Vietnam 2010

A whistle-stop trip from north to south (and a hop next door)


Posted by activeafrica on February 17, 2010


We were both excited about the overnight train trip. Our last overnight train ride was a Rovos Rail trip between Pretoria and Cape Town in 2004. So the King Express deluxe cabin isn’t quite a Rovos suite, but it’s still a train ride and we were excited to be going somewhere new. As the train left Hanoi, we lamented having neglected to buy snacks (is that still called ‘padkos’ or is it ‘spoorkos’?) so we shared the complimentary Hanoi beer in our gift basket (our ticket notes that the services include: 01 drink and 01 high quality cold tissue). The high quality cold tissue was stashed for future roadside emergencies and we settled down to enjoy the clickety-click….

I had read on Trip Advisor and in our Rough Guide to Vietnam that theft has been reported on the overnight train to Sa Pa, so we set about securing bags under the bed and settled down to sleep. This is where the Travel Ogre awoke…. after a 20-hour flight and 2 full days of pounding the streets of Hanoi, I was in need of at least 4 hours’ rest. So much for the freaking peaceful clickety-click of the tracks! That had to be the noisiest train I’d ever ridden. Everything groaned, squeaked and clanged without pause and I tossed, turned and cursed for hours before I was suddenly woken at 4am (I guess I must have fallen asleep at some stage) by an almighty racket outside the door and this continued until the train arrived in Lao Cai. Apparently, shortly before the noise, someone had opened our cabin door and Chris had woken up just as the intruder was entering the cabin. When he saw Chris, he ran. Then all hell broke loose outside. (Shit, I must have been sleeping..!). Turns out that we had not locked the door properly and it was easily opened from the outside. At around 4.30am, someone knocked on our door to let us know we were arriving in Lao Cai. I hurried about getting my stuff together while Chris very uncharacteristically lay around in bed.

As we pulled into the station, there was a mad rush to disembark and I grabbed my bag, checked under my bed and walked out, griping at Chris to get himself together. We had arranged a transfer to Sa Pa, an hour’s drive into the mountains and stood around in the dark for 45 minutes waiting for the next train from Hanoi before we could leave. Once everyone was accounted for, we left Lao Cai and headed upwards along the steep, winding road. Thank God for the fog and darkness! The first part of the drive was okay, it was still warm enough that the 10 hot bodies and steamy breaths didn’t fog up the windows, but once we got higher into the mountains, the temperatures plummeted and the windows turned cataract-white. It didn’t seem to occur to the driver to turn on a fan, the aircon or open a window.. instead, he leaned forward in his seat, rubbed his greasy palm on the windscreen and put his foot flat into the corner. A collective gasp added more fog to the window as we sped towards the tail lights ahead of us and overtook a Land Cruiser on a blind corner, narrowly missing an oncoming truck. Mercifully, it was starting to get lighter as we pulled into Sa Pa, the dark fog became light fog and the tail lights of cars became visible from 20m away. Our stop was second and we grabbed our bags and headed into the Mountain View Hotel just as the mist was turning to rain.

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep and the nerve-shattering wake-up call, or perhaps it was the Trip Advisor reviews I’d read in Hanoi or perhaps it was the soaking rain and almost-subzero temperatures or perhaps it was just that it was freaking 6am and I’d already been awake … like…. all night (except when it apparently counted…). The Mountain View hotel, for the $20 (with heater) they charged for the room, would have been okay had the above not applied. But when we got to the room, it clearly was not going to cut it. The bed was hard, the room large and cold, the TV didn’t work and the bathroom was one big shower with a leaky toilet. We had a premier room because it looked out over Mount Fan Xi Pan, which on any given, say SUMMER’S day, we would have had a gorgeous view. But on this occasion, with fog so thick we thought the town was a single street (yep, we missed seeing most of the town because we didn’t know it was there!), catching a glimpse of Mount Fan Xi Pan was not even a remote possibility. It was about this time that Chris noticed his camera was not amongst the luggage. Tracing back our movements, we realised he had left it on the train in his semi-conscious state. A call to the station revealed that the battery charger had been found, but the $1400 Leica camera had not, despite the fact that they had been together in the same bag. This is still a sensitive topic so I won’t discuss it any further here…..

