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Published: January 3rd 2009
Two Canadians living in the tropics is worthy of an anthropological study. For instance, the favourite topic of discussion for Canadians is the weather, and our favourite pastime is choosing the best outfit to survive the day’s many weather changes, and we are all closet meteorologists. We all think we could do a better job than the person on TV, but it seems in Canada, you need to be a curling star, synchronized swimmer or from some other sport where you are protected from the elements to actually be a successful weather reporter.
And so the rest of us, we like to peer out the window every morning, and use our finely tuned intuition to predict how many layers of clothing we will need, whether we will need something waterproof, windproof, or even better, whether we can get away with being the first to wear shorts after a long winter.
Getting back to the point, after 5 months of living in Malaysia, we are still guilty of the early morning window gazing, but it’s losing its fun.
“What do you think it’s like out there today?” asks Craig.
“Well let me see,” I respond, “it’s hot, going
to get hotter. In the mid- to late-afternoon there should be a good thunderstorm, or at least heavy downpour, which should last an hour, and then it should clear up into a beautiful evening.”
Of course, I’m oversimplifying; the rainstorm occasionally occurs in the late morning, as it is doing right now, and once in a while in the middle of the night. But otherwise, the joy of predicting the unpredictably crazy Canadian weather is dissipating, in this beautiful, yet weather-predictable country.
Such was the state of affairs while I was surfing the net looking for ideas for our Christmas adventure. Suddenly, I happened on an eco-lodge in Sapa, a town in the northern mountains of Vietnam. A friend of a friend, who had just come from Hanoi said, “It will likely be quite cold there, you’ll need a coat! But the weather changes a lot, so it can’t be said for sure…” We were hooked!
Yes, the entirety of our trip to Vietnam was now based on spending Christmas in Sapa, for which we would have to pack an assortment of clothing, of layers, in order to be ready for… anything the weather wanted to throw
at us! Packing our bags carefully for once, rather than just stuffing in an assortment of shorts and t-shirts, had us filled with giddy delight, but our stay in Sapa was even better than we had anticipated.
Remembering What it Feels Like to Be Cold
The night train to Hue had been a memorable experience, though the sleep wasn’t sound, the mattress had been thick and squishy, and, being on the top bunk, the temperature had been too warm, if anything. The night train to Sapa, although we were in “first class,” was far less comfortable. The main differences for charging us more money, as far as I could tell, were vinyl wood paneling (rather than turquoise painted metal), a very small cup of tea, air conditioning (in the middle of winter), and mattresses that could double for plywood. I spent the night wearing as many as my clothes as humanly possible, trying to keep the thin blanket wrapped around me and my head, shivering. I was never so happy to hear the attendant knocking on our door at 5:15am, informing us that we were about to station in Lao Cai.
Groggily, we disembarked the
train and followed the stream of people across several sets of tracks, a big step up to the platform, and to the queue. I suddenly realized that the attendants/guards at the gates were requesting the train tickets to be remitted, I, in my half conscious state, had left them on the side table in our compartment.
Craig and I decided to try our old trick from China: “the dumb foreigner look”. This little trick of looking lost and confused while smiling stupidly had gotten us out of many jams in China, as the locals, who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t be bothered to deal with us, and would wave us through while shaking their heads at our various ineptitudes.
Well, I don’t know if it was the hour of the day, I don’t think I’ve actively tried to look stupid so early in the morning before, whether it was our unkempt, slept-in-our-clothes appearance, or the fact that our faces were still frozen and unable to create a big enough grin, but the old China trick didn’t fly here.
“NO NO NO!!!” shouted the gun toting guard. Craig dumped his pack and returned to the train, swimming against the
flood of people, and returned ten minutes later with the tickets.
