Friday, March 12, 2010

Sapa and Halong Bay

At 8pm on Sunday, I waited in the lobby to head to Sapa through Lao Cai. To my luck, two German kids from the hotel and another small group from another hotel were also going on the trip with me. We took two separate taxis to the train station and when three of us waited there for over 15 minutes for the other taxi, we realized something was probably wrong. The other taxi finally rolled up and our tour host ran out of the car, urging us to jump into the taxi - we were at the wrong train station and our train was supposed to depart in 10 minutes. Except, what no one realized, especially me, is that only MY train was departing in 10 minutes. I had no clue I wasn't going to be in the same train as the others and when we finally got to the station, all I knew was that I had to RUN. Literally as I jumped on the train, it started to leave the station and I was... all alone. I had no idea what was going to happen once I arrived in Lao Cai, if I were supposed to wait at the train or wait in Sapa, but I thought I heard the man who ushered me into the train say "something about someone with sign," so I was hoping I'd see someone with a sign at the station with my name. A little flustered, I walked up and down the train at first trying to find some Westerners and hoping my sleeper car would be a "soft sleeper" (4 very nice beds) filled with smiley Europeans, but instead, the car hosting my number on it was a "hard sleeper" with a very bright halogen light and stale stench, filled with five aggressive-looking Vietnamese people. It was definitely an experience, especially when the women would not stop screeching loudly for hours in Vietnamese, quite unfamiliar with the term "WHISPER-BECAUSE-OTHER-PEOPLE-ARE-TRYING-TO-SLEEP-IN-THE-7-SQUARE-FOOT-ROOM-WITH-YOU"!!

I fell asleep to Balmorhea in my ears and the night went by fairly fast, considering. The next morning at 5:30am, the train arrived in a small town called Lao Cai. Indeed, a man holding a sign "Erikia Leeds" was waiting for me and showed me to a bus where other Westerners were sitting, which thankfully ended up taking off once the rest of my group arrived 40 minutes later. The bus took us high up into the misty mountains, to Sapa town where we were to begin our trek. It was quite cold in Sapa, and my smart self had no real jacket, no warm pants, a pair of granny Ped socks, some slippery water shoes, a little sweater, bought in Hanoi and a little linen jacket - definitely NOT hiking gear and little did we know what we were getting ourselves into. Unfortunately, our guide didn't seem to realize or care that some of us needed to get some goods before we went hiking, so we set off into the mountains pretty unequipped. The first day of hiking was BEAUTIFUL. The mountains in Sapa are INCREDIBLE, with rice fields rippled along the sides of the mountain, waterfalls and rivers running through creeks and crevices, small homes where tribespeople live and farm, animals such as buffalo, pigs, roosters, chickens and dogs roaming the fields. The scenery was magnificent, even with the cloudy mist that reigned all day. We trekked for six hours straight on and off of paths, accompanied by a group of tribeswomen who helped us get through the difficult parts. They were super adorable and smiley and spoke very good English, learnt from all the foreigners they trek with. We didn't really realize however that at the end of the trek they were going to totally harass us to buy all of their goods. Ahhh, got to love Vietnam....

That evening, we slept at a home-stay in the middle of the mountain with a group of other Westerners, including another American girl, Nikki, who I got along with really well and who ended up traveling with me to Ha Long Bay and to Laos. We all had great fun that night, drinking "happy water" (a.k.a sake), playing stupid games, eating yummy food (cooked in the kitchen below), joking around with our tour guides who were among the funniest people I've met this trip. One kept wanting us to "'recommend' a Swedish or other foreign woman to him to marry so that he could move to Italy. He claimed someone 'recommended' him a woman in Saigon that he had been sending messages to, but never met and one other woman who he told 'I love you' to, started to cry..." all described in a very funny Vietnamese accent. I loved that dude.

We all slept, slumber style, on the floor on a very thin mattress under a mosquito net, shivering because of the cold. It was not the most comfortable sleep ever, but it was decent. Except, when I woke up to pee in the middle of the night and literally could not see a thing. It was so pitch black that after 3 minutes of rubbing my eyes hoping to see SOMETHING in the distance, I thought I had gone totally blind from the "happy water," because I could not make out ONE thing in the room. My heart actually sunk to my stomach and I rummaged my bag in a hurry to find my iPod to make sure my vision was still functioning. Paranoia will destroy ya...

