Saturday, May 29, 2010

Seasons Greetings, Part 4... Sapa & Hanoi, Vietnam

Back in Hanoi... we went to the same small hotel we used before and got a room for a few hours so we could shower and recharge our camera batteries. We only had a few hours to rest before we had to depart to our next destination, Sapa. Before we left, we had to figure out where our train station was. According to the map, it was just across the street from us, and we could see it from our room. But the online directions said that we had to board the train from the other side of the tracks. So we went walking around and around trying to find exactly where we had to get onboard. After a while, we stopped searching and decided to grab some dinner. [NAME REMOVED] wanted to try a much recommended restaurant that was nearby. A short walk later we found the Quan An Ngon on a quiet corner, and were thrilled we did.

The restaurant is secluded under a canopy of multiple trees, and you sit family style on long picnic tables. The menu was enormous, and had every type of Asian food you could think of. We ordered a large mix of strange foods and dived in. Around the borders of the restaurant are twenty or so stations where the chefs prepare your food. You can walk right up to them and watch from start to stop how they prepare, cook, (and sometimes kill) your dinner. We gorged ourselves before heading back to the hotel… but for the record… Quan An Ngon is the best restaurant in all of Hanoi.

We walked across the street to the train station and tried to decipher our instructions. Our new tour company, Wide-Eyed Tours, left the ticket vouchers for the train at the hotel counter, but we had no idea how to use them, or where to get onboard the train. Thankfully, and young man with a Wide-Eyed badge came up to us and said that he was our fixer. We were skeptical until he took the vouchers and rushed up to ticket counter. He came back and said that if we wanted, we could pay an additional $70 and get a deluxe room completely to ourselves; no sharing with another two strangers. Well, that sold us. We had heard that the sleeping cars were terrible, so upgrading was a definite plus. He ended up buying the other two tickets for our stateroom from a scalper, so we could be on our own. When the train arrived, he grabbed our bags and carried them about a kilometer down the track until we reached our car. This deluxe train car was really nice, well furnished, and very comfortable… definitely worth the extra cost. We gave our fixer a good tip, and departed late into the night for our overnight ride to Lai Chau, the northernmost city in Vietnam. As the train took off, I quickly realized our close this train was running next to homes and businesses… you could look out the window and be able to see what people were having for dinner or watching on TV.

The night went by slowly… as I was still not able to sleep very well with the constant rocking of the train. The porter woke us up around five a.m. for a French roll breakfast and to get ready to depart. Lai Chai station was quite small, with a non-stop stream of buses and cabs outside waiting to pick up tourists for the hours ride to Sapa. Our driver from our hotel picked us up with an older couple, including a man wearing a pith helmet. We took off into the night and started to feel the alpine twists and struggling engine of a van that was steeply climbing into the mountains.

Sapa is a very small tribal village at the northern border of Vietnam, just a few kilometers away from China. The reason this sleepy, tiny town has anyone visiting at all is the Hoang Lien Son mountain range… the precursors of the mighty Himalayas. Known for its sweeping valleys and ever changing weather, in winter the town is normally awash in rain and deep clouds. But when we arrived, the town was bathed in sunshine and a very brisk cool wind. Out in the distance was a large mountain peak, Fan Si Pan, the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia.

The village itself has very few Vietnamese people, most of the people in the village are the native Black Hmong or Red Zhao people, and the rest are small groups of one of the other native tribes. We zigzagged thru the narrow streets, staring off at the mountains, until we reached our hotel. The hotel was very nice, although quite loud since they were rebuilding a deck that was destroyed by a fire. Our room was OK… but the balcony took your breath away. We were on the third floor of a building that was built into the side of a cliff, and a deep valley just below us. We watched as billowing clouds of mist poured down the nearby mountainside and filled the valley, the wind whipping up tails of white that quickly disappeared.

We walked up and down the steep streets into town, taking picture after picture of the far away mountains. The local tribes women were scattered all over town, wearing their homemade black or red embroidered robes and headscarves; their skinned tanned dark from working in their fields. Some would come up to us to buy some of their woven goods, and we gladly purchased. [NAME REMOVED] found a local bakery that trains the young people in how to become cooks and wait staff for the burgeoning tourist industry, and made a mental note to come back to try their food.

Back at the hotel, we met with Terry (can’t spell his real name) who was going to take us on a hill tribe walking tour. We got into his small car and were dropped off about five kilometers back down the mountain. We walked down a small road until we came to the floor of a valley that was filled with small farms and villages on either side. Water buffalo were grazing on river grass while huge hogs lumbered down the gravel path with a dozen piglets in tow trying to steal a suckle. At the start, several young Red Zhao women (wearing red scarves on their heads) joined us in our walk. Terry explained that they would walk with us and answer any questions about their lives, in exchange for getting the first chance at selling their embroidery at the end of the tour. We quickly called who got which girl (Sien and Beena for me) and started our hike. As we went along, more and more women would join us, and each time we called whose were whoms… I got all the lookers.

Sien, who was about four foot five, spoke almost perfect English. I asked if he learned in Hanoi, but she said that she had never left Sapa. She learned her English by listening and talking to all the tourists that had started to come to Sapa when she was a little girl. Sien described her life to us in great detail. She and the other women cared for the animals, children, and most of the daily farming life, while the men went up into the mountains to gather wood and timber for their homes, heat, and tools. The tourists who now come to Sapa have really changed Sien’s life for the better. The money the town has made has paid for new schools, hospitals, and even the paving of the mountain roads. Every time we turned a corner we found something completely new and interesting. I came upon a stream that they had converted into a rice mill; the water filling one end of a log that they tipped over and scratched the chafe off of the newly harvested rice. At one point, we turned and climbed a hill until we had reached the apex, and saw one of Sapa’s most beautiful wonders… their terraced fields.

