|Panhou Village grounds|
We drove past many kids who were making their early morning walk to school. We passed a primary school where the youngest were headed, and a while later we passed a secondary school for the older ones. The car wound up over the mountain, past the spot where we had seen the Yao men praying for their brother yesterday. We realized while backtracking that the only reason we had gone that way was to stay at the Panhou Village. It had definitely been worth it; we loved the spa treatments and the property was beautiful. As with any place on the trip so far, we would have enjoyed staying longer.
After our quick breakfast break, we resumed our long ride. We wound along narrow roads, passing lots of individual plywood plies drying in the sun on the side of the road. We had seen this sporadically during our travels, but here we actually saw the machine which planes the wood into plies.
After several hours of driving, we arrived in Coc Ly at around 11 o'clock. We parked with a lot of tourist vehicles. The market had been going since dawn, so we were actually only catching the tail end of it. We walked up a hill to where the animal market takes place. Water buffalo are bought and sold here. We looked around and saw men in serious discussion, while a buyer put a potential purchase through its paces. Cuong told us that water buffalo cost between $700 and $900 US, so they are a significant investment. The adult buffalo had rope tied through their nostrils and they were tied to a stake in the ground. Baby water buffalo weren't tied up. We suppose they stay with their mothers.
|Flower Hmong women at the Coc Ly animal market|
|Water buffalo at Coc Ly animal market|
After checking out the animal market, we walked down the hill to see the rest of the market. The Flower Hmong, unlike the White or Black Hmong, don't make their own clothing. They buy it at markets like this one. Their outfits are very colorful, and consist of a variety of contrasting patterns. The women wear lightweight pleated skirts with multi-colored horizontal stripes. Under the skirts, they either wear black leggings or multi-colored woven strips wrapped around their legs like bandages. They wore little shawls, with or without sleeves, with intricate woven patterns. Sometimes beads dangled as fringe. Some of them augmented their outfits with brightly colored western plaid shirts. They wore bright colored kerchiefs on their heads, except for some who wore more western-style sun hats. They carried brightly colored woven purses. Some carried umbrellas to protect them from the sun. On their feet most of them wore the white flip-flops that we have seen everywhere.
|Chuc suc khoe! Rice wine at the Coc Ly market|
|Flower Hmong woman at the Coc Ly market|
|Baby watches his mom eat rice noodles at Coc Ly market|
|Flower Hmong clothing for sale at Coc Ly market|
|Taking a break from selling at Coc Ly market|
After fully exploring the market, we got back into the car to find cookies with our water bottles in the seatback pockets. Cuong said that lunch would be a little late today, so he wanted to make sure that we had snacks. Craig and I smiled; with the wide array of great food available at every meal, we never had a chance to feel hungry during the course of the day.
We drove along winding mountain roads, past trucks so huge that we were surprised that they could even negotiate the corners. We drove along the Red River, which separates Vietnam from China here. The river is about 20 feet wide here, cutting through rural farmland. The Chinese side looks no different than the Vietnamese. Had Cuong not told us, we never would have suspected that this was the location of a national border.
We arrived in the recently rebuilt city of Lao Cai. In 1979, the Vietnamese were feeling pretty good about themselves after having driven out the French and then the Americans. Apparently they made some boastful statements about first world countries being unable to conquer them.
China took exception to that claim that they were invincible, and invaded northern Vietnam with 100,000 troops to seemingly prove a point, flattening the city of Lao Cai in the process. It has all been rebuilt since into a modern city with tall buildings.
We stopped at Trung Hòa Cơm Phở (translating the name in Google Translate yields "Neutralization of Rice Noodles", which sounds pretty awesome) for lunch. There were two tables out on the sidewalk in front of the narrow kitchen. One table was full of locals, and we sat at the other with Cuong and Mr. Giang. The sun was very hot, but luckily our table was shaded. There was a lot of traffic, and large trucks spewed diesel fumes. This was a bit of culture shock - definitely the most urban environment we had been in since we left Hanoi.
The proprietor of the restaurant was happy to take photos with us as long as the restaurant's sign was in the picture. His waitstaff served us pork wrapped in crispy jungle leaves, pork shish kebab, rice, tofu, greens with garlic, and an omelette. It was all quite delicious. We had yet to find a dish that we didn't like.
The folks at the other table were looking at us with curiosity. A young woman kept trying to get a photo of us with her phone, but she was too embarrassed to make eye contact. We would have posed for her. The advent of camera phones has really shifted the dynamic between traveler and local. No longer is the traveler the only one with the ability to document their surroundings, and often the locals find the travelers as interesting as the travelers find the locals.
|Lunch at Trung Hòa Cơm Phở in Lao Cai|
After lunch, we continued for an additional hour, climbing up and up and up into the mountains.
As we left Lao Cai behind, we passed into a more wooded area. Cuong explained that when China gave back the land that they had invaded, the border ended up shifted a bit, so that a previously Vietnamese waterfall was now shared by the two countries.
