After feeling certain we would be sleeping on a van, we pull into a bus station where we change into a legit bus, a sleeper no less, the most comfortable one yet. We ended up better than we thought! The guy at the bus station was really nice, exchanging a few niceties with limited language and helping us put our bags in the bus. Surprised I was, when we got on the bus and he turned into the usual pushy, aggressive, nasty bus attendant I still can't get accustomed to. He was behind me "directing" all of the people, grunting and elbowing me in the head. Not sure why these guys don't realize getting in front of us would be helpful. After a few good shoves from Mr. Bus Nazi, I realized me telling him continuously to stop wasn't getting us anywhere, so I turned around, put my hand on his chest and told him to cut the BS, slightly more diplomatically than that, but he caught my drift and backed up. I wondered what the hell happened to the nice kid at the bus station...Marj and I figure it's a bus attendant ego thing.
In the middle of the night, there had been an accident (we think) or something that caused us to stop in the middle of the road, shut off the bus and hang for 2 hours. We came across something similar in the morning, turning a 12 hour bus ride into a 17 hour one. We arrived in Sapa with the usual bombardments, but this had the addition of the ethnic minorities Sapa is most known for, dressed in their great clothes, trying to persuade us to go on a tour to their village. As if trying to find a place to sleep wasn't hard enough. We agreed with the best deal we found and after settling in, head out to explore our new home of the next few days.
June is the official beginning of the rainy season, but it seems to make visits in May. And so it rained all afternoon. As with most Asian markets/stores, everybody sells the same thing and sell right next to each other. I believe this stems from a community driven culture in which individuality and uniqueness is not desired. With this, and the region/weather we were in, "Northface" stores were everywhere. Lucky for me, I picked up a rain jacket. There was some kind of sport event in the main square; one game I saw had a ring at the top of a long pole that was in the ground. The person had to throw a long concoction of roses into the ring. Different, Interesting and it got the crowd goin a bit.
The next day, sun a'blazin, we set off on a little hike through Cat Cat Village. From the get-go, this town provided some serious views and this hike only put us more into the midst if it all. We met this awesome New Yorker, Robin, early on in the trek and we walked the whole way together. It was a fairly short hike but we took our time, taking in views, shopping at the local markets (scarves, quilts, etc), taking pics and a few little detours. The mountains were full of built in rice terraces (similar to Batad in the Philippines) and various farms within the mountains. It's a region that's just jam packed with mountains and the local people worked with what they had. All the mountain climbing must make for a tight butt! It was really nice to see farmers going about their daily business, kids playing and regular life.
The kids live interesting lives here. What I'm about to describe seems to be more common for the ethnic minorities and the large majority rural population. From birth, they are strapped on the back of a parent by blankets while the parent farms, go to market and basically do whatever their daily life consists of. In Sapa, It seems that once they are able to walk, the kids go about their day on their own. They are always at least 2 together and you can tell they watch over and rely on each other, but we'd see small children all over the mountains and no adults in sight. We approached this one house with 3 kids and a large garbage bin type bucket with water in it. 1 of the 3 kids, about 2 years old was in it and the other 2 kids were trying to get him out. There was no stress, none of the kids were scared, but it was a struggle so I went over to help the little guy out of the garbage pail. he waddled around a bit, his naked hiney and all, and almost immediately tried to climb back in - too cute!
At the end of the trail was a cute little cafe overlooking the mountain where we stopped for cold drinks and sunflower seeds. It was a really lovely afternoon. After parting ways with our New Yorker who was heading back to America, we went for dinner. Marj and I ate separately as I wanted market noodle soup and she wanted something, well less market food. I found a lady that made me feel good, mainly by her smile and the fact that she kept showing me various veggies she would put in my soup. The soup was off the chain - I no longer know where I had the best noodle soup in Vietnam. All I know is I went back to this lovely lady for the vegetarian pho (noodles) every day I was in Sapa.
Many of the tours bring you to these villages, meet the people of the various ethnic groups, have a meal with them and possibly stay a night with them. But I read in many places this one hike was safe and do-able on your own so that's what I did on day 3. Marj was hiked out from the day before but I had been jonesing for a solid day hike and looking forward to some time by myself. The 2 ethnic minority villages I hiked through were in the heart of the rice terraces and it was simply stunning. Throughout the day, I was greeted by some weary stares but also by some winning smiles. I came across yet another church. I chatted with the pastor, a 20 year old who could speak a little English - he was really nice and glad to have a visitor.
Of course, it rained pretty much all day. Thank goodness for my new "Northface" rain jacket. It took me a bit longer to do the round trip because 2 times the rain was too heavy and I had to cover for shelter. Ironically, this happened once on the way there and once on the way back, both times at the same location. I was grateful for this because if it didn't rain, I wouldn't have made these stops and had these 2 lovely experiences.
The first stop, I was alone on a bench at the school I stopped at. I took my iPad out to take some photos and some notes when this little munchkina of about 1 years old waddles over, again shirt and no pants so hiney shining, with his grandpa. Grandpa is dressed in the traditional H'momg garb. I show the baby the pictures I took of my hike and thought it'd be cute to show him his own photo. I feel a little strange taking photos of the kids because I dont know how they really feel about it, but I asked grandpa through charades and he grunted back, which I translated as a yes. When I showed little munchkina his picture, he had no reaction despite me and grandpa oohing and aaahhhhing. I then realized that the people who live here most likely don't have mirrors (extremely poor, live with basic, minimal necessities...if that) and so he most likely has never seen himself and didn't understand. So i took a picture of all 3 of us and the little guys reaction when he saw his grandpa in the photo was adorable. Squealing, jumping up and down, with a huge smile. Made it worth my stop from the rain.
