Vietnam – Sapa to Hanoi, 20 December 2004

I must have been forgotten by all the Sapa guides, as I was left to my own devices, for which I was glad, as my feet were simply too sore to move, and hence, I spent a leisurely afternoon at cool and calm Sapa, reading my book, chatting with people who came by, and watching the Singapore football team in action against the Vietnamese team. (or as I like to put it, watching my parent’s tax dollars roll)

It’s quite interesting to sit and watch the world bustle around you, you notice many amusing things, for example, two Korean boys running to the receptionist distraught, because they locked themselves out of their own room, or that ‘atas’ Singaporean yuppie trying to masquerade as a backpacker, when she ahd come back from Cat Cat (for the record, Cat Cat is the dead easiest trekking route that you wouldn’t break sweat over), bitching to all Caucasian males around me about the journey, whilst acting as if I didn’t exist even though I said ‘Hi’ to her in the morning. She’s probably a closet SPG trying to look “in”, amusing.

At approximately 16 30, I boarded the bus. Sleeping on the bus was a good idea, versus being awake, and watching the bus hurl down the winding roads of the mountain at 100+km/h. On the way down, the bus driver almost knocked into a toddler due to his fast and reckless driving, but instead of feeling apologetic, he seemed to thave hurled verbal abuses at the child’s guardian. Hmph!

Dinner was at Lao Cai, though the food served at the restaurant is an exact replica of what they serve at the Sapa Hotel, spelling mistakes intact. (think French Fried) Due to the nature of the crowds, I chose to seat myself near the two Korean boys. (yes, the same two who locked themselves out of the hotel back at Sapa) Perhaps due to their natural instinct to watch out for one of their own (Asians), they kindly walked with me to the train station in the dark, and offered to make arrangements for the three of us to get back to the Old Quarter together, since we were slated to arrive at 04 30. How nice of them!

I was thrown together with a Canadian couple in the train. They are pretty nice people, and we got a great laugh about the shoeshine boy’s sales jingle which went: “Uncle Ho shoeshine, best in Vietnam. No number one, no pay.”. That little tyke, who’s probably less than 10, was so persistant that he stood there and repeated his jingle for a full five mintues before moving on to the next cabin. Further disturbances of this nature was nipped in the bud, when the Canadian guy just bolted the door with a satisfied, “Ah ha!”

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Traditional Knick knacks for sale in Sapa

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Traditional Knick knacks for sale


Vietnam – Sapa, 19 December 2004

Another of those administrative confusions in the morning. At a little after 08 30, my guide for the day comes knocking on my door, asking me to check out of my hotel, even though I thought I had another night in Sapa. But well, I just did as I was told, and lugged my pack across the street to put in the locker room.

I’m glad I had my breakfast of pancakes with banana and chocolate, otherwise I would not have the energy for the long trek that was to follow. I didn’t think 16km was much when the guide briefed me, but boy, was I glad I packed light, or I would have died midway merely from all the walking and trekking.
The itinerary involved visiting 3 villages in the valley along the river that originated from the silver waterfalls, with minority people from the Hmong and the Zay. It doesn’t seem much on paper, but when considering that Sapa town is like 1500m above them, and this inovlved a circuituous downhill and slippery trek, that’s when things get much harder, as it involved trying to follow the guide, while not losing your footing, falling down the trecherous cliffs.
After a very long 2hr walk, which brought us from mid-mountain down to the valley and across the river as well, we finally reached the Hmong village of Lao Chai, where the people dress in dark clothing, with coloured seams. There, we stopped for a lunch of baguette with omelette and cheese, along with a platter of cucumbers and tomatoes. Dessert was one banana each.
After lunch, the trek continued. However, things were easier, either because of the energy boost, or the flat landscape and wider paths. The next two hours were of relative ease, leaving me the energy to take in my surroundings, and also the different people from the different tribes. Although I didn’t notice much about architectural differences in house-building between the Zay and Hmong people, their clothes definitely look different. The Zay people wear clothes that are Chinese in design, though the colour combination is very un-Chinese.
Lifestyle-wise, the minority still support themselves through agriculture with some animal husbandry, with extra income coming from selling handicraft to tourists. Animals running wild include pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and ducks.
The journey back to the main road was nothing short of torturous. When the guide first pointed to the house with the red roof as our final destination, I thought he was just kidding me, as it was no only high up in the mountain, but it was on the other side of the mountain! But well, it turns out that Vietnamese don’t really have a sense of humour, and he meant what he said, and that was indeed where we had to go. It was a torturous journey which involved climbing up steep, narrow slopes at 70 degrees with no aid whatsoever, and going back down similar slopes, that every dip and peak was a torture, as it’s hard to imagine having to go down, only to have to go up again. But well, trek I did, and all 16km of it, that at the end of it all, I had 5 nasty blisters. Tiring as it is, I’m glad I did it, as it is very beautiful in the valley, and you get a peek into the more real lives of the minority people, other than their roles as peddlars on the streets. Having said that, one must admire how fit these people are, for they trek this path every day of their lives, effortlessly carrying their heavy loads for sale in Sapa town.
Tonight wasn’t as dismal as last night, as I had the company of Cayla’s Israeli friends. They are a very hospitable bunch, inviting all to join and share with them. Shortly after, Cayla also joined us upon notice that I was dining at Hotel Royal. Amazing how efficient this whole Israeli network is! Late night entertainment involved watching cartoons on cartoon network.