The lobby of the hotel was decorated with the different clothing styles of the local ethnic minorities. Women gave demonstrations of weaving at a big wooden loom. There was seating around a fireplace, and a lounge where guests can play pool and watch TV. As we walked out into the courtyard, we passed a children's room filled with lots of colorful toys. We crossed the beautifully manicured grounds into the next building where our room (#130) was situated on the ground floor.
The room key was hanging from a small water buffalo bell. It was adorable and I wished that the hotel sold them. It would make a great Christmas ornament.
|View from our room at Victoria Sa Pa Hotel|
The room was quite nice, with dark wood furniture and floors. The linens were decorated in local patterns. We had a very nice balcony overlooking the town. There were bathrobes and slippers for each of us.The bathroom was quite nice, with a wooden step up into the tub.
As we got settled into the comfortable room, I saw the spa menu. Reflexology and foot massage...that certainly sounded nice. Maybe we should book one during our free time. Of course it was a lot more expensive here than it had been at Panhou Village.
But our first priority was laundry. We had brought many layers of clothing, but it was so warm that we were wearing our warm weather clothes all the time. We hadn't really packed enough short sleeve shirts. Looking at the exorbitant a la carte laundry price list in the hotel, we realized why Cuong had recommended a small shop next door to the hotel for their inexpensive laundry service. At $3 per kilogram, we decided to wash everything we had previously worn. Then we wouldn't need to worry about clothes at all for the rest of the trip.
We walked out across the hotel driveway to the shop. In addition to laundry, they sold various souvenirs, jewelry, and North Face trekking supplies. The woman who owned the shop went through our laundry bags, taking out each item and making me write it all down. She then weighed it - 5 kg. She told us that it would be ready tomorrow afternoon.
I saw a sign advertising $5 foot massages. The reflexology back at the hotel was very expensive, and needed to be scheduled. A more informal treatment here was much cheaper. Craig's foot and ankle had been sore from when he fell yesterday, and the idea of a foot massage sounded great to him. The owner heard us, and asked if we wanted foot massages.
We decided that we wanted to take a walk through town to get some photos in the late afternoon sunlight while it lasted. We told her that we would come back in a little while.
|Sa Pa square|
We walked down the windy steep road toward town. We passed more stores selling trekking equipment and more hotels and tourism companies. When we reached the bottom of the hill, we crossed a large intersection to the town square, presided over by a modern looking Catholic church from the 1930's.
The town had been a hill-station retreat for the French during the hot summers of the colonial period.
At 1650 meters, the weather can be considerably cooler than in places further south. Now it has the feel of an alpine village, with steep streets lined with narrow 4- and 5-story buildings. Restaurants, gift shops, bars, karaoke joints, and ubiquitous opportunities for foot and body massages. There were tourists everywhere, both local and foreign. Many of them were backpackers. It seemed very crowded. These curvy narrow streets weren't built to support the amount of traffic that they now receive. You always feel like you are in somebody's way.
We walked around the town, looking at the colorful buildings in the late afternoon sunlight. We wandered into several souvenir stores. They were rather pricey, though the clerks were always willing to negotiate.
The sun was hot as we made our way back to the square. Black Hmong girls approached us, trying to sell us their handicrafts. "You buy from me!" They were not shy. We smiled at them but it was not the same kind of interaction we had with the people of Ha Giang. Here they were jaded by constant tourist interaction. Apparently, at one point the government had tried to convince the ethnic minority women to sell handicrafts in the town square. This takes time away from their farming endeavors, and means that they absolutely need to earn money from tourists. They become very forward and unfortunately your natural instinct is to say no thank you and continue on your way.
A dozen adults were playing volleyball in the square. We walked back up the steep winding driveway up to the hotel. We stopped into the shop for our foot massages. Although we had been told that it is usually cool in the mountains here, the day was actually quite warm and we were overheated even after our short walk around town. As the owner of the store prepared for our foot massages, we asked if they had any cold drinks. Although their drinks were not refrigerated, someone ran to a neighboring store and returned with two ice cold Fantas.
The owner motioned us into a small back room where we sat in comfortable chairs and put our feet up on ottomans. She sat on my ottoman and started massaging my feet. About 5 minutes later, her daughter Tham arrived, and started Craig's foot massage. His foot was a bit bruised from yesterday, but the massage helped. Tham spoke very good English and was quite friendly. She asked us questions about ourselves, so we took out the little photo album we had brought from home. She flipped through and she and her mom looked at photos of our home and family. She said that she had never seen photos of a tourist's home. We really enjoyed talking with Tham. Rather than spending a fortune on a foot massage at the hotel, we were getting to spend some time getting to know the locals, which is always one of our favorite things to do.
At the end of our hour-long massages, they asked if we wanted our shoulders done as well. We couldn't say no to that. Feeling fully refreshed, we looked around the store at the various souvenirs. Tham didn't put any pressure on us to buy anything, which made for a more pleasant shopping experience than we had had downtown.We picked up a couple of things for our godchildren as we paid for the foot massages. Tham threw in a package of postcards for free.