Carved in stunning ess curves, these fields were carved hundreds of years ago, and are still fed by narrow streams cut into the mountainsides. The deep green of the young rice shoots hovered about the surface water and mud, cutting shadows across the fields. We walked several hours up and down the vast hillsides, stopping along the way for water breaks and picturesque scenes. The incredibly clean air with aromas of fruit and trees was just so soothing… too bad it couldn’t help my worn out feet and ankles. Finally, we walked into their main village where we had some sandwiches and salads laid out for us. [NAME REMOVED] realized that she had gotten a bad burn while walking. It was only after lunch that Sien and the other ladies pulled the large woven baskets off their backs and made their pitches. We haggled, but only half-hearted, as I spent a lot of money on some beautiful pieces of cloth and little purses for gifts. The money I spent was mostly as a tip for the companionship and warmth that Sien and the other tribal women showed us as they invited us into their lives.

That night we hiked up into town and ate some really nice local cuisine with French wine, a holdover from the old French monks that settled in Sapa and converted all the tribes to Catholicism. Inside the restaurant was a wood-burning fireplace and hanging cuts of meat… nothing that would be allowed in the U.S… but my pumpkin soup and pork loin was Parisian and wonderful. Walking around the town after dinner, we kept being approached by the local women trying to sell their wares. One particularly old woman came up to us with a beautiful dark blue blanket, and we did our casual “no thank you.” About five steps later, we both realized that we both really wanted the blanket… so we ran back and bought it from her. Back in the hotel room while getting ready for bed, I noticed that my hands and fingers had turned blue. At first, I thought it was my heart! Turns out, it was just the blue dye from the blanket rubbing off on my skin… and it wasn’t coming off. {Flash forward – I soaked the blanket in my bathtub full of saltwater back in Doha that was supposed to fix the dye… but it only turned my bathtub a very beautiful and very permanent shade of midnight!}

After breakfast, [NAME REMOVED] wanted to sit out on the balcony and catch up on her reading, so I headed into town. Right around the corner from our hotel was a group of men who were constantly hawking their scooter rentals… and for really cheap, about five dollars a day.

While [NAME REMOVED] was going to rest up since she had recently picked up a chest cold, I walked over and negotiated a rental for a high powered automatic transmission scooter. I put on my ugly yellow helmet, pre-scarred with a large swath of road rash, and took off up the road. I sped along the narrow town roads, pushing the scooter’s limit on pushing me up the incredibly steep roads. I love scooters… feeling the exhilaration of the cool air against your face… weaving back and forth thru traffic just like all the locals, it’s just a fun thing to do. I drove for a few hours exploring back roads and taking the proverbial path less taken. I tried to find a waterfall that was on a signpost, and turned off onto a tight back lane that abutted against a sheer, unguarded drop to the valley below. It was here that I found the most amazing overlook of the entire valley. Always wanted to share, I headed back into town, picked up some sandwiches at the cafĂ© for teens, and had lunch with [NAME REMOVED].

It took me a while, but I finally convinced [NAME REMOVED] to get a scooter with me and hit the road. I was shocked to hear that she had never ridden a scooter… even though she had lived in the Caribbean. After half-an-hour of explaining the basics of braking and turning the key, we were on the road again. I showed her the back roads and the overlooks. There was a sign again for some waterfalls about twenty kilometers outside of town, and we decided to make an afternoon of it. We pushed the bikes hard, constantly climbing into the mountains, snaking around the lanes that were cut into the mountainsides. An hour later, we reached the impressive waterfalls that cascaded down upon the roadside. We kept driving further and further up into the cliffs until we reached the Fan Si Pan Pass, the highest pass in the country. A monstrous bitterly cold wind blew thru the narrow gap in the mountains, making it difficult to reach the top. From the apex, you could literally see China in the distance. We slowly made our way back into town, stopping frequently to take photos of the majestic scenery.

We picked up some more sandwiches and tarts from the local bakery for our train ride back to Hanoi. The afternoon was spent on our hotel balcony watching the sun slowly descending behind Fan Si Pan, and the evening mist flowing down the mountains. When [NAME REMOVED] wanted to go so Sapa, I honestly didn’t want to, not realizing exactly why she wanted to come to a remote mountain village with nothing to do. I am so glad I was dead wrong… Sapa was as beautiful a place I had ever seen, still removed from the rigors and stress of the modern world. I fear that it will not stay like this forever… so if you can, please go… you won’t be disappointed.

Our driver picked us up and drove us down the mountain back to Lai Chau. We had to find a local restaurant near the train station to meet our fixer, and then waited another hour for our train to arrive. Once we got onboard, we dined on our baguettes and fruit tarts, and quickly fell asleep in our bunks for the overnight to Hanoi.

From the Hanoi train station, we took a cab to our new hotel. We arrived really early in the morning in the middle of a downpour. The gates of our hotel were closed shut, and after violently knocking for a few minutes, two caretakers climbed up from their sleeping bags on the floor of the lobby to let us in. I was able to get in a few hours of naptime before taking a long, desperately needed shower. We went out and walked around the old city, picking up some breakfast and taking in the last few glimpses of incredible Hanoi. Even in a hard rain, the city was alive with people, bikes, and motorcycles all intertwined and weaving thru the city.

No comments: