I arrived back at my hotel from halong bay at 3 pm and was to take the night train to sapa. The hotel had kept my luggage while i was in halong bay and upon my return they gave me a room so i could shower and rest before i had to leave for the train (all at no charge). I will now try to do justice to the last 48 hours and explain my adventure to Sapa. Sapa is about an 8 hour journey from Hanoi and you take the overnite train. There is a day train but they tell me it is not appropriate for westerners and after taking the 'luxury' night train I will believe them.
My hotel advised me not to stay in Sapa, they would have me transported 18km outside of Sapa to the topas ecolodge. They said I would have an incredible view of the rice paddies and be able to visit the local villages and this area is a lot less commercialized than Sapa.
The hotel sent a staff with me to purchase my first class train ticket and he stayed with me until I got on the train. Thank goodness he did as purchasing the ticket was very confusing even for a local and the poor staff person was having difficulty finding out what train I was on and people in Hanoi do not seem to be helpful even to their own.
The train station is very packed and quite dirty so finally when we were allowed to board the train at 8:30pm I was happy. The young man took me to car number one as indicated on the ticket. Well when we got to the room I was suppose to be in I was horrified. I have never seen anything so dirty in all my life and I was expecting to be in a room with 4 soft sleeper bunks. This tiny room had six hard beds and there was a bamboo mat (much like the ones you use on the beach in Hawaii except these ones were filthy) - I wouldn't even attempt to describe the washroom we passed in the corridor. My hotel staff person could not speak english but I was able to convey to him that I would not stay in this car and would rather go back to the hotel and skip Sapa. He was able to finally get help from a train staff and found out car1 that I was to be on is actually car 2- go figure????
When we boarded the second car I could immediately tell it was much better. I was in a berth with 3 other people (a couple from toronto and a girl from Paris). There was a sort of mattress on the bed with pillow, sheets and a blanket - and everything was small but clean. I was delighted there was a plug in for me to recharge my iPad. They supplied bottled water and tea. No changing in to pj 's though you pretty much take off your shoes and climb under the covers. As I tend to be a snorer I was concerned about keeping the others awake so I sat up most of the night and dropped off only for a couple of hours. We arrived at the train station outside of Sapa at 5am and it was still dark. There was a man holding my name when I got there. He led me to a van where he and another man got in and started driving-neither of them spoke English and apparently I was the only pick up - oh goodie. After driving about 10 minutes they stopped in a square. Now imagine I am alone with these two guys who do not speak English in the middle of nowhere vietnam and it is pitch black outside. This is really out of my comfort zone - oh well! After sitting there for about10 minutes with the engine running the driver makes a call on his cellphone and then we are off. Now we are going through all these tiny back streets in some village and things are not looking great. Finally he stops to pick up a Vietnamese girl in her twenties who also cannot speak English. We drive for about a half hour to the town of Sapa where the extra man and girl get out. From what I can understand they hopped a ride to Sapa in a taxi that was already paid for. The road to Sapa is very steep, narrow and winding. However it is like a first class highway compared to the 18 km dirt road from Sapa to the ecolodge. It was still dark and the mist was rolling in so visibility was minimal. The road had incredible deep ruts and looked like it had been hit by mortar. I have to admit I was truly scared and even started saying a few prayers to myself. At one point a vehicle was coming the other was and could not pass us so we had to back up on this narrow road with no guard rails and you can't see a foot behind you because of the fog. This is not how I envisioned my life ending. Anyway we were able to do it or the driver was able to do it while I white knuckled the seat in the back and we finally made it to the ecolodge truly in the middle of nowhere Vietnam. I will try not to think about the ride back to Sapa right now.
The view from here is suppose to be incredible but unfortunately it is so fogged in I cannot see anything which is a bit disappointing. I was greeted by the local tribe women at the entrance to the lodge. They were all trying to sell me their crafts and they are not allowed on the lodge property so they catch you at the entrance.
The lodge is lovely and would be the same caliber as Tigh Na Mara lodge. It is managed by a young man from Denmark who speaks very good English. It is now about 7 am and I was not able to check into my room but was able to have a delicious breakfast and since there is WIFI here I was able to catch up on emails. Do not hesitate to send me emails as it is nice to hear from everyone.
After I got settled in my lovely unit with a balcony overlooking the rice paddies (unfortunately due to fog I cannot see a thing) I decided to ask the manager if there were any organized tours I could take. At the hotel back in Hanoi I was told I could walk around on my own and visit the villages but because of the dense fog I did not want to do this for fear of getting lost. The manager told me I had missed all the tours for today but if I wanted to be adventurous he would go to the road with me and see if one of the ladies would take me to the village and then probably want me to buy something from her. Little did I know I was about to embark on a 3 hour journey that will leave me with a lifelong memory and will be a highlight of my trip. When I think about this adventure it brings tears to my eyes - I have learned the unexpected in life can truly be amazing.
When we got to the road he tried to negotiate that only one lady take me to the village but that was not to be and I ended up with 6 escorts.
