Day 2 – Sapa
When Vietnamese music started playing over the PA system, there was this fuzzy feeling that Lao Cai station was getting nearer. With another 30 minutes of rumbling along the dark countryside terrain, the train finally came to a stop. The music was to prepare us get up and get ready to detrain. So there were noises and movements at the tight corridor with passengers lugging their bags along and hanging unto belongings used during the overnight ride to head for the exit. We got ready and then went over to our children’s cabin to check on them and ensured nothing was left behind as we joined the queue of passengers to get down to the platform. Soon we were walking out to find our agent. Our Australian friends were already in front of us and we met up with our agent who was also gathering other tourists and herded us to the car park to board one of the minibuses heading to Sapa. It was not cold when we arrived Lao Cai, only quite cooling and the time was barely 6 am when we gathered at the car park with many other tourists waiting to depart for Sapa.
It didn’t take long and we were on our way towards Sapa. The roads to Sapa were pretty good. We were expecting bad roads with potholes in the countryside so we didn’t experience a bumpy ride to town. After nearly an hour we arrived Sapa City. This was really an interesting place. As we were approaching hotels about to let passengers alight, some women in traditional costumes ran to swarm our minibus with some pressing their faces on the windows to look inside. While passengers were alighting, one or two even poked their heads in with wild excited eyes grinning from ear to ear asked, “Hello, where are you from?” Of course, they were greeted with bewildering looks from us and I felt like telling them we were not new arrivals from the zoo. So the driver drove along and passengers were dropped off at their respective hotels and we ended up last to alight. Once we got off the minibus, we could feel the chill of the morning wintry climate as we were already nearly 5000 feet above sea level in Sapa. Without delay, we entered Sapa Lodge Hotel and were ushered inside to have our breakfast while the reception sought out our rooms and tour reservations. The hotel restaurant was just a little way inside from the entrance with a wonderful view of the mountains outside the balcony. A small buffet spread was on the left and we took our food and found a table and then sat down for our meal. After awhile, we brought our coffee and tea and proceeded to the balcony to enjoy our hot drinks while admiring the amazing sight of the mountains before us and the farms and villages in the valley below. It was pure indulgence in the aesthetic sense of merging fascinating scenery with a nice hot beverage, and smelling the blessings from heaven for such a place like this. If only time could stand still for awhile more, that would be great.
Soon, a hotel staff came to inform us we could rest and shower in the rooms of their sister hotel, Eden Lodge, next door as our rooms in the hotel were not ready. So we took our bags and proceeded to use the three rooms provided to us. We took the opportunity to wash up and brush up and rested for awhile. We were told to be back at the hotel lobby by 8.30 am to begin our morning trek. As our elder daughter had been working till the very day of departure from Singapore, she opted to stay back in the room to catch up with more sleep, which was critical for her to fully enjoy the vacation ahead. So we left her behind and went back to the hotel lobby for the first activity of this tour.
We were met with our local guide at the lobby and together with a hotel staff were briefed about our treks for today and the day after. For the first day, the trek would be a 3 km downhill to visit Cat-Cat Village and then 3 km back up to our hotel. This would just take up the morning and we would be free to do whatever we want after the trek. That was good news especially to my wife and daughters having free time meant shopping opportunity in the afternoon. The next day would be a 7 km trek down the valley to visit another Hmong village. After lunch continued with another 5 km trek in the valley for more scenic and rural experience. We would then be brought back by bus to our hotel. We would also be given rooms to shower and then sent back to Lao Cai for dinner and thereafter our onward overnight train ride back to Hanoi. The second day’s activities sounded a bit tough but plans for the first day was good as we hardly had much sleep on the way to Sapa and we didn’t want to die of exhaustion. With that, off we went with our guide together with another couple from the US. We marched off onto the colourful streets full of tourists like us being led by a local guide and so we happily began our much expected trekking tour. Sapa City is a lively place in the morning with tourists coming and going to explore what Sapa has to offer. Together with local women in tradition costumes going about with their business, this is a unique experience that stimulates the senses of being led back in time past. We also enjoy the simplicity and tranquility of a world that seems to be incongruent with the modern dynamic and connected world we are accustomed to. As we walked through the streets, we also looked at interesting shops, restaurants and cafes that lined the streets. Soon we began our downward descend after leaving behind the joyful city and a different scenery captured our attention. It was a rural scene of farming employing traditional methods. We encountered buffaloes, chickens, ducks and even pigs roaming freely in the villages. It was an indescribable experience, especially for our children who grew up in urban cities seldom had a chance to step foot in traditional Asian villages that seemed to be living in the past. We have been to farms in the western world where farming has evolved with time and technology but these villages here have no need to catch up with the modern world and productivity is not in their dictionary so to speak. They are in a world of their own with a charm where only modern folks like us could probably appreciate.
