Day 41 & 42- End of an Era! Bring on Laos!

Sapa, Vietnam
October 21-22, 2013

I guess we’ve known it all along. I mean, we weren’t hiding from the fact. We did the same thing back in Canada. I’m talking about being creatures of habit. We find a restaurant or Travel Vietnam Sapa Bookstorecafé and we shut the place down night after night like your Uncle does the all-you-can-eat breadsticks at the Olive Garden. So it’s no mistake that we went back to the same place for breakfast and then waltzed back through the market, sans le chien, and back onto the couch, and back to the same pho xao restaurant for dinner we’d been at the night of last three nights. We had seen all the Sapa we were going to see. The same fog hung in the air. The same cool drizzle. The same women were on the hunt. We had already bought a ticket for a sleeper bus to take us to Dien Bien, which was a drop off point for our venture into Laos.

the likeness is uncanny!

the likeness is uncanny!

Waiting in front of the station the 7pm bus was right on time. So much on time that we watched the bus roll right passed us.

“Was that our bus?” We said. We were both pretty sure it was even though we had been sitting around for the last hour saying that about every bus.

I jumped up and ran to the guy in the booth and motioned that I think our bus just passed. And it had. He made a call while the two of us threw on our bags and hustled down the street while the guy motorcycled ahead. We caught up to it beside the lake we woke up to just three days before.

This mist never let up - but we embraced it

This mist never let up – but we embraced it

We slung ourselves into our own single beds, Vietnamese size beds. Actually Vietnamese children sized beds. Behind us sat the only other foreign couple. Two Argentinians, Jimena and Bruno, whose leg hung off the sides like flapping chicken wings. It was going to be a long ride.

Travel Vietnam Sapa Sleeper 2

while we still thought the tight quarters was “funny”

I threw on Dumb and Dumber and rattled around for a couple hours; listening to Vietnamese phone calls underneath a flood of disco lights while a woman covered up like a hygienic ninja outstared me in a contest. The whole time stopping to pick up fruit and motorcycles and midnight trailblazers which are all shoved into the buses compartments or tied on the roof and off we roll thumpiddy thump thump through the night.

KT chillin' with Lloyd and Harry. & L's knee

KT chillin’ with Lloyd and Harry. & L’s knee

Katie, on the other hand, clung to her pillow for safety. Not being able to sleep, she was forced to endure the treacherous battles of the eroding and rutted cliff-side midnight hustle, fourteen hours of it in total. I heard it was actually used as a torture method to scare information out of prisoners of war. Now it’s turning a profit in the tourist racket.

DAY 42- Our Last Day In Vietnam

We woke up to find out our connecting bus had already left. We were four hours late. Now I understand why they operate on a sliding scale – we have seen plaques that read such and such bus ride 6-10 hours. That’s no stop-to-fill-up-gas-and-a-smoke-break. That’s more of a take-your-lady-out-to-dinner-and-dancing kind of break.  So, alongside the Argentinians, we walked into town and found a couple of rooms with big windows and comfy beds. Then we went and bought bus tickets for the next morning and rented motorcycles to explore Dien Bien. Which was the only thing really to do.

The cursed sleeper bus

The cursed sleeper bus

So Katie and I took off 50km down the road towards the next town that was popping up on the little stone placards that sit in the grass like mini tombstones. I can’t recall the next towns name, but we passed a rickety suspension bridge, a million oblong rice paddies, women with long black hair coiled on top of their heads like a sleeping snake, fuzzy Travel Vietnam Dien Bien KTpatchwork mountains that looked as though the range was draped in an oversized plaid thrift store jacket and everyone holding something; whether it be logs or buckets or kindle or fruit or children or tethered gerbil. The countryside was as peaceful and refreshing as it gets after being trapped inside a rolling deathtrap commissioned by a junked up madman, which truly are the only people in the world capable of operating buses through all hours of the night.

Travel Vietnam Dien Bien bridge lou

Drive-by shirt sales

Drive-by shirt sales

Travel Vietnam Dien Bien riding oxen

SAPA- GOLDEN STREAM LOVE WATERFALL!! WHAT?? & ATROCITIES!