We exited, examining 50 or so signs looking for our names. In the end, I found “Elizabeth Christine”, close enough I figured, and we hopped in the van, for our 2 hour ride to the eco-lodge. During the ride, Craig convinced me that the best plan would be to eat breakfast and have several cups of coffee upon our arrival. That we should stay awake until early afternoon, have a nice nap in the afternoon, and emerge fresh and ready for Christmas Eve celebrations. Our bed looked so wonderfully comfy when we checked in, but I agreed to go along with his plan. I ate way too much for breakfast, but downed three cups of fantastic coffee, and thought, this plan might just work.
We retired to our cabin, figured out how to work the space heaters, and curled up with our books, we just had to stay awake until 1pm, 3 more hours. Well, the plan worked in reverse, around 1pm, we both suddenly woke up, realized that 3 cups of coffee cannot undo the nastiness of that night train, and wondered, at what point we
had managed to move from our comfy chairs to our snuggly bed.
A little more alive than upon check-in, we went out on the balcony to admire the view… or what should normally pass as a view, but at this time was pea-soup fog. We had our White Christmas in Sapa, though not the traditional sort.
The lodge held its Christmas events on Christmas Eve and we had a lovely time. The eco-lodge main building is actually two traditional Vietnamese Stilt Houses, relocated to the top of the mountain, and closed in on the bottom to make it less open to the elements. Downstairs there is a cozy pub with a huge fireplace that could have served as the witch’s oven in Hansel and Gretel. Here, we sat around in our afternoons, reading, playing cards, playing UNO with the managers’ children, drinking hot chocolate and mulled wine.
The big dinner was not the traditional turkey, but nice and tasty anyways, a mix of European and Vietnamese dishes, we all over-indulged. We had dinner with two M.BA students on their way to Bangalore of all places… so dinner was lots of fun recounting our adventures there.
Christmas Eve BBQ
The boys were having way too much fun out there.
After dinner, people from the local village came and performed traditional dancing in the pub, and then afterwards a BBQ and giant bonfire outside.
Christmas morning itself, we awoke to a bright room, and as we sat up in bed, we realized the fog had cleared away, and that our bungalow balcony had the most amazing view of a deep valley, full of rice paddies and villages.
We opened our stockings, went to breakfast and then signed up for a trek. There were a dozen or so of us on this trek, aging 7 years to 70-something and we were headed right down the mountain. The path was slippery in parts, and we had to help each other down, except of course for the four children who would run ahead and then run back. We figure they did the same trek three times over. When you exit the property, local ladies from the Red Hmong Villages greet you… and then your trek gets a bit of an entourage. These ladies in plastic sandals or rubber boots easily trek down the mountain beside you, making the best conversation they can with their English, and offering a helping hand when
needed. I knew they would want something at the bottom, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to chat with local people so I didn’t mind.
These ladies are very interesting to look at. Besides their beautiful red turbans, and embroidered clothing, they also shave their heads and eyebrows and sport gold teeth. And their outfit isn’t entirely traditional either, many parts are, but they are also wearing a winter coat and rubber boots. As you head down the mountain they want to know your name, your age, where you are from, and of course in my case, where were my babies?
“You have husband?”
“Yes. That one…right there.”
“So you have babies.”
“No. No babies.”
“How old are you?”
“No, old husband, had him 5 years.”
“Where are the babies?”
“I have no babies!”
“I am 28, I have three babies!” (she then points out the baby slung across her back, which, I am embarrassed to say, I hadn’t even noticed sleeping peacefully in the sling)
At any rate, then the ladies start gossiping in Vietnamese, about my babyless state I assume, as they
point at me, and chatter energetically. Soon, a new lady, who has yet to run me through her set of standard questions emerges. I think they figure the first lady, then 2nd, then 3rd, must have misunderstood, a 31 year old married woman without babies… and they try it again.
At the end of the beautiful trek, which I will let the pictures describe, the ladies suddenly start to pull their wares out of the baskets on their backs, and it’s a little bit of heaven for a textile addict like me… don’t worry, I limited myself to only 4 scarves, and one little purse.
