When we got back to Hanoi from halong bay, we only had three hours before we needed to be on a train to Sapa. We took advantage of that short time by having some pho and also going to a bia hoi place. Bia hoi is the local draught beer, and people often drink it at streetside stalls. It’s dirt cheap (less than 30 cents for a glass) and pretty good.
Pretty soon, we had to run off to catch the train to Sapa, a small mountain town in the north of Vietnam near the china border. Several of Vietnam’s ethnic minority hill tribes live there. On the night train from Hanoi, we shared our compartment w/ two Vietnamese women. It’s funny, most of the people we’d encountered so far took no interest in foreigners (seeing as they must see tons of tourists everyday), but one of the women in our compartment got really excited to see us and started taking photos of us with her camera phone to send to her friends.
After the train, we did the last leg of the trip by minivan up a steep and treacherous mountain road through thick fog w/ pretty much no visibility. The driver rarely drove on the correct side of the road, instead choosing to just honk his horn continuously to warn approaching cars.
In town, we were staying at a hotel about one zillion steps (or so it seemed) up the mountain that had gorgeous views of the surrounding area… or at least it would have if the fog hadn’t been so thick that you could barely see across the street. Along w/ this Australian girl August, we went out to go see the Sapa market. The market was pretty interesting w/ people selling everything from vegetables to souvenirs to clothing. the thing that made this different than other markets, was that there were lots of the hill tribe people there. It was really cool to see all of them dressed in their traditional clothes, the people of each tribe looking very different from each other. It was quite a contrast to the Vietnamese people who, other than the conical hats, pretty much all wear western clothes these days.
girls from Black Hmong tribe crowd around to watch tv inside a building
As excited as we were to see the hill tribe people, they were even more excited to see us… because they wanted to sell us their stuff. Man, these people were unbelievably persistent. You would think that there were only so many times that you could say no to buying a pillowcase or bracelet, but no, they would just follow you all over town and keep asking… just in case you finally changed your mind, or at least got tired of saying no. we got some pretty funny videos of people trying to sell us stuff.
After hiding in a café, we went on a hike that was part of our tour. The hike seemed like it would have been incredible beautiful… but we could see hardly anything because of the fog. We checked out some not-so impressive waterfalls and also went to one of the small nearby villages for a tiny bit.
That night, seeing as we were high up in the mountains, it was hellza cold. Our hotel had given us some wood that we could use for the fireplace in our room. Well, apparently I don’t really know how to start a fire (especially using damp wood/paper), so I had used almost all of the matches w/ no success. For the last match, I had the brilliant idea of putting a ton of toilet paper in the fireplace, and I finally got things going. It seemed like some of the smoke was coming into the room, but I thought it’d probably be fine and went to shower. Nope. When I came out of the shower, the whole room was filled w/ smoke, and caryn had all the windows and door open and was fanning smoke out w/ a blanket. Doh. My eyes stinging from smoke, I called reception for help. Luckily, they let us change rooms
The next morning, caryn wasn’t feeling very well so she stayed in, while I went on a long hike w/ our guide. We walked for a long time, and every once in a while the guide would stop and say something like “over there is a very beautiful view and you can see many many rice terraces… but not today because it’s too foggy”. Pretty much the whole hike down, you see almost nothing below. But when we finally got near the bottom, we could finally start to see some of the rice terraces.
The rice terraces looked really cool, even through the mist. Walking on them was super sketchy though. The ground was incredibly muddy and slippery, and you had to walk across the rocks at the edges of each terrace… one bad step and you’d fall into the nasty muddy water. Our guide also took us to a couple of the smaller villages nearby, and we got to see how some of the hill tribes live, where they go to school, etc. I had noticed that some of the people here had little red marks on their foreheads, and I asked our guide about them. “oh that is for headache” she told me, and I totally remembered how Cao Boi from Survivor would do this weird thing to people’s heads to get rid of headaches, and how a red mark would be left behind. How random that this is actually a common thing here!
At the end of our hike, we weren’t exactly eager to hike back up all the way that we had just hiked down, so we took motorbike taxis back up the mountain. Dude… it was so freaky. I was scared shitless. The road is totally wet and gravelly, you can pretty much not see more than a few yards in front of you due to fog, you aren’t wearing a helmet, there are lots of trucks and other obstacles in your way, and yet the driver insists in flying up the mountain as fast as he can. I was totally hanging on for dear life and counting down the last seconds that I had to live. I’m usually hella down for motorbikes, but this was way not cool. About half way up the mountain though, I just decided, hell, there’s nothing I can do to change the situation now… nothing is up to me, whatever will happen, will happen… may as well enjoy it. And somehow I was fine from then on… actually it was pretty fun flying up this mountain, getting drenched, and constantly driving into the never-ending white fog.
That night, a little before we took our train back to Hanoi, I started feeling a little funny. Uh-oh. I hoped things would get better, but no… they got worse. Much worse. Soon I had to make a frantic dash to the restroom and was vomiting from both ends. Yes, it was fucking awful. I was completely miserable for the rest of the evening, and barely was able to fall asleep on the train because my stomach was killing me. Ugh. It turns out, we heard later that a ton of other people who had gone up to Sapa had also gotten ill. By now actually, we’ve heard of at least 7 or 8 others. Must be something heinous going around there. ugh.
We got back to Hanoi a little after 5 am. It will still dark outside and we stumbled to the hotel, completely exhausted, and me still filling pretty ill. The hotel still had it’s shutters down, and we didn’t want to wake them too early, so we decided to at least wait till dawn to knock. We walked to a nearby church and collapsed on the steps. We sat there for almost an hour in the darkness, barely staying conscious while listening to the melodic singing from inside (people go to church *early* in Vietnam. Finally, at 6:30, we got to go to sleep.
The next day I spent recovering and didn’t leave the hotel room at all. More vomiting etc. I started taking antibiotics, and by night time I was feeling almost decent. Thank god cause the next day I’d be taking a flight at 6:30 am… ouch.