We went back to the hotel and stopped in at the gift shop. I found a lovely pink and purple reversible cashmere and silk blend shawl which was woven into a beautiful pattern. I couldn't resist buying it. It was so soft and pretty. We were realizing that so far we haven't really purchased much of anything, aside from some small fragile ceramics pieces which would be lucky to make it home intact.
At 7 o'clock, Cuong met us in front of the hotel. We waved to Tham in her shop and walked down the hill to the main street, where we ran into Mr. Giang. Cuong led us to the Nature Bar and Grill. We climbed the stairs and were shown to a table overlooking the street. The table contained a platter full of raw beef, pork, and chicken with carved pineapple slices along the edge. There was also a smaller plate full of raw prawns. There was a gas burner in the middle of the table, and they soon brought out a large stainless steel covered pot. The pot was divided into two in the shape of a yin-yang symbol. Half of it held spicy broth, and the other half held mild broth. Cuong explained that this was a "hot pot". The raw meat on the table would be cooked in the broth by us.
|Cuong, Mr. Giang, Craig and Steph at Nature Bar & Grill (Photo courtesy of Cuong)|
|Mr. Giang adds meat to the hot pot|
We were served chicken wings and a sizzling plate of chicken marinated in honey. It was delicious. Mr. Giang poured us some of the rice wine he had brought from the guest house. He poured us shots and we toasted "Chuc suc khoe!" Next came a plate of freshwater clams. Mr. Giang began the process of cooking the food. He started with the seafood, placing the prawns and clams into the broth and letting them cook. He and Cuong ordered a bottle of local Hmong apple rice wine and we had more toasts. It definitely had a more cider-like flavor than the guest house rice wine. It had a sweetness to it, and a bigger kick.
Mr. Giang extracted the clams and prawns from the broth. We started eating the clams. I am not normally much of a shellfish eater, but I wanted to at least give them a try. It was fun trying to open a clamshell and eat the meat with chopsticks. They were delicious! The prawns made a quick trip to the kitchen to be shelled and deheaded. I don't normally like the texture of shrimp, but I found these to be quite enjoyable. The hot pot was delicious, and we sampled all of the different meats, as well as tofu and mushrooms. The flavors all mixed with the broth were delicious. We kept eating and drinking, enjoying one another's company.
|Chuc suc khoe! Cuong and Craig toast with rice wine|
|Catholic Church, Sa Pa|
The next morning, we showered and ate breakfast at the hotel. It was a very nice buffet, and we were astonished at how many guests were staying at this hotel. There was a steady stream of folks coming in for breakfast. As we walked back to our room to grab our day packs, we noticed that there were rabbits in an enclosure. They were eating some lettuce which had just been fed to them.
At 9 o'clock, we met Cuong and Mr. Giang out front, and Mr. Giang drove us 5 km out of Sa Pa toward Ban Den. We pulled over at a mile marker and got out of the car. The views of the surrounding mountains and valleys were spectacular. Green rice terraces as far as the eye can see in the hazy sunshine. Groups of Black Hmong women were gathered here at the road, approaching tourists who started trekking here.
Soon we had an entourage of four women accompanying us on our trek. They were wearing traditional Black Hmong clothing: dark indigo-dyed short dresses with embroidered sleeves. There is elaborate embroidery hidden under their collars. Their legs were wrapped from their knees down to their ankles with woven strips of indigo fabric. Most of them wore the ubiquitous white flip-flops we had seen all over Ha Giang. They wore silver hoop earrings. Two of them had babies, and the other two carried baskets on their backs. They could all speak English to some degree, and asked us where we are from. One of the ladies took me by the hand as we walked. Her name was La and she was very sweet. Though they would occasionally try to get us to commit to looking at the handicrafts they had for sale, they also chatted with us and warned us to be careful of oncoming motorbikes.
|La holds Steph's hand|
|Visiting a school|
We walked down a dirt road down into the valley. We stopped in at a school to deliver some school supplies that Cuong had brought. The class had 19 students, sitting two to a desk. The classroom was decorated with all kinds of primary school art projects, as well as colorful teacher-made learning aids. I felt nostalgic for my teaching days during and soon after college. The class sang a song for us and clapped along for percussion. We passed out notebooks, pens, and crayons to the kids, and they were quite excited.
When we came back out, we noticed that the same four women were waiting for us. La took my hand and we resumed our trek. As we passed houses, we noticed that running water was being harnessed to automatically pound rice. A large wooden log would be fashioned into a large spoon which balanced on a fulcrum like a see-saw. Water would flow into the bowl of the spoon. When it got heavy enough, it would tip. The water flowed out and the now-empty bowl jerked up in the air, causing a blunt instrument on the other end to pound a bowl of rice. Such a simple machine, making use of gravity, to perform a task.
