As you’ll have noticed, I just managed to get my blog uploaded before our tour guide arrived to pick us up for the night train trip. Lo and behold, it was Loi who we’d had for Ha Long Bay. Things were therefore off to a good start as we knew him and liked him.
The taxi took us to the train station which was, to put it mildly, chaos. Whenever a train is due to leave, the place is absolutely heaving. Passengers aren’t allowed on the platform until the train is ready to be boarded, and the waiting rooms only accomodate maybe 150 people. Due to their infrequency, each train has a large number of carriages and therefore the queues are enormous. It’s all very British Rail, though. You must arrive 30 minutes before scheduled departure, but don’t think the train will leave anywhere near on time.
Andy and I were bunked with Mike and Jennifer in one cabin; Dale and Kate were elsewhere, bunked up with two random Korean people. It was quite pleasant – effectively two bunks, a little table, air conditioning, water and some of that icky sweet bread I can’t quite convince myself to swallow once I’ve chewed it. The loo at the end of the corridor was an “Eastern” style one – basically a metal hole in a metal floor.
I’ve never slept “properly” on a train before – just nodded off in my seat on the way to London and the like. The bed was nice and comfy, though the journey was a little noisy and jostley in places. Sometimes it felt like being rocked gently other times, bounced like on an inflatable castle. Overall, I have no idea how well I slept (or not) as I lost track of time.
We pulled up at around 6am and sat there for an age before the train moved on another mile or so into the station at Lao Cai. I told you it was like British Rail.
More chaos ensued as we were moved from one coach to a large minibus for the hour-long ride to Sa Pa itself. As ever, the driver was somewhat heavy on the horn. This time, though, it was warranted as there were many tight bends in the mountain roads. Also many huge piles of dirt and potholes that had to be skirted, many of them near these bends which made for some interesting heart-in-mouth moments when trucks and bikes came hurtling down towards us, or up past us.
The trip had been reversed slightly to compensate for the holiday weekend. The usual plan is to stay in a hotel the first night and a village the second. Instead, we arrived at the hotel to drop our bags and freshen up, pack a smaller bag and start on our treck into the valleys. The hotel served us breakfast (I had hot beef noodle soup – delicious) and stored our luggage. We hung around for a while as Loi had to get some permits and so forth. This took a little longer than normal due to Andy’s passport being a photocopied sheet of paper with no visa on it.
While he was away, we stood in the hotel’s open-air reception and just stared in awe at the view. The clouds were low, but as we stood there we could watch them skirt past and rise, gradually burning off as the sun rose over the mountaintops.
I simply cannot explain how breathtaking these scenes were. Not only a huge variety of plants, trees, valleys, rivers and rocky mountains but also a great amount of man-made work. The natives in the area grow rice for a living and rice paddies on mountainsides sounds a bit implausible. After all, they’re essentially big pools of water. Water has a tendency to slide down mountainsides.
What they have done is to cut layers into the hills, creating a step-like effect on many of them. Each step is hollowed out into a bowl and filled with water which trickles from higher up. Their irrigation system is a joy to behold and the overall effect from a distance is as if someone has drawn map contour lines onto the landscape in real life. I’m really pleased with the way the photos of the trip came out, but they simply can’t do justice to the real thing.
Our trek began at midday. Weighted down by one small rucksack and a camera bag, I joined the others and we started to march down the road. Today would be around 10km, though that number varied depending on what mood Loi was in when we asked him.
We walked on road, then off onto the hills themselves. Today’s journey was mainly downhill and along the side of the valley, walking along the edge of these rice paddies. We encountered many children on the way and a handful of adults. Most were members of one of the local hill tribes, the H’mong, the women of which wear dark blue or indigo clothing. They’re also very persistent when it comes to selling things. More than once I was faced with a small girl in traditional dress holding a basket of various bits and bobs and the following conversation ensued:
“You buy from me?”
“No. Thank you.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Erm… no, thank you.”
“Yes, thank you.” (cheesy smile)
“No, I do not need.”
“Why you not need?”
And on. And on. I didn’t cave, though. Andy did. In the space of about a mile he’d bought two heavy shirts, one of which he wore – staining the t-shirt underneath a lovely yellow colour as the dye in the clothing isn’t fixed.
To be honest, the kids started to get creepy with their little sing-song voices. When you have ten of them stood around saying “Buy from me? You buy from her, so you buy from me?” over and over in near-similar voices it starts to sound like something from the bowels of Wes Craven’s personal hell. “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you… Three, four, buy from me?”
This actually reminds me of something else on the Ha Long Bay trip that I forgot to mention. Whenever our boat stopped anywhere, within 90 seconds it was surrounded by small rowboats stocked with Ritz crackers, Oreos, beer and soft drinks. Cries of “OI! OI! Excuse me! Buy from me! Very cheap!” abounded. Vietnam is a nation of shopkeepers, whether that shop a building, a shack, a table, a backpack or a rowboat.
Lunch was a fairly simple affair in a small shack-like cafe on the way round, surrounded by a throng of locals staring at us then descending once more with hats, keyrings, jumpers and so on once we’d finished. We were staying in one of their villages for the night so many of them followed us along the trail until we got there.
What amazed me was that every 15 photos or so, I’d think “OK, that’s it. Seen it all. No need to take more pictures of… WOW…” and I’d round a corner to be confronted with something else that just blew my mind. Either nature itelf was doing its best to make me stare slack-jawed, or a bunch of kids made my heart melt, or an insect landed inches in front of me and posed, or Loi pointed out something I’d have missed.
One of the smaller villages we passed through was home to the proud inventors of the water-powered rice-separator ™. Essentially, a big weight on a pivot the opposite end consisting of a large bowl placed under a running water supply. When the bowl fills, it lifts the weight up, the water sloshes out, the weigh crashes back down and separates the rice husk from the useful part of the plant. Repeat ad infinitum or until the hills run dry. This saves the villagers a lot of time so they can do other things. Like swarm around visitors, trying to tie bracelets to their wrists when they’re not looking.
At around 4pm we arrived at our home for the evening, a nice little village near the bottom of the valley. The people are farmers as well as hunters and manufacturers, so the area was swarming with water buffalo (one only had a single horn, poor thing), chickens, ducks, dogs, cows, horses, pigs… All of which were tamer than I’d ever have expected. I found one chick that had wandered off from its mother and was on the verge of wandering into a stream. I held my hands out and it happily jumped into them and made no move to escape as I ferried it back to the coop.
The accomodation itself was basic but very homely. A two-storey wooden house purpose-built for trekkers with mattresses and beds to sleep on. The blankets were lovely and fluffy, too. The family themselves were incredibly friendly as were the other tour guides.
After dropping our stuff, we wandered down to the river for a quick dip in the chilly but clean water. It was fairly rocky, but there were a few little inlets where we could float around in relative safety until the sun started to dip and the mosquitoes came out to play.
The guides cooked for us, then ate with the family quaffing a fair amount of rice wine. We necked cheap, chilled Tiger beer and ate a huge meal. It was getting late, and dark, but Andy and I sat up till way past our bedtimes chatting to two of the guides. Oh, and finishing the bottle of rice wine. Vietnamese for “cheers!” is “Jo!” or “Yo!” – somewhere in between the two. Rice wine is also best on a full stomach. Just take my word on this after past experience.