Sapa 1

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July 28th 2012
Published: July 28th 2012
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The Intrepid group is no more and we have all gone our separate ways. It was sad to say goodbye to my American friend Darra this morning as we had had so much fun together and been there for each other over the last two and a half weeks. She was heading off to Bali and Lombock for another Intrepid trip with lots of sunshine and cultural experiences before flying back to Denver, Colorado. She will be sorely missed as I finish my travel without her presence.

As I still had the whole day to fill in in Hanoi, I decided exercise was in order and headed up to the French quarter of the city as here is where many of the sightseeing places are such as the museums and the mausoleum that houses Ho Chi Mins’ remains. I took different streets as I wanted to see what else the shops were selling. I picked up a t-shirt that shows the vehicles on the streets of Hanoi. A fun one. I also purely by accident as I must have looked up at just the right time, found a Fannys’ ice-cream place. I took a photo of it and then decided to go and try it too, so that was lunch. The ice-cream was delicious and there was good reason to find Fanny ice-cream after all.

Finally I had to consult a map and work out where I was and what I would see today. I eventually decided to visit the Hoa Lo Prison Museum that had been built by the French in 1896. It was originally built in stone to hold about 150 prisoners but the number had swelled to over 2000 in the 1930’s with many political prisoners, both men and women held and executed here as late as the 1960’s. This prison was also used during the US- Vietnam war and American pilots were brought here and cared for until the end of the war. Once again, there were many examples of the horrors humans are subject to when under the influence of persecutors such as the weapons of torture, small dark cells and the lack of suitable food to sustain life. Many of the prisons died of malaria and poor living conditions.

It rained on the long walk back to the hotel but once again the weather was warm. I headed off to the next hotel that would start the trip to Sapa. As I was walking out of the hotel with by backpack a guy on a motorbike waylaid me asking if I was going to Sapa and that he would give me a ride to the hotel. Well it is so hard to trust people, so I told him I would walk and so he rode beside me as I walked swiftly next to him. Quite funny really as he had genuinely been sent on his motorbike to get me.

I was picked up in a minibus along with 12 others of which four were American students studying at an international university in Bangkok. They were Kelly, Roy, Danny and Mike and they were so full of life and energy and I felt relaxed with them from that moment. We were separated at the train station but reunited again in Sapa. I had to wait an additional hour before my train was to leave and it was pouring with rain by this time and the train was a bit of a hike to get to the platform and station. I put my pack on my bag and I at least, had an umbrella. True to form some man came out of the dark and gloom and asked me which platform I was heading to and he took my ticket out of my hands before I could have a chance to resist and then proceeded to walk in front of me in the dark; it was now about 9.00pm; and I had no choice but to follow him. The only bonus was that when we got to the carriage he banged on the door to get them to open up the doors whilst outside there had been many others waiting to board the train, but I was given entry immediately. Oh so much for preferential treatment as it cost be 20,000dong ($1.00). LOL

The day before I had been thinking about the train journey and decided that my worst nightmare would be finding myself in a cabin with strange men that snored. So the first part of the belief happened as I was confronted firstly with a man from Ireland who had the bottom bunk, followed as I was standing there thinking “bloody hell” by two more young men from Norway who arrived at the door too and they were to be my other travelling companions for the 8 hour train journey to Sapa. Of the second anxiety would they snore? They didn’t! What a bonus to be totally protected and helped as required by these three men, one of which who gave me the bottom bunk so that I did not have to scramble up and down with my crook hip.

The train journey was otherwise uneventful and at 6am we were woken and a few minutes later left the train in the border town of Lao Cai and were picked up by the tour guide and transported to Sapa Summit Hotel for breakfast. Here there were masses of tourists all needing food refreshment, toilets and showers and as it was raining gumboots and coats were also necessary, so a great revenue gatherer for the hotel. Our lady guide for the trek was called Pen and she wore traditional costume. All the females wear traditional costume all the time they are in the towns and at home too. Many of the women and young girls of the villages came to walk with us and support us. This also meant that you needed to consider buying something from them after you got to the end of the journey.

This traditional costume consists of a t-shirt and shorts to the knee. Two long scarves go from below the shorts at the back and over the shoulder and down to below the shorts and the front. A belt is then wound around the middle and tied. This material is all made in the villages or by the girls themselves on a loom and locally made dye is used to make the colour.

The rain just kept coming down and everything was wet including my phone by the time I got to the end of the narrow steep street about five minutes into the trek. We headed up the road before leaving it to follow a muddy narrow track through the terraces rice and corn fields through the Muong Hoa valley and the first village of the Black H’Mong Tribe called Lao Chai Village where we had lunch. Lunch was boiled cabbage, chicken and rice. From here we walked to the next village Ta Van inhabited by the Zay minorities that exhibit a strong Chinese cultural influence and this is where we stayed the night.