The views in all directions were stunning. It was sunny and a bit hazy, and we could see terraced mountains at all depths until they disappeared into the haze. We stopped at a woman's house to use the rest room. The house was made of wood with a corrugated tin roof. She was sitting on the porch with her baby. He was adorable and gave a toothy smile for a picture. He had some plastic toys and a mirror that he was playing with. She put him in his western stroller that still had some of the protective plastic on the handle. He was perfectly content while she did a weaving demonstration for us on her loom. Out back there was a barrel full of indigo dye. Cuong showed us the leaves of the plants from which they extract the dye. Cuong then showed us how to manually use a grinding wheel by pushing and pulling a handle in an elliptical motion. A foot-pedal-operated sewing machine sat idle.
|Black Hmong mother and baby|
|Black Hmong mother and her happy baby boy|
We continued on our trek, passing an area with a lot of infrastructure construction going on. There were sections of concrete pipe and bricks laying in the newly dug earth. Cuong thought that they might be planning to put in a dam.
We passed some house construction, with a wooden frame and corrugated metal roof. They were using bricks to seal off the ends. We stopped into a little building for cold sodas. The sun was very hot. It was such a pastoral atmosphere. But it was far from low-key. There were many tourists doing the trek, and each had an entourage of locals who were hoping to get a piece of the money that tourism contributes to the economy.
We crossed a small suspension bridge over a stream and came upon two toddlers. One was half naked and playing with a steak knife. Adults were working here and there in the fields, but these two kids were unattended. Cuong put the knife out of harm's way. We arrived at another school, this one a kindergarten. The students were eating their lunch outside on the porch. Each had a small plastic bucket of rice that they brought from home, and the school augments it with additional food. There are 10 teachers and 120 students at the school. We presented the teachers with stacks of notebooks, crayons, and pens. They were very grateful, and when Cuong went to take pictures of us with them, one took Craig's hat off of his head and put it on her own. Sa Pa is also considered a remote location, so these teachers are also paid double the wages, like the teachers we had met in Ha Giang. The teachers pointed out one particular student, only four years old and very small, who walks two hours each way to school and back, all by himself.
As we left the school, we noticed that our four companions were still waiting for us. By now we were beginning to feel a bit guilty. They would definitely be expecting us to buy something from them or to tip them after spending the whole morning with us. We had kind of expected them to disappear when we were in the school for so long.
We continued on, stopping in at various houses of people whom Cuong has gotten to know over the years guiding here. We passed water buffalo and pigs in fields. We passed a workshop where men and women were carving soapstone into intricate shapes. There was a large urn with a Buddha on the top and dragons as handles on the side that was about four feet tall.
|Kindergarten students eating lunch|
|Kindergarten teachers (Photo courtesy of Cuong)|
|Sa Pa rice paddies|
|Children, Sa Pa|
We passed a shop where they were selling soapstone carvings. Some were white and some had been painted over with black to accentuate the details in the carving. We were tempted by a carving of the One Pillar Pagoda, but it was too heavy and breakable to carry home. So we opted instead for Tran Quoc Pagoda, which we had seen at West Lake in Hanoi. While we were in the shop, a man passed by outside carrying a huge metal water tank on his back. Despite the obvious weight and awkwardness of it, he was smiling and greeting everyone as he passed.
We continued on our way and passed a man who was doing construction on a building. He had taken stalks of bamboo and cut them in half length-wise. Then he had scored each of them vertically so they laid flat. He wove them through horizontal wooden slats to make walls. It was very interesting to see the simple ways in which people made use of natural resources. Along our trek, we saw several community guest houses that offered home stays. We were happy that we had done our home stay in a place that was less touristy.
|Elderly woman, Sa Pa|
As we walked further down the road, we could smell rice wine. Since when could we recognize the smell of brewing moonshine? Since seeing Chuong's still in Ha Giang. Cuong spoke to a woman who invited us into a building where she was tending a still. She took the byproducts from the process and fed them to her pigs.
When it was time for lunch, we stopped at a house whose owners were friendly with Cuong.
Our Black Hmong companions took food out of their baskets. They had been carrying our food all day; it was only now that we realized that Cuong had actually hired them as our local guides. We had wondered if they had stayed with us all day just in the hopes that we would buy something from them. We were glad to know that they were being compensated either way.
The women sat in the sun embroidering while we ate a picnic lunch of baguettes, Laughing Cow cheese, tinned pork, pears, bananas, and soda. As usual there was way too much food for the three of us to consume, so we shared it with our companions. When we were done and ready to resume our walk, the ladies asked if we could look at what they had for sale so that they could go home to their families for lunch. Cuong said that we didn't have to buy from them since they had already been paid, but we wanted to buy something from each of them to show our appreciation for the time they had spent with us. We bought an embroidered purse from each of the four women. As a thank you, La and her friend tied little embroidered ribbon bracelets around my left wrist. "To match your shirt," La said. The other two women each gave one to Craig.
