Feb 10 & 11
Editor's note: I'm going to cheat a little with this post and combine two days into one. It'll read much better since Tuesday was mostly a travel day.
I have a new level of respect for the Vietnamese. They zip through the streets and along highways making it look like riding a motorbike is the easiest thing in the world. It's not. Especially on the crowded, lawless streets of Sapa where getting heckled by local tribal ladies is almost like a right of passage for any tourist. I gave up the prospect of motor biking through rice patties pretty quickly once I realized how truly uncoordinated I am when it comes to motorized vehicles. In fact, our entire trip to Sapa was a reminder of how ungraceful I am. No wonder all those years at Annette and Company never came to anything.
We started an early morning with a sleeper bus during the day time. I had heard so much about these mysterious sleeper buses - vehicles that simply must be illegal by US codes - but I was truly unprepared for the small-sized people they were manufactured to fit. I just barely fit into the cubby hole and, considering I have as much grace a an elephant, struggled to climb off the top bunk while the bus was moving. The road to Sapa could be rebranded and sold as the Road to Hana: Vietnam. In Maui, a very similar road - also narrow and winding - climbs up a mountain side to lead to the tourist destination of Hana. In Vietnam, the sleeper bus whizzed and whirred around corners, nearly taking out every motorbike in its path with a nasty blast of the horn. To be fair, the Vietnamese use the horn to announce their presence to vehicles in front of them, behind them and those not even close to them.
I was so focused on not falling off the top bunk after each twisty turn that I hardly had a chance to notice how incredibly breathtaking Sapa was. Green mountains rose from the ground with jagged ridges outlined against the fog of the valley below. Stripes of rice paddies were combed into mountainsides and small villages and shacks dotted the landscape. It was incredible. We walked with our packs through town towards our hostel, receiving our fist heckling experience as soon as we stepped off the bus. For the women of the Black H'mong tribe, heckling is a culture necessity. An obligation, I suppose. To the average tourist it is incredibly annoying. Not only do they try to sell you trekking experiences as soon as you land in Sapa, but they will follow you for miles into town, repeating themselves like broken records until finally you tell them to go away because you're not interested. It took a while, and Miki, who has much more patience for these things than I do had to take the woman's number down, but she finally left us alone. Never again did I answer the "Hello! Where you from?" questions for the rest of my time in Sapa. Because I knew exactly what was going to be coming next.
Once we arrived at our hostel and got situated (this hostel had a shower head literally in the bathroom), we headed out to find some street Pho and schedule our treks for the next day. We went back to the hostel to shower and organize ourselves, grabbed some dinner and turned in at the hostel at a decent hour.
The next day was when the adventures began. We had planned to rent a motorbike, with me as the designated driver, bike to two waterfalls and then in the afternoon head to this village Miki was told about by a friend. My inability to drive said motorbike, however, threw a wrench in everything, so the lady from the hostel recommended we grab a motorbike taxi from the nearby church. Miki, being the negotiating expert, got us a solid deal and before we knew it we were strapping on our helmets, and weaving through tourists and vans alike towards a mountainside road. Once I saw what I would have had to drive on, I was a relieved an "expert" was at the metaphorical wheel. After nervously gripping the handles of the bike for the first ten minutes, I began to relax and enjoy the exhilaration of riding through the mountains. I never thought I'd understand the appeal of a motorcycle until now. Though, driving down I-75 is hardly the same as exploring rural Vietnam, I imagine the freedom and wind evoke a similar rush. Our drivers dropped us off at the entrance of the waterfall park, and we hiked about an hour to a lovely waterfall in the middle of the woods. The view was scenic the entire time - mountains and green everywhere. You could even seen Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina in the distance. We both wanted to do a hike to its summit, but the trek was too long and we didn't have time. I'll be back to do that at some point in the near future. At the waterfall, we discovered the novelty of being American when a handful of Vietnamese tourists insisted on taking numerous pictures and selfies with us. It was kind of unbelievable, and I felt like a celebrity, but we went along with it, if for nothing else other than the fact that the girl was wearing heeled booties on a hike in the woods.
Back on the bikes, we both were a little more used to the ride and took lots of photos and selfies along the way. The second waterfall was pretty underwhelming, but had a nice overlook. Truthfully, the best part was being on the bikes and we both wished that that part had been longer. Hopefully, next time, I'll be with someone a little more coordinated than myself who has no problem dodging Vietnamese children and tourists. Speaking of Vietnamese children, I was certainly hesitant to get on the back of this random driver's bike, but the sheer number of infants on motorbikes convinced me that I, a grown adult, could in fact ride on the back if these children who hardly had the ability to make a fist could do so.
After lunch, we hiked to Cat Cat Village, a touristy spot that neither of us felt like paying for, especially since we had a trek planned for the next day. The walk down to the village was well worth it, though, and the views were spectacular, and the hike back up the mountain wasn't half as bad as we thought. Back to the hostel to rest and then in search of some dinner - which proved to be difficult because of the insane number of tourists crowding the streets. And these tourists weren't American or even Western. They were Vietnamese! I guess Sapa is like the Up North of Vietnam, and since it was Tet and most Vietnamese had a week-long vacation, the restaurants and street-side places were packed. We finally found somewhere to grab a quick fried rice and some pop, walked around the main square for a bit and headed back. We both lamented how Sapa didn't have hostels where it was easy to meet others our age. Our hostel was more like a hotel in that it had a lobby and no communal area. Plus, there weren't so many bars, so at night there wasn't much to do besides wander the streets and maybe grab some barbecue from the streets (which we did - Miki ended up eating chicken feet, while asking me where the meat was with every crunchy bite she took).
Coming up next: trekking adventures through the mountainside and villages outside Sapa.