The second stop at the school on my way back was around lunchtime. There were a few boys playing a game over by my bench and patch of drybess, so I went to watch them play. I couldn't figure out what they were playing but it looked similar to what I've seen Thai kids play. The main difference was that these guys were using rocks instead of plastic jacks used in my village (that alone shows the difference in economics). The boys, snot running down their nose, holes in clothes, filthy and content, for the most part ignored me while younger boys, looking the same way ran around happily in the rain. A few girls came over, in Traditional H'mong garb, clean, combed hair and nicely groomed. It was interesting to see the stark difference in gender appearance. Either way, all of the kids had perfect, gorgeous, white teeth. This is completely different from every Thai kid who is lucky if they have teeth - they eat so much crap and sugar that every Thai kid I know has a rotting mouth....it's terrible. I took out my notebook to write notes so I wouldn't forget these endearing details and that caught everybody's attention. I wrote my name and where I come from and explained to them what I was writing, then asked them to write their name and home town. They all started to giggle and hold hands for comfort when one boy who had been playing jacks, with a smile that melted my heart, came forward and beautifully scripted his name, Chinh. Some of Chinh's courage was infectious and a few others bravely scripted their name. Before I know it, there are kids peeking over the fence - rougher looking kids who were clearly not at school. They hopped over and scared off my sweet little guys, who did eventually come back. But by this time, there were about 20 kids surrounding me repeating everything I said. The rough looking boys began to act rough as well and although there was a lot of laughter, there was a lot of shoving, pushing, pulling, falling, etc and I didn't want to have to mediate anything. By this time, the rain had stopped, so I gave some high fives and said good-bye.
Back in Sapa town, wet and hungry, where do you think I went? Yep, noodles at the market! There was a Catholic Church in town center (I should note here that Ive seen more churches in Vietnam than I've seen Buddhist temples....so surprisingly odd to me) and they were hosting "Adoration of the Sacrament". Having never been, not knowing what this was and traveling with an ex-nun, I was curious to check it out. It was all in Vietnamese but Marj said they did and spoke the same way she would at the convent for the same "ceremony". What was most interesting to us was that of about 50 Vietnamese participants, 45 were young people. We were expecting a bunch of old ladies like we did saw in Thailand at temples and back home in churches, but it was the opposite.
Later that night we met up with the 3 French Canadians we met in Hanoi and spent time with in Halong Bay. It was so nice to spend our last night there with them - they are by far some of my favorite travelers we've met so far. Marj went home early, so after my friends dropped me off at the hotel I was by myself to walk up the stairs to our room. No biggie. Except for the fact that as I walked passed reception, an enormously scary dog comes at me, growling his fangs glowing in the night. I think I screamed. I called the hotel Staffa bunch, hoping they could help me to no avail. I tried to pass a few more times but was too scared. I got a grilled corn on the cob from the street vendor to pass the time. Now 45 minutes have passed by. I tried to contact my friends thinking I could stay with them, but they were asleep. Thankfully, another guest on the first floor came out for a cigarette. I shared my dilemma with him, he got some bread to divert the dogs attention and away I went. So glad for smokers. One thing I can't wait for in America is domesticated dogs who don't attack anything with a pulse.
The unique ethnic minorities and the trekking are the two big draws to Sapa for tourists. It's what drew me here. We originally planned to take a day tour to meet with some of the people, eat with them and learn about them, but decided not to. I think there were many reasons for this: we were tired and also because I kind of lost interest. The ethnic groups are so interesting, but I thoroughly enjoyed my hike just walking through their villages. Nobody harassed me to buy anything because I was surrounded by the people just going about their day. The tours are a way for the locals to make an income, which I understand, but the attempts to constantly sell a tour and souvenirs wasn't borderline harassment, it was harassment. All day long, all I'd say was "no thank you" over and over. The only way they'd stop was when you ignored them, which felt worse to me but what I ended up doing. The tourism, albeit bring income to poor communities and cultural exchange which is great, but I really feel it's cheapened the unique authenticity of these groups. They use their uniqueness to make a sale. I love to see new things like this, but not while someone is over my shoulder the whole time making me feel bad for not buying. To me, that's not what sharing culture should be about, and so we ended up not going on a tour. Sad, but true. I think that for them to really preserve their authenticity, they need to take Sapa off the high market.
Despite this, I loved my time in Sapa. We got some nice hikes in, experienced something different and had a good time. I was really looking forward to Laos and left on a night bus. Most buses I've been on are pick-up and drop off services for the locals. I can't lie, I've taken part in that in Thailand. It's a quicker delivery than the postal system! On this bus, we had all sorts of things comin and goin: tables, boxes, food, pillows, some of the mini stools for restaurant seating, etc. Too funny. We loved Vietnam and all the time we spent here. My Dalat Easy Rider, Peter, called every other day while we were in Vietnam to see how we were. The last day in Vietnam, we spoke to say a final good-bye and "love you's", he told me I had to let him know when I got a boyfriend so my man and I can come to Vietnam and ride with him. I won't doubt that some day that happens. So, it's not good-bye Vietnam, it's so-long Vietnam!