Sapa, Vietnam
October 20, 2013

They were renting motorcycles next door, so we picked one up and with our scribbled map in hand we went to check out some waterfalls. The first was Silver Waterfall. After driving for thirty minutes in complete clouds we parked our bikes across the street at a Travel VIetnam Sapa bamboo ricehillside row of stalls all offering free tea if you spend 10,000 Dong to park your bike. Pulling in, every woman was yelling for us to pull into her designated spot, but I made eyes with one and we went right for her. In front of her on a little makeshift stove she was steeping some tea. We said our sinchow’s (hello’s) and sat down on a couple of toddler size plastic stools as she handed us some hot tea. Beside her stove she had a few wicker baskets of snacks: bamboo shoots packed with sticky rice, hotdogs on a stick, squid on a stick, and the teeniest whole chickens spiked on a stick. All finger foods good to give you energy for a good ol’ climb. We drank the tea and told her we would be back for some eats.

Across the street we bought a ticket and climbed alongside a sloping waterfall that ran down the side of a mountain. It was long and fluid without too many crashing breaks. We climbed up and then down and took some photos in between with a couple of Asian tourists we met.

weird

weird

Back at her stall we ordered a couple bamboo sticky rice and looked at all the other stuff she was selling. With my mothers birthday coming up I found a __________ (You thought I’d tell you…tsk tsk tsk) that I thought she might like. If I know her well enough she’ll like it mighty fine. (KT: It’s a chicken on a stick!!! Debby! Debby! He got you a chicken on a stick! CAUTION when you open the box hehe) I asked the woman where it came from and she said that people in her village made it. That was exactly the response I was looking for. Even if it was a lie. (KT: They imported the chicken, them bastids!)

mmm bamboo sticky rice dipped in salt & sesame!

mmm bamboo sticky rice dipped in salt & sesame!

On a wall to our right were about a hundred bags of dried leaves and herbs. What they were I enquired about, and she told me they were tea. I pointed to a translucent bag filled with giant hardened mushroom tops and she made a quick tapping motion over her heart as a big smile crept on her face.

“Could it be? The elusive magic mushroom!” I motioned my two hands to the sides of my head and shook them in a wackadoo disoriented fashion.  She smiled and nodded back.

In a country hell bent on putting a kibosh on drugs we had been offered marijuana almost on a daily basis in Ho Chi Minh City and were now sitting in front of a woman selling magic mushrooms by the pound. We may or may not have bought one, thanked her, and carried on to the next waterfall, climbing a bout of hairpin turns along the side of cliffs through an impenetrable hoary fog.

Fog stickin' in L's beard hehe

Fog stickin’ in L’s beard hehe

Pulling into the grounds, we bought our tickets and made our way through an untouched forest to the ill-named Golden Stream Love Waterfall. We walked along the streams edge Travel Vietnam Sapa golden stream louthen climbed our way past several cascades until our heads caught first glimpse. We pulled ourselves up and stood with our bodies morphing; jaws plummeting, eyes gaping, and arms drooping like an unplugged television cord. Neither of us could believe it. It was unbelievable. The Golden Stream Love Waterfall was a gushing straight drop of one hundred plus feet hugged into the curves of a mountain. The water free-fell into a natural swimming hole; somewhere you’d find Huck and Tom hanging about whilst ditching out on their studyin’.

Travel Vietnam Sapa Waterfall KT

Travel Vietnam Waterfall LOU

 

 

 

 

 
We cruised back into the city, returned the bikes, and went for a stroll through the market. The market was the same in every town we had been. All selling the same handicrafts, the same food vendors, same backpacks and outdoor equipment, and the same fruit stands…except the market in Sapa had one thing we weren’t expecting.

