Monday, July 19, 2010

I'm Leaving on the Midnight Train to Sapa
(and the famous sunday morning market at Bac Ha)

"beautiful Sapa
where heaven and earth are one.
Mountains, clouds, and rain."

It's tuesday right now and we are back in Hanoi. Trip almost over, can't even believe it. We return on Saturday.

Spent the last couple days traveling and vacationing in Sapa. 8 hour overnight train ride from Hanoi. Details to follow...

We needed to catch the 8:30 night train from Hanoi on saturday night. Trip was with all the gang - D & T, E & D, S & L, and ME!! Rainy lazy day in Hanoi, killing time til we could take a taxi to the train station. Finally we take 2 cabs to train station (we will meet D&T there). Sue and the boys in one cab, me and long in the other. Long and I arrive at the train station 10 minutes later (very short ride) and get out and we hook up w D&T, but no sign of Sue or the boys. Storm starting to move in and intensify. Train station a total zoo (probably like this most of the time). It is now very close to train leaving and if we miss it, there is not another one and we miss the trip to Sapa and the market which sue has wanted to see for many years.

I am waiting on the street outside the train station for sue and the boys and Long figures maybe the cab driver took them to the "other train station" - very close by -maybe sort of connected to the main one- not sure. Anyway we've literally got about 15 min before train leaves - wind gusting very strong and rain picking up. Long decides to run over to the other station to search for his family and I standby in case they arrive. 5 minutes to departure and here comes the Le family thru the rain and fog. Sue is really mad for the first time on the trip - turns out the Hanoi taxi drivers are NOTORIOUS for being dishonest and cheating tourists - and this guy probably deliberately took them to the wrong station to drive up the fare, then wouldn't help them w their bags, then didn't want to give sue back change for the fare. Anyway, as w all of our other plans, we manage to be among the last people on the train, and it leaves 30 seconds after we get on.

We are travelling first-class so we have our own sleeping car/room. Very tight w 4 beds - 2 lower and 2 upper. Mercifully we also have A/C and as part of our first-class treatment we also get "soft beds". The 5 of us (Le's plus Stone) are very happy to be on our next adventure and we all crash fairly easily. Reasonably comfortable, beds plenty long, a bit narrow but not too bad, and good company. D&T are next door w their own sleeping car. The train is noisy and rattly but very nice for jostling to sleep. I doze off wondering whose feet are so smelly. I suspect Sue or Derek!

Arrive 4:30 am in Lao Cai - main stop in the very rural mountainous Bac Ha. Long has arranged taxi-van to pick us up and take us the next 2 hours so we will be a-mong (sorry bad joke) the first to arrive at the famous sunday morning Hmong market. Hmong people of course are hill/mountain people of SE Asia. The women dress in spectacular colored outfits, do much of the work, take their vegetables or meat or touristy trinkets to market and try to sell them, and the men sit around drinking home-distilled liquor and/or smoking opium all day.

We get to market around 7 am and are certainly the first tourists there. Market is still getting started and we spend a few hours wandering around and I really enjoy the town and market. Similar to other VN markets but certainly w it's own flavor and flair that is neat to be a part of. Sue is in heaven as she loves the Hmong people and customs - seconded only to her odd fascination w water buffaloes! more to follow on this.

Anyway, after several hours at market we continue on to Sapa - this is another 1-2 hour taxi ride as we go up and up in elevation and wind thru the amazingly beautiful north-western VN mountain rode. The fog is thick in the valleys but the road remains strangely clear. This taxi trip is amazing w the dense jungle deep green vegetation farmed by hand and water-buffalo all up and down these very large mountains and hills. Abs insane - terraced farming mostly rice, in places it looks impossible to even get to much less get water-buffalo to.

Arrive Sapa and check in to hotel where we will spend one night and return on the night train the following day. Sapa is high the mountains 10,000 ft? and it is actually COOL and light raining the entire time - just fantastic. Never raining too hard so you get soaked, and we could still wander around the town in the drizzle.

Sapa is just an amazing town, and possibly the most beautiful landscaping and natural environment I have ever seen. The farms and mountains and huts and villages (and 5-star resorts!) and the amazingly green lush mountain-jungle is constantly breathtaking! The town is populated by VN and Hmong and "Red Zhou" people - not sure about them - religious or culturally unique and distinct from VN and Hmong. Most of the town proper I think is populated by VN, w the hmong and RZ people living as they have for centuries in the hills and mountains all around.

I take a lot of pictures and I even shop a bit for a few little things, despite the fact that these little hmong ladies are extremely aggressive trying to sell their stuff. If you are unfortunate enough to make eye-contact or smile, they will hound you..."YOU BUY ME YOU BUY ME!!"

Sue of course just loves all of this and is now practicing her Hmong language skills. While she is wandering around she is accosted by a particularly aggressive and nasty hmong woman who will just not leave her alone. A few of the red-zhou ladies are then around them and maybe trying to help sue or maybe just trying to get a piece of the rich tourist. Sue is charmed by the RZ ladies (who are even tinier then normal VN), but the hmong woman does not like them, and she pulls out her umbrella and BONKS one of the tiny RZ ladies on the head. This is too much for Sue who has amazingly reached her breaking point w this hmong lady and she rushes to the defense of the RZ ladies. She gets between them and yells at the hmong lady "YOU Nhuc-dao ME YOU nhuc-dao ME" which means "You headache Me!!' and "khong mua" which means "NO BUY". Finally the hmong woman moves on defeated and Sue has 3 adoring old red-zhou ladies follow her back to the hotel. Sue buys a little something from each of them and takes a pic w them. I wander out of the hotel just about now and meet them all and I also get a pic taken w them. They then start pulling out native RZ caps for me to buy, but sue is able to tell them, "I already buy you no more" and I don't have to buy a RZ cap!!

Nice evening with everyone in good mood and we eat well and wander around, get a good night sleep. Next morning more wandering around taking pics mostly of the amazing mountains and farms and trees and rivers and fog and mist. The view from our hotel rooms is spectacular - right on side of mountain. Catch a early afternoon taxi-van back to Lao Cai for the evening train back to Hanoi. The 5 of us again share a first-class sleeper car w D&T next door. We are all in a very good mood and we play some cards and then finally get to sleep.

I doze off again wondering who in world has those smelly feet...