Now thoroughly miserable, I climbed into the bed next to the heater to thaw and lay there for several minutes wondering why the hell we were there before I decided we had to move. I’m really not a princess when it comes to travelling, but there are some basic rules that apply. Cleanliness and warmth are pretty high on the list. The former wasn’t an issue, but the latter certainly was. So, around 6.30am, we hit the deserted streets of Sa Pa in search of a warm room. Two hotels later, we had made little progress and turned down an alley toward the Chau Long hotel. A room in the new wing would set us back $110. No thanks. But a room in the old wing is $58. So we decided to take a look. The room was nice, the bed comfortable and best of all, the heater worked! Pity about the huge gap in the door. Do they perhaps have another $58 room? No? Okay, we’ll try another hotel. What? You have one that will be ready at 10? You’ll give it to us for $50? Deal!

A forgettable breakfast at the Friendly Restaurant on Muong Hoa street kept the wolves from the door and we returned to Mountain View to pay and check out. We felt bad telling them that their place didn’t cut it and the kind lady at the front desk seemed genuinely distressed, but how else would they know (so for those reading the Trip Advisor reviews, they’re all pretty accurate, except that the staff were really friendly to us, even after we walked out).

Next stop, warm jacket. My 7.5kg of luggage had included a rain jacket and a couple of light fleeces, none of which was sufficient (even when used together) for the inclement Sa Pa weather. And the long-suffering husband was willing to do anything to appease the Ogre. So we ducked into a little trekking store on the corner of Cau May and Muong Hoa and were amazed by what we found!! North Face, Columbia, Lowe Alpine – and all the REAL THING for next to nothing. We had already seen loads of stores brazenly selling knock-offs of all the big brands so we were careful to look everything over. Now all of these brands are made in Vietnam, so it’s not inconceivable that one could find rejects or excess stock for good prices. And we just happened to stumble on a great Gortex North Face rain jacket with detachable fleece for… wait for it….. $40! Good as sold.

Armed with my new rain gear, we headed for the Chau Long to check in and book an afternoon trek. At 12pm, we were to meet our guide in the lobby. We arrived ready for the 10km trek with walking shoes, backpack and rain gear and were greeted by our guide, Zi, barely 4 ft tall and standing in jeans and sneakers and armed with an umbrella and 3 shopping bags containing our lunch. Zi had been sitting at the internet café when she received the call to walk in the afternoon (apparently unusual..) and had not had time to go home to change. We loaded the food into the backpack and set off in the mist and rain. We can only imagine what the view must have been like. The whole afternoon we walked in rain or mist, but it did give the whole area a mystical feel. We walked to Cat Cat village, not a walk that really requires a guide, but Zi added so much to the trip that we felt the $50 spent (a lot for that tour) was more than worth it. And as guides, we would not have walked 10km and spent the afternoon out in Cape Town for R400 (the equivalent). Zi was 19 and had been guiding for 2 years. She was Black H’mong, one of the minority tribes in the area. There are different H’mong tribes, black, green, blue and rainbow, referring to the colour of their traditional clothing. According to a photocopied book (eek..) we picked up for $1 in Cambodia, the H’mong were banished to the mountains by the Chinese in the 18th century and were forced to wear clothing of differentiating colours. In addition, they were prohibited from using the Chinese script and to this day the language is not written.

Our first stop was at a family home (pix start here) with the obligatory shopping opportunity. I bought a great traditional H’mong hat for about $5. The thick skirts worn by all of the women are made from hemp grown in the village. This is woven into a fabric which is then dyed a dark blue-black with the indigenous indigo that grows abundantly in the area. As we walked through the village, Zi took us into and past homes where fabric was being made and dyed, a process that every woman learns and uses continually.

Just before leaving Cat Cat, we stopped at an old power station that was built by the French to supply power to Sa Pa. During French occupation the mountain village provided a summer refuge for the colonists desperate to escape the hot, malarial climate of the lowlands. These days, the power station is a community hall used for traditional dance shows that are presented for tourists to the village. We agreed to stop for a private performance which included several traditional dances, traditional music and an acrobatics display.

We left Cat Cat and continued towards Sin Chai village where we stopped at a local rest house to eat our packed lunch of baguettes and drink… you guessed it… Hanoi beer! Having given the leftovers to the local mutts (the owners didn’t mind – it fattens them up quicker..) we made our way back up the road towards Sa Pa.

During our visit to the villages, Zi explained the process of marrying in H’mong tradition. If course we asked the obvious questions about arranged marriages, bride prices etc, but were amazed to discover that the most common way of hooking up these days is through “pulling wife” which is essentially kidnapping. Let me explain….

The love market which used to take place in Sa Pa on Saturday evenings (it has moved now, due to the tourist invasion) is an opportunity for young men and women to meet, talk and marry. If a girl rejects a boy’s advances, he may then lure or kidnap her and take her to his home where she is kept for 3 days. He and his family do all they can to impress her and if she decides to stay, a wedding is held. She is free to leave if she wishes, but if she is kidnapped again at a later stage (either by him or by another suitor), she has no choice but to marry her captor. Most young women end up marrying their first suitor for fear that the second will be a worse option. Already this is changing, through exposure to tourists and Vietnamese men. Both of our young H’mong guides lived in Sa Pa during the season and both were determined to marry “for love”. At 19 they were already close to the limit of marriageable age.

We arrived back in Sa Pa in time to walk through the market. I made a quick stop for some silk scarves before heading for the food market. As with all of the food markets, Chris was sent ahead to reconnoitre the meat and poultry sections for dogs, pigs or monkeys in cages or bound together. I must add here that I never did see of any that in any market. Chris saw dog carcasses at one market in Hoi An, but I missed it completely. It did distress me to see exhausted ducks and chickens bound and immobile at the markets, but even that wasn’t common, at least not where we were.

But to return… we did find some rather strange looking dried things in the Sa Pa market. Dried lizard carcasses, dried seahorse carcasses (!!), starfish, snake wine, scorpion wine and a bunch of unidentifiable plants and animals. The fish couldn’t have been fresher. Chris watched as a customer selected a swimming fish from a plastic tub; the vendor picked it up, chopped off the fins and tail, scraped off the scales and finally chopped off the head. It was more than I could manage and busied myself with inspecting the fresh greens across the way.

We decided to plan for the following day and having discussed tours with the kind lady at the Mountain View hotel, we thought we would wave an olive branch and book a trek with her for the next day. So we booked on a group trek to Lai Chau and Ta Van villages (about 15km, despite the many variable distances noted in various maps and guidebooks).

It was starting to get dark so we headed for the Red Dragon, a British pub apparently owned by a British couple (since it was the off-season, I’m assuming they were somewhere warm) for a carafe of gluwein. At 80 000 dong ($5) for 300ml, it was a pretty pricey drink, but it went down smooth in the warmth of the bar, so we ordered another and encouraged passers-by to join us.

Rejecting a roast chicken dinner in favour of trying something local, we headed into the cold and walked the streets looking for a restaurant that wasn’t empty. We stopped at a place called Michell where we both had what was supposed to be food representative of the area but turned out to be bad stir-fries. I was ravenous after having to reject my 100% wheat baguette at lunch, but Chris had a couple of mouthfuls and declined the rest. We paid the bill which came with apologies that we didn’t enjoy the food and an invitation to come back anytime to enjoy a 20% discount on our meal. No thanks….

Determined to find some good food somewhere, we walked down the road to an Italian restaurant called Delta. It looked fairly busy so we went inside for coffee and dessert. We ordered a coffee, hot chocolate and a piece of ‘fresh, home made chocolate cake”. The hot chocolate was good! The coffee was coffee, but the chocolate cake was a stale, cold, Sara Lee impersonation which was treated with the same contempt as the stir-fry next door. We paid our bill and left with an invitation to come back the following day to enjoy 20% off whatever we had. Uh, no thanks.

So 18 hours after the train pulled in at Lao Cai, we hit the sack.

Zi and Chris on the road from Cat Cat and Sin Chai

Snake wine

Map of trekking routes (Day 1 Sa Pa - Cat Cat - Sin Chai - Sa Pa; Day 2 Sap Pa - Lai Chau - Ta Van (Courtesy


Early the following morning, we were woken by a massive thunderstorm and torrential rain. We both decided that we may just spend the day resting warmly in bed and when it was time to get up, we dragged ourselves reluctantly to the window. Miraculously, there were patches of blue sky and a few rays of sun and an hour to shower, dress, pack (we were catching the train again that evening) and eat breakfast before the tour left. When we arrived at the Mountain View Hotel, we were the only people booked on the tour, so for $20 we had a private guide for the day. Not too shabby… Zao was also a 19-year old Black H’mong girl. Not as fluent in English as Zi, she had been guiding for 6 months after selling souvenirs in the market. Zao could not read or write and spoke more English than Vietnamese. We struggled to explain where Africa was and tried scratching a map of the world in the mud to explain how far Cape Town was from Sa Pa. How do explain flying, driving and taking a train to get halfway around the world to a person who has never travelled further than 20km from her home village? Zao had never met South Africans before and was amused to find that we were from a minority tribe as well.

We left Sa Pa and walked along the road for several kilometres before taking a steep path towards the river. The cloud was lifting, the sky was blue and the day was starting to look spectacular. After seeing very few tourists the previous day, we were stunned at the swarm of people on the trail. For every tourist there were at least 3 H’mong women accompanying the group with the intention of helping on the steep, muddy slopes in exchange for the opportunity to sell souvenirs. At any given time, I estimated more than 100 people within view of where we were walking. I wondered what impact this has on these once-remote villages…

The trail was steep and after the early morning thunderstorm, the red clayey mud made it almost impossible to walk unassisted. For 10 000 dong (50c), I bought a walking stick which was worth its weight in gold. In addition to Zao, we had two escorts all the way to the first village. An elderly lady (or perhaps not..) and a young girl walked with us and tried to assist on the slippery sections. I continually resisted help until my trail running shoes finally lost grip and I tobogganed down a mud slope. I decided a spare pair of hands may be needed and ‘Older Lady’ was there as she had been all morning. When I realised how freaking strong she was, I turfed pride over the edge and held on, up and down the slopes.

As we stopped at Lai Chau village for lunch, our escorts made it clear that they were done and it was time to buy souvenirs. Happy to oblige (I was going to tip them anyway), I decided on a couple of shoulder bags and a wallet. Trying to be careful not to offend them by haggling too hard (4 years of working in Egypt tends to make one resistant to stories of poverty), I wanted to pay a fair price. They started at prices of 200 000 dong for bag and 300 000 for a bag and wallet. Shortage of oxygen, arithmetic ineptitude, sheer stupidity, call it what you may, but I screwed up my calculations and had in my head: 185 000 dong = $1, instead of 18 500 dong = $1. So without haggling, I handed over $1 to one and $2 to the other. They both looked incredulous and started shouting abuse and waving the money in my face. It was then that I realised what I’d done and tried to back pedal. That just caused more shouting. Help! I called Chris over for assistance and got slapped with “It’s too late, you have to pay them now”. Eager to get out of the fray (a crowd had gathered around us), I handed the money over (I think I may have got it down to $20 in total… ouch!) and got the hell out.

The morning’s shopping out of the way, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch cooked for us by Zao. We grabbed a table next to an Irish couple who had rejected the drinks offered (“too expensive” – about $1.50 each) and left the restaurant food untouched on the table as they tucked into hotel-supplied sandwiches and bananas (which they could peel). Within 15 minutes, Zao brought us each a bowl of steaming pho; I must add, the best food we had while in Sa Pa. We slurped and splashed our way through it to the obvious dismay of the couple next door, before hitting the trail towards Ta Van village, home of the Zay people.

This was probably the most interesting part of the walk, with several opportunities to stop and explore the area, watch the people and appreciate their crafts.

Around 2pm, we arrived at the pick-up point, approximately 15km from the start of the walk. Zao arranged for a Jeep to take us back to Sa Pa where we collected our bags, bought a ca phe sua (Vietnamese coffee) at the French Bakery, bagged our shoes in something waterproof and waited for the shuttle to take us back to Lao Cai.

It was only as we were leaving Sa Pa that we realised how large the town was! The whole main part of the town, the market, the church and all the local homes were hidden in the mist when we arrived and for the duration of our stay we had no idea it was even there!

Back in Lao Cai, we found a good dinner of pho and bun cha at the Royal Hotel restaurant, across from the station, bought some jackfruit chips, cashews, Oreos and Pringles from a sidewalk store and waited to board the train to Hanoi. Wiser with experience, we decided the return journey would be fun, relaxing and we would disembark with all of our luggage, having cross-checked under the beds. We weren’t disappointed. The train was much quieter and we did actually get to hear some clickety-click. We locked the cabin door securely (and cross-checked) and set the alarm for 4am, the ETA in Hanoi.

For further travel info and detail on the restaurants and places visited, please see the LOGISTICS and TRAVEL INFO PAGE

Chris, Zao and the entourage leaving Sa Pa

Chris, Zao and our escort on the muddy road towards Lai Chau

Sandbagged by souvenirs - before the deal turned bad

The return train trip


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