The accommodation was for about 16 of us, all on a mosquito netted mezzanine floor above the family room in the peoples’ house. The facilities were basic but clean and we were all able to take showers and freshen up before we hung out. I decided to read for a while and have a nana nap so was feeling quite relaxed by dinnertime. The American guys and a couple of the girls from Zealand in the Netherlands were enjoying interacting over talk and cards. There were also two German couples, a couple from Spain Elina and Eugene and a 60 year old man called Kim from Korea travelling on his own and the mother of the girls, Katerina, from Zealand who lives in Pattaya in Thailand with her husband. The whole atmosphere was relaxing and enjoyable and one of those occasions where you think life couldn’t get any better than this.

Dinner was started with French fries in garlic and I hear that the potatoes were actually cut up on the floor of the house as there are no chopping boards. All the preparation for meals is done with the hands and the cooking facilities are burners with woks and not much else. All equipment is near the floor. But this did not detract from the quality of the meal as we tucked into an extensive spread of food that included rice, cabbage, two chicken dishes, and spring roll look alikes. This was followed by rice wine called “Happy water” and we were all given this as a shot. Happiness prevailed. LOL

I snuck off to read and went to bed early while the others all partied on. I must have been really tired as they hardly bothered me at all and I had a great nights’ sleep considering the numbers of us, but as no one appeared to snore it was like there was only myself in the room. The last two nights I have slept in my clothes so tonight, in the hotel, will be a nice change.

In the morning it was still raining and the mist hung low over the bush and farmland. As there is no health and safety plan in place, I decided to take some control of the situation and discussed with each couple or group what they thought about the situation especially in light of the difficult slippery trip the day before. Oh I forgot to tell you what happened!!

As we were coming down a track being upgraded and made into a road we noticed a trickle of dirt coming down the side of the bank. As we stood and watched it, it became an avalanche of dirt that took a piece of the hillside with it almost crashing at our feet. So some of us had to run forward and others of us back a little to see how it was going to settle. Just as we recovered from the shock another little avalanche happened on the other side of the bank. To add to this we were on very sodden clay like ground that was not easy to move through even in our gumboots. In the end of course, we all quickly moved through the area feeling lucky to be alive. Then we had to watch our every step as we moved down to the flat as the clay ground was steep and slippery. One of the Americans, Danny, had reached out as he slipped and he grasped a piece of barbed wire that was part of a makeshift fence and gashed the palm of his hand badly. I saw others slipping and sliding too and now he had had heavy extensive rain all night.

In the end we were given the choice of the easy way on the road and a river crossing, or to go the hard way and slip and slide our way not sure if we would fall and be hurt. The Germans were the only ones to take the difficult road but I wonder if they had made the choice due to the language difficulties. So the road way was our choice and when we got to the river crossing that was not as deep as they had told us (maybe because they are much shorter than us) we crossed this with linked arms to ensure we were all safe. There was a load of flooding actually and we had on more than one occasion to wade through water.

We arrived very early for lunch at a café on the hill overlooking a waterfall with many local girls wanting to sell us their wares. As per usual I was weak and felt that I should buy something to support their economy, and so I spent a couple of dollars on stuff I thought the grandchildren might like but couldn’t guarantee.

After lunch we headed off in a minivan and had to change to another van due to the road being washed out. I took a video of this and it reminded me of home. At least we were back in one piece.

After checking into our rooms I wrote up the blog and was biding my time until tea time when I got a knock on the door. It was Eugene the man from Spain, wanting to know if I wanted to go for a walk with him and Elena. Eugene was asking as he spoke the English and Elena didn’t. They come from Madras and Eugene is a lawyer and Elena a teacher.

Elena was keen to shop for shoes so we visited most of the shoe shops in the town that predominately sold trekking gear such as shoes, boots, jackets and packs. It is hard to know how original the clothing and equipment is but it was all quite cheap in comparison with what we would pay at home. The shops also sold a lot of traditional clothing as well. And all made from the hemp of the marijuana bush. The guide assures me they do not smoke it though.

At tea time our lovely multicultural group from Zealand, Spain, South Korea and New Zealand enjoyed a meal together and had lots of laughs with me the only one with English as my first language. I marvel at the others and are almost envious of their ability to speak more than one language fluently.

Additional photos below
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28th July 2012

With all this experience you sound so competent and relaxed about settling into any new group - compared to the beginning of your travels. I think you have found your zen.
28th July 2012

Thanks what is zen?? LOL Actually I thought of you when I was putting into practise my health and safety NZ style. LOL

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