Vietnam #2 Trekking in Sapa

 

Terraced rice fields

Terraced rice fields

 

 

 

First day trekking-

Sa Pa, or Sapa, is a frontier town and capital of Sa Pa District in Lào Cai Province in northwest Vietnam.

 We started with the highest mountain in Vietnam in sight. Our guide Louis called it Fancy Pants, at least that is how I can remember it. I think it is Fan Si Pan. We had our own entourage, and as good as that sounds, it was not…. We had three Hmong woman following us for the first half of the day. They are eager to help you find your footing, ask you where you are from and ultimately get you to buy their handicrafts. I did not mind any of that. What was invasive was their constant chatter. I could not hear much of what Louis was saying, and when our trek could have been a walking meditation, they were one step behind me, loudly chatting away. It took all my resolve not to be rude. Rachelle and I finally complained to Louis. I ended up buying from two of them, and Louis convinced them to let us go on without them. After that experience, I learned to pretend I did not speak any English.

Rachelle and Leuis

Rachelle and Leuis

With entourage...

With entourage…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up and down trails

Up and down trails

The hike was spectacular. It’s spring, which means baby animals. It’s a good thing we have cameras with a delete button, or most of my pics would be ducklings, chicks, puppies, baby oxen, piglets… Of course, the children are beautiful and sweet, but we are among the hill tribes, and most people do not want to be photographed. Sometimes I can be discrete, sometimes I can take a pic with Rachelle in the background.

Louis has his favorite route, so earlier this morning,when he asked if we wanted to take the shorter route and end up at a Homestay with wi-fi and massage, or take the more scenic route, he was happy we opted for the extra hour. We made a wise choice. Most of time we were on back roads through and between villages or up and down river beds.

Ducks -

Ducks –

People are starting to prepare the terraced rice fields. Sometimes they use an ox-pulled plow, but if the land is too dry, they go at it with a pick-ax. There is only one crop per year in the north, as opposed to 3/year in the south. The winters up here are too cold for cultivating rice. This week is unseasonably hot. It is in the 90s. We’re drinking tons of water.

There is plenty of  evidence of torrential rains. The ruts in the road are parched dry but deep. Every so often there is one shoe literally stuck in the mud. Like LA, they need more rain.

Louis gave us a historical overview of the hill tribes, their names, when they came to the reign, and from where. (Mongolia) He showed us indigo growing, different species of bamboo, plants grown or gathered for human consumption and plants for animal feed.

Lunch stop on the trail

Lunch stop on the trail

Kitchen at lunch spot

Kitchen at lunch spot

Before lunch, we crossed the river at the bottom of the valley, over a bamboo bridge, and started up the other side. Lunch was in a little place outside the nearby village. With a couple of pans and a two burner stove, we were treated to a feast. We finished with fresh, strong brewed coffee over ice with condensed milk.

Louis - spinning hemp thread

Louis – spinning hemp thread

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Another way to grind corn

We stopped often in the afternoon, first at a village where Louis showed us how hemp becomes cloth, then the indigo dye process. I spotted a grinding stone identical to the one Gary and I found years ago. Now it is in our side garden on a stone pedestal. We never understood how it functioned, so it was a treat to see Louis demonstrate it for us. And I have the video! Here, they use it to grind corn for animal feed. We saw many of them today.

Ready to take a break

Ready to take a break

On our way to tea

On our way to tea

By late afternoon, we were invited to sit and have tea with friends of Louis. Sitting in front of their shop, they chatted in Vietnamese, and we people watched. Eventually, we made our way to the homestay, a large barn shaped building.

Dusk

Dusk

Dusk

Dusk

We arrived at the Waterfall Homestay just as the sun was going down. There was hot tea waiting, and hot showers. Except for Rachelle, who showered last and ended up with cold water… We washed out some clothes as we packed very light for this three days.

There were two young French women who arrived before us. We all got along very well, and with our guides, our Hmong host and his family, we made a sweet, if brief, community. All was not fun and games however, Louis gave us strict instructions to promptly get to the kitchen area to make spring rolls. After brief, precise instruction, we set to work and managed to create culinary masterpieces. Rachelle showed up a few minutes late and to Louis’ consternation, created free form rolls and proceeded to eat one before it was fried. By then we were all ready to eat. A long table was set up for everyone, Trekkers, guides, our host and his family.

