10 February 2012

Saaaa Paaaa

It seems like a distant memory now, but over the Christmas break I visited Vietnam for a jam packed holiday.  In two weeks, I managed to visit the cool north (Sapa, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay), the relaxing central coast (Hoi An), and also experienced the heat of the South (Ho Chi Minh / Saigon and the Mekong Delta).  I'd be lying if I said the trip wasn't rushed, but I'm glad I still got to see so much of Vietnam.

I met my friend Will (from Brisbane) in Hanoi the day before we headed to Sapa.  From Hanoi, we caught the overnight, rickety train to Lao Cai, then hopped onto a bus to Sapa.  After very little sleep, we had arrived in Sapa, ready for two days of trekking.  I was surprised how cold it was...10 degrees celcius, but this should have been expected considering how close we were to the Chinese border.

Along the main street of Sapa are countless massage parlours and traveller's goods stores - a paradise for trekkers.  I immediately bought a cheap, fake North Face backpack that lasted two days before all the zips broke.  However, two days was all I needed it for so I considered it money well spent!  Within hours of arriving in Sapa, we headed off on a trekking tour towards Tavan, a sleepy little village where we were to spend the night.  Along the way, we crossed a number of suspension bridges and saw some amazing sights including vast hillsides of rice paddies (that looked like steps created for giants) and some of the most picturesque mountain ranges in Vietnam.

A number of local, ethnic minorities, dressed in their traditional clothing and sporting their tribe's tartan headscarves, joined us along the way.  Initially they were friendly and helpful, conversing with us in their broken English and guiding us through some difficult terrains.  However, their hospitality seemed a little artificial when they asked us to purchase items from them when we reached their local villages along our route.  When we stopped in their villages for lunch, their kids and grandkids would swarm around us, begging us to buy bracelets from them.  It was difficult not to; they were adorable, but strangely, at the same time, very aggressive.

By the afternoon we had arrived at our destination in Tavan.  We decided to explore the river nearby, the local school (all the schools are painted yellow and decorated with bunting), and sip beers on a bridge.  It was a pretty perfect afternoon until I saw a restaurant advertising dog on its menu. 

Afterwards we decided to hang around our homestay.  In my opinion, the homestay resembled more of a basic guesthouse as our group of five were housed in a separate building next to the main residence.  For dinner that night, the lovely lady who hosted us cooked us a delicious meal from locally sourced ingredients.  We also got to enjoy the delights of their local 'happy water', a fancy term for rice wine.  We stayed up late shooting down happy water and playing drinking games using chopsticks and cards.  

I felt sorry for Will the next morning, who had to nurse a nasty hangover for the rest of our trek.  I felt more sorry though, for a pig that was squealing outside our homestay all morning as it was inhumanely tied onto the back of a motorbike, on its way, presumably, to the markets in Sapa.  We were rewarded with even more beautiful scenery on our second day.  The sun had come out and the mist had cleared, as we walked along some steep hills, through farmland, bamboo paths and rice paddies to reach the Zaandtachaa waterfall.  We sat on top of the waterfall, which overlooked one of the large yellow schools and a number of large houses on the mountain across from us.

By the time we got back to Sapa later that day, we were exhausted, deciding to get a head and shoulder massage - I still don't know why we didn't go for the foot and leg massage considering all our trekking.  Will and I decided to buy the ugliest shirts we could find at the local Sapa markets and we succeeded.  However, we upset a few vendors with our ruthless lowballing when it came to bargaining!  That night we caught the overnight train back to Hanoi to continue the next leg of our amazing adventure.

More to come next post!


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