Beautiful Vietnam
No amount of fog can stop this view
  • | | February 17, 2010 08:50 PM

Northwest series

>> Part 1: No amount of fog can stop this view
>> Part 2: Driving through Heaven's Gate
>> Part 3: Riding the rails back home
>> Part 4: A foggy endeavour
>> Part 5: No plans in "Nowhere Land"

Tuesday, February 16, 7:43 am:

The phone rings; time to go. There is no time for showering, after all, we are in a rush and there are places to see. Our previous night and days of celebrating Tet left us all tired, but ambitious to continue the ride. Rolling out of bed after a long week of constant traveling, eating and drinking can be tiring but new experiences are also invigorating. This is Tet so far, a time for friends, family, experiences, and memories to last a life-time.

A quality journey would never be complete without a few surprises, turns and twists.

When two of my good friends told me that they were coming to Vietnam for Tet, I knew that we were in for a holiday to remember.

We thought about having a plan, we really did, but organising something in advance has never been a forte for me nor for many like-minded wanderers. Part of the excitement when traveling is refraining from a plan. We had hoped to drive to Sapa together, and a car was booked through AVIS online. No map, no GPS, no plan but a car.

With an online confirmation from an international car-rental agency, we felt comfortable knowing that we would have no problems. This was despite many of my Vietnamese friends and colleagues explaining to me how unlikely it would be possible to rent a vehicle during Tet and they all felt that even if we could, we would be fools to drive ourselves. "No problem," is all I thought and all I said.

When we arrived to pick up the vehicle, it became clear that nobody was working due to the Tet holiday. Other than a security guard, there wasn't a soul around the AVIS office. We had our paper receipt and confirmation with us but a piece of paper cannot fly, and it certainly wasn't going to take us to Sapa. After awhile, and after holding on to some hope that a car would miraculously appear, we eventually had no choice but to give up and move on.

Adaptation is necessary in times like these so we rushed back to the Old Quarter to find a travel agent. Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Saigon; we mentally evaluated our options, and they were endless other than a few obstacles. Our biggest challenge now was to find a way to get somewhere at a time of year where most places are closed and most people at home. Walking around in the Old Quarter during Tet is unusually quiet for the great city of Hanoi, and after some searching, we were lucky enough to find an open and helpful travel agent at Sinh Cafe. We were informed that our only option now was to leave town by train to Sapa which meant our original destination would still be in the works.

5:38 pm - Ga Ha Noi Station:

Trains are one of the legendary ways to travel, and the three of us were looking forward to it. We sat outside the station and loaded up on some beers and snacks for the ride. Our train was due to depart at 7:30 pm. The time came to board and we entered our cabin. Number 8 would be home for a short while. There were six small beds stacked up, three to a side, in a small room with limited space. Our comments were a bit cynical as we thought about the unfortunate individuals who would be stuck sharing with us. What would they think of us? How can we all fit on these short beds? How will we get any sleep? Have they ever washed these sheets?

As our thoughts ran through our minds, we took a seat on the bottom bunk, cracked a few beers, brought out some playing cards, and turned on some music.
Our first bunk-mates arrived; an older Vietnamese couple who looked equally curious about how this was going to work. Eventually, our third arrived. She was a university student who spoke English and ended up joining our card game. Thankfully, we made friends with our fellow passengers and settled in for our overnight ride.

When everybody took their beds, we climbed up to ours and continued our conversation. I spotted a cockroach crawling along the wall near my friend, and this added to what would be a memorable trip. Things like this can only be dealt with, not dreaded. If worse comes to worse, we could always eat the cockroaches; they are, after all, an excellent source of protein from what I hear...and this is Vietnam, we can eat everything. Eventually, the numbing movements and sounds of the train put us all to sleep, cockroaches or not, we were exhausted.

4:28 am:

La Cao station. It's dark outside, and quite cold. We were awoken by some loud yelling that we couldn't comprehend and realised the train had stopped. We scrambled to gather all of our things and get off the train, not sure where we were. Turns out we were where we were supposed to be, Lao Cai. All that was left now was a one hour bus ride to Sapa.

6 am - Sapa.

We pulled into our hotel; got out, attempted to check in, were brought to another hotel since ours was overbooked, and crashed for a couple of hours. The train ride had worn us all out.