We said our thank you's and goodbye's and continued on our way through the gorgeous landscape. We passed a house where raw meat was sitting out on a table next to an old-fashioned scale. The butcher wasn't visible. We passed a little hardware shop where metal heads for pickaxes, hoes, and hatchets were displayed without wooden handles. Brightly colored plastic buckets, synthetic brooms, hammocks, and extension cords were displayed for sale.
|Cuong plays with the baby|
|Black Hmong mother and baby|
|Craig and Steph with our Black Hmong companions (Photo courtesy of Cuong)|
We would be taking an overnight train back to Hanoi tomorrow night. This meant that Mr. Giang would need to drive the car back to Hanoi to meet us. He would be starting his journey today to give himself a day and a half for the trip, and we would have a local driver tomorrow. So we said goodbye to him and wished him a safe trip. We asked Cuong if there was a more direct route, or if he would have to retrace the same route that had brought us here. He told us that he would need to retrace our route.
Mr. Giang dropped us off at a Foot and Body Massage shop on the main street in Sa Pa. Cuong likes to bring clients here after trekking, to help give business to one of the masseuses, who is legally blind. Craig, Cuong, and I sat in comfortable chairs with big pillows for our heads. We were each brought square wooden buckets full of boiling water and herbs. We soaked our feet and our masseuses started out perched on the back of our chairs, massaging our necks and shoulders. Then they dried off our feet and massaged our feet and lower legs. It was very relaxing after our morning of walking. Both of us got massages for a total of $15. What a bargain! And we were happy to help out the blind masseuse, who had performed Craig's massage quite skillfully.
|Cuong brings us for foot massages|
When our feet were nice and refreshed, Cuong asked if we were ready for some more walking. Up behind the Catholic church, we walked up a path past some stores which were selling traditional remedies. There were glass jars full of alcohol with various flora / fauna items soaking inside. It reminded us of the alcohol that Chuong had shared with us in Ha Giang. There were some taxidermy squirrels on display next to the jars.
|Alcohol remedies and taxidermy squirrels|
We came upon a gate welcoming us to Ham Rong Tourist Mountain. The mountain gets its name because it resembles a dragon. Legend says that it is the female half of a pair of dragons turned to stone who were washed away by a flood. Cuong paid for our entrance, and we joined a group of tourists walking up stone steps and along a nice stone path. We passed through a garden of orchids and saw a sign for the Garden of the 12 Earthly Branches. This garden paid tribute to the animals of the zodiac, and there were statues of each animal peppered in amongst boulders, plants, and water features. Some of the statues were pop culture representations of the animals (the cat was represented by Tom of Tom and Jerry fame, and the mouse was represented by Mickey Mouse). This was obviously meant to appeal to kids, but it made the whole thing seem even more surreal.
|Dragon statue, Garden of 12 Earthly Branches, Ham Rong Tourist Mountain, Sa Pa|
|Woman gardening, Ham Rong Tourist Mountain|
We continued further up the mountain, through a very nicely landscaped set of gardens. The sun was hot and Cuong was encouraging us to keep moving. We arrived at a building and Cuong led us inside to have a seat. It turned out that he had been in a rush to arrive here for a 3:30 p.m. ethnic music and dance performance. We were the first people there, so we sat on benches in the front where we would have a good view. Cuong got us some cold sodas and the hall soon filled with tourists.
|Bamboo pole dance|
The performance featured young men and women performing a variety of traditional dances dressed in ethnic costumes. They danced with various props, including parasols and fans. Recorded music was played to accompany them, but in between dance numbers a young man got up and played tunes on traditional flutes. As a grand finale, they brought out long bamboo poles. Three people sat on each side of the stage, each holding onto a pair of poles. They moved the poles in a rhythmic way and dancers stepped between them. They invited audience members up to dance. Of course, the first person they approached in the audience was Craig, who politely declined the offer.
Although this is normally something I would participate in, after all of the walking we did today and with the foot massage on top of it, my feet didn't feel strong enough to attempt such a thing in public. Luckily there were many good sports who did try it.
At the end of the half-hour long performance, the troupe sold a CD-R which contained video of their performances. We decided to support them by buying one, expecting to pay $10 - 15. It turned out to be less than $3 (they tried to give us change back from 3 dollar bills). It was certainly a bargain.
After the performance, we wandered down the mountain at a leisurely pace, enjoying the gardens in the late afternoon sunlight. We joined in with all of the local tourists who were getting photographed in front of a topiary which spelled out "Sa Pa." We walked through the orchid garden again, and it looked other-worldly and lush. The shadows and long sun wavelengths made us feel like we had stepped into a fairy tale. Cuong called it a Kodak moment. There was a gazebo made of concrete which in the shape of a giant mushroom. From there we had a nice view down at Sa Pa below.
|Hats for sale at Ham Rong Tourist Mountain|
|Ham Rong Tourist Mountain|
|Cuong in the orchid garden, Ham Rong Tourist Mountain|
After descending the mountain, we popped out next to the Catholic church at around 5 o'clock. We were close enough to see the stained glass windows which adorned it. Cuong said he would meet us at 7 o'clock at the Nature Bar and Grill for dinner. We said goodbye to him for now.
