This evening Christine and I are going on a little road trip to Sapa in North Vietnam (near the border with China) to do some trekking in the rice paddies. I've seen the great scalloped edges of the paddy fields from lots of different vantage points in Southern China but i've yet had a chance to walk amongst them– and this may be my final opportunity... (for now...)
We are getting an overnight train which i'm quite excited by as I spent most of my time in rough country buses in China and Laos. Our instructions are to go to the Train Station where we will see “ a woman sitting down outside.” She will give us our tickets. Oookkaaaay then...
We arrive – and St Pancras International it ain't. Its hot and humid, people are shouting, backpackers are standing around looking confused... We go inside but people keep shooeing us outside and pointing to a strange little shanty hut with the rather optimistic sign “The Orient Express” on it positioned next to a tennis court. A little in front of the hut to the side sit a bunch of people. Here there is a tranvestite in tight lace top and mini skirt, evening heels and make up, with a leather handbag, listening to a radio. She/ he beckons us over, takes our ticket and attaches something to it. This is the “woman sitting down” we are supposed to find. She smiles and waves us away - it is possibly one of my more surreal train ticket purchases.
Then we are ferried outside and along the rails to get into the train even though it doesn't leave for another hour. We find our cabin and are luckily sharing with two sweet and small Phillipinno girls. The train leaves and the guard stops us from leaning out of the window - sometimes the walls of the houses opposite are just a few inches away. I get up onto the top bunk (Christine has broken her middle finger swinging from a rope in Laos and has it bandaged up - another victim of the Luang Prabang hospital.) So I always take the top bunk. I pop one of my cheery bright pink sleeping tablets and am away with the fairies.The next thing I know its 6am and we are arriving into Sapa.
We get a minibus from the station and as soon as it draws into town we are accosted by women from the Hmong Tribe -
“Shopping, shopping, you buy from me??”
We take a stroll down the hill and find a guesthouse which has amazing views out over the misty mountains and rolling valleys of rice paddies. Its about 8 dollars each. We book a 2 day one night trek into the mountains for the following day which will include a homestay in a Hmong Village. There is a mountain Franzipan here which I would like to attempt to climb -but at 115 dollars for a private guide and camping its a little out of budget. Its also a lot cooler here in the mountains – long sleeves and jumpers are necessary and just climbing up a staircase leaves the calf muscles burning – so perhaps its for the best that we opt to just trek around the local villages. My fitness has gone seriously down hill since bootcamp...That and the mist doesn't ever seem to burn from the tops of the hills so i'm not sure what the visibility would be like....
In the afternoon the sun comes out and we take a walk down intothe nearest village (CatCat.) It seems to be nothing more than a series of touristy stalls with villagers hawking their wares and a waterfall at the bottom but its nice enough. The cloud still clings to the hills so the views aren't as bright as they could be.
I decide to take myself for a pre trek foot and leg massage and barter the owner down from 170,000 dong to 110,000 for 45 minutes (just over three pounds.) Its one of the nicer salon with vases of flowers, classical music and a complementary glass of ginger tea. Lovely. Then Christine and I go for dinner – we barter again for a set meal of fresh spring rolls, pumpkin soup, grilled pork in lemongrass and honey, sauteed vegetables and a honey pancake for dessert and a drink. For three pounds again its pretty good!
The next day we meet another couple on our trek – a Dutch couple and our guide – a 29 year old Hmong girl called Me.
The Hmong are a small and happy little tribe. Me comes up to chest height on me and has long black hair that falls all the way down to her ankles that she wraps around her head and keeps in place with silver combs. The mountain sun has tanned her skin beyond its 29 years but her eyes are black and sparkly and she has a lovely little way of doing a high pitched “Oooh” and wrinkling her nose when she likes something. When we set off a number of other treks with Hmong guides are walking the same path with their travellers and we are joined by a couple more Hmong who latch onto us with an aim to get us to buy something. June a shy 18 year old follows me. She helps me down the hills when the slopes become steep and dusty and makes me a little love heart out of ferns and a horse out of woven grass. Its all a ploy of course – to bond and make you feel compelled to spend with them. I part with 46,000 for a wallet as I am currently stuffing my notes loose into my handbag since my travel belt died. For one pound twenty I don't feel too short changed as i need it.
