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Adventures of Boo

Vietnam - still the North

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 1 April 2008 | Views [768]

Vietnam - Still up North

Sapa & Lao Cai
Decided it was time to chill out so I headed for the mountains. Sapa is a town of 37,000 people and lies at 1600 metres of altitude. This lofty hill station was established and built by the French in 1922 so no wonder it reminded me of France in winter. Lofty mountains tower over the town on all sides and while I was there it was frequently shrouded in mist and a little fresh shall we say.

So to get to Sapa I caught an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (which is a busy border town with China). The train journey was 8 hours long and I'd made the mistake of going on a Friday (which is busy weekend time) and only getting my train ticket the day before. The only tickets available were hard seats, as the soft sleepers and soft seats were sold out! Hmmm... I decided to do it rough and take a hard seat which I discovered was a hard wooden park bench with another facing the opposite direction so close that one had to intertwine knees with the person sitting opposite. Needless to say, it was close to impossible to get any sleep that night. Not only was the train full but they had sold more tickets than seats so people were sitting in the aisle on little plastic stools and some laying down on mats wherever they could find room. Lets not discuss the hassle of getting to the toilet and the state it was in. At least I was sitting next to a pretty young girl, who spoke just a few words of English but we had fun going through my phrase book picking out sentences to say to each other.
Once in Lao Cai, it was straight onto a mini-bus and up the mountain to Sapa which was 38km away. I was so buggered that I slept the whole trip up there and once I'd checked in to a Hotel I went straight to bed a slept through till 2pm. I made a mental note to get a soft sleeper on the return trip!  

The following day I rented a motorcycle/scooter from the hotel and went exploring for the day. The first stop was the petrol station as the buggers had given me a bike with the fuel gauge right on empty. Now the needle was in the green I headed further up the mountain to find this waterfall (Thac Bac) I'd been told about. It was about 15km from town and it was slow going on these rough mountain roads but it was nice to get above the cloud cover and admire the views. Surrounding Sapa are the Hoang Lien Mountains, including Fansipan (3143m altitude) which is Vietnam's highest peak. The trek to the summit and back takes several days which would have been great to do but my foot is still not up to this kind of challenge.
The waterfall was fairly high but the volume of water was not significant at this time of the year. After climbing back down the steps from the base of the waterfall, I sat down at one of the roadside stalls selling the usual combination of meat, sticky rice, sugar cane, sweet potato, eggs and of course Vietnamese tea! While having a bite to eat I was joined by a local called 'Kien' who is a mechanic and lives just at the corner 200m away. His English is quite good while we talked I asked him about this curious tent like structure on the other side of the muddy road, suspended over a steep and rocky gully. He gleefully informed me that his friend and work collegue who is a labourer lives there and asked whether I'd like to visit. It is unlike me to say no in these situations so off we went and woke the poor bugger who was asleep so I could take a peak at his tent-like hut. One had to walk up a narrow plank to get to the entrance and then crouch to get under the tarp. It was small of course but amazingly cosy, like a cubby house in the back yard. He had been living there for 4 weeks already and I'm not sure how he managed with the cold but he seemed content and had some thick blankets to rug up in. Check out the photo gallery to see the pics of this humble house. I wandered back across the road and fetched a bottle of the local rice wine alcohol (strong stuff drank from shot glasses) and some pork pieces cooked on skewers. Back in the hut, the alcohol did a great job in warming us up and we had a merry few hours before I jumped back on the motorbike and headed back down the hill to explore more of Sapa, feeling a little tipsy and singing out loud to myself!

Hoa Lu & Tam Coc
Back in Hanoi, I booked myself in for a day trip with a tour group to visit Hao Lu and Tam Coc. The bus departed around 8am in the direction of Ninh Binh for Hoa Lu which was the capital of Vietnam under the Dinh dynasty. It has mostly been destroyed but there were some interesting temples and tombs not to mention the bizarre landscape. Our English guide was fairly new to the job and had limited knowledge of the history so I found myself following this well spoken French guide who seemed to know what he was talking about, giving extensive historical background of the place. Back on the bus, crammed to the roof, we headed off to Tam Coc which is known as Halong Bay on the Rice Paddies. The scenery was indeed breathtaking and even more so from the rowboats which we boarded in twos. Down the river we went with one woman rowing and the other pushing along with a long bamboo pole. The Spanish guy I was with and I had picked a pair of speed demons as the 2wp (woman powered) boat was soon out front and leaving the others far behind! It was fantastic as we could take photos of the scenery without annoying tourists getting in the shot, plus it was much more peaceful. Part of the trip actually goes into a cave which goes straight through a huge mountain of rock, very impressive, just have to watch your head as the roof gets very low in some areas. On the return leg I asked the girl if I could have a go at rowing the boat to which she willingly agreed. Well I can tell you that it is not as easy as it looks but after I little while the boat was moving forward with reasonable speed and in the right direction. It caused much laughter amongst the locals, I just wish I knew what the heck they were saying!    

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