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Published: November 15th 2015
Rolling into Lao Cai at 5:35am it was a little disturbing to see rain drops on the windows but it was still warm even though we were in the mountains. Outside the station, there was a gaggle of men with signs from the various travel agencies - we quickly spotted ours and were herded along with 10 others onto a mini bus for the 1 hour climb to Sa Pa. The front seat provided great views of the road, scenery and oncoming traffic. Pulling into Sa Pa there was an instant "welcoming committee" of Black H'Mong women. They became our constant companions for most of the day and were very friendly even when we didn't buy anything from them. Our room at the Fansipan View Hotel was truly amazing with fabulous views over the town (and towards Mount Fansipan if the clouds ever went away). A quick shower and then down for breakfast which was a very interesting selection of buffet foods - hard cooked eggs, deep fried bananas, yam fries, spring rolls, baguette, coffee, pumpkin soup!!
We were part of a group of 8 to trek 14 km that day - the online itinerary read like this.....
arrival in Sa Pa town, have breakfast and freshen up before your trekking of the day. 7km of walking down to the south east of Sa Pa along the side of Muong Hoa valley to Y Linh Ho Village of the Black H’mong to see those sensual patterns of the terraces from above. And then take 3km trekking down to Lao Chai Village, and 4 km through terraced rice fields to Ta Van Village of the Giay minority people. Have a picnic lunch at local family, where you can see the local house architecture and witness local daily life styles and exclusive customs.Enjoy the landscapes on the way until getting back to Sa Pa by jeep or motorbike in the afternoon and free at leisure the rest of the day until dinner. Overnight at Sa Pa Hotel."
It started raining fairly hard before we even left the trekking office, but that did not deter the H'Mong women from chattering alongside us. The roads were mostly concrete so it was easy walking uphill to the first viewpoint where we saw nothing because of the rain and low clouds. Then..... The weather cleared partially and we were looking at terraced hill
slopes in every direction. Only one crop of rice is planted in each year ( in May) and harvested in September. Apparently September is the best time to visit this region because of the green and gold of the terraces. Now they were mostly water with some left over rice stalks. The time between harvesting and planting is spent repairing the walls of the padi terraces as wandering water buffalo can cause havoc to the walls. The road started meandering downwards and before we reached the village of Lao Chai, we had to a negotiate a steep muddy track - this is where our lady friends came in very handy as they helped us down. They were incredibly sure footed in their gumboots and assorted plastic sandals.
Kelly was accosted by a little girl selling bracelets and it was tied on his wrist before he could blink. Women from the Red Dao Tribe were hanging out in this area seeking their wares as well.
When researching online before this trip I read a lot of negative comments about how touristy this part of northern Vietnam was - and yes, we were just a few of the hordes of
tourists on the trek that day but it was easy to ignore the crowds while appreciating the surroundings. The brochures idea of a "picnic lunch" was actually a large shelter that had seating for at least 80 and there were many shelters like this. As soon as we sat down the hordes of H'Mong women started the selling pitch to anyone who caught their eye. Luckily there was nothing we were interested in buying. The lunch was great albeit somewhat bland Chinese - this area is very close to China - Lao Cai is right on the border and SaPa is 38 km south( and up). The minority tribes migrated from China and the women from the villages have maintained their national dress.
After lunch we visited a H'Mong house which is very basic ( but a step up from the Masai villages in Kenya). Living on the main floor, dry goods stored on "mezzanine" and the cooking done in a communal area along with sleeping. But there was a TV and boom box. While we were eating lunch we had noticed fellow trekkers using their mobile devices - so much for being out of touch with civilization.
Hemp is used in much of the clothing - it is stripped from the stalks of the plant, wound into thread (by hand or by spinning machine) and then woven on a loom. Indigo is used to dye the fabric and honey comb can used as a wax to either waterproof some clothing or to stamp out designs on the fabric before it is dyed.
At one point we got really excited when we saw some colourful blue and white ducks - only to learn that farmers dyed their ducks so they could tell which were theirs - so much for thinking it was a new species!
Continuing, we visited a home stay run by a Giay minority family. In this village there were many home stays and during the busy season there could be 200 to 300 guests - hmmm... How much of local life do they really see???? In this particular house, the upper floor was open to the main living area and set up dormitory style with mattresses on the floor for guests. Not my idea of a homestay! ( a few days later we met a couple form France who spent a number of
days travelling in the north where there was very little tourism and they stayed with a local family for 4 days. They said it was a wonderful experience although not very comfortable).
