Getting down and dirty in Sapa

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Lao Cai » Sapa
January 24th 2006
Published: April 16th 2006
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The last couple of days have been hard, physically and mentally, but they have blown my mind.

Picking up where I left off, I was walking back from the internet cafe when I passed by another bia hoi stand. They said "bia, bia" and motioned me over so I joined them. They spoke pretty good English, probably better than the other bia hoi place I frequent. The were vets and we talked about the war. They said that the Americans and the Vietnamese are very good friends. I asked them if they liked tourists and they said they did. I know I would hate them if I was in their position. They even gave me some nice cracker things covered in sesame seeds that you dip on hot sauce. Very tasty!

The girls who work the bia hoi stand sat down but didn't partake in the drinking, they gave me a green guava to eat but I only took a bite before I remembered the golden rule of food poisoning: If you can't boil it, cook it, or peel it- forget it. So I didn't finish it. I hope I wasn't rude 😞 I had a great time with
Bia hoi partyBia hoi partyBia hoi party

Jacks and Marlboros
them and I wanted to buy everyone a round- it would have only cost about $1.50- but they wouldn't even let me pay for the beer I drank. They work like a dog to make maybe 2% what I made at my old job playing Jewel Quest and bickering with ornery vets and doing lord knows what ( :o just kidding, Regina!) and they're buying me a drink!

I only had time for one bia because I had a previous engagement- at my regular bia hoi stand. I brought my duty-free bottle of Jack Daniels and my carton of Marlboros as well as a big bar of Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate (surely the holy trinity of American diplomatic relations) and we had a party. Very, very fun. We drew a bit of a crowd 😊 I was a bit agitated because when I first came to Hanoi because I saw lots of Marlboro cigarettes everywhere for dirt cheap but apparently they're counterfeit. So the guys were pretty happy about getting some real Marlboros. "Made in USA!". Again, I tried to buy the bar a round of drinks ($2!) but they wouldn't let me pay for my own drink. They made me promise to come back on Tuesday night before I leave Hanoi. This time they better let me pay for my own drink!

I couldn't have too many drinks as that night I was taking a night train to Sapa. I'd never slept on a train before so I was sort of worried. The train station in Hanoi was CRAZY, apparently everyone was going to the big Saturday market in Sapa, and this was the last Saturday before Tet so things were nuts! Luckily the manager of the tour company I was with bribed the guy at the gate or something because I was one of the first people in the train! My compartment was a little sketchy but not too bad, 2 Chinese guys and a French Canadian took up the other three beds. There's something comforting about sleeping on a train. The ch-CHUG-ch-CHUG and the rocking makes you feel like a fetus again. So it really wasn't too bad, I think I even slept a little bit, ha ha.

So we arrived in Lao Cai about 8 AM and took the bus 40 km to Sapa up the moutain Beautiful. But Cold. Rainy. Foggy. Like
Train to SapaTrain to SapaTrain to Sapa

grungy. The one back to Hanoi was a lot nicer :)
Vancouver. Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam and it does get pretty darn cold.

The first thing I saw when I came to Sapa was a bunch of Black Hmong girls in full ethnic costume in the internet café, chatting with their friends from all over the world and singing along to the Backstreet Boys. Hey Nick Carter- you don't have to drink yourself to death! You're stilll big in Vietnam.

Most of the girls don’t go to school so most of them can’t read or write although all of them speak pretty good English just from talking to the tourists! So they ask tourists to help them write emails to all their penpals all over the world. The times, the are a-changin’.

I had breakfast and then an Indonesian couple and our guide Anh and I started on our trek. They gave me a choice because the weather was so awful: I could 2 nights hotel or one night homestay and one night hotel. It wasn’t a hard choice because there was no way I was missing out on that homestay!

I’m in pretty bad shape so the 11 km hike the first day was challenging, but the mud made it about eight times harder! As you get off the road onto the mud path, little Hmong kids will try to sell you a bamboo walking stick for 5000 dong. BUY THAT STICK. We all agreed that it was the best 30 cents we ever spent.

