Our first contact of the day hopping off the night train at Lao Cai station is with a herd of aggressive minibus drivers wanting to charge four times the going rate to take us to Sapa. We negotiate our fare like champs and quickly get herded to a minivan where we have to wait for every last nook and cranny to be filled with more passengers, luggage, babies, garlic, and the like. When we finally reach full capacity and proceed to drive up the winding road, it’s through an opaque blanket of fog that leaves us guessing what’s hiding in the distance. But all of a sudden, as if a breathing, living creature, the fog rolls behind the mountains in a matter of minutes, taking us aback with the beauty of the scenery.
Lush terraced paddy fields rolling in the distance and doll-like, less-than-five-foot-tall women in traditional indigo embroidered costumes with their hair up in pretty dos and lots of silver jewellery adorning their ears walking their buffaloes on a leash. I try hard not to let my mood get deterred by the scooter that drives past us carrying a cargo of dead dogs heading to the market.
Getting off at the Luong Thuy Family Guesthouse, we are first quoted $18 for a room with a view over the craggy mountains. We cringe like the cheap bastards that we are, try to bargain the price down a bit and are then shown to the basement to a slightly smaller $10 room, but with the exact same gorgeous view. Perfect! (Only later did we realize that there was no bathroom door. Oh well. We also found a cockroach the size of a golf ball creeping on the bed, flicked it on the floor, and the ants had quickly disposed of it by morning. Self cleaning open space accommodation! My favourite!)
We hadn’t quite decided if we wanted to do a trek or not (something about visiting
zoos hill tribe villages just to look at them doesn’t feel quite right…), but if we were going to, we wanted to hire a guide directly from a village and not from a tour company. Not much time is left for the guesswork as we are assailed by a lady called Vu wanting to take us on a 10 km trek through three villages the second we set foot out of the guesthouse. She quoted us $15 per person + a 50,000 Dong motorbike ride back with her husband and free lunch at her house. The price seems fair, but is that something people do, just hiring any random lady off the street for a trek? Vu is very persistent as we may have pronounced the word “maybe” that she obviously took for “yes”, and somewhat manages to get our phone number and to shake pinky fingers (that’s new) on it. Only after doing so did we realize she had whispered the word “promise”. So after some pondering over atrociously strong coffee, and her somehow finding us again in the middle of town after we’ve had breakfast, we agree to go on a trek with her the next day. Who the hell knows what is in store and we wonder if we will regret our decision as we go to sleep – both excited and apprehensive.
For once, our leap of faith turned into an amazing day. The trek was essentially the same as what people buy from tour operators, except it was a few bucks cheaper and all the money went straight into Vu’s pocket. She had enrolled another couple that was about the same age as us and the four of us had a wonderful day with petite Vu, the ever sturdy mountain goat in her electric blue rubber boots, who had to hold our hands most of the way so we wouldn’t slip and fall in our sports shoes. Go figure. After a surprisingly challenging 4 hour hike, we eventually made it to Vu’s home where we were greeted by her husband, two daughters and five pigs. We sat on low benches in the main area where Vu served us a feast of fried tofu, veggies and rice washed down with extra-strong green tea while telling us a little about her life, their corn and indigo plantation, her daughters’ school and the Hmong language. Such a rewarding end to the day. I am so so glad we went ahead with this trek. The only down point was that Sapa was under a think blanket of fog that day (such as it appears to be most of the time!), so the only glimpse we caught of the scenery was at the end of the day when Vu’s husband drove us back into town on an exhilarating downhill scooter ride.
So yeah. You don’t come to Sapa for the climate (well if you’re Canadian at least). Sapa was miserable, cold and wet (we kind of felt like we were back in the UK!), but its landscape and people more than make up for it (apart from the lovely bank clerk who told us to “LEAVE THE BANK” with a frown when we tried to change some Dongs into US dollars) (and hurray to the badass gold jeweller in Dien Bien Phu who later did it for us!).
While in Sapa, do stock up on knock-off North Face gear (I was quoted $28 for a puffer jacket, and this can definitely be bargained down, just make sure you inspect it for flaws) and silver jewellery from the silversmith on Cau May Street. And do stuff your face on these little berries ($5 for whoever can tell me what the hell they are). They felt very healthy anyway.
And thus concludes a very busy month in Vietnam. I would be lying if I said it was always easy. Vietnam was full of challenges, but the diversity of the landscape and the excellence of the vegan food offerings made up for times where we felt like high-fiving someone in the face with a chair.
See ya’ later Vietnam, you infuriating bastard.