We walked across the square and up the hill toward the hotel. We stopped at Tham's shop to pick up our laundry. When we arrived she was embroidering a small tapestry. We asked if she had done all of the embroiderey for sale in the shop and she said yes. We purchased one, along with a few other souvenir items. Tham asked if she could be our friend, and we exchanged contact information. She presented us with three larger embroideries she had done as gifts for us and each of our parents. She mentioned seeing our parents in the photos we had shown her yesterday, and she wanted to give us something for them. She also gave us a small woven wallet . It was very sweet of her, and we got some photos with her.
|Craig, Tham, and Steph|
Our appetizer was chicken soup with garlic bread. This was soon followed by vegetable spring rolls, beef kebabs with tomato, mushroom, and onion, as well as fish, deer meat in sauce, rice, and pork. Everything was so delicious, a complementary combination of textures and flavors. We enjoyed our conversation with Cuong, and as usual, we shared a lot of laughs. A large party of around 25 people were seated at a long table in the middle of the restaurant. They stood up and toasted one another in a foreign language. We thought we heard the proprietor say that they were Latvian. We had banana fritters with honey for dessert. As we left the restaurant, the proprietor asked us if everything was ok. "Better than ok!" said Craig enthusiastically. The proprietor repeated the phrase. He seemed to be amused by it. We thanked him for the wonderful food and wonderful service, and then headed back to our respective hotel
|Sa Pa streetcorner|
|Chuc suc khoe! Cuong and Craig toast at Nature Bar and Grill|
The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and met Cuong shortly before 9 o'clock. We had a local driver today. Cuong had wanted to take us to a nearby waterfall, but because it's the dry season, it wasn't flowing, Instead we went the highest point you can drive to, and saw some beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains, which looked purple in the hazy sunshine.
Then we drove to Cat Cat tourist area. We walked down a stone path past souvenir and craft shops. The scenery was gorgeous with houses dotting the landscape of terraced mountain rice fields. We passed simple irrigation systems, where bamboo stalks cut in half were used as pipes to get the water down further into the valley. We also saw more of the now-familiar wooden rice threshers which use flowing water and gravity to automatically pound rice. We passed a pen of black pot-bellied pigs and piglets.
|Cat Cat Tourism Area|
|Water powered rice thresher|
|Si Waterfall, Cat Cat Tourism Area|
|Si Waterfall, Cat Cat Tourism Area|
|Cuong and his friend Me|
From the waterfall, we had to walk back up on the opposite side of the river. We passed some more shops, and I bought a wooden buffalo bell. It was the smallest one I could find, but it is still much too large to use as a Christmas ornament. I will find some use for it. As we walked, we ran into Me, a Red Dao guide whom Cuong had known since she was a little girl. She was very friendly, and Cuong told her that we would be visiting her village this afternoon.
The sun was very hot, and we found ourselves sweating a lot. We stopped at a small building where Cuong bought us some cold cans of soda, which were quite refreshing. We had to walk up another hill to meet our rendezvous point with our driver. There were some entrepreneurial young men offering tourists a ride up the hill on the back of their motorbikes "Very slow!" they promised. Some of the tourists took them up on it. The sun was deadly. But our car wasn't that far away, and we continued walking until we reached it.
|Baguette & Chocolat|
We were driven back to the hotel where we checked out. We stopped at Baguette & Chocolat for lunch. This restaurant in a beautiful French colonial house is run by the Hoa Sua School, founded in 1994 to give disadvantaged children an opportunity to learn culinary arts. Training at the school and at this restaurant prepares students for eventual placement in local hotels and restaurants. Cuong ordered spring rolls as an appetizer to share, and we each ordered an a la carte item off of the menu as a light lunch. I had an open-faced aubergine, goat cheese, and tomato sandwich which was absolutely delicious! Craig had "chicken and mayonnaise on a baguette." The restaurant has a glass bakery case full of goodies, and Craig and I shared a slice of milk chocolate cake for dessert.
We were supposed to do another hike this afternoon, ending at Ta Phin village, a village of the Red Dao (pronounced Zao) ethnic minority. Craig was having a bit of trouble with the heat today, feeling
particularly overheated. He thought it might not be a great idea to do another hike in the hot sun.
Cuong suggested that we could drive to the village instead, and do a little walking around once we got there. This sounded good to us. It was nice to have the flexibility to change plans on the fly when needed, one of the many benefits of a private trip.
So we were driven the short distance to Ta Phin, passing a burned-out Catholic church, a casualty of a backlash against French colonialism. Even though it was not that far by car, trekking the distance in the sun would have been too much, and we were glad to be driven instead.
|Red Dao elder demonstrates how to wrap her headscarf|
|Red Dao woman demonstrating their intricate embroidery|
|Cuong and a Red Dao elder|
|Red Dao father and baby|
When we arrived in Ta Phin Village, a group of Red Dao women were waiting to greet us. They were identifiable by their bright red headscarves. The headscarves of the elder women are very elaborate. Cuong asked one of the women to unroll hers for us to show us how it is wrapped. It is a large piece of red fabric with white edging and long red tassels decorated with metal beads. They fold and wrap it so that it looks like a fluffy red pillow with several tassels dangling down.