Before entering Cat-Cat Village proper, we had to pass through a touristy welcome gate with shops and cafés lining both sides where food, drinks, clothes and shoes, especially North Face products, don’t expect the real stuff, could be purchased at very good price. Our guide bought some peeled sugarcane and shared some with us. Our children didn’t know what to do with the sugarcane sticks as all they had encountered was sugarcane juice after the canes had gone through rollers. It was an experience for them having to bite off part of the stick, chewed and sucked up the juices in their mouth and then spat out the sugarcane fibers when no more juice was left. So our children had to learn the traditional way of consuming sugarcanes like what we did in the past when we were kids. It was so much fun to see them struggle with the sugarcane sticks.
We were making progress as we trekked along, walking down slopes and steps, enjoying the rural scenery against the backdrop of the gorgeous mountains with local kids running up to us pestering us to buy some trinkets from them. These kids did speak some English and even our guide spoke English and provided explanation on interesting sights as we followed her leading us to the Hmong village. Shops in the village were selling more handicrafts and souvenirs.
We got to experience how these Hmong villages lived their lives in their sparsely furnished houses. We were invited to visit one of the houses in the village and entered her house for a look. There wasn’t much in the house and the family would sleep on the bare floor. Indeed, their simple lives would not be what we could imagine and definitely not what we would desire as far as creature comfort is concerned. Despite the fresh air and surrounded with blessings of beauty from above on a place like this, undoubtedly, we would not prefer to live at this level close to subsistence standard. With so much lack of modern conveniences, this would be a good place just to experience during a vacation but not a long term abode for us so used to advanced ways of life living in a fast pace world. We didn’t give the granny who showed us her house money nor bought anything she left on the table she hoped to sell which we won’t need, but we gave away the whole box of eight to ten buns we bought from Singapore for her family and the children to enjoy some food they probably hadn’t tried before.
More pigs, ducks and chicken were roaming in the village and these creatures seemed to be so used to having visitors that they didn’t put in any effort to avoid us. This was a great experience for our children and for a change see something very different and extraordinary and hopefully appreciate what we have but more importantly empathize with the less fortunate.
After that we left the village and proceeded further down the valley and soon entered another site of awesome beauty. As we approached this turn down from Cat-Cat Village, we heard the sound of rushing water and it turned out to be a waterfall. By then, though it was winter time, we were already perspiring due to the high altitude and the sun beating down on us. It was refreshing to get close to a waterfall and to get drenched a little with the cold mists and water droplets and to admire the scenic beauty of this rest area. Of course many tourists including ourselves were busy snapping pictures at various spots and at different angles. This was a great place to cool down a little after the 3 km trek and fatigue was about to set in.
This is a rest area tourists gathered before making the 3 km uphill trek back up to Sapa. There are stores selling souvenirs, food and drinks where tourists may patronize while resting before the final upward trek. Over here we met our Australian friends again with another bigger group of tourists. We exchanged greetings and talked awhile sharing experiences of the tour before parting company for them to resume their activity with their guide. Before leaving this place, we went into a cultural hall where traditional dances were performed. It was a nice show by those young villagers donning traditional costumes as they made their graceful moves across the stage. When the show was over, we left this waterfall rest area and headed back up via another route.
This time, the trek was not as wonderful as the first part of trekking down where we were now exposed to the open sun. It was close to midday and we were quite exhausted partly due to the lack of quality sleep during the overnight train ride. With the sun’s piercing heat not helping, we began our long and strenuous trek up. While the scenery was still nice without the villages, many tourists who couldn’t take the heat preferred the short cut by hiring a motorbike ride up to Sapa. My wife’s hiking shoes were already torn and so we had to walk back up to the main shop before the Cat-Cat Village gate to shop for a new pair of shoes so a motorbike ride to town would not be so useful. So we trod slowly uphill and stopped for awhile when necessary. The UV from the sun was quite strong biting mercilessly onto our skins as we had already removed our jackets due to the heat with sweat dripping on our back. After about 30 minutes, we reached the huge shop selling mostly North Face products. There were quite a number of customers looking at stuff on display and on sale and were busy trying out jackets and shoes. My wife found a pair of North Face shoes that was quite nice and comfortable so she bought it and happily wore this new pair and discarded the old torn shoes. I nearly bought a 2 in 1 North Face jacket but found the needlework not very consistent so decided not to go ahead with the purchase. The cost for my wife’s pair of shoes was only around 450,000 VND which was really a good buy.
