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Published: January 14th 2013
We caught the overnight train (ET Pumpkin $35 each 4 berth soft sleeper) from Hanoi to Sapa. The train was comfortable enough though it was obvious that the advertising photo was out of date! Our fellow cabin mates were two lovely German women, both older than us, who had some wonderful tales of travel to share. The train was an express therefore didn't stop very often and we arrived on time in Lao Cai at 5.30am
. It was dark and very cold and we were feeling slightly hungover from lack of sleep. The train got very hot and stuffy during the night and it's movement was jerky enough to prevent a good nights sleep. Most of the tourists on board had transport up to Sapa prearranged but Jerry and I boarded one of the waiting mini buses for the one hour trip to the top of the range. We paid too much for the fare as we found out upon our arrival in Sapa - for reference it is only 50,000 dong. The Vietnamese currency is called the dong and you become instant millionaires every time you exchange money. The exchange rate is about 20,800 dong to the Aussie dollar.
sometimes very difficult to know what the going rate is using public transport around tourist areas, particularly from bus and train stations. The guide books are never up to date.
The trip up the mountain took an hour and the mini bus left us outside the bakery which we remembered from our previous visit. The slightly warm charcoal burner inside was welcome relief from the bitterly cold foggy dark of the street. Fuelled with coffee and croissants (more like sweet bread rolls) I left Jerry with the luggage and went in search of a recommended hotel. Sapa has many more guest houses now, most in little side streets running off the Main Street, and I couldn't find the one I was looking for. Eventually we booked a room at Mountain View Hotel next to the Highland Bakery. We had stayed there a few years ago and the young guy on the desk had been there then. I think the room was still the same price. $15 for a room, good hot water and intermittent wifi (though i think the fog was the issue re wifi). I laughed when he offered the $20 room with a view of the valley -
I could barely see across the street at that stage let alone into the valley floor!The rest of the morning was spent wandering around but it was really slippery underfoot and even the usually colourfully dressed young minority women who accost you as you walk around trying to sell you their handicrafts were huddled together under awnings and heavy coats. We ate lunch at a tiny BBQ stall where our food was grilled over charcoal on the footpath. Sizzling spicy kebabs of pork, mushroom and vegetable, accompanied by a sweet potato cooked in the ashes. After lunch we succumbed to the heater (rented at 20,000 dong a day) and the heavy doona in our room for an afternoon nap. Late in the afternoon we walked along the road leading out of town for a while before finding a restaurant with an open fire for dinner. We did however book a guide and driver for a trek next day and purchased some trekking poles - we figured they might prevent sprained ankles next day on the muddy walk in the valley. Unfortunately the weather was no better the next morning but we met up with Mao, a gorgeous young woman from
the Black Hmong minority group. She spoke perfect English albeit with an American accent and had a bubbly happy personality. Mao was dressed in her traditional finely pleated skirt and head scarf, offset with a trekking jacket and wellington boots. We drove to a village down into the valley from where we walked to another village 6 kilometres away. The valley floor was shrouded in fog which gradually lifted as the morning wore on. We followed a stone footpath until we reached a group of men who were still laying the path, after that it was much muddier underfoot. The village houses were made from wood and most had corrugated tin roofs. Electricity arrived only 5 years ago and Mao said that the televisions were the favourite household item. Their most valuable possessions are thewater buffalo which sell for $US2,000 each, much more expensive than a motorbike. A dam is being built in the valley to provide electricity capacity for the region and we saw evidence of the ground work well underway. The villagers are of two minds as to whether they want the dam - they need the increased and constant supply of power but are also unhappy about
losing land which has been passed down through the generations. We also saw one of the trucks carrying gravelfor thedam site toppled over into somebodys garden. It would have been almost impossible toright in the muddy conditions.
Lunch was cooked for us over an open fire in one of the village houses before we drove to another village much further along the valley. From there we walked uphill to another village and visited the local school. Instead of returning to the car Mao took us to a waterfall and stream where we snacked on mandarins and had a stone skimming contest. It was dark and foggy again by the time we returned to Sapa. A lovely day of trekking - we walked about 12kilometers (enough in the muddy conditions) - through stunning countryside layered with rice terraces full of water, surrounded by high peaks peeping out of the fog, lots of smiles from the villagers, surprisingly no ladies trying to sell us craft at every bend and great company with young Mao, who literally skipped along the footpath with us all day. A quiet meal and scotch in another cosy restaurant before bed beckoned. We had an early start
next morning as the bus was collecting us to take us back to Lao Cai at 7.30 the next morning. We woke next morning and went outside to find that during the night a yet another truck loaded with gravel for the new roads thatare being constructed to the dam site had toppled over onto it's side and emptied it's entire load in through the front door of the shop opposite. The wheels were literally touching the front walls of the house - we almost wished we could stay to see how they got the truck upright as it had happened on a sharp curve in the road. But a long days travel into China was ahead of us.....
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