Waterfall Home Stay cooking fire

Waterfall Home Stay cooking fire

Our Hosts

Our Hosts

Our Host

Our Host

The rest of the evening turned into a blur of rice wine toasts. I turned in early. Rachelle stayed up talking to the woman who hosted us. They talked about birthing practices and the conditions of medical care.

Our sleeping quarters

Our sleeping quarters

The Waterfall Home Stay

The Waterfall Home Stay

Upstairs, our beds were mattresses set on the floor, each in a mosquito net, in two rows of 6. Breakfast was sweet coffee, and crepes with bananas and the best pineapple. We said our goodbyes to our hosts and our French friends, and set off for different villages.

Vietnam #1 Just getting there

Our flight to Seoul was uneventful. Sometime during the endless flight, the two people separating me from freedom and the bathroom were fast asleep. I did have a moment of clarity when I realized that it is more important for me to be able to walk around and stretch and pee without climbing over people, then to have the coveted window seat and sleep, Rachelle was happily in her window seat on the other side of the plane.

We had breakfast around 4am Seoul time, and landed around 6am. The Seoul airport is a wonderous place for food, shopping and relaxing.  We found one of the spas and our layover was long enough for a short massage and a Korean meal, the second of many meals today. They fed us again on the flight from Seoul to Hanoi, and as we gained two hours, we’ll call it lunch.

When we landed in Hanoi, we got in line to process our visas. Of course, we were in the wrong line, but the signs were identical. Someone kindly corrected us and then it was our turn to help out the next set of tourists who made the same mistake. Maybe the Vietnamese government just wants us make new friends!

An hour later, we were through customs, and we settled in for the drive into town. No waiting for luggage, we were proud to be part of that smug “we just do carry-on” elite.

The architecture might be unique to Hanoi. I’ll get back to you on that… The houses are at least 3 stories high, very narrow, and Asian, with upturned roofs and painted in striking color combinations. Some stand alone and some hug each other in larger or smaller groupings. As we got closer to the dense city center, the character changed and we saw more French colonial influence.

It was around 2pm and people were eating on tiny stools at short tables on the sidewalks. Sometimes there was a restaurant, sometimes someone dishing out food from a sidewalk kitchen setup. It all smelled great and, amazingly, we were hungry again.

At our hotel, La Belle Viewe were greeted by Mrs. Pham Tuyet Nhung, the rep. from Getaway Halong Sapa Company, who helped us organize our trip. We made one last change, she was gracious and patient, and with our documents in hand, we were on our way – – to lunch. She recommended a lovely traditional restaurant, in one of those French Colonial buildings, a few blocks away. It was a perfect culinary intro to Vietnam, familiar food, but Hanoi influenced. Rachelle had a clear view of the kitchen, expect she’ll be cooking for you all soon.  Thinking that was a late afternoon dinner, so the food we bought for the overnight train was a late supper, bringing the total meal count today to 5!

We had a hotel room for the day, so cleaned up and re-packed for the trekking trip. What to pack for 3 days of walking from village to village in Vietnam, near the Chinese border, when you don’t want to carry much and the weather is unpredictable?

 It began when we were met at the hotel by a rep. from EcoTours. She arrived on a moped and put us in a taxi with instructions to meet her in front of the train station. Yes, we could have figured all this out on our own, but jet lag had set in and it was pretty nice to have someone walk us to the correct train, car and room. We are on the train now, it is 3am, and I can’t believe I am hungry! We have all 4 berths to ourselves (thank you Elan).

Naturally, the moment we put our stuff down, I went off to find the bathroom. First, I played charades with a woman who works on the train. I kept following her, asking for directions to the toilet and she kept shooing me away. Finally, she started making climbing gestures with her hands and funny repetitive noises. By now there were a few others also interested in finding the toilet.

Eventually she hid from me and I went off to find someone else to torture. This time, an employee showed me where it was but told me again with gestures, that I could not use it. Finally,

a Vietnamese tour guide came to my rescue and advised me that it was only accessible once the train was moving. Still don’t know why. But I do know the charade was a moving train with sound effects! We are arriving soon, the train is comfortable in a noisy, alive machine, kind of way, it’s been a good adventure aboard. Lots of trekkers from all over. Expect to meet them on the bus ride to Sapa.

