Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lao Cai, Sapa, and Ban Den (Vietnam)

The overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai was an adventure. About 10 minutes after we left the station, the train lost power, and we got to sit in the blistering heat and humidity for almost 2 hours until they tried to fix it and then finally just replaced the whole engine car. We kept ourselves amused by trying to figure out what was going on in the train parked next to us, which looked like it could have been a train robbing or just a casual pick-out-your-cargo-from-the-freight-car-free-for-all with smoke breaks.

Lao Cai is the last station before the Chinese border filled with neon lights and coach buses as well as the drop-off point to catch a mini-bus to the real destination, Sapa.

Sapa is a bustling mountain town with a big backpacker (and therefore, tout) presence. We made a newbie mistake in our choice of hotel by being distracted by the beautiful view and cheap price and not catching the moldy ceilings and damp bedding until later. I got a massage from a girl who was more of the slap, pummel, and poke style than to my liking, but really, for 70 minutes at 8.50 USD, can you really complain? We also took a cooking class at a hotel restaurant, which was more demonstration than the billed as "hands-on," which really was fine, until the owner/manager lady came over and berated the nice pair instructing us. I think we would have preferred it to remain demo rather than having an angry woman standing over you yelling, "YOU! YOU COOK THE PORK NOW!" We were hoping she was just having a bad day and not normally such a jerk to be around.

The real draw for coming up to the mountains is for hiking and visiting the villages of the various minority tribes in the area. Sho, a Black Hmong girl who can be quite chatty at times, was our guide for a slightly less touristy trek and homestay in the area with Hmong, Red Zao, and Zay people. The first day was a 15 km trek up and down steep mountain sides - the longest, most technical, and hottest hike I have ever been on. At times we were walking along ridges of rice paddies and doing more of a controlled falling than actual walking. The first third we were followed by three Hmong women trying to sell us their jewelry and pillow cases. Although it was annoying they would not accept we were not going to buy, when we got to the rough areas (sinking mud, steep inclines, and more often than not, both at the same time), there were times that two of them were forcibly holding me up or catching my fall. It is pretty humbling to have some 4 ft tall grandma in wellies and a young mother in sandals with a freakin' baby strapped to her back (!) be the people who are actively keeping you from pitching head first down a mountain or into a huge pile of water buffalo cow pie. Anyway, it worked out to their favor since we ended up giving them a little something anyway for saving my life a couple of times. Rich, carrying our pack, was much more graceful and nimble on his feet. Of course! The rest of the day was also challenging but with less of a mud factor. We finally made it to the homestay in Ban Den with nothing wrong with us except for some shaky-tired legs and mud-covered shoes. Dinner made by the family was a fair spread and capped with shots of the local rice wine moonshine. We also managed to catch a good amount of the Germany vs. Serbia match before dinner, too!

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