Sa Pa, Vietnam
30.07.2013 - 04.08.2013
This is Vietnam! Stets and I landed in Ha Noi and explored for a couple of days while awaiting the arrival of his father, Steve. Upon his arrival, we high tailed it to the mountains in the north, heading to a town called Sa Pa. How did we get there you ask...by train of course! And what an experience!
We boarded the train early in the morning and prepared for a ten hour ride through the city and into the mountains. Upon boarding, we saw that our windows, in the coach marked for foreigners, had cages on them and were difficult to see through. We wanted to see the changing landscape so we explored the different cars to see where the best seat would be. We found that the coach behind us had hard wooden seats but big beautiful clear windows. We picked up our breakfast and moved. The train had many stops to pick up and drop off passengers along the way. One man took a special liking to the foreigners who decided to sit themselves in a coach meant for locals (which we were unaware of at the time).
Here is my description of the man on the train:
Red teeth (from chewing betel nut). Turtle in a can. No personal bubble. Sitting so close. Unaware of the discomfort caused. So curious of these American men. Maps, books, bracelets. Stets gave him a bracelet and he lit up. Wanted more. Beer too early in the morning. Happy and content.
It was a long ride, but we made it. And from the minute we stepped off the train, we knew it was worth the ride. Sa Pa is beautiful. All around are mountains and rice terraces. Local woman smiling so big at us. We trekked down into a village very close to town and saw a waterfall rushing so powerfully it took your breath away. That is how we spent our afternoon, attended by a local girl by the name of Xua (sure). She is 16 and wanted to practice her English so she accompanied us through the village of Cat Cat and educated us on the ways of life up in the mountain villages. We hiked for about three or four hours this day and at the end, my heart was full of love for this young lady and her country and my lungs were filled with fresh mountain air.
Our time in Sa Pa was spent engaging in two separate adventures. The first was a motorbike ride through the mountains. We rode on the highest highway in Vietnam and passed the tallest mountain in the country, Fannsipan. We passed through several small villages, saw many rushing waterfalls, went from the cold temps of the high mountains to the extreme heat of the rice paddy valleys. We stopped for hard boiled eggs and beer at one local village and the heat of the day led us to a dip in one of the most clear rivers I have ever laid eyes on. The water was refreshingly cool and just far enough from the road that you felt a sense of seclusion that is hard to find in this populous country. It was a day I will never forget.
Our second adventure was a two day trek, once again through rice terraces, small villages, and mountains. We started this adventure right in the heart of town. As we set out, we realized that some women of the village, with their baskets on their backs, were following right along with us. Our own entourage. They would ask us questions; What is your name? Where are you from? How many brothers and sisters do you have? And on and on and on. It was a bit awkward at first to have the woman following us so close and to stand out like a sore thumb wherever we went, but we actually got used to it and set into a comfortable pace. I wondered why these women, dressed in their heavy village garb, would want to follow us on a blistering hot day. I turned and smiled at one of the girls and bam! She asked "please buy something!" At that point I realized they were following in order to sell their hand made items to us and once we warmed up to them, they were insistent. We held them off through the morning but knew by the time we stopped for lunch we would have to address the wants of these women in order to get them off our tail! After hiking for about three hours through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever scene, we stopped at a village restaurant for some pork fried rice. Once our bellies were full, we invited the women over to show us their items. We bought something from each women and said good bye to two out of three. The third woman, who was in her mid 50s continued along with us as she did not have enough money to afford a motorbike and therefore would have to walk home that afternoon. As we continued on, we passed hillside rice terraces that were unbelievably beautiful, water buffalo soaking in the cool mud, chickens, piglets, and little kids yelling "hello!". After another three or four hours, we arrived at the home where we would spend the night. It was a home to a family of the village tribe known as the Red Dao. The home was rustic, primitive, and absolutely beautiful. We sat for a short while to recuperate from the day and then set out to explore the grounds of the home. We found that the family had a garden of corn, rice, and pumpkins. They also owned pigs and chickens. As we wondered around, the neighbor invited us over to see the new home she was building and also show us her rice fields. Se was so proud of her land and home. We headed back inside where the women of the house were gathered in the kitchen preparing our dinner. Stets jumped right in to help and was rolling egg rolls as the women critiqued his cooking skills. They invited us to take a hot medicinal herb bath and of course we said yes! They boiled water over a huge fire in the kitchen and filled up wooden barrels also adding berries, wood chunks, and herbs. It was heavenly. We soaked for about 15 minutes, dried off, and feeling sleepy, headed to the dining room for dinner. The table was set for a king! Tomato tofu, pork sautéed with onions, fried egg rolls, steamed rice, chicken, morning glory cooked with garlic, and next to every plate was a shot glass filled with a clear liquid. Happy water! We were told if you drink enough of this homemade rice wine, you couldn't help but be happy. The wine was extremely potent and makes even a seasoned drinker cringe. With full bellies and love in our hearts, we headed for bed.
We awoke on our second day to the rooster crowing and sunlight streaming in through the cracks in the wood of the home. Breakfast consisted of bananas, crepes, and tea. We said our goodbyes and thank yous and headed out for more stunning mountain views. Today, we packed a picnic lunch. We hiked for three hours and came upon our picnic site, which was a concrete water drain that dumped water into the rice paddies. We sat and were given a baguette which we stuffed with tomatoes, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, and happy cow cheese. As I was about to take my first bite, the sky opened up and the rain began to fall. Before I knew it, the water was flowing into my shorts at a rapid pace! We stood, finished our sandwiches and headed out to meet our van that would take us back to Sa Pa. We made our way to the train station and boarded the overnight train back to Ha Noi.
Sa Pa has given us memories that we will never forget. This is a must see, magical place in Vietnam. Happy water, happy people, beautiful landscape.