In Sapa where we meet a couple of Jesse’s, Nel gets ill, we miss a bus and are exposed to peril on the way to Laos

On Tuesday evening we met a couple of Jesse’s in an Indian restaurant. I can’t say I’d rate the restaurant highly, the food wasn’t very good and Nel got food poisoning so I wouldn’t recommend it to friends. There are much better Indian restaurants in Hanoi, Hoi An, and Pewsley.
Whilst we were being poisoned a
Tiny black Terminator bracelet seller lady came to the doorway to grin and try to sell us some embroidered bags, she even sneaked in and clamped a bracelet on Nel, squeezing it tightly so she had a difficult time taking it off again. Such is the sales technique, and with that ice breaker we started a conversation with a couple of people at the table next to us, a young couple of Canadians called Jesse and Jess.
They had bought a couple of motos from some travellers in Cambodia who’d ridden these bikes North to South, and the Jesse’s were going South to North. Cool.
We left the unhealthy restaurant and went to a bar with loud music and cold beer.

In our hotel room there’s a list of things you can’t do, like cooking, ironing, poisoning, shooting guns and staying out later than 11. The first four on the list are specifically aimed at Asians I suspect, and the last one at Westerners, who do enjoy a lie in in the morning and a drink or two at night, if I’m anything to go by. Those who aren’t there for the trekking, that is, Sapa is a place where lots of people with beards come to trek.
If the travel agencies advertised it as a walking tour I might be tempted, but I’m not going to trek anywhere.
There are many westerners with big boots and beards and healthy glows who do trek, but they’re not the kind of people you see in bars after nine.
Instead you meet the kind of people we met, more Canadians without boots, and it was one of these that suggested we raised our glasses and bottles of Larue to Ladythatch, in a bar in Sapa.
Guiltity, we had to wake the hotel owner to let us in.


More peril, this is the bridge in Muong Kai along which motorcyclists come at you


And this is the view from it

I slept deeply that night. Nel didn’t, she was awakened by the rancid spirit the of lamb that she’d eaten and yesterday we stayed in our room all day. Nel wasn’t prepared to leave it for any reason so I went downstairs for bread and spready cheese for her and went out for a pizza.
We ate Vietnamee for bloody weeks and I don’t care that it’s a bit feeble coming here and looking for pizza, we’re eating western food whenever we get the opportunity and I would advise anyone coming here to do the same.
Vietnamee food is cheaper by far, but then it will be a bowl of noodles and watery soup and you’ll be eating eight times a day like the Vietnamee do.

Because of Nel’s condition, we had to stay a day longer in Sapa than intended and couldn’t use the bus tickets we’d bought, but when I explained the situation to the people in the hotel who we’d booked with, they said they could change the tickets.
Today they told us they have changed the tickets. I’m expecting to have to pay thirty dollars again but I will be happy to be proven wrong and I will write something nice on trip adviser if they have.
It feels horrible that you expect to be ripped off in Vietnam, but that’s how it is.
Yesterday evening on the way back from pizza I stopped at somebody’s house where there was bottles of water and cigarettes for sale. The man told me twice the price for water, so I went somewhere else. It doesn’t make any sense to me, to lose a sale but there is no fair price for anything, they buy the stuff and will sell it for whatever they can get, and any profit is fair. There’s no morality about it, all’s fair in love and war and overcharging a white man. I would have bought cigarettes there too.
There was a street vendor in Hanoi tried to charge me double for cigarettes, and when I pointed out they should be half a dollar she just laughed, not a hint of embarrassment, she just realised that I know the right price. Now I just ask for two packs and give a dollar.

We didn’t have to pay for the tickets again.
Nel was feeling better so we spent the day doing nothing much but sitting in restaurants and drinking tea.
Sapa is famed for its herbal baths, as well as the mountains, the hill tribes and the trekking, but Nel didn’t want take a herbal bath. I think she’s seen too much brown water the last forty eight hours.

Like I said earlier, it was a day in a minibus or twelve hours overnight on a coach. Nel had wanted valium or something to help her sleep on the bus. The pharmacist didn’t have valium, but he did have something.
Unluckily it was a bright night and we were on the bus, through mountains for twelve hours. How can there be so many mountains? We took a six hour ride on another bus after and we’re still in the mountains. Only these are in Laos, but they’re the same ones.

I think I’ve had Evans cold and a bit of a temperature and the tablets the doctor sold us had more of an effect on me than on Nel and I slept for a lot of the way. I would have been happy to have slept all of the way, and missed the peril.
It’s 350km from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu and about 150km me it is on roads that are still being made. Dirt track cuttings on the edge of the mountains. Enlarged goat tracks, and in the moonlight you can see two hundred feet down to a river. Many times you look down and see nothing but the drop because the road is so narrow. Sometimes it looks like there’s maybe three or four feet of dirt track between the wheel and a hundred foot drop or more, and sometimes it’s a lot more. It’s the kind of viewpoint you only normally get from an aeroplane coming in to land.
At one point the driver and his mate had to get spades out of the luggage compartment and dig a boulder out of the road, and at another point we had to wait an hour when the driver had to call someone to come and unlock a barrier across the road that had a sign on it that said ‘Halt! Turn around, do not attempt to go any further’ I expect. It must have been something like that or else why would there be a locked barrier across the road.
The bus was packed with cargo too.
I wondered why our bags where stashed on the back seat and not in the hold, and then when we got on we found that there was luggage by our feet. Packages and parcels and all kinds of stuff. And on the roof too. They move goods and people, and they stopped at villages to drop things off.
Hats off to them, I really don’t know how they remembered what to drop off where, but they would stop in a village in the clouds at midnight and know unerringly which seat the right sack of rice was stashed under.
When they had got rid of enough stuff, they stopped and sorted it all out so they could take all the bags from the back seat, stow it in the hold that they’d been steadily emptying, and then get more people on. It’s a feat of logistical planning that the people at the post office use super computers to work out for them, and they mess it up.


The hotel we stayed at is the long red building in the front

God knows what these people were doing in the mountains or where they were coming from, but the driver kept stopping and picking up more until there were five lying on the floor between the rows of seats.
So on the driver drove, bumping and lurching down these goat tracks hour after hour. Occasionally we’d meet something coming the other way, and these were even scarier moments, when we had to maneuver around something. I couldn’t help thinking of radio reports that start with the words ‘Two British passengers are among those feared dead’.
It rains here a lot, and when it’s not raining you can see thunderstorms in the distance. Flashes lighting up the sky and silhouetting the jagged mountains and all the sharp and pointy vegetation that crowns them.

We progressed, hour after hour until we rattled and bounced into Dien Bien Phu, the last town before Laos.
It had been raining heavily for god knows how long before we arrived there and at five thirty it was coming down especially vigorously. The kind of rain that is quite obviously god overplaying his hand, just reminding you of what he can do if he has a mind to.
Nel went to find a bathroom and in my groggy state I found myself in the midst of five or six men all shouting LAOS at me as I tried to stop a man from dumping our bags in a puddle.
The man took Nel’s bag and threw it into the hold of the couch next to us as I said ‘yes, Laos’ and another man snatched it out of the hold and ran away with it. I chased after him with my bag to another, much smaller, much more uncomfortable looking bus and before I’d had the chance to stow the bags a man was telling me ‘two hundred and thirty thousand’.
I’m afraid I yelled at him.
‘No! One hundred’ that was the first time I’d shouted at someone, but I was groggy and wet and baffled.
‘Ah yes my friend, sorry, one hundred fifteen’ and instructed us to go and buy tickets from the office.
It was only later I realised he was probably quoting for two tickets.
So we got tickets to Muong Kai, and waited for the bus to leave.
Another two hours, we sat on that bus as the rain pounded down, waiting for him to leave.
I’ve a feeling the coach the bags were snatched from, the big comfortable looking coach, the big comfortable and safe looking coach was going our way but I don’t know for sure.
There were a handful of travellers who’d done the same trip from Sapa as we had but spent a day at Dien Bien Phu, and a few local people loaded and wedged in before the bus left.
Maybe half an hour later we stopped for a lady who flagged the bus down, and loaded a couple of holdall’s, and then ran back over the road for a couple of sacks which she threw in and which gave off a vaguely orangey, toiletey smell. And again a little later we stopped when we were flagged down by a couple of kids who were maybe brother and sister. They had a massive sack of rice and two smaller bags. That went in too, and people sat on it.
The bus was now full and then we set off into more mountains. More daredevil driving on narrow roads and after maybe a couple of hours we got to the Vietnam border control where we were exited from Vietnam and where a guard changed dongs for kips at five percent.
When we piled back on the bus, a couple or three more Vietnamee men squeezed in and we went about fifteen minutes to the Lao border, where a man immediately pointed a thermometer at our heads and charged us a quarter of a dollar. We’d been told about this, it’s the Chicken Flu H1N1 test, a thermometer.
It’s better than it might have been mind, I was imagining whipping it out of one persons arse and it straight up another so it was wasn’t so bad.

