The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 23rd – Ta Va, Sapa, Lao Cai

Mercifully, a complete power outage ends the TV fun downstairs and the whole family finally goes to bed. However, proudly continuing the tradition of sleeping like crap, I manage to wake up a few times during the night. Once due to loud dog fights and once again due to a rooster with a distorted concept of time (seriously dude, 3AM is not a signal to wake up and sing your lungs out). Everyone is up around 8:00 for a quick breakfast and an even quicker goodbye to the host family. The man of the family shows up again to briefly shake everyone’s hand and that ends the extent of our interaction with the Red Dzao.

As we set out on the last hike of our three day Sapa tour, it becomes apparent that Katka and I have gradually become the charity cases of the group. Katka is still wearing Belgian girl’s scarf to protect her neck from going up in flames. The same Belgian girl lends me her rain-cover for backpacks, because the scary grey clouds around us seem to mean business! Her boyfriend lends me his socks, since after breakfast I discover that one of mine is mysteriously missing (a new Bermuda Triangle?). Finally, the British couple keeps offering Katka a T-shirt, because hers hasn’t managed to dry overnight and she only has her “Batman” poncho for cover.

At some point we actually consider asking for donations…

On the hike we’re accompanied yet again by a huge group of Black Hmong. We get to a fork in the road and our vodka-happy guide gives us a choice of going the “easy” or the “hard” way. As soon as he gives us the choice he immediately decides for us by basically saying that the “hard” way is a no-go due to the massive amounts of rainfall that came during the night. The “hard” way gets extremely muddy after rain and he makes it sound like we’d be practically swimming in mud to get anywhere. Unsurprisingly, everyone votes for the “easy” way and we continue.

While the “hard” way would have taken us up some steep slopes and probably resulted in the same slip-n-slide experience as yesterday, the “easy” way just follows the road. Along the way we come across some young kids riding buffaloes, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“Did someone call a cab?”

We reach a waterfall where everyone takes some obligatory pictures. While our group is busy taking photos of each other in different configurations, we notice a few other groups arriving from the direction of the “hard” way. They drop down from steep slopes like SWAT teams (minus the cool gear and athletic skills). They’re completely covered in mud and sweat, so we’re immediately happy for our choice of the “easy” way.

Close to the waterfall lies an old wooden suspension bridge. It’s exceptionally narrow and looks rather worn out. It leads to a dead end rock. It’s probably somewhat dangerous and completely pointless to cross the bridge. Naturally, we all take a trip there and back, one person at a time. We film each other performing this “feat”, secretly hoping that some minor-yet-hilarious incident would make one of us an instant YouTube sensation.

I must admit it’s quite an exhilarating experience to walk down a derelict wooden bridge hanging well above a rushing stream of water. For a brief moment I even imagine I’m Indiana Jones on a quest for skulls, grails, Chupa Chups lollipops and whatever else he usually hunts for. Then I’m told by the rest of the group to put down the whip and fedora and stop being a jackass, so I return to solid ground.

They’re just jealous of how awesome it makes me look…

After I’m finished with my crazy antics we leave the “bridge walking” area. Upon exit we are promptly charged a token fee for having used the bridge. I guess “risky wooden bridge crossing” is the Hmong version of a theme park ride.

We settle down for a quick lunch of noodle soup and bananas at a nearby cafe. We’re surrounded by kids and I hand out the rest of my candy and chewing gums to them. The Belgian scarf-woman has a bunch of balloons that she inflates and gives to the kids. The kids are mesmerized. After lunch we’re picked up and driven back to our Fansipan View Hotel. The road is narrow and slippery and there’s plenty of traffic, so the ride takes a while.

Back at the hotel we’re directed to a separate room with some showers, where we get to shower and repack. While waiting for our bus to Lao Cai we go online to pick out and book a hotel for ourselves in Hue. We settle on Ancient House Hotel, which, despite its hardly promising name, looks quite modern, comfortable and affordable. Unless its pictures are Photoshopped and reviews are doctored (you just can’t be paranoid enough these days).

At 16:30 we’re picked up by a mini-bus. We’re sharing it with the same Danish family that accompanied us on the first day. Only this time we’re also joined by five other people. The bus is overbooked and the only way everyone’s luggage can be squeezed in is by stuffing all of us into the car first and then piling our bags on to and around us. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 22nd – Sapa & Ta Va

I’m up at 6:30, kept awake by the famously loud kids, flushing of toilets and nearby construction. Vietnam is not the place to catch up on those Zs if you’re a sensitive sleeper like myself. At 8:30 we have a quick breakfast with more pancakes and “pearls”. At 9:30 we join the same two guides from yesterday and three other couples (four Belgians and two Brits).

