Yesterday, our guide recommended that we put everything we’d need for 4 days into a small rucksack and leave our big rucksacks behind in the hotel in Hanoi, as we’d be returning there before going on to Halong Bay. So after lots of faffing, I managed to squish it everything into my piddly little bag. There were a few soldiers left behind, like my sandals and my camera charger (hope I don’t end up regretting that decision), but otherwise I was very proud of my economical packing!
At about 8pm, we were ferried from the hotel to the station, ready for the train to depart at 9pm. We had a four bed compartment which was ‘cosy’, but not too dissimilar from the French motorail. The toilets were ‘an experience’. They were European toilets (thank goodness!) and were clean-ish when we set off. However, the incessant rocking of the train meant that there was no chance of men hitting the target, and squatting to avoid the mess was impossible. That and a broken seat, and suffice to say I was rather happy with my Thoresby bladder.
Once we settled in our cubby hole, we visited the bar carriage. This consisted of hard wooden benches occupied by Westerners and train staff only, and tins of beer for 25000 dong (about 70p). Our trip to the bar was cut short by the realisation that what goes in, must come out, and so we retired to bed at about 11pm. Getting to sleep was hard with all the motion, but eventually I did, and apart from waking up a few times when the train stopped to let other trains pass, I didn’t sleep too badly.
We were abruptly woken up at half 5, ready to jump off the train at Lao Cai. We were then bundled onto another bus and driven up into Sa Pa. The roads and scenery were reminiscent of the Alps, if you ignored the rice fields and lack of snow. Sa Pa was originally set up by the French as a holiday destination in the mountains to get away from the heat of Hanoi. So even the town had an oddly Alpine feel. Our guide was insistent that we would freeze in Sa Pa. He’s obviously not familiar with English climes, as the temperatures were equivalent to a super hot summers day in Kent. It was funny to see him walking round in his winter jacket, while we were all in shorts and t-shirts.
At about 7am, we arrived at our hotel, given some breakfast and shown to our rooms. Celine and I don’t have a view of the valley like many others do, but we do have lots of space and a double bed each. Luxury compared to the train accommodation! We then made our own way round the town, and stumbled across the local market. This was not a place for the fainthearted! There were huge live fish in small bowls, women hacking pigs to bits, and every imaginable kind of offal. For those of you who are disappointed with the lack of pictures so far, I’ll no doubt treat you to some lovely Vietnamese images when I’m back.
We then went for an ‘authentic’ Vietnamese lunch, courtesy of our guide. This consisted a huge bowl of stock, a hot plate, and various raw meats and vegetables to cook into a soupy mixture. One of the ladies who had also seen the market before lunch decided to go temporarily vegetarian. The food was good, although it was hard to forget about the gruesome and unhygienic conditions of the raw meat we’d just seen. We also sampled some rice wine flavoured with a sweet apple syrup. Out guide called it ‘happy water’! It was super strong (approx 30%), but actually quite nice with the DIY broth.
We spent the afternoon driving to and walking around Taphin village. This place is home to the Red Zhao, one of the many ethnic minorities in Vietnam. We got to see one of their homes and were taught about how they live. Our guide explained that they used have very hard lives, with many dying in infancy and during the cold winters. The government has stepped in to help, providing health centres and schools, and now many live until they are 70 years old. However, when we first got off the bus, the number of Zhao women coming to sell us their wares was overwhelming. Our guide had to speak to them before we would leave the relative safety of our bus. They followed us up into the village and all along our tour. A few of us caved and bought something small, one even gave me permission to take a picture of her in her traditional dress. I did feel quite uncomfortable being the rich Westerner coming to poke round their homes, but our guide insisted that tourism helps them maintain their lifestyle and customs, rather than having to leave Taphin for Hanoi.
Now we’re just having a little downtime before the meal tonight. Man, am I hungry!