This morning saw a sudden change in our plans. Jessica and I were eating breakfast at our hotel in Sapa. We were hurried, having only arrived an hour earlier and expecting our tour group to pick us up any minute to take us to the base of Mount Phan Xi Pang to begin our three-day trek. I didn’t feel hungry but had filled my plate with sausages, eggs, toast, tomatoes and potatoes from the buffet in preparation of the hard day ahead. Jessica had instructed me to finish my plate in five minutes, which I had a good crack at. On my last few mouthfuls, Jessica discovered, through contacting our tour guide, that a mistake had been made by the travel agency; the guide was not expecting us until tomorrow. We both felt thrown by this news, but being unable to change the situation, we changed the night we had booked at the hotel from Wednesday night to tonight, and tried to get used to the idea that we were no longer climbing the mountain today, and would be having a relaxed day instead.
Early yesterday evening I met Jessica at Hanoi airport, where it was dark and stormy because of a typhoon that had hit north and central Vietnam the night before. We travelled to the old quarter by taxi in an attempt to book a hotel for me for my three nights in Hanoi at the end of my trip, from the fourth to the seventh of November. I hopped out of the taxi and rushed across the road, fighting back the rain, to inquire about prices. I was lucky enough to find a hotel that seemed very nice and was within my budget on only the second inquiry. I provisionally booked a room and didn’t even have to leave a deposit. The staff were very helpful considering I had not yet parted with any money- I was shown around a room and then given advice about nearby restaurants. They looked after our bags while we went out to eat and called a taxi for us when we returned. I feel confident it will be a good place to stay.
|Travelling in style|
We ate at the nearest café, which was almost deserted, played rubbish American R&B and was decorated more like a nightclub than a restaurant, with cream sofas, sequined cushions, chandeliers and dark patterned wallpaper. Because of the rain we weren’t fussy about where we ate, and luckily the food was decent. We took a taxi to the train station to take the night train to Lao Cai, en route to the mountains of Sapa in the far north of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. A porter showed us to the train. I was delighted to find it was a luxury sleeper provided by the best hotel in Sapa, although traveling with Jessica, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The cabin was beautiful, with polished wooden bed frames and table, and dark-red and black patterned fabrics in the regional style. There were even slippers provided. We shared our cabin with a Vietnamese woman and her Sri Lankan- American boyfriend, who kindly shared a bottle of red wine with us. It felt like a very classy way to travel.
We arrived in Lao Cai at 6.30 in the morning. It was a quiet town with a dotting of motels and a crowd of tour guides and taxis around the railway station. Here, we picked up a shuttle bus for an hour’s drive up through the foggy mountains. Shortly before entering the town of Sapa we passed slowly around a steep bend in the road along a cliff edge. A crowd had gathered and when we passed, we could see that a truck had rolled down the cliff and spilt its contents down the rocks and into the river. We arrived in Sapa, a very pretty little mountain town that could be Alpine with its pine trees, small lake and tall, colourful hotels. Of course, a distinguishing feature is the number of Hmong women dressed in black outfits with colourful patterns, wearing dangly silver earrings and with black bandages around their calves to keep them slim. There are seventeen different ethnic minority groups in this town with a population of 50,000, one of the factors that brings tourists to Sapa in increasing numbers every year, as well as the beautiful scenery and the trekking.
Now, with a day to spare before we could start our mountain climb, we took advantage of the free half-day walking tour provided by the hotel. At 10am we were met by Lan, our tour guide, who wore a traditional dress of the Black Hmong, a tribal group of whom there are only fifty-three in Sapa. She spoke English very well and had a good sense of humour. She frequently sang and told jokes throughout our 6km walk to a village in the valley. For much of the way we were joined by three Hmong women, including one with a baby, and a girl of fourteen who looked as though she were eight or nine. They told us that older Hmong women mostly married at thirteen or fourteen to a man of eighteen or nineteen, but nowadays girls marry later. The girl we walked with was not married, I was pleased to learn; her friend said that she would probably not marry until eighteen or so. At twenty-two, Lan was a very old single girl, they said. Nonetheless, even today there are stories of Vietnamese men trafficking Hmong girls to sell into sex slavery over the Chinese border, and even of Hmong families selling their daughters to the same fate.
The walk was stunning and I felt overwhelmed and thrilled to have suddenly found myself here. Jessica and I endlessly photographed the beautiful mountain scenery and the tiered rice paddy fields. The Hmong women all spoke English and were really fun to walk with, although predictably when they reached their village they wanted us to buy some of the intricate hand-woven products they carried in baskets on their backs, in return for their company. As we approached the village the path became busier as we joined other tourist groups walking this well-trodden route. At one point we saw a small girl walking alone in out of the village towards us. Lan recognised her from the village- she told me that the girl was about three-and-a-half years old, and was walking the couple of kilometres from her school to her home, by herself. I couldn’t believe it. She must be safe to do so as no vehicles could go down this path and she often passed villagers who knew her. Even so, she seemed so small and alone in front of the vast mountainous background.
We reached the village in the valley where Lan lives. She told that of the 3,000 inhabitants, half follow Catholicism, left over from French colonialism, and in fact many of the older generation speak Latin! The Hmong tribe arrived in Vietnam from China around 400 years ago. This area was once forested, and the Hmong first survived on opium plantation. Jessica and I were very hungry by now. We met the car to take us back to Sapa, and I quickly fell asleep for the twenty minute journey. We had lunch and spent the afternoon relaxing. It is an early start tomorrow and I’m feeling very nervous about the mountain climb! If all goes as planned, we will reach the peak on Wednesday and come down from the mountain on Thursday. That night, we will take the night train back to Hanoi, and on Friday we will head to our next destination, the national park of Ninh Binh just outside Hanoi. This will be the first opportunity I will have to post my report of the mountain climb.