The trekking is hardly strenuous on the first day and we seem to stop every half an hour for a ten minutes break. I think its fair to say that the trip caters for all abilities. The countryside is lovely. We walk along the little dusty troughs of the rice paddies, some sunken and flooded with spring water, some overgrown with clouds of little lilac flowers, some complete with the big black backs of buffalo submerged in their mud bathes. We pass fields of Indigo plants that the Hmong grow to dye their clothes with. Their traditonal dress consistes of a black velvet skirt and leg garments and a long black tunic (dyed by the indigo) that they embroider with brightly coloured thread. The women have their hair cut when they are six or seven and then they leave it to grow – which is why Me's is now ankle length.
One of the other tribes in a nearby village are the Red Dao and they are noticeable for their brightly coloured scarlet head scarves with white trim. (a bit like a Santa's hat at a quick glance!)
We stop for lunch which is disappointingly Western athough the appearance of Laughing Cow cheese is welcome after such a diary free Asian diet...
We leave and continue our stroll – and stop again at a guesthouse where tea has been laid out.
“are we having another break?” I enquire.
“No we are here!” laughs Me. Its 2.30pm in the afternoon. Christine and I are a little disappointed to say the least. We are used to expeditions that are more gruelling (and therefore more rewarding) and finish around 5 or 6pm and leave you shattered and ready for bed.
We are joined by a Portugese couple and an older Belgian couple and a French man that are all so quiet I think they may be mute. Christine and I attempt a game of pool. It kills about half an hour.
The Hmong who own the house and Me set to work cooking and bring us out some chips and then a traditional Vietnamese meal of stir fried pork, beef and tofu with rice and Morning Glory – a dark green weed.
Me brings around some “happy water” the local clear rice wine in a water bottle and we all do a shot. So I've had one shot and one beer with dinner. I wait as long as humanely possible and the meal is well and truly over before deciding to get another one. Again the British instinct has been raised...stuck somewhere with nothing to do....
“You are having another one?? how British!” laugh the Dutch. Its only my second people!
The village is really a series of guesthouses for homestays so not exactly authentic and a Dutch man has opened a bar here. By 7 o clock at night we are grateful for it.
We head off to it and after the first beer decide to get one for the road. I ask the Dutch woman if she is going to have another and she looks at me with a smirk and says:
“No i'm not British...”
I go to bed and sleep until 8am and come downstairs. Everyone is sitting in a row in the sun. No one is talking. I go back upstairs again.
We have a breakfast of bananas and pancakes with honey from the mountain and Vietnamese coffee and then set off.
Me has understood that we don't like traipsing along the same route as all the other trekkers and want to be alone. We take a higher route and the sun burns off the cloud for our final day trekking. The sky is bright blue and the waves of paddy fields that are golden and cropped from their summer harvest are spread out beneath us. We pass more pigs and buffalo chomping away and sloshing around in the mud.
The trek is more strenuous today which is good as we all feel we are given a workout. We get to the village where lunch will be at 11.30am but Me offers us the opportunity to continue trekking up the hill to her house where she will cook us lunch. Her village is made up of her house and her brothers and other family members. Her husband comes out to greet us but he doesn't speak any English. There house has a bare dirt floor with a TV in corner and a hole where they place long bamboo canes to burn for a fire. She has three children, an 11 year old boy who is tiny! And a little 9 year old girl and a very cute chubby cheeked 2 and a half year old who wakes as we leave and looks at us in wonderment. They pour us Vietnamese green tea which is bitter tasting and make Pho with noodles and chicken, lettuce and garlic.
Me tells us how she learnt English off the tourists that visit and how they have one buffalo and a dog but no chickens (they all died from a disease – ten in one day.) The children are not in school today because on fridays they have a half day.
We enjoy lunch and then run back down the hill to catch our bus. Our little lunch at Me's house and the extra schlep to get there has made the excursion.
I round off my day with another massage for shoulders (backpack shoulders) and feet and then we get the luxury train back. (we have had to pay an extra six dollars for an upgrade due to lack of availability.) Unfortunatley we are sharing with a man and the extra six dollars seems to get you a better tootbrush and some disposable slippers and that's it. Its also very noisy and bumpy - we stagger off back into Hanoi bleary eyed at 5.30am. Pretty much everywhere is shut but there is one little family run cafe that get out their little (built for midgets) plastic chairs for us to sit down. Granny is in the kitchen chopping up a goose and the granddaughter digs out a sachet of powder coffee for me and brings us some Pho for breakfast (noodle soup with pork.)