It starts raining just as we leave. Katka has a green poncho to protect herself from rain, I have nothing. Our hotel sells cheap disposable raincoats, but I stubbornly decide that I’ll be fine without one. Raincoats are for sissies (and, you know, reasonable people who don’t want to get soaking wet). As we walk further from the hotel the rain intensifies. I am getting drenched and am also the only idiot not wearing some sort of rain-gear. On our way out of Sapa we pass by a market, where the same cheap raincoats can again be purchased. However, I still don’t buy one, because why change a dumb decision after you have recognised it as such?

“I don’t need your help! I totally meant to get stuck waist-deep in the snow. Thanks for asking, though.”

We nickname Katka’s poncho “The Batman Poncho”, because it sort of looks like Katka has bat-wings when she wears it. So there’s certainly some resemblance to Batman (if Batman were a short blonde woman and wore green oversized ponchos). Thanks to my trusty Osprey backpack all of our stuff remains dry. The same cannot be said about me.

Rain also makes the narrow paths we have to navigate extremely muddy and slippery. This isn’t helped by the fact that the area is quite hilly and at any given time we’re either climbing a peak or trying to avoid helplessly sliding down from one. Every few moments the journey is interrupted by one of us foreigners slipping and either falling on his/her ass or grabbing frantically at the nearby people.

Thankfully, we are again accompanied by a large group of Black Hmong women. They are extremely good at negotiating the slippery slopes, despite wearing simple home-made plastic sandals. They help everyone through especially tricky parts of the journey and prevent us from tumbling down on numerous occasions.

In between our falling down and swearing in frustration we try to admire the beautiful scenery. Mountains stretch as far into the horizon as we can see. Every time we climb a hill we get treated to a new breathtaking sight of green valleys and a multitude of rice fields. We keep bumping into colourful locals and various animals. It’s like being in the middle of a painting, but, like, in 3D. Poetic, eh?

A small group of foreign infiltrators is taken into custody by the Hmong police force, armed with umbrellas and deadly handicraft skills

Soon we reach a small village of the Black Hmong, where we feel obliged to buy something from them for all of their help. What can I say, their strategy clearly works! Katka buys some bracelets and a bag to bring home as gifts. We have drinks and snacks at a local restaurant, where I befriend a cat. Or, more accurately, the cat claims me as hers and doesn’t leave my lap until we’re done with the meal. In the restaurant with us is a large group of Danes, seemingly a handball team. There are only like one hundred Danes in the world and it appears they’re all in Vietnam.

Our final destination is the Red Dzao village of Ta Va, where we’ll be sleeping over with a host family. Shortly before our arrival Katka and I both realise that our necks are completely burned. Katka gets a scarf from one of the Belgian girls to protect her neck. I get a towel and some toilet paper wrapped around mine – a creative solution courtesy of Katka. I stay in this partially mummified state until we reach Ta Va.

The Dzao live in notably better conditions than the Black Hmong. We are surprised to find electricity, proper showers, a TV and other luxuries that we haven’t seen in the spartan houses of the Black Hmong. The visiting tourists have proper sleeping mattresses with mosquito nets up on the second floor. There’s even a crooked pool table. I attempt to play a game with one of our guides, but quickly realise that it’s hopeless trying to be accurate when the table is sloped and the balls are so dented they’re shaped like crushed soda cans.

There’s a reason wheels are not shaped like this…

Katka and I take a walk around the village to see what’s there and to meet some locals. We discover a small stall that sells bracelets, bags and different handicraft for one-fifth the price we’ve ended up paying to the Black Hmong. Ouch! Were convinced that the woman is forgetting a zero somewhere, up until Katka buys a few more gifts for the family back home and we actually pay the low price.

Later on we bump into a girl of 12, who tags along with us on her way home. Her English is quite good and she tells us her name is “True” (presumably because she tells it how it is, for real yo!). Before she turns to her house she attempts to sell us some handicraft, but we’ve had our share of purchases for the day. When she keeps insisting I turn the tables and attempt to sell her one of the bracelets we bought from the Black Hmong. She finds this amusing and names a ridiculously low price. Surprisingly, I don’t manage to sell the bracelet at a mad profit (or at all).

