In Sapa it’s mostly raining outside. Mostly. Some of the raining is inside too, but happily it’s dripping on the floor and not on the bed.
It was a bit rainy when we arrived in Sapa
Yesterday we packed up the bags again after six nights in Hanoi, paid up and checked out and went to find breakfast.
We’d arranged to go over to Evan and Bjela’s to leave the bags seeing as how the train to Sa pa ain’t til nine so we got a taxi over there, went down the wrong alley, came back, found the right alley and had a cup of tea.
Phuong Mai is the name of the road where they live, and that’s what I asked the taxi driver for. Phuong Mai. Of course he didn’t understand what I said, and so I had to write it down for him. ‘Aw Phuong Mai’ he said. Yes bloody Phuong Mai, that’s what I bloody said.
Vietnamee for the train station is the same as for fish, and chicken, so you’re likely to end up in chicken street when you’re trying to get to the station, and there is a Chicken Street in Hanoi as well, so it’s a real possibility.
We’d been saying we wanted to see the Vietnam History Museum so we went over there with Evan. Bjela sadly had to stop in a complete a ten page report for work because she’s German.
We’ve been trying to avoid racially stereotyping people.
Well, not tryin that hard to be honest but she really does have to fill in so many reports because she works for the German government. She even has to write a report on social gatherings. Yes, the Germans even have a way of formalizing and bureaucratizing a social gathering.
‘Ve haf had a luffly efening. I vant a report about how nice it voz on my desk first sing in ze morning.’
The Vietnam History Museum isn’t that big in all honesty, but not a bad way to spent a couple of hours.
We learned about how the Vietnamese drove the Mongol hoards out three times, though apparently they knew that they wouldn’t have had a chance had the Mongols been really serious about it because they agreed to pay tribute at the end of the thirteenth century.
We also learned that the Vietnamese have been very fond of lamps for a long time and have made some very beautiful ones over the years.
Evan cooked us pasta back at their place and when the time to leave Hanoi came, we walked out and found a taxi to the train station.
Our ticket was for a carriage owned by a company which is separate from the railway, which is government owned, so far as I know, and the waiting room was separate from the station.
In there were a group of six French people who had only been in Hanoi that day and were all confused.
Our tickets were bought to us by a boy on a motorcycle and we went off the find the train.
The carriage was a first class sleeper and as such has a separate reading light for each bunk. Nice touch.
There was an English woman in there when we arrived who we said hello to when we first got in and who plainly didn’t want to be at all friendly for some reason, and a Vietnamese woman who came in and fell asleep. Asians have a gift for this, as I’ve mentioned before.
The bed was ok but the carriage suspension was made from sticky rice and bamboo and bounced and swayed very alarmingly.
The noise, squeals and grinding and bangs and clatters were also very alarming. I think maybe the company who own the carriage bought a very old and broken one and fitted the extra lights in it and that’s what made it first class.
I read for a couple of hours with my special reading light and went for a cigarette.
Normally you can smoke by the doors between the carriages, but this time there were no windows open so I went instead to the buffet car in the next carriage where all the train workers were gathered playing cards.
Now, I’d noticed that there are often playing cards lying about in the gutter in Vietnam and I’ve no idea why. Maybe they only use them once, I don’t know.
I slept for some of the night, but not much, but this time I had a bottom bunk so I was able to look out of the window at the thunderstorms going on, lightning lighting up the sky as we passed rice fields.
It was raining by the time we got to Lao Cai station, from where you take a bus for an hour to Sa pa.
A tout on the station was looking for business and was charging two and a half dollars each so we agreed to that and he led us out of the station to a coach where there was an Aussie family who told us that the tout had asked them for an extra five dollars but just stand up to him. Thanks for that advice.
After about half an hour we were transferred to a transit minibus because there weren’t enough passengers, and off we went.
Just outside Lao Cai the road starts to climb into the mountains and it’s not very long before you’re looking down over the edges of precipices. This is alarming when the rain is coming down the road in waves and the driver is going far quicker than is safe.
It was a fairly new bus and I was praying that the tires were also fairly new.
He drove so quickly around bends that you needed to hold on to the seat in front to keep yourself from squashing your fellow passenger. What any reasonable man would call far too quickly for the road conditions but again you have to put your faith in the driver and trust that he knows what he’s doing.
Strangely, the driver put on a Bony M album and we all sang along to Rivers of Babylon and Ma Baker.
This seemed to comfort people and take their minds off the danger. There were three Russian men on the bus and I was wondering what was going to happen when Rasputin came on but happily the CD packed up.
I just said that you have to trust that the driver knows what he’s doing didn’t I?
We were sat in a cafe yesterday about three in the afternoon and the owner told us that an hour before a taxi with two passengers had gone off the top and plummeted like a brick to the bottom. Apparently they don’t know what they’re doing.
We’d read all about how beautiful Sa pa is and Evan and Bjela had told us but none of what we read or heard could prepare us for the shock of seeing it in the flesh, and the rock and tree.
The view from the balcony of our hotel is too indescribably beautiful for me to describe, because it’s indescribable.
Also, quite often it’s invisible behind clouds that come rolling down the valley and hide the buildings in seconds. Clouds, these are, it’s not mist. Well I suppose it might be the same thing.
Sa pa is at 1650 meters and Mount Fan Si Pan is half the height of Everest. In fact the Hoang Lien Son range is the last edge of the Himalayas, and it’s like Everest painted green.
It completely dominates the town like a massive green smiling dominatrix, if that’s not oxymoronic, which it is.
The gentler slopes at the foot of the mountains are terraced rice fields looking exactly as amazing as they look in the pictures you’ve seen of terraced paddy fields.
The terraces need constant maintenance, you can see the walls leaking as you pass them in the bus as the rain hammers down.
The view from our balcony, from anywhere in Sapa really.
The driver dropped us off on the doorstep of his mates hotel. Literally on the step so you’re immediately led inside but the rooms were too expensive for us so we left and went about 50 meters to a much cheaper hotel.
Last weekend was a Vietnamese holiday and this coming weekend is too so the hotels are pretty empty now and we got a room for ten dollars.
After an hour lazing and unpacking we went out to look at the town.
This town is the central market town of many surrounding villages of many hill tribes, principally the Hmong people who dress in very elaborately embroidered black clothes and wear headscarves, or hats like shallow cylinders into which they stack their hair, making them look like they’ve got massive foreheads.
They look different from most Vietnamese we’ve encountered, they have flatter, rounder faces and have a look of serenity. Open, friendly faces, and they have proven themselves to be open and friendly people very adept at selling you things that you don’t want to buy.
I’ve said before that I hate saying no and walking past, or just ignoring people but today we had four women in traditional dress following us down the road. Nel had expressed a passing interest in buying a silver bracelet. I say silver, but it’s not proper silver.
We needed to get dollars because you can’t get rid of dongs outside Vietnam so we were waiting for the bank to open before we got money and no matter how many times the Hmongs asked us to go to the ATM we were going to have breakfast with our remaining dongs.
The lady who Nel had promised to buy a bracelet from sat outside the restaurant, occasionally coming to the window to smile and laugh and leer at us. Nel had promised to buy something by linking little fingers, which is how you make a promise. Or maybe it means You’ve Been Done.
They are extremely smiley people and seem to be very good natured, there’s no threat at all, and I get the feeling that they might hand in your wallet if you dropped it but they will not, absolutely never give up trying to sell you something, like tiny colourful Terminator shopkeepers. Most of them are about four and a half feet tall, Nel towers over them.
Last night a tiny little eighty year old woman said something I didn’t hear, so I went closer.
‘Hashish’ she said, smiling sweetly. ‘Hashish, marwarna’, miming smoking. I laughed, and she laughed too and I said no. She was still laughing when I walked away down the street. Ah, they’re so sweet.
Smiley gold tooth bracelet lady
So we asked to look at the lady’s bracelets. And then a flock of tiny black garbed terminators came. ‘you buy something from meeeee’ they sing in the tones of a sulky child. We told them we didn’t want any more shopping and they complained and whined that we’d bought something from the lady ‘now you buy something from meeeee’ and they said they would follow us until we did.
We didn’t go in the bank cos they’d just wait outside for us and then they’d know we had money on us.
I told them they’d have to follow us all the way to England and we might be able to find three tiny beds for them. Honestly, they were barely higher than my waist, like eight year old children.
I know this woman looks as though she’s in the background but she’s stood a foot from me
They’ve learned that persistence pays off I think, and they did indeed follow us down the road saying ‘I follow you forever’ and laughing. It’s a game and if they can earn five dollars they can go home, I don’t think they take it too seriously to be honest, they’d manage perfectly well without it like they always have but they want stuff.
I think they eventually realised that they weren’t going to sell us anything else and disappeared without a word just as I was getting used to having them around and thinking how we’d fit them all on our boat.
Erica from America was here yesterday so we met with her for lunch and then saw her off on the sleeper bus later.
It’s not a sleeper bus. It’s a bus. It’s fair to say that you can sleep on it but it’s not the sleeper bus that she was shown a picture of, with bunks, like the half coffins that we’ve taken before.
No, it’s a bus, but it’s that one at six thirty in the evenin or a minibus at five thirty in the morning for the twelve hour journey to the Laos border.
It’s apparently a spectacular trip and spectacularly frightening and we’d rather do it at night in a big vehicle that’s unlikely to be overtaking anything than in a minibus with our bags under our feet and no legroom and a chicken pecking your head.