in the street shouting up to us. She left us alone eventually and we escaped Sapa without being lynched. Mind you, she was a Hmong and we bought the bracelet from a Dzao - so maybe a gang war has erupted in the peaceful little town. I think I'll just not check the news....
Back to Hanoi
Sapa was beautiful and refreshingly chilly, but after 3 days it was time to hop on another sleeper train and head back to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi....
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