Hanoi, Sapa, Hanoi
18.12.2012 - 25.01.2013 15 °C
We needed to be in Hanoi by the 18th December to obtain an Indian Visa in time for January. We’ve read a lot about the Indian embassies being particularly strict and we didn’t help ourselves by not doing this in the UK prior to leaving, as their website demanded, so we were both a little nervous about it. We spent the whole day filling in the dreaded online forms, getting special sized photographs done, changing dong in to dollar (for the fee) and gave it in with just 2 mistakes! ;-). In the end, the embassy guy was quite nice and didn’t see there being an issue with it...
We didn’t stay in Hanoi long, as we’d planned to get up north to the mountains for a couple days before Christmas. Sapa was our destination so we booked ourselves on to a train and got off in Lao Cai. The connection to Sapa was a minibus from the train station and Lonely Planet had said it should cost us about 50,000dong. We were accosted by touts as soon as we stepped off the train, all wanting us to get on their bus, but when we asked the price we were asked to pay 300,000dong each! The guy wouldn’t budge so we refused and set about trying to find alternative transport, but he followed us and shouted in Vietnamese to everyone we spoke to, who would then repeat the same false information he was giving us. In the end, surrounded by a group of ten men we were left with no other option. We managed to haggle the price down to 200,000 each which we had to pay before boarding. The worst part came during the journey and the lead tout collected 50,000dong each from the Vietnamese passengers. To put it simply, it felt like racism and up until this point Louise had tried to stay empathetic and understanding during the constant stream of lies and money-grabbing we were being subjected to, but after this, she finally broke. A life lesson learned.
The Indian Visa application required us to leave our passports with their embassy, something we weren’t massively happy about, but we’d made photocopies of the passport for checking in to hotels (the police frequently check) and in case of emergency. When we checked in to our hotel in Sapa, the owner took us in without an original passport (breaking the law), we’d also forgotten to copy our visa but she let us stay anyway (again, breaking the law) and we managed to negotiate a discount. It was in sharp contrast to the bus incident and highlighted the benefits to corruption in Vietnam.
The whole episode paled into insignificance as soon as we walked out on to our balcony :-)
Sapa is an old French hill station and a popular base for hiking in the north, set at 1600m above sea level and surrounded by breathtaking scenery. The town is in the clouds and the mist gave the place a very Christmassy feel. Every day the streets are crowded with women and girls of all ages wearing rainbow-bright clothes, carrying babies or baskets on their backs and selling handicrafts that they make as they sit and chat on the town square. The women come from the tribes (H’mong, Tay, Dzao) in the surrounding mountains to sell their wares, and the whole town had the feel of a huge marketplace.
We’d heard Sapa was a bit of a tourist trap (and understandably so) but it was out of season, so to speak, when we went, so the streets were relatively quiet and when we hiked through the mountains we could walk for hours in between seeing other tourists.
The day after arriving we woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed, and after buying some warmer clothes (we’d been wearing shorts and t-shirts for 2 months, we weren’t quite prepared for living in the clouds) and having a huge breakfast, we set off into the mountains. Many of the H’mong women act as guides on treks in the mountains, but we’d bought a map and, feeling fiercely independent, decided we were going solo. Unfortunately, we neglected to buy a compass and, as Louise’s dad rightly pointed out afterwards, you need to know which direction you’re walking in order to use a map. Chalk it up to experience! But even despite the minor directional challenges, we had a great day. During one steep descent, we were followed for a mile by three kids who had made a really fun game out of singing, “Hello, money? Hello, candy?” in unison, on loop for 20 minutes! Thankfully, they found something more interesting to do. All in all, the walk took a little longer than anticipated; there was one point, after scrambling a fair few feet up a very steep ‘path’ that we realized we’d left the trail and were bravely making our way up a dry, rocky waterfall. Luckily a couple of H’mong guides spotted us and gestured madly for us to turn back, so we retraced our steps (carefully, haha). Ultimately, we walked for 7 hours and covered around 16 miles, 4 villages, 6 litres of water, 78 photos and 5 wrong turns :-s.
