An unforgettable trip to Sapa PART 1

It took us 18 hours to travel all the way from Bai Tu Long to Sapa, but the pain was worth it! In Bai Tu our boat had been delayed due to strong winds and we arrived around 8.30pm at Hanoi’s bus station after 3 hours on the boat and another 6 hours on the mini van. We didn’t have time for dinner before we jumped on the night bus to Sapa. The night bus was cheaper than the night train but let me tell you this: unless you want a real local experience, it is probably worth paying the extra 15 usd to sleep on the train! This night bus is a story on its own that we will keep for later!

Anyway, we were told we would arrive at 6am in Sapa. We had made plans to meet with Mai, a local guide some friends had recommended to us at 6.30, so we were quite surprised when we were woken up at 3am because we had arrived! It was cold, humid and dark outside. We headed to the nearest hotel to finish the night. We sent a message to Mai explaining our situation, and made up new plans to meet with her at 10am.

Sapa, Day 1:

It’s been a rough night but at least we got some sleep in the hotel. It’s all for the best knowing we have 4 days trekking ahead of us. Mai is on her way to meet us so we decide to get a breakfast around the corner. A nice warm Phó to start the day. We bi-passed the touring agency for which Mai works (Sapa O´Chau): she’s giving us the same price we would pay for a 6 person group but instead it’s just the two of us and all the money goes directly to her. It’s a win win deal!

She arrives at 10am sharp. We heard her on the phone before and she sounded really sweet but she is even more cute in person. She is small, pretty and dressed in the traditional Hmong clothes. She sits with us at the table and when we apologies for the change of plans she tells us that she is glad we postponed our meeting today: During the night her nephew died and she had to travel high in the mountains with her husband to get the body back to her village for the funeral…

At first, we are not sure we understood her right but as she speaks the story confirms. We feel so sorry for her and tell her that if she wants to cancel the trip, that’s fine with us. But she insist that she is fine and wants to go ahead with our plans. We will sleep at her place tonight, in the village of Lao Chai.

Before we leave on the trek, Mai asks us if we want to buy gum boots. We look at our shoes, then at hers covered in mud, and decide that it might be a good option! With our new gum boots at our feet, we start walking away of Sapa town and quickly find ourselves walking through the muddy rice fields.

On the way, two other ladies started following us, Mimi and Pang. They are the same size as Mai (which means half our size). We think they must be friends somehow, it sounds like they are gossiping between them, but Mai tells us later that they are following us because they probably want to sell us something at some point. We walk for about two hours, the weather is still quite foggy but we still have nice views of the valleys. Unfortunately, the rice has been harvested in September, so it is not the typical green fields views we expected however the atmosphere is still very nice and the landscape gives us just enough to imagine how beautiful it must be when the rice is all grown.

I like Mimi, she is so cute… she likes to hold my hand while we walk, especially when it gets muddy or steep. If I fall though, I am not sure she will be able to catch up. I am actually not sure who is holding on to who!…

Mai tells us about her village, their work, their traditions. She makes us stop in front of a field of Indigo flowers and explains that’s what they use to colour their clothes in dark blue. She takes a few leaves and roll them hard in a ball between her hands, then tells me to do the same. “Roll harder” she says… My hands become all green but she tells me it will turn blue in a few minutes. As a joke I say “now I will have blue hands for one week!” and she turns to me and answers “not one week. But 3 or 4 days yes.” It’s only then that I notice that the 3 of them have blue hands.

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We pass the village of Cat Cat, and stop in Y Linh Ho for lunch. Mimi and Pang have walked with us for about 3 hours and while we wait for food, they finally dig out their hand-crafts from their bags. At first, we don’t really want to buy anything, we don’t have that much money with us anyway. But they are looking at us with puppy eyes and I must say they have some really nice hand-made products. So we snap and buy a piece to each, It will give us something to remember! Once business is done, they leave us to our lunch and head each their own way.

We have to walk another two hours to reach Lao Chai. Despite the cold, the route is really nice. Mai tells us more about her family, her children, her second husband (her first husband passed away a few years ago). We had heard that in the northern minorities most weddings are arranged. We had also heard of a “kidnapping” tradition, so she explains a little more to us and how she met her second husband. All her stories are really interesting and bring us very far from the world we are used to!

We arrive around 5pm at her house. Her children are already busy with cooking and serve us a nice warm tea. Her house is big and yet very basic: no isolation whatsoever, the floor is made of concrete and there is very little furniture and basic decoration. The only source of heat in the house seem to be an open fire in the kitchen.

The part of the house that has been arranged for guests is very nice, all made of wood with beautiful traditional fabrics for decoration on the walls, but it is freezing cold!

Mai seems very excited and proud of her home, she tells us about 4 times “welcome to my house!”.

Another couple of tourists will also stay at her place tonight, they arrive about 40 minutes after us.

We all have diner together around 7pm. Mai’s husband is really sweet, he doesn’t speak English but he seems a nice and calm person. The food is delicious. Maybe they think that because we are twice their size we eat 4 times more than them because the amount of food is ridiculous for the 6 of us and we feel bad for all the left overs…

We all get to rinse dinner off with 2 shots of Happy Water, the local rice alcohol everybody drinks here. It is homemade, strong, and tastes like a mix of cheap vodka and cheap tequila…

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A little while later, Mai seems embarrassed when she tells us that she won’t be able to trek with us for the next 2 days because she has to go to the funeral (which last 3 days here). If she doesn’t go and trek with tourists instead the family will be offended. She’s arranged for a friend who works in the same agency to be our guide instead, however she is not available for 3 days but only 2. On the 12th of december there is a big celebration at Mai’s parents place: the anniversary of the death of the ancestors. All the extended family is joining, it is a big ceremony.

Instead of a 4th day trekking, Mai invites us to stay at her place during the ceremony as her guests, for free. Since the weather is not that great anyway, we are happy to shorten the trek to 3 days and spend the last day with her family for the celebrations…

Today, Mai’s husband and his friends have carried the body of their nephew back to the village and have started the funeral. While we are heading to our cold bedroom for the night, they both hop on the motorbike and go back to the funeral. In the Hmong traditions, a funeral last 3 days and 3 nights during which the family gathers and receive visitors. We suppose there is quite a bit of drinking involved too, but the most surprising part is that they are not allowed to sleep…

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