At 7.30PM our driver picked us up at our Hanoi hotel to go to go to the train station. We were taking the night train to Sapa which left at 9.00PM. We didn’t know what to expect and received the unexpected!
The journey from Hanoi to Sapa was approximately eight hours. Unable to get a private compartment, we settled on a shared sleeper compartment with two other people. We were fortunate to be sharing with a charming couple from Geneva, with whom we swapped many travel tales. We all settled into our bunks and tried to get some sleep. Alf found it easy but Marilyn found it impossible. She tried walking up and down the corridor, when she was shocked to see a guard sleeping on a sun lounger outside of one of the two toilets. The train rocked and rolled and twisted and turned. After many sleepless hours, we eventually arrived in Lai Cai for our road transfer to Sapa.
Our driver and guide met us at Lai Cai station and took us to our hotel. By this time, we were very tired, including Alf, who had slept for most of the night, but even his sleep was disturbed by the constant jolting. We eventually arrived at our hotel and to our horror, we discovered that our room would not be available for about three hours, so we decided to go to the pool and have a nap on a sun lounger – it was fantastic and we were off in seconds. At 1.30pm our guide picked us up for our first hike in the beautiful Sapa area. It was all worth the inconvenience. The scenery was stunning and we walked through many lovely villages and learned about the various ethnic minority peoples in the area. As we walked and chatted with our guide, whose name in English meant diamond, we learned a little about him. He too was from an ethnic minority and was hoping to get married at the beginning of next year, but for him to be able to marry his beloved, he had to make a gift of a water buffalo to her parents, who were farmers – this would cost him approximately one thousand US Dollars and he had been saving for years.
That afternoon, we spent four wonderful hours hiking in the mountains. Apart from an initial steep climb, our hike followed a well used path gradually downhill. We were in a stunning valley, with its scattered hamlets and villages. We saw many typical Hmonghouses, with wooden roofs and exterior stone walls, plus pot-belly pigs, chickens, water buffaloes – all roaming freely. The children entertained themselves, playing marbles using poisonous tomatoes! We watched Hmong women making fibre from hemp, spinning and weaving to make traditional costumes. The scenery is naturally beautiful because of rolling hills and valleys but it very heavily terraced, so it provides an amazingly rich patchwork of colour to delight the eye.
That evening, quite tired, we had a relaxed meal in our hotel and an early night.
Next morning, we were ready for our second day’s hiking. This was more challenging than the previous day, walking for nearly five hours, including a bit of climbing. We explored remote hamlets of the Black Hmong and Red Zao people. The Red Zao women are famous for their embroidery skills especially for decorating their traditional costumes with motifs that depicts their religion. We had our lunch in a traditional family house – it was quite an experience. We took off our boots and sat crossed legged around the low family table, with the sleeping area about five feet away. We were told that this was quite a prosperous family. The owner of the house was proud to show us around, pointing out his rice wine process, adjacent to the pigs, chickens and the rice store. We saw a colour TV, video and one of the children on a PC. What really struck our attention was the very powerful and expensive motor bike, in the house, a few feet from our table! After lunch, we returned to our hotel and went for a wander around Sapa town. The hike had been lovely, spoilt a little by hazy conditions and some rain, which caused it to be muddy and slippery under foot.
The centre of Sapa reminded us of a busy ski-town, with all the activity concentrated in a small area. There were of course, lots of eateries and shops catering for the tourists. The local women are quite persistent in trying to sell their wares, including grabbing hold of your arm and pulling you back.
That night we had a lovely Vietnamese meal, in a tiny restaurant in an alley leading from our hotel to the town centre. We were talking to a charming Malaysian family who thought that it was really important to see the indigenous, local people, before their lives were forever changed by tourism.
The next morning we checked out of our hotel at 7 AM for a 120km drive to the famous Can Cau market. We arrived at the market at 10AM and spent two hours wandering around watching the minority tribes trading. Everybody was dressed in their best traditional and very colourful costumes. This is still a market focussed on the local tribes, with the tourists as spectators. This is a wonderful photo opportunity plus spectacular views of amazing landscapes. The market seemed to sell almost everything from food to clothing, crafts to horses and furniture to water-buffalo. Their restaurant stalls were very busy and our guide encouraged us to sample the food but we politely opted out!
We left the market at noon, and drove 20 km back to Bac Ha town for lunch. After lunch, we drove for half an hour downhill to yet another village which is hidden in a lush valley, on the eastern bank of the Chay River amongst perfect surrounding nature. We took a leisurely walk to explore this prosperous village of the Tay ethnic people, who live in spacious houses, built on stilts, with an interesting culture and healthy way of life. We walked to the river bank in mid afternoon, got on board a local motor boat and cruised downstream on the pretty Chay River. The boat trip ended at Bao Tan Village, where we picked up our transfer back to Lao Cai station. We said farewell to our delightful guide “Diamond” and boarded our overnight sleeper train back to Hanoi. Suffice to say that the return trip was every bit as bad as the outward journey!