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.
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?”.
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.
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)