Dawn in Lao Cai

Dawn in Lao Cai

Around 6am and still dark, we got off the train in Lao Cai and met Louis, our guide for the next three days. (Lao Cai is 2 km from the Chinese border.) He turned out to be delightful, smart and very sweet. He also speaks English beautifully. Our minibus ride to Sapa was great. We were in a cloud bank for most of the hour ride. Then as we ascended the mountain, the mist broke and it was a beautifully sunny say. Looking behind us, there were swirls of mist moving in the valley. Missed photo opp… Louis left us at a hotel where we could shower and have breakfast. We skipped the shower (made the evening one later that much better).

Breakfast was perfect, great coffee, strong sweet and endless. The spread was international, fromhard boiled eggs to fried rice. We found something that looked liketater-tots, but was really potato balls rolled in unsweetened coconut and baked. Ok, maybe fried, but who cares. We had banana crepes and chicken noodle soup with lime. Stuffed, we got ready for the 6-7 hour trek.

View of Sapa from hotel terrace at breakfast

View of Sapa from hotel terrace at breakfast

Had to buy a few things we forgot. Turns out, it is unnecessary to bring a backback. The city is filled with North Face knock0ffs. My little daypack was not sufficient for our needs, so $15.00 later I had a padded pack with hip and chest straps.

Then we set off for the day.

Countryside view from Sapa

Countryside view from Sapa

Roadside Bamboo in the morning wind

Roadside Bamboo in the morning wind

With Gratitude – Crete trip 10/14

With gratitude to John and Max…
– for serenading us at sunset, with drinks, cookies, beer and wine.
– For posing for our beefcake photo shoots
– For rescuing fallen glasses, fallen underwear and most importantly, fallen friends.
– For up righting us so that we did not have to kayak upside down.
– For bandaging our wounds and bruised egos.
– for providing us with perfect weather, a full moon, a sea turtle, and a lonely goat
– For teaching us how to drink Raki, and for keeping up with us once we learned.
-For being our culinary guides, then sharing your food with us. For finishing our food when we were too full. (Pass it to Max, he’ll eat it….)
– For listening to all the stories of the things we could do when we were young, or the things we thought we could do when we were young.
– For taking all our motherly and fatherly advice, or at least pretending to do so.
– For joining us on your evening off.
-for helping us bond and become a little family, then….
-for agreeing to marry and provide us with grandchildren.
– For practicing yoga instead of much deserved sleep.
– For making each of us and all of us feel special
-for spoiling us and taking such good care of us,
– For being kind generous, skilled and endlessly patient

Welcome to Crete

I’m on Greek time now, which means I’m ok with waiting an hour for a bus that runs every 15 minutes. The wait became story time when I met a man from Newcastle, England. He was in the SAS (The Special Air Service or SAS is a regiment of the British Army. It is part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF) and Special forces, or special operations forces, are military units highly trained to perform unconventional, often high-risk missions.) He fought in the Falklands, and in Iraq, now lives in Crete, after living almost everywhere else while working for Arab American oil companies. He gave me tons of ideas on where to go around here. Best idea was the sunken city near Elounda, an hour away by car and probably a half day by bus! It’s also where the rich and famous have their villas. …maybe next time. Anyway he was quite a character, and the hour passed quickly.

On the bus, I met a Dutch woman who is a tour guide in Crete. It was her day off, so she helped me plan my day and gave me a quick walk through of Heraklion. She married a Greek taxi driver who is taking me back to the airport tomorrow morning. I spent a good part of the day at the archeological museum, and loved every minute. It is huge, one of the best museums in Greece, and the best collection of Minoan art anywhere.

It took another hour to catch a bus back to my hotel. I spent the time trying to communicate with a woman from Moscow. We laughed a lot, as we did not share one word in common.

Food wise, I tried the spiral spanakopita, but it did not come close to the ones in Ios on Santorini. I tried to find the cookies we bought on a little island near Kos (the island we returned to as our port in the storm) three years ago when Elan captained our catamaran.
Something about “You Can’t Go Home Again” – great advice and one of Gary’s favorite books.
For dinner I found a local treat called Dakos, a hard brown rusk disc, topped with diced tomatoes, feta, basil, parsley and drizzled with olive oil. I’m at my little hotel patio restaurant now, having that for dinner with a glass of wine and listening to Greek music.