upon reaching the northwestern city of lao cai by overnight train, we were greeted to to the thick fog and greyscale vision that was instantly reminded us of our travels through halong bay. we were quickly ushered into a minivan that was filled to capacity, and we ascended to the mountain city of sapa.
even with our visibility reduced to about ten or fifteen feet in each direction, we our driver fearlessly sped up the seemingly memorized winding mountain roads. while i dosed in and out of sleep, i caught glimpses of water buffalo and the sounds of motorbikes whizzing by as we continued to cruise around corner after corner.
within an hour we were once again in another hotel lobby, handing over our passports to the receptionists, and told to eat breakfast. our first day was advertised as a trek to the cat cat village. it was so bad, that i don’t really want to even write about it. all i will say is that it was a short “trek” down a paved road to a tourist trap of souvenir shops. poorly advertised.
just like the groups of water buffalo that cross over the roads, we were herded back to the hotel to eat, yet again. aside from dinner a few hours later, there were no other scheduled plans for the “tour” we had signed up for.
the beautiful weather of day two instantly lifted our spirits. the sun was out, there was not a trace of fog, and there was a slight breeze that kept us from melting. the tour operators assured us that this day would be more of a real trek, compared to the first day. We reluctantly agreed, since we had already paid and only had one more day on the mountain.
before the trek began, we were waiting outside the hotel. the neighboring plot of land was a construction site. there was a concrete skeleton of a hotel with unfinished exterior walls on each floor clinging to the mountainside. i kept thinking to myself how amazing the views might be from the wall-less top floors of the building that faced out across the valley.
i thought about how my dad would simply walk in and explore on his own. i mean, i have seen him do it so many times. my dad’s curiosity has usually led us to places most people never see. after i explain this to sarah, we walked over to ask the construction workers for permission to enter.
the workers agreed without a second guess for our safety or exactly who we were. we crossed the small wooden bridge to the unfinished lobby floor. the workers smiled and encouraged us to continue up the precarious wooden ladders that led from floor to floor.
we were greeted in a language we don’t know, and were immediately offered tea. while we squatted and sipped the very bitter yellow tea another worker handed me a bamboo bong filled with tobacco.he asked us to smoke a little each, as the other poured us another cup of the yellow-colored tea. we tried to communicate in a mix of vietnamese, english, and thai, but our efforts seemed fruitless. either way, it was a very great way to start the day.
this trek was to the ta van village down the mountain from sapa. along with another giant herd of tourists, we walked through the city and along another paved road. however, as the city disappeared, so did the paved roads. we found ourselves sliding our way down muddy hills, and carefully navigating rocky bends.
this trek was all about the views. steps of rice paddies and small homes nestled in the mountain side. a small river ran between the mountains and through the villages, which we eventually entered.
after the day’s trek ended, we rode a bus back to our hotel. we had some free time to eat an early dinner and then explore the city. we went a small bookstore and then to the small produce market where we bought some oranges for the construction workers.
before our trip back to the train station in lao cai, we hung out with the construction workers one more time. they offered us more tea and tobacco, as we photographed the work and the construction site as a whole. (more photos to come)
if anything, sapa reaffirmed our negative opinions regarding organized tours in southeast asia, but it also reminded us to follow through with our gut feelings when we have them. the construction workers made us remember that, aside from all the tourist traps and silliness that comes along with traveling in very popular destinations, there are still some amazing things that most tourists miss. our time with the workers is not something you will read in lonely planet guide books, and is something that i will probably always remember about vietnamese people and my trip to vietnam.