My luggage arrived from Paris on Thursday, as promised: bleary-eyed and sprinkled liberally with pastry crumbs, complaining of the lack of good coffee. It's all present and correct, which pleases me greatly.
After a wander around Hanoi, back at the hostel I got chatting to Kate – she travelled from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi on a motorbike a few months ago, pottered around the rest of Asia for a bit and is returning to Hanoi to teach English for a year. I don't have a photo of Kate to post, sady, as it's on my phone and I've bricked that (on which, more later). She took me to her favourite place in the city to get banh mi (a sandwich, basically - this one makes them with pork and pate):
It's the stand with the green umbrella
She arranged a couple of apartment viewings for the evening, and I had my night train to Lao Cai to catch. I went for phu (noodle soup) at the place recommended by my hostel – it was good, but I prefer the one I found myself down a side street. That was too far to go before I needed to get to the station, however.
When I booked the ticket at the hostel, they gave me a voucher which I then needed to exchange for a ticket at the station, an hour before the train. My train was at 21.10, so I got to the station at 8. The station building has two sections – there didn't used to be a waiting area for the trains to Lao Cai (you get a bus to Sa Pa from there), but they've built one on. It's just a big room with a couple of temporary desks in it and a lot of chairs. Eventually, my ticket was for the 21.50 train – apparently there'd been a mistake when the vouchers were produced.
Past the waiting area, there is a walkway of planks built in between the tracks, perpendicular to the platforms. You just wander along to the platform you need. The train carriages on the 21.10 (people were still boarding as I headed to my train) looked like old-fashioned British railway carriages. Those on the 21.50 looked like Anderson bomb shelters – folded corrugated metal roof and walls, with a flat front and back. Inside, though, was perfectly fine. Four bunks, individual reading lights, and little fold-out steps on the wall for top bunk access. I had a top bunk, and across from me was Priya, an entertainment manager from LA. We formed a plan to travel to Sa Pa together and try to do Mount Fansipan (the highest peak in Indochina) once we got there, as the train was due in at 6.30 to Lao Cai and we thought we'd be in Sa Pa for 8 – early enough to try to do the trek in a day.
The train was delayed in to Lao Cai, arriving at 8.30. At the station, there were a lot of people hastling to get you on a taxi or minibus. My guidebook had given me an idea of the price, but had said nothing about it being anything other than a public bus with a fixed fare, so I was unprepared and could not quite remember the figure the guidebook had said (38,000 dong). This was exacerbated by the first demand from the minibus being 500,000, which was so much higher I thought I must have been mistaken. I tried to find my guidebook, but it was buried under other things, and in the end Priya just dumped her bag in the minbus and decided to go at 200,000 dong. Once I found my guidebook on the bus and checked, I was angry at myself for not digging my heels in more, at Priya for not waiting, and at the drivers for ripping me off. Happy days!
The trip up the mountain to Sa Pa was shorter than expected, and the cloud had moved in and set up camp, so there wasn't much to see.
The town looked pretty, but it was chilly and damp. Trying to climb Fansipan would have been pointless, so Priya and I went our separate ways. I'd booked a hostel, but – as is the way here – there were other places with the same name nearby, and the one I ended up at was closed. I was rescued by Ben, the manager of another hostel in Sa Pa, the Mimosa. He drove me across on his motorbike (my first ever motorbike ride – I didn't die!). After sleeping in my clothes on the train I needed a shower, but the water was cold, the room was damp and chilly and smelled of cigarette smoke, and by the time I was at least clean and dry, I was not on good terms with Sa Pa!
I headed out for a wander in the town, to look around. There isn't much to the place. Without the setting of the terraces, it's rather drab (although some of the buildings are lovely), and it seemed quiet and suppressed. The weather seemed to have the same settings as Glasgow – 'currently raining' and 'currently not raining' ,with an indistict border between the two. I decided that any trekking would be pointless, and to try to get a train back to Hanoi that night. I was wandering around town looking for a travel agent that would get me a ticket for the night train and a taxi back to Lao Cai when one of the H'mong women who walk around Sa Pa selling various things started talking to me.
It had never been on my agenda to do what they call a homestay and go to one o f the villages to stay with a local person. I'm too shy (no, really), and also slightly put off by the whole set-up of organised cultural tourism. But Zain (I have no idea how to spell it, and she couldn't write it down - this is about as good a phonetic spelling as I can achieve) was friendly, and kind to me, and I was in need of someone being kind to me. So I went back to the hostel, swapped a few things round into my day sack, and went with Zain.
Her village was about a three hour walk from Sa Pa. About half of it was good road, then it got sketchy. I had my hiking boots on, but apparently these do nothing at all on sodden clay, as I was just slipping over all the time. I'd have been better off in one of my pairs of barefoot shoes!
On one of these myraid occasions, I broke the screen on my phone (because I am an idiot and had left it in my back pocket). It still works, I think, but I can't tell because the screen is dead, and I can't get my laptop to pull anything off it, either.
Covered in three different colours of mud, I got to Zain's village at about 5pm.
Her family is lovely – her husband Chow and their four kids: Shoong, Dong, Neu and Bao (again, spelling is made up); their home was dry, and cosy for all that it was three open rooms with a concrete floor and almost no furniture apart from half a dozen wooden stools, and a metal table that spent most of it's time hung on the wall. The fire was warm, dinner was lovely, and my bed was comfortable (I think it might have normally been the bed for two of the kids, which I felt awful about but didn't know how to ask and couldn't make Zain understand!). For the first time since getting off the plane, I got a sensible night's sleep, so I think I'm finally shot of the jet lag for now.
The next day, after breakfast, we walked back to Sa Pa (a different way, thankfully!! all my worry about trying to get back up the clay slopes were unfounded) through four other villages. It rained. I shared Zain's umbrella. I took some photos, as the mist started to clear a little, but they mainly show the rain!
The last 6km back to Sa Pa was on the back of a motorbike again. Still not dead!
I got back to the hostel, and got a telling off for not showing up the night before as he was worried about me. I apologised, explained I'd gone to a village, and asked if it was possible to have a hot shower and then check out (the hostel was still damp, and cold, and the rain isn't going anywhere for a few days). I spent the rest of the day huddled around the hostel fire with the other residents, as the rain hammered down outside, and then caught the night train back to Hanoi with Chris, Marius and Jans.
So, my Sa Pa was not scenic terraces, and mountain trekking. My Sa Pa was wet, and chill, and there was a lightning storm on the way back down that lit up just how steep the drop is if you leave the road. But my Sa Pa was also Zain, and kindness and hospitality. And I learned some H'mong. So there's that.