8:47 am:

We ate breakfast and were able to meet up with some friends who were also in Sapa from Hanoi. We rented a car (with a driver) to show us around for the day. At this point, we were all in agreement that it was a blessing in disguise that AVIS had no car waiting for us. People in Sapa scoffed at our enquiries about driving ourselves, even our Vietnamese friends (who had driven to Sapa) were told it would be unacceptable to drive themselves. The roads are in good-enough shape, but the weather is not ideal for a driver whom is unfamiliar with these streets. The fog was intense; thicker than any I've ever seen. It would have been reckless and irresponsible for us to drive ourselves around in these conditions. I could hold my hand out in front of my face and it was blurry. The moisture was obvious, but not drenching. It was a slow kind of wet and our driver was obviously familiar with these conditions. He drove slowly with ease, and as oncoming traffic approached, tight curves, and dangerous drop-offs whizzed by, I was thankful to be in the backseat.

We'd all seen pictures of Sapa and knew of its amazing beauty. Weather hadn't been exactly ideal for scenery in the last week, but this mist and fog was unforgettable. It only enhanced our experience, and although we couldn't see as much or as far as we could have on a clear day, we appreciated the feeling that this created. We began our journey driving around the outskirts of Sapa and visited a village. H'mong people are vivid in their clothing and demeanor. They are friendly, kind, and colourful. Many are illiterate, and yet, they often speak two, even three languages with great skill. They are incredibly creative with their different thoughts and approaches to people. There were many interesting things in the first village we vistited. Besides the typical things in a village such as pigs, goats, dogs, motorbikes turned into plows, huts and farms; there was an exceptionally large see-saw, a giant swing, and traditionally clothed people everywhere. There were children scurrying and screaming all around us. The people were incredibly kind but it was hard to understand what effects tourism was having on their overall psyche. It brings its goods and bads everywhere, but part of me was hesitant to support it. It is always conflicting to be in these situations so care must be taken to respect the areas you visit as much as possible.

There was a bridge which grabbed our attention. It was made from natural vines and wood, one of those swaying bridges that you might see in a movie. For the price of VND 5,000 we could walk across this thing, so of course, we had to. It was slippery, wet, and cold, as we made our way across. The bridge was above a river and swung from side to side with every step. Eventually we reached the end, which was connected to a very large tree. We all stopped and shared in a moment of laughter. You see; the bridge didn't actually lead anywhere. It was connected to a large tree that was far too risky to climb. There was no way off of the bridge so we were forced to turn back.

We continued our tour, making our way to two more villages, into a cave, up a waterfall, and through the mountains, weaving and driving along at our own comfortable pace. I learned some very interesting things from talking to the locals. One ethinc minority group, the Dao, shared with me their philosophy and customs about life. I was told that every family in the community must have a boy. If two people were married and they could only have daughters, they would trade a daughter to another family for a son. A son could also be bought at the price of animals, clothing, or even 10 US dollars (within the community). The community itself is very close, so even if a son or daughter is raised by a family other than their own, it is irrelevant because in all actuality the community is one big family. They also spoke of some girls who had left the village. They shared a disturbing feeling that they were scared of some Chinese people, because they knew first hand that people had disappeared, been trafficked or sold, and sometimes only for organs. Others had been forced into prostitution. That is always devastating, and its frustrating to see that even here, those evils have spread their reach.

For people who have little access to the outside world, the ethnic minorities of Vietnam are incredibly in-tune, gifted, aware, and knowledgeable. There was much to be learned and appreciated. The people here are extremely intelligent and are doing all that they can with what they have. Tourism is creating immense changes in the area. Despite these powerful influences, the people are managing to maintain their culture, values, and traditions. It was refreshing to be welcomed into their community and hear their stories.

Our trip winded down and we returned to the town of Sapa, a quaint town despite being flooded with tourists. There is food for all, ranging from traditional to western, and there is no shortage of options. There were several bars open, and the streets were empty as the darkness of night overtook Sapa. The fog stayed, and so did we, making our way to as many places as possible. We shared our experience together, and shared our thoughts. One friend, Zheka, summarised as this, "I had no expectations before the trip but you see these are places and hear about these places and you must go. Once you have traveled, you have your own story, one that you can share forever. I can never forget this place."

The north of Vietnam certainly is a special place, and one that should be appreciated by all who can make it. My travels will continue from here, but my memories are forever.

A walk on the "Cloud Bridge"

The local primary school becomes a common playground during Tet

Children carrying sugarcane trees home for luck

Women of the Dao ethnic group

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