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Mountainous Sapa

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Red Dao Lady

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Valley in Sapa

Vietnam – Sapa, 18 December 2004

Amidst all the administrative confusion and frustrated waiting, I eventually managed to get to Sapa on a bus that was over an hour late, though thankfully, a nice breakfast of pho ga awaited me, even though a room didn’t.

After filling my stomach with the nice hot soup noodles, I was ready to roll, to Cat Cat, where some of the minority people lived. Along the way, we bumped into some red Hmong peddlars and learnt some interesting things about them, including:
  1. They shaved their eyebrows and part of their heads due to some legend regarding how one of their gods fed them with his hair during their exodus.
  2. The older women have more tassles on their head-dress to ward off evil and ill health.

Following that, a trip was made to one of the native houses, and within, things like the grinding mill, a divining altar, animal skins, dye buckets, looms can be seen. It can be seen that despite all these tourism, they still continue with their old way of life, though they no longer live on the upper reaches of their homes, since they no longer have to fear about ferocious animals fetching them off in the dark of the night.

The scenery and the peace in Sapa is certainly refreshing after the buslte of Hanoi. In Sapa, one is surrounded by high misty mountains and deep sunny valleys, a picture of perfect village life. The people are smiling, and the children divide their time between work, school and play, with the occasional call out to tourists with their loud and innocent “Hello!” followed by a toothy grin. In their worlds, a sweet is enough to make them break into a wide smile.

The sun sets early over here, sometime between five and six, but the people are still around, even in the cold and dark atmosphere, peddling their wares, amongst them accessories, embroidery and traditional musical instruments. Too bad Sapa isn’t topped off with a magnificient sunset, otherwise it would just be perfect.

Meals were nice, though they were not Vietnamese in the least. It consisted of semi-creamy soups, e.g. potato, tomato, and a selection of dishes, which in my case involved French fries (or “Fried French”, as stated in the menu), fried rice and curry chicken with rice. Never had such substantial food the few days that I was in Halong, which I can safely label as my “most-vegetables-ever-consumed-in-my-life” days.

My favourite little kid in Sapa

Mill in House in Sapa

Divination Altar in a House in Sapa

Dye Bucket

Stream in Cat Cat

Vietnam – Halong Bay to Hanoi to Sapa, 17 December 2004

A day summarised by journeys, the journey from Cat Ba back to Hanoi, followed by the journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai (a town bordering the Chinese border of Yunnan), which is on the way to Sapa, where the minority of Vietnam live.
The main incidents of the first journey involved the tour operator losing people in the group without even bothering! Firstly, they almost lost my Israeli friend at Cat Ba, and later, they lost the Polish guy at Halong, though we found him eating happily at the restaurant before us.
For the second, I almost missed the train, if not for the suggestion of my Israeli friend to leave my shopping at the guesthouse! But well, I was in time for the train. I shared a cabin with a friendly French family with an adopted Vietnamese child who couldn’t tear her eyes away from her Gameboy. Not even an offer of Tim Tams from me.
Pseudo Junks for Tourists
Kids Paddling around in Halong Bay

Vietnam – Cambodia, 14 December 2004 – 01 January 2005


14 December 2004: Hanoi

15 December 2004: Hanoi

16 December 2004: Hanoi – Halong Bay – Cat Ba Island (Bus, Boat)

17 December 2004: Halong Bay – Hanoi – Sapa (Boat, Bus, Overnight train)

18 December 2004: Sapa

19 December 2004: Sapa

20 December 2004: Sapa – Hanoi (Overnight train)

21 December 2004: Hanoi – Hue (Overnight bus)

22 December 2004: Hue

23 December 2004: Hue – Hoi An (Bus)

24 December 2004: Hoi An – My Son – Hoi An (Bus, Boat)

25 December 2004: Hoi An – Nha Trang – Ho Chi Minh City (Bus)

26 December 2004: Ho Chi Minh City

27 December 2004: Ho Chi Minh City – Phnom Penh

28 December 2004: Phnom Penh

29 December 2004: Phnom Penh – Siem Reap

30 December 2004: Siem Reap

31 December 2004: Siem Reap

01 January 2004: Siem Reap