Once you got down into the valley and under the clouds the scenery was amazing. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Little Hmong kids come up to you every once in a while and sell you stuff. What your name? Where you from? You have brother and sister? You buy from me? You buy from her, why you no buy from me? I was such a sucker for them. Bargaining with them is so funny, they will quote a really high price and when you make a counter offer they all theatrically gasp in unison. I bought a cool Sapa hat like yours Uncle Robert, at first just to cover my increasingly nasty hair but now I’m attached to it. It’s a part of me 😊

Hiking along the rice paddies on a 6 inch wide slick mud path was tough. If you slip, you can 1) fall on one side into a pool of water, mud, and water buffalo crap 2) fall 5 feet down on the other side into a pool of water, mud, and water buffalo crap. Lucky for me it was all #1. I don't know if I have inner ear problems or I am a chronic klutz but I was soon covered in mud.

It was hard to comprehend that this not Disneyworld- this is poverty, this is real life. We would walk in the mud past shacks and barefoot children and water buffalo and every once in a while Anh would start singing Toni Braxton. Unbreak my heaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaart!

I joined a group of 4 Australians for a homestay with the Zay people which was amazing. The food was incredible and we even got some "happy water"- rice whiskey. It was surprisingly smooth.

We learned about the differences between the Zay and the Hmong people. The Zay people make a lot of handicrafts and sell them to the Hmong to sell to tourists. All of the Zay children go to school while only about 50% of the Hmong kids go to school. You can see the difference in the homes, the Zay people make money from doing homestays and they have a fridge, a television, a motorbike, while the Hmong people have very little. The Hmong girls marry very early, around 15 years old. I met a couple of 18 year old old maids and some 16 year olds with 2 kids. The Zay people marry at 18 or so.

After some oh-so Vietnamese banana crepes Anh and I did the second day of the trek. It was still very slick. At one point a tiny Black Hmong woman grabbed my hand in an iron grip and was dragging me up the mountain about three times as fast as I would prefer to go. We went to her house and met her kids and I bought some stuff off her.

Anh was going back to her home for Tet, the lunar new year and the major holiday in Vietnam. And the coolest thing happened! She invited me to her house for Tet. So I’m going to go to her village about 5 hours north of Hanoi in Tuyen Quang (which isn’t even mentioned in Lonely Planet- take THAT beaten path!) and hang out with her
My Montagnard armyMy Montagnard armyMy Montagnard army

Resistance is futile
mom and her sister and her neice and nephew. Her mom has never met a foreigner before! So I think I will go there on Saturday and come back Monday because Sunday is the big day for Tet.

We got back to the hotel that afternoon and I took my first shower in over 50 hours. I’ve only been here a week and I’ve already turned into a dirty, mud-covered hippie! If I come home in dreadlocks, please kill me.

The hotel was so nice. I was exhausted and every inch of me ached so I passed out for about 10 hours. I tried to wash my pants and my socks and my shoes but they were a lost cause… I threw away the shoes and I was trying to dry my pants over the fire (no dryers here) and I burnt a hole in the butt. Genius! So I bought some new pants for like $10 and they are awesome. They are zip off convertible and quick dry and all that so I’m happy with them… I just don’t like these Asian sizes! I’m pretty medium back home but here I’m an XL! Ahh!!!

So I didn’t do a whole lot the next day… it was so, so cold. I sat in an internet café for a bit but I could see my breath I was so cold. I went to the market and talked to my Hmong girls and bought a lot more hats! Oh and that duffle bag full of school supplies was still with me so I found a school in Sapa and I lugged it up the hill. There was a big school full of 480 screaming hyperactive Vietnamese kids. I couldn’t find a single adult! And all the kids would yell HELLO at me and wave and then I’d say HELLO back. I made one fatal error- I went into a classroom and the kids swarmed me and started screaming and jumping up and down. I sort of freaked out because the 60 or so 7 year olds probably could have taken me out fairly quickly but I pushed my way through and found the teacher. Good deed done for the day.

