Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sapa - Sept 30-Oct 2

The overnight train was interesting. We didn't know what to expect since neither of us had ever taken a sleeper train before, and in hindsight, it wasn't so bad. Its not luxury travel or anything, but its practical, affordable and does the job. We left at 9pm and after the long day wandering Hanoi we were ready for some shut eye. The train wasn't quiet or smooth and at one point I actually thought it was going to make me sick, but it didn't take long to adjust and we both made it through the night.

We booked this trip through a tour organizer since we didn't know what the logistics would be like between the train, the bus, accommodation in Sapa or how rural and complex the trekking would be considering all the villages we wanted to see. Getting off the train all groggy from the night of unrest, we were happy to see someone with a Mr. Anthony sign amongst the chaos of taxis and buses. The mini-bus took us and a few other travelers up into the mountains for the 2 hour trip to Sapa. It dropped us right at our hotel where they were expecting us. We checked in, had breakfast and were ready for a day of trekking by 9am.

Sapa is a hub for the minorities that live in the surrounding villages. They come here to sell their crafts in the markets, trade goods and hit up the tourists for overpriced handmade bracelets, purses and other jewelry. They are dressed in traditional tribal clothing complete with head dress and baskets on their backs. They spoke surprising good English and are incredibly persistent. We made a few friends in a group of them right away and they walked and talked with us as we wandered the town. We traded Canada pins for friendship bracelets and we became "sisters". Zoe was her name, she had two children and lived with her husband in the village. Most days she came 15km into Sapa to trade goods and sell things to tourists before returning in the afternoon to work in the rice fields. She couldn't tell me how old she was because her mother never remembered her birthday. She was happy to explain that because she had children, that made her older than me. My guess is that she was 21.

The group of girls were of the Black H'Moung minority and when they learned we were trekking out to their village they invited themselves along on our trek. No problem with us, we had great conversations with them, laughed and learned about each other. They taught me how to make a horse from a blade of grass and a heart shaped love fern from some leafy plant to give to Anthony.

Their village was pretty amazing. The rice terraces, the houses, the limited resources. What an eye opener. If the surrounding scenery hadn't been so beautiful, it would have been a much harder place to visit. It was the most difficult to see the children. By age 7 or so, they are tasked with taking care of their younger siblings (mostly the girls) and with the infants strapped to their backs, they followed us around asking "buy from me?" And holding out their crafts. Heartbreaking but a good sales tactic.

The youngest kids between 2 and 6 were not yet old enough to sell things or work so they were the only ones walking free around the village. Walking free - literally. No shoes, dirty head to toe and under no supervision. We asked our guide about it and he simply told us there was no one to watch them. Everyone was working. They knew where to get food when they were hungry and generally never left their hut or shack. They (2-6 year olds) would just hang out and occupy themselves until someone came back. Unreal.

Overall it was pretty heartbreaking to see. To call them poor would mean they had little, these people have nothing. However, although they frozen in time by tradition and culture and completely poverty stricken, they are not without common sense. Every village we went through had at least one gift shop and souvenir station. They know where the money comes from and they modernized accordingly.

After two days of trekking and wondering the markets we were beat. As we waited out the last few hours before heading back on the bus to catch our night train back to Hanoi, we took advantage of the many massage parlors and had a hour long head, shoulder, hands and foot massage. Anthony was in heaven but pretty disappointed when I told him that the same service in Vancouver might cost more than the $5 we paid here.

Back on the night train we met a great french couple that was finishing their two week journey through Vietnam by doing the south to north version of what we were doing north to south. They had great advice and tips as they had just been to the places we will visit in the next week.

In the morning, once we arrive in Hanoi, we only have a couple of hours until we leave for Halong Bay for two days. We'll go back to the hotel we stayed at and booked the tour from. They've been happy to let us use them as a home base for the few hours of layover we've had.

More pictures of Sapa here:

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