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Published: January 15th 2016
It was my second evening in Hanoi. I took an overnight train to Sapa. I love traveling by trains, well, when it is possible. I did the same when I travelled to Chiang Mai from Bangkok in Thailand. To me, it brings a whole lot of different dimensions to my travel. I look out the window of my train traveling in the darkness in the middle of the night, I see just the silhouette figures,- trees, hills, forests all passing by in the darkness. Sometimes a level crossing appears with shower of lights, shops, and traffic waiting at the crossing,…just a touch of civilization for a moment. Then it is gone, …gone forever in the darkness. It’s mesmerizing! With an alien world of darkness out there, I stray around in a mystical world….”hello darkness my old friend…”. While listening to the sweet rattling of the wheels and the rail, with the train’s perpetual rhythmic rocking motion, I slowly drift into the world of fairy tale and go to sleep.
Early in the morning, around 5:30 am, the train reaches its final destination – Lao Cai. Before we reached the station, the door knock comes with coffee. Half asleep, the sweet
taste of the coffee was amazing. I looked up, the eastern sky is still dark. I climb down the train with my back-pack in a sleepy station. It always brings back nostalgic memories of the railway stations that I traveled in the past in the early mornings. Thick fog in the winter used to hug the distant trees, the tea vendors used to bring hot tea and I used to sip tea with a blanket wrapped around me. Ah, I used to enjoy those moments so much! In Lao Cai, I came out of the station and looked for my driver. When I almost gave up hope of finding him, I suddenly spotted him at a distance. We sat down at a road side tea-stall near the station and sipped some green tea. It felt good. Lao Cai is a small town near the China border. There was a bit chill in the air, I put on my light jacket. Then we headed to Sapa valley, some 52 km away in the cluster of hills.
The car climbed up the rolling hills. A light blanket of fog was hugging the terrace rice fields around us; I could see small
little huts scattered across the rolling hills. Sometimes, one or two local people are crossing the mountain path. It’s green, green everywhere. Coming from Canada where we are covered with snow almost 5 months a year, it's a respite. We reached Sapa after 7:00am. A romantic, sleepy town, fogs are rolling in and out continuously, hill tribes are moving around the town...it looks so romantic and peaceful. My hotel, U-Sapa, is a beautiful hotel with friendly people at the desk. Although check-in time is around noon, the friendly girls at the front desk arranged me a room. I freshened up and helped myself to some lovely buffet breakfast and I was told by the front desk girls that my tour guide is already there to take me around.
I met May Linh in the hotel lobby. What a charming lady she is, - cheerful, friendly and with full of energy. She made me walk up and down the Sapa town, OMG, my leg muscles were paining from mountain climb yesterday for paragliding. First she took me to a village to meet some local people with their local produce and handicraft. Then we went to the Cat Cat village to
see some local performance. Beautiful tribe girls dancing with their traditional costumes. At one time , they called the visitors to join them. May Linh insisted that I go up the stage and dance with them. “Me, what? Dance? You must be kidding! No way”, I protested. May Linh snapped back, “ Why not, everyone is dancing. You go, I will take your video”. It’s not that I didn’t dance before. I sure did, but not in a situation like this. Anyway, I braved myself and joined the party, while May Linh took my video. In the afternoon, we went to the Dragon Mountain, and then the far away villages to visit the home stay. We went on a motor cycle with May Linh riding the bike and I am sitting on the back. I liked the concept of home stay. “Do you want to have supper here and then go home”, May Linh asked. It was almost 6 pm; black cloud was rolling in. I didn’t want to take any chance. “No, let’s get back to the town, it may be raining”, I said. On my way to the motorcycle, I said good-bye to the lady owner of the
home stay. We came back to Sapa town.
May Linh invited me for dinner at her sister’s place that evening. I had nothing planned in the evening anyway. “What a brilliant idea, May Linh”, I jumped up to the proposal. We did a bit of grocery shopping and then she dropped me at the hotel. “I will send my brother-in-law to pick you up at 7pm”, she said while starting the bike. She left for home to cook dinner. Later, at her sister’s place, we all sat down on the ground in a circle and ate home-cooked dinner. This is where I first tasted horse-meat! We all played pool in the town after the meal. Then I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel. Evening dews were dripping down on my face, on my head. I was enjoying every moment of it. It was a lovely evening.
May Linh came to pick me up the next morning. I booked a car that day as we needed to travel to see other hamlets. What a mistake! Sapa and surrounding areas are not meant for driving SUVs. Narrow roads in the hills, if a car comes from the other
direction, there is no place to go. Motor cycles are ideal for that. I should have listened to May Linh, but the car was my idea. And a wrong one! From time to time, May Linh had to walk far ahead to stop other cars until we pass. We continued to see villages in the SUV. At some point May Linh showed me a distant hill and said, “Do you know, my home is there?.”
“Where ?”, I asked
“Over there”, May Linh pointed towards a cluster of hills.
“Who lives there, May Linh ?”, I asked
“My parents, and brothers also live close by”, she said
“Can I visit your home ?”, I said eagerly. “I want to see how you folks live”.
“It’s a steep climb. Didn’t you say that your legs are aching ?”, May Linh asked.
“ Will your Mom and Pa be there now ?”, I asked.
“My Pa may be, but my mom…no; she comes down to the market, you know, to sell bits and pieces what we grow.”
“Everyday”? I asked being baffled.
“Yes, she does”.
“How old is she, May Linh
“ She is 71.”
I was stunned!. Well, I told her, “if she could do the climb every day at her age, I should be ashamed of not climbing up the hill. I want to visit your home, please”. There we went, me huffing and puffing climbing up the hill. It was mid day and the sun was hot. The winding road becomes steep from time to time. We stopped few times. Finally we were there. I met her father and two brothers. They live their lives with very basics. May Linh does not live there any more due to her job, but she comes here every other week. It’s her “home”. We came down and she took me to the market. It’s an open air place to sell handicrafts and produce. I met her mother. May Linh was right…her mom shows more age than her father. I don’t know the language. May Linh translated for me. I bowed and showed my respect. Then we were on our way.
When we came back to the town, we returned the car, had our lunch together and rented a motor cycle. We still need to go to the
top of a mountain to see a water fall. May Linh was good, she rode the bike like a pro. We need to hurry, because my minivan is coming to pick me up from the hotel at 3:00 pm. I am going back to Hanoi this afternoon. We rushed. There we had a fall…nothing serious, because the bike was not moving. It was my fault; I couldn’t sit down properly. I was not hurt. But she was slightly hurt in her arm. Tiger bum is what she used to cure the sprain, she told me later. She brought me back safe and sound to the hotel. The bus was waiting. I checked out from the hotel and boarded the bus. I watched her walking back downhill towards the market place. The bus rolled on the mountain road towards Hanoi. These were two lovely days. The fairy tale of the Dragon mountain that May Linh told me, the green terrace rice fields of Sapa, Fan-si-pan Mountain at a distance, and the romantic town of Sapa surrounded by rolling hills,- they all stayed behind me, but they stayed with me forever. Sapa created a lasting impression on me that I will never
forget. Sapa is my favourite and will remain so.
May Linh and I became good friends. She came to Hanoi once when I was there, to visit her sister in the hospital. We stayed in touch after I left Vietnam. After 4.5 hours I was back in the bustling city of Hanoi.
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