Now after our rest stop at this shop, we continued with our uphill trek with renewed vigour and finally reached some shops at the outskirts of town. So with this distraction, it was a little less tiring as we surveyed the shops while walking back to the Sapa Lodge Hotel. We went back to our rooms to wash up a little to cool down and our elder daughter having had a good nap now cheerfully joined us to have lunch at the hotel. This tour package came with all meals and we had a long table for the six of us. The hotel cooked us a very nice lunch with several dishes and rice. We really enjoyed the delicious food and watched the scenic view of the mountains with cool air entering from the balcony.
After lunch, we spent some family time together just chatting and relaxing in one of our rooms. The children also caught up with their friends using the free wifi provided by the hotel. We then took a shower and did some packing to get ready to move back to our hotel when our rooms were ready. Not long after, we were told we could move back to Sapa Lodge Hotel to get our room keys. So we grabbed our belongings and returned our room keys and moved back to Sapa Lodge to check into our rooms. We let our children have the rooms facing the mountains with nice balconies to sit and enjoy the views while we took the room with the street view. The furnishing in this hotel was much better than their sister hotel, Eden Lodge, and we were quite delighted. Everything worked, hotel staff helpful and friendly and all was well.
Instead of tarrying in our nice rooms, we decided to hit the streets to do some shopping. This time the streets were not as lively as in the morning but still a charming town to explore and enjoy shopping with the gentle cool mountain breeze blowing in our faces. Of course we were wearing our jackets and were comfortably dressed for shopping. The town square was a place their locals usually spent time gathering for a game or two. We looked at jackets, caps and shoes at different shops and comparing prices and finally found a small shop near the market that offered excellent products with reasonable prices. The sales girl was also very friendly and patient and she showed us jackets of different qualities which explained the different prices. So my daughter and I each bought a soft shell North Face jacket and I nearly bought a pair of shoes but did not get one my size. With our purchases made, we roamed the streets a bit more and then walked back to our hotel. Before arriving, we went to have some refreshments in a cafe. We ordered coffee and cakes and enjoyed our coffee break. How often could we have such opportunity to spend time together with the whole family to sit around and have coffee in a quaint town nearly 5000 feet above sea level. We felt really blessed indeed.
We then made our way slowly back to our hotel and by then it got a little chilly during this late afternoon as the sun was taking a break from labouring so brightly over Sapa during the day of our visit for which we were grateful. Our guide told us it had been raining in Sapa for the past few days before we arrived and the place got so foggy that there was nothing much tourists could do except to stay in their hotels. So heaven must be smiling upon us. Eventually we reached Sapa Lodge Hotel again and we went to slack awhile and watch TV in our rooms until dinner time.
Dinner time came soon enough and we were back to the restaurant. This time the scene outside the windows was a tinge of dark blue turning darker as we had our meal. The hotel again cooked another very delicious meal of different dishes served with rice. It was really an enjoyable day and now with an enjoyable dinner simply made our first real day of vacation memorable. We took our time to eat and unwind and talked about the events of the day. Some might consider Cat-Cat Village we visited a mockup village meant for tourists and not a real village. This might be true as the whole place was rather touristy with kids running up to us pestering us to buy stuffs from them. I had to give away some Vietnamese coins to some of the more persistent ones as I didn’t really need their little handicrafts. When I ran out of Vietnamese coins, I gave away a Singapore coin which was such a delight for that little girl who quickly ran away to show her friends. Some tourists also gave away candies to pacify these little kids. This may not be a good way to send them on their way because they might loose their resilience and rely on begging instead of making a living with their skills. Make no mistakes, some of the older kids in their early teens do carry mobile phones, though not the latest Samsung models, and they are not as destitute as we might wrongly perceive. So whether the village was authentic, we did have a wonderful time and we experienced a world that stimulated our senses not usually attuned to in our own world.
After dinner we decided to hit the streets again while my wife and younger daughter chose to return to their rooms to rest. It was a little cold now and we put on proper jackets before leaving the hotel. The streets were now lighted up beautifully. It had a very different feel of the town from the day. We walked and took pictures and noticed the town had dressed up with Christmas lightings that were not so obvious during the day. It was quite cold at night but the settings of the town had donned on a rather romantic mood with nice lightings decorating this charming city. Young people were still having fun at the town square playing games and hanging out even during this cold wintry night. We did not stay on the streets very long and after a few more snaps with our camera, we went back to our hotel.
Having checked the children ensuring all was well, my wife and I retired to our room, immensely satisfied with the wonderful time spent, especially with the children, during this active day. Without further ado, we reached for our comfortable bed and slipped into heavenly bliss with thankful hearts that everyone enjoyed this amazing day.
Continue to Day 3 ...