The headscarves of the younger women are much more simple: a red kerchief secured with a white tie. Cuong explained to us that the women pull out the hair from their eyebrows and foreheads to create a smooth forehead visible under their scarves to make themselves more attractive to their husbands.
The women wore loose fitting indigo pants with geometric patterns embroidered in yellow and white. A long-sleeved indigo wrap tunic is worn with a separate panel covering their backsides. This back panel is very elaborately embroidered, and it can take them a month and a half just to embroider that one piece. Several women had their embroidery out and were working as they chatted. We helped Cuong to pass out notebooks, crayons, and candy to the women of the village for their children and grandchildren.
Most of the women seemed to speak a little English, and they were able to tell Craig how many children they had that each needed a notebook. Most of them were polite about it, but several were demanding. It is an unfortunate side-effect of tourism that they start to feel entitled.
One of the women, whose name was Mai La, could speak English very well. She told us that because of the climate and cold winters here, there is only one growing season per year for rice and corn. Most areas in Vietnam can usually get 3 harvests per year, so it puts the ethnic minorities of this area at an economic disadvantage.
Cuong talked to Mai La and she invited us to visit her house. She and six other women led us through
the village. We saw a group of toddlers, and each was wearing an elaborate tasseled, embroidered, and beaded hat. Cuong explained that these hats are worn to protect the babies from evil spirits.
In this area of town, the "road" was actually a giant slab or naturally occurring marble. We followed it until it turned into a dirt road leading past houses and shops. We passed a newly constructed health clinic and some green rice fields. There was a man selling popsicles to children. He honked an old-school bicycle horn to get attention. Cuong treated everyone around to a popsicle, both adults and children.
Unlike in Ha Giang where people liked the opportunity to get their children's photos taken, older children here seemed to be shielding the younger children from being photographed. With many tourists constantly in and out of the village, it was understandable. But it made us appreciate the openness and genuine interactions that we had with people in Ha Giang.
|Mai La's house|
|Interior of Mai La's house|
|Red Dao women with Mai La's kitchen in the background|
|Red Dao woman|
We continued our walk to Mai La's house. It was constructed similarly to the Tay guesthouse: it had a framework of wooden beams. Instead of being on stilts, it was a single story with a dirt floor. Its roof was gabled like the guest house, but with corrugated metal instead of a thatched roof. The walls were made of imperfect vertical wooden planks side by side, whereas at the guest house, everything was square and well-fitted together.
We went inside and it took our eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light coming in from between the wall boards. We met Mai La's husband and son. Like the interior of the guest house, there was an open area in the middle, and beds and other furniture are around the perimeter. We saw Mai La's foot-pedal sewing machine. They have several areas that they use as kitchens, both inside and outside. The indoor "stove" was a block of concrete with a wood fire underneath it.
|Walking with our local guides|
|Mai La and her daughter|
|Our Red Dao companions (Photo courtesy of Cuong)|
We walked back to where the car was. Mai La ran into her daughter, and she introduced us. A group of kids were gathered outside a little shop. Cuong bought some sweets and passed them out to the kids. We continued walking back to the car. Mai La noticed the bracelets on my wrist that La had given me yesterday. "Present from Black Hmong," she said knowingly. This also belied that I had bought items from the Black Hmong.
Seven women had accompanied us since our arrival, and each of them wanted us to buy something. They were all digging in their bags to show their wares. The only fair thing I could think of was to at least buy from Mai La, since she had opened her home to us. Depending what they had for sale, we might buy from others as well.
Mai La took several items out of the basket she carried on her back, and I looked through them. I chose a piece which had the same type of delicate embroidery that is featured on their clothing. It was technically a collar but I thought it would look nice hanging on the wall. It had two metal embellishments on it. Mai La was quite happy and thankful that I purchased it, but others felt left out and started accusing me of having promised to buy from them. I apologized and tried to explain that I had said I would look, but that I couldn't possibly buy from everyone. Their reaction was harsh and made us decide not to buy anything else. It was likely to cause a riot.
Cuong said that he gets frustrated with the women when they behave that way about selling their wares. He has tried to explain to them that it puts people off when they are so pushy. Also, he feels like he had just brought them school supplies and bought everyone ice creams, yet they are not satisfied. But then he said that he reminds himself that they are not as fortunate as he is, and desperation causes them to act that way. Each tourist who comes to town is an opportunity to get some extra money for their family, so there is a lot of competition.
After that, we drove down to Lao Cai. We left the woods behind and returned to the concrete city.
We would be taking a an overnight train from here back to Hanoi. We went to see the official Chinese border crossing. There is a bridge over the Red River, and much commerce goes on, with people crossing over to work and trade. The Chinese had built a welcome gate on their side, and the Vietnamese built a bigger one on their side. There are tall buildings on each side, and the two countries are always trying to outdo one another.
