From Sapa to The Last Supper (with a bit of Halong Bay in between)

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May 23rd 2012
Published: May 27th 2012
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After getting picked up by a mini bus with an extremely grumpy bossy cow of a coordinater dishing out our train tickets, I take a seat on the familiar mini plastic stools to await my night train to Sapa. A mountain town away from the hustle & bustle, a cooler climate and stunning scenery, Sapa is also well known for it's many hill tribes and I'm looking forward to spending a few days trekking & exploring another side of Vietnam to the busy city streets.

I get chatting to two French guys who have booked a similar tour to me and we have a couple of drinks before our train departs. We get on to the subject of food, and what strange things we've tried; I think I'm being pretty adventourous when I say I tried snake in Cambodia, that is until one of them says that he really really REALLY wants to eat dog!... Now I'm by no means a vegetarian, and some may say an animal is an animal, and of course I respect other cultures however different their cuisine, but I can't help but be upset by this. How could anyone even WANT to try it? I don't have a pet dog but I absolutely adore them... Cats I'm not so keen on but I still don't want to eat one! I only tried rabbit once, incidentally because a French waiter told me it was chicken, and although I'll admit it was quite nice I was mortified as all I could think of at the time was my fluffy pet bunny, Flopsy. There's plenty of food out there for everyone without bringing household pets into the equation... No pets on plates! That's my rule...

And as I continue talking and chatting away to these two French guys, I find myself thinking "The fact that you want to eat dog, makes me not like you"... Despite otherwise being perfectly nice guys. Then I worry, do my vegetarian friends think a similar thing towards me?

We eventually board and I share my 4 berth cabin with a French couple and another French guy who seems a bit weird (maybe I'm still getting over the dog thing.) I have a top bunk which is stupidly hot at first but once we get moving the air con kicks in, thankfully. I'd decided to pay the extra 4 dollars each way for a deluxe soft sleeper rather than a 6 berth hard sleeper, and it's definitely worth it; air con, bedside lamps, complimentary water & crisp white duvets, it's actually pretty cosy.

The train arrives in Lao Cai station around 6:30am and after another short mini bus ride we arrive at Sapa Summit hotel to shower, have breakfast & start the day's trekking. There's a nice bunch of people in our group; Sian a chatty british girl, Alex an American airforce pilot, Lex an old Canadian as chilled as they come and 2 Danish girls Rikke & Patricia on their 6 months travels. We're introduced to our guide who's from the Hmong hilltribe community who's name is Chang. (Easy to remember as she shares her name with my favourite Thai beer!) Only 19, she is absolutely tiny (like most of the Hmong tribe people) but bubbly & cheeky, her English is perfect, which she's learnt every word of from listening to tourists. She seems a bit of a rebel as throughout the day she tells us about life in her community. "Normally by 19 a girl would have 2 or 3 children". She tells us. "But not you?" I ask. "No" she says "I don't want to get married... That means I have to carry baby... I too lazy to carry baby.. And besides.. Men talk too much.. I don't want to listen to that all day!" We all laugh, aware of the irony that the same thing is often said of the fairer sex in the West.

Chang explains that in her community if a man wants to marry a girl he must ask her mother & father's permission. But the girl often has little say in the outcome. It could be a proposal from someone she hardly knows. Luckily for Chang, her parents respect her wishes as she tells us she was once asked to be married.. "I told my mum "he crazy this boy! Why he want to marry me? I don't want to marry him!" Nothing like letting a guy down gently...

We start our hilltribe trek and immediately are joined by around 10 other Hmong women, all dressed in their full native attire, they are really friendly and chat to us all along the way. Of course they are all trying to sell their handicrafts too and for some reason, when we stop for lunch, they all swarm around Lex. His strategy is to buy something hoping they go away but it just makes them hungry for more and they keep pestering him, much to our amusement!

The trekking is perfect, not too strenuous but active enough, and the views are amazing! It's one of those fantastic views that you just can't get across the greatness of in a photo. Every corner we turn & every hillside we walk across, there's another stunning view! The rice terraces are steep & dramatic, go on for miles and may not be as bright green as in Bali, but wipe the floor with them otherwise. We pass farmers & rice workers, buffaloes ploughing the fields & children playing as we climb up the hillside to reach our homestay for the night.

