As we walked the short journey, crossing the bridge into Vietnam, the world began to change. We could see China back across the Red River; so close, yet it felt like another universe. We faced a new language, a different currency, changed menu choices, a differing approach to almost everything … and I swear it felt hotter and more humid on this side of the bridge in Lao Cai. Our first hour of people experience in Vietnam, yielded more noisy emotion than the past month of travelling amoungst the discreet and respectful quietness of the Chinese. All around us, we could hear loud high-tension arguments and negotiations, joke telling and raucous laughter. People here, seemed to live in the moment … with passion.
After several interesting attempts at procuring a cab at the recommended price, we eventually headed to the hill town of Sa Pa, a little out-of-pocket, but thankfully, in air-conditioned comfort.
After a pleasant scenic drive, we checked into the Mountain View Lodge, then spent the afternoon strolling the streets, helplessly bargaining with the local tribeswomen, for little knick knacks and cotton bracelets. I mean … how many of these items do you need? We also received news that our friend Tija, just gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl, which she and her husband Jay named, Amber. Brilliant!
After a comfortable night’s sleep we awoke to a stunning vista of mist covered mountains and lush green, fertile valleys. What a relief to partake of a splendid early breakfast on the terrace, of our aptly named twenty-five dollar a night hotel and feel the cool of the mountains on our faces.
So, feeling refreshed and eager, we headed out with Ching, our mountain guide, to begin the trek to Fansipan; Vietnam’s highest mountain at 3,143m. The trek appeared to be reasonably easy in the beginning, as it wound its way through varied landscapes, including rivers and fast running streams, bamboo forests with cardamom and ginger growing in great profusion, and a dense canopy of temperate rainforest. As we proceeded, the gradient began steepening; at times forcing us to use our hands to scamper up the rocks. At around midday, an A-framed tin hut materialised out of the mist, which meant lunch and a welcomed rest with several other trekkers – Alex from Holland, and Brett and Dane from South Australia.
After lunch we continued climbing through the steep landscape, passing herds of goats and water buffalo; the latter leaving several calling cards that needed to be carefully avoided! From here, we climbed and scrambled our way up slippery rock faces, having to negotiate our way over a lot of difficult muddy track, with mossy wet boulders and a constant tangle of tree roots. Eventually, we arrived at our digs for the night at 2,800 metres, with only one mishap. This particular cranky Cobra, didn’t want to share his patch of track; forcing us to not only dive out of his way, but to be ultra-focused on our footsteps from then on.
I couldn’t quite determine whether Katie felt elated or annoyed, at having to share a tin shack for the night with ten other men. She seemed to be the only woman crazy enough to be on the mountain at the time. Later that evening, our crew prepared a delicious meal, accompanied by a spirit akin to petrol. Every time anyone took a sip, the entire group raised their blue plastic cups with a shout of “Jyoh”. The sharing of the drink and the story telling made for a wonderful evening. The strong liquor also helped ward off the cold, but only for a while. Once the sun disappeared the heat went with it. Even wearing all of our clothing, including a beanie and gloves inside our sleeping bags, we shivered! It seemed a long wait for the dawn, as neither of us slept a great deal.
The next day we climbed even more steeply over moss and fern covered boulders, to the summit of Fansipan. Wow … We felt like we could see the entire world from up here. We sat there for a while feeling well pleased with our achievement, despite our joints aching from the knee hugging night and the climb; our bodies feeling unaccustomed to days of attempting to ascend hip-high boulders. With a ‘groan’ we both realised that our descent could feel a lot worse. After our short rest on the summit we headed back down the mountain, where several Red-Faced Monkeys rewarded us with a clear viewing of their antics. They crashed their way through the bamboo and down the steep terrain, screeching and calling as they went. It seemed like a quick and painless way of getting off the mountain and I felt a sudden urge to follow them. That is, until I got closer to the edge of the ridge. If I happened to misjudge even one swing between bamboo poles, then my intended Tarzan experience would definitely end in grief. I decided to leave the tree jumping to the monkeys. All in all, despite the rain, the cold, our agonised bodies and the fear of falling into the abyss, we really enjoyed this fabulous trek and all of the people we met along the way.
Contrasts always seem to heighten our experiences, so it felt good to hand our wet, muddy clothes over to the staff of the hotel, have a very long, hot shower and enjoy the comforts of our accommodation.
For the next two days we explored the environs of Sa Pa, shopping for friends and family, and trying out a range of massage to ease our tired muscles. Katie even treated herself to a local herbal bath. It looked to me like torture. They crammed her into half a wine barrel filled with warm soapy herbal water; leaving her trapped there for twenty minutes. Later, we found ourselves confronted by competing groups of women and children from several of the local hill tribes, who never allowed us a moment, without their constant sales pitch. With three large groups following us back to the hotel, I decided to try a different approach. I retrieved an old shirt from my pack and attempted to sell it to them. Somewhere, through the course of our negotiations, we all began to enjoy the banter, especially when a proposal of marriage seemed to be on the table. Thirty women seemed like a good sized harem and my counter offer to marry them all, caused an eruption of laughter and shared fun. Unfortunately, all my proposals of matrimony and attempts at retail selling failed, but we all enjoyed the interaction.
Friendly, Sa Pa, with its lovely people and great dining … is a rare gem. If you love shopping, garden walks around scenic lakes and exploring and finding exotic culture in colourful markets and hidden laneways, then this is a noisy heaven not to be missed. And … how could we ever forget the pain and the glory of its majestic mountains …
Our next stop … Hanoi on the overnight train from Lao Cai. It sounded like a simple enough trip to organise; bus it back to Lao Cai and pick up our tickets at the office next to the train station. Easy, right? Wrong … After a lot of arguments and strange directions, we finally found our ticket office, which turned out to be a guy on a little plastic stool, crammed in beside the station entrance. We eventually found him amougst the crowd, half hidden by a local street vendor, with a pile of papers in his lap! Despite all the noise and drama, we felt a high level of expectation and excitement. The famed Vietnamese capital awaited.