And so we found ourselves at the bottom of a deep and beautiful valley which we had clambered/slid down all morning, when our guide informed us, we would be returning by motorbike. Now to this point on the trip, one of the things of which I was proud was the fact that I had not been hit, pushed or hurt by one of the 5 million motorbikes in Hanoi, or the millions elsewhere in Vietnam. As such, I didn’t feel particularly keen to jump on the back of a stranger’s bike to head
Christmas in Sapa
up a winding mountain road, sections of which were still in disrepair from the fall floods. But nobody was feeling good about it, and certainly not our new friends Rachel and Matt who had brought their seven year old twin daughters on the trek. The guide and locals informed Matt that he couldn’t bring one of the girls back up the mountain because it would be too much weight for the bike. And so it was I found myself gallantly offering to bring Min on the bike with me, figuring that if she was squeezed between myself, and what with the death grip I was going to have on the driver, she would be well padded and locked in, and wouldn’t you know it, we were first to leave.
Our lead didn’t last long, our bike sounded like it was a chain smoker hacking up a lung, and it wasn’t long before the rest of the bikes started passing us, but of course, only when they were all out of sight, did the bike choke out a big belch and stop. We hopped off the bike and the driver started poking and prodding his machine. My Vietnamese being limited
Christmas in Sapa
to a few dishes I like and “dat gua!” (too expensive) there wasn’t a lot I could do other than distract Min, and suggest we were getting more of an adventure than the rest of them, better value for our money. Suddenly the driver, having restuck a tube somewhere, indicated we should get back on the bike and we were moving again! On the whole we had only lost maybe a minute or so, so I figured Rachel and Matt would be able to handle that.
Except that we needed to repeat this same story four times more! Yes, the bike continued to break down again and again and again. Min and I continued to discuss the scenery, the pigs and horses on the side of the road, and what a fun adventure it all was, but in my head, I was imagining her parents’ stress levels, and was wishing I had let somebody else volunteer to bring their daughter up the mountain.
The last time our bike broke down, we were fortunate enough to be in a village, and another motorbike was summoned, and suddenly we were zooming up the hill. Unlike when we first set off,
Bringing out the wares.
When we got to the bottom, they unslung their baskets and brought out their wares.
I was so happy of the bike’s speed, as it meant we would actually get there before lunch ended. Matt and Rachel and Craig were of course waiting at the entrance to the property, Craig doing his best to keep things light, Matt and Rachel doing an admirable job of staying calm, and we all happily headed off for warm lunch and lots of hot chocolate.
Adventures aside, the best part of our Christmas in Sapa was the wonderful group of people we were able to share it with. We were a little worried about how Christmas would feel this year. Last year, we were with our friends from Teda, and Christmas dinner was spent on the beach, a great big group of us, acting as surrogate family. But this year, it was just the two of us, and I wasn’t sure how it would feel. But the Topas Ecolodge was perfect. On the treks, we befriended fellow trekkers, and were soon requesting bigger and bigger tables for dinner, so as to fit everybody in. Hugh and Maggie, Matt and Rachel and their daughters Ella and Min, and Lily (off to Bangalore) were perfect company. Were we staying another
My ten year old escort.
This girl walked with me halfway down the mountain.
year in the East, I would have willingly booked ourselves for next year right there on the spot. The managers made us feel at home, and we quite enjoyed their parents visiting from Denmark as well as their own two children Marcus and Astrid. As a last bit of familial warmth before we left, they had a birthday cake baked for Craig and served in the pub during our last afternoon.
Wondering why we hadn’t booked to stay a full week, we sadly hopped back in the cab on the evening of the 26th, for the long ride back to Lao Cai and another night train to Hanoi. This time, it was a little better, as the other two beds in our compartment remained empty, the mattresses were a little softer, and the room considerably warmer… if only the train hadn’t stationed in Hanoi at 4:30am… but that’s another story.
Love Beth and Craig
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