We didn't get pictures at the border as it is generally frowned upon. The last thing we would need is to have our camera confiscated by the Chinese military. Cuong got a photo of us on the Vietnamese side of the border, sitting on a stone marker.
|On the Vietnamese side of the Chinese border in Lao Cai (Photo courtesy of Cuong)|
We went into a temple where people were practicing the fairyism religion. Fairyism is a home-grown Vietnamese religion. The people were tired of having to follow the religions of their colonizers and oppressors, so when they were granted more freedom of religion, they came up with something of their very own. Cuong explained that his mother had practiced this religion. It consists of 36 different characters, and at this ritual, a man was wearing elaborate costumes, changing his clothes to represent each of the characters. Characters are male and female. Cuong commented afterwards that the man portraying the characters appeared to be gay. I took this opportunity to ask how gay people are treated in Vietnam. Cuong said, "Most people understand that they are born that way and it is accepted." This was a pleasant surprise. He explained that fairyism is not a religion for the poor, as money is collected at their rituals. We saw a lot of money changing hands, and one woman sitting near us was constantly counting and stacking money. Music was being played on cymbals and drums. Altars were piled with offerings of food, flowers, and money.
|Fairyism ritual in Lao Cai|
|Fairyism ritual in Lao Cai|
We got a simple day room at the Bordeaux Hotel, a few doors down from the restaurant we had eaten at a few days earlier. This would allow us a chance to freshen up before our overnight train ride. We arrived at around 5 o'clock. The room had air conditioning and a nice clean shower. We were able to relax in comfort after a day in the hot sun. In addition to showering, we also organized our luggage so that anything we might need on the train would be easily accessible.
At 6:45, we went downstairs to the second floor restaurant to meet Cuong for dinner. People were starting to congregate here while waiting for the 9 o'clock train. There was a large table of western tourists we recognized from the Victoria Hotel.
Cuong had gone out and purchased two bottles of local corn liquor (Sim San) to drink with dinner. He poured it into shot glasses and we toasted. It was not as smooth as the rice wine we had become accustomed to. He had also bought us a tourist map of the area, which we had been looking for.
For dinner, we had baby corn and chicken soup, duck with onion, prawn with bell peppers and lemongrass, pork, rice, beef, and broccoli. Craig had a Ha Noi beer and I had a Coke. We finished off one bottle of the corn liquor and started the second.
A Vietnamese woman walked into the restaurant with a western man. As she stormed through the restaurant, she knocked a pitcher of water over onto the floor. The restaurant had plenty of empty tables, but she chose a table right next to us. And then proceeded to complain that our food smelled like garlic. We observed them and realized with horror that she was the man's guide. He struggled to order his food, as the waitstaff did not speak English. She didn't even help him; she was too distracted by her smartphone. When their food came, the man's order was totally incorrect and she just ignored him. "Why won't you help me?" he asked her.
Cuong was appalled. We said that this was just another example of how a guide can make or break a trip. How can you even compare the wonderful camaraderie that we shared with Cuong with the obvious contempt with which this woman treated her client? We once again made a mental note to be sure to tell Toni how much we appreciated her booking Cuong for us.
|Cuong eats dessert at the Bordeaux Hotel restaurant|
At 8:30, after having some fruit for dessert, we gathered our bags and walked across the parking lot to the train station. A porter wheeled our luggage over on a cart. Now that it was dark, the nearby buildings were aglow with neon. As we approached the platform, we could feel the rumble of engines. The railroad tracks here actually had three rails; a narrower gauge was laid by the French. Later a third, wider rail was added for compatibility with Chinese railroads. So today both types of cars can travel on one set of tracks.
Cuong helped us to check in, and we said goodnight to him. Craig and I were shown to our cabin in one of the Victoria Express cars. These luxury cars were operated by the Victoria Sa Pa Hotel. Toni had arranged for us to have a private 4-berth compartment (cabin 33: berths 34 and 36) all to ourselves. The top two berths were folded up, while the bottom berths were made up with a fluffy white duvet. A pair of slippers awaited each of us. The cabin was made of luxurious looking dark wood. We had a nice window, and a shelf where there were little night kits containing earplugs and small bottles of water.
The conductor came in and introduced himself. He told us that there was a dining car and a bar car. The train offered pre-fixe meals as well as a la carte. The rest room at the end of our car would open as soon as the train started moving. He told us that we would arrive in Hanoi shortly after 5 a.m., and that he would wake us up about half an hour before that.
We had already eaten dinner, and though a cocktail might be nice, we decided that we should try to get as much sleep as we could. It would be an early morning, and we may as well enjoy the private luxury cabin we were paying for.
The train left the station at 9 p.m. This was our first time on an overnight train, and it felt like we were on the Orient Express from my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries from my youth. It felt very old-world posh. I wrote in the journal and went to sleep shortly before 10 o'clock. The movement of the train rocked us both to sleep.
|Poster for our train at the Victoria Hotel|
|Cabin 33 on the Victoria Express from Lao Cai to Hanoi|
|Cabin 33 on the Victoria Express from Lao Cai to Hanoi|