Our new Chinese pals

Our new Chinese pals

Travel VIetnam River KT

Travel VIetnam Sapa Waterfall River LOU

*DISCLAIMER – DO NOT READ, MOTHER (OR OTHER VEGETARIANS)- SCROLL DOWN

We have seen a lot of crazy things at markets so far- everything from the whacking and scaling of a live fish; gangs of chickens, ducks and roosters tied at their ankles and crammed into wicker baskets; skinless headless frogs kicking about; every kind of animal part from tails to snots to knuckles to brains; and as much as I have heard about them eating dogs it has never been in my face. That is…until today. Walking underneath a sky of blue tarpaulin and along an alley of butcher tables sat a severed dog head beside one of its own flanks. Speechless. Truly speechless. I gasped and had to keep on walking. I have a dog at home and even though I’ve walked past hundreds of pigs heads and lips they never once have phased me like seeing that dog’s head. I shook it off and chalked it up to a cultural experience and although I don’t condone it who am I to say that it is wrong.
KT: It was really horrifying. My stomach still gets tight when I think about it…

*GOOD TO READ AGAIN MOTHER AND OTHER ANIMAL ENTHUSIASTS 

After the market we walked around the town on our way to a café that we had peeped the day prior. And to our amazement there was a big ol’ comfy couch. Something that I did not know I missed as much as I do. Mmm…there really isn’t anything like flopping down on a big ol’ couch and letting it hold you captive like an overprotective bear.

Coming down a dark wet road, the sounds of asian flute blew through the mountain air. Draped underneath an umbrella & cut-out from a circle of streetlight sat a man hunched in rags. His melodies fluttering in the night mellowed the grunts and squeals that echoed from a truck bursting at the seems with wicker-capped sows. Three pigs were weighed then uncorked from their wicker cages only to be ushered down a set of damp dark steps. Their bones taught from hours of wet confined travel – a man guides them with a whip of a stick while another man weighs the empty caskets. the flutist didn’t lift his head or break a note. (KT: Neither Lou or I spoke until after the pig sale was over. We were both horrified by the treatment of the animals, and somehow lulled by the playing of the flute that didn’t relent. I tossed the flute player a few dong; his music had helped keep my tears behind my lids.)

We got to the café after and some beyotch was sitting on our couch with a pompous air. At least thats how we perceived it. We sat in a couple of chairs beside her eyeing her down for a couple of hours until she up and left. And can you believe it? She left three slices of a pizza behind. She didn’t wrap them up or offer them to us. Nothing. No respect for this woman. Good thing we’ll never see her again. We hung out writing and reading until it was time for dinner then went to bed. Tomorrow was our last day in Sapa and we had to get ready for another sleeper bus. Yippee!

Travel VIetnam Waterfall laughing

SAPA- BUM RUSH CITY

Sapa, Vietnam
October 19, 2013

I’m not exactly sure what time it was, but I remember waking as we pulled up alongside a lake that had a canopied Tim Burton-esque fog. And before I could wipe the junk from my eyes the bus was swarmed with all life. They must have gotten a call or their blood runs on bus schedules. Either way we weren’t looking forward to getting off. Well you know what I mean.

We collected our shoes in little bags that we had crammed in our shoe cubbies at the foot of our beds and walked with them in hand single file bumping into each other like a chain gang off to tend the fields. Except I only wish I had an empty field to toil away in instead of deal with these slick talking hawks. I hadn’t even put my shoes on let alone popped my head from the doors before heads and bodies started darting in with words and jargon way too fast for anyone that had just woken up.

“Hotel. You need hotel. I have best price cheap hotel for you. Follow me!”
“You need taxi?”
“Taxi…Taxi…”
“Minority village! You come stay with us in our village.”
“Taxi… Anywhere you want!”
“Hotel…Hotel…Hotel!”

All of it at once, circled like I was the main event at cockfight and everyone had their bets placed on me. Everyone prodding me with brochures and business cards. I couldn’t take it. My head was darting & pecking in all directions “no thank you” “no taxi” “no” “no hotel” “its ok thank you” until Katie and I had our bags fixed on our backs and we lit out across the street and down an empty road. Ahh we could breathe. I shook off the morning vibes and the last 12 hours. Sapa here we come.

We started walking into town when we crossed paths with one of the women by the bus. She was scooting by on her bike, empty handed, so she parked it and ran to catch up with us.

“I have cheap hotel for you!”
Broken down and beaten we asked her how much.
“$8. Hot shower. Private room. Come with me.”
We did.