A little info about my escorts - there are 10 different tribes in these mountains and they all dress differently and speak different dialects, none speak Vietnamese . My escorts were from the Red Dao minority village Thanh Kim. One of the ladies could speak minimal English which I was later to learn she had picked up from tourists. They were very interested to know where I was from, how old I was, how many children I have and where was my husband. I tried to answer their questions the best I could. The were all between the ages of 41 and 52. The 41 year old has 5 grandchildren and the 52 year old was very proud that her husband was a year younger than her. These ladies have never gone to school (I did not ask if the could read or write). The tribes in the mountains have no income only the few dollars they pick up from selling their crafts to the tourists that come to the lodge as well as some money from the cardamon spice they grown in the jungle areas and harvested by their husbands. They are totally self sustaining growing their rice, vegetables as well as raising a few pigs, chickens and ducks. All the tribes in the mountain area get along well with one another and from what I could gather there are marriages between the different tribes.
The walk along the road to their village is about 3 km and as if the road was not challenging enough to walk they decided to take me down the side of the mountain alongside the rice paddies, over the river to their village as this was apparently a short cut. Even though it was foggy I had an great view of the rice paddies, saw a young man on the side of a mountain pushing an ox and crossed the river bridge (needless to say the bridge was missing a few parts and likes to swing back and forth). The ladies were so sweet and caring. They kept holding on to me so I wouldn't slip on the muddy trail (well kind of a trail but after the jungle journey this was not so bad).
Finally we reached lema's house and she was so proud to invite me in.
The house is quite large and 10 people live there Lema, her husband, two children, two grandchildren, son, his wife and two children. The house is made of bamboo and wood. The floor is a poorly laid cement pad very rough, covered with dirt and lots of holes. Very little furniture just a few tables and some plastic chairs. However there is a tv (just an old one like the ones we throw away). The ladies showed me the kitchen where cooking is preformed (no kitchen aides or granite counter tops here). There was one area piled with corn that had been husked and was drying. They then showed me how they grind the corn to make the meal and then mix with egg for food.
They cook over an open fire in a huge wok type pot. The picture of the large round bowl with plastic is where Lema washes clothes. They collect their water in large barrels from rain water off the side of the mountain. The government has brought in power which they only use at night for lights and i am guessing TV. Lema showed me her bedroom and I only saw one bed so I am not sure where everyone sleeps but there is a ladder to a loft so I guessing that might be a sleeping area.
Some of lema's grandchildren came for a visit while I was there. The seven year old girl was looking after the 2 and 3 year old boys. The little two year old was whining at grandma as he wanted to be picked up and cuddled (some things are no different in any culture and that is how much a child needs to be cuddled). Lema wanted to feed me and give me something to drink- now how am I going to get out of this without offending her. I told her I had just eaten breakfast so I was not hungry. She insisted I have something to drink. So she set up some tiny plastic chairs around a little low table She had two plastic water bottles one with a clear liquid which I assumed was water and the other was a brownish liquid. She took two cups and blew in them to make sure they were clean and poured some of the liquids in each cup. I felt obligated to take part in her hospitality and knew I had diarrhea pills back in Hanoi should this go terribly wrong. I took a sip of the clear liquid and it just about blew my socks off as it was her homemade rice wine. They all laughed as they knew I thought it was water. The brownish liquid was like a sweet water- god knows what it was but I am still alive and no stomach problems yet. I told her I could not drink all of the rice wine or I would not be able to walk back to the lodge so she poured it back into the water bottle. Just so you know I asked if it was alright for me to take pictures and she was delighted. In fact the more pictures I took the happier she was and often took the camera to take pictures of me (some of them were interesting as I don't think she has much experience in this area). I noticed a number of young people around most of whom have motorbikes and cellphones and she told me they work in Sapa. It seems the young people are being educated and it does not look like the ways of their parents will be carried on in the future. I did not see any old people and did not want to be impolite by asking. I did ask about the Vietnam war and it was clear they did not want to talk about it.
On the way back we took the long route via the road so I could see the rest of the village. The yellow building is the primary school and the white building is the hospital.
When we were almost back at the lodge entrance the ladies stopped and wanted to sell me some of their homemade crafts. What I was to realize later is that when we got back to the entrance of the lodge there would be about 10 other ladies from different tribes who would want to sell to me and my ladies did not feel inclined to share! I only took 400,000 dong with me which is about $20. I told them that was all I had and would give it to them but I would like a small craft from each of them to take back to Canada. Lema did the negotiating for me and I have ended up with 6 different purses. They were just thrilled as apparently this is a lot of money to them. Then each of them tied a bracelet on my wrist for good luck and told me I was their new friend- I was almost in tears. We have so much and they have so little yet they are so kind and so much fun to be with. I will cherish my memory of them forever. When we got back to the entrance of the lodge all the other ladies tried selling to me but I said no and asked the guard at the gate to take one last picture of me with my ladies!
After a goodnight's sleep I woke up to more fog and you still cannot see a thing which is really unfortunate. So I will get the shuttle back to Sapa in the afternoon. Spend the afternoon in Sapa and have dinner before leaving back to Hanoi on the night train. Oh no now I have to think about driving on the road to Sapa (could be the title to a foreign film).
When I left the lodge my ladies were all there to say goodbye Lorna and hope I come back and to give my granddaughter a hug from them. OK now I am in tears.
Got to Sapa after a non- relaxing ride down the mountain and it was miserable. It was soooooo cold and foggy you could not see anything so unfortunately I was going to miss all the beautiful scenery. However I have met a nice young couple from Toronto and they will also be traveling to Hoi An in the next couple of days and we are going to try and connect when we are there.
On my train ride back to Hanoi I shared a sleeper at with a couple she is from Ho Chi Minh city and he is from honolulu and was just at whistler and big white mountains last month. Boy is it a small world.