We were getting a bit foot sore and as we had walked the 14 km AWAY from the town of Sa Pa, having a bus waiting to return us to town was a welcome sight. Back at the hotel I was surprised how dry and warm my feet were - paid to have merino socks and good walking shoes!!!
The town of Sa Pa is built on a mountain side and there were very limited flat streets - so promenading was a continuation of the exercise of the day ( up and down). Neon signs everywhere and tourist shops of course along with the frequent "north face" stores - North Face clothing is made in Vietnam and the country seems to be one big factory outlet - along with Columbia, Keen and Acteryx. It was a bit of a challenge finding somewhere interesting to eat - every time we came and went from the hotel, the boy at the desk would ask "dinner?". We thought he
was hustling us to go to the hotel restaurant - it was later we learnt that dinner was included in our tour. Duh!!!!
The rain started pounding at 3am, although it sounded heavier to us as our room was on the top floor with a light roof above. Kelly was feeling a little chesty and decided to play it safe and not go trekking today, I was undecided. By 9:30am it wasn't raining TOO hard so off we went - the same group as yesterday minus three ( Kelly and a Danish couple). It wasn't long before I was thinking that they were the smart ones. The road was literally a river of red water - the gutters going down the main road were carrying a torrent at least a foot deep. We headed a different route from town and after a while it was not even worth the effort to jump over the cascading water - socks and shoes were soaked. At one stop I wrung my socks out and as soon as we stepped back on the road, the water was deeper than my shoes!!!!!
Todays trek as outlined on the Best Price Vietnam website -
"Take a walk down to the South-west of Sapa (around 3 km) to visit Cat Cat Village of the Black H’mong, one of the more well-known ethnic village of Sapa. Relax at the foot of the stunning waterfall and the vestige of a hydroelectric power station that was constructed by the French during the colonial time in Vietnam.Enjoy picnic lunch by the side of the river, and then continue trekking to 3 km to Sin Chai Village, located at the foot of Fansipan Mountain - “the Roof of Indochina”, where you enjoy a stunning landscapes of the mountain.Then come back to the main road to be transferred to Sapa’s town on a jeep for 3km. Freshen up and check out for a bus to Lao Cai station.Trekking: Medium - 6 km of trekking, 3 km of driving back to Sapa"
Finally! The rain stopped and it turned out to be a stellar trek with stunning scenery. My camera came out of it's plastic bag and went into overtime taking photos. We thought that yesterday was touristy!!!!! It was nothing compared to the walk to Cat Cat Village- down, down, down a set of stairs that were lined by "tourist
shops" - there was some lovely silver jewellery but I had no money! The stairs continued down through a village and then through bamboo forests to a hydro electric station with raging red water. In true tourist fashion there was a cultural performance going on and then time to hike back up the hill - thankfully not the same stairs we had come down. I must have done something to my right knee yesterday and I couldn't bend it AND put pressure on it so I was only able to get down steps like a baby - both feet on the same step. Luckily I was not affected on the uphill walk.
The next village was Sin Chai where the people have not been here long and so spoke no Vietnamese. We cut through this village, walking on the edges of the padi's, seeing lots of domestic pigs foraging along with ducks, roosters etc.
Lunch (again described as a "picnic") was at a small place - seating for only 20 or so. Yummy noodle soup with chicken (pho ga) and cold French fries. Again we were bussed the 3km back to Sa Pa. The road leading into the town was rather narrow and proved rather interesting with trucks coming down and our bus going up. A lot of reversing and slight damage to a store front and we were through the gridlock.
We had been given another room at the Fansipan View Hotel to use until we had to leave for the night train, so a quick shower to warm up and it was off on a jacket hunt. The hotel had given Kelly a lunch voucher as he did not on the days walk AND they gave us a dinner voucher too......that was a surprise!!!!! So an early dinner and then the hour long drive back to Cao Lai. At the train station, once again we had to go to the Orient Express office to exchange the voucher for a boarding pass - the office was the back counter of a nice restaurant.
I wish I had not complained about the blasting air conditioning on the train earlier cos this time, it did not work at all once the train was moving and so our compartment was stifling. Back in Hanoi at 4:35am and we walked back to the Impressive hotel on very quiet streets.
Next stop.....Halong Bay.
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