She was persistent. That she was. She ended up winning us over and we ended up staying at her hotel for two nights. We made our way over, unpacked, and left our passports at the desk before we left to go explore the foggy town.

Sapa sits at an altitude of 1200-1800 meters and this October morning we were almost completely blanketed in a sheet of fog, or hell, we might have been in the clouds. Either way, the air was fresh and it was nice to get back to mountain life. Whatever that really means. I mean, I’m not a goat or anything. But over much debate and travel, I’ve come to an understanding that I prefer the mountains over the sea. Although I’d prefer to have both (Vancouver, Vietnam, Peru…).  Walking along, the bum rush continued.

Travel VIetnam Sapa Market

The women were dressed in the most colorful naturally-dyed fabrics bursting with deep purples, bright reds, woodsy emeralds and sky blues all handmade in their villages, if not themselves, by ancient techniques, precision, and generations of hand-me-down knowledge of the loom. The women pulled out a map and detailed the three hour walk we would trek and the H’mong villages we would suss out. They wanted $20 US for the day and $45 if we wanted to sleep in their village and trek back. Since we had just got to Sapa we wanted to check into everything before agreeing on the spot we thanked the ladies and carried on. Our plan was to get a map from the tourist office and see what they had to say then grab some breakfast. On the way out of the office the women met us at the entrance. They had followed us there.

Travel Vietnam Sapa ladies

I had heard from the Italian couple Frankie & Katia that a couple ladies from a minority village had followed them for a couple hours along their whole trek, and they weren’t even a part of the group. They felt guilty so they ended up giving the ladies a bit of money. But that can’t be the future for these women. It’s no way to earn a living and it’s already starting to shape the future of their culture into one that solely relies on tourism. It needs to be quashed. As much as tourism has boosted Sapa’s development and trade sectors, it needs growth on a level where it works with tourism and is not solely dependent on tourism. Which is why we cannot condone being followed around just to be guilted into buying something we don’t want.

We thanked the ladies and wished them a good day.

The whole walk to breakfast it didn’t stop. Dozens of women from minority villages followed us down the street at the brink of friendly eye contact, all trying to sell us clothes, bracelets, and treks. It’s a tough racket out there and I wish them the best. At least it is good to know that they are all working together. We heard from Blui from Lang Biang Mountain in Dalat that the villagers pool their money together and it goes towards the community. I hope it’s true because it would be extremely difficult for any one person to make money when everyone is selling the same stuff. But aside from the racket, they truly were the sweetest women and joked with us the whole walk. There was never an ounce of pressure and they were all smiles our entire time in Sapa and it’s unbelievable how much English they had picked up just from dealing with tourists on a daily basis. We wish them the best.

We ended up in a restaurant without power and learned that they shut it off periodically. To save energy I could only assume. We got eggs and baguettes.

Afterwards we walked around the town in a light cool drizzle and ended up in a bakery, also without power, to eat some snacks, have some tea and read. Yah I know ehh…some life.

Uhhhmayzing

Uhhhmayzing

The dense fog never quit and the light rain continued into the evening and it gave the vibe that we better get used to it. We decided against the minority village because, well, it was impossible to see anything. But still wanted to see what Sapa was all about we decided to rent a motorbike in the morning, $5 compared to $40.

And that is exactly what we did.

No More Bikes & Sleeper Bus to Sapa!

Hanoi, Vietnam
October 18, 2013

We woke up expecting the best case scenario. The best being Robert pops by and pays Katie and that the bus to Sapa isn’t full by the time he shows up. Fortunately, the women downstairs were nice enough to let us book our tickets and said that if the bike fell through we could cancel. It relieved the tension. We ate eggs and baguettes for breakfast and then chilled at a café until it was time to meet Robert.

One o’clock rolled around and Katie sold her bike without a hitch. Robert had come through and the two of us, for the first time in almost three months, were left with our feet planted on the ground. It was bittersweet. We had a lot of ups and downs on those bikes. From Katie’s accidents to my battle with mechanics to the 3000km we spanned along beaches and mountain tops and through fog and pouring rain to all the people and places it brought us in between. We did Vietnam. And we did it without a single regret. It was Katie’s first bike. And I know how hard it is to say goodbye to your first bike. We wish nothing but safe travels for all the future owners, but now we are onto our second leg of the journey and our first overnight bus.

