Sapa is a truly beautiful place, described as the
trekking place in Vietnam, it is a lush, cool highland area of mountains, rice paddies and minority villages. The unfortunate thing about this is that everyone knows it, and due to it being widely publicised it is no longer anything but a commercial haven for those seeking trekking made easy. To sum up what i mean, the town is populated now by the people from the local villages, who all are tour guides for the companies in town and hence speak perfect english. It really ruins the atmosphere of such a beautiful place when you are surrounded by people in this fantastic decorative village clothing, and they are all trying to sell you things or trying to take you on tours of the town. The town is now also heavily populated by stereotypical american tourists who you would normally see in all inclusive resorts in places like Gran Canaria (my bus back to Hanoi was filled with Americans complaining that they had to go a whole hour without hot water in their hotel! How they survived that i'll never know)
Just to clarify, i have nothing against the hill tribe people for doing what they do, fair play to them actually, i mean if we are going to come and overrun their villages, staring at them and tasking pictures of their way of life, then i think they are more than entitled to get something back from it, as they certainly don't from the
government (see later). Also its exactly the same sort of thing we would be doing back home anyway.
Anyway, after the usual checking in processes and washing off the stain of the overnight train, i went to check out Kat Kat village, the local village that you can 'trek' to yourself. It certainly makes for a nice walk, if you don't mind the hundreds of likeminded tourists also doing the walk, and again the souvenir stands when you get there. Accidentally took a detour off the beaten track and ended up following a local hmong villager for about an hour (and his goats) only for him to gesture to me, after an hour of walking to his village, that i couldn't go any farther and had to turn back. Nice walk though.
Next i braved my worst enemies and hired myself a Moto driver to take me to see the silver waterfall and Tram Ton pass. Turns out my moto driver was a really cool guy, very friendly, and this trip was great value for money. The silver waterfall is stunning, over 200m of rapid folwing water crashing down over smooth rocks and lush green plants. Tram Ton pass is just a stretch of highway, the highest in Vietnam actually, which separates Sapa(the coolest place in Vietnam) from Lao cai (i think),the warmest place in Vietnam. I think thats what the guy said anyway. Basically its a divide between two different weather fronts, and its very surreal to be very cold one minute, then having turned a corner of the road being boiling hot the next minute. The pass also has spectacular views of the countryside surroundings.
In the evening i found a restaurant where a guy and his wife claimed to serve 'authentic local hill tribe food'. The restaurant being empty is never a good sign, but i figured i'd brave it anyway. The food was fantastic, just what i needed, as at this point i couldn't have stomaches another bowl of pho (noodle soup, the 'breakfast that made a nation'). The only downside ws that the guy wouldn't let me leave, and every time i tried to pay he poured some plum wine and made me drink with him. This continued for about an hour after i finished my meal, so i eventually went home rather merry!
Next day i paid one of the local villagers (who is also a tour guide for one of the hotels in
town) to show me some of the local villages. We saw the Lao Chai village (her village) a black hmong village, the Ta Van village, a red Dzao village, and th3e Giang Ta Chai village, another black hmong village. Was about 8km of walking in total, through rice paddies, along gushing streams and through dense bamboo forests. On the way to the first we were surrounded by hundreds of other tourists who were doing the same via agencies in the town, but after that village we took an alternative route, so it was just me and vous for the rest of the day, which made for a really good but knackering day.
One thing here that sickened me is the governments attitude to all this trekking. When you do a tour through the companies in town, none of the money goes to the villagers or the village, even tough tye are using the local villagers as guides. The entrance fees to the village also go to the government. Whilst i know there is very bad treatment of hill tribes in Asia in general, at least in Thailand and Laos some of the money went to the villagers (and in Laos quite a considerable amount). Vous has been working as a tour guide for 3 years for a hotel, and they have yet to pay her a penny of the money shes been promised. In fact they are using this money as blackmail:- she wants to go to school, like her friends, in Hanoi, but her hotel have said that she must stay as a tour guide for at least 1 more year, or they won't pay her family any of the money she's accumulated. That sucks.
I got on really well with Vous, and in the evening me and a few of her friends went for some Bia hoi, watched some local dancing in one of the hotels, then drunkenly stumbled around by the lake (bloody rice wine!).
Stayed over at Vous, then the next day we went to one of her friends' (mang) houses to help plant rice in the paddies for a day. Bloody hard work planting rice all day i tell ya, and i can see how the older genertaions have permanent hunched backs, as they spend all day hunched over in the paddies all day. They are also a lot fitter than i am, very demoralising.
When lunchtime came, i ate as they do, which was simple but niceand provided a further insight into family life in Vietnam. I hadn't brought any water and was quite dwehydrated from the drinking the night before, so i was so grateful when they poured water out for dinner and when about to down it when i thought to myslef' hang on, im in Vietnam here aren't i'. Bloody rice wine again, and i was again forced to drink several shots of rice wine (seemingly the norm at meal times here). How they do this, then continue to work for 4 more hours in the schrching midday heat i'll never know.
After the lunch/wine stop everyone seemed in much higher spirits, and rice planting continued, amid much mud fighting as well. At the end of the day, i left Sapa, looking like i had just got out of a mud bath, and boarded my train straight for Hanoi.