The next day, we woke up to the rain. It was cold and wet and we were to spend the rest of the day trekking through the mountain and bamboo forrest. I was very worried about this considering my shoes were completely permeable, so I tied some plastic bags around my socks and hoped for the best. The three-hour trek was still quite beautiful, but extremely dangerous. We were all slipping and sliding off the rocks, sometimes so close to the edge of the mountain that we thought it was going to be our last day on earth. Within 30 minutes, my shoes were completely drenched in watery mud. Nikki and I couldn't help but laugh the whole way through the mountain, trying to dispel the fact that we were freezing, frustrated and fearing for our lives. But overall, it was a lot of fun and the scenery was quite breathtaking. Once again, we had a group of Black Hmong tribeswomen guide us through the mountain, catch our falls and harass us at the end of the trek to buy stuff, one who actually lied to me and ripped me off when buying "silver" earrings from her. These Vietnamese people are really starting to piss me off. Sorry, but, it's pretty crazy how dishonest they are, and always done with a smile. All the other travelers I've met all have similar stories to accompany mine. One Canadian dude got into a taxi who tried to convince him that the taxi ride was 8,000,000 Dong (about $400), when it should be only $10. Thankfully, the Canadian knew how to count....

That evening, we caught the overnight train back to Hanoi, luckily this time in a nicer soft-sleeper, shared with two Norwegians from the group. We arrived at 4am and negotiated a taxi ride back to the hostel, which was among the scariest I've ever taken - the driver PLOWED through every single red light, honking like a madman. He did not stop at one single light, and barely gave the right of way to the people who actually HAD the right of way. Thank God the streets were almost completely empty at that time of night! I was in the front seat, at first hysterically laughing, asking him who the FUCK gave him his driver's license, sort of bummed out that I failed my very own for indecent parallel parking, and then fright came into my eyes when I realized it WASN'T ACTUALLY THAT FUNNY. Anyway, I'm here and alive, so... that's good.

We got back to the hostel and were to leave for Ha Long Bay only a couple hours later, so I charged up my camera, took a shower and waited to board the bus to the coast. It was exciting that Nikki had booked the trip with me, because we really hit it off - it's so much better to have a fun buddy to hang out with when traveling alone! In the four hour bus ride, we were praying that the weather alleviate, because Ha Long Bay is the ultimate destination in Vietnam and known for the booze cruise, sunny kayaking and swimming fun. Of course, the weather Gods didn't quite hear our prayers and decided to keep the breezy mist hover over the rocks all day, but we didn't let it stop us. We were a good group of twenty travelers and spent most of the day laughing and drinking among this amazing scenery, which is totally out of the movie Avatar. Hundreds of giant rocks bulging out of the water make up this other-worldly landscape complex, somewhat comparable to Lake Powell in Utah. It's quite impressive and I could see where spending some time on a private island here, basking under the sun would be phenomenal. Unfortunately, the weather did not permit such an experience, but we did still jump off the side of the boat to prove our manhood and kayak to a secret cave, which was a true highlight. The guide's flashlight wasn't working however, so the group didn't get to trek to the center where the lagoon was, except for Nikki and I who decided to sneak off and go anyway - she had a little light on her watch, which allowed us to see just enough in the dark cave to find the lagoon. It was pretty cool and a lot of fun being dumb 'teenage' Americans, sneaking off from the group, doing dangerous things we should not have been doing! At night, while all the others were playing drinking games downstairs, Nikki, another nice girl we had met, Zahra, and I were so exhausted from our trip to Sapa that we decided to chill under a blanket on the roof and share funny stories. It was a great time.

I'm now on the top deck of the ship finally catching up on the blog, watching the rocks and boats in the water pass us by, while heading back to the dock to catch our bus back to Hanoi. Tomorrow I shall fly to Vientiane, Laos and hopefully catch a four hour bus to Vang Vieng to go tubing and caving with Nikki, which is what the town is famous for. Only a few more days left before heading back to Paris... Ahh, the trip is quickly coming to an end, but of course I'm already planning next Winter's season travels to Thailand, Philippines and maybe Malaysia!


  1. These are the most stunning of all! Love the landscape shots and your portraits are, as always, unbelievable.

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