Saying goodbye! :(

Saying goodbye! :(

The bus was picking us up at six pm which gave me a lot of time to help out one of the women working at the front desk. She had asked me for a favour early in the morning. Seeing that I was wearing a North Face jacket she had asked me where I got it.

“I got it in Ho Chi Minh.” I said
“How much did you pay for it?” she asked
“400,000 dong. So around $20 US. They wanted 500,000 but we talked them down. Katie and I both got them.”
“Can you do me a favour?”
“Yes of course.” I said, meaning it.
“It is my husbands birthday coming up and I want to get him a North Face jacket. They are very popular. But they sell them too expensive.”

I knew the store she was talking about. Just the day before I had popped in to compare prices and they were in the 800-850,000 range, although the jackets were made with a stronger material. Perhaps it was real Gore-Tex instead of the Gore-Tex logo that was fixed to ours. It was definitely of better quality.

She continued, “They won’t give me discount. They only want to sell to foreigners. Can you help me buy one?”
“Of course I can. What colour does he like and what size is he?”
“He wants a yellow one and large I think.”
“If I cant get a discount are you OK with me spending 800,000 on one? I mean I will try to get it for the cheapest possible, but I just want to know!”
“Yes that’s ok!”

I reassured her that the jackets are better than mine and worth more money to boost her into thinking she was getting a good deal. I even told her North Face jackets in Canada around the same quality go for around $120-$200 and she was spending $40. So, to me it’s already a great deal. She agreed and the two of us walked down the street. She didn’t want to get too close incase they saw her. So she hung back on the other side of the street while I went up to the vendor.

“Hey how are you today?” I said, always trying to butter up the worker. “Do you have that yellow jacket in a large?”
He went into the back to check and came out with one in his hand. So, to play the role I tried it on and searched the seams like I would on a jacket I was buying for myself. Everything checked out.

“OK. I have money with me and I want to buy a jacket today. What is the best price you can give me?”

He starts delegating with his wife or mother or sister. It’s rather hard to tell because everyone looks so damn youthful. They reached a decision.
“800,000. But we can do for you 700,000.”
That was a savings of $5 but I wanted to do a little better. I knew this woman doesn’t have a ton of money. Hell, none of us do. So I tried to work them a little more for an even better deal.
“Can you do 600,000?”
“No…no…no…”
I knew I hit a nerve. Which is a good level to reach. It shows the real value of a product when they say no…no…no…and begin to put the product away.
“Ok. Ok. How about 650,000?”

He retaliated with 690,000 so I hit him one last time with 680,000 and he forked over the jacket. I was happy. I had a small victory. I had saved her 120,000 dong, only $6 US – but that means a lot when you’re making $1.20 a day. I ran back across the street and pulled out the jacket when we were out of view. I handed her the change and she tried to thank me by giving me a 20,000 Dong tip. I refused and told her over and over that it was no problem and I was happy to help out.

Our last meal in Hanoi. Pho, of course. Mmmm

Our last meal in Hanoi. Pho, of course. Mmmm

Back at the hotel everyone was trying on the jacket and laughing and in no time the bus was waiting for us out front and we had to part ways. We promised to promote Alibaba Hotel on TripAdvisor.com for them and hopped into the bus for our first sleeper bus.

So cozy!!

So cozy!!

The ride was uneventful. We luckily slept the entire way. The bus was filled with double beds stacked two high and fitted with blankets and pillows. It was pretty cushy compared to the pillows we had for beds on our next bus. But we will get to that later. For now we were destined for Sapa. The land of the rice paddies, soaring mountains, minority villages and cool fresh mountain air. We had been looking forward to it the whole trip and when we wake up it all begins. What a concept the sleeper bus is…wake up in a new city, refreshed and ready to start the day. Sounds peaceful right? Uhmmm yeah!

Does it get any cozier than this??

Does it get any cozier than this??