Dec. 21, Sun (cont'd) - Our ride from Bac Ha to Sapa
took on a different character particularly because the roads have recently been
paved and widened, trees planted, and turn-outs provided due to the
government's recognition that an increasing
number of tourists come to Sapa as a destination town. However, the
driving is still unpredictable on the these two lane mountain roads.
Our first impression of the mountain town is not what one
would expect of a Vietnamese mountain town. If we did not know any
different, the town is more reminiscent of a European Alpine mountain village.
The Catholic church anchored the town and was one of the few
places where there were signs of the upcoming Christmas holiday.
When we pulled up to the Victoria Hotel, we definitely
thought we were in Switzerland. Situated on top of a hill overlooking the town,
it had all the amenities of a western hotel including conference center and spa.
The old town of Sapa is giving way to the modern development
which we witnessed while exploring on our own.
The Sapa market has been in existence for over 100 years.
Such items as miniature topiary reindeer and jars containing snakes aimed at
enhancing sexual prowess are a sampling of the items aimed at the tourist
We dined at a small restaurant in town - a fish hot pot- and
returned to our hotel to get ready for our three day hiking sojourn in the
outlying hills the next day.
Dec. 22, Mon - By 9am, we met Hian
and continued to the local government tourist office where we picked up our
permit and our government employee who would be our cook(?) and watchdog for our
trek through the highlands.
We set off down a dirt mountain road behind Sapa and
immediately came upon the construction site of a new resort hotel, designed more
in the vernacular architecture, slated to be opened later in the year.
While walking, our route consisted of the road bed under
construction. We were faster by far then most motorized vehicles, with the
exception of the motor bikes, whose engines are shut off, in an attempt to save
gas, as the bikes cruise down hill.
Although it was not rice harvesting season, we crossed
through the hillside paddies, as do the locals, on our way to mountain villages.
We shared the paddies with the local livestock of buffalo and pigs.
We descended down the valley and stopped for lunch beside a
bridge crossing the river. Local women and children greeted us in an
attempt to sell their needlework.
The Black Humong are of Chinese decent but speak French
phrases learned from the days of the French occupation.
The flow of the mountain streams are captured and harnessed
for use in flooding the rice paddies as well as providing water for cooking and
A sewing machine is shared by women of village as they teach
the young girls how to sew their traditional dresses. The women's' fingers
are blue-black from the dyes used in making and coloring the fabric for their
Along our walk, we visit a school, funded by the government,
with minimal furnishings.
By late afternoon, we arrive at the home of our hosting
family for the evening. Notice of our arrival has proceeded us and local
women are waiting to sell us their needlework: hats, belts, pillow covers. We
take lessons in bargaining from our guide.
Our host family consists of the parents, 3 children (2 boys,
1 girl), dogs, chickens, and birds. We are joined by two Australian sisters (a
nurse and a teacher) who have been traveling in Vietnam for almost a month,
along with their guide.
Dinner has been predetermined by the company who
arranged our trek. The guides have carried our food along with them and
consolidated the cooking for the sisters and us. Our sleeping
quarters are upstairs on mattresses laid on planks covering the joists. It
is much colder in the mountains, so we hop in bed early to get warm and read by
Dec 23, Tues - We are awakened at 4am by the
family rooster. We are greeted by local women who seek a final sale from
Jon before we depart. Breakfast is pancakes, bananas and chocolate syrup.
We are covering 20km today (~12 miles), mostly up and down
the hillside. We traverse rice paddies, streams, and villages along with our
Australian companions and set of guides.
Our Gray host family for this evening includes the Vice
President (Minister) of Ban Ho. They greet us from our dusty walk with
beer and rice wine. The women of the house are in the middle of making
rice wine in preparation for Tet.
The house situated on a hill side with the kitchen located on
the ground level. The living areas are raised above the ground (slatted
bamboo) and our sleeping areas are under the eaves. An out-house
consisting of stream water passing under the floor is situated downhill from the
house. We are able to grab a quick cold shower in the shower stall
attached to the main house. Electricity was available during the evening
hours. Our guides again prepare a gourmet dinner for us capped with plenty
of rice wine.
Dec 24, Wed - We walked around the local village in
the early morning. People were already working in the fields and moving cattle
on their property.
We saw the framing of a house that the whole community
had been building during the previous night. People were shouting and
beating drums in the darkness which was a little intimidating since at the time
we did not know if it was a political rally or some sort of domestic
Our climb out of the valley for our return trip to Sapa
was a brisk 1000 foot climb within 60 minutes. Along the way, children
stopped to view us and adults attempted to make one last sale.
We took a group picture on the climb out. The
Australian sisters had a change of plans and accompanied back to Sapa.
Road construction was challenging at best and did not
provide a sense of stability or comfort when the road was being blasted out as
Sapa looked like a major city when we arrived later in the
day. We had a cold shower in the backpacker's hotel, Royal. Once
presentable, we wandered around town and stopped in at the Catholic Church to
listen to the Black Hmong and Yellow Zoe children celebrating Christmas mass.
After a return trip via Soviet jeep to Lao Cia, we boarded
the Ratco train to Hanoi at 9:15 pm. It was no comparison to the Victoria.
Although it was also a sleeper, we had very little shut eye before we pulled
into the Hanoi station at 5:30 am.
On to Hue, and Danang