On the way back we see a very drunk local who is singing incoherent songs. At least I assume they’re incoherent, since I haven’t learned enough Vietnamese to know for sure. He’s followed by a few people who make futile attempts at bringing him home. At some stage the man falls down and continues to sing while on the ground, refusing to get up. It’s comforting to know that thousands of miles away from Denmark drunk nights out end so similarly. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 21st – Sapa

We’re woken up at 5AM upon arrival to Lao Cai. It takes us a while to realise that we’ve already arrived so we’re the last ones to hurriedly pack up and leave the train.

As soon as we step out we’re approached by a guy who offers us a bus ride to Sapa. We almost stupidly agree, because we assume this is part of our packaged tour. The only reason we realise it’s not is when he asks us where we’re heading. Then we try to get to the main exit of the Lao Cai station. On the way we’re approached by many more drivers offering trips to Sapa. A conservative estimate puts their number at about ten million, but there’s a slight degree of error involved in that calculation.

At the exit we’re met by a man holding up a sign with my name. My last name is misspelt in only two places, so it’s close enough. I’m used to it being butchered in unpredictable and hilarious ways.

“Did you just call me Iron Maiden?”

We get into a mini-bus that we’re sharing with a few other foreigners. It’s very nice to be so far away from home, with nothing to remind us of cold, rainy Denmark…except with us in the mini-bus is a Swedish backpacker and a Danish family of four. OK, you win this round, fate!

Sapa is located high up in the mountains, at an altitude of 1600 metres, and the only way to get there is via a winding mountain road (unless you’re planning to engage in some creative parachuting manoeuvres). The road, in some sections, is just wide enough to accommodate two cars. Our drive up takes almost one hour, during which we admire a beautiful view of mountains submerged in fog and basked in sunrise.

The Swedish backpacker, Jonas Petter, decides to share his (mis)adventures with us. He had a back stomach flu and managed to miss out on a lot of travelling due to being stuck at the hotel, near a toilet. Thankfully, before he begins to give us a detailed account of his symptoms, the father of the Danish family joins in to share their experiences in Cambodia. I try really hard to follow the story, but I’m distracted by the father’s uncanny resemblance to Al Bundy. I half expect him to finish every sentence with “Isn’t that right, Peg?”.

…and that’s Ed O’Neill to YOU!

We arrive at the Fansipan View Hotel, which is so called because its rooms offer views of the Fansipan mountain (I bet that took you by surprise). As soon as the mini-bus stops it is surrounded by a group of Black Hmong women, on a mission to sell their handicraft. Our tour guide tells us that they usually find a “nice person” and follow that person until they wear him/her down. So, essentially, he’s telling us to act like assholes if we’re not interested in handicraft.

We’re served a nice breakfast at the hotel with noodle soup and pancakes. The menu tells us we can choose to have our pancakes with either apple or “pearl”. I’m not sure how pearl pancakes would taste, but I’m sure it’s a crunchy experience. Our room is available early, so we check in at 7:00. We attempt a quick nap prior to our mini-tour. This is successful for Katka, but not so successful for me. There are kids playing outside. Kids can generally be quite loud, but here in Vietnam they come with built-in megaphones. I’ve already discussed the general noise level in Vietnam in an earlier post.

At 9:30 we depart for today’s mild hiking trip to nearby villages. We’re only six people: Katka and I, a Canadian couple (Danni and Amanda) and two local guides. We exchange our experiences and travel plans with the Canadians. It seems we’ll be following in their footsteps – they are heading out to Hue by plane and we’ll be doing the same trip by train in a few days. Danni and Amanda have already had their homestay with the Dzao (Yao) people. They warn us about the dangers of rice wine, which we’re likely to be served during our homestay. Danni apparently had a bit too much while trying to bond with the host family.

Alcohol – real life’s Google Translate!

At the beginning of the trip we’re joined by a group of Black Hmong women. I have a conversation with one of them. Her name is Ping and she’s carrying her 2 month old kid called Phun in a home-made fabric baby carrier on her back. Ping’s English is surprisingly good, especially considering that she has only practised it by talking to tourists.

In the meantime, Katka chats to two other women and receives their approval of me as a boyfriend. That’s because my rugged good looks translate well across all cultures. As we approach a track leading to the village of Cat Cat the Black Hmong leave us. They cannot get in without tickets. They make us promise that if we buy anything it should be from them. Damn, I guess we weren’t convincing enough at being assholes. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)