Sapa: H'Mong Smiles in the Clouds


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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest
February 9th 2011
Published: February 19th 2011
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Trung and I started our journey to Sapa at 7:30pm at the Ga Ha Noi (Ha Noi train station). Tip for fellow travellers, you need to go to Station 'B', behind the real train station. I wasn't with Trung, so I paid a boy 50 cents to walk me the 5 minute walk around the block to the right station.

The ticket wicket staff at the 'B' station point me to another building outside the station. The people in the 'tour' building point me towards the ticket wickets. Another tourist points me towards the dark, outdoor space in-between the buildings. Everyone in each place tells me that its ok to 'wait here' for my ticket. I have a 'tourist' voucher, but no real ticket, and the train comes in 1/2 hour. After some time, I sit and watch the organized chaos. There are 'tour agents' who hand out the tickets. They buy up ALL of the actual tickets for re-sale and I need to find my agent, whom I've never met, to get my ticket. Its a chaotic scene of 100's of people yelling, wandering, sweating and generally being chaotic.

Trung arrives after running some errands and hits the same odd, non-ticket wall, even when speaking Vietnamese. Apparently, our agent is not yet at the station, which is why people are telling us to wait.

After about 15 minutes, the agent is found, but the tickets are wrong, we're in separate cabins, we paid to be in the same cabin, 4 berth sleepers. She dissapears for 5 minutes and gets us into the same cabin, and she's moved us to a train leaving 20 minutes earlier. Like the rest of Vietnam, its a crazy, hectic experience, but somehow it all works out in the end...

Our train leaves in 5 minutes, so we head out across the darkened train yard towards what appears to be our train. A man whistles and gestures for us to stop. A train travelling full speed passes inches from us, a very safe situation.

Once at the train, I realize the Ga Ha Noi is 10 feet away. Glad I did all that walking earlier.

The train is old on the outside (they were built by the Russians in the 60's) but relatively new, wood panelling and bunks on the inside. We found our room really easily and we're greeted by Michael and Joanne, two travel friends from California and England. We partied on the train with them well into the night, eventually making our way to the 'Dining' car to drink $1 cans of Bia Ha Noi with four guys that we met there. The car is really two benches with the tiny little plastic stools around. The walk to the dining car is interesting, as there are people who sleep in between the cars. Not sure how they got there or why, but its a difficult, tipsy walk through most of the train back to our bunk, past tons of feet sticking out into the aisles, people sleeping on the floor, and one unfortunate old lady sleeping between a swinging door and a wall. I'm pretty sure I didn't hit her with the door (or squish her head, which was in prime head-squishing location between the door and the wall), but during the night, others must have run into her.

Trung and I go to bed at around 11:30pm, we have a 12km trek in the morning! Jo stayed with the guys drinking. She tells us later that she was somehow wearing a conductor hat that she took from one of the workers and he chased her down the train.

At 5:00am we arrived at Ga Lau Cai, about 40km from Sapa Town. Our tour has organized a cab for us, but because we arrived on an earlier train than expected, we sit in the cab until the next train arrives. Jo is pretty much still drunk and slept in the back the entire rest of the journey. Its still dark, but at about 6am, an exercise regime is broadcast over the ubiquitous Vietnamese government loud speakers, good accompaniment for sitting in the cab, hung over, in the dark.

Jo and Michael don't have any plans and are winging it, so they tag along with us to the hotel to see if they had any rooms, they do have a room for $16/night and they're really nice rooms too!

We arrive at the hotel after a death-defying cabbie journey through the mountains from Lau Cai to Sapa. The journey is uphill the entire way, usually through switch-backs and mountain-hugging curves the entire way. A combination of speed, no guardails, sheer drops and fatigue make me glad to be alive when we arrive. We're greeted by the misty sunrise over the picturesque mountain village of Sapa, framed by Mount Fanzipan in the background, the highest peak in Vietnam at 3000 metres.

We stayed at the Sapa Global Hotel, which is our base for all our meals and the two trekking journeys we signed up for. The first trek starts out at 9:30am, 3 hours after our train journey. Michael and Jo decide to follow us on the trek. Its 12km and I'm not sure that we're all going to make it, given that I think Jo is still drunk, and I'm pretty hung over.

Outside of our hotel there is a crowd of traditionally dressed H'Mong tribal ladies, with rice wicker baskets full of 'hand made' crafts. They can see us through the lobby windows and all put their faces up to the window to smile and wave. Friendly, but a bit creepy. None of the 8 people on our trek want to go out there to be attacked by the friendly H'Mong ladies. They're mostly black H'Mong, a tribe from the region that can be distinguished by their black clothes. They're wearing large bolts of red cloth as hats and have their eyebrows shaved. Strange.

Our guide for the trek, Mo, is a petit, 20 year old black H'Mong from a village at the bottom of the valley, the end of our journey is in her village, 12km away. She's very intelligent, talkative, funny and shows us a great time throughout the day.

Our trek took us through at least a few thousand vertical feet (95% downhill) through rice paddies, villages, across rushing, clear mountain streams and generally with a breathtaking vista wherever you look. The crowd of H'Mong ladies follow us the entire time, helping Jo climb down the steep rice paddies by holding her on either side. It's quite a sight.

At the lunch stop, we're hounded by the H'Mong, choruses of 'You buy from meee?', 'You buy from me now?', 'You say you buy maybe, but you no buy, maybe you buy now?' can be heard in the crowd. We eventually all buy some small bracelets, bags, tapestries and whatever else to get them off our backs. The situation is very stressful for some and eventually we all try to run away from them. The trek ends at the base of the valley in a small village. Thankfully, there's a cab waiting to drive us back up to Sapa, its been about 7 hours of walking and I don't think some of us could have made it back up to the top 😉

The following day's trek takes us to Cat Cat village and a small waterfall, its much shorter, however 4km down and 4km up is far enough!

The afternoon is spent getting a $5, 60 minute massage, and touring around the town of Sapa. Its a really nice village, if a little hilly at times. Roads generally run flat in the North-South direction and there are steep knee-high stairs running in the East-West direction.

The trip back to Hanoi is equally crazy as the way there. We are not on the same train as Michael and Jo, which would have been idel. When we were at the station in Lau Cai, we tried to change the tickets at the huge troup of tour agents, but no luck. Plus, we're on a 6 berth hard sleeper, instead of the 4 berth soft sleeper like before.

Luckily, the 6 berth is not too bad, we're with a family who are relatively quiet. My sleep on the train was not too bad, but the train stops a lot. In Vietnam, the train slows to about 5km/hour and then it stops on a dime, which practically throws everyone off their bunks. Not the best for sleeping. We arrive in Hanoi at 6am and take a taxi to Trung's parents for badly needed showers and breakfast.

We're scheduled to leave for the Perfume Pagoda on a day trip in three hours time. Deep breath, push through the pain and sleepyness.

Stay tuned!


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20th February 2011

Sapa is a best place to visit ...
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Tot: 1.17s; Tpl: 0.051s; cc: 14; qc: 61; dbt: 0.0375s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 4; ; mem: 1.4mb