Day 34: Worshipping False Idols

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Lao Cai » Sapa
November 17th 2009
Published: November 26th 2009
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Waterfall near Cat-Cat village.
It's been an eventful day.

We were awakened at 5am by a knocking on our cabin door; the train would be reaching Lao Cai, our destination, in about 15-20 minutes. Shortly after that a gaggle of young uniformed Vietnamese women walked through the corridor, "You want coffee? Or tea?". 10 minutes later, after we'd finished our beverages, they returned: "OH! Sorreee! You have to PAY for the coffee!". It was only 10,000 VND ($0.60) but we were a bit annoyed - another scam.

When the train stopped, we walked across the tracks in the dark and light rain to the Lao Cai terminal. In the mist, the Soviet-like concrete buildings looked especially foreboding. The Global Travel people were waiting for us and we piled into a minivan with 14 others for the 1 hour drive up to the town of Sapa.

Lao Cai sits right on the border of China and, from what we could see through the darkness and mist, seemed to be a large and prosperous town.

The van went up and up and up through the mountains. Sapa sits at about 5,500 feet. The rain continued but as it became lighter we could see

Cat-Cat village is located in a wide valley.
some deep beautiful valleys, still nearly hidden in the fog.

About 45 minutes into the trip, we arrived at a construction site that spilled across a rather steep section of the road. Yes, this is a main road. And, yes, the concrete had been ripped up as part of a large construction project. The road itself was a muddy mess and was lined with big piles of dirt and heavy construction equipment.

Seeeing the muddy mess in front of us our driver slowed down, and slowed again, and then put the accelerator to the floor. Unfortunately our driver's technique was flawed - we were stuck in the mud. Literally. The driver spun the wheels for a while, just burying the van deeper and deeper into a rut.

The driver jumped out to take a look. We waited patiently inside. When our driver returned he asked us to move to the back of the van, for traction, perhaps? No luck. Finally, we all climbed out of the minivan and stood on the huge piles of mud and rock that lined the left shoulder of the road. There we stayed for over 20 minutes in the rain while the

Quack Quack!
driver tried to figure out what to do. Several vans passed by but no one bothered to stop to help - even after they reached the concrete roadway which was only 10 meters past the muddy patch. Unimaginable in Laos or Bhutan - there we would have had a team of people working to dislodge the van from its muddy trap. Finally Adrian saved the day by taking charge and placing some large pieces of broken concrete under and in front of the rear wheels of the minivan. The driver and an assistant caught on to what Adrian was suggesting and backed the van up a hair so the rear wheels were sitting squarely on the concrete slabs/rocks. After everyone backed away from the van the driver put the peddle to the floor and, success, the van fishtailed left and right and then flew forward out of the muddy patch and onto the concrete roadway. Great for the driver but of course the rest of us were still stranded on the mud piles on the shoulder of the road. It took a minute or two but we all waded through the mud puddles (squelch! squelch! squelch!) to the van and

Weather cleared a little bit during our hike.
got back in, thoroughly soaked and freezing cold.

We eventually arrived (in the rain) at our hotel, the Sapa Global. The pros are that it is right in the middle of town and that it has free internet access. The cons are, pretty much everything else. We were herded in to the lobby, told that our room was not ready (no estimate on when it would be ready - which we've found is typical in Vietnam) and offered breakfast and access to communal showers located behind the restaurant. Delightful. We declined the showers but Angelique took full advantage of the internet to book a flight out of Vietnam. We are now headed to see some of Thailand's beaches on 23 November.

Fortunately we had booked a private (vs. group) tour, which meant that we had much more control over our agenda for the rest of the day. So while most of the people from our minivan had to shuffle out into the rain at 10am to begin their group tour, we were able to stay at the hotel. At 10:30am we were shown to our room, where we unpacked and showered. It was then that we realized that

View of Cat-Cat Village as we walked back to Sapa town.
the hotel didn't have heat. Ugh. The temperature was around 50F outside and it was still raining. We got online and ran through TripAdvisor reviews but most of the hotels in Sapa look pretty terrible. We decided to make the best of it and bundled up.

A side note: it appears that the mantra for the Vientamese tourism industry is "overpromise and underdeliver". So beware if you travel here. You'll be told over and over, "Yes, very, very nice hotel. Yes, very comfortable. Four star!". Don't believe it.

The day got much, much better after lunch. At 1pm our guide arrived and the rain stopped (although the clouds never did lift). Her name is Bee and she is a member of the Black Hmong (here pronounced "H'mong" vs. just "mong" in Laos) tribe. The black refers to the color of their clothes; there are also red and green Hmong tribes in the area. We liked Bee instantly. She's five feet tall at most, 21 years old, married and has a 7-month old son. She has 11 sisters and 2 brothers. Bee speaks excellent English which, impressively, she says is entirely self-taught. She has been guiding for about six

The Great Midea!
years (since she was around 15!). She also has a Facebook account.