The house is a simple home, but easily the best homestay I've had so far! The family have had new bathrooms with hot showers fitted which is very much appreciated after our trek! The lady of the house cooks us a tea time "snack" of garlic chips (AMAZING!) before we sit down to dinner later on for a full homecooked feast, washed down with a few glasses of Dalat red wine (tastes better after the second glass) and a few shots of rice wine (never gets any better no matter how many shots you've had.)

I climb into my bed of a mattress with mosquito net over it and have just got myself quite cosy when it starts to rain... Really hard. It's a nice comforting sound to listen to when I'm all tucked up warm, and I smile to myself as it reminds me of home. Then just as I drop off to sleep I'm awaken by a splash on my face! Oh no... The roof is leaking... Thankfully it's just in the one place so I switch beds and get a good night sleep.

The next morning we awake to a breakfast of sweet coffee & banana pancakes before setting off for another day trekking. After the rain it's muddy as anything and a bit slippy in places, but the cooler air is nice & refreshing.

We arrive back into Sapa mid afternoon with just enough time for a quick look around the town. It's what I imagined Dalat should have been like! Quite pretty & pituresque with bakeries & cafes & stunning views of the mountains & valleys below. Just as we are wandering back to catch the bus, a sign outside one of the cafes catches my eye... No... It can't be! My eyes must be deceiving me!... I rub them and look again..."Yorkshire Tea" the sign reads...OMG! At that moment the owner (obviously a British guy) comes out to greet us, and after me questioning if it is in fact the real deal, he runs inside to produce the box for proof! I've not had Yorkshire Tea since having a cup of Overly Enthusiastic Phil's secret stash in India way back in January, but ironically I will have to wait a little longer as there is no time before our bus is about to leave! Yes, I could have had a take out, but these things have to be done properly... At least 3 minutes to brew, and it's been so long since I had the stuff it would just ruin the experience to drink it out of a paper cup...

Back in Lao Cai I reboard the train back to Hanoi and am not overly joyed to find I'm sharing my cabin with the same weird French guy. Worse still it turns out he'd met the other two French guys I chatted to in the station and they'd all gone for a dog dinner! He showed me the photos of their platter including Lung, Kidney & Meat Skewers... I had to stop myself from wretching, decided that yes it is definitely ok to not like someone solely for that reason alone, no matter how nice they are, and go straight to sleep to avoid any more conversation with this puppy killer! The other two ladies in our cabin were Vietnamese and despite neither of us speaking the same language, we did the usual trick of replacing conversation with the offerings of eachother's snacks; her with her chilli mangoes and me with my Oreos, the ONLY biscuits you will ever see in any travellers hand in South East Asia.

I return to Hanoi and decide to switch hostels, after seeing my friend Ebony's post on Facebook about an amazing place called May de Ville. This place is a 4 star hotel but they also have dorm beds available for just $6 a night including a buffet breakfast! To be honest, I'm sold on the breakfast alone, but I get to the room and am pleasantly suprised with how nice it is! Just 6 beds in, and very clean comfy ones at that, the room has air con and a newly fitted bathroom with rain shower... What a bargain!

The next day I start my 2 day tour of Halong Bay, commencing with a 3 hour drive to the coast. I meet the group I'll be travelling with including a really nice couple from London, Lucy & Simon, 3 Swedish girls & a really annoying middle aged Australian guy called Chris.

It's always a bit of pot luck who you'll be travelling with when you book these tours, but I always try and book with a company that looks like it might appeal to similar people like me. For example, when choosing this tour I was torn between two companies which both had really good write ups (you have to be careful because they're a lot of scams going on) - AClass & Halong Party. And despite AClass looking slightly more deluxe for the same money, I decide to go with Halong Party, figuring that it will be more likely that I'm travelling with younger people and less likely to have to share a cabin with a large sweaty old man!

We board the boat and after a brief introduction, await to be given our cabin numbers so we can check in. Enter my "sweaty old man" - in the form of Chris the annoying Ozzy. I didn't originally pay the extra 30 dollars for a single supplement, figuring they would probably twin me with another youngish girl, since the tour is called "Halong Party" but there goes me assuming again! Still, it's my own fault so there's not much I can do about it. But then our guide, who likes to call himself "Lucky", realises that it's an uncomfortable situation and offers us both our own rooms at no extra charge. I'm amazed! For once things are turning out ok.

