Monday, January 24, 2011


We arrived at the train station at 5:30am and it was still dark. We walked outside expecting it to be cold but it actually wasn’t that bad. Well, it wasn’t that bad because we were wearing 3 or 4 layers of warm clothing. We got into the van which came to pick us up and started driving toward Sapa. The drive took over an hour and the whole time we were climbing up into the mountains through the thickest fog I had ever seen.

Sapa is known for its beautiful rice paddy terraces but if this fog would continue we wouldn’t be seeing anything. Once we arrived in Sapa the fog was as thick if not thicker than before and it was much much colder. Probably around 5 degrees Celsius. It was cold but we were dropped off in front of a hotel and told we could have breakfast there and a shower if we need to. That made me feel a little better because we could at least warm up. We walked into the hotel and were shocked to find out it was not heated! We ate the buffet breakfast but were freezing the whole time. We wanted to make toast with the bread they provided, and although they had a toaster, it wasn’t plugged in and there was no plug in sight. Andrew looked but we couldn’t find it. After breakfast we asked to take a shower hoping the hot shower would warm us up. We weren’t disappointed. The water was nice and HOT. WE showered, got dressed and went to wait for our tour guide. We would end up waiting for over an hour in the freezing lobby. I was wearing all the clothes I had and I was still freezing. I was worried about the hike because if I was cold inside, how cold would I be outside. Anyway, our guide arrived and I swear she looked like she was 12 years old. As soon as she said she was our guide we started laughing. But this was no joke and she really was our guide. Her name was Ku. It turned out she was 17, so we weren’t far off. She has lived in Sapa her whole life. As soon as we left the hotel about 10 ladies in local clothes started following us. They were all very friendly and were asking our names, how old we were and if we were married and did we have kids, etc. There were 3 other people who were travelling with us from Holland and between the 5 of us we came up with a theory the ladies were all following us and asking all these personal questions because they would try to hook us up with their kids once we arrived in their villages. Most of them were in their 50’s or 60’s but a few were teenagers. I couldn’t understand their purpose there but decided not to worry about it. It was very crowded walking down the street with the 5 of us, our guide and 10 local ladies. It became very hard to walk so Andrew and I tried to stay back to be able to walk freely but some of the ladies would not leave our side. They didn’t really talk much but it was a weird feeling having them following us around.

The fog had not relented and at one point our guide pointed into the fog and said there was something worth seeing there but we couldn’t see it because of the fog. We started laughing but we really thought the rest of the trip would be like this. Although it was cold outside the walking was warming me up and I actually started to get hot. As I said before I was wearing a lot of layers and 2 pairs of pants. I only have 2 pairs of pants on this trip and I was wearing them both. My cargo pants on top of my jeans. We got off the road and went on to a side trail. As soon as we were on the trail a whole bunch of boys approached us and asked if we would like to buy a bamboo stick. Of course we declined. Who did they think we were? Novice hikers? We continued walking on the trail but it became muddier and muddier and slippery. We had to cross one part on these rocks but because it was so muddy and the rocks so slippery I slipped and fell. I was so angry with myself for falling. Now my pants were all dirty and muddy. The ladies who were following us were trying to help me but I refused. I had my pride to keep me going. As we were continuing it became more muddy and slippery and I was having a harder time walking. I was also getting more angry because this is not the type of hike I signed up for. One of the girls from Holland that was hiking with us slipped as well so at least I didn’t feel like a loser, but I was still angry. We arrived at our first stop for lunch and I was debating whether I wanted to go on. At the lunch spot we realized why all the local ladies were following us. As soon as we stopped they wanted to sell us their handicrafts. The ladies were there to help us navigate the muddy terrain and in exchange we had to purchase something. My pride forbade me from accepting their help so I didn’t feel obliged to buy anything. Andrew and I wouldn’t buy any and told them we had no money. But the 3 Hollanders did use their help so they ended up purchasing some bracelets. At least they weren’t trying to marry us off with their kids. The 5 of us started talking and saying we didn’t know it would be this hard and muddy, and should we even continue. We asked our guide if the rest of the hike would be like this and she said it would be worse. Great. Again, we started debating whether we should continue or take the easy road but in the end we decided to continue on the muddy path because that’s what we had paid for and didn’t want to bail out so early. I’m sure if we had known what the future held for us we would have decided to go with the easy road.

