On the evening of the 1st May, we took the night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then a minibus to Sa Pa town. The train was incredibly rough, loud, and hot, so we got very little sleep. Luckily we’d anticipated this, and booked ourselves a nice (very nice, it turns out) hotel for the first night in Sa Pa, rather than starting a trek the day we arrived. We spent the morning wandering the town and eating (obviously), until we could check in to the hotel to shower and nap. Our room has two huge beds, so we napped separately (lol, space is a virtue). It was absolutely chucking it down in the evening, and was forecast to continue for the two days of our trek (fabulous). So, as I didn’t actually bring a raincoat travelling, I bought one from one of the many “authentic” North Face shops scattered around the town.
We started our trek this morning, and I think we’re incredibly lucky people. It was supposed to rain solidly all day, but apart from a couple of drizzly moments, it turned out to be cloudy and breezy, with a bit of sun here and there; pretty ideal weather for a 16km trek. The trek itself was actually really difficult. The terrain was treacherous; the hills we were climbing up and down were steep, slippy and muddy. I wore sandals, and my feet were caked in mud, but it was all good fun. We arrived at our homestay, showered, and are now chilling. We’re incredibly high up, looking right out onto rice paddies. It’s too early in the season for rice to be planted, but farmers are currently churning their soil up in preparation; either by hand, or by the ingenious method of letting water buffalo stroll around, churning it with their feet! Very resourceful.
We’ve just had dinner made for us by the lovely family whose house we’re in; a spread of local dishes and rice. Also, rice wine! I’ve seen this a lot because it’s always the cheap alcoholic drink option, but have avoided it as I don’t like wine. However, it turns out this is the Vietnamese version of Lao Whiskey, and not wine at all! Definitely drinkable.
This part of the country is absolutely fascinating. In some ways, the area is very underdeveloped; roads are simply carved out of the hillside, with no surface other than the clay that was there before. But the utilisation of land, and resourcefulness in this rural area is absolutely mind blowing. The rice paddies are carved out of the hillside like a piece of art; perfectly shaped with the undulations of the ground, with ledges to keep the water in. And the irrigation systems, now this is where my mind was actually blown; from each rice paddy to the next there is a tiny waterfall, or gap in the ledge, carrying the water into the next of the hundreds of paddy’s which cover one single hillside. Further to this, there are extra drainage systems for severe weather and heavy downpours (like we’ve had), which bypass the paddies and carry the overflow straight to the river.
Last night, in the homestay, we had pretty scary weather; thunderstorms and torrential rain which woke us at all hours. We were not excited to get trekking again this morning (I was aching as well, forgot what that felt like), but luckily (again) the weather cleared up literally as we were leaving, and we had a pretty nice day. The trek was really really tough; it’s marketed as “medium-difficult”, but we were thinking they probably just a precautionary measure and it would be fine. It really was difficult. The mountain and forest tracks we followed were tiny, rocky, and extremely slippy. We almost fell many times, but luckily tribal people were on hand to catch us (they’re literally like little mountain goats, I don’t know how they do it).
We’re back at the hotel now. I’ve cleaned my shoes and showered, and Elliot’s doing the same. Sandals and suede trainers were definitely not the ideal choice of footwear, but carrying walking boots for 6 months for a single trek seemed excessive.
Elliot has just had to abandon me in a cafe to go get cash, as we’ve just eaten and then realised we have no money. Surprisingly, this is the first time that’s happened. We’re normally more organised, honest.
After the exhaustion of the trek, we were craving home comforts last night, so we had pasta for dinner and then watched Peep show with Haribo and Oreos (in the dark, because there was a power cut). We’re getting the night train back to Hanoi tonight, so we’re just wandering around Sa Pa today, in the rain. There are some absolutely beautiful shops here, selling the local Hilltribe crafts; bags, clothes, wall hangings, all incredibly intricate. If only we had space I’d buy everything (probably a good job we don’t). I’ve absolutely loved it here; a little pocket of pure, rural Vietnamese cultural, but I’m definitely ready to go back to better weather and less mud. Plus we desperately need to do laundry, as I inadvertently ran out of knickers yesterday, and had to wash some in the sink (impracticalities of backpacking).
Drivers in Vietnam are, without doubt, the most erratic and dangerous I’ve ever experienced in my life. We had to get a minibus from Sa Pa town to Lao Cai railway station, the driver of which fancied his chances at endless overtakes of huge lorries on blind corners, with no barriers or buffers separating the road from the sheer drop of the mountains. I arrived feeling incredibly sick; not sure if this was motion sickness, or anxiety over the prospect of plummeting to my death. Probably a combination of the two. Either way, it was absolutely terrifying. I slept slightly better on the train; Elliot did not. Its currently 6:30am and we’re drinking tea in a 24-hour cafe, waiting for Hanoi to wake up.