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Published: November 15th 2011
The Hard Sleeper Train
You can just see the top bunks
We boarded the Sleeper train to Sapa from Hanoi at 22:00 on the night of the 27th of October. The tickets were in short supply so we ended up in the ‘hard bunks’ both of us on the third tier (of three beds), 8ft high, 24” headroom and little black hairs all over the white(ish) sheets; these WERE NOT from an animal!! Still at least we would not be sweltering as the air con was ducted from the roof and it got very, very cold.
Arriving in Sapa on the Chinese boarder 1500 meters above sea level was like being in any European ski village, rows of terraced wooden shops flanking the main street with thick moist fog obscuring the view to the distance. The only thing out of place was the hoards of brightly dressed Hmong tribal girls flooding the streets selling handmade headscarves and tat to tourists. The temperature was around 15oC, feeling like 10oC with the fog and rain.....we were actually looking forward to this weather; a taste of home! We didn’t plan to visit Sapa so the warmest / driest item we had was an anorak, but luckily every other shop sold counterfeit North Face Jackets
complete with detachable fleece inner.
After much deliberation we decided on a pair of jackets for our trek the following day. Sapa is basically the South East Asian Mecca for trekking, with every man and his dog offering a tour, making it fairly difficult to decide on a route. In the end (and after some research on Tripadvisor!) we came across a website called THE SAPA SISTERS offering bespoke trekking packages. We gave them a call and they appeared at our hotel within the hour (all four of these tiny ladies + a 4 month old baby slung behind the eldest sisters back). These girls were also from the Hmong Tribe, none over 5 feet tall and all spoke exceptional English. We opted for a single day trip with Xau and met her the next morning.
Cloudy as usual we departed on time, just Nat, Xau, I and her two cousins (Xau as over 100 cousins). We were soon way up in the hills away from all the tourists, making idle talk with Xau (who is only 16) about living here in Sapa and the Hmong lifestyle. She was taking us to her cousin’s house for lunch, a
2 hour walk from town that they complete every day, when we came across a distinctive smell. It was then we realised that we were walking besides a Cannabis field with trees of the stuff over 7ft tall. It turns out that they use hemp for weaving clothes and making rope, but certainly not smoking, or so they said! We’d seen many Hmong ladies with dyed hands, messing with thin string; this was in fact the hemp from cannabis plants that they used to make clothes and their stained blue hands from dying the fabrics.
We arrived for lunch shortly after 12:30 and were greeted by three boys aged 3, 4 and 6 years old, which were the sons of her cousin and had been left alone in the house since 7am. Xau soon got the fire going in the middle of the floor (in the house) and lunch was underway. The 3 boys were running amuck, the four year old (who was very mischievous) was using a massive pair of scissors to cut a sweet packet into a chain and then continued to hold a 10” knife blade down directly above his bare little toes. No one seemed
alarmed so we continued to wait for the food....this was just the ‘norm’ in the life of the Hmong! Following lunch we proceeded in the rain to Lao Chai via some treacherous clay steps, taking over an hour to reach a road. The wellie wearing little guide and her cousin took it all in their strides, whereas Nat and I were spending more time sliding than walking!
On reaching Lao Chai we finally broke through the clouds to discover the rice paddies caved into the steep hillsides and the little streams that have been directed to each of them. The paddies are effectively a series of cascades, the stream flows in and out of each level until it reaches the river running through the bottom of the valley. As the day turned to dusk were went to wait for our motorbike taxi home. Eventually, after several heated exchanges on the phone, Xau got us some transport. On one bike was Nat, Xau & a driver, on another bike myself & a driver, then off we went until...... Nat’s bike got a puncture! By this time it was dark, the thick fog had returned, followed by the rain, you know
that ‘fine stuff that gets you wet’ and we were 30 minutes from Sapa. Luckily we were a few yards from Xau’s Parents house where her Gran and Granddad (both 85+ years) were making supper. We sat down around the open fire to get dry and before long another bike had arrived, so we set of into the fog once again. The higher we climbed, the thicker the fog became until we were so dazzled by the lights of the scooter we turned them off.
It’s a bit of a crazy experience driving around a cliff road with waterfalls streaming down the cliffs to one side and nothing but a few boulders on the other side to stop you driving off the edge.... in the dark! We arrived home safely and bid Xau farewell, thanking her for the day, which had been all the more interesting in the final hour!
The next morning the weather improved and we could actually see out of our hotel (ironically called Mountain View hotel) into the valley of Cat Cat below. We went for a walk into Cat Cat village, this time the rice paddies were even more beautiful in the sunshine
and by the time we reached the river at the bottom (after 100’s of steps) we were in t-shirts for the first time in days.
That night we boarded a night bus to Hanoi soon to be followed by a further night train to Hue.
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