We return to the dining room to be greeted to a generous seafood lunch and complimentary wine before a gentle sail in between the limestone karsts of Halong Bay. The views are amazing, the weather is perfect and we relax on the deck to watch the scenery pass by. After a couple of hours we stop by the aptly named "Amazing Cave" which indeed is quite amazing. Hundreds of stalagmites & stalagtites line the roof & walls of the 40ft high cave which is mightily impressive and our guide, Lucky, leads us through the maze of natural sculptures while we observe in awe. It would have been interesting to discover more about how the caves were formed and how old they are etc etc but instead Lucky feels it's more important, and indeed entertaining, to point out every single penis shaped object, and also referring to an arch way as the "woman's arch" as it has what vaguely resembles a large breast with an erect nipple on the top. Nice.

Our next stop is Ti-Top island, which we take the short climb to the top for yet more stunning views of the bay before returning to our private beach below for a swim in the warm water & to watch the sunset.

We meet two new additions to our boat, Joey & Tim from Washington State, and after another good meal back on the boat and a few beers, it doesn't take much to get us all drunkenly singing (or screaming) to the cheesy karaoke the staff put on for the evening's entertainment.

I drag myself out of bed for the 5am sunrise the next morning, after little sleep, but much to my disappointment it's cloudy so I return for a few more hour's kip. Later I feel much better, the sun comes out and we enjoy a relaxing morning quietly kayaking around the karsts, ending the boat trip with a short cooking class of how to make spring rolls and our last lunch on board, before taking the long bus journey back to Hanoi.

Seeing Halong Bay was one of my top 3 "Things to do" on my year travelling and it certainly didn't disappoint! Climbing Macchu Picchu & learning to tango in Buenos Aires, on the other hand might prove a bit more challenging!

We arrive back in Hanoi and after my rave reviews of the May de Ville hotel, Joey & Tim and Lucy & Simon all decide to stay there too. It's Joey's birthday so we head out for a few beers on the Bia Hoi corner nearby. This is a common sight in much of Vietnam, especially in Hanoi. The infamous mini plastic stools, hundreds of locals all sat by the side of the road almost in amongst the busy traffic, sipping beer for less than 50cents each, soaking up the atmosphere of the crazy, dusty, noisy chaos of the city - it's raw Vietnam drinking culture at it's best...

But not quite as "raw" as what we end up drinking later on in the evening...

Joey, naturally wanting a "special" birthday meal, decides he wants to eat the Vietnamese delicacy of a "beating snake heart" for dinner so I go along for the ride - I want to see this! Lucy & Simon opt out in favour of a nice slap up meal in the city, so me, Tim & Joey hop in a cab, flash the driver the business card of our chosen restaurant with a picture of a snake as the logo and 30 minutes later, after driving down a small lane lined with snake restaurants that we immediately nick name "Snake Alley" we arrive at a not too seedy looking place, decorated with red lanterns. We're greeted by a short plump lady & a kind of bored looking man who leads us to a cage; the bottom shelf full with live wood pigeons and the top shelf full with live snakes! I fear it's a bit late to back out now and ask if I can have pigeon instead! The bored looking man opens the cage, reaches inside & grabs one of the snakes before handing it to Joey to hold. He's a wriggly little thing (the snake not Joey) and I get freaked out just watching it as it's tail curls around Joey's arm. Next it's Tim's turn and then mine. I literally hold it for two seconds just in time for Tim to take the photo then hand it straight back!

We're shown to our seats and given a menu. Our eyes scan down the long list; Snake Sauteed in Lemongrass & Chilli, Fried Snake fat with peanut, Fried snakeskin with fresh herbs... The list goes on. Not being regular snake diners, we have no idea what to order so the waitress suggests a selection of 7 dishes. Then the horror starts! Our chosen snake is brought in front of us and held by two men, one at each end. The man holding the head end, takes a knife and cuts the snake's throat length ways before "popping" the tiny heart out from under the skin... It stays there hanging from a thread as he motions for Joey (the designated heart eater) to come and bite it off... Which he does after just a slight hesitation and proceeds to swallow it quickly!... I am trying not to gag at this point..."what does it taste like?" I ask... "slightly tinny..." he says "I felt it twitch in my mouth then I swallowed it...". We all laugh, probably more out of nerves than anything else and also the random hilarity of the situation!

