Geo: 22.3945, 104.056
What a gift our trip to Sapa was!
On our own again without our friend Mary, we arrived in Sapa by the night train from Hanoi at 5:30am to cool temperatures. Well, cool to us; they were nothing like the frigid (-35 degrees), snowy weather many of our friends had reported from home in Canada.
Upon arrival at our hotel, Fansipan View, we immediately became friends with the manager, Thuyen and her Dutch friend Monique. Next thing we knew we were enjoying dinner seated in a circle on the floor surrounding a hotpot at Thuyen's sister's home acquainting ourselves with sisters, mother, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews.
How extraordinary was our time in Sapa, as we got to know Thuyen, her husband Quang and their baby daughter Anh Ngoc! After that lovely dinner, a couple days later Monique, Jim and I prepared a meal for them. We shopped at the market, prepared and cooked a meal for them in their home. Not being used to their kitchen and utensils, we had to improvise. Quang and Thuyen had a hard time letting us struggle along and periodically one of them would disappear to a sister's kitchen across the alley or the
hotel restaurant to find us something to help us out. Who knew that when you buy peanuts at the market that they need to be fried or roasted first?! Or when you want to cook chicken you call someone who arrives on her motorbike having just killed and de-feathered a chicken? We requested that we not have to do the killing/de-feathering part of the preparation!
Our first big outing was to a town called Bac Ha and their famous Sunday market. We drove from high in the mountains down to the valley, coming within feet of the Chinese border, to arrive at this town vibrant with commerce and colour.
After a morning of photography, we stopped at a local stall for a cup of coffee. Amongst the locals, we drank our brew (wondering about the cleanliness as our host dipped the dirty cups in a bucket of water then poured our coffee in them). She kindly offered us some locally made 'trail mix' which was delicious. We thought, 'how nice is this!'. The locals were paying about $.50 for their drinks so we expected to pay more – locals usually pay about a third of what travellers pay. When the women
told us it cost $10 (which is an outrageous amount), we were so stunned we paid it. Afterwards, we were quite angry at ourselves for firstly, not haggling the price and, secondly, not asking the price before sitting down - both cardinal rules of buying anything in Vietnam. Indeed, as one wise traveller named Andy told us, "it's travellers' tax – you just pay it".
Next, our trek to the local ethnic villages was filled with playful interaction with the locals who are keen business women and have ‘establishing the relationship' part of sales down to a science. They claim their own tourists and, with great interest, walk alongside you, helping you down the steep declines, finding out about your family and then just as you arrive at their village they pull out their handicrafts and turn up the heat. Once again, after swearing I wasn't buying anything, Su Su and Ada had me hook, line and sinker (handling objections). Jim kept looking over to me gently shaking his head as I handed over more money and received another hand embroidered scarf, purse, or wallet (closing the deal). Oh well, it was fun!
Because of the Tet celebrations in Vietnam –
which is the Lunar/Chinese New Year and the only annual countrywide holiday - we were advised to switch countries before Feb. 9 because most Vietnamese would be on holidays enjoying the chance to renew family bonds. Many reported to us that travel may become more difficult with the combination of reduced services and an increase in volume. We heard of travellers who couldn't get Vietnamese visas in Laos for a week as everything was closed. Everywhere we looked Tet was in the air – people transporting cherry blossom branches, vendors selling chung cakes made of sticky rice, green beans, pork and minced pepper wrapped in dong leaves (I think our equivalent is fruit cake at Christmas), and brightly coloured red and yellow lanterns, packages and banners all over.
We had planned to get to Laos overland but just didn't have the energy to do that over the holidays. So we scurried out of Vietnam by taking the night train back to Hanoi and flying to Luang Prabang in Laos. And we were almost thwarted when our flight attendant announced, "the incident in the cockpit has been resolved; we will be continuing on our journey to Luang Prabang", as the plane
stopped circling and began ascending again. Whew! That was close....
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