The next day our legs were suitably trashed and we certainly felt like we’d been trekking. We decided to relax a little and soak up some of the atmosphere in the town, so after breakfast we positioned ourselves in the main square and people watched. Lots of H’mong ladies took it upon themselves to come and say hello, some were pushing tribal souvenirs, some were happy to chat. After a while we decided to buy a H’mong blanket (as we’re in the process of decorating our fantasy house, much to our backpacks’ visible displeasure), we were extremely careful not to make eye contact with any vendors and stealthily caught glimpses of the different designs until we settled on one we liked. It all felt a little MI6. So Louise, feeling brave, approached the seller to negotiate a price but before we could do anything, she was surrounded by 8 shouting H’mong ladies all wanting to offload their rugs. Chris should have done more to help, but the photo opportunity was too funny to miss. Eventually, we managed to get the rug and both Louise and the H’mong lady (check out her dyed blue hands) were visibly happy with the price, which is what a good haggle is all about!
We spent the afternoon walking to the local village, called Cat Cat (below). It was only 3k from Sapa which meant it was accessible for people of all shapes and sizes; this also meant we had to descend the valley through a gauntlet of tourist tat and upon arrival, Cat Cat felt like more of a living exhibition than a real working village. Tourism gone wrong. Our legs were still feeling the previous day’s exploits, so we each jumped on the back of a motorbike for a rather fun ride back to Sapa and then dinner in a restaurant with a roaring fire and mulled wine.
Day 3 on our adventure up north saw us take in the Sunday market of Bac Ha. It is a popular local market, where local villages from all around the region come and display their goods and was a vibrant sea of different colours and shouting voices. We elected to take a tour up there after sampling the minibus service from Lao Cai but once we arrived we had the option of being guided or roaming free, we went for the latter. It was truly cold so we put as many layers on as possible and had some piping hot ginger tea. There’s not a great deal to say on this, as it was just an opportunity to mingle, browse and try lots of crazy food, which naturally we went for ;-).
On the way to being dropped in Lao Cai we stopped at the Chinese border (below). It was a bridge over the river running through Lao Cai with Vietnam one side and China on the other. It was quite strange to stand and see this secretive country in front of you.
We decided to try another night train on the way back, to give us more time for the itinerary. We chose the most basic sleeper bed option, so weren’t sure what to expect, but we woke up in Hanoi at 6:45am feeling like we’d had a good night’s kip and ready for Christmas Eve in the capital…
We knew the Vietnamese love Christmas, especially Christmas Eve so in the evening we were eager to get out on the streets and join in with the festivities. Chris proudly wore his Santa hat and we wandered the streets of Hanoi getting thumbs up and approving smiles from the locals. During the day a huge stage had been erected and at night it played host to chart singers, dancers, children’s choirs and acrobats, but the main attraction for us was the audience. The stage had drawn a huge crowd of people, the majority of whom were still sat on their motorbikes. The scale of the crowd was evident as we fought our way through it; there were literally thousands of motorbikes all trying to edge their way closer to the front, regardless of pedestrians. We seemed to be a part of the entertainment for the Vietnamese as well and our evening was punctuated by shouts of ‘Merry Christmas!’ and ‘Hello!’ and people asking to take our pictures, and in one rather surreal case, a couple of girls asked Chris to take their picture… with our camera. Odd behavior, but they seemed very pleased with the result.
Christmas day… unfortunately, the least said here the better. After getting dressed up and going for a lovely, traditional Christmas curry, we were booked in to Skype our families. Sadly, due to unforeseen technical difficulties (and a lot of hours spent running around Hanoi) this wasn’t meant to be, with the happy result that we bought ourselves a netbook for Christmas! :-)