The snake men then, taking two glasses of rice wine, drain the blood of the snake into one, and (wait for it) the stomach bile (!!) which is bright green, into the other. They then transfer the bright red & bright green liquids into 6 shot glasses and pass us all one of each. Shot time! Ok... I really didn't sign up for this but Joey just ate a beating snake heart... I like to try everything once... I can do this!... We chink glasses to toast Joey's birthday and down the snake blood first. To be honest, the rice wine is so strong it masks the taste of anything else. The bile we're not so lucky with and leaves a pretty unpleasant taste to say the least. Luckily we have a Hanoi beer on stand by to wash it down with!! Ugh!!! Then comes our dinner, but much to our surprise, most of the dishes are actually quite tasty! Cooked in different herbs & spices, the sauteed meat is pretty nice, and the rest, well let's face it... After a few beers anything deep fried tastes ok!!

I go to bed feeling a little bit woosy but thankfully feel fine for my last day in Vietnam. I take a last wander around the city and get a haircut & highlights for $12 (which isn't the best but I guess you get what you pay for!). Typically, as I head back to the hostel it starts to rain heavily so I duck into a cafe for shelter and get chatting to a nice girl called Tsing. She has a guitar behind the counter and I ask if she can play. She says "no not really" but picks it up anyway and proceeds to play a sweet rendition of "twinkle twinkle little star"... I clap and say well done - it's more than what I can do! "I teach you". She says, and as the rain has no sign of stopping I have a go and within a few minutes I have played my first "song" on a guitar!...

There is 3 things I really want to learn on this year travelling; the first I mentioned earlier which is to Tango (and I don't just mean once, I mean I want to do it everyday for a month until I'm shit hot!), the second is to learn Spanish (both of the above I plan to do in South America) and the third is to learn to play the guitar. Ok so I may still be way off being able to play my goal song of "Wish you were here" by Pink Flloyd but everyone has to start somewhere!

The nighttime is hot & sticky and I find myself stuck in the middle of the crazy Saturday night street market, fighting my way through the crowds like a salmon swimming upstream. Then out of the chaos I see two familiar faces, Joey & Tim, looking as stressed and hot & bothered as I am! We are way passed the novelty of sitting on Bia Hoi corner with a flat luke warm beer tonight and instead, on our last night in Vietnam, escape the hot city streets for the cool air con of our hostel, an ice cold imported Tiger Beer & a pool table.

Leaving Vietnam is like getting off a 3 week long rollercoaster. All the chaos, crazy traffic, arguments & scammers have been contradicted in equal measures by amazing scenery, delicious food & warm friendly people. After India it is definitely the most challenging country I've visited but in many ways also the most rewarding.

5 months in South East Asia is nearly over and I'm slightly overwhelmed at the thought as I think back to all the highs, lows and every bit in between of my time here. There's so much I love about this part of the world; some of the kindest, friendliest people I've ever met, some of the most stunning mountains, lush rivers & waterfalls, the most diverse & flavoursome cuisine I've ever tasted - I will miss so much just sitting at the side of the road with the locals soaking up that busy chaotic atmosphere, tucking into the most simple but delicious local food served up by an old lady for less than a dollar.

But then I definitely won't miss the conflicts, the rip offs and the constant lack of toilet paper to name but a few... I'm literally exhausted and as I queue up for check in and see the screen ahead read "Singapore" I can't describe the wave of relief that washes over me. Sad to be leaving and a tear in my eye, but for now Asia - that's enough. Me love you long time, but Tina International has a whole other part of the World to explore. Now here's to the next chapter...


Additional photos below
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27th May 2012

In addition to the "no pets on plates" rule you need to add...
no slithery or crawly thing on plates. Gross! Otherwise, I have enjoyed the blogs of your travels around Southeast Asia. So are you headed directly to South America or are you stopping along the way; e.g., Australia and New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands?
20th August 2012

Yorkshire Tea in Sapa, Vietnam
Hey Tina International, I'm that "British guy" brandishing his box of Yorkshire Tea with pride! Great blog. Really enjoyed reading and I will share it with our supporters. The place where you can have a proper cuppa in Vietnam is called 'Sapa O'Chau Cafe' - It's a community project run by the ethnic minority hill tribes themselves (I work for them!) We organise volunteer work, authentic trekking & homestays, and of course, great teas and coffees. Safe travels, Peter
31st October 2012

Yorkshite Tea...OMG
Hi! Sorry I haven't responded sooner, I have been a bit lame on my blog since I settled in Oz....but that's AMAZING!! ha ha...I really loved it there in Sapa...if I ever come back I'll be sure to stop by for a brew. Thankyou! :) Christina x

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