An hour later we all had stamped visas and another bunch of blokes crammed in.
By now there were people’s faces squashed against the windows, I had a man almost sat on my lap and a German was getting tetchy.
It was hot, very hot. We were all sweaty and cramped and the rice was being steam cooked and still we were bumping and banging and rattling in this hateful old Subaru half size bus. We did stop for dinner at a village somewhere in the middle of somewhere by the road and we met our first Laos people.
They seem a lot like the hill tribe ladies only they don’t follow you down the road. Very cheery and open and calm and lovely. Fried rice and pork was maybe a dollar and half each add it had vegetables and chilli in it, it wasn’t just a plate of rice and a bit of pork. It tasted good and it cheered us both up, the first food since Sapa.

We’d been on the road for about eighteen hours, and it was about twenty hours since we’d set off from Sapa when we arrived at Muong Kai.
There was a French couple fought their way off the bus with us and we all stood blinking and stretching and yawning bed lighting cigarettes while the driver climbed onto the roof and passed down our bags.
We were in a village with a road and a river and some shops and cafes.
A short, fat, ageing man laughed and asked us if we wanted rooms, which we obviously did, and bade us follow him, which we did.
There ain’t many roads in Lao, but they’re mostly tarmac’d. The village streets ain’t though, and there are streams of water from drains running across the path, and chickens and dogs and children, and off scampered our little man, chuckling and aiii-ing and whooping, down to a bridge a bridge across the river. A bridge. And you’re probably thinking of a footbridge, a good solid, stable construction that doesn’t swing and sway when you walk over it. This wasn’t one of those type of bridge, this was a two hundred foot suspension bridge with wooden planking, about four feet wide, and it did sway and swing about a hundred feet above the river.
Then we heard a loud clattering noise and there’s a bloody motorbike coming toward us, and another coming the other way, and the rail about hip high.
On the other side more dirt tracks to the little man’s hotel, or more like a homestay built on stilts the river bank with bungalows like the one we stayed in in Cambodia, rat turds an all for 50,000 a night. That’s six dollars and dinner with the family for twenty five more with free homebrew rice spirits. It was good, so we stashed our bags and went into the village.

Erica from America had been there a couple of days before and told us they had two ATMs installed last month.
The first tripped out when I put my card in it and rebooted itself. We didn’t try that one again and went to the bank instead, which was closing. The security man told us that the ATM not work til six. Eh?
Now I’ve never heard of an ATM that doesn’t work til the evening but we sat drinking tea and talking to a Swiss Buddhist metallurgist who was staying the same place.
At six we went and took money out with the debit card that Lloyds bank had told me was faulty. The one that works in Thailand and Cambodia and Laos, but is faulty in Vietnam.
Dinner was served to about fifteen guests by the owners family, and now I know what vegetarian food tastes like.
Nel went to bed shortly after, and most people left until there was just me and the two French people, smoking and drinking rice spirits until silence fell and we went away to leave the family in peace.
They’re called Fanny and Wilf, or Willy he said. Fanny and Willy! Honestly. She told us that someone had recently told her that Fanny is a naughty word in English and we haven’t pointed out to Willy that he has a Carry On name too.


Where the boat leaves from

Yesterday morning we woke late, Nel was sleeping like the dead after not sleeping much at all since Sapa, and we went to a cafe for breakfast and tea.
The young cafe owners were very smiley and sweet and they had an English menu but I couldn’t make him understand that I would like lemon in my black tea until I saw his wife putting lemon in her breakfast soup, so I got up and pointed and then he understood. ‘ah, lemon’. That’s what I’d said!
We met a couple from Dudley in another cafe that Roberto the Swiss metallurgist showed us and spent the afternoon chatting and drinking BeerLao before dinner back at the homestay with more spirits and beer and a long philosophical talk with the Buddhist metallurgist. I slept well again.

And this morning took a six hour boat journey to Nong Kwai, many of us in a very small, long and narrow, cramped and overloaded boat through more mountains and rapids which I shall tell more about later.
In Nong Kwai we’re told there are a couple of bars with WiFi so I can get this latest post off my chest.


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