23.03.2009 75 °F
The beds were rock hard and even with adding a little padding by putting the comforter from one bed underneath us we still find it difficult to get decent sleep. But we are excited to be here and looking forward to the day. We discover that the power is out and probably is all over town. Who knows when it will be back on, but we still have hot water in the bathroom tank so we can wash up. We have to pack up and check out this morning. They will gladly store our luggage while we hit the town again before our shuttle arrives at 5:00PM to take us back to Lao Cai for the train. We have a light breakfast of baguette and butter with guava jam and Sa Pa honey then out the door and around the corner to our scooter man.
He sets us up with the same one we had the day before. Five bucks for the whole afternoon! We don our helmets and, promising to return with the tank full this time, we head off down the hill in the direction of Ta Van and maybe beyond. The air is hazy still, the road is bumpy and, at times, slightly washed out. It can be slow going as you negotiate your way down ruts, through streams and around huge pot holes. Often the road just opens up and you’re flying down a decently paved section. Just as suddenly it ends and you have to quickly brake as you encounter a steep dip in the road that would otherwise have you flying over the handlebars. Along the way we see packs of hill tribe people leading a few adventurous trekkers who will be guided all the way to the minority village and back. We get about 12 km down the road and come to a fork: one way leading further into the valley and possibly eventually to the river below, the other way seems to lead off still clinging to the mountain side. We stop when we see a sign for mountain coffee. We park the scooter outside under the awning and hesitantly peek inside the dilapidated wooden shack. There is a family going about their business, a boy helping a young man with a coil of cables which look like they could be extension cords (Vietnamese style!). The electricity is out here, as well- the television is off, there’s no radio going- both common wherever you are! There are a few tables with tea cups and pots set up surrounded by low plastic stools. We say “ca phe” and they invite us to sit. Several minutes pass as we watch the life of the family unfold. The young man sends the boy up a bamboo ladder to a second story storage area. He retrieves a bunch of fans that the young man precedes to clean and make ready for use. Ah, that’s what all the cable/extension cords are for? Chickens cluck and putter around the dusty stoop, a few piglets are seen running down the other side of the street. The teenaged girl brings us a traditional Vietnamese drip coffee in glass cups set in a bowl with hot water. The process is slow going as we wait for the coffee to finish dripping through its metal filter. The sweetened condensed milk is already at the bottom of each glass and soon we are sipping on some of the best coffee we have had in Vietnam yet: strong with not a hint of bitterness, it is smooth and lovely and we thoroughly enjoy it. We pay our 5000d each, which is about 30 cents (and we can hardly believe it!). Getting back on the scooter we head down the road a few more kilometers before we decide to head back up to town. A word to the wise: carefully check your helmets when you receive them before you start heading down the road, mine had a faulty clash and kept coming unbuckled then the wind would sweep it back and it almost went flying off a few times. I had to jerryrig it by tying it onto my head. Back in town we see about exchanging it for another. Our motorbike man is off taking a nap, but one of his buddies swaps out the helmet for another - we notice that its chinstrap is tied in a knot, but at least it fits better and feels more secure. We head off in another direction toward Lai Chau which is 195km away. We aren’t interested in making that trip, nor would we have the time, but it takes us up further into the mountains closer to Tram Tom pass- the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. This skirts the North side of Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Vietnam at 3143m. The road would take us to Thac Bac (Silver Falls) but it’s getting late and we are getting hungry and thirsty. It’s a good thing we didn’t make that trip, the wet season is over and there was no water running off the falls. Apparently it was dry as a bone at this time. We decide to make our back to Sa Pa and check out the Victoria Hotel- probably the most posh place in Sa Pa proper. We hardly look like their usual customers, but we are welcomed to the bar area. As much as we’d hoped to have a cold beer in the dining room, with its magnificent view of the town and the hills, we are seated in the garden just outside the bar. We order a couple of Tiger beers, and just about faint when the bill comes and they are four dollars each! If we’d ordered lunch, we’d be flat broke! Still, the hotel is absolutely beautiful. In the garden there are three little goats tied up- they’re the lawnmower. There’s a children’s play area that opens onto a rabbit pen, where some very tame rabbits are stretched out under a small tree. Inside the lobby, a Flower H’mong woman is weaving the colorful cloth for which they’re well-known. The lobby restrooms are the best we’ve seen- even superior to the Hanoi Opera Hilton. L is not sure about the restroom attendant- they have someone to hand you a clean towel after you wash your hands. “Do you tip her?” she inquires softly. No, no need.
The rest of the day is easy. Lunch is at a local joint where we noticed roast pig on a spit earlier that day. We accompany this with perfectly fresh deep fried shrimp and a couple of Tiger beers. Way cheaper then the Victoria! We managed to run into a couple of English gents we had met earlier in the week at our hotel in Hanoi. Small world! They are leaving for the train back to Hanoi that evening as well. Perhaps we’ll have the chance to raise a glass. We need to fill up our gas tank on the scooter before we return it which is easily and quickly done for only 25,000d, about $1.50USD. We return the motorbike, enjoy a lemonade and a game of cards on the balcony of a café, and then just hang out in the lobby of the Pumpkin Hotel while we wait for our shuttle, which arrives more or less on time. We see that our British friends are also on this shuttle. Once again, we squeeze 14 people into the 12-seater and start our journey down the mountain to Lao Cai. We see the villages of the Red Dzao people- lower in elevation than the H’mong, which means they really have a trek to sell their wares in Sa Pa every day. As we descend, the air grows heavy and the temperature rises. It was so easy to forget we were in a tropical climate while visiting the mountain communities! Lao Cai is bursting at the seams with tourists lounging in the plethora of restaurants and beer joints lining the streets around the train station waiting for their departures. Ours is not a long wait but just enough time for a quick beer with the Brits before they have to catch their train. We have a little more time so we cross the street to enjoy a hasty bite of “my xau ga”. We share a table with an older woman, who happens to be from Portland, Oregon as well! Okay, no, really, seriously, this is a small world. Finding and getting to our platform for the trip back was so much easier in Lao Cai then the crowded station at Hanoi. We share a berth with a young man from India and another from Vietnam. The air is still and sticky and the AC doesn’t appear to be working well. The expected cold ride turns into a hot and muggy one that is even more uncomfortable then the chilly ride up. Always expect the unexpected and be prepared for anything. When you get back to Hanoi at 4:30 in the morning expect to pay an inflated price in a taxi to take you to your hotel, (one fellow offered us a taxi for 70,000d- almost three times normal rate!) but don’t expect your hotel to be open and ready to receive you at that hour. The Church Hotel’s doors were open but the lights off as our desk clerk and bell man were sleeping on cots in the lobby. We set our things down inside and patiently waited outside (where it was cooler) for them to wake up. Thankfully we were allowed to check in at 8am after someone checked out early to catch a flight. A much needed shower and a nap were the only things on our mind.
~L & S