A few days ago, we left Kuala Lumpur at 3:30 am to catch a 6:15 am flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. We spent a couple of days in Hanoi. The weather in Hanoi was about 10 degrees celsius – very pleasant for walking around. On Valentine’s Day we took an overnight train to Lao Cai. Our destination was Sapa but since the train doesn’t go to Sapa, we would have to go to Lao Cai and then travel the remaining 40 km by car. Although I love trains and take them whenever I can, it was my first experience sleeping in a berth on an overnight train.
We were in “soft sleeper” class which meant that I shared a compartment with Lastborn, Venice, Paris and Onlyboy. There were four beds for five of us since Lastborn didn’t have to pay but didn’t get a space. Fahbio and Firstborn shared a compartment with a nice couple from Australia.
We were given hot tea on board and then quickly fell asleep because we knew our train would arrive at 4:50 am. It seemed that we had just been lulled to sleep by the sound of the train on the tracks when our attendant was clapping outside our door to let us know we would be arriving shortly.
Because it was so early, we disembarked in the dark and found a car to take us to Sapa. But then we noticed someone holding a paper up with my name on it. Our hostel had somehow sent someone to pick us up even though I hadn’t told them how or when we were arriving.
Lao Cai is only 3 kilometres from the Chinese border. Sapa is a 45 minute car ride up the switchbacks into the mountains from there. The tallest mountain in Vietnam is one of many peaks that surround Sapa.
We came to Sapa to do some hiking. The mountains are terraced with rice paddies and the villages are home to various minority hill tribes. Each tribe has its own language, religion and particular way of dressing. The people are not ethnically Vietnamese. Until recently they were very isolated because each village was only connected by footpath. Now it is possible to drive by road, but the footpaths are still very much in use.
This is the only area in Vietnam where the houses have fireplaces and wood-stoves. It was so cold when we arrived that we put on long johns, hats and mitts. Our hostel is beautiful – a huge, old mansion with a nice garden and amazing views. We didn’t get to see the views until today though because yesterday the mountain mists were so thick you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. When we arrived, our hostess warmed all our beds with electric blankets and we jumped right in, we were so frozen. The average temperature in Sapa in February is zero degrees celsius. There is no heating in our hostel so the room feels very cold and damp. We have a small space heater and the electric blankets to warm us up.
Yesterday we decided to walk to Cat Cat village which is 3 kilometres from Sapa. I think it was nice but with the dense cloud fog it was difficult to tell. Today was sunny and warmer so we decided to hire a guide and walk to a few villages.
Our guide Lisa met us at 10 am and we began to walk along the main road. The fog had rolled in again so we couldn’t really see any of the amazing views that were obviously there. The hotels are all built on the side of the cliff so that you can see the mountains and rice paddies. If the weather cooperates.
After 2 km, we left the road and started walking on a footpath through the rice paddies. Four Black Hmong ladies were walking with us. They will walk with a group for great distances, chatting and smiling, and then will try to sell you some handicrafts when they reach their village. Black Hmong women walk 25-30 kilometres a day, either in rubber boots or in plastic sandals (which they wear even when it is very cold).
Within a few kilometres, two of the ladies gave up with our slow pace and wandered off. The other two stayed and one, in particular, took great care to help me with slippery sections of the path. Lisa told us that we were lucky because it was a dry day. In previous days, she said that she was muddy to her knees and many tourists had slipped and gotten muddy bums.
The hill tribes make all their own clothes. The Black Hmong weave their cloth from hemp, then dye it with local indigo. It is a process that takes one month. As they walk, they pick hemp and separate it into strands that they wind into skeins.
After 8 km, we reach Lao Chai village (not to be confused with Lao Cai city). We had passed another village but because of fog, we missed seeing it! We had lunch in Lao Chai and were ambushed by ten little girls who were all adamant that we buy bracelets from them. They followed Firstborn and wouldn’t give up. She said she felt like the Pied Piper with no flute.
Walking through the village was very nice – pot bellied pigs, ducks, colourfully dressed girls and ladies, water buffalo and rice paddies. The peach tress are in bloom here and they are so picturesque.
After lunch we walked another 4 kilometres for a total of twelve. Lastborn never complained once – she just held Lisa’s hand and told her all kinds of stories. But when our van picked us up at the end of the twelve kilometres to bring us back to Sapa, her eyes started to droop and she nodded off. A very well deserved rest, I would say!