After lunch we set off and at first it didn’t seem so bad. But as soon as we left the main road it became muddy all over again. This time the mud was much much worse. After an hour of hiking I lost my shoe in the mud. Our guide had to go and find it for me while I stood with my sock in the mud. Where were those damn boys with the bamboo sticks when you needed them? I would have paid any amount of money for the stupid stick. Our guide found an abandoned walking stick on the side of the road and gave it to me. It was so much easier. It wasn’t just the mud that made the hike hard. We were hiking in the mountains. There were some very steep hills we had to navigate up and down. Going up was hard because you had to strain to climb up but at least the risk of slipping and falling was smaller. It was the going down that was hard. The mud was crazy and we were literally slipping and sliding. At this point I had fallen down so many times I lost track and both my pairs of pants were covered in mud. I was pissed because those are literally the only 2 pairs of pants I have for our whole trip, not counting all the pairs of shorts I brought. My pride still prevented me from accepting help from the local women, but when we reached a very steep hill where we were forced to walk down hill I finally relented. I told Andrew, you either pay this woman today or you’re paying for a bus to come pick me up and take me to a hotel you will have to pay for. The woman who was helping me was at least 60 years old but she was 3x as strong as me. She was the one who held me up and prevented me from falling. Anytime I was slipping, she would put out her foot to prevent mine from sliding down. She did all this while carrying a basket with all her goods on her back. I was amazed and so grateful for her help.

Finally after slipping and sliding all day we arrived at the homestay where we would be spending the night with the Vietnamese family. As soon as we stopped we were asked to purchase some goods from the women who were helping us. I told Andrew to pay for a bracelet from the lady. I paid her $5 which is way over what I would have paid on the street but I didn’t care. I wouldn’t have gotten down that hill without her help. As soon as I bought the bracelet from her all the other girls started asking us to buy something from them. They said “why you buy something from her but not from me?” “You told me you had no money but you buy from her”. It was such a guilt trip but we really only had very little left and I only felt obliged to pay the lady who helped me and not everyone. After 10 minutes of this we just went inside to clean ourselves up. I had to take off both pairs of pants to clean them and hang them by the fire to dry, but I literally had nothing else to put on so I had to tie a sarong around my waist and use it as a skirt. I wasn’t worried about being modest but I was freezing. The home wasn’t heated either so it was literally freezing inside. We all huddled around the fire they had going where they would be cooking our dinner. I was also barefoot because my socks were all muddy and wet and were also hanging by the fire. All of us were cold but there was not much we could do about it. Our shoes were not allowed inside the house because they were dirty and even if had cleaned them they were all wet so we couldn’t wear them anyway. As they were making our dinner, they put some hot coals and ashes in a bowl and brought them to the living room so we could warm our feet. Them someone had the brilliant idea of starting a fire in the living room. It probably would have worked if the wood wasn’t wet. The house filled up with smoke very quickly. I was choking. We gave up the idea of trying to start a fire. Then we were asked if we wanted to help with dinner, and with nothing better to do we obliged. We learned how to make spring rolls and I watched them make the cabbage we would have for dinner, beef and other items. Then dinner was served and we ate with the family. Although they couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Vietnamese they were very gracious. Our guide as well as another guide would translate for us. They served us rice whiskey and were constantly toasting us. So we would toast them back. The food was amazing and delicious! The atmosphere was friendly and even though it was cold the feeling was warm. Soon we finished the bottle of rice whiskey and our host had to go and get another bottle. By shot number 17 I was finished and went to bed. But everyone stayed up and I think I heard them count up to shot #25. By 10pm everyone had dragged themselves to bed. Barely. We were all exhausted after our day of climbing. Thank the lord the covers were thick and warm. Even though it was cold in the house, the blankets were very warm. We woke up in the morning and had breakfast. For some getting up was easier than for others. Some couldn’t remember what had happened the night before, but we all agreed it was a wonderful night.

When I woke up in the morning my legs would not respond. My leg muscles were completely destroyed. I could barely walk up and down the stairs. I felt like a grandma and even sitting down on a chair made my legs shake from the strain. We talked to our guide and asked if today’s hike would be as hard as yesterday’s and she said it would be even worse because we would be climbing some very steep hills. We asked if there was an easy way and she said yes, by the road the cars drive on. So we opted for that. At this point no one cared if we were bailing out, none of us could walk. All of our muscles were shot. We walked the 5km to the restaurant where we would have our lunch and waited for the bus to come pick us up and drive us back to Sapa. Once we got back to the hotel we asked if we could take a shower as we needed to warm up. We each took a shower but were disappointed. The hot water we were expecting was not there. It was lukewarm at best. Oh well. Since my pants were filthy I had to borrow jeans from Andrew. I had no choice, I had nothing else to wear. We found a restaurant with a fireplace and went to grab some food and a drink. In the evening we were driven back to the train station. The fog had relented a little during the day but was back with a vengeance that night. I don’t even know what the driver saw when he was driving because the fog was really thick. We made it back to the train station alive and took the train back to Hanoi. We would be arriving at 4:30am and at 8am a bus would take us to Halong Bay.

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