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Sa Pa Adventure 10 October 2008

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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Originally posted on 10 October 2008 (edited)

At the end of September, my cousin came to visit.  It was really nice to have him here in Hanoi, he happened to be my first visitor in Australia when I moved there, and now he’s been the first to visit me in Vietnam as well.  Good fun.  We started the week looking around Hanoi, where the traffic and the chaos gave him a bit of a shock.  On Wednesday we had planned to go to the north of Vietnam to explore the mountains there, but a few hours before our train was set to leave, there was a typhoon warning released for the whole region.  And sure enough, Hagupit kept tracking in the direction of Vietnam and it’s north, including Ha Long Bay (where the boats were barred from going on the water) and Hanoi (where we experienced heavy rain and floodings) and Sa Pa (our destination).  As a typhoon that came through a month before had caused much damage and several scores of people had lost their lives, we decided to sit this one out.

But by Sunday, the weather cleared, and we decided to go up north after all.  Poor man, my cousin was going a bit stir crazy after almost a whole week in Hanoi with nothing else to see but rain and museums.

Sa Pa is beautiful, with high mountains covered with tiered ricefields, buffaloes and ethnic minority peoples in magnificent traditional costumes and embroidered wares that they try to peddle everywhere you go.  On the Monday, we went for a walk which turned into a hike and an adventure.  We walked down to Cat Cat, an easy descent to a village and a waterfall of about 3 kilometres.  The trail was man made, and easy to walk along, and it continued to the nearby village of Sin Chai (another 3 km or so).  So we strolled along further, watching the local schoolkids head home for lunch and people working in the fields.  Sin Chai was also a beautiful little village full of wooden houses and magnificent mountains all around the valley.

Our map seemed to indicate that there was also a trail which continued towards the big waterfall further on, and someone had told us it would be about 8 km walking, but that the track was not as good as the first bit.  We didn’t mind, and kept on walking, admiring the scenery and the clear, clean skies around us.  A xe om driver (motorbike taxi) came running after us at one stage, and told us that the road was no good and we should not continue.  We said we wanted to see the waterfall (which we could see in the distance), and he said that we had to go back to Cat Cat and take a xe om the long way around to said waterfall.

Now, this is where I have to admit that I am entirely at fault, because even though I have only been in Vietnam for about four months or so, I did not believe him, and thought that he was just upset about losing his business.  So we said that we wanted to continue, with the clause that if the terrain got too bad, we would turn around.  He let us go, promissing that he would be waiting for us when we got back to take us to the waterfall.  Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that we kept walking, the weather was marvellous, and the views were magnificent.

However, it turned out that mister Honda (as the xe om driver called himself), wasn’t all that wrong.  After walking quite a bit further over decent paths, the road became very narrow and went through bushes and ricefields, through buffalo tracks and little brooks, became more and more muddy and twisted.  We could, however, by this stage see the ‘highway’ that we were aiming at, and occasionally heard a honking sound (a surefire bet that you are heading in the right direction in Vietnam).  So after asking some locals which way, and always being pointed in the same direction, so we kept heading north.

All of a sudden, we are in an open field-like space at the top of a hill, amongst a troupe of buffaloes chewing cudd and looking at us from their comfortably lazy positions.  Underneath us in the valley were a few houses, a massive hill/mountain at the other side, on which we could see the motorway, but with no visible access point.  On the opposite mountain there was also a forest, which I was not keen on getting lost in.  My cousin suggested to go towards the houses at the bottom of the valley, because “where there is a house, there must be a road, right?”. But apparently that was not at all the case.  But we did approach the houses, by climbing over buffalo fences and crossing a little bamboo bridge over a creek.  On the other side, the matriarch of the family in the house stood looking a little bewildered at us, and initially I thought she looked angry and would shoo us away.  But in my nicest Vietnamese, I tried to say that we were lost and needed to get to the big road.

Oddly enough, I could say all this in Vietnamese (where DID that vocabulary come from?) even through the only word for “lost” that I could remember was the Southern Vietnamese word someone had mentioned in passing in my first week in Vietnam (and which I remembered because it was the same word as peanut) and the lady seemed sympathetic, although I don’t think she understood at all what I was saying, had I not been pointing at the road.  In Sapa the local tribes speak their own language, and I don’t think she spoke much Vietnamese at all, eventhough it is government policy to teach it in all schools across the country.  Although she did know one English word: “Money.”

And Money makes the world go around, right?

So for 100,000 dong (at the time about 7-8 AUD, which I think were well invested), she sent what seemed like her second and third eldest sons up the mountain with us in tow.  They laughed all the way up, first about the silly westerners who got lost, then about the silly female westerner who nearly died on her way up despite her hiking boots and fancy camera.  They were nearly running up the mountain in thongs, which made me very embarrassed.  But we made it all the way back up to the road, and after thanking them profusely, we saw them disappear back down the track into the forest again, probably going back down to celebrate the insane amount of money they had just made off these westerners.

We hired two xe oms to take us back to Sapa, and I felt mighty cool with my burgundy helmet, zooming down the mountain for about 12 kilometres.  That night, we ate pizzas, and crashed into bed at about 7:30.

Tuesday we decided to buy some souvenirs, and after that, we hired a scooter at about 5-6 dollars for the whole day.  My cousin has a motorbike licence back home, and so he would drive, while I was free to sit on the back, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the landscape that was zooming past. We went to a local village where they make the local indigo-coloured hemp cloth for the traditional clothes that they wear there.  They colour the cloth by placing the hand-woven strands of cloth in big drums of water and a special type of plant which gives it the blue/indigo colour. Then it stays in the vats for 3 weeks, before being moved to another vat for one week, and subsequently left out to dry.  The cloth is also beaten at some stage of the process to ensure an even tone of colour.  But this process of dying and beating the cloth ensures that the local women have permanently indigo-stained hands and forearms.

At this village, there was also a cave, which I would not recommend to anyone, as you had to hire flash lights to go in, and it was not very big or very nice.  But the walk to the cave took us past wonderful scenery and domesticated animals, which was worth it in itself.

When we left, my cousin and I had a picnic consisting of Oreos and Fanta overlooking the valley, where we decided it was far too early to head back with the scooter.  Instead, we decided to find the waterfall that we had been trying to find the day before, but could not muster the energy to get to at the end of the day.  So back through Sapa, past the church, back up through the valley and past the little track we had emerged from the previous day, all the way to the silver waterfall.  It was a beautiful waterfall, with many levels, and due to the rains that Hagupit had dumped in the region the week before, it was full and mighty.  We kept going up to the highest mountain pass in Vietnam (since we were only 2 km away), to take photos of Mount Fansipan (Highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143 m) and the valley down to Lao Chau, which was breathtaking.  If we would have continued the road, we would have come to the Chinese boarder and Kunming, but we were running out of time and petrol (Kunming was another day’s ride away) so we rolled back down the mountain all the way to Sapa.

As we had our coffee, and were going to get on the minivan taking us back to the train, it started raining again after two amazing days of sunny and warm weather.  I guess we had been very lucky.

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