Bee was dressed in traditional Hmong clothes (a heavy navy or black jacket, matching wool skirt and what appears to be wool leg-warmers). Over it she had a non-traditional but very functional bright pink winter coat. She was wearing what looked like sturdy running shoes.

We started our hike from our hotel, down through town and to the nearby Black Hmong village of Cat-Cat. A much older woman and a young girl, both Black Hmong, followed us. On the walk down, the older lady said that she was Bee's mother; Bee ignored that comment which made us not so sure. About halfway down, "mum" started a hard sell to try to get us to buy some embroidered cloth. We weren't interested in shopping today and she was extremely persistent: "you buy from me? very good price. You buy? Yes? Two?" But we held firm and eventually Bee told her to leave us.

Cat-Cat is a relatively small village tucked into a beautiful valley with about 200 people, two schools (a primary and a secondary school) and lots of wooden houses (like in Laos, the Hmong

Hope we don't wake up engulfed in flames!
houses have no windows and only one door). The Hmong here farm rice on multi-leveled terraces on the hillsides and also raise livestock (pigs, chickens, buffalo). We saw lots of cute little puppies scampering around but not many adult dogs. Bee explained why: dog meat is a delicacy in this area.

We walked down the hill into the village. The hike was relatively easy going and paved most if not all of the way. We went by a beautiful waterfall. Bee pointed out several buildings and told us more about Hmong village life. Interestingly, the Hmong here are Catholics (converted decades ago by French missionaries) and Bee's family attends church every day. During the winter, the weather turns very cold and snow is not uncommon. The highest mountain in all of Vietnam is nearby Mt. Fanispan, towering over the valley at just over 10,000 feet (we couldn't see Mt Fansipan because of the clouds).

Our conversation topics ranged from marriage (Bee's marriage was an arranged marriage but she had a choice of spouse - she had known her husband since they were very young and liked him) to favorite foods (Bee likes spaghetti with meat sauce), to her job (she loves it), to the internet (Bee thought it was funny that we met online). We also found out that the Hmong and the Vietnames have a tenuous relationship at best. Not surprisingly, Bee considers herself Hmong first and Vietnamese a very distant second. We also asked Bee what she thought about the ever increasing number of tourists visiting the area. She gave a thoughtful response - tourism is good since it provides additional sources of income for local people and at the same time bad since the locals are still very poor and the obvious wealth of the tourists "makes people crazy".

After touring the village, we climbed a steep and narrow path back to Sapa. We parted ways with Bee when we arrived at the main market at 3:30pm; we'll meet up with her again tomorrow at 9am for a longer trek to see three more villages, including her own.

We spent the rest of the afternoon browsing through the market. The market and the town are absolutely packed with women in various hilltribe dress, from the Black Hmong to the very exotic-looking Red Dao. These Red Dao ladies wear bright red turbans and shave their eyebrows.

Sapa town is very small and, when not socked in with clouds and fog, very cute with lots of little shops. The temperature was still in the 50s when we left the market so we were delighted to stumble upon Highland Coffee, a great cafe that serves very good lattes and excellent pastries. Highland Coffee also had a fire pit inside which warmed us up considerably.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at an ATM (as far as we know there are only two in town) to take out 2 million VND (about $120 USD) and then made a quick visit to the Catholic church in the center of town and the clothing market just in front of it. We like Sapa town a lot but wish the weather were better.

Back at the hotel, after a covert investigation, Adrian succeeded in finding the most amazingly wonderful thing ever: a space heater! We began to worship it immediately. It's name is Midea and it speaks in tongues (all of the buttons on it are in Chinese). We managed to figure it out:
- One button is the off/on switch
- Another seems to indicate fan speed
- A third shows flames erupting from logs; there are two settings: one is more of a controlled burn, the other looks like a raging wildfire. Since the idea of waking up in the middle of the night to a room full of flames (requiring us to jump out the window for survival) is not appealing, we opt for the lower setting.

Although our package tour incudes meals at the Global's fine (mediocre) restaurant, we decided to expore our dinner options in Sapa town. A heavy fog had descended onto the town and as we walked down the main street we could barely see one side of the street from the other (not exactly safe considering that Sapa also has a good sized population of maniacal scooter drivers). Near the end of the main street we encountered a nice looking Italian restaurant - The Delta Restaurant. Curious as to the Vietnamese interpretation of pasta and pizza, we entered and sat down. What a find - we had an excellent salad with wonderful feta cheese and a suprisingly good pizza with fresh tomatoes, basil, red peppers, mozzarella and olive oil. The proprietors seem to be very proud of their wine collection - wine bottles line the walls and the wine list is extensive - but we opted for beer since some of the descriptions of the wines were a bit odd (one was described as having "quite a bitter aftertaste"). The restaurant itself was large and nicely decorated with antiques, white tablecloths, and candles. Near our table there was a nice firepit. Warmed by the fire and with Frank Sinatra songs playing in the background we ended up having a lovely evening in Sapa.


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