At the cafe one Hmong girl, Mimi, was looking at pictures of the Iraq war and asking me to explain them. If you don't think that war could make any less sense than it does now, try explaining it to a Montagnard girl. She was baffled.

So I really enjoyed my tour and it was easily worth every penny. Travel can be so easy here if you want it to be. We left Sapa for Lao Cai train station around 4, I had dinner and hung out with these two Australian guys that I kept running into. And then we had our first experience with the band Modern Talking. Anh had asked me about that band but I had never heard of them- apparently they’re this German duo who sing the corniest songs you can imagine with the cheeziest music videos OF ALL TIME- think of that Eddie Murphey/Michael Jackson video for “What Up Wit Chu” times a million. The restaurant owners popped in a DVD of their music videos, complete with broken English subtitles. They sing in English but the lyrics make NO SENSE AT ALL. And they’re HUGE in Asia. I’ll have to buy some VCD’s and mail them home because you’ve got to see it to believe it.

Hanoi is going Tet crazy! Everyone's loading big kumquat trees onto their motorbikes. I bought some lucky red envelopes for putting lucky money in. They're so cool!!!

I booked a 3 day 2 night tour to Halong Bay leaving tomorrow. I’m going with an older girl from Switzerland so I think it will be a lot of fun! And when I get back I will celebrate Tet and Monday night I take the train to Hue. They completely gouged me ($35!!!!) because travel is very difficult during Tet but beggars can’t be choosers. I have to be in Phnom Penh by Feb 15 and my time in Vietnam is going by so fast!

Tonight I went to a super nice restaurant that I would not be able to afford in the States and had a great meal and a smoothie for $5 before going to my regular bia hoi stand. I'm absolutely convinced that bia and/or happy water is the only thing keeping me food poisoning free. I can already feel the germs dying.

Next post from Halong Bay!!!

I almost forgot, I have a Vietnamese phone number now so if any of you have an intense desire to drunk dial someone at 3 AM (CST)- knock yourselves out. It would
Lil' hawkerLil' hawkerLil' hawker

This little girl followed us around for half a mile. "You buy from me?" "No, thank you" "Yes, thank you." Ha ha.
be 4 PM here.

+011 84 91 486 7271

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 30


Water BuffaloWater Buffalo
Water Buffalo

They're very peaceful
Anh and meAnh and me
Anh and me

and my hat
Billy JoelBilly Joel
Billy Joel

Anh thought that The Backstreet Boys originally sang "Uptown Girl" so I had to bring her the good news of Billy Joel.

Because I know you're all wondering... I really don't mind the squat toilets. Seems very clean.

24th January 2006

Great Blog
Dear Kate, Great photos and writing. You are having a great time. I leave HCM City Feb 15th. Maybe our paths will cross. Kent
24th January 2006

Dear Kate, Love the blog... thanks for the regular updates and great photos. Got muddy just reading about it! Hang in there, get enough rest. Be safe...keep the news coming. Love Dad
24th January 2006

Wilma and all the peeps at work say hi and they hope you are well. how's your poop? gettin it out OK? just gotta keep you regular. take care and we all love ya and miss ya
25th January 2006

Hi Kate! Glad you made it to Nam safe and are enjoying the Bia Hois. Love your stories and Pics. I'll be keeping tabs on you and your Asian adventures. The fun has just begun... :)
24th February 2006

Hi Katie, It sounds like you are having a great time. Mayela says Hola(@OCHS)! She misses you (gringa) and so do we. Love your pictures, especially the one with the bong. Maybe you should intern at National Geographic next? Be careful!
13th April 2007

Awsome blog.
Stumbles into your blog. Easily the most entertaining blogger I came across. Modern Talking, this